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.
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)