Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland

Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland


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Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland by Erica Lehrer

In a time of national introspection regarding the country’s involvement in the persecution of Jews, Poland has begun to reimagine spaces of and for Jewishness in the Polish landscape, not as a form of nostalgia but as a way to encourage the pluralization of contemporary society. The essays in this book explore issues of the restoration, restitution, memorializing, and tourism that have brought present inhabitants into contact with initiatives to revive Jewish sites. They reveal that an emergent Jewish presence in both urban and rural landscapes exists in conflict and collaboration with other remembered minorities, engaging in complex negotiations with local, regional, national, and international groups and interests. With its emphasis on spaces and built environments, this volume illuminates the role of the material world in the complex encounter with the Jewish past in contemporary Poland.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253015037
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 04/27/2015
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Erica Lehrer is Associate Professor in the History and Sociology/Anthropology Departments at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, where she also holds the Canada Research Chair in Post-Conflict Memory, Ethnography, and Museology.

Michael Meng is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Clemson University, South Carolina.

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Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland

By Erica Lehrer, Michael Meng

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01506-8



Archeology of a Mnemonic Battleground

Geneviève Zubrzycki

If "humanity's largest cemetery" is known in the world by its German designation—Auschwitz—in Poland it is primarily referred to as "Oswiecim," the Polish name of the small town 50 miles from Krakow where the Nazis set up the world's most notorious concentration and extermination camp. The different names for the same site are related to its respective meanings for the different parties involved. Whereas "Auschwitz" is, for Jews and the world, the symbol of the Holocaust and of universal evil, "Oswiecim" is for many Poles the symbol of Polish martyrdom. It is also the symbolic terrain where Poles articulate their relationship to various others: Germans, who created the camp; Russians, who liberated it; and especially Jews, with whom Poles compete for the ownership of the former camp as a symbol of their own martyrdom. Finally, Auschwitz is the site of the dramatization and enactment of nationalist discourses that have shaped—and divided—Polish public life in the 1980s and 1990s.

"Oswiecim"/"Auschwitz" are multivocal symbols that simultaneously condense and polarize disparate significations. Auschwitz is also what Pierre Nora calls a lieu-carrefour, a privileged site where questions of identity are crystallized and fiercely contested by different social groups. Oswiecim, the town, and within it Auschwitz, the former camp, constitute the physical battleground where memory wars have been waged between Jews and non-Jewish Poles, and continue to provide fertile terrain for rearticulating Polish-Jewish relations in the present by addressing the past.

In this chapter, I analyze "Oswiecim"/"Auschwitz" as core symbols, and discuss their respective relation to Auschwitz and Oswiecim. More specifically, I dissect the various layers of meaning "Oswiecim" carries in Poland and discuss the role of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in the symbol's ideological configuration and reconfiguration. After decades of socializing Poles into a specific reading of history, changes in the narrative of the museum (and other state institutions) have been seen by many Poles as a sudden "Judaization" of Auschwitz, resulting in a "de-Polonization" of "Oswiecim" and its (Polish) memory. Unpacking the meanings attributed to the site itself, and interpreting the changes taking place in the discursive field about the symbol, are keys to understanding a series of controversies surrounding the former camp as well as some of the challenges the museum faces in the twenty-first century.

Auschwitz's Geographic and Historical Contours

Before undertaking our excavation of symbols, let's take a bird's-eye tour of the physical site. What is commonly referred to as Auschwitz is actually a large complex of camps and subcamps, including concentration, extermination, and forced-labor camps covering some 15 square miles (see map 1.1). Auschwitz (or Auschwitz I) was the mother camp, established in 1940 outside Oswi^cim mostly for Polish political prisoners; Birkenau (or Auschwitz II) was the largest camp, established almost two miles away from Auschwitz I in 1942 in the small village of Brzezinka, with the main purpose of exterminating European Jewry; and Monowitz (or Auschwitz III, which is not part of the museum) was established in Monowice to provide forced labor to nearby factories such as the large I. G. Farben works. The geography of these camps in relation to the small villages and towns in which they were established during the war is important, since it comes up frequently in debates between Poles and Jews. According to many Poles, controversies arise from avoidable misunderstandings, which they see as the result of a lack of knowledge of the spatial organization of what is, in the rest of the world, often called indiscriminately "Auschwitz."

