In Krakow, night of the synagogues bolsters Jewish pride

For the sixth year in a row, the seven synagogues in Krakow’s historic Jewish district, Kazimierz, opened their doors for 7@Nite – or the Night of the Synagogues, a one-night mini-festival aimed at bolstering Jewish pride and promoting Jewish awareness among the public.

Each synagogue – from the Gothic Old Synagogue, now a Jewish historical museum, to the ornate 19th century Tempel Synagogue, used for both services and cultural events – hosted an exhibit, concert, film or other event illustrating contemporary Jewish culture in Poland and around the world.

“The most important message is that this is an open event, carried out by Jews — for everybody,” said Karina Sokolowska, the Poland director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Organized by the JDC, the Krakow Jewish Community Center and the Krakow Jewish Religious Community, 7@Nite first took place in 2011.

Since then it has become an annual event that begins with an open-air Havdalah ceremony ending Shabbat conducted from the roof of the JCC.

From the conclusion of Havdalah – at around 10:30 p.m. Saturday — until 2:30 a.m. Sunday, thousands of people troop off to visit the synagogues, all of which are located within a few blocks of each other.

Organizers estimated that this year’s Havdalah, on Saturday, drew a record 1,400 people who crowded into the JCC courtyard.

“Go and enjoy the synagogues,” JCC Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein told them. “The Jewish heritage of Krakow does not just belong to the Jews but to all of us. As Cracovians, be proud.”

The event was advertised with posters throughout the city, and a constant flow of people moved in and out of the synagogues throughout the opening hours. The overwhelming majority were young, non-Jewish Cracovians.

With only about 20,000 Jews, Poland has experienced a public fascination with Poland’s Jewish heritage, including dozens of Jewish museums and culture festivals often run by non-Jews.

Some said they had made it a point to come to Kazimierz to take part.

“It’s the only day of the year that you can see all the synagogues, and I came last year and two years ago, too,” said Natalia Giemza, 23, who is not Jewish but said she had taken university courses on Jewish history.

Other visitors made a quick visit to a synagogue or two part of a Saturday night out. In recent years, the Kazimierz district has become the city’s liveliest center of youth-oriented nightlife, and pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants were crowded on a warm night.

“We were just out drinking and thought, why not?” said Mateus, 22, who joined a group of friends visiting the baroque Izaak Synagogue after 1 a.m.

Built in the 17th century, the Izaak has a towering vaulted ceiling and frescoed decoration and is used for regular services. For 7@Nite it hosted an exhibit on Ethiopian Jews with a hummus and pita snack bar in its courtyard.

“I’ve been in other synagogues, but never the Izaak,” Mateus said. One of the reasons he had wanted to visit, he said, was “to gain knowledge about our roots.”

“I’m not Jewish or Catholic, but I think there is some Jewish blood in my ancestry,” he said. Mateus said he did not, however, plan to join the JCC or take any other steps toward affiliation.

His friend Jakub said he was Catholic, but he and his parents “have always been interested in Jewish things.”

The 7@Nite event was staffed by volunteers who managed crowds, handed out kippot to visiting men and kept head counts of visitors. Most were not Jewish and, according to the JDC’s Sololowska, some had come from as far as the northwestern city of Szczeczin, hundreds of miles away, to take part.

“I’m Catholic and I started volunteering at the JCC two years ago,” said graduate student Anna Wilkosz, who said that by midnight well over 1,000 people had visited the Kupa synagogue. “I felt it was urgent to be involved.”

Not everyone who turned out for the event, however, demonstrated a positive interest in Jewish and Judaism.

Outside the Tempel Synagogue, where young Poles danced wildly to freestyling by the American Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz, a bald man in his 30s said he was “mad at the Jews.”

“I’m mad at the Jews because Jews all say that the Poles killed them in World War II, but I know history — Poles saved them,” declared the man, who said he was a tour guide.

