The Fallacy of Jewish History in Contemporary Poland
By Anna Sebree
Poland is a beautiful and complicated country. It is a country that boasts intellects, artists, and revolutionaries, while simultaneously emitting a cold chill of emptiness that seeps through the abandoned synagogues, former ghettos, and camp memorials. There is an insurmountable feeling of loss that cannot be shaken as the country grapples with remembrance and reconciliation. Cities like Krakow encompass Poland’s inner turmoil by playing host to numerous organizations designed to revive and celebrate Jewish culture, while concurrently hosting numerous businesses profiting off the exploitation of that same culture. To fully condemn a city like Krakow for its appropriation of Jewish culture would be to dismiss the industrious efforts of its inhabitants to preserve the memory of the Jewish community. To unequivocally praise Krakow for its work to safeguard the memory of Jews would be to turn a blind eye to the contemporary misuse of Jewish history. The city, like the country, cannot be summarized in black and white terms. It is not wholly good nor wholly bad, but rests tumultuously in the middle as it moves forwards and backwards all at the same time.
Today, as Polish cities work to reconcile with their treacherous past and begin to reintegrate Jewish culture into modern society, the peril of intentional fallacy threatens the authenticity of remembrance. Oxford Languages Dictionary defines fallacy as a mistaken belief, which is exactly what part of the juxtaposing population is trying to construct: a mistaken belief of a culture extinguished from the country some 80 years ago. In Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, the streets are lined with restaurants covered head-to-toe in portraits of “lucky Jews”. Tour guides ride around on golf carts giving people the ultimate “Big Three” experience: Auschwitz, the Salt Mines, and the old Jewish ghetto, while musicians play the theme song from Schindler’s List. Its insincerity gives Kazimierz an almost theme-park-like experience. The district is constructed so visitors mistakenly believe they are celebrating Jewish society, when in reality they are buying into a gimmick created by those who are more interested in the profits from appropriation than preservation. Shop signs in the district are designed to look original with Hebrew letters in order to entice people into their stores.
The Hamsa symbol is prevalent on countless advertisements, billboards, and menus. Bands play Klezmer music because it is what they think foreigners want to hear for the “authentic Jewish experience,” however there is nothing authentic about it. It is a fabricated experience built on the bones of a tragedy that has been exploited to make a buck; catered more toward naïve tourists than the small community of Jews that actually inhabit the city.
Unfortunately, the commercializing of Jewish culture does not end with Polish business owners; these struggles are further exacerbated by the disparaging role the Jewish Community of Krakow (JCK) plays in contemporary Jewish life. To quote tour guide and FestivALT co-director Michael Rubenfeld: “the JCK is made up of an old, wealthy family and run like the mob”. Instead of creating spaces where the limited Jewish community can attend regular services, the JCK imposed a ‘pay to pray’ entrance fee of 10 PLN to enter any synagogue. The profits from visiting tourists far outweigh the benefits of preserving a synagogue for its intended purpose.
Similarly, a restaurant called Hevre, once a Jewish synagogue, was converted into a bar at the approval of the JCK. The walls are covered in beautiful Jewish paintings and the name Hevre comes from the Hebrew word ‘Hevra’, which means Brotherhood or Society. To the untrained eye the bar looks like a contemporary way to celebrate Jewish culture and enjoy the pre-war history in an informal way. However, a closer look reveals the bar owner’s destruction of the ark, the most sacred space in a synagogue where the Torah is kept, despite major protests and petitions. In its place, the bar owners put a doorway, meaning patrons are walking through the ark to enter the building. The JCK approved the rental of the former synagogue to a bar that destroyed the integrity of the building, while keeping its sacred name, for the purpose of a more central entrance location.
This is not to say that things are all bad in Krakow. To contrast the appropriation and commercialization of Jewish culture, there are genuine agencies devoted to remembering Jewish history and experience in Krakow. Organizations like FestivALT use comedy and activism to highlight the issues with falsified portrayals of Jewish history. Projects like ‘Jew with a coin’ where members of FestivALT take photographs of themselves as “lucky Jews” and sell them as “authentic” good luck charms allow everyday Poles to engage with Jewish history and interact with real Jews. The project highlights the typical appropriation seen in Krakow and serves as a teaching moment for confronting stereotypes.
Another project FestivALT is considering is the ‘do-it-yourself Schindler’s List reenactment’ where tourists would be able to act out the scenes from Schindler’s List and take a copy home to show their friends. The purpose is to stress the irony of people who come to Krakow and are more interested in visiting the filming sites than learning about the history that the film was based on.
Another example of confronting Jewish history is the Galicia Jewish Museum, an exhibition and meeting space created to reconcile with the past and invite every person into a conversation about creating the future. These groups represent the desire felt in Poland for remembrance and rectification of Poland’s past. One of the many things that makes Poland so beautiful and complicated is how entrenched the country is in layers of new vs old, fallacy vs fact, and profit vs preservation. It is a country that is 1,100 years old and still figuring out who it is and who it wants to be.