I.B. Singer Festival in Warsaw
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I.B. Singer Festival in Warsaw

So much to see, it was almost too much

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A scene from the finale of the I.B. Singer Festival in Warsaw.

Days after I learned I was going to Poland for a conference on Child Holocaust Survivors and their descendants, I was asked to prolong my stay by Sigmund Rolat, chairman of the North American Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. He wanted me to learn about the museum being built where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood (I discovered it sits on top of the street where my mother and grandmother lived) and to see some of Poland.

Most especially, however, Rolat wanted me to experience the I.B. Singer Festival, sponsored by The Shalom Foundation and run by a human powerhouse and the Polish queen of Yiddish culture, Golda Tencer. As an actress in the state-run E.R. Kaminska Yiddish Theater, Golda established the foundation in 1988 to promote Yiddish culture and “pass on its rich heritage.” In addition to theatrical performances, seminars, courses, and film festivals, the foundation established the first kindergarten and Sunday School for Jewish children in post-Communist Poland.

As we chatted in Yiddish in Golda’s office in the theatre complex, she described herself as the “Memorial Candle” in her family. In many families of Holocaust survivors, one descendant in succeeding generations takes on the task of Holocaust and pre-war remembrance and commemoration. He or she is called “The Memorial Candle.” Golda manifests this responsibility in her work. Among other achievements, she is responsible for rescuing the Ghetto Fighters’ Monument from the effects of pollution and neglect. For the last eight years, she has been the coordinator and driving force behind the week-long I.B. Singer Festival in Warsaw.

Every year, the expanding festival brings new focus and depth to things Jewish – and sometimes not so Jewish. There were more than 150 events scheduled during the week, and these events covered everything from the Beth Jacob School girls’ educational movement, to the hottest world music bands around. Bicycle rides, boat trips, plays, readings, all were on the menu.

Since nothing on planet earth is perfect, some issues were raised by festival critics about the Jewish authenticity of some of the events, notably the finale, but those criticisms also apply to places like the Kazmierz in Krakow, the Jewish quarter of Lublin and other Jewish heritage sites around the world. It is a subject that Ruth Ellen Gruber discusses at great length in her book, “Virtually Jewish,” which should be required reading for anyone who visits Jewish heritage sites in Poland and elsewhere in Europe.

The theater complex and the Nozyk Synagogue next door are at the center of the action. The festival opened in the synagogue on Sunday night, August 28, with a moving ceremony and a gala concert. Cantor Joseph Malovany of New York’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue, whose tenor voice earned him the moniker “Pavarotti of the Synagogue,” was accompanied by Wroclaw’s White Stork Synagogue choir, directed by Stanislaw Rybarczyk. Most of Malovany’s liturgical choices were written in Warsaw before the Holocaust and are popularly used on the High Holy Days. He believes they had not been heard in a synagogue in Warsaw in 70 years.

[The “Guardians of Memory” awards were presented to the mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz; Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Bogdan Zdrojewski; chairman of the Council for the Protection of the Memory of Struggle and Martyrdom, Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, and Sigmund Rolat. Among the attending dignitaries were U.S. Ambassador Lee Feinstein, Israeli Ambassador Zvi Rav-Ner, Former Knesset Speaker Shevach Weiss, leaders of the Warsaw Jewish community, and a standing room only international crowd. ]

When I left the synagogue a bit early, I found many Poles in the side yard listening to the concert through open windows, and did a triple take when I saw a monk with curly blond hair in full regalia listening to Malovany’s haunting melodies. He said he was Father Maksym Tundek of the Hebrew Philological Institute in Torun, Poland, and he could not get in, so he stood in the evening chill and appreciated what he was hearing.

In the evenings, Grzybowski Square in front of the theater and Prozna Street – on the other side – filled with people attending myriad events, especially on the final Sunday. These events included seminars, films, poetry readings, exhibits, and, most of all, live music produced by some of the greatest Jewish musical talents in the world, from all walks of life, from many countries and varying styles.

Frank London’s klezmer opera, based on the novel “A Night in the Old Marketplace,” received accolades, as did the Ger Mandolin Orchestra from San Francisco, and Troyke from Berlin. There was Kroke, a band from Krakow doing innovative jazz numbers and the ska mash-up/worldmusic/klezmer band GROOVEHEADZ (Austria) performing on the “Herbatnik” barge. The All-Star Fray Band, the Brass All Stars, and so many more talented musicians participated. There was almost too much to choose from.

The real killer was trying to choose between Lorin Sklamberg and Frank London playing old chasidic melodies, or the Ger Mandolin Orchestra, who have recreated the band that was born in Ger – with a very special flair.

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