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Poland Now

Today, the synagogue is restored and a rabbi presides over the city's growing Jewish community. But despite the changes, the Jewish presence in Warsaw is still minuscule. I had hoped to find vital incarnations of the old culture -- its music and poetry, its folk dancing and storytelling, and not least of all its cuisine -- but I searched in vain. For this, I was told, I would have to travel 180 miles south to Cracow, where the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz is in the midst of a remarkable revival.

In stark contrast to Warsaw, Cracow emerged from the war relatively unscathed: its famous architecture, notably the 13th-century Market Square -- one of Europe's most beautiful plazas, surrounded by lovely medieval houses -- survives intact. Nor has the skyline changed significantly in the years since my last visit, though a number of expensive shops, exclusive hotels, and dozens of new restaurants have added a sheen to the ancient city.

But there were always two Cracows. Kazimierz is just a 10-minute walk from Market Square, yet it has often seemed a world away. Here, as one would expect, wartime damage was more extensive, and it took decades before Kazimierz began to reemerge from the rubble. When I came in 1979, the historic Remuh Cemetery was still in ruins and the synagogue was, like Warsaw's, abandoned. Its fine wall carvings and architectural details remained, but they were dreary, covered in dust. The Jewish community that once made up more than a fifth of Cracow's population was reduced to a mere handful, and their children were ignorant of their customs. In 1939, 100,000 Jews lived in Cracow; in 1945, only 5,000. During the sixties a wave of Communist-inspired anti-Semitism led to massive Jewish emigration, and by the early seventies fewer than 200 Jews were left in the city. Scarcely any of them practiced their religion, and few visibly identified with their heritage. I felt saddened when I visited Kazimierz in 1979; it was a pathetic, forgotten place. Judaism was a subject hardly mentioned.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I returned last spring and saw an ad for a concert of Yiddish songs -- to be held at the Jewish Cultural Center, opened in 1993 in the heart of Kazimierz. I went, curious to see who would turn up. I was astounded to find a once-shabby 19th-century building tranformed into a sleek complex with marble floors, green velvet curtains, and curving arches suggestive of Moorish architecture. The main hall, seating about 150, was full of smartly attired people of all ages -- young mothers with children, teenagers, elderly folk. Who could they be?

The program began and an elegant, white-haired woman walked onstage. She sang traditional Yiddish songs with charm and gusto, accompanied by an old-time trio (accordion, bass, and violin) dressed in the black hats and vests of Orthodox Jews. It was obvious the singer did not expect her audience to understand Yiddish, because she translated and explained each lyric before performing it. "Let me now sing a song by a Jewish poet who lived here and was shot in the ghetto," she announced. "The song says, 'Let's eat, sing, be merry, and enjoy life.' "

The people in the audience were certainly enjoying themselves. I wondered again who they were: surely there were not enough Jews in Cracow to account for the crowd.

"I found out about this show from a cultural newsletter on the Internet," said Radoslawa Herzog, a 23-year-old psychology student. "I think Jewish culture is beautiful. Especially the music."

"Do you know any Jews?" I asked.

"Not really," she said. But she comes to the center often with her friends. Afterward, they like to eat on Szeroka Street at one of the many Jewish restaurants. "You see Jewish people there," she said.

The Cultural Center, which offers music performances, lectures, and art exhibitions, is only one part of the extraordinary Jewish revival taking place in Cracow. It also includes the rebuilding of the main synagogue and two others; the cleaning and renovation of the Jewish cemetery; and the creation of a Department of Jewish History and Culture in Poland at Cracow's Jagiellonian University. There is also a new Jewish Youth Club organized and supported by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.

What makes the rebirth especially interesting is that there are still hardly any Jews in Cracow. The "cultural revival" seems more for the benefit of non-Jewish Poles -- who in learning about their Jewish compatriots are also learning something about themselves. "One of the dreams of Solidarity was to build an open society," says Joachim Russek, assistant director of the Cultural Center. "To do this we must go through a profound, perhaps painful, examination of our history. Young Poles also now realize they might have Jewish roots themselves, roots that were hidden during and after the war. So this is an opportunity for them to ask questions."

There's a thin line, however, between revitalization and commercialization. Szeroka Street, near the Remuh cemetery, hums with activity: three Jewish restaurants and a bar attract Cracowians and foreign tourists alike in search of an exotic night on the town. Some of the tourists are American Jews looking for the Poland described by their parents and grandparents; a local travel agency advertises a Roots Tour for those tracing family histories. The restaurants all display Jewish artifacts: a menorah, a seder plate, dolls representing Orthodox Jews in traditional garb. (These are also for sale in nearby shops.) Over matzoh-ball soup and kishke, diners can watch Polish entertainers in Orthodox costumes perform lively Yiddish tunes.

The decorations are more kitsch than classic. At a bar called Zinger (named for the Polish Jew who manufactured Singer sewing machines) an antique Singer machine sits in the center of each table. In some stores you can find Fiddler Vodka, whose bottle cap is shaped like an Orthodox Jew's hat; it comes with a card that plays "If I Were a Rich Man" when opened.

Szeroka Street is noisy and crowded these days. But the cumulative effect of all this activity is troubling. The ersatz nature of this "revival" only underscores the fact that the culture it claims to represent is, in fact, gone. As with Warsaw's "new" Old Town, the appearance of historical continuity proves deceiving. Of course, many argue that even this theme-park development is preferable to the alternative-- the obliteration of any memory of Jewish life.

Those at the Cultural Center are unfazed by accusations of commercialism, pointing instead to notions of duty. "How long will there be eyewitnesses among us?" Joachim Russek asks. "This is our chance to prevent a situation where the Jewish issue will be interesting only to archaeologists."

Russek does not exaggerate the seriousness of the problem. When I ask him if his own origins are Jewish, he smiles apologetically. "No," he admits. "But nobody's perfect."

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