His remarks appeared to reflect a campaign in recent months by Poland’s new hard-right government to absolve Poles of charges of complicity in the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.

Much of that campaign centers on the Polish-American historian Jan Gross, the author of several books since 2000 that examine episodes during and after the Holocaust, including the murder of Jews in the village of Jedwabne, in which Poles killed their Jewish neighbors or targeted Jews with violence.

In October, soon after coming to power, the government opened a libel investigation against Gross based on an article he wrote asserting that “Poles killed more Jews during the [Second World] war than they did Germans.” Prosecutors questioned Gross for five hours in April.

The investigation was based on an article in the Criminal Code that punishes those who “insult” Poland.

Yet most visitors seemed to take part in the Night of the Synagogues in a spirit of good will. At midnight, Giemza and a friend entered the 17th-century Kupa Synagogue, which is decorated with colorful frescoes. It hosted a special photo and interview exhibit about contemporary Polish Jewish identity.

They carried hamsas, the hand-shaped Middle Eastern good luck charm, that they had made in an art workshop taking place at another of the synagogues.

“I hope to get to all the synagogues tonight,” Giemza said. “It’s really great for me.”

Letter from Krakow: When is anti-Semitism not anti-Semitism?

A troubling recent incident in the heart of Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, has raised questions anew about the scope and impact of anti-Semitism in the age of instant response and interactive social media.

The incident involved a waiter (or waiters) at a popular cafe, Moment, who rudely refused service to a group of about a dozen would-be patrons—foreigners and Poles, Jews and non-Jews, some wearing kippot—late at night shortly before closing time.

Accounts differ, but at some point during a heated encounter the wait staff reportedly called the group “F—-king Jews” and told them to “f off” to Israel (or, according to some accounts, to go back to Warsaw or to another cafe down the block). Ironically, among them was the German writer Uwe von Seltmann, the grandson of a Nazi SS man, who was in town to promote a book he wrote with his Polish wife, whose grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz.

The incident was reported to the police, picked up by the local—and international—media, and spread like wildfire on Facebook.

But was it “really” anti-Semitism, or more a case of ugly words unleashed in an angry confrontation that got out of hand?

Disturbing as it was, it was clearly not a pre-meditated attack on Jews. Nor did it approach the scale of recent anti-Semitic incidents in other countries, where Jews have been deliberately targeted, physically attacked—or killed, as in Toulouse, France, last March.

When considering anti-Semitism, though, do such diversities matter?

“Even the simple expression of anti-Semitic views in public discourse can have a corrosive effect over time and may lead to very real security concerns,” Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish relations, told me.

Several particular factors made the Moment incident the talk of Jewish Krakow for days. For one thing, it occurred at a time and place that many found inconceivable.

Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter, thrives on a lively and multifaceted interaction between Jews and non-Jews – everything from tourism, study programs, cultural events and religious observance.

The would-be cafe patrons at Moment had just attended the annual Jewish Culture Festival‘s exhilarating open-air “Shalom” concert, a seven-hour love-fest that saw 15,000 people of all ages, religions and ethnic backgrounds dancing and cheering to Jewish music in the Jewish quarter’s main square.

What’s more, Moment cafe had been known as a venue particularly open to Jews and other minorities, including gays.

“I go there a lot, and I have never detected even a whiff of anti-Semitic or prejudiced behavior, nor has anyone I’ve been there with,” Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the Krakow JCC, told me.

In many ways, I found the aftermath of the Moment incident much more troubling than the original episode. Articles about it posted on Polish websites unleashed hundreds of odious – and absolutely unambiguous—anti-Semitic comments, along the lines of “Bravo for the waiters. Give them a prize” and “I hate Jews; finally they are treated as they should be.”

At the same time, from the other direction, a Facebook group calling for a boycott of the “anti-Semitic Moment Cafe” amassed more than 320 members and also ran outspoken comments before it was taken offline after two days.

