Cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion in Krakow?

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Henry Sre­brnik Guest Opin­ion Henry Sre­brnik is a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

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.

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