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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

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Jewish travel in Poland today

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Jewish Poland Revisited:
Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places
Erica Lehrer
Indiana University Press

In my detailed, richly illustrated but 10-year-old Polish travel guide, Kazi­mierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, warrants barely a mention. Erica Lehrer’s recent study offers dramatic proof of the changes in Polish-Jewish networks over the past decade and a half, while asking, too, what impact such changes will have on contemporary Jewish identity and culture.

Though Lehrer is interested in broader Polish developments, the focus of her research is Kazimierz, which, centuries ago, was a village on the outskirts of Krakow, but with time became a thriving Jewish quarter and a major portion of the old city. In 1939, its 45,000 Jews made up one-quarter of the royal city’s population.

Because the German military command was stationed in Krakow, its Renaissance-era buildings were spared the destruction that befell other major Jewish Polish centres such as Warsaw. However, the postwar decades of Soviet Communism took their toll – Nowa Huta, the monstrous steel plant on the outskirts of the city, was meant to draw workers away from the influence of Polish intellectuals and Catholic leaders.

Under the Polish Communists, Kazi­mierz’s stock of historic synagogues and churches, its prewar tenements, fell into disrepair, while ongoing questions about property ownership, created by the wartime massacre of the local population, left many buildings in real estate limbo, vacant and unsellable. Still, in 1978, ­UNESCO recognized Kazimierz as a world heritage site, honouring the value of what was an “architecturally intact, historic Jewish town.”

Jewish Poland Revisited is a book about present, not past, events in Kazimierz and though it must take into consideration the damage done by German occupation, it means to examine what Lehrer calls “Post-Holocaust reconciliation.” By this she means recent developments – most of them beginning in the early ’90s, the first post-Communist years – aimed at “reconnection and the creation of new networks that extend across the boundaries generated by group suffering.”

This phenomenon has many forms of expression, some of which Lehrer views with wholehearted hopefulness, while others raise questions and critique. She acknowledges that as early as the 1970s, Soviet-enforced censorship of Jewish organizations and cultural activity led to interest among non-Jewish Poles in “Jews and activities on their behalf” as part of a “progressive politics” of resistance to church and government power.

In the ’90s, pioneering efforts at cultural reconciliation, highlighted by Krakow’s annual Festival of Jewish Culture, along with nascent touring and guiding efforts by Poles, led to a changing atmosphere for Jewish-Polish dialogue.

One of the oddest chapters in the revival of Kazimierz came with the arrival in 1994 of Steven Spielberg and his crew of film technicians and Hollywood stars to make Schindler’s List. Spielberg chose Kazimierz for shooting his scenes, rather than Podgorze, the actual locale across the Vistula of the wartime Jewish ghetto and the Schindler factory. Re-created Jewish storefronts appeared in Kazimierz’s main square, and the neighbourhood attained cachet as a tourist site in part because of film sets left intact after their usefulness as set locations had past.

Now, at the actual Schindler building across the river, there is an excellent museum focused on the war years and Oskar Schindler’s activities. In Kazimierz, supported by increased tourism and the success of the cultural festival, there is real interest in the neighbourhood’s history, its remarkable architecture and its burgeoning heritage, café and musical culture.

Lehrer is also interested in reconciliation that seems to stand on ambiguous or even troubling ground, and this is most directly addressed in her chapter titled “Traveling Tschotschkes and ‘Post-Jewish’ Culture.”

The “tschotschkes” under discussion are the handiwork of a tradition of Polish woodcarvers, whose toy-sized subjects include a somewhat limited array of Polish Jewish types from the prewar era. Dressed in black yeshiva garb, or decked out with neatly reproduced fur chassidic shtreimlach, these figures predate recent tourism developments and are related to a Polish woodcarving tradition that embraces elaborate beehives and Christmas crèche scenarios. In a recent museum exhibit at the Ethnographic Museum in Krakow, Lehrer’s research led to a display of these carvings, alongside substantial in-house and online discussion of how such carvings might (or might not) represent a form of reconciliation between Poles and Jews.

Some visitors respond to the carvings’ presence in Kazimierz shops as they might to “black-faced lawn ornaments or tobacco-store Indians.” Others are ardent collectors and request purpose-made figures from better-known carvers. One of the carvers Lehrer interviews extensively has found a dedicated venue in the Szeroka Square Jarden bookstore, where he displays his increasing array of carved Jews: a minyan encircled by a single tallit, klezmorim, a man clutching a goose, a “rare couple embracing a row of children.”

The carvings can be seen as part of a large array of Jewish remnants on the Polish landscape, which include small- town synagogue buildings now used as libraries; restored cemetery grounds so completely desecrated by the Germans they appear today as rural parks; and, more troublingly, the ongoing discovery of Jewish gravestones in postwar structures and street paving.

The unquiet nature of Poland as a Jewish heritage place is changing rapidly, and Lehrer’s Jewish Poland Revisited is an up-to-date and detailed guide to the shifting landscape.

Norman Ravvin is co-organizer of the Lodz, Poland-based conference, Kanade, di goldene medine, taking place in April, 2014.

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