Jew­ish Poland Revis­it­ed: Her­itage Tourism in Unqui­et Places

Eri­ca T. Lehrer
  • Review
By – December 10, 2013

Poland! What a hor­ri­ble coun­try! Why would you ever want to go there?” a Jew­ish acquain­tance chal­lenged Eri­ca Lehrer more than twen­ty years ago. That reac­tion, accord­ing to the author of this thought-pro­vok­ing book, was not unusu­al then — or now. Poland is felt by many Jews to be unique­ly des­e­crat­ed as the site of an almost incom­pre­hen­si­ble amount of Jew­ish mur­der,” she writes. For Jew­ish vis­i­tors, a trip to Poland with­out an expe­ri­ence of anti-Semi­tism would be incomplete.”

But Lehrer, an anthro­pol­o­gist who has vis­it­ed Poland many times, rejects that view. In Jew­ish Poland Revis­it­ed, she exca­vates for­got­ten his­to­ry and dis­cuss­es sur­pris­ing recent devel­op­ments— includ­ing the large num­ber of Jew­ish tourists com­ing to Poland and the grow­ing inter­est among non-Jew­ish Poles in Jews and Judaism. Although Lehrer has writ­ten an aca­d­e­m­ic, ethno­graph­ic study of her­itage tourism,” she has also deliv­ered an impas­sioned plea for a re-exam­i­na­tion of the Pol­ish-Jew­ish rela­tion­ship. She bold­ly asserts that Poland — the epi­cen­ter of the destruc­tion of Euro­pean Jew­ry — is now a key site for the regen­er­a­tion, reartic­u­la­tion, and rede­f­i­n­i­tion not only of a local Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, but of inven­tive, hybrid ideas of post-Holo­caust Jew­ish­ness itself.”

Lehrer first vis­it­ed Poland in 1990, a year after the col­lapse of Com­mu­nism across East­ern Europe. She arrived in Krakow dur­ing the sec­ond annu­al Fes­ti­val Kul­tu­ry Zydowskiej (Jew­ish Cul­ture Fes­ti­val) — an event today in its 25th year. The fes­ti­val star­tled her, with its many Jew­ish-themed events pre­sent­ed to a coun­try with a minis­cule Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion (at the time, below 5,000 nation­wide). She won­dered, what — and why — were these Poles celebrating?

Lehrer returned numer­ous times, mak­ing her home base in Kaz­imierz, the his­tor­i­cal­ly Jew­ish quar­ter of Krakow where the fes­ti­val is held. There she dis­cov­ered Jew­ish-themed cafes, restau­rants, book­stores, gift shops, and Jew­ish-themed tours. Much of this renais­sance of Jew­ish­ness, she says, was due to the efforts of non-Jew­ish zam­lers—her term for ama­teur col­lec­tors of Yid­dish cul­ture and folklore.”

As she did her research, Lehrer sensed that many locals were attempt­ing to make sense of the oth­er’” — to come to terms with what had been lost by the destruc­tion of Pol­ish Jew­ry. This is not such an easy thing to do in a coun­try that is still sort­ing out its guilt, respon­si­bil­i­ty, anger, fears,” she remarks.

Along the way, she encoun­ters mem­bers of the tiny, aging Pol­ish Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, and dis­cov­ers numer­ous gen­tile Poles cau­tious­ly explor­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty that they might be of Jew­ish descent. Lehrer also close­ly observes some of the thou­sands of Jew­ish tourists — includ­ing bois­ter­ous­ly nation­al­is­tic Israeli high school stu­dents on mis­sion trav­el, and scorn­ful Amer­i­cans only inter­est­ed in find­ing exam­ples of local anti-Semitism.

Over the years, Lehrer — now a pro­fes­sor at Con­cor­dia Uni­ver­si­ty in Mon­tre­al — becomes attached to Poles par­tic­i­pat­ing in this reviv­i­fi­ca­tion of Jew­ish­ness: She calls the non-Jew­ish own­ers of the Jar­dem Jew­ish Book­store in Kaz­imierz her adop­tive par­ents in the field.” The cou­ple even names their new­born daugh­ter Ery­ka in trib­ute to their rela­tion­ship with Lehrer.

Jew­ish Poland Revis­it­ed is a valu­able book for any­one head­ed to Poland — or per­haps to any her­itage tourism” loca­tion. And because it rais­es pro­found ques­tions about Jew­ish engage­ment with oth­er eth­nic­i­ties, I sus­pect it will pro­voke reflec­tion even in those with no inter­est in leav­ing home. Appen­dix, bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, maps, notes, photos.

Relat­ed Content:

Ira Wolf­man is a writer and edi­tor with a deep inter­est in Jew­ish his­to­ry. He is the author of Jew­ish New York: Notable Neigh­bor­hoods, Mem­o­rable Moments (Uni­verse Books) and the own­er of POE Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a con­sult­ing firm that spe­cial­izes in edu­ca­tion­al publishing.

Discussion Questions