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Racist kitsch begs a deeper question – can Jews really be part of Poland?

Not far from where the infamous Krakow Ghetto gates once stood, Jewish caricatures are for sale. Wikimedia Commons

Racist kitsch begs a deeper question – can Jews really be part of Poland?

During a recent trip to Poland, I came across curious tiny figurines in many market stalls inside the famous Cloth Hall, Krakow. They were good luck charms in the shape of Hasidic Jews, with their long beards and side locks (or peyus). Why were they on sale? Hasidic Jews are a rarely seen phenomenon in contemporary Polish life, so was this what contemporary Poles brought home from Krakow?

The Little Jews of Poland. Author provided

Perhaps these “Little Jews” were reminders of the once vibrant multicultural life of Krakow and Poland before communism and World War Two destroyed all traces of the past? Or perhaps Poles thought that the new wave of Jewish tourists to their country in search of Jewish roots were a prime market? Who knows?

Each Little Jew carries a shiny gold coin, or bright orange money bag. You are supposed to rub the coin or money bag and this will bring you good luck. Apparently, these cute Little Jews, and their perceived money making abilities, will rub off on you!

Our new Krakovian Jewish friends laughed, and suggested we turn them upside down. As they explained, “Polish people think that any money remaining in the Little Jews pockets will fall out into yours!” This added another even more deeply disturbing antisemitic element regarding Jews and their money: Jews both hide their money and hold onto it.

The few Poles I met weren’t worried by such images. Either they were unaware of their rather alarming antisemitic overtones (it brought to mind the lack of reaction I received when giving a paper there recently on representations of Jews in Central Europe before 1914) or they ignored such touristy gimmicks as anything other than cute and savvy marketing.

But do Poles really hate Jews? Education researcher Magdalena Gross suggests that some Polish teenagers, without any Jews living there to tell them otherwise, are at best ambivalent about them.

As you wander around Krakow, viewing the revived and renovated Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. You can listen to Klezmer music played by Klezmer bands, yet no band member is Jewish. You can sit in one of many Jewishly-named restaurants or cafes and eat traditional Jewish food (including a rare sighting of matzah, served in bread baskets as if a pre-dinner cracker), yet no customers are Jewish. The Polish staff appear nonchalant about how this may all seem to a Jewish foreigner. Young Poles think this is all just cutting-edge cool.

In this Disneyland-like creation of a mythical Jewish past, the thought that there are hardly any Jews in Poland any more triggers bittersweet feelings. In Krakow for instance, on the eve of World War Two, one quarter of the population was Jewish. Or to put it another way, 65,000 Jews once lived in Krakow, and roughly a hundred or so identify as Jews now, although there are likely many thousands more with Jewish roots.

There are seven synagogues still standing, of which three are now in use, along with a remarkable 16th century Jewish cemetery – all mostly renovated with the help of overseas Jewish donations. On the way to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I mentioned to our very young non-Jewish driver that I was Jewish and my great-grandparents had come from this part of the Hapsburg Empire way back in 1832. He hardly blinked an eye.

A tower in former German Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Approximately one in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died in the camp. Reuters/Pawel Ulatowski

Were they all weary of such stories associated with these blood-soaked lands, or were they simply not interested in a narrative from a time and place that seemed so long gone?

Neither curious nor upset, many young Poles appeared somewhat neutral regarding the subject of Jewish history. In Poland, issues of restitution and recognition of property that was once Jewish are still touchy. The building of the impressive new POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, with its interactive exhibition spaces, and established where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood, have only begun to address such complex matters. So far, legal battles over Jewish property in Poland bears similarities to Austria and Hungary, countries that have a terrible track record on these issues.

Often, as Patricia Cohen wrote in her New York Times article on Austrian restitution and the “Women in Gold”, the reaction by governments and museum officials have systematically frustrated attempts to return stolen assets and art to original owners.

The two Americans I met in Krakow who had just secured a plaque in their grandparents’ Hungarian winery, spoke of the anguish it had caused their aging mother, a child survivor. When asked by Rueters, if the plaque gave her some peace, her daughter answered: “How can you ever have peace after your country deports you … and sends you through the gates of hell?”

The Warsaw Ghetto memorial, directly opposite the POLIN Museum. It commemorates an uprising in the largest of the Jewish ghettos established by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

In Krakow, where Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie Schindler’s List was set and filmed, and the very reason for the renaissance of sorts in Jewish Kazimierz, hardly anyone seems to remember that the concentration camp, Plaszow, lay just across the Vistula river. When you visit POLIN in Warsaw, the entrance sits opposite the 1948 monument to the 1943 Ghetto Uprising.

The history of what happened to Polish Jewry appears palpable. You can nearly visualise a bright 21st century future where Jews and Poles can again live together, but then there aren’t quite enough Jews left to warrant that vision.

More than half of all Jews murdered during the Holocaust once lived in Poland. A staggering 89% of Poland’s pre-war Jewish population of 3.3 million were murdered during the period of the Nazi occupation. It’s the single most horrific moment in the thousand years of Jewish life in Poland, and all of Jewish history.

Modern Polish national identity, forged by the division of Poland in 1772 between the three major empires of the 18th century – Prussia, Russia and the Austro-Hungary – remade in the Polish Republic from 1919 to 1939, and again in 1989, still has a long way to go in healing the shattered relationship with Polish Jewry. The Little Jews do little to help repair that historic breach.

These Little Jews are ghosts of Poland’s Jewish past, a strange netherworld of Polish memory. Here antisemitic stereotypes of Jews and money coalesce with a desire to conjure up a romantic past of Polish-Jewish symbiosis, where Polish Jews once lived and worked in apparent harmony with their non-Jewish neighbours. It’s a strangely jarring and eerie paradox in light of the lack of Jews living in contemporary Poland.