By Saul Golubcow
Picture the following: Last summer in Kazimierz — a historical district in Krakow, Poland, that was once a thriving Jewish center before its obliteration during the Holocaust — a street theater performance of “Lucky Jew” was taking place in which an actor dressed in stereotypical Jewish, pre-Holocaust garb. He sat with a ledger, an inkwell and a quill pen in a set resembling a picture frame. The live scene emulated folk paintings popular in Poland today.
Using conversation and attempts at humor to engage passersby, the actor offered good fortune in exchange for a few Polish zlotys. The exchange ended with the customer invited to reach through the frame and give a rub to a Jewish beard.
I came across this act by reading a piece syndicated in various Jewish newspapers entitled “Festival organizers in Krakow ask: Who speaks for Jewish culture?” which covered the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, a music and arts venue that has taken place each summer over the last 27 years in Kazimierz and last year attracted an estimated 30,000 visitors. While the thrust of the article discusses the reemergence of a Jewish presence in Kazimierz, significant attention is given to the performance of “Lucky Jew.”
The article left me unsettled and angry. I felt a mockery taking place. I couldn’t comprehend how the depiction of a grotesque, anti-Semitic stereotype of a Shylock-like character can purport to speak at all for “Jewish culture” within a festival that tries to celebrate a growing Jewish presence in post-Holocaust Poland. Even the explanation of the play’s creator that his intention was for a “meaningful interaction not with a Jewish stereotype, rather a real living Jew made approachable through a play on a stereotype” left me baffled and no less irritated.
But when my pique somewhat abated, I realized that while I could write off “Lucky Jew” as one instance of bad taste, I was wrangling with more generalized conflicts. Anthropologist Erica Lehrer addresses these personal and group tensions in her 2013 book, which happens to center on Kazimierz, “Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places.” Lehrer examines the “intersection” of Jewish and Polish memory of the Holocaust and suggests ways both parties can come to terms with the past by creating equilibriums through shared spaces, artistic endeavors, scholarship and dialogue. Lehrer is dispassionate and optimistic, believing that a Jewish/Polish reconciliation may occur at the ground zero of Jewish annihilation, where Jews, for some just a lifetime ago, made up 30 percent of the population.
My parents’ nightmare-riddled, Holocaust-induced screams of my youth are still with me. So when I read of “reconciliation,” I shudder thinking that such a process calls on both parties to be present. If I were to participate, I would be nothing more than a surrogate representing my murdered family members whose voices can never be heard again. Sitting at the reconciliation table across from my non-Jewish interlocutors, I would in my own voice — derivative of family members I never was able to experience — extend appreciation for the sensitivity and desire to move forward but insist that everyone acknowledge Holocaust truths for which commissions are not needed to establish the facts.
From the Nuremburg to the Eichmann trials, the bestiality of the Nazi-directed war of annihilation against the Jews, with the help of willing henchmen, has been seared in the historical annals of human atrocities. My father’s testimony is also within me. During the first day of Shavuot 1942, five German SS butchers, along with a handful of Polish collaborators, rounded up 1,600 Jews in the ghetto of Miyory, my father’s small town in Eastern Poland. They made them dig a mass grave, and machine-gunned them. While the mind’s ear can hear their sobs and shrieks, these victims can say nothing more at a reconciliation table.
As part of the reemergence, I am terribly saddened by the trading in Holocaust nostalgia which corrupts the memory of the Jews of Kazimierz or Miyory. Pictures, artifacts or writings created prior to the exterminations are appropriately kept as family treasures, stored with reverence and for didactic purpose in museums, or reviewed for scholarly work. Not so for the promotion of “Schindler’s List” tours, the financial advancement of “heritage brokers,” the “Lucky Jew” misrepresentation, or the tawdry hawking of Holocaust “memorabilia” such as the mass-produced “Rabbi” figurines sold in the Kazimierz festival markets.
The figurines are not only produced in miniature but, worse, miniaturize and make wooden the lives of their subjects. How is it that for the worst genocide in history a market in memorabilia is made? How would we feel at an exhibit marking the Rwandan massacres seeing carvings of smiling Tutsis in tribal attire, or of the Cambodian genocide viewing happy Buddhas with hands on their stomachs?
What I find even more difficult to digest are statements such as the one made by the director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, that the Kazimierz festival is “a rebirth of this 700-year-old Jewish community.” Every fiber in me trembles in rejection of this thought, that out of the Holocaust ashes any Phoenix-like rebirth of Jewish life has sprung. The term we use to describe the establishment of Israel in 1948 is not a “rebirth” but a return to Zion and the rightful reclamation of our homeland. Archaeology may reveal layers of destroyed Jewish civilizations from Babylon through the Roman and Crusader desolations.
We may treasure and preserve what is found, but those civilizations have not been reborn. The shattered and burned bones of pre-Holocaust Kazimierz Jews will not rise from their mass graves and, Ezekiel-like, send modern day figurine makers fleeing.
I realize that to fairly think about a Jewish presence returning to Kazimierz and other Holocaust areas, I need to get beyond sporadic expressions of misplaced attempts at reframing the horrors of the past. While I cannot bring myself to make a “pilgrimage” to the Poland where my relatives were slaughtered, I understand the motivation of others to do so. I share a muted sense of triumph in hearing fellow Jews exclaim defiantly, “We have returned” in echo of the bitter resolve of the Jewish partisans who proclaimed, “Our step beats out the message: We are here!”
Even with one eye looking behind at a recent, large Neo-Nazi rally in Warsaw, I welcome the reflections of today’s generation of non-Jews living in European areas that were complicit in the Holocaust. They reflect on the sins of their parents, and both come to accept this legacy and use it for constructive political and cultural engagements. If today’s Poles want “an activist project” involving Jews, I value their interest, their comradeship, their creativity. Should a number of Jews return to Kazimierz, should even a renaissance of Jewish life spread over the city, it would certainly merit sociological interest and reportage. It might even be affirmative.
But I cannot brook any attempts to construct a framework for “projects” where motivations and emotions are tied to any expectation that redemption or forgiveness for the evils of the past is possible. Those from whom forgiveness would be requested are not able to answer. Any notion of satisfaction tied to reemergence was buried in the ruins of Jewish Kazimierz.
Any new Jewish presence being built must have within its foundation a shared sense of loss marked by the reverberating statement of the Kaddish said for the cherished yiddishe neshamas and a way of life utterly decimated.
Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.