Feb 04, 2020
Kutno is a small town in the middle of Poland, about two hours west of Warsaw. It’s small enough that when I told my co-workers in Warsaw that I visited over the weekend, more than one asked me, “Where’s that?” The hometown of Sholem Asch, who was born there in 1880, Kutno does not have a Jewish community today. Nevertheless, the town of 45,000 considers its Jewish history to be a notable part of its own history and is proud to claim Asch as their own.
Every two years, the town of Kutno hosts the Sholem Asch Festival, which organizers describe as an “event connecting the past with the present of Kutno, once a Polish-Jewish town in which Jews constituted over 70% of the population in the 19th century.” This fall’s weeklong festival, the eleventh since the festival started in 1993, featured musical and theatrical performances, educational programs, and a photography exhibition of Kutno from the 19th and 20th centuries entitled “That World” (“Tamten świat”).
In contrast to Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival or Warsaw’s Singer Festival, which boast numerous artists and visitors from around the world, Kutno’s festival is notable because it is a local grassroots production. The event is organized and run by the public library with support from the mayor’s office. Beyond evening programs for adults interested in Asch and Jewish culture, a significant part of the festival consists of programming for children and teenagers. Kutno’s schoolchildren are active participants, learning about Asch and Jewish culture in school and offering their own performances as part of the festival’s program.
As a guest in the town for the festival, I felt very welcomed by everyone I spoke to and found it extraordinary to see the way Kutno comes together to celebrate not just Asch, but also the town’s Jewish heritage. When Asch lived there, nearly 7,000 Jews lived in Kutno, making up a quarter of the population. It was a diverse community that included Zionists, Bundists, and Hasidim from various sects, and was known as a center of Torah study. After the Nazis took control of Kutno, though, the town’s entire Jewish population was incarcerated on the grounds of a former sugar factory, which became Kutno’s ghetto; the buildings are still standing today. In April 1942, the ghetto was liquidated to the death camp in Chelmno. 1 1 Pinkas hakehillot Polin: entsiklopedyah shel ha-yishuvim ha-Yehudiyim le-min hivasdam ve-`ad le-ahar Sho’at Milhemet ha-`olam ha-sheniyah, https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/pinkas_poland/pol1_00223.html
I found myself struck by the lingering absence of Jewish life in the town. This was the first small Polish town I visited since moving to Poland a few months before, and I was saddened by the fact that a significant part of the fabric of the town and its remnants and markers are gone. Only large but unobtrusive stone monuments mark the sites of the former Jewish cemetery and the great synagogue, both destroyed by the Nazis. On a walk through town, my guide pointed out some pre-war landmarks like the rabbi’s house, the former yeshiva, and the Peretz Lending Library. As an American Jew on the lookout for signs of the world that was, I wondered how many townspeople knew the significance of these buildings, if for them the buildings held significance at all, or if their Jewish history is simply a chapter in the building’s history that is irrelevant to its current tenants.
Though it’s largely a local event, the Sholem Asch festival has a footprint far beyond Kutno, and this year’s festival included several events celebrating the publication of a new book commissioned by the Kutno library, Sholem Asch in the Press (Szalom Asz na łamach prasy). This new volume, compiled and translated into Polish by Drs. Monika Szabłowska and Agnieszka Żółkiewska, presents Asch as he appeared in the press, including twenty-five articles written by Asch, interviews the author gave, and cartoons from the Jewish press about Asch. The festival culminated in the presentation of an award to the winners of the National Sholem Asch Literary Competition, which receives hundreds of entries each year from across Poland each year. First place this year went to Ewa Sułek of Warsaw for her story “Cart” (“Wózek”), which follows the uses and stories of a handcart before, during, and after the Holocaust and explores how objects live longer than people and have stories and history embedded within them. 2 2 Read an interview with the author at http://www.kulturatka.pl/2019/11/10/kutno-sprzed-zaglady-to-wciaz-zywy-obraz-rozmowa-z-ewa-sulek-autorka-opowiadania-wozek/
At the festival, I spent some time with Asch’s great-grandson David Mazower, bibliographer and editorial director at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA. Mazower has been involved with the festival for over a decade and was both a guest of honor at the festival and a speaker throughout the week of programming. Mazower is not only a key staff member of a major Yiddish institution; his presence more significantly gives the festival a sense of continuity — a real-life link between the author being celebrated and the celebrants.
