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An Exploration of Jewish Heritage Tourism in a Mostly Gentile Poland

Jewish Poland Revisited. Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places. By: Erica T. Lehrer. Indiana University Press, 2013.

March 27, 2014 - Ángel López Peiró - Books and Reviews

27.03.2014 jewish poland revisited

Since the Iron Curtain fell and East-Central Europe has become accessible to Westerners, thousands of Jewish tourists from around the world, including students from Israel, have visited Poland almost exclusively to explore Holocaust-related sites marked by deep grief. On the other hand, around 20,000 Jews live today in Poland, where there is an attempt at a revival of Jewish culture, heritage and even communities supported by institutions, and a significant part of Polish society has challenged antisemitic attitudes, still existing in Poland – as in many other countries in Europe – but in no way prevalent in the country today.

Many of these Polish Jews actually had their Jewishness hidden by their parents in post-war communist Poland and were raised as Catholics. In addition, many philosemitic non-Jewish Poles in Kraków – among them the outstanding Janusz Makuch, the founder and director of the annual Jewish Culture Festival, the owners of the Jarden Bookshop and many others mentioned in the book – are filling the blank left by the absence of a large Jewish community in the city and have created Jewish bookstores, a Jewish Cultural Centre and even the most important Jewish Culture Festival in the world. This process has also involved dozens of young Polish Gentiles in Kraków, and some of them even work as volunteers at the Jewish Community Centre in Kazimierz, related to an international Jewish institution.

This overview is just a mere simplification of the extremely complex setting that Jewish-American researcher Professor Erica T. Lehrer had to face when working on this publication. Nobody would agree this was an easy task.

Erica T. Lehrer works as an anthropologist at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, and moved to Kraków, Poland, in 1998, although she had visited the country already in the early 1990s for her ongoing and almost 15-year-long ethnographic research that ended up in the publication of this book. It is relevant to highlight that she was the curator of the renowned and famous exhibition Souvenir, Talisman, Toy about the famous (seen as infamous by many) Jewish figurines made by Polish art crafters, which ran at Kraków’s Ethnographic Museum during the Jewish Culture Festival in late June 2013 until August of that year.

From the beginning of the book, Lehrer brilliantly and effectively advocates the idea that within the international Jewish communities, and in particular those in Israel and the United States, there are strongly consolidated negative prejudices towards Poland, and she does it by means of her own interactions in Poland with foreign Jewish tourists. In her view and after having seen this first-hand, she claims that Jewish tourism to Poland is different from most ethnic identity tours in the world, which normally bring participants to various homeland sites to cultivate a sense of positive connection with a place. In these trips it is more about rejection, as Poland is presented not as a Jewish place but rather as an anti-Jewish place, perhaps even more so than Germany, the very country that engineered the annihilation of Europe’s Jews. What is more, the rejection of Poland built into the mission of travel is not only directed at non-Jewish Poles but also at Polish Jews.

As a result of these attitudes and the approach to Polish-Jewish matters by several media, internationally there are deep feelings of anxiety among Poles that guilt is being transferred from the Nazi German perpetrators of the Holocaust onto the Poles. Foreign media, and especially the German press, often refer to “Polish” death camps, something the Polish government – especially Polish Foreign Affairs Minister Radek Sikorski – should be credited with fighting, and institutions have been fighting very intensively against this for the last few years. In relation to this, as Lehrer also mentions in the book, the still shocking and controversial research and publication of Neighbours in 2001 by Polish-American sociologist Jan T. Gross, which attributed the responsibility of the Jedwabne pogrom in 1941 killing 340 Jews, to Polish peasants instead of Nazi Germany officials as it was commonly believed in Poland until then, has changed the way contemporary Poles see the role of Poland during the Holocaust and has influenced also the way the international Zionist movement sees Poland.

Lehrer assertively argues that because Poland was the site of all the Nazi extermination camps during the Second World War, many Jews regard the country as a Jewish cemetery, and even missions organised around the theme of heritage often involve the Holocaust. Although these Jews are going to Poland, their trips have nothing to do with Poland and the Poles; instead, they are exclusively focused on Jewish national memory and identity. Young Jews taking these tours to Poland are not aware of the increasing number of non-Jewish Poles who are working to challenge antisemitism and narrow forms of Polish ethno-nationalism.

