Eternal Light

22 July 2021

I’m not a visionary. Fortunately – says Janusz Makuch.

Justyna Skalska: The leading theme of the 30th Jewish Culture Festival is fire, following on from last year’s Prologue. Has the pandemic dimmed its light, or will it shine brighter than ever in 2021?

Janusz Makuch: We have spent many years searching for and finding new meaning in the Jewish universum, and more recently we have been exploring it through the prism of the four elements. Now the time has come for Fire/Light – an incredibly important symbol in the Jewish religion right from its very beginning as the Hidden Light or Or HaGanuz.

Fire is as beautiful as it is dangerous, and it burns everything in its path. It is as universal as it is intimate. It draws us in, it helps us dream, and it allows us to see everything more clearly.

It is a symbol of eternity and of passing at the same time. Having created heaven and earth, God said, “Let there be light”. This light marks the beginning of illumination, revelation, rapture, voracity, power of the mind which is always faced with the choice between stoking the fire of the passion for life and slow passing. We, the organisers of the Jewish Culture Festival, burn with a fire of passion for life and exploring Jewish culture.

Finally, fire is a powerful metaphor for the rebirth of Jewish life, the miracle of return and the creation of the State of Israel – and for me this is its most important meaning.

And the festival will also burn bright with all the colours of the rainbow, sent down by God as a sign that He would never again destroy the earth with flood.

The Jewish Culture Festival was first held in Kraków 33 years ago. How has the event evolved over the years? Has it influenced the way you perceive Jewish culture in general?

What’s 33 years in comparison with the seven centuries of Jewish presence in Kraków?

In the early years, the festival was carefree, which gave it a specific charm and justified many rather outlandish artistic choices. Sticking with the theme of fire, the most important element has always been the passion and fervour which burned within us. We discovered that this passion and fervour is shared by hundreds and later thousands of people who started taking an interest in the Jewish world and even identifying with it. Back then I was a fairly naïve 28-year-old fan of everything Jewish. Today I am a sixty-year-old Zionist for whom the past is important as long as this Zionism continues. What twisted paths we take!

We started with a blissful fascination with everything involving Ashkenazi culture, but the main breakthrough came in 1991 when I visited Jerusalem for the first time. I realised that dancing to klezmer beats isn’t enough, and our festival started to increasingly gravitate towards the culture and State of Israel. If I were to choose a single phrase to describe our journey from 1988 to 2021, it would be “From Shtetl to Zion”.

Thirty-three years means looking back at great musicians who have performed at the festival, meetings and events all of which have left their imprint…

I like “imprint” – it’s almost like a stamp of humankind’s DNA. I can remember many such people and events. There wasn’t really a single one, although… I’ll recall the finale concert Shalom on Szeroka Street, featuring the late, great singer Theo Bikel. He sang in Yiddish – the language of murdered Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. The stage was surrounded with thousands of joyful people dancing together. As a host of the concert I was privileged to admire this community of people from all corners of the globe; it was absolutely magical. Then, at one point Theo stopped, raised his hands and said, “Quiet… Please be quiet.” He waited a moment as the shocked crowd fell silent, and continued, “Listen to the silent voices of Jews whose lives here were cut short.” He pointed to empty, dark windows. “They lived here, and here, and there, and a few streets away, like Mordechai Gebirtig. They are gone and it is us, here and now, who must speak with their voice, carry their songs across all borders, above the pain of this emptiness and the fire of hatred; we must remember them.” People stood hypnotised. “This is why I will dedicate to them the anthem of Jewish survivors Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg – Never say that you’re going your last way.” When he started singing, it felt as though the entire street held its breath, and the colourful audience filled with shadows of those extinguished by fires of the Holocaust. No-one was shouting or dancing; we all listened in silence. I realised how powerful and cleansing the fire of remembrance and love is.

As well as rousing interest in Jewish culture in Kraków, the festival has also become a symbol of a revival of Jewish life in Kazimierz…

I like that. Kazimierz has always played an important role in our work and our vision of Jewish culture. We are deeply rooted here, both spiritually and physically. And not just the festival – there are many institutions in Kazimierz cultivating Jewish culture and working hard to make sure it’s not just remembered on special occasions.

You first arrived in Kraków in 1980, and the first festival was held in 1988. You’re from Puławy, is that right?

No, I’m from Jerusalem. I was only born in Puławy.

How has the district changed over the decades? What is it today?

It’s hard to say exactly what Kazimierz is today. It’s filled with chaos: it’s something completely different for Jews conscious of history, for residents who just want a peaceful night in, for restaurateurs, hoteliers and others working in the tourist industry, and for tourists here to party round the clock. In a way Kazimierz has become a reflection of the time in which we live.

In any case I hope it’s not the festival which has turned the Jewish City of Kazimierz into a metropolis of bars, food trucks and golf buggies. I’ve been watching it over the years with mixed feelings; I’m grateful to everyone who truly love Kazimierz and express it through their activities and respect for Jewish heritage, yet I am repelled by the greed of others who like it as scruffy as possible, or, worse still, “smart” according to their vulgar tastes…

Fortunately places survive where contemporary architecture and atmosphere naturally intertwine with the spirit of this magical place. I hope that with time it will fill with people rich not so much in money but in wisdom and sensitivity, conscious of the obligation they have to the Jews who built the city over the centuries, making it beautiful and unique. Let’s not forget that Kazimierz is the largest Jewish district in Europe which hasn’t been destroyed by the fire of the Holocaust.

How do you see the future of the festival, of Kazimierz, of Jewish culture?

I’m not a visionary. Fortunately. My only hope is that after my passing the Jewish Culture Festival continues to exist, develop and stoke imagination and a hunger for knowledge among Jews and gentiles alike.

I’m sure Kazimierz will continue to exist, but with a different life, no longer just Jewish. In its own way. How? I don’t know. But I do worry.

In terms of Jewish future… As we all know, we cannot predict the future. One thing is certain: the world of Jews of Kazimierz who glowed with the fire of wisdom and faith for centuries is gone, forever. Will it ever return the way it was? No, I don’t believe it will. And that’s why its memory burns in my heart like the Eternal Light – Ner Tamid.

Interviewed Justyna Skalska

Janusz Makuch – co-founder and director of the festival; he was awarded with a honorary title of “The Friend of Israel” in 2018 as the only person from Poland.

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