Jews! Fellow countrymen! People! . . . Since the night you were gone, the old lady has had nightmares. Bad dreams. Only you can chase them away. Let the three million Jews that Poland has missed stand by her bed and finally chase away the demons. Return to Poland. To your county!
The Polish anthem is playing in the background, and the bespectacled young speaker is scanning the stadium around him. He pauses as if waiting for cheers, but he is speaking to an empty audience. The only ones present are a few uniformed boy and girl scouts, patiently spelling out the slogan “3,000,000 Jews can change the lives of 40,000,000 Poles” in bold white letters on the field. The camera angles, the marching youths, and the hairs blowing in the wind bring to mind Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films, but in this video, history is reversed. Instead of expelling the Jews, Slawomir Sierakowski, one of Poland’s young left–wing politicians, is calling on them to return.
The video featuring Sierakowski was created by the Israeli artist Yael Bartana, under the title Mary Koszmary (“Dreams and Nightmares”). It is Bartana’s mildly ironic reaction to the wave of nostalgia and longing for the Jews that is sweeping through a part of the Polish intellectual public. Until recently, the memory of Jewish life in Poland was sustained mostly by people outside the country—namely emigrants and their descendants. They came to visit the cemeteries, death camps, and old towns, and erected memorials across the country. Now, this memory is slowly beginning to enter the public domain with more and more Poles are discussing the absence of a Jewish community from contemporary Polish life. In an effort to study contemporary Polish art and its reflections on Jewish identity, I visited Poland and came across several local projects dedicated to the preservation of Jewish memory. Though many of these undertakings are controversial, they represent a significant change in Poland’s understanding of its relationship with Judaism.
One of these initiatives is Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews, slated to open in 2010. The museum—which will stand in what was once the heart of the Warsaw ghetto—is dedicated to “preserving the lasting legacy of Jewish life in Poland and of the civilization created by Polish Jews in the course of a millennium.” It is Warsaw’s attempt to recreate the success of Daniel Libeskind’s critically acclaimed Jewish Museum in Berlin, which has attracted millions of tourists since it opened in 2001. Libeskind’s building is a kind of visual metaphor: the building itself functions as part of the exhibitions that it hosts. Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki designed the ambitious Warsaw building with the same logic in mind. A translucent gash cuts through the interior of the museum, creating a gaping fissure that serves as art itself.
Jewish heritage tourism to Poland is booming, and the phenomenon known as “roots tourism” for Jews, travel to Eastern Europe to discover their family history—has grown steadily since the 1980s. It is hoped that the new museum will become an obligatory stop on Poland’s roots tours, many of which skip Warsaw. The planners estimate that, despite the museum’s appeal for tourists, many of its visitors will be Polish. “The museum is first and foremost for the Poles, who actually know very little of this part of their history,” says Albert Stankowski, a member of the museum’s staff. “There is a growing interest in the Jewish past of Poland.”
In addition to his work at the museum, Stankowski heads a project called the “Virtual Shtetl,” a computerized database that will contain information about past Jewish settlements in Poland, including details of daily life and personal accounts from former residents and survivors. He explains that while the project is designed for heritage travelers, it also serves Polish citizens seeking to learn more about their nation’s Jewish past. Stankowski showed me emails recently sent to him by Poles from across the country—grave inscriptions in Zdunska Wola, a list of Shabbat candleholders in Biala, the family tree of Rabbi Lipman Hersz Lewental. Stankowski’s ambition reminded me of a J.L. Borges story about the quest to create a map so exact that it replicates reality in its entirety. The “Virtual Shtetl’s” ambition is the same—namely, to deliver the complete story of Polish Jewry. The project is a kind of virtual map intended to honor a vanished world.
Stankowski has enlisted historians, teachers, pensioners, and even a few electricians in his quest to finish the project. Stankowski expects that only a few of the volunteers are Jewish. Most of them simply began looking into the history of their town and became curious about the history behind daily life. “Many of them,” Stankowski adds, “are doing it out of strong Christian feeling.”
Such amateur historians are appearing all over Poland, as young people begin to rehabilitate old cemeteries, identify lost synagogues, and ask new questions about Poland’s Jews. Until recently, it was unlikely that a young Pole would learn anything of the prewar Jewish–Polish world. The communist regime absorbed the wartime suffering of the Jews into the larger narrative of Polish sacrifice. Only the fall of the communist government in 1989 opened the path for debate on the Jewish dimensions of wartime memory. Poland’s youth subsequently attempted to recover knowledge withheld, denied, or ignored by older generations. They subsequently began to engage in what Eastern Europeans call “filling in the blank spaces” created by communist ideology.
Nostalgia can be understood as the longing for a home that no longer exists—or one that never existed. I am familiar with a form of Jewish nostalgia for Polish shtetl (small Jewish town) life, even though in my homeland, Israel, Zionism suppresses this nostalgia and believes that the Jewish State has replaced the shtetl existence. But the nostalgia that pervades the works of many contemporary Polish artists is of a different kind. Some of these artists are longing for a home that only existed before the Second World War, an era they could not possibly have known, when Jews remained a significant element in Polish society.
