Monday, December 15, 2014

Jewish festival in a town without Jews

As some of our neighbors prepare to celebrate Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, today's "Crumb" is offered by a reader who works for the Jewish Federation of Raleigh. It was first reported by the BBC.

Not one of the 50,000 citizens of Kutno, Poland, is Jewish. But children from schools all over town recently staged an impressive concert of Jewish music, singing old hits in Yiddish and Hebrew with a fluency few adults could match. It was the finale of an annual Festival of Jewish Culture the town has held since 1993. The reason for the festival goes back to World War II.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Kutno's entire Jewish community of 8,000 people was marched at gunpoint to the grounds of a deserted factory at the edge of town where Jews spent two years in filth, hunger and cold before being killed in gas vans at the Chelmno death camp.

When the war ended, survivors learned to function without their Jewish tailors, shoemakers, lawyers and merchants, but Kutno had a hole in its heart. Deep respect for the vanished culture resulted in a world-class museum in the center of Warsaw's former Jewish quarter. It tells the bittersweet story of the Jews long love affair with Poland. Feelings of curiosity, loss and kinship led a handful of people in Kutno to hold the first Sholem Asch Festival in 1993, and the event has come a long way since then. It now includes a literary competition on a Jewish theme attracting entries from all over Poland. There's a local Jewish dance band and Jewish theater performances.  In other words, it's more than just a token effort.

In a world where bitter sectarian conflicts grab most of the headlines, a Jewish festival in a town without Jews is surely worth celebrating. Happy Chanukah.

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