Several factors have made Auschwitz the site around which collective memories of the Holocaust for Jews and of World War II for Poles have coalesced. Unlike Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, which were dismantled by the Nazis in 1943 after most Jews of Poland had been killed in the so-called Aktion Reinhard, Auschwitz-Birkenau was still operating shortly before the Soviets liberated the camp on January 27, 1945. Because of the rapid advance of the Red Army in the last months of the war, Nazis abandoned the camp leaving ample evidence of their crimes. Moreover, the Red Army actually liberated prisoners at Auschwitz, whereas at most other camps, they stumbled over ruins with little or no traces of survivors. These factors had important repercussions for memory-making: first, Auschwitz's relatively large number of survivors lived to tell their stories in Poland and throughout the world (although these stories were different depending on the identities of those doing the telling); second, the camp's surviving structures provided solid evidence of Nazi crimes as well as an infrastructure that could host the museum; and last, the number of survivors liberated by the Red Army, the evidence left behind, and the enormity of the crime provided an "ideal" prompt through which the Communist state could construct a shrine to socialism's victory over fascism, and a warning against the excesses of capitalism.

"Oswiecim" as Core Polish Symbol

While "Auschwitz" is a complex symbol in its own right, my primary focus in this chapter is on the lesser-known Polish associations with, and constructions of, "Oswiecim." "Oswiecim's" first layer of meaning is related to the camp's history during World War II. Already during the war, the name "Oswiecim" signified Polish suffering under German occupation. Auschwitz was initially created for Polish political prisoners: intellectual and professional elites, members of the resistance, priests, and nuns were the main groups imprisoned there until the Final Solution was implemented in 1942, after which the camp was given the additional and henceforth main function of death camp for the European Jewry, through the creation of Auschwitz II–Birkenau.

While in Polish consciousness the camps in Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno, and Sobibor were and are synonymous with the extermination of Jews (because this is primarily where Polish Jews from the liquidated ghettos of Warsaw, Krakow, Lódz, and Lublin were killed), "Oswiecim" became and remained the symbol of Poles' martyrdom during World War II, representing the attempt by Nazis to physically and culturally annihilate the Polish nation—an interpretation that fit neatly into Polish scripts of denationalization by their Western neighbor.

After the war, the Communist state built onto this already common understanding of the camp by creating the State Museum Oswiecim-Brzezinka in 1947 on the basis of a law "on the remembrance of the martyrdom of the Polish Nation and other Nations." As the name of that law suggests, Poles, although not the camp's sole victims, were its main martyrs. The museum was indeed squarely Polish from its inception, but the national narrative was told in the socialist mode and according to socialist parameters, providing a second layer of meaning for "Oswiecim" that in many ways reinforced the first, historico-martyrological one. In that narrative, "Victims of Fascism" from Poland and twenty-seven other nation-states were exploited and exterminated at the camp, later liberated by the victorious and just Red Army. According to a Polish publication about the camp, for example, in "Auschwitz there were prisoners of various nationalities, creeds and professions. They included Americans, Austrians, Belgians, Britons, Bulgarians, Chinese, Croats, Czechs, Dutchmen, Egyptians, Frenchmen, Germans, Greeks, Gypsies, Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Letts, Lithuanians, Norwegians, Persians, Poles, Romanians, Russians (and other citizens of the Soviet Union), Slovaks, Spaniards, Swiss, Turks and Yugoslavs." Stated in this fashion, Jews constituted only one among many groups enslaved and murdered at the camp. That most of the citizens listed above were Jewish was concealed. Note also that the listing is made alphabetically; in the original Polish version, Jews (Zydzi) were last on the list, subtly distorting reality one step further. Other examples of this bias can be found in several editions of the official guidebook to the museum, in circulation until the early 1990s. In one section of the guide, a short paragraph informed the reader-visitor of the Nazis' use of Auschwitz for the total extermination of Jews but did so under the subheading "The Nations' Room" (Sala narodów). Other groups' fates (such as those of Soviet prisoners of war or Romas) were described using the same term, "extermination," but were brought to the reader's attention with clear subheadings: "The Extermination of Soviet Prisoners of War" and "The Extermination of Gypsies." Jews got no such subheading.