“The first year I went was 1999,” Mazower tells me, “with my mother. I remember deep snow that winter. And then I followed its progress and kept in touch, but I didn’t really get actively involved until about ten years ago.” Since then, Mazower has been to every Asch Festival.
Mazower mentions that he appreciates not only the chance to share his family story with the town, but also “the opportunity to have conversations about Jewish history with the new generation of Poles who are often genuinely curious about that part of their own history.” He particularly enjoys the opportunity he has to meet with local teenagers and talk with them about about Yiddish, Asch, and Jewish culture. “They’re super smart, very curious, plugged into politics and history and literature and they ask really searching questions,” he tells me. “For me that’s usually the standout highlight amongst many.”
Friday’s evening program promised to be lively: a feast of Jewish food and dancing with live music from a local band, Muzyczne Sztukmistrzowie. The evening was hosted in a basement restaurant that usually features jazz performances; the old brick walls were adorned with dozens of vintage instruments – violins, accordions, trumpets, banjos, clarinets, mandolins, balalaikas, and more – and chandeliers hung from the high ceilings that allowed the sound to resonate crisply and clearly.
The event, advertised as a “Jewish Evening,” was sold out. I was curious to find out what “Jewish” meant to the festival organizers, the many locals who came to celebrate, and – especially – those in charge of creating the menu for the event. The menu for the evening started with “Jewish caviar” and gribenes. Gribenes, I knew, were fried chicken skins, but I didn’t know what to expect of Jewish caviar until they brought out the plate of liver, adorned with a few small pieces of matzoh. For a non-Jewish audience I understand how this ritual food is Jewish, but as an American Jew it felt out of place to have it on the plate when it wasn’t Passover. Despite being an embarrassing exemplar of Jewish cuisine, though, matzoh seems to be widely recognized as a Jewish food in Poland, and this was not the only time that I’ve seen matzoh being sold in Jewish restaurants or stores outside of the eight days we are required to eat it.
I am suspicious of labeling certain foods “Jewish,” especially after spending several months living in Poland, where I have noticed that a number of foods I grew up associating with delis or holidays (latkes, blintzes, babka), are simply considered “Polish” cuisine in this part of the world. Pressed for a definition, I’m inclined to define “Jewish foods” as kosher-friendly versions of dishes from that diasporic community’s larger geographic food tradition. This evening’s menu largely corroborated my feelings, featuring dishes like duck kreplakh (dumplings) or a barley and vegetable soup called shlaymzup in Yiddish and krupnik in Polish. There was also teyglekh for dessert, a traditional Litvak Rosh Hashanah dessert of dough, nuts, and a thick honey sauce. Some foods were served in courses, while others were set up buffet-style in a side room, the “Jewish market,” laid out on tables and a cart reminiscent of shtetl peddlers that offered, among other things, a vegetarian cholent, “Jewish carp,” Galitzian salad, and challah. Also in the Jewish market, interestingly, was a selection of Israeli food - falafel, several varieties of hummus, and baba ganoush. It is not uncommon for Israeli food and Jewish food to be conflated, but Middle Eastern fare seemed incongruous to me given the attention to presenting local Polish Jewish food traditions in the rest of the menu.
As we ate our first course, the evening’s entertainment began. Magdalena Konczarek, the director of the library and the head of the festival, offered a few words of welcome and explained that the musical program, titled Muzyczna podróż Asza (Musical Journey of Asch), had been selected to follow the trajectory of Asch’s life. The first two parts would recognize Asch’s heritage: first a selection of klezmer songs as homage to his Jewish roots and then Polish folk songs representing both his childhood in Kutno and his years in Warsaw. The third section was a selection of French songs, as Asch spent part of the 1920’s and 30’s in Paris. The final set of songs was American/big band hits, from the years Asch spent in the United States. When Asch died in 1957, he was living in in Bat Yam, Israel, having moved to the young Jewish state only three years prior. The band offered spirited renditions of the songs, with skilled musicians and a lead singer with a bright voice who was quite comfortable singing Yiddish, Polish, French, and English, and happily the audience was eager to dance (perhaps gradually more so as the evening went on and the Mogen David wine was consumed). I was surprised, though, that a “Jewish Evening” on a Friday night didn’t mark Shabbat with any ritual or even acknowledgement of Shabbat.
