"Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland"

Ed. Erica Lehrer, Michael Meng
Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2015

Despite the fact that Poland’s Jewish legacy has already been discussed openly for over twenty years, until now there has been no comprehensive publication combining a description and an analysis of the phenomena and processes connected with the discovery and the use of this legacy in the contemporary world. Published by Indiana University Press this past spring, the collection of essays entitled Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland, edited by Erica Lehrer and Michael Meng, aims to fill this gap.
The book contains essays by thirteen scholars, who have studied the real and the imagined Jewish (post-Jewish) spaces, the preservation of national minorities’ legacy, and the Jewish culture after the Holocaust. The essays are a result of their long-term research. Based on thepars pro totoprinciple, most focus on specific examples. Michael Meng and Konstanty Gebert refer to the presence and non-presence of historical Jewish spaces in contemporary Warsaw. Magdalena Waligórska’s essay on Szczecin and Winson Chu’s essay on Łódź describe the triple nature of the cities, in which contemporary Poles have faced the memory of both their Jewish and their German fellow citizens. Jonathan Webber describes the restoration and resacralisation of the Jewish cemetery in Brzostek, Erica Lehrer takes us to the district of Kazimierz in Krakow, mainly to illustrate the difference between Jewish hopes and Polish efforts. Considering their subject matter, the articles by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (about the development and guiding principles of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews) and by Geneviève Zubrzycki, who concentrates on the duality of the symbol that is Auschwitz, are unique indeed. Stanisław Tyszka (the author of the article about the restitution of pre-war Jewish communal property), Robert L. Cohn (writing about different models of memory in Jewish spaces) and Diana Pinto (trying to predict the future of Jewish spaces in Poland) deal with the subject matter in a more extensive manner. This collection of essays – which could perhaps be supplemented by some other writings to give the reader a fuller picture – provides a very interesting blend of problematic or even sensitive issues that must be discussed at the present stage of the development of Polish society.
The essays cover a wide range of social, artistic, museum-related, socio-economic, and pop-culture phenomena. They include an analysis of the causes and methods of restoration of the synagogues, a description of the resacralisation of cemeteries, social initiatives and arts projects such as Rafał Betlejewski’s I Miss You, Jew!, documentary projects (for example, Monika Krajewska’s photo documentary on cemeteries), and the important role cyberspace has played in popularising knowledge about the history and monuments of Polish Jews. The most important issues connected with contemporary Polish-Jewish relations are also mentioned, especially the discrepancy between their mutual perceptions and expectations. The book comprises major processes and phenomena connected with commemorating, emphasising and communicating the Jewish space in Poland – although I feel that some of them are not given sufficient coverage, and others do not appear where they actually should (for example, Robert L. Cohn’s description of photo documentary projects fails to mention Wojciech Wilczyk’s There’s No Such Thing As an Innocent Eye, but the project is referred to in another part of the book).
The above remarks are, certainly, more like wishful thinking, and I do not intend to criticise the book’s initiators, because one can hardly expect a complete approach to the problem when all these processes have continued to evolve – often in unexpected directions. The book seems to encourage discussion rather than closing it; the authors try to analyse their reference sources in the most objective manner possible so that it can serve as a basis for future studies.
Despite its minor shortcomings, the bookJewish Space in Contemporary Poland– albeit academic – can propel the debate over Poles settling accounts with the past further. Its impact so far has been limited, however, as it is only available in English. It would thus seem advisable to prepare a Polish translation, because (bearing in mind that the factors which have determined the history of Jewish legacy in Poland are unquestionably interesting to foreign scholars) it is above all the Polish people who should become aware of these issues, andJewish Space in Contemporary Polandcould serve as a useful reference book.

Kinga Migalska

Translated from the Polish by Paweł Łopatka