Another instance of the ideological manipulation of the historical record concerns the total number of Auschwitz victims, which was established in the postwar years at a monumental four million. We now know that the actual number of victims was closer to 1.1–1.5 million. This historical distortion, according to scholar James Young, was arrived at "by a combination of the camp commandant's self-aggrandizing exaggerations, Polish perceptions of their great losses, and the Soviet occupiers' desire to create Socialist martyrs." Beyond the thorny issue of historical truth, this inflated number, and the conflation of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles into the category of "Polish citizens" or sometimes simply "Poles," created the long-lasting impression in Poland that Poles had suffered the most deaths and were the greatest victims of World War II. While the use of a "neutral," civic language of citizens was meant to avoid the reproduction of the racial categories defined by the Nuremberg laws, the diminution of Auschwitz's Jewish face was also, if not primarily, a strategic ideological manipulation by the socialist party-state intended to create a socialist shrine, replete with victims (the "Victims of Fascism," Poles at the head) and heroes (the liberating Red Army, the resistance movement). The museum has in recent years revised its narrative and is currently planning a significant overhaul of its general exhibit. It has dropped the socialist rhetoric, and, most importantly, it now stresses that Jews constituted 90 percent of the camp's victims. For Poles, however, who for three generations were socialized to the implied "fact" that they had constituted the majority of prisoners and victims of the camp, this revision of history has not been accepted without resistance.

The third and perhaps most counterintuitive and controversial layer of meaning of "Oswiecim" for non-Polish audiences is that of its Catholicism. Members of the Catholic Church's clergy and religious orders were among the camp's first victims, and two were later canonized: Father Maksymilian Maria Kolbe gave his life in exchange for that of a fellow (Polish Catholic) prisoner. He died in the so-called Block of Death, where his cell has been transformed into a shrine. Edith Stein, Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, was a German Jew from Breslau (now Wroclaw). A student of Edmund Husserl, she converted to Catholicism, joined the Carmelite order, and died in one of Birkenau's gas chambers. Saint Maksymilian Kolbe and Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross are both sources of tensions between Catholics and Jews. The canonization of Father Kolbe is controversial because, before the war, he was the editor of Maly Dziennik, a daily newspaper with strongly antisemitic content, and also because his martyr death at Auschwitz offers a narrative of the camp's history that goes against that of the Shoah. Edith Stein's sainthood was contested (by Jews) because of her Jewishness. While she died in the camp as a Jew, in accordance with Nazi racial laws, Catholics understand her death as a religious sacrifice and revere her as a Catholic martyr.

The Catholic identity of the camp was grafted onto the previous layers of meaning of "Oswiecim" in the 1980s with Pope John Paul Il's mass at Birkenau in 1979 and the canonization of those two martyrs. As Jonathan Huener shows in his study of commemorations at Auschwitz in Communist Poland, the mass at Birkenau, celebrated by the Pontiff during his first official visit to his homeland, was a turning point in the postwar history of Auschwitz. The papal pilgrimage "to Poland's 'Golgotha' represented the triumph of Polish vernacular notions of Auschwitz and its role in postwar Polish culture." While that mass affirmed and legitimated the Polish idiom of "Oswiecim," it also extended it by proclaiming the universal lessons of "Auschwitz." This move from the national to the universal, however, was cast in a Christian framework that ultimately opened the way for a national-Catholic reframing of the site and symbol, which in turn set the stage for some of the most significant controversies surrounding the former camp in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Carmelite Convent Controversy and Its Legacy

The canonization of Edith Stein and Maksymilian Kolbe provided the initial impetus for the establishment of a convent in the immediate vicinity of Auschwitz. The convent was consecrated in 1984 in a building that, while being outside the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, is very much part of the history of the camp and overlooks the site (see figure 1.1). During the war, that building (Theatergebaübe or Old Theater) was a storehouse for Zyklon B, a chemical used in Germany before and during the war as a disinfecting and pest-control agent—and, beginning in 1941, to asphyxiate camp prisoners. If the presence of a convent at that very site was for many Poles (and even to some Polish Jews) "natural" because of the number of the camp's Catholic victims, it was objectionable for most (non-Polish) Jews. In Polish imagination, however, the camp's grounds were ultimately fused into a coherent and potent whole, conjoining the highly emotional memory of wartime "Oswiecim," the ideological-socialist narrative given to it in the People's Republic of Poland, with the religious significance of Catholic shrines.

