Jewish Cultural Revival in Poland: A New Remedy to Poland’s ‘Phantom Pain’? *

by Marta Łomża

Singer’s Warsaw is great fun. The one street that survived the two wartime uprisings and the post-war demolitions is dressed in posters and fairy lights, its normally empty ground floors turned into shops, lecture spaces and coffee shops. It is hard to make one’s way through the thick crowd. There is a dance workshop and an art exhibition, and in the evening an open air concert, the blue lights rendering the space almost unreal.

Singer’s Warsaw is one of a number of ‘Jewish festivals’ organized each summer all around Poland, mostly in major cities. The most famous one is probably in Krakow, having grown from a modest one-day event into a week of concerts, lectures and exhibitions which last year attracted 300 thousands visitors.

These festivals are a sign of a growing interest in the Jewish heritage in Poland. They are just part of the phenomenon. As the impressive building of the Museum of Polish Jews is getting close to completion, its online version, Virtual Shtetl, is expanding its database of personal stories from Poland’s Jewish past – mostly contributed by volunteers. Universities which once pioneered classes in Jewish-Polish history now offer them as full degrees.

According to official statistics, there are about 1000 Jews in Poland, although unofficial calculations reach over 100 thousand. Either way, that does not constitute a substantial group in a country of 38 million. But the fascination with the Jewish history is prevalent not just among Jewish people themselves; it is shared by Poles regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

In a way, it seems to be a fashion for young intellectuals, the ‘done thing’ among university students and graduates, same as reading Slavoj Žižek or going to Krystian Lupa’s plays. But there is surely another dimension to this striking phenomenon. Young people who have grown up in this very homogenous society are the same ones who have studied, lived and worked abroad, and who might have a sense of longing for a more culturally diverse environment. Re-enacting the past, resurrecting an old culture that once existed on the same streets they walk every day, offers a surrogate of that.

And it is a safe exercise, as well. It is a culture resurrected, not an existing one; a cultural trinket, not living history. As such, it has none of the threatening foreignness and distinctiveness of the famed ‘Other’, because those who perform its rituals have no intention of actually living it every day. That Other has been adopted, adapted, and rendered ‘ours’. There is that other culture to be enjoyed but there are no people who could be seen as cultural or economic competition.

Singer's Warsaw

Singer’s Warsaw (source: shalom.org.pl)

But is it all there is to it? Or perhaps it is more than a hedonistic rejoicing in cultural diversity? Perhaps it is the opposite – an emotional katharsis for the society which still has not coped with its demons from the past. Yes, the historical societies organize conferences and publish articles and books about inconvenient truths pertaining to the Polish relationship with their Jewish neighbours. A recent film on the same subject, Pokłosie, has gathered accolades from critics and insults from nationalists, both a testimony to its high value. But that way of dealing with the society’s sins can often be too demanding, and offering very little in return, posing more questions than answers. Maybe partaking in film festivals and cultural events offers an easier path to sociohistorical expiation.

In 2010, an acclaimed artistic project had the words ‘I miss you, Jew’, sprayed on the outside walls of Warsaw’s art galleries. “It aimed at exposing my feeling of longing for our Jewish neighbours”, the project’s creator Rafał Betlejewski told the media. But it was also aimed at making the word “Żyd” – Jew – emotionally neutral. In Poland it is mostly associated with antisemitic graffiti and used by football hooligans as an insult. Betlejewski’s project was unusual in that it did not deal with the manifestations of antisemitism from the past but with those from the present. Time to stop trying to pay for the sins of our grandfathers, it seemed to say, and deal with our own instead. Time to change the society, and to make room for that well-known Other.

Perhaps, then, this path is not easier than that of historians analysing events from Jedwabne. Maybe taking part in these artistic and cultural projects takes more courage than carrying out historical research into Polish crimes against their Jewish neighbours during the war. Maybe it is a sign not of a cheap and shallow moral katharsis for the masses but that of the awakening sensitivity and sensibility in dealing with the society’s present problems rather than their historic roots.

*In Poland, a Jewish Revival Thrives — Minus Jews (NY Times, 2007) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/12/world/europe/12krakow.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

More to read:

– Jewish life slowly returns to Poland (BBC, 2012)
Jewish cultural revival in Poland: where does it come from?     http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-radio-and-tv-17741185

– A Jewish cultural revival – minus the Jews (Haaretz, 2012)
http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/a-jewish-cultural-revival-minus-the-jews.premium-1.472487

4 comments

  1. As I have heard, Pokłosie is not based on real events at all. Otherwise your article is quite interesting.

  2. Rafael Gurbisz · · Reply

    interesting read, and a good read…however, you pride yourself with

    “high research standards”

    …well i think there is this one point where this argument seems to crumble.

    “Pokłosie, has gathered accolades from critics and insults from nationalists, both a testimony to its high value.”

    for this post to be fair & balanced you should point out that it has also received criticism from many renowned critics (of which one you can find in the link at the end of this comment) for its sloppiness and low educational value. A film where stereotypes and generalisations, using the very same methods, as by the German Nazi occupiers between 1939-1945, completely undermine its purpose of educating and starting a reasonable and much needed serious discussion, thus creating negative repercussions, and as a result, counter-productive ill-feelings. This sensitive topics need to be dealt with in a serious, responsible and educational manner, based on historical facts, figures, testimonies and not on a book written by Jan T. Gross who is known for twitching facts, figures and letting his fantasy take over when it comes to his own agenda (as historians and investigative journalists undermine his findings published his controversial book, links below). A soap opera format film about such a serious topic, doesn’t serve the debate, but deserves to be treated with respect in order to find a solution.

    “insults from nationalists” … generalisations… I’m not even going to go into that…somehow reminiscent of methods from the past…

    Historians from the National Institute of Remembrance and investigative journalists on Jan T. Gross’ book “Złote żniwa”
    http://www.rp.pl/artykul/629682.html (Polish)
    http://www.rp.pl/artykul/623119.html (Polish)
    http://www.rp.pl/artykul/611725.html (Polish)

    Critic on the film “Pokłosie”
    niezalezna.pl/34684-pospieszalski-o-paszkwilu-poklosie (Polish)

  3. Thank you for your comments, we’ll make sure to pass them on to the author so she can address them. Best, CtB team.

    1. Dear Rafael,
      Thank you for your comments. I admit that saying ‘Pokłosie has gathered accolades from critics and insults from nationalists’ was a generalisation and I apologize if I offended you or anyone else. The statement I made was a result not of insufficient research but more of a desire to contain a complex issue within a few words which resulted in a distorted picture. I should have specified which critics I had in mind; saying criticism came from ‘nationalists’ was insensitive of me; and the whole statement painted an incomplete picture of how the film has been received in Poland.
      That said, this article was not meant to be either a review of Pokłosie or a synopsis of its reviews. I merely wished to signal that such a film has been made and that the responses it has caused have been extremely varied, although always very emotional. For the moment, I would like to restrain from declaring my own sentiments or opinions about ‘Pokłosie’; I do hope we will post our own review soon and we will welcome your insightful comments there.

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