The local Jewish community in Kraków feels frustrated every time it has to justify to visiting Jews why they are living in Poland, such a hostile territory in the latter’s view. In addition, they claim that the dominant Jewish discourse coming from the West is erasing the complex local Jewish reality in Kraków. Similarly, Lehrer herself explains over and over again throughout the book that she was tired of always being asked questions by Jewish visitors regarding why she was in Poland, supposedly such an unfriendly place to Jews.

The book is filled with interesting anecdotes directly related to her personal experience and interaction with non-Jewish and Jewish locals and visitors alike. For instance, it is worth referring to an episode in which she was with a group of young Israelis on a mission trip whose participants read graffiti in Kraków reading Nazis won and quickly and energetically complained about hatred towards Jews in Poland, when the real meaning of graffiti in Polish language is Nazis get out.

Lehrer brilliantly argues that the Jewish figurines that can be bought in some Polish markets and crafts shops could be easily regarded as deeply antisemitic because of the way they depict Jews, often holding coins and giving them a somehow ridiculous appearance. On the other hand, it is worth explaining that many Poles think these figurines are good-luck charms that can bring wealth and prosperity to a household, mainly because of the long history of Jews being good traders, merchants and bankers, and they were in charge of royal treasuries throughout Polish history. Anyhow, as Lehrer points out, the Jewish figurines are proof that Jews have always been an essential part of Polish culture and the nation and are still remembered as such by most Poles.

The author does not see today’s Kazimierz as a fake portrayal of Jewish Poland, a Jewish Disneyland, despite admitting that in some of the Jewish restaurants and cafés in Szeroka street there are several settings, objects, menus and characteristics that would support that negative view. In this sense, unlike her view on the Jewish heritage tourism and happenings in the district as a whole, Lehrer is probably too harsh on her appraisal of the Centre of Jewish Culture, run by the non-Jewish Pole Joachim S. Russek, which she regards as a failed attempt as it is very disconnected from the actual Jewish Community in Kazimierz and their regular events and everyday life experiences.

Lehrer refers to the fact Krakow’s Kazimierz quarter has become a trendy area for young Poles, expats, foreign students and visitors. However, Lehrer probably does not pay enough attention as it deserves to the gentrification this area has experienced throughout the past 15 years. Kraków’s Kazimierz quarter is today the main hub of Jewish heritage tourism in Poland and the site of main and most active Jewish community in Poland, but is also one of the trendiest areas in the city among youngsters and middle-aged Poles and expats for dining out, socializing and enjoying the best nightlife in town.

Moreover, the book’s title can be misleading as its content essentially revolves around Kraków’s Kazimierz quarter and the author does not explore Jewish heritage tourism and Jewish community and cultural revival elsewhere in Poland, only mentioning her first trip to Warsaw when she came across young American Jewish mission tourists. She does not take into account in her research what is going on in the also relatively lively Jewish community in Wrocław, despite the fact that there is no such thing as Jewish heritage tourism there. Hence, it would not be unfair to claim that a title Jewish Kraków Revisited or Jewish Kazimierz Revisited would have probably been more accurate to summarise the content of the book.

Leaving the title’s appropriateness aside, Erica T. Lehrer’s Jewish Poland Revisited is essential reading for anyone interested in discovering how the Jewish heritage phenomenon evolved in Kazimierz in post-communist Poland and understanding the undeniable revival of Jewish Poland not only from a cultural, heritage-related perspective, but also in the sense of a small but well-established Jewish community. In addition, without a doubt Lehrer’s work is one of the best sources a reader can rely on today for understanding complex Jewish-Polish relations and the historical, social background around them.

Nonetheless, the main asset of Lehrer’s work is its huge potential and argumentative power to influence and change the prevailing – although perfectly understandable looking at Poland as the place where the largest European Jewish community was annihilated – negative attitudes towards Poland among many people in the international Jewish community. Thanks to her work perhaps more Jews will no longer conceive Poland only as the site of Holocaust and as a widely antisemitic country, but rather as a place full of hope and future for the recognition of Polish Jewish culture, history and heritage and for the Jewish communities here.

Ángel López Peiró is a Spanish Kraków-based freelance journalist, writer and blogger focused on Poland and East-Central European affairs.

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