A telling exemple is Wojciech Wilczyk, a young photographer who found his niche representing post–communist nostalgia. Wilczyk gained notoriety for photographing old synagogues throughout Poland. The former synagogues now function as theaters, warehouses, or fire stations, and only when Wilczyk’s photographs are put together can one recognize that the buildings once served a religious function.
I saw my first synagogue in Pozna , a town not far from the German border. In the 15th century, Pozna was home to the largest Jewish community in Poland. The magnificent synagogue built there in 1908 was converted by the Nazis into a swimming pool, and it is still used as such by the town’s citizens. The building looks shabby and drab, and its halls are painted bright turquoise, creating a ghostly underwater sensation. Only the majestic windows in the building’s great hall suggest that the structure was once a house of worship.
On a summer night in 2003, local artist Rafal Jakubowicz transformed the site of the former synagogue into an artistic installation space. Using projectors, he shined the Hebrew words for “Swimming Pool” on the building’s façade. Though the Hebrew characters are merely a translation of the Polish words that appear above the facility’s door, the translation was intended for almost nobody, because Jakubowicz’s message was incomprehensible to the Polish spectators who saw it. In some sense, then, the key to Jakubowicz’s artwork is its inaccessibility: the Hebrew letters operate only as empty signifiers of their own foreign, Hebrew nature. On the one hand, Jakubowicz created a shimmering presence, pregnant with meaning, as a forceful reminder of the building’s Jewish history. Yet, at the same time, he posted an impenetrable message. Because they were impenetrable to Polish onlookers, Jakubowicz’s Hebrew letters alluded to absence—the absence of the Jews from Poland. Ripped away from its semantic function, the Hebrew inscription became a visual memorial to an absent recipient.
Artist Joanna Rajkowska crafted a work with similar ambitions. In the heart of Warsaw, she “planted” an artificial palm tree. Big and strange, its plastic fronds covered with dust, the palm tree towers over the crossing of Aleje Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue) and Nowy Swiat (New World Street), an intersection loaded with historical significance. After returning from a trip to Israel, Rajkowska erected the tree and called it “Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue.” It is a kind of souvenir—a gift one brings back for one’s loved ones, an Eiffel Tower on a keychain. Only in this case the gift was given to Warsaw and its people.
The palm tree evokes the street’s forgotten history. In 1774, Jewish merchants established a settlement called New Jerusalem in the area where the palm tree now stands. Just two years later, the city demolished the neighborhood, since Christian merchants did not want competition from Jewish traders. The Jews were forced to move to the area that later became the Warsaw Ghetto, but the street’s name—New Jerusalem—survived their expulsion. One of the palm tree’s ironies is that it symbolizes a yearning that has captivated both early Zionists and dreamers of escapist beachside vacations. It is an emblem of exoticism, even in presentday Israel, where it suggests biblical connections. Rajkowska’s tree is a foreigner in Warsaw to both Jewish and Christian Poles. Yet it is strangely a fitting gesture, since Judaism itself is becoming an exotic object in contemporary Poland.
Another vivid manifestation of Poland’s interest in Judaism is the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival. Every year, thousands of people gather at Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, to attend workshops on subjects like Jewish cooking and Hassidic dancing. But the main attraction of the festival is music: klezmer bands arrive from around the world to perform in front of an enthusiastic audience. Few of the musicians, and even fewer of their listeners, are Jewish. Nonetheless, during the “Oy Division” concert that I attended, people around me sang along with Yiddish tunes, or at least made an effort to pronounce foreign words.
The festival was founded in 1988 by Janusz Makuch and Krzysztof Gierat, both of whom hail from traditional Catholic homes. Due to the festival’s success, Kazimierz has transformed into a tourist attraction. Today, one can visit the restored synagogues, browse the new Jewish bookstore, and buy dolls of dancing Chasids (Chassidism is a sect of observant Judaism that was widely prevalent in Eastern Europe prior to WWII). Asked to explain the festival’s popularity, Makuch told the New York Times that “You cannot have a genocide and then have people live as if everything is normal. It’s like when you lose a limb. Poland is suffering from Jewish phantom pain.”
Artist Joanna Rajkowska erected this artificial palm tree, called “Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue,” in the heart of Warsaw, at the intersection between Jerusalem Avenue and New World Street. The Jewish community of Warsaw once tried to establish itself there, but was expelled in 1776 and sent to establish the Warsaw Ghetto. Photo by Shir Alon
Poland may indeed be longing for its former Jewish population. But do events like the Krakow festival reflect genuine interest in Jewish life? Even though it marks the growing appeal of Judaism, the festival invokes an image of Judaism with which many Jews are uncomfortable. “The festival is promoting Jewish stereotypes we are not happy with,” says Piotr Pazinski, editor of the Jewish–Polish monthly Midrasz. “It celebrates the popular, even anti–Semite image of the long–nosed Chasids dancing to a whining violin. It has nothing to do with actual Jewish culture and thought.” In some sense, it seems, the festival is a nostalgic return to the imaginary setting of Fiddler on the Roof. Judaism as performed in Krakow is an identity that can be easily adopted—without the burdensome responsibility of toiling over ancient texts, and without confronting the grimmer realities of being Jewish. It is just another commodity in a world where culture is often reduced to merchandise. I thought about this a few weeks after I left Krakow, when, at a fair in a small Czech town, I saw three Native Americans thumping in full garb to a playback of lonely eagle cries. The three were an ethnographic display emerging in utterly foreign surroundings. Perhaps, like the Native American playback, Judaism in Krakow is a mysterious and alien identity, a tradition reducible to easily recognizable artifacts.
