[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-SAE]: Lorenz on Meng and Lehrer, 'Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Wed Oct 26 20:18:24 MDT 2016

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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Wed, Oct 26, 2016 at 4:40 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-SAE]: Lorenz on Meng and Lehrer, 'Jewish Space in
Contemporary Poland'
To: H-REVIEW at h-net.msu.edu

Michael Meng, Erica Lehrer, eds.  Jewish Space in Contemporary
Poland.  Bloomington  Indiana University Press, 2015.  312 pp.
$35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-01503-7; $85.00 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed by Jan Lorenz (Adam Mickiewicz University)
Published on H-SAE (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Michael B. Munnik

The already substantial area of research on Jews and Jewish heritage
in contemporary Poland has been dominated by discussions on memory
and identity. The topic of Poland's Jewish space has drawn the
attention of scholars, but now it has finally received its own
dedicated collection of readings, edited by an anthropologist, Erica
Lehrer, and a historian, Michael Meng. The collection combines
reflections on the lived spaces of contemporary Poland and on
villages, towns, and cities where Polish Jews lived before the Second
World War, as well as ghettos, death camps, and Jewish cemeteries.

It is impossible to exhaust the theme of Jewish spaces in Poland in a
single volume, but the twelve chapters in this pioneering and long
overdue collection cover significant topical ground and offer
theoretical contributions, which--if not revolutionary for the
anthropology of space per se--are certainly intellectually evocative
in the more specific area of scholarship on memory and cultural
heritage. As Lehrer and Meng argue, "spaces" have considerable
heuristic potential to "turn memory into a thing one can visit," when
they come to materialize and anchor "manifestations of large, often
distant political, legal and economic shifts," making them tangible
enough to be grasped methodologically and analytically (p. 5). This
collection, to a considerable degree, builds on the particular strain
of research that examines how Jewish and, to a greater extent,
non-Jewish actors, individuals, and institutions are engaged in
commemoration of the Polish-Jewish past, renovation of the Jewish
material heritage, and (re)production of Jewish music and craft. We
are invited to consider the ethical and political implications and
potentialities created by these practices, for Poles, Jews, and those
who identify as both, and for locals and foreign visitors.

The book begins in a truly Dantean manner: guided by Geneviève
Zubrzycki, the reader explores the "ideological configuration and
reconfiguration" of the material remains of the Auschwitz
concentration camp, where predominantly Jews but also Romani, ethnic
Poles, and people of other nationalities were exterminated (p. 16).
Zubrzycki argues that while Auschwitz is widely and increasingly
recognized by Poles as a camp where predominantly Jews were killed,
it still holds a central place as a national symbol of martyrdom
rivaled only by Katyń--which speaks of the possibility, at least, of
sharing the material symbol of collective suffering without
necessarily warranting its ownership on the exclusion of the
suffering of others. This raises the question of the extent to which
the categories of "Poles" and "Jews" the author employs when
describing these radically exclusionary positions reflect the
heterogeneity of attitudes and vehement debates these issues sparked
in the Poland of the time. That question aside, this is a valuable
contribution to the discussion on politics and practices of
commemoration at death camps.

Sociologist Stanisław Kapralski's account of "symbolic exclusion" of
Jews from local memories of Polish towns and villages draws our
attention to concrete examples of the politics of memory of the
Communist era (p. 156). For decades, either Jewish martyrdom was
erased from commemoration or Jewish victims were subsumed under the
generic category of "Polish victims." "Polish" here is implicitly
ethnic Poles; an inclination for such erasures is something Poland's
Communist regime and right-wing ethnonationalists had in common.
Kapralski's strongest contribution to this volume and debates on
Jewish spaces, or, to keep with his terminology, Poland's Jewish
"memoryscapes," is his insistence that any conceptualizations that
operate with generic categories of "Poles" or "Polish memory" (or,
alternatively, of "Jewish memory") should always be approached with

Former sites of Jewish presence can become spaces of memory work and
a number of studies in the collection invite us to consider ways in
which politics of erasure have been replaced with practices of
commemoration, not without its challenges and conflicts. First, Meng
offers a fascinating account of the remaking of the Jewish past in
stone and brick at the Warsaw district of Muranów, the site of the
former Warsaw ghetto. Meng's historical work potentially carries wide
reaching implications for anthropologists exploring the nexus of
memory and materiality, especially in relation to his assumption that
"most Varsovians probably think little of the past that lies around
them" in their mundane daily activities (p. 78). Meng's chapter is
distinctively historiographical and although he offers measured
conceptual framing, drawing primarily on Walter Benjamin, his study
evokes more far-reaching theoretical implications and should be of
wider scholarly interest.

