“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 Montréal — 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.