Cultural appropriation in Krakow?
The last few months have seen major debates across Canada regarding the cultural appropriation of Indigenous art and literature by non-natives.
The same issue has also emerged in Poland, especially in the southern city of Krakow, which I visited in July.
Krakow is an incredibly beautiful and well-preserved medieval city, and the most popular tourist destination in Poland. The Stare Miasto (Old City), with its famous Rynek Glovny (Main Square), overflows with thousands of visitors day after day.
In the city’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, one finds many renowned synagogues, the Galicia Jewish Museum, the Jewish Cultural Centre, and other sites of Jewish interest.
For the past 27 years, it has been the site of an extremely popular Jewish Culture Festival. This year, the music and arts extravaganza, which ran from June 24 to July 2, attracted an estimated 30,000 visitors and residents.
Before the Holocaust, Krakow was home to 65,000 Jews, who comprised about onequarter of the city’s population. After the genocide, less than 4,300 remained.
Today, approximately 1,000 Jews live in Krakow, but only about 200 identify themselves as members of the Jewish community.
The festival has introduced Jewish culture to a generation of Poles who have grown up without Poland’s historic Jewish presence.
At the time Janusz Makuch launched the festival, many Jews thought of Poland only through the lens of the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz, some 65 kilometres from Krakow.
Makuch, who is not Jewish, wanted to counter that prevailing perspective through music and the arts that reflected the seven centuries of Jewish life in Poland rather than its absence.
It was a way, he said, both of honouring the dead and celebrating Jewish culture by bringing it back to life.
The festival’s unexpected success has raised the question of who speaks for Jewish culture.
As Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow, remarked, it was non-Jews who have created and led an event that helped rekindle Jewish life in Krakow.
But does such philo-Semitism sometimes itself morph into anti-Semitism? Alongside the official festival, a series of artistic and theatrical programs known as Festivalt was created by several Krakow-based international artists and performers.
In one such event, an actor playing the character of the “Lucky Jew” sat at a desk laden with an accounting ledger, an old-fashioned inkwell and a quill pen, offering good fortune in exchange for a few Polish zlotys.
The performance poked fun at the stereotypical trope of Jews as money handlers by bringing mythical images to life. But is this anti-Semitic or, as some Poles see it, a form of respect for Jews?
Still, many Jews are uncomfortable with it.
“Lucky Jew” figurines, called zydki, can sometimes be found in Krakow and elsewhere. They are wooden or clay statuettes of old Jewish men dressed like Hasidic rabbis, often with long beards and huge noses.
Scholars have traced their presence in Polish art back to the late 1800s.
Many Poles see them as innocent - or even positive.
In any case, as tourism increased in post-Communist Poland, Polish artisans discovered there was a market for these figures, as likely to be bought by Jewish as non-Jewish visitors.
So while some of these figurines remain clearly stereotypical, others are more marketable, as they romanticize Poland’s Jewish past.
In many places, not a trace is left of the Jewish community that once lived there. So that blank space is filled today with images of Jews - figurines, pictures, magnets, postcards, and more.
Are these images positive or negative? Do they express affection, ridicule, fascination or mourning? Do they divide Poles and Jews or do they tie them together? It probably can be either, depending on the viewer.
“They’re different things to different people,” according to Erica Lehrer, an anthropologist at Concordia University in Montreal.
She curated an exhibition at Krakow’s Ethnographic Museum in 2013 which sought to open a dialogue between these points of view, with interesting results.
In any case, they do seem less visible these days, or so I found after spending more than three weeks in Poland this summer. They were on sale in souvenir shops in Krakow, though.