A World Before A Catastrophe

With the 19th Festival of Jewish Culture due to get underway, Krakow will again be celebrating the city’s rich vein of Jewish heritage. As always, the lion’s share of the events will be held in Kazimierz, which for centuries provided a hub for Krakow’s Jewish community. However, as this superb book shows, Jewish Krakow stretched far beyond the confines of those labyrinthine streets.

Poland’s pre-war Jewish community is often imagined as a patchwork of shtetls, replete with biblical, bearded figures in long black robes. Such a world did exist. But in the major towns and cities, a complex process of assimilation was taking place. This was complicated by the rise of Zionism, Communism and by anti-Semitism from the Polish right. But in spite of occasional blasts of persecution, Krakow’s Jews – those that survived the Nazi whirlwind – often wrote with a certain nostalgia for those years. This wonderful book, originally published to accompany an exhibition that is now travelling Europe, would be worth snapping up for the pictures alone. But it also boast essays – penned in an accessible style – by some of the foremost writers on Krakow’s Jewish past. Here we can read about such distinguished figures as Jozef Sare, Krakow’s first deputy mayor of Jewish descent, and his successor Ignacy Landau. Here we also meet Jewish professors, lawyers, architects, businessmen and other public figures who did much brilliant work in the city. Nevertheless, the inter-war period was also punctuated by outbreaks of venomous anti-Semitism. There were occasional beatings of Jewish students by young adherents of the far right. Meanwhile, the more uncompromising journalists called for mass emigration rather than assimilation. The Zionists themselves cherished the idea of emigration, but this did little to resolve the immediate tensions and grievances claimed by some portions of both Catholic and Jewish society. From February 1933 to February 1939, Krakow remained cosmopolitan enough to support a mayor of Jewish parentage – Mieczysław Kaplicki. However, the Nazi invasion sounded the death knell for Jewish Krakow, and it remains to be seen whether a significant community will ever re-emerge.

A World Before a Catastrophe is published by the International Cultural Centre, Rynek Głowny 25.

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