Erica T. Lehrer. Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places. New Anthropologies of Europe Series. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. xvi + 274 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-00880-0; $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-00886-2.
Reviewed by Joanna Sliwa (Clark University)
Published on H-Poland (April, 2015)
Commissioned by Paul Brykczynski
Spaces of Encounter: An Ethnography of Jewish Poland
Reflecting on an encounter she had in the early 1990s with a young souvenir seller in Krakow, who was originally from the town of Oświęcim, Erica T. Lehrer recalled her astonishment at meeting someone who hailed from what, in her vocabulary at the time, functioned as Auschwitz: the notorious Nazi camp and most certainly not the Polish town adjacent to it (p. 199). That incident was one of many that challenged her understanding of the wartime suffering of Poles and Jews, and of a “Jewish Poland.” Fast forward to 2013, and Lehrer, an anthropologist with expertise in post-conflict cultural practices and products, challenges us in her new book to reevaluate our presumptions about the paradoxical existence of a robust Jewish life and culture in Poland following the Holocaust and the subsequent postwar attempts to further erase Jewish heritage. Lehrer’s book, Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places, comprises one of the most nuanced and enthralling studies on Jewish space, heritage tourism, and the role that memory and identity play in the complex post-Holocaust and post-Communist Polish society.
The book itself, with its six chapters, introduction, and conclusion, can be divided into four thematic parts. The first chapter examines the author’s ethnographical approach and provides an insider’s perspective into her research locus—the traditional Jewish quarter of Kazimierz in Krakow. The next two chapters delve into a discussion of travel. The first chapter on travel concentrates on mission tourism, or a scripted travel experience aimed to enhance Jewishness while rejecting Poland rather than finding connections with it. The second type of travel, which Lehrer calls “quests,” are dissimilar to pilgrimages in that quests are journeys into the unknown and are a form of postmemory (to use Marianne Hirsch’s term). Lehrer discusses the third theme—Jewish cultural production—in her chapter on local agents (non-Jewish Poles) who promote Jewish heritage, as well as in her fifth chapter, which focuses on the representation of Jews in the form of wooden figurines. Finally, the fourth theme of the book raises the issue of identity and its fluidity.
Poland occupies center stage in Lehrer’s book. It is both an imaginary site and a real place, depending on who is asked. Foreign Jewish visitors often see the country as emblematic of the destruction that European Jewry sustained during World War II and the Holocaust. To many of them, it is a place expected to confirm the continued existence of antisemitism and bolster distinct group identity. For some, Poland is the place of their familial origins and an important conduit to understand themselves as Jews and as descendants of that particular cultural milieu. For all Jewish tourists and seekers, however, Poland conveys a special and seminal place, the meaning of which they constantly grapple with. Poland is also complicated for ethnic Poles and Polish Jews. On the one hand, nostalgia for a lost and now unknown world of a once multiethnic Poland fuels their motivation for engagement in rekindling Jewish culture. On the other hand, the need to find tangible ways to come to terms with the country’s difficult past and the search for appropriate ways to define Polish nationhood provide an impetus for their involvement in all things Jewish. Lehrer makes a strong point that efforts to revive Jewish heritage should be seen in the context of the new social, political, and economic realities taking place in Poland, and in Europe more broadly.
While Lehrer’s book concerns Poland as a whole, it reads more like a case study of Kazimierz, Krakow’s traditional Jewish quarter. More specifically, the author often seems to analyze Kazimierz through the lens of the Jarden bookstore and Café Ariel, both of which are located in what is considered to be the center of the district—on Szeroka Street. While these establishments are, perhaps, the most frequented by tourists, the “periphery” of Kazimierz matters, too, especially as the more inquisitive tourists venture outside the confines of what they perceive to be the “Disneyworld-like” atmosphere of Jewish Krakow. However, given the tourist traffic on Szeroka, it is understandable why that area became the prism through which the author examines heritage tourism.
