A week-long ROI delegation to the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival took place from June 26 - July 3, 2016. Through Grassroots Initiatives, ROIer Ariel Levinson created a program involving more than 30 participants from ROI Community and Schusterman Connection Points. The group consisted of artists, producers, and Jewish educators from Argentina, the US, Israel, Germany, Poland and Italy. Participants experienced jam-packed days of discussions, concerts, exhibitions, walking tours and more. Together, they explored our past, present and envisioned our future, delving into topics such as Jewish identity and renewal. Read this heartfelt piece penned by delegation participant, ROIer Liz Nord, following her trip.
July 3, 2016
I never got to know you in life. I was only two years old when you, my last surviving grandparent, passed away. Even the stories about you are few. You were quiet and humble and hardworking. You started your own market in Wilmington, Delaware and spent many long hours there. You loved my father, your son, but you did not show him affection. It was not how you were raised. When he got all A's and one B on his report card, you did not praise him; you asked, "What happened with the B?" But you spoiled his little sister, my Aunt Babe. I think she got that lifelong nickname from you. And when my father married my mother, you gave her a beautiful cashmere sweater that I still have today, almost 60 years later, full of holes but so soft.
Another thing I know about you is that you hated Poland. You used to say, "Show me a Pole and I will show you an anti-Semite." You fled from Galicia to America and never looked back. So why did I come to Poland to connect with you?
I'm not sure of the answer, but I will be thinking about it, and about this trip, for a long time to come. When I went to Budapest almost 20 years ago on a similar mission to connect with your wife and my namesake, Erszebet, I felt the spirits of my ancestors coursing through my blood. When I arrived here to Poland, however, I felt…nothing. No connection. A void. A quiet hollowness, and the only thing that coursed through my body was an uneasiness and anxiety. A feeling that I could never really relax because, what if they come? What if I have to grab all of my things and flee? What if I come here and disappear, like millions before me?
And then, as my Israeli friends would say, "liat, liat,"—slowly, slowly—things started to change. Yes, I said Israelis. I came here, to Poland, with an international delegation of young, Jewish, creative professionals. Yes, by choice. And that’s not all. We came to Krakow, only a couple hours from where you lived and left, for a festival celebrating Jewish culture.
I wonder what you are thinking right now. Maybe you want to stop reading. But I hope you will begin to understand as I share more of my story with you.
Did you know that your grandson Michael became a professional musician? I've thought a lot about him on this trip, too. One of the most profound moments for me was when we visited a beautiful synagogue in Lublin, where the entire Jewish community—30 percent of the town's residents—had been murdered in the Holocaust. There we met an elderly Polish man who had lovingly and voluntarily, by hand, preserved any remnants of Jewish life from the town that he had found over the years. There were broken t'fillin straps, scraps of religious texts, kiddish cups.
The synagogue building had been preserved and restored, too, but there were no benches. Who would sit there? It was a dead place. But then, Paloma—a gorgeous klezmer musician from Buenos Aires who was in our group—stood on the bima and started playing a Jewish tune, and brought some life back into that place. At that moment I began to feel that there is a reason that all of your grandchildren: Michael, the musician; Danial, the visual artist; me, the filmmaker; and great-granddaughter Chloe, the dramaturge—use our work in some way to bring stories to life and life to stories. Perhaps that is your legacy.
There were so many more moving, complex moments like that on this journey.
On the opening night of the festival, I was mesmerized hearing Frank London and the Glass House Orchestra play a modern twist on Hungarian klezmer in a magical old synagogue. After the show I went to a bar with an artist girlfriend from London—the funkiest Rebbetzin you’ll ever meet—and drank shots of cherry vodka with a couple of the festival organizers, a Polish theater producer who had only discovered her family’s hidden Jewish heritage in her twenties, and some new local friends. One of our gang left to grab a snack and came back to the table with his face white as a sheet. "They won’t let me leave," he told us. "There’s a bomb threat at the Jewish Community Center across the street." (Don’t worry, it was an empty threat and we were all fine. I bet you’re worrying anyway.)
On the final night of the festival, as the sun set on Shabbat, I danced in the square of a medieval synagogue with 10,000 people—mostly non-Jewish Poles—to the fantastic Israeli funk band, the Apples, and almost, almost! forgot where we were. Until the festival director interrupted the concert to tell us that Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor, humanitarian, and Nobel Laureate, had died. I cried a bit and then continued to dance with my Jewish friends, thinking how Mr. Wiesel might have been glad to see us there, vital and thriving, after all the horrors he had witnessed only a few kilometers away.
In between the opening and closing nights: drinking, dancing, singing, discussing, laughing, crying, remembering people we never even knew.
And learning. Learning that the festival was started and run by non-Jews who felt that Jewish culture was the lost soul of Polish culture. Learning that three million non-Jewish Poles were also killed in WWII. Learning that, under Communism, Poles did not hear in school about the 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland, and that the mere concept of Polish Jews was only re-introduced into the education system in the 90's after Communism fell. Learning that many young Poles are only just discovering their long-hidden Jewish roots and are grappling with and embracing identity. Learning that the small Jewish communities in Warsaw and Krakow are vibrant and innovative and growing. Learning again and again that there is often no such thing as black and white.
When my plane from New York was landing in Warsaw, I saw in my mind's eye fields swamped with Jewish blood. Now, as I finish this letter, on the airplane departing Poland, I look down and see green. Growth.
With all my heart, your granddaughter,