In 2 short weeks I will be a tourist in Poland. A special kind of tourist – a Holocaust tourist. After visiting the death camps, I will browse the tourist shops that line the streets of Warsaw and Krakow. And as I survey the many chachkes and souvenirs, I will find the most popular attraction – the “little Jew” figurine. Crowded among the various angels, crosses and dwarfs at these tourists stands, the dominant and most popular item is a small figurine of a traditional Chasidic Jew. “Large nosed with sidelocks,” describes Katka Reszke, in her book Return of the Jew, “accompanied by a fiddle, a book, or a cane, they are often also holding or standing by a Polish penny coin-the one grosz.” (Reszke at 41) This figurine, she explains, is a ubiquitous Polish good luck charm! What has the world come to?
Non-Jews in Poland seem taken with things Jewish, as they try to come to terms with their brutal history and the mystique of the murdered Jews. For example, there is a project created by the Polish artist Rafal Betlejewski, called “I miss you. Jew.” Betlejewski compiled a list of cities and towns where Jews used to live. He then visited these places and took “photos of individuals and groups standing beside an empty chair with a skull cap on it as a sign of Jewish absence.” (Id. at 40-41)
Betlejewski is not alone, Jewish arts have taken off in Poland. Besides the many Jewish festivals, with the Krakow Jewish festival leading the way, there is a Warsaw Jewish Theater. This is a Polish theater with non-Jewish actors who put on performances in Yiddish for other non-Jews. Here actors can be seen “moaning and swaying” trying to “ape Hasidism . . . transmitting anti-Semitic stereotypes.” This theater groups performs at the annual “Singer’s Warsaw Festival,” named for the great Yiddish author of the 20th Century, Isaac Bashevis Singer (Id. at 38) Reszke explains that “there isn’t a week or perhaps a day in Poland without a ‘Jewish event’ happening somewhere.” (Id. at 37) All of these events seem to create some kind of “virtual Jewish reality” based on the Fiddler on the Roof stereotype. Non-Jewish Poles seem to think this is very cool. Imagine — thousands of non-Jews doing Jewish circle dancing to Klezmer music and eating “kosher-style” food in the streets of Krakow each year.
If the non-Jews see Judaism as an extension of Tevya’s town of Anatevka, the real live Jews of Poland, do not resemble Tevya or Golda at all. They are young, modern, and trying to figure out what it means to be a Jew in Poland. While the Gentiles attend Yiddish theater, the Jews attend a Limmud conference (800 participants in 2012) and the Simcha Jewish Culture Festival organized in Wroclaw since 1999. (Id. at 39-40) While the Krakow Jewish festival is going on out in the streets, they go inside the Jewish Community Center where Jews organize alternative activities, such as lectures and Shabbat meals. (37) Alex (names of all interviewees are changed in book) stated the issue quite well:
“The Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow is very typical with regard to the Polish attitudes to Jewish themes, that is the growing conviction of many Poles in metropolitan areas that Jewishness and Jewish culture are ‘cool,’ but what they have in mind is a Jewish culture in the form of Fiddler on the Roof or Galician Klezmer bands. And so when you mention Jewish roots, the image they [the Poles] have in front of them has nothing to do with the life of young Polish Jews, and to some extent people are shocked that one can be a young Polish Jew and not have sidelocks and be a regular young person.” (Id. at 127-128)
Reszke, who herself discovered her Jewish roots as a teenager, interviewed 50 young Polish Jews in the early 1990’s about how they discovered that they have Jewish roots and what this new identity means to them. For example, Alex states:
“I think an important characteristic of Polish Jewish identity is the fact that we socialize through relationships with our peers, that we are a generation which didn’t have family Pesach Seders and for the most of us one of the basic experiences in the transmission of Jewish identity was the first Passover Seder organized by some of our more experienced peers.” (Id. at 91)
They each had slightly different experiences of discovery, but all seem genuinely thrilled and many believe that it was fate – they somehow knew it all along and the news resonated deeply.
Some, like Alex, knew that they were Jewish:
“Our parents told us about the family secret, but they didn’t give us any direction . . . they left us all alone with this, thinking that it’s enough to just tell, but they didn’t show us any way to deal with it . . . “(Id. at 91)
Others were told by a parent or grandparent when they were a teenager. Like Wiktor who stated:
“We were traveling by train together. And I told my dad I was gay, and in return he told me he was Jewish . . . It was exciting for me! (Id. at 85)
Eryk stated: “You know, I was relieved, I always felt that there was something wrong with me . . . and this Jewish identity really suited me best.” (Id.)
