Why are the Poles amassing Jewish figurines?
Over the last decade or so, statuettes of a Jew with a coin have been selling in big numbers in Poland. An exhibition in Krakow and newly published catalogue try to get to the bottom of this phenomenon.
One of the many new things I found on my second visit to Poland in 2000 were wooden statuettes of Jews. On my first visit, in 1988, there were no popular images of Jews around, but 12 years later statuettes of Jews in Hasidic garb, depicted either at prayer or playing music, were easily found in markets all over Warsaw and Krakow.
It was obvious that whoever made them hadn’t actually seen too many traditional Jews himself: The figures held their siddur prayer book upside down and the Hebrew writing shown there was nothing but gibberish. Still, there was something flattering about their very presence in the new Poland. I bought one of these wooden figurines back then, and it still sits there on display among the other tchotchkes in my living room.
Poland has undergone tremendous change since the fall of the Iron Curtain 25 years ago, and this is also evident in its attitude toward the Jews. Poland recognized the tremendous tourism potential inherent in its rich Jewish history, but it goes much deeper than that: In the new Poland, the Jews are perceived as bearers of a universalist message, as a corrective to the homogenous Polish nationalism.
The discussion of anti-Semitism is no longer repressed, in part thanks to Jan Gross’s 2001 book “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland.” The Jewish Museum in Warsaw, to be dedicated next week, is the supreme expression of Poland’s acceptance of its Jews and viewing them as an important part of its history.
But like any dialectical process, the Poles’ interest in the Jews has been evoking a reaction, one that is finding surprising expression in the figurines of Jews. Suddenly, in recent years new statuettes of Jews appeared – this time with the Jewish figure holding a coin, called a “grush.” These statues have an ugly name – Zydki (“little Jews”) and are sold in large numbers. They are also considered by some to be a good luck charm.
Harmony on the shelf
If you hadn’t been to Poland before the turn of the millennium, you could easily think that these statues have always been around, as a symbol of the old Polish anti-Semitism. But the exhibit last year at the Ethnographic Museum of Krakow called “Souvenir, Talisman, Toy” and the excellent exhibit catalogue that was just published reveal that these figurines are a new development. While statues of Jews did exist before, as well as the image connecting them with money, exhibit curator Erica Lehrer, who tried to race the origin of the Zydki, discovered that the stereotype only recently boiled down to the image of rich Jews.
The statues actually originated in popular Christmas and Easter rituals – in the miniature decorations depicting the birth of Jesus and in Passion Plays. Statuettes of Jews with a holy book or musical instrument were common in Poland in the 19th century and in the period preceding World War II, and depicted the neighbor – the “other,” as generally seen in Poland at the time – in the form of a Hasid.
In Poland’s next incarnation, in the Communist era, this image continued to represent the Jew on a more modest scale. Thanks to Cepelia – a chain of stores for the sale of ethnic arts – Jewish statues returned, still in traditional dress but shown in nonreligious poses: drawing water, or as tailors or hunters. There were also statuettes depicting the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust.
Lehrer searched for and found some of the creators of the figurines, who were largely anonymous. One of them, Bogoslaw Suwala, had begun to carve figures of Jews in memory of a former schoolmate. In his grandfather’s attic he found a Torah scroll, from which he cut out tiny pieces to have the figurines hold. He didn’t know that to do so was considered a desecration.
The catalogue contains photographs of statuettes sold outside Poland of Jews in the form of bears or ducks, along with photos of other ethnic statuettes, such as of blacks and Native Americans in the United States. These kinds of figurines of Hasidic Jews are also commonly found in Israel. And these miniatures were not always neutral images: The ones designed by Frank Meisler, for instance, depict Hasidim with an even more dominant nose than in the Zydki. But in Poland the sensitivity is especially great, and even the statuettes depicting Jewish craftsmen and klezmer musicians can arouse opposition.
The exhibition provided space for visitors’ comments. Some are cited in the catalogue and illustrate the heated reaction. A woman from Israel, the child of Holocaust survivors, was appalled to see such statuettes at the Warsaw airport, and wrote a letter to the Polish culture minister, appealing to have the distasteful souvenirs removed, but was turned down. In one of the essays in the catalogue, psychologist Michal Bilewicz writes, “We Polish Jews, like the American diaspora or Israelis – do not want to be stereotyped … We would prefer to be descendants of Freud, of university professors … No one wants to admit having a water-carrier or a shoemaker as an ancestor.” Bilewicz argues that “the inner ‘Yid’ that haunts us” is at the source of the antipathy toward these statues.
I am ashamed
This stereotypical depiction is thus controversial, although it seems quite innocent next to the common and widespread phenomenon of the Zydki – the figures of a Jew holding a coin, thought to be a talisman that brings good fortune and wealth, which has overtaken nearly all other such depictions. In the catalogue, researcher Bozena Keff writes that it’s no coincidence that this image arose in free, post-Communist Poland. She has been researching the history of the linking of Jews with money, which began with Judas Iscariot and later continued with the Jewish traders who came to Poland to lend a hand to its economic prosperity, and with the tenant farmers who collected from peasants the money demanded by Polish nobles. “The Jew was ascribed a connection to money, no matter whether he actually had any, whether he traded in luxurious goods, whether he was a tailor,” she says.
In Poland’s capitalist era, this image evolved into that of the Jew with the coin. The impoverished pre-War Jew was forgotten and Jews became associated with their financial success in the Western world.
“Are these different representations of the same thing?” Lehrer asks in the catalogue. “Are Jew-with-a-coin talismans an entirely distinct phenomenon, or just a late-capitalist expression of an always-magical Jew? Do the echoes of medieval biblical aspersions or Nazi propaganda visible in some figurines mean that they are inherently anti-Semitic, even if their owners say they mean to honor Jews by displaying them?”
The exhibit illustrates just how much these figurines are emblematic of Jewish-Polish relations past and present, and traces the representation of the Jew in general, and of other minorities. One of its aims was to make Polish visitors more aware of the problematic aspects of the Zydki.
“I own such a figure but I keep it in the wardrobe. I keep it because I got it from my grandfather. He gave it to me with good intentions, because he knew that I was interested in Jewish culture,” wrote one visitor to the exhibit. “They are tasteless and ugly. This is not the way you commemorate those who have been murdered,” said another. And another Polish visitor put it bluntly: “I’m ashamed of the ‘Lucky Jews.’”
As long as they’re around, these figurines will continue to stir debate. They will continue to have their fierce detractors as well as their innocent, or purportedly innocent, supporters. The catalogue documents this debate and also participates in it, but fails to mention another possible reason for the existence of the Zydki: It has to do with a newly published book in Poland that is creating an uproar similar to the one that Jan Gross’s book “Neighbors” elicited.
The book, “Klucze i Kasa” (“Keys and Money”) details the ways in which Poles got rich off Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust – by plundering property that was left behind, charging exorbitant fees for hiding them, and so on. This may be another underlying reason for the Polish perception of Jews as a source of wealth – they literally enriched them. And paradoxically, their guilt feelings over this are being projected onto the Jews.