7 Polish Cities Where Jewish Culture Lives On
default, 7 Polish Cities Where Jewish Culture Lives On, Singer's Warsaw, photo: www.festiwalsingera.pl, singers warsaw main 24 07_7035716.jpg
Since the political turn events of 1989, a very distinct revival of Jewish culture has been taking place in Poland. Nowadays in the Land on the Vistula, there are a number of places in which one can find Jewish culture – sometimes preserved from ancient times, sometimes brand-new and focused on the future.
1. Kazimierz Dolny
A small, picturesque town on the River Wisła, overlooking the ruins of an ancient castle and surrounded by hills. At the turn of the 19th and 20th century, nearly half of the inhabitants of this settlement were Jewish. Today, just as in the Interwar period, Kazimierz Dolny is a popular summer getaway for the inhabitants of Warsaw and Lublin.
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Being proud of its Jewish roots, Kazimierz Dolny annually hosts the Pardes Festival in the summer, which focusses on the multicultural heritage of this town. If you come to this beautiful place, you might want to visit the famed restaurant U Fryzjera (At the Hairdresser’s), which serves Jewish specialities.
2. Kraków’s Kazimierz
As tricky as this may sound, there is another Kazimierz in Poland – the picturesque Jewish historical district of the city of Kraków. This Kazimierz has a very long history and is arguably the most typically Jewish city district in all of Poland. There are seven synagogues in Kraków’s Kazimierz and numerous Jewish restaurants.
This neighbourhood is also where the famous Jewish Culture Festival, which describes itself as ‘the largest presentation of contemporary culture created by the Jews in Israel and the entire Diaspora’, takes place. From its beginnings in the year 1988, the event now attracts 30,000 attendees, who travel to attend it from many countries. The annual final concert of the festival, called Shalom on Szeroka Street, is a massive, seven-hour-long presentation of Jewish music from all over the world.
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Since 2017, Kraków has also been home to FestivALT, an independent annual festival which also focusses on Jewish culture, producing events from live performances to interactive tours. According to the festival’s website:
Combining theater, visual art, site-specific performance, activist intervention, and community conversation, FestivALT brings wit, humor, and a bit of chutzpah to the complexities of contemporary Jewish Poland. We invite emerging and established artists from Poland and around the world to share original and exciting work with Kraków audiences
Editor’s note: in 2020, the Jewish Culture Festival is offering Prolog, its longest iteration, online. From 26th June to 18th December, you can check out the events, which will be offered at no cost, on the Festival’s website as well as Facebook and YouTube. More information is available on the Festival's website. FestivALT will also be offering events online this year.
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Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków – promotional photograph, photo: promotional materials
A city in north-east Poland located close to the Belarussian and Lithuanian borders, Białystok is a place in which Poles, Jews and other peoples co-existed harmoniously. In this town, one can find historical Jewish buildings such as synagogues, the Trylling Palace or the family house of Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of the Esperanto language.
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Białystok is a also a great place to get in touch with Jewish culture because of the Zachor – Color and Sound Jewish Cultural Festival, which is held here annually. This event boasts a diverse program that includes concerts and workshops, amongst other events.
This little town located just a half an hour drive away from downtown Białystok used to have a large Jewish community. Thanks to the numerous historical buildings in Tykocin, one can get a sense of what a typical pre-war shtetl (a small Polish-Jewish settlement) looked like. There is a very well-preserved Grand Synagogue, the interior of which is embellished by truly stunning wall paintings. In the tower of this building, one can find expositions presenting a rabbi’s room and a table set up for the Passover seder.
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5. Wrocław – The Quarter of the Four Temples
There is an area in the city of Wrocław, where four places of worship, each of a different religious denomination, stand in the vicinity of each other. One of these temples is a synagogue, which together with the neighbouring seat of the Jewish Community of Wrocław, houses the main events of the annual SIMCHA Jewish Culture Festival. This festival takes place in the summertime and features amongst others concerts, screenings and lectures. Offerings have included lectures on kosher food and Jewish dance workshops.
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Wrocław, photo: Paweł Kozioł / Reporter / East News
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Łódź was a vibrant textile manufacturing town in which Poles, Jews, Russians and Germans co-existed peacefully. The multicultural heritage of this city is a point of reference for the annual festival Łódź of Four Cultures, which takes place in the spring. The festival’s program may include, amongst others, concerts, street theatre performances and debates which are linked to the city’s diverse roots.
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Warsaw's oldest Jewish coachman Mojsze Dawid (a name given to him by his Polish colleagues), photograph taken by Menachem Kipnis in 1924, photo: ŻIH / YIVO
A review of Jewish revival in Poland could not be complete without Warsaw. This former hotspot of pre-war Jewish culture has recently undertaken herculean efforts in order to restore a breath of Jewish life into its streets.
First and foremost, Grzybowski Square is a must-see. Located in the former Jewish district of Warsaw, this square is the central arena of the annual Singer‘s Warsaw Festival, produced by the Shalom Foundation. Each year during the summer, for one week, the square bustles with various Jewish-themed events. These can range from performances by renowned musicians from Poland and abroad to theatre shows, museum visits and literary meetings.
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The beating heart of Jewish life in Warsaw, however, is undoubtedly the Jewish Community Center. The organisation is located in the very heart of the capital of Poland, on Chmielna Street. The JCC is a place in which one can encounter as well as co-create Jewish culture in a friendly atmosphere. If you want to participate in a Hanukkah culinary workshop, or maybe enhance your artistic skills under the guidance of a tutor together with a group of folks interested in Jewish-themed art, the Center is the right spot for you. On Sundays, you can join for boker tov, or a special Jewish Polish breakfast. The menu of this weekly meal includes amongst others bagels, herring and hummus.
Last and certainly not least, to encounter Jewish culture and history in Poland, one cannot leave out Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. This ultra-modern museum opened in 2013 and houses an interactive exhibition showing the 1,000-year history of the Jewish population in Poland. For detailed information about this institution, see this article.
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jewish culture festival krakow
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festival of four cultures
Written by Marek Kępa, 2015, updated by LD, Jun 2020