Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places

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Since the end of Communism, Jews from around the world have visited Poland to tour Holocaust-related sites. A few venture further, seeking to learn about their own Polish roots and connect with contemporary Poles. For their part, a growing number of Poles are fascinated by all things Jewish. Erica T. Lehrer explores the intersection of Polish and Jewish memory projects in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz in Krakow. Her own journey becomes part of the story as she demonstrates that Jews and Poles use spaces, institutions, interpersonal exchanges, and cultural representations to make sense of their historical inheritances.

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Introduction. Poles and Jews: Significant Others

ePub

With one culture, we cannot feel!

SŁAWOMIR SIERAKOWSKI IN YAEL BARTANA'S 2009 FILM MARY KOSZMARY (NIGHTMARES)

Kazimierz, Krakow's historically Jewish quarter, is one among a number of iconically Jewish spaces that have been “put back on the map” across the new Europe, in places where Jews lived in concentration before World War II and sometimes long before: Berlin's Scheunenviertel, Paris's Le Marais, Bologna's “Il Ghetto,” Prague's Židovské město (Josefov), and other pockets in Vilna, Lvov, Czernowitz, and elsewhere. Despite Poland's minuscule contemporary Jewish population (estimates from the decade ending in 2009 vary from about 5,000 to 20,000 among 40 million Poles), in the past fifteen years the country has seen a profusion of Jewish-themed events, venues, and sites.1 Significant efforts at the state level to remake Poland's Jewish heritage through museums, monuments, and commemorations have emerged. Jewish conferences, ceremonies, memorials, performances, festivals, and other events in Poland outstrip public programming in countries with much larger Jewish communities.2

 

1. Making Sense of Place: History, Mythology, Authenticity

ePub

I arrived in Kazimierz for the first time in April of 1990. It was a fortuitous moment; ferried by a hospitable middle-aged Polish painter who had become my and my brother's impromptu tour guide to the city, we drove into the bleak neighborhood under a white banner stretched across the road, advertising the second annual Festival of Jewish Culture. As I tried to grasp this unlikely event, our new Polish friend's white Polonez hatchback rolled to a stop, parking alongside a few other cars in a strip up the center of the spacious, aptly named Szeroka (“wide”) Street. We walked the few steps down to the old synagogue, where we saw a small crowd of people—the only sign of life in the otherwise dreary square—filing into the old synagogue museum for a concert. Our host was tickled by his good fortune in stumbling on such an apposite event for his Jewish guests. I was still orienting myself to the idea of Jewish entertainment in what for me was a post-apocalyptic Jewish site, when the evening's performer, cantor Jeffrey Nadel from Washington, D.C., stepped onto the bimah and began to sing in a powerful tenor.

 

2. The Mission: Mass Jewish Holocaust Pilgrimage

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Anyone who anticipates and focuses only on the known and familiar finally sees nothing.

DEENA METZGER

A few days after arriving in Warsaw on that first East European trip in 1990, which had been inspired by the revolutions of the previous months, my brother and I found ourselves circling the city's central synagogue. The building's somber, grey exterior matched the sky and still-leafless trees, and we wondered who, if anyone, would be inside. We also wondered what we were doing there. We hadn't explicitly considered any Jewish-themed itinerary for our journey, beyond the map our father had hastily photocopied at the last minute and in which he had underlined the few ancestral place names he could recall, today all well east of the Polish-Ukrainian border: Otynia, Hadenkowce, Kołomyja, Czernowitz (“kleyne [little] Paris”).

If we didn't know what we wanted to see nor what we expected, it was in any case not what we encountered. The doors of the synagogue flew open and out poured a stream of Jewish American teenagers. One of the first identifiable sounds was a girl yelling, “Jews Rule! (Ooh baby!),” as she and her girlfriends marched astride, clutching each other and waving their brightly manicured hands in the air. It was difficult not to stare. We approached two middle-aged women who appeared to be with the group, standing guard outside; they had been eyeing us warily. I asked about the nature of the trip. They told us that it was the March of the Living, or more precisely its Pittsburgh and Washington contingents, out of the 3,000 teens who came “from everywhere.” In response to my question about the trip's purpose, I received a terse recitation of statistics about the vibrant prewar Jewish population in Poland and its ravaged postwar remnants. Still trying to comprehend what this enormous parade of American teenagers was up to, I asked what they had been doing in the synagogue. Each of my questions seemed to position me, in the chaperones' eyes, further outside the particular Jewish “us” being celebrated by the group. “Praying,” one of them said curtly.

 

3. The Quest: Scratching the Heart

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We Polish Jews…We, everliving, who have perished in the ghettos and camps, and we ghosts who, from across seas and oceans, will some day return to the homeland and haunt the ruins in our unscarred bodies and our wretched, presumably spared souls.

JULIAN TUWIM

poland / we have lain awake in thy soft arms forever

JEROME ROTHENBERG

At the Jarden Jewish Bookshop and Tourist Agency in Kazimierz, I bumped into Max Rogers, a forty-year-old Hasidic Londoner who travels to Poland frequently on business. Max had been involved in numerous local projects and delights the employees of the bookshop with his periodic gifts of falafel. He brings the mix from London or Jerusalem and cooks it at Noah's Ark café next door.

