“Wanna buy a Jew? We got plastic, we got wood, we got Hassids, we got Jews holding coins…”. Now say that in Polish and you might just be at a market in Krakow where Jewish figurines are available for sale and where they are commonly found in Polish homes. These Jewish carvings have a complicated history and they are of course not the only ethnic toys on the market. One can find Eskimo dolls and salt and pepper shaker replicas of African Americans in some homes, markets and museums of North America. In fact, just the other day the doll photographed below was spotted at an outdoor flea market in Quebec.
The Polish Jewish figurine, a tschotschke that means very different things for non-Jewish Poles and visiting Jews, is currently the subject of an exhibit called Souvenir, Talisman, Toy at Krakow’s Ethnographic Museum, curated by Concordia University cultural anthropologist Erica Lehrer. Lehrer has spent the last 15 years examining Polish and Jewish encounters through the lens of the Jewish heritage tourist industry in Poland. As described in her new book, Jewish Poland Revisited, rather than being just a “Jewish Disneyland,” Jewish tourism has opened important new spaces for inter-cultural dialogue. Given Poland’s complex and ultimately tragic 20th-century Jewish history, these encounters are often painful.
Shtetl talked with Erica Lehrer, as well as with Heather Igloliorte, a Concordia University researcher on Inuit and First Nations art who will be joining Lehrer in Poland. We also spoke with a