Sitting in a dimly lit salon in Krakow, Poland in 1992, I am surrounded by paintings of rabbis and Yeshiva-boys on the walls, menorahs on the mantels and sills. Behind me, at a long table, a party of Germans is served plate after plate of matzoh and "Jewish-style fish." My Polish friend is singing along with the band — skullcap-wearing Catholic Poles doing an earnest "Shtetele Belz," a Yiddish anthem to pre-war small-town Jewish life. I am sure I am the only Jew in the place.

    In 1939 there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland — a world within a world, with a distinct language and culture. When the Nazis fled in 1945, there were only 300,000 Jews left. After Communist-era purges, almost none remained.

    Today the Poles inhabit a landscape imprinted by Jewish life and death. Where paint peels from building facades, Hebrew letters are revealed. Polish villagers stand in the doorways of their homes, their shoulders resting just below clear impressions of the mezuzahs (Hebrew prayer scrolls in tiny cases) once nailed there, covered by a few layers of paint. Ancient synagogues, ritual baths, theaters, shops and cemeteries often crumbling and overgrown, stand in the centers of towns, testimony to a once flourishing Jewish life. And the rolling countryside is here and there interrupted by former concentration camps, mass graves, and an occasional road still paved with Jewish tombstones.

    This Catholic country of 39 million has a Jewish population today of only a few thousand, mostly aged individuals — but myths about Jews, which do not match the reality, persist. The vast majority of the post-war generation of Poles has never met a Jew, but enduring anti- Semitism indicates that "the Jew" has a firm place in the Polish psychological landscape. With capitalism, however, "the Jew" has also become a commodity available for consumption and entertainment in the forms of "kosher" vodka, beer, and mineral water; the aforementioned "Jewish- style" cafes owned and staffed by non-Jews (at times in putatively Jewish costume) serving Jewish foods; Jewish dolls in traditional garb, Jewish bookstores and art galleries selling cookbooks, guidebooks, and new and antique "artifacts" such as menorahs an fragments of Jewish tombstones.

    This marketing of the Jewish past also includes the opportunity to consume tragedy. Ads for trips to Auschwitz are plastered on kiosks beside posters for movies like Jurassic Park, and are included in packages of "everyday regular tours." At the concentration camp site, visitors can walk the "sight-seeing route," or purchase ice cream and drinks, along with postcards of crematoria, gas chambers, and barbed wire set against a Polish sunset. In Krakow, one can take a Schindler's List Tour, including a visit to the concentration camp movie set which features a road paved with cement-cast Jewish "tombstones."


    A long silence

    There has been a long silence regarding the Jewish past in Poland. Fifty years of Communist propaganda, religious and political myth, and a general absence of actual Jews has led to a sort of social amnesia. The post-1989 flood of "Jewish" commercial imagery is one piece of the very complex puzzle of Polish-Jewish history and relations, as well as of post-communist social transition. Such imagery threatens to perpetuate forgetting by drowning out historical complexity — as well as any concept of contemporary, living Jews — with kitsch and death. The commerce in Jewish "culture" is most likely fueled by an inseparable mix of Polish sentiment, Jewish tourism, and American-style commercialism, and is by no means the last word on the "Jewish scene" in Poland.

    My exhibit focuses on the marketing aspect because of its high visibility and "modern" orientation, and because it resonates with current issues in the U.S. Though there are clear differences, I liken the Polish-Jewish phenomenon to that of Native American imagery in the U.S., where sports-team logos depicting grinning "Injuns" and brand images like "Crazy Horse" beer abound, while few of us are engaged with the actual, historical plight of America's real Indians. As James Young suggests, "In the age of mass memory production and consumption... there seems to be an inverse proportion between the memorialization of the past and its contemplation and study."[1]


    Selling the past, buying the future

    Who ultimately makes culture, and who owns it? Do "artificial" creations become the raw material of future "authentic" culture? Commercial cultural products may be re-assimilated by both Poles and visiting Jews, becoming part of our understanding of the histories and identities of both groups. Thus, just as Native Americans in the U.S. today often relearn their traditions not from direct contact with their forebears, but from anthropologists (and perhaps from Hollywood), so too, demographic and cultural discontinuity caused by the Holocaust has created a situation whereby Poles who never knew Jews are selling a Jewish past to Jews who were severed from "that" past. Jewish tourism to Poland, by enhancing the market, appears to be a significant factor in this phenomenon, connecting the two groups and places in a sort of symbiotic antagonism. Along with Germans and Japanese, Jews eat "Jewish-style fish," take the Schindler's List Tour, and bring home carved Jewish dolls in traditional Chasidic garb. If Jewish tourists help to sustain this industry, they must have use for the stereotypical image of their past and culture on some level. The renegotiation of identity in post-communist Poland may be entangled with parallel psychological needs of Jewish tourists. Considering areas of symbiosis between Jewish and Polish memory allows us to explore beyond the traditional themes of conflict.


    Photographs: questions and possibilities

    On my first visit to Poland in 1990 everything I saw astounded me. I was ravenous with my camera, snapping photos of anything that seemed like it might have been Jewish. I have returned many times to continue looking, attempting to capture something that was lost to me, personally, as well as something that was lost to Poland. My focus began to change from old remnants to new products, and — as the interconnections begin to reveal themselves — to the ironic abutment of the two.

    The scattered Jewish images in the Polish landscape provide a window into the complex relationship between memory and identity. The artifactual world is a site where memory is made visible; what is selected for remembering (through creation, display, sale and purchase), and what left neglected says much about how a people conceives of itself.

    Though photographs can have some of the same problems as the commercial imagery they depict, de- contextualizing and draining the life out of a scene, they also have the ability to animate, and to provoke reflection about things which, though they are in front of our faces, are somehow invisible. "And I Still See Their Faces," a public exhibit in Warsaw this spring, which displayed some of the thousands of photographs submitted in response to public calls to Poles to submit old photographs of Jewish life, is a case in point. These personal pictures of Jews from attics and albums of non-Jews reflect a ghostly world which continues to have an insistent presence in Poland. Making that presence visible to the populace has a powerful effect. The appearance of 4,000 visitors on the opening night of the exhibit is evidence that people crave such experiences. We need to explore what kinds of images, in what contexts, provoke what James Young terms constructive "memory-work," for whom, and which kinds of images have the opposite effect.

    It is difficult not to feel cynical about the many commercial images of phantom Jews in Poland. Nonetheless, I am inspired by the possibilities of this moment of transition in Poland, and the sudden openness, curiosity, and excitement about the past. Perhaps the contours of the interlocking pieces of Polish and Jewish history will be discerned, and a fuller picture will be revealed.


    Erica Lehrer is a graduate student in Anthropology. An exhibition of her photographs from Poland, taken between 1990 and 1994, was shown at the University in Fall, 1996.

      1. James Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. Yale University Press, 1993. return to text