Warsaw Jewish Festival brings former Jewish district back to life

Before the Second World War, Warsaw was the biggest Jewish city in the world, with a third of its population Jewish. For the past couple of years, the Polish capital has paid tribute to Jewish culture by organizing a cultural festival, during which one surviving street from the former Jewish ghetto is brought back to life through a series of open air events.

The Jewish Cultural Festival 'Warsaw of Singer' was not only a tribute to Polish born Yiddish author and Nobel Prize winner Issac Bashevis Singer, but an opportunity for festival participants to experience Warsaw's pre-war Jewish culture wiped out by the Nazis.

"I'm selling postcards of two renowned Jewish artists: Marglit, whose real name is Malgorzata Krasucka and Lilly, Lillian from Warsaw. These are actually copies of their works that have been on display in many places all over the world."

"Right, excuse me for a minute."

So you seem to be pleased, the postcards are moving?

"It seems that way."

The postcards look like they are hand-painted, very artistic, very bright colours.

Here's a lady, she is buying... "Exactly, because they are exact copies of paintings."

[to passer-by] What do you think of the postcards?

"They're colourful."

One has a man walking with a cane down the street.

"Might be this street over here."

The event took place in the pre-war Jewish quarter inside bullet-riddled buildings, which have stood the test of time, and which are a living memory of the Holocaust. Song and dance, workshops of Yiddish, Jewish cooking and the Jewish presence in Warsaw before and after the war were just some of the attractions. Festival organiser, David Szurmiej told me that this event brought on an entirely new meaning to Polish-Jewish heritage:

"Dating from times before the war, this was most definitely a Jewish district, except it used to thrive with small town gossip; it was one big living environment, one big neighbourhood with people selling things on the street.

"The festival in Krakow is a festival that deals with klezmer Chassidic Jewish culture strictly. What we try to do is provide a broader scope of Jewish culture. We were inspired by Issac Bashevis Singer, he is one of the most renowned Polish-Jewish novelists. He is a Nobel Prize winner after all; however, most Poles don't know that he was even Polish."

[visitor] "Such festivals can show that Jewish people are just like me and you and, well, it's a different culture and we should respect each other."

[Man teaching Yiddish] "Wus I dus: what is this? Schteit afen dach: stands on the roof. Machot azoi mit de hend: it's doing like this, like a chicken, waving its arms. Se nicht kachim: it's not a chicken. Ich weiss nicht: she doesn't know. Ame schigene: a crazy guy."

What made you want to learn Yiddish?

[Female student] "I'm really interested in Jewish culture and everything connected with this."

Are you a Polish Jew?


Are you a Roman Catholic?

"Yes. I used to learn German and it is easier. Yiddish has many Polish words. Like 'gatkes' - underwear."

What do your friends say when you tell them you are studying Yiddish?

"They are shocked because everyone nowadays learns English or German. Nobody learns Yiddish. So, it's different."

[Visitor]"Now every year there is such an event, we all are here because it is something nice, just to see another culture, something different for us. I learned a lot about Jewish history in Poland, in Warsaw especially. This street is nice because for me it's one of the few streets which were, in fact, not destroyed during the Second World War. Especially these old small shops, which are here, you know, this is something new, in fact, but the character of these shops is like fifty years ago.'

[Visitor]: "I'm half Polish and half German so for me it's always a kind of double experience when I think about the past. I'm actually trying to imagine what it was like sixty five years ago here and it is nice see some Jewish shops, restaurants at all in Warsaw. It's nice that something is coming back to life."