Kazimierz is where tourists congregate before or after visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. That is also where local efforts of bringing Jewish culture to the fore are the most pronounced, and the area to which Jewishness is confined within Krakow. The few instances in the book where the author turns to discuss Jewishness in Warsaw cleave the seamlessness of the story. It is Kazimierz that serves as the departure point and primary stage for examining the complex processes of the evolving roles of heritage sites, the wide range of subaltern memory projects, the contested debates about authentic versus inauthentic cultures, and the importance of grassroots efforts to revive and sustain Jewish cultural initiatives. Kazimierz comprises a magical and mythical place, but also a living and changing place. As a transnational space in terms of visitors, it satisfies the need for social networking. With its prewar architecture left largely intact, the quarter radiates with nostalgia and memory. As a traditionally Jewish space, and with a reputation for being a safe place in present-day Krakow, Kazimierz provides a forum for public expression of differences, in terms of ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and identity. The question that arises is to what extent is Kazimierz characteristic of what is occurring in other places in Poland? Is Kazimierz a sort of rarity that allows for a unique way to explore Jewishness? What is the significance of Krakow in that process?
The situation becomes more complicated when Jewish visitors come into contact with agents of Jewish heritage in spaces that locals, tourists, and travelers consider Jewish. Lehrer states, “My goal is to show how both Poles and Jews, in these particular spaces and unique moments of encounter, are led to think more critically about their collective and individual identities, and to rework them in significant ways” (p. 14). In doing so, the book leads the reader to reconsider the concept of Jewishness itself and its role in interpreting and constructing Jewish, Polish, and Polish-Jewish complex historical legacies, as well as personal and shared identities. What emerges from Lehrer’s discussion is the existence of stewards, who are not traditionally defined as Jewish, but who are involved in preserving and enlivening Jewish heritage sites and culture. These “Jewish-identified Poles” have been essential in contributing to the revitalization of Polish-Jewish heritage (p. 188). Yet their involvement in it has led outsiders to view them as impostors appropriating Poland’s Jewish heritage for their own murky purposes. As a result, these heritage brokers are perceived with ambivalence, uneasiness, and distrust by foreign Jewish visitors. As Lehrer indicates, the latter often seek out local Jews as reliable sources of information, instead of trusting the stewards. This prompts the question of the role of Krakow’s Jews themselves in building a vibrant Jewish life in the city. Lehrer briefly discusses the Jewish Community Centre, a relatively recent addition to the map of Kazimierz, in her conclusion. But that may be a topic for another study of how Jews, with the help of non-Jewish Poles, forge specifically Jewish spaces, how their endeavors contribute to identity formation and memory practices in today’s pluralistic Polish society, and how their encounters with Jewish tourists and travelers influence the perception of Jewish Poland.
The book fulfills the author’s goal of introducing “an ethnography of possibility,” doing so on multiple levels (p. 17). Through her lively and detailed discussion of encounters between Poles and Jews in the realm of travel, Lehrer points out how these have the potential to contribute to reevaluating one’s own understanding of history and heritage and reexamining structural and emotional factors that have formed such understandings in the first place. Her study encourages us to reevaluate that which is silenced or distorted, and to fill in the voids. It also calls for applying a critical approach to what and how we remember in order to be able to recognize the perspective of others. In doing so, it is possible to engage in the project of reconciliation, which, in the case of Poland, Lehrer sees more as focusing on finding mutual connections and forging dialogue across time rather than on striving for one conclusive narrative.
In Jewish Poland Revisited, Lehrer examines difficult issues by adroitly weaving in the results of her over-a-decade-long fieldwork, skillfully supporting her research with multidisciplinary sources, and peppering her narrative with personal observations and experiences. Spanning many years and touching on a wide spectrum of issues, the book broadens our understanding of contemporary Poland, the Polish Jewish revival, the role of non-Jews in preserving and activating Jewish heritage in Kazimierz, identity politics, memory practices, the meaning of heritage tourism, and more. Lehrer does not shy away from discussing polarizing topics, nor does she offer easy answers. Rather, she invites the reader to revisit the notions of what Jewish Poland is and how heritage tourism is enacted in a post-conflict society. In doing so, Lehrer sees a promise of reconciliation. This is as much a story about Poles as it is about Jews. Jewish Poland Revisited is unequivocally an obligatory reading for anyone interested in Poland, Polish-Jewish history, and memory studies. The ethnographic approach provides a much-needed intimate glimpse into making sense of the repercussions of violence and the aftermath of political suppression.
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Joanna Sliwa. Review of Lehrer, Erica T., Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places.
H-Poland, H-Net Reviews.
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