These young Jews have a sense of mission that runs deep. After so many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, they feel a sense of duty to stay in Poland and rebuild the Jewish community. One of the quotes that hit me in the gut was from Max:
“To be a Jew, to be a Jew from here, yes, Warsaw, from this city where you walk on corpses, where you walk on human skulls, yes. . . This is no ordinary city, this is the New Jerusalem . . . . It is that feeling that this is your legacy that you cannot forget, that it is important and that nobody will remember it for you. I have a part in the legacy of the Holocaust and my part in it is to try to understand. I ought to, I feel that I should, I feel this responsibility, this duty . . . to remember, to think about it, to understand, and to somehow transmit that memory. It is some kind of absurd reaffirmation of the covenant.” (Id. at 108)
But it gets complicated quickly. Under Orthodox Jewish law, one is considered a Jew if one is born of a Jewish mother or converts according to Halacha (Jewish law). So, those whose Jewish roots stem from their father’s side may be Jewish enough for Hitler to murder, but they are not Jewish enough for many Israeli and diaspora Jews. The first thing they hear when they explain that their father is Jewish, but not their mother, is “But you’re not really Jewish!” This is devastating for them. As Brozena stated:
“As a Polish Jew I didn’t feel recognized or respected enough by American institutions and of course not by Israeli institutions . . . it was as if we were second-quality Jews.” (Id. at 121)
These young people identify themselves as Jews. They are involved in different aspects of the ever more vibrant Polish Jewish community. Further, they do not seem terribly bothered by the still present anti-Semitism in Poland. (Id. at 175-77) This surprised me because the studies show that “in Poland, the belief in a Jewish conspiracy remains high – 63% in 2013 – and relatively unchanged from 2009 when 65% of respondents held this belief. The study also found an 8 percent increase in more traditional forms of anti-Semitism, including blaming Jews for the murder of Jesus Christ and the belief that Christian blood is used in Jewish rituals. Some 23% were found to hold such traditional, religious-based beliefs about Jews.” (Forward – Anti-Semitism)
These are anti-Semitic mantras that have been hurled at Jews with much destructive force over the centuries. But the Jew that has returned to Poland is moving forward into the 21st century. Some of them are choosing to convert, some are not. Some men are choosing to have a circumcision, some are not. It’s all about the Jewish blood running through their veins. When Holocaust tourists like me meet these young Polish Jews, we are confronted with the past we know and the future that we did not know was possible. It is up to them to shape the future and make it their own.
For a wonderful piece on You Tube – see Jewish Life in Modern-Day Poland
As the Jew returns to Poland, she will be cheered on by the non-Jews who think being Jewish is cool. Even Lech Walesa, the former President of Poland, thinks being Jewish is cool. He recently posted on Facebook that he regrets that he is not Jewish and that he “would like to be a part of the Chosen People but [he is] not.” (Forward – Walesa) Well Lech, be sure to buy your “little Jew” figurine – it will bring you good luck.
Reszke, Katka. Return of the Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland. Boston, Massachusetts. Academic Studies Press. 2013.
Polish Polls Reveals Stubborn Anti-Semitism Amid Jewish Revival Hopes, by Don Snyder in Forward on line – Jan. 18, 2014. http://forward.com/news/world/191155/poland-poll-reveals-stubborn-anti-semitism-amid-je/#ixzz4AjPJLqyy
Former Polish President Regrets That He Is Not Jewish, By JTA. Forward. MAY 1, 2016: http://forward.com/news/breaking-news/339740/former-polish-president-says-he-regrets-he-is-not-jewish/#ixzz4AjVFweEs
For further reading, see:
Chasing Ghosts, Reviving Spirits, The Fall And Rise Of Poland’s Jews, By Jane Eisner. Forward. 11/30/14. http://forward.com/news/world/209962/chasing-ghosts-reviving-spirits-the-fall-and-rise/#ixzz4AjSrc9kK
The Polish Hipster Who Found Out He’s Jewish And Reclaimed Warsaw Building, By, Ofer Aderet (Haaretz). Forward. April 3, 2016.
Reasserting and Redefining Jewish Culture in Poland, By Ginanne Brownell. New York Times. June 5, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/06/arts/06iht-poleculture06.html