I found in speaking with the people of Kutno the same town pride for Sholem Asch that one might find in Portland for Stephen King or Monroeville for Harper Lee. At the concert I met Kutno’s deputy mayor, Zbigniew Wdowiak, who was delighted to hear that I was in town specifically for the festival. Mayor Wdowiak shared how important he felt it was for Kutno to celebrate its history, which to him also means celebrating its Jewish history, an attitude echoed by many of those involved with the festival. I also met Halina Sankowksa, a high school teacher who has been involved in many Asch Festivals. Each year she has her class look at a different Asch work and make their own presentations and performances around the work. This year she directed and produced a one-person show based on Asch’s short story “Behind the Wall.”
When I spoke to Konczarek, the library director, she was quick to share the credit for the festival with her team, saying that they not only worked incredibly hard but that it is something the staff looks forward to for two years. And indeed, all the library staff that I met were excited to speak with me about the festival and how important they think it is for the town to celebrate and learn about Asch.
As wonderful as the concert and dinner were, the real highlight of my visit to Kutno was getting a private demonstration of the app that was developed for the festival this year: a mobile scavenger hunt that led users not just through the town, but also through history. The app takes users all over Kutno from one location to another, offering information at each point of interest about the town’s history and Asch’s childhood. The content from the app was carefully researched and included excerpts from Asch’s writings and photographs that offer a glimpse into his childhood in Kutno.
I met up with Mazower and Lisa Newman, also of the Yiddish Book Center, at the library on Saturday morning, where Konczarek and her staff greeted us and prepared us to play the game. A few days prior, almost a hundred children from Kutno’s schools met at the library as part of the festival to participate in this innovative game and to electronically scavenge and learn. After introducing us to Asch and giving a bit about Kutno’s history, the app took us to the site of the house where Asch grew up. Though the house is no longer there, the street it once sat on is now named for the author. We went to the small river outside his grandmother’s house where Asch played as a child and imagined himself in the Jordan River, and the site of the Makabi sports club where a young Asch enjoyed arm-wrestling. At each stop, we were prompted with questions about what we had just learned and challenges like staging a picture of running a race or counting the number of columns on a house that Asch would have known as a child. Creating the app was one of the larger undertakings of this year’s festival, and it is significant that so many resources were directed towards an initiative to engage the town’s children in the festival and to give them experience that ties together the threads of Kutno’s civic and Jewish history.
When users walk through the park in front of the library, the game offers an excerpt from Asch’s diary:
“The question is whether, when the next generation passes, anyone else will remember my beloved Kutno with its striking multicolor mosaic of cultures and unusual inhabitants…will anyone remember me and my wonderful family or my literary creativity, which is permeated through these images of my childhood related to this tiny town in which I grew up…”
On my trip to Kutno I was lucky to experience firsthand the resounding yes that answers Asch’s question. He is remembered proudly in his hometown, and in ways he could not himself have even imagined. And for his great-grandson, the festival represents “a community pulling together to celebrate one of their own.”
A festival like the Asch Festival is, after all, not targeted to an international audience, but is rather a local event interested in celebrating the author’s legacy and the culture to which he belonged. A celebration of a people that once lived in a particular region could easily become a tactless fetishization (consider the ways early Boy Scouts and summer camps appropriated Native American words and cultural activities), but Kutno’s festival skirts appropriation. Instead, the Asch Festival earnestly celebrates and engages with a chapter of history that the town is intent on marking in order to ensure that the narrative of Jewish life for their town is not limited to its tragic and abrupt end over three short years.
While the Jewish festivals in Krakow and Warsaw continue to draw larger audiences, going to the smaller festivals like the one in Kutno gives modern Yiddish enthusiasts a different way to engage with the language and culture with a wider and at times unexpected audience. “I would urge people who want to experience grassroots Jewish culture in Poland to come to Kutno,” says Mazower. “I found it a revelation when I first started going and I continue to be energized and inspired by it. It’s a remarkable way for people to experience modern Poland and its heritage.”
*Special thanks to David Mazower, Lisa Newman, Rachelle Grossman, and Magdalena Konczarek and the team at the Municipal and Poviat Public Library. The 11th Sholem Asch Festival was organized by the Municipal and Poviat Public Library in Kutno and co-organized by the Jewish Historical Institute, Kutno Culture Center, Theater, Music and Dance Center, Rondo Hotel and Restaurant, House of Creative Work Association - Nowa Wieś. Kutno’s next Sholem Asch festival will take place in 2021.