The art and scholarship taking shape around Poland’s inquiries into its Jewish past does not go uncontested. A thin volume published in 2001 by Princeton historian Jan Gross, sparked controversy over the newfound interest in Polish–Jewish relations. Neighbors tells the story of Jedwabne, a town in which Polish citizens massacred the Jewish population in the summer of 1941. The book fires a direct assault on one of Poland’s most fundamental national myths that Poles valiantly and universally fought back against the Nazi onslaught, and did not engage in Nazi–like slaughters of Jews and other minorities. Though the Polish seem open to reconsidering many elements of their country’s narrative, some issues remain untouchable.
Yet it is not only Polish history that is at stake in the current discussion of Jewish matters, and cases like the Jedwabne controversy naturally slip into larger political debates. Poland’s interest in Judaism is accompanied by what Eva Hoffman calls “virtual anti–Semitism,” which is aimed against a practically nonexistent Jewish community—less then 20,000 people. Despite the small size of Poland’s Jewry, 40 percent of the respondents to a 2004 survey believed that Poland was “still being governed by Jews.”
During my time in Poland, I came face–to–face with such a notion. One evening, at a friend’s apartment in Warsaw, Dominique, a young computer programmer, attempted to explain the difference between me, whom he saw as a rather agreeable person, and the people he called “the Jews.” “You see,” Dominique said, after having consumed a few beers, “here the Jews are trying to take over the government. And some of them even have Jewish ancestors.” To Dominique, this self–contradictory idea appeared completely logical.
Taken aback, I asked Dominique whom these quasi–Jews were taking power from. “From the Righteous,” he pronounced slowly. His words convinced me to change the topic before the conversation could descend to apocalyptic tones. Nonetheless, when we were discussing this incident later, a friend claimed that Dominique’s actual words had been “from the right wing.”
In certain segments of Polish society, the term “Jew” has been deprived of its original meaning and now refers to anyone who supports a liberal, cosmopolitan society. In Poland, like in many Eastern European countries, populist nationalist parties are gaining support as a result of public distaste for the growing reach of the European Union. And, in a new version of the myth of the Jewish conspiracy, the EU’s supporters—and proponents of its economic policies—are now labeled “Jews.”
The image of the Jew as a global conspirator derives from the notion of the Jew as a world citizen—the embodiment of the European intellectual. Czech intellectual Milan Kundera listed some of the most significant examples of this group—Freud, Husserl, Mahler, Kafka—when he wrote that:
“Indeed, no other part of the world has been so deeply marked by the influence of Jewish genius. Aliens everywhere and everywhere at home, lifted above national quarrels, the Jews in the twentieth century were the principal cosmopolitan, integrating element in Central Europe: they were its intellectual cement, a condensed version of its spirit, creators of its spiritual unity. That’s why I love the Jewish heritage and cling to it with as much passion and nostalgia as though it were my own.”
Kundera’s nostalgia is aimed less at the Jews themselves than at the vanished and perhaps fictitious European world that they have come to represent. To many, their presence in civil society symbolizes tolerance and intellectual exchange, fostering a place where citizens are fused by “spiritual unity.” It is an old–fashioned ideal of Europe, one arguably based on mythos rather than fact. Yet however flawed, it this ideal may be the guiding motive behind at least some of Poland’s recent interest in Jewish life.
Today’s Poland is acutely monolithic—95 percent of the population is Catholic, and 97.8 percent is ethnically Polish. To some, this homogenous environment is a serious threat to the existence of plurality of thought. In the speech that opens this essay, Sierakowski—the young politician—implores the Jews: “with one language, we cannot speak; with one religion, we cannot listen; with one colour, we cannot feel.” Poland’s embrace of Judaism is more than just a fashionable celebration of pluralism. Rather, it demonstrates a longing for a more diverse society, one that is able to accept difference—whether it comes from outside or resides within. Thus, the palm tree in Warsaw refers to the city’s Jewish past, but it does so in order to observe the citizens’ reactions to an exotic foreigner in their midst.
Above: Former synagogue in Poznan, Poland, converted into a swimming pool by the Nazis and still in use today. Local artist Rafal Jakubowicz used projectors to shine the Hebrew words for “Swimming Pool” on the building’s façade. Photo by Shir Alon.
SHIR ALON is a senior at the School of General Studies majoring in Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern Studies.