Meng's contribution is followed by Magdalena Waligórska's reflection
on how artistic and literary projects of "urban nostalgia"
discursively transform the coastal city of Szczecin. Waligórska's
contribution extends the book's focus on the dyad of Poles and Jews
by putting western Poland's German heritage and past into the frame
of Polish-Jewish relations. Drawing on Homi Bhabha, Waligórska
argues that in the course of nostalgic memory, which exposes the
interstices and overlaps of Polish, Jewish, and German historical
presence, Szczecin becomes a "third space," a site of "hybridity and
cultural translation," which upsets the myth of the city's past
cultural homogeneity, promulgated during the Communist era, even if
that myth has largely become a lived reality today (p. 95).

A common feature of Meng's and Waligórska's intellectually evocative
reflections on memories, in and of Jewish and non-Jewish space, is
that both authors engage with narratives, artistic performances, and
architectural projects that are undeniably high-brow and dissident,
mapping the progressive and emancipatory possibilities for a
remembering that disavows any essentialism of Polish and Jewish
"identities," and allows for inclusive projects of commonality. A
critically inclined reader may, nonetheless, wonder about the
reception by--and the actual impact on--the Polish public of those
uplifting endeavors among the residents of localities the authors
describe. Such impact, as chapters by Monika Murzyn-Kupisz and
Jonathan Webber seem to imply, can be strongest where commemoration
projects are collaborative and inclusive across seemingly
insurmountable borders. Murzyn-Kupisz and Webber provide valuable
insights into endeavors that actively involve descendants of Polish
Jews and local non-Jewish actors: authorities of provincial towns and
villages and contemporary inhabitants of places like Brzostek, a
former shtetl, where local, social memories of obliterated Jewish
spaces predated public efforts of their commemoration. Particularly
interesting in these efforts are practices that produce not only
collaborations but also compromises and syncretic forms like a
Christian "mass containing the Jewish Kaddish," where involvement of
priests and Catholic practices of venerating the dead enable a "way
for local residents to begin dealing with the memory of their prewar
Jewish neighbors" (p. 137).

Lehrer draws on her longitudinal research on Kraków's formerly
Jewish district of Kazimierz, arguing that it is no longer a _lieu de
memoire_--a material reminder of the nonexistent Polish Jewry in
place of actual remembrance, which it has been throughout the
Communist era--but has become a _milieu de memoire_, a space of
memory work. For both non-Jewish Poles and Jewish visitors from
abroad, Kazimierz has become, as she claims, a chance not only to
confront their contentious memories but also critically to
interrogate essentializing regimes of identity, cultivate alternative
modalities of belonging, and seek ways to communicate across divisive
traumas and resilient stereotypes.

Winston Chu's essay further explores the intersection of Polish,
Jewish, and German presence in the Polish landscape, but his findings
lead to a conclusion different from Waligórska's. In Łódź, as he
compellingly illustrates, the city's multicultural history is being
appropriated and mobilized in construction of nationalist
representations of the past, rather than transformed into enmeshed
and ambivalent narratives that would correspond to uneasy historical
coexistence. Robert Cohn, in turn, invites us to consider the
implications of the fact that Poland's Jewish spaces are represented
on photographs and cyberspace repositories. Cohn's text introduces an
apt metaphor to capture the nature of myriad Jewish spaces in
contemporary Poland, that of a palimpsest--"a topography of loss"
often merely visible under the layer of ruination, deliberate
destruction, appropriation, and adaptation, through which synagogues
have become cinemas and cemeteries have become parking places (p.
212). The notion of a palimpsest is also used by Konstanty Gebert,
who offers an overview of the multiple transformations of Jewish
spaces in Warsaw, and an insight into the political and economic
background of how Jewish communal properties were destroyed, seized,
changed, and in some instances reclaimed by contemporary Jewish
communities. While Gebert aims to identify distinctively Jewish sites
in a city shared by "two nations," the prewar Warsaw may also be seen
as Polish and Jewish space at once, a site of both exclusion and
extensive intermingling, for as long as that was possible (p. 223).

The chapter by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett concludes the book with
a description of and rationale for the exhibition design of the
Warsaw Musuem for the History of Polish Jews. She presents the
originality of this story-driven museum project and the challenges
facing it, in comparison with well-established and recently founded
Jewish museums in other countries. In the epilogue, Dina Pinto
underscores the wider significance of Poland's Jewish spaces and
argues that they not only embody and promote cultural and religious
pluralism in increasingly multicultural Europe, but also serve as
"centres of Jewish and non-Jewish interaction" (p. 284).

