Janusz Makuch jokingly refers to himself as "a Shabbas goy," but the moniker is not so far from the truth. The 47-year-old Catholic directs a Jewish festival in Poland that celebrates the cultural riches that once sustained the more than 3 million Jews who used to live in that country before the Holocaust.
The odd thing is, since the majority of the Jewish population there was exterminated by the Nazis — only a negligible number of Jews remain — the festival is attended by thousands of non-Jews.
For nine days each year, these Poles gather in Krakow to listen to klezmer music, view Jewish art installations and crowd into lectures on the Holocaust, Judaism and Poland — all of which are organized by Makuch.
The director, who started the festival as a small, underground affair back in 1988, estimated that last year's event drew about 40,000 people; he said that many performances didn't end until 2 a.m., so enthusiastic were the crowds.
"This is all taking place on the largest Jewish cemetery in the world," he said — "in the shadow of Auschwitz."
The death camp is only about a 20-minute ride from Poland's "second city."
Earlier this week, the Polish director described the phenomenon to a dozen or so Holocaust educators here in Philadelphia.
Several attendees, including Rita Ratson, who coordinates the Yiddish program at Gratz College, and Michael Steiman, who runs a local fundraising organization on behalf of the Krakow festival, have been ardent supporters of the annual gathering. Those connections explain how and why Makuch came to speak Monday at the Jewish Community Services Building.
During his talk, the director described the growth of the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow as part of a much larger transformation taking place in Poland.
With the fall of the Communist regime and the birth of democracy in the 1990s, Poles have become increasingly interested in their history, much of which was suppressed, and in multiculturism.
"This is part of a never-ending educational process aimed at systematic transformation — mental transformation — of Poles and Jews," he explained. "The Jewish festival of Krakow is one of the steps towards reconciliation."
Describing his own interest in Judaism, Makuch said that he came to "be fascinated" by it as a teenager in his hometown, after learning that half the inhabitants there used to be Jewish.
"I grew up knowing nothing about Jewishness, Jewish culture, Jews," he explained. "When I first heard it, it was like a magic word — Jew. I wanted to know more."
So Makuch went on to study the subject in college; he said that's where he thought of staging a Jewish festival.
"I feel a deep sense of responsibility," he said. "I wanted to pay tribute and celebrate the real, authentic Jewish culture."
Some lecture attendees, however, questioned that level of authenticity. Since the festival began, a large number of tourists have flooded the city, seeking remnants of Jewish life there. To meet the demand, non-Jewish Poles have started opening kosher restaurants and selling kitschy gifts; something of a "Jewish tourism" industry — sans Jews — has emerged.
Amy Blum, who directs the Center for Holocaust Awareness at the Jewish Community Relations Council, said that she "felt awkward" with this sort of thing during her visit to Poland in 2004. Blum said that she even walked out of a klezmer music performance after realizing none of the performers was Jewish.
"It's this concept of a museum of an extinct race," she said.
But Makuch dismissed the notion of underlying exploitation.
"This is not only joy, play, pleasure," he said. "We want to rebuild awareness of Jewish culture and Jewish identity."
Ratson, for one, raved about the festival, which she attended last summer with her husband. Though she conceded that "it's very strange that the majority of the audience is not Jewish," this daughter of a Polish Holocaust survivor credited the festival with "maybe fighting anti-Semitism in some way."
"I came there with a lot of hate. But it's a wonderful feeling to be there, surrounded by the goyim learning the Hebrew language, Yiddish, Jewish cooking. Teaching them about this, I believe we're breaking down anti-Semitism a tiny bit at a time, through one-on-one relationships."