February 19, 2004
Dining With Tolerance in Krakow
Soon after Alef Jewish Restaurant opened for business in Krakow's Jewish quarter more than a decade ago, a gaggle of Polish schoolgirls wandered in during their lunch break. The anxious students asked the restaurant's co-owner, Janusz Benigier, whether they served non-Jews.
Benigier recounts the story to support his theory that Polish anti-Semitism, which a recent survey measured at more than 50 percent, springs from a lack of knowledge rather than a dark place in the soul.
"There are cases of ignorance," he said over dinner at his restaurant. "I hope we are one of the places that provides an education."
A doughy, red-cheeked fellow with a brown mustache and an unfortunate Hiltler-esque haircut, Benigier acknowledges that Alef attracts few Polish customers. The restaurant caters mainly to tourists, some of the 200 Jews or so left in the Kazimierz neighborhood and the occasional Holocaust survivor in town to visit nearby Auschwitz.
"Survivors come here from abroad after years," Benigier said. "They've wanted to avoid thinking of memories of their families, their children who perished. There are a lot of tears here."
The candlelit dining room in the 17th-century merchant's house does evoke a sentimental time -- the "between the war" period, when 65,000 Jews helped establish Krakow as a thriving center of culture and commerce. Paintings and period photos hang on the walls, which are the color of braised celery. Portraits of Frida Kahlo, Mozart and local rabbis intermingle. Mismatched antique wooden chairs encircle white lace-covered tables, common in the homes of many a Jewish grandmother.
Distraught diners at Alef, named for the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, tend to brighten after sampling familiar food, sensitive service (the waiters, all non-Jews, learn about Jewish culture as part of their training) and a few shots of Shilivitz, a potent vodka made from, according to Benigier, "plums and fire."
There were few diners during a recent visit to Alef, giving Benigier a chance to play host. He switched off Rosemary Clooney's "There's No Business Like Show Business" -- the Klezmer band apparently had the night off -- to give me a tour of his wall of fame. A framed note from Steven Spielberg, who filmed part of "Schindler's List" at the restaurant, reads: "May your establishment survive for 2,000 years. The tradition is so important." There's a letter from Itzhak Perlman and a photo of Prince Charles--wearing a blue yarmulke embroidered with royal feathers. Last year, "Charles" -- that's how he signed the restaurant's guest book, as if he were a supermodel -- shared fruit juice and cake with Holocaust survivors during a photo-op at Alef.
It's a shame HRH did not stay for more of a nosh. A meal at Alef, which is not kosher, proved a pleasure, aside from the unappetizing first course -- carp Jewish-style. The hunk of white fish swims in a pond of viscous beige jelly studded with blanched almonds and black currants. Benigier noted with amusement that many Poles serve the dish on Christmas Eve, evidence of the comingling of cultures.
A better option is the rich wild mushroom soup with onions, a nice change from ubiquitous borscht. For a main course, I was tempted by the stuffed goose necks but instead opted for sticky but hearty cholent, a stew of beef, kidney beans, lentils and kasha that was traditionally eaten in Orthodox homes on the Sabbath. Religious law dictates that observant Jews refrain from using electricity on the Sabbath, hence the popularity of cholent, which can retain heat for hours. For dessert, I sampled a dense chocolate walnut cake, notable for its tempered sweetness.
After dinner, Benigier reflected on discovering his own Jewish roots as an adult. He lost two uncles in the Holocaust, but his family rarely discussed religion at the dinner table. "It was taboo during Communism. If you have to stand in a queue and fight for a meal, the interest in private affairs is not very critical," he explained. His father fretted that his son would encounter harassment, or worse, by opening Alef, but so far the restaurant has been vandalism-free.
Encouraged by his success, Benigier plans to open an outpost of Alef in the middle of Krakow, which will test his hopeful hypothesis that anti-Semitism is waning in Poland. He has big plans: Jewish cooking classes, Jewish folk dancing and visions of tour groups spilling out of busses. Is he nervous about venturing out of the Jewish neighborhood?
"Not fear, just excitement," he said. "I trust young people who are tolerant and looking [at the past]. A lot of them will find Jewishness in their own identities."
For more information about Alef Jewish Restaurant, visit www.alef.pl/en/2.html . Dinner for one runs about $20.