The chapter that I did not yet mention, by Stanisław Tyszka, comes
second in the collection. It is undoubtedly the nadir of this
otherwise very accomplished volume. The author aims to introduce the
readers into the history of the restitution of Jewish property in
Poland after 1989 by rendering a brief historical overview of the
legal acts and a presentation of cases of restitution and of
renovation projects. Tyszka's attempt is considerably hindered by
numerous opinionated and usually misplaced digressions on the
political background of the restitutions process. Whenever Tyszka
ventures beyond the raw description of particular legal acts, the
reader is enticed to enter a projection of Polish post-1989 political
reality _à rebours_, apparently sustained by the magic of facts
omitted or molded to fit the author's convictions.[1] Tyszka seems to
underestimate considerably the role of Jewish institutions, private
sponsors, local activists, and nongovernmental organizations in the
preservation of Jewish heritage. While he identifies the main actors
in the restitution process, his account of its beneficiaries and
instigators, and their motivations leaves much to be desired, in
terms of both depth and accuracy. In conclusion, we are informed that
the involvement of nongovernment organizations in the restoration of
Poland's Jewish heritage is driven by the "fashionable policy of
promoting 'multiculturalism'" focusing on Jews for the "lack of other
significant ethnic and religious minorities" in Poland (p. 66).
Germans, Ukrainians, Kashubians, Silesians, Belorussians, and others
amounting up to more than a million Polish citizens would probably
disagree with, at least, the latter part of such a claim.

_Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland_, despite this slight mishap, is
an impressive collection filling a major gap in Jewish studies. It
will certainly be of interest to anthropologists, primarily those
sharing topical interest with the contributors or generally
interested in the relationship between memory work and material
heritage in contentious and politicized contexts. As encompassing and
insightful as these fascinating accounts are, they leave much room
for further scholarly investigations. Almost completely missing from
analysis is what Pinto aptly named "Jewish-Jewish" space--that is,
actual Jewish communal places: active synagogues, cultural
associations, social clubs, summer camps (p. 282). These comprise a
vast terrain of Poland's Jewishness in its own right, the analysis of
which could easily fit another book and allow the investigation to
venture beyond the gravitational pull of memory as the exclusive
terrain of Jewish presence in Poland. Although many of the individual
contributors are aware of the myriad Polish-Jewish subjectivities and
forms of historical coexistence, I was still left wanting a thorough
(or indeed any) historiographical reflection on those spaces of
prewar Poland where seemingly stark intra-communal boundaries were
situationally suspended or deconstructed, be that the murky terrains
of the Polish-Jewish underworld or the milieu of fancy Varsovian
cafés. All and all, the collection is an important step toward
deeper and clearer understanding of what Poland's Jewish spaces were,
are, and may yet become.


[1]. At the very beginning, Tyszka questions the validity of the very
term "restitution" due to the lack of the unbroken existence of
Jewish institutions in legal terms (which is inevitable considering
the Holocaust) and supposedly "little cultural continuity" between
the prewar Jewish community and the survivors of the genocide and
their descendants. Ironically, the latter claim is contradicted even
by other contributions in this very collection (most distinctively in
Gebert's chapter), not to mention by historical facts. When trying to
explain the political background of the restitution legislation and
process, Tyszka claims that "since 1989, such [restitution]
legislation has been blocked by former Communists and Poland's
liberal and leftist intellectual elite" (p. 46). In fact, the very
legal act that enabled restitution of communal Jewish property, and
to a large extent the means of existence of Poland's Jewish Religious
Communities--completely dispossessed and impoverished after the
Communist era--was drafted and passed by the leftist cabinet and a
parliamentary majority composed largely of post-Communists (as was
another major legal act, passed in 2005, regulating and granting
legal rights to ethnic and religious minorities). Speaking of the
restitution of private properties, Tyszka claims that "President
Alexander Kwaśniewski's veto prevented the [restitution] bill from
becoming law" (p. 55). Tyszka fails to mention the widely known
detail that completely dismantles his argument in the context of
Jewish spaces: the restitution bill of the ruling right-wing
coalition excluded non-Polish citizens from making restitution
claims. Effectively then, the bill was tailored to effectively bar
the vast majority of legitimate heirs to Jewish property from making
successful claims to regain it. These are just several examples to
illustrate the issue.

Citation: Jan Lorenz. Review of Meng, Michael; Lehrer, Erica, eds.,
_Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland_. H-SAE, H-Net Reviews. October,
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46031

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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