“Jews who come to Poland? What Jews?” asked Max rhetorically, in response to my description of my research. “The only Jews who come [to Poland],” Max announced to me and to the non-Jewish Lucyna Leś, the bookshop's co-owner and coordinator of much Jewish traffic through Krakow, “are those who go to pray in some cemetery of famous rabbis, and leave.”

 

4. Shabbos Goyim: Polish Stewards of Jewish Spaces

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One doesn't struggle with ghosts; one placates them and lures them back.

RUTH GAY

Why would a Pole open a Jewish bookstore? Jewish visitors ask. A non-Jewish Jewish bookstore would be cause enough for suspicion (what are they doing with our culture?). But a Polish one? This combination violates the basic order of a Jewish moral universe built from grandparents' stories of Poles turning over Jews to the Nazis for vodka. Zdzisław Leś, owner of the Jarden Jewish Bookshop, recalled his inspiration for opening the shop; it had missionary and accidental aspects. “I visited this normal bookshop, in this very building, in which sat two bored women selling crime stories and third-class literature. And there was one shelf, maybe two small shelves, on which was written ‘Judaica.’ Ten titles! And I asked them, ‘Do you know where you are?’ I thought it was a scandal, and I told these women so. So I took it over, moved it next door, threw out the other 90 percent of the books, and began to increase the Judaica. And now I have about 150 titles—in practice, all of what is published in Poland. And it is the only Jewish bookshop in Poland.”1

 

5. Traveling Tschotschkes and “Post-Jewish” Culture

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In times of change, controversy, ritual, or performance, people are led to examine their culture, and the coming of the tourists has a similar result.

EDWARD BRUNER

Józef brooded over a vision he had in the early 1960s. He grew animated. “A path led to a wooden fence, and a man sat there, in a black cloak and hat. It was just before dusk, the distance between us was about twenty meters. This man just looked at me. I felt paralyzed, as if something unnatural were happening. I turned away, and then back. There was nobody. I had never seen anybody dressed like that. I was ten years old.” Decades later Józef understood he had seen a Jew.

Fragments of the prewar Jewish world, physical and metaphysical, linger in the Polish landscape. Tombstone shards, crumbling synagogues, troubling or puzzling memories—in the absence of a significant Jewish community, they have been up for grabs. For a long time, few Poles shouldered their weight and ambivalence. But as we have seen, tourism, economic necessity, and a growing sense of obligation in the post-communist era are increasingly making some into keepers of Jewishness in this post-Holocaust terrain. Some excavate the Jewish histories of their towns, others subsist by ferrying Jewish visitors around the archive, cemetery, and death-camp loops. Józef makes wooden Jews.

 

6. Jewish Like an Adjective: Expanding the Collective Self

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The first casualty of conflict is identity and…redefining identity is a fundamental step toward reconciliation.

ANTIJE KROG

In mid-summer 2000, Michał, a middle-aged Cracovian translator, traveler, and practitioner of Buddhism, came walking into Szeroka Street unshaven, disheveled, and distracted. I was sitting at the patio of the Nissenbaum restaurant with a couple of American Jewish friends. When I first met Michał the previous autumn, he told me he had simply been “pulled to Jewishness” in recent years. Today he apologized for his long absence from Kazimierz and said he “didn't have the guts to come.” An American Jewish Holocaust survivor who had become a public presence in the quarter had apparently accused Michał of “pretending to be Jewish.” Michał told me of how timidly he had approached both the head of Krakow's formal Jewish community, Tadeusz Jakubowicz, at Remu synagogue, and then Lauder Foundation rabbi and youth club director Sasha Pecaric. He said they had both accepted him “as I am: not Jewish, uncircumcised, ignorant.” His story suggests that not only is Jewishness enacted in a range of ways in Poland, but a spectrum of variously identified Poles have found spaces to participate in it—although not entirely free from social risk, particularly from within normative (i.e. non-Polish) Jewish ranks. “All I can be accused of,” Michał lamented, his voice cracking, “is going to synagogue, wearing a yarmulke, and saying ‘shabbat shalom.’”

 

Conclusion: Toward a Polish-Jewish Milieu de Mémoire

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Cultural tourism becomes simply life-enhancing rather than life-consuming, not a spectacle but an experience, because real people still live it and share it with real people who interpret it. We are able to experience reciprocity and feel enriched by it.

STUART HANNABUSS

Locating ethnography in time is a perennial problem for anthropologists. Despite the sense that we are describing current cultural problematics, the “ethnographic present” is already over by the time we sit down to write. Especially in social settings defined by rapid global flows like tourism, the challenge is to capture the emergence, historicity, and dynamism of the cultural formations we document and in whose change we participate. This book, in particular, was written, and is being read, in a very different moment than when many of the situations it describes took place. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Poland was just rediscovering its Jewishness publicly. Catapulted into the orbit of the West, Poles were suddenly faced with entirely new discourses about (and for some, encounters with) cultural difference. Most of my fieldwork took place before the country was gripped by the polarizing debate that would soon be provoked by historical scholarship regarding Polish complicity in crimes against Jews, set off by the publication in 2001 of Jan Gross's Neighbors.

 

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