In Spain, as in Poland, Jewishness is a protean concept, and a Jewish legacy is felt. But the Fiesta de la Vaquilla practices and lore, transmitted orally through countless generations, tend to be shrugged off, unquestioned, as givens. Of more interest to villagers than the origins of ethnic tropes about “Judíos” is pulling off the endlessly complex event itself.
Jews are famously scattered around the world. So, it seems in recent years, are Jewish museums: in Paris, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, as well as cities from Dnipropetrovsk to Shanghai, Caracas to Casablanca. Yet Warsaw—capital of the nation that once held more Jews than any other—was conspicuously absent from the list, until a few weeks ago.
Hanukkah commemorates persistence against overwhelming odds, when Jewish rebels in Judea defeated their Greek overlords and oil lamps meant to last a single day miraculously burned eight times as long. Five years ago I heard of what seemed another miracle. Despite having been nearly stamped out by the Nazis six decades earlier, the spirit of Jewish life in Poland had been kindled again in Kraków, near the farmlands where my family had lived for perhaps nine centuries.
Cafés, I was told, served jellied carp with raisins. Klezmer tunes bounced down the cobbled streets. Prewar shop signs had reappeared, flanking a bustling square as if its Jews had never left. The cooks and klezmorim, I later learned, were nearly all non-Jews, the crowds made up of tourists, the façades only that. Auschwitz, a mere hour away, remained a brutal warning against rosy nostalgia or frivolity. Still, I needed to see all this for myself. I went.