After protests from Jewish groups (mostly from outside Poland) objecting to the presence of the nuns at the site, in 1987 an agreement was reached and ratified in Geneva between representatives of the Polish Catholic Church and European Jewish leaders. The accord stipulated that the convent would be moved from the vicinity of Auschwitz by 1989. For various reasons, the nuns failed to move by that date, and tensions escalated as a group of Jews from New York, under the leadership of Rabbi Avraham Weiss, occupied the grounds of the convent in July of that year and were forcibly ousted from its premises. Protests and resistance followed in Poland, including many declarations by the head of the Catholic Church in Poland, Cardinal Józef Glemp—often unabashedly antisemitic in content and tone.

The second act of this social drama actually began quietly, almost a year before these incidents, when in the fall of 1988, an 26-foot-high cross appeared on the grounds of the convent, the so-called gravel pit. Brought there by a local priest and group of former (Polish Catholic) Auschwitz prisoners, the cross had been part of the altar used during the papal mass at Birkenau in 1979, hence the cross's popular naming as the "papal cross." The cross had been dismantled and stored in a local church's basement for a decade until one night it appeared in the convent's yard. It was erected there without witnesses and without any public or known ritual or ceremony. Although we cannot say with certainty that social actors did not act out of religious motivations, we can safely assume that the gesture was also, if not primarily, a form of protest against the planned relocation of the Carmelite nuns and a tactic to further sacralize the site in order to halt that plan. The Carmelite nuns finally relocated in 1993, when John Paul II personally intervened in the conflict by asking them to leave. The papal cross, however, remained on the site, since it had not yet been erected there when the Geneva agreement was negotiated and ratified. It would provide a concrete link between the first and third acts of an ongoing social drama about the memory of Auschwitz and the contested place of religious symbols at the site—the War of the Crosses—waged five years later.


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Table of Contents

Introduction / Erica Lehrer and Michael Meng
1. "Owicim"/ "Auschwitz": Archeology of a Mnemonic Battleground / Geneviève Zubrzycki
2. Restitution of Communal Property and the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland / Stanislaw Tyszka
3. Muranów as a Ruin: Layered Memories in Postwar Warsaw / Michael Meng
4. Stettin, Szczecin, and the "Third Space." Urban nostalgia in the German/Polish/Jewish borderlands / Magdalena Waligórska
5. Rediscovering the Jewish Past in the Polish Provinces: The Socio-Economics of Nostalgia / Monika Murzyn-Kupisz
6. Amnesia, Nostalgia, and Reconstruction: Shifting Modes of Memory in Poland’s Jewish Spaces / Slawomir Kapralski
7. Jewish Heritage, Pluralism, and Milieux de Memoire: the case of Krakow’s Kazimierz / Erica Lehrer
8. The Ethnic Cleansing of the German-Polish-Jewish ‘Lodzermensch’ / Winson Chu
9. Stony Survivors: Images of Jewish Space on the Polish Landscape / Robert L. Cohn
10. Reading the Palimpsest / Konstanty Gebert
11. A Jew, a Cemetery, and a Polish Village: A Tale of the Restoration of Memory
Jonathan Webber
12. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews: A Post-War, Post-Holocaust, Post-Communist Story / Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
Epilogue: Jewish Spaces and their Future / Diana Pinto

What People are Saying About This

University of Chicago - Bożena Shallcross

A fascinating reading of a palimpsest of death, devastation and revival of the Jewish world in East Central Europe. This volume brings to light an array of concrete developments occurring in Poland since the sweeping systemic change in the region: the reconstruction of the annihilated Jewish world takes place on the ruins of the communist utopia. This much-needed initiative surveys reconstructive and reconciliatory processes (such as the creation of the Polin, the first museum dedicated to the history of Polish Jewry, the revitalization of Cracow’s Jewish quarter and the ongoing restoration of Polish synagogues, as well as mental maps of nostalgia and memorization) and gives the reader a renewed sense of hope. As a discursive harbinger of the changes, this volume is both constructive in its ethical stance and constructivist in its approach to the cultural and material dimensions of that lost Jewish world.

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