And Moment itself was spray-painted on its outside walls with graffiti calling it “Nazi” and “fascist.”

All of this made me consider the dynamics of anti-Semitism. What makes an incident – or turns an incident – into something anti-Semitic? How can local and national contexts influence the way episodes, events and intentions are viewed, experienced or even defined?

I’ve suffered plenty of rude behavior from waiters in my day – even last week in a touristy part of Krakow. But if someone in an argument would call me a “f—-king American” or “stupid woman,” would that mean he or she was anti-American or anti-woman per se? Or just a loud-mouthed idiot?

This is Poland, though, with its history of prewar anti-Semitism and Holocaust destruction, not to mention postwar pogroms and persecution of Jews under communism.

“It is Poland where we come from and where we were born, and any anti-Semitic, even only verbal, attack will break my heart more than what happens to French Jews,” Daniela Malec, one of the Jews who was part of the group involved in the Moment cafe incident, told me in an email a few days later.

“This is the case for the many Jews born in Poland,” she wrote. “We have our own trauma and it cannot be compared to traumas of different places. And we react to any manifestations of anti-Semitism via this trauma.”

Poland in fact has done much in recent years to ease relations with the Jewish world, cement links with Israel and promote Jewish communal and cultural revival. But many—possibly most—Jews worldwide don’t trust this.

Given history, there is even something of a “gotcha” aspect to any anti-Semitic manifestation here.

As it happened, with crowded venues, open doors, huge public Shabbat dinners and little overt security, the 10-day Jewish Culture Festival had gone on in Krakow without a hitch. And the Euro2012 Soccer cup, too, recently concluded without incident, despite prior fears of anti-Semitism in the stadiums.

But for many, the Moment incident—and much more so the hate-filled aftermath on the web—confirmed the distrust.

It made newspaper columnist Wojciech Pelowski rhetorically throw up his hands.

“I would rather defend a pulsating multicultural Kazimierz,” he wrote in Gazeta Wyborcza in a column calling for a crackdown on Internet hate. But, he added, “I cannot—and this is why.” And he simply listed some of the barrage of racist and anti-Semitic comments that had appeared online after the Moment incident.

From Krakow to Pico

When Pavel Vogler left Krakow for Southern California in 1992, he brought almost 100 of his favorite paintings. The darkly shaded oil works in blue, black and purple show Vogler’s vision of his hometown and its medieval Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, filled with empty synagogues. Moonlight, twilight and the glow of streetlamps illuminate Vogler’s Polish works, where ghosts of a Jewish history haunt cobblestone streets.

Vogler’s first solo exhibit in the United States, now on view at A Shenere Velt Gallery, displays a range of the artist’s styles and settings. In “Past and Present from Poland to Pico: Memories and Paintings,” Vogler displays four series of work, created in Poland and his new home in West Covina. The paintings include “Shadows,” the last painting Vogler completed in Krakow, and “The Sign” (left) a brightly colored, swirling print of a man holding a Torah, the first of Vogler’s California works and a striking contrast to the dark Polish images.

The breadth of the artist’s talent is evident in the series titled “Family and Friends,” six portraits ranging from the agitated study in motion of “My Father” to the serene “La Paloma.” Unlike much of his work, many of the portrait subjects are not Jewish. “I just love working with people,” Vogler says.

Though the 38-year-old Vogler has exhibited his paintings widely in Europe, he is best known in America for his film work. Vogler’s films include “Three Stories,” based on the life of his father, Henryk, a well-known Polish author who was among the few Jews to return to Krakow after years in WWII concentration camps. Vogler is currently developing another film, “Moloch,” based on one of his father’s novels.

The artist hopes that this exhibit will lead to an opportunity for large-scale projects. “I’d love to do a series on Los Angeles,” he says, “a whole exhibition on how Jewish cultures are crisscrossing and thriving here.”

Through Aug. 31. A Shenere Velt Gallery, 1525 Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 552-2007 or visit