Klezmer in Krakow

Henryk Halkowski flops down in an armchair in the Klezmer Hois restaurant and orders a bowl of chicken soup with kreplach.

The Klezmer Hois, located in a building that once housed a mikvah, is one of a score of upscale new "Jewish-style" restaurants and cafes that dot Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow. Its cozy dining room is furnished with pre-World War II antiques, its menu features Eastern European Jewish specialties, and a CD featuring the Israeli singer Chava Alberstein and the Klezmatics plays softly in the background.

"Shall I tell you my obsession?" asks Halkowski, a burly, bearded writer, local historian and member of the tiny, 200-member Krakow Jewish community.

"What we need in Kazimierz is a study center, a museum, or some sort of institution that presents Jewish life as it really was here," he said. "What an apartment was like, for example; what a cheder was like, what a workshop was like. How the people here really lived."

Fears of anti-Semitism may be stalking some parts of Europe, but you would never know it in this unique neighborhood located about a mile from Krakow’s spectacular main market square. Since the fall of communism, Kazimierz has undergone a remarkable transformation into a district that prides itself — and sells itself — on its Jewish history.

The district encompasses one of Europe’s important complexes of Jewish historical monuments: seven synagogues that date back centuries, nearly a score of former prayer houses, two cemeteries, marketplaces, dwellings and other structures. Once a bustling home to 65,000 Jews, it was left a ghost town after the Holocaust. Under communism, it became a rundown slum.

During the past dozen years, however, a major tourist, cultural and educational industry has grown up based on Jewish memory and the Jewish associations of the district. Local travel agencies run Jewish heritage tours as well as tours of sites related to the movie "Schindler’s List," which was shot in Krakow.

A center for Jewish culture located in a renovated former prayer house presents lectures, concerts and exhibits on Jewish themes; several historic synagogues have been restored; and the chic new "Jewish-style" restaurants, cafes, bookstores and galleries draw a growing number of patrons.

"The district is becoming more and more the ‘in’ place to be — for Krakovians," says Konstanty Gebert, publisher of the Polish Jewish monthly Midrasz. "The main market square has been abandoned to mass tourism. Kazimierz is the ‘alternative in place’ — there is a different atmosphere here. This is where I meet my friends from Krakow."

The commercial development of Kazimierz initially perplexed and even alienated some Jews. Most of the new enterprises are run by non-Jews and base their appeal on a nostalgia for the lost Jewish past. With their quaint decor and names like Klezmer Hois, Alef, Ariel, Anatewka and Ester, restaurants and cafes evoke a literary image of the prewar Jewish world that has little to do with the way local Jews really lived then or, indeed, live now.

"This is a special place, Kazimierz," says Lucy Les, who runs a Jewish bookstore. "People who are working here are trying to do something. More hotels, restaurants, cafes, businesses in Kazimierz make it more alive — and this place should be alive."

This is the spirit behind the annual summer Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow, a weeklong extravaganza of education and entertainment that has been described as a "Jewish Woodstock."

Founded in 1988 by two young, non-Jewish intellectuals, the festival attracts thousands of spectators and participants to concerts, performances, exhibits and a wide range of workshops.

Increasingly, religious content has played a role in festival activities. The festival begins with a Havdalah ceremony Saturday evening and includes lectures by rabbis and workshops on topics such as kosher cooking and liturgical music. Each year, the Israeli Embassy honors non-Jewish Poles who have worked to preserve Jewish heritage.

The ambiance of Kazimierz provides a special backdrop that sets the festival apart.

"At one point, as I was walking around, I had a rush of emotion, as if I sensed the spirits of the ages go by," says British violinist Sophie Solomon. "I could feel the spirits of the people around me."

Janusz Makuch, who co-founded and still directs the festival, feels that he has a mission to bring contemporary Jewish artists like Solomon to perform in Krakow, as a means of both honoring the dead and demonstrating Jewish survival

This year’s festival, held the last week of June, went off without a hitch. Concert halls and workshops were full, and more than 10,000 frenzied fans crammed the main square of Kazimierz for the marathon seven-hour final concert, a free outdoor jamboree that has become a summer tradition in the city.

Polish television broadcast part of the concert live and featured close-up shots of Israeli Ambassador Shevach Weiss in the middle of the crush, dancing with fans.

"It was a drop of the universe full of shalom, full of peace," he says. "Where? In Krakow, in Poland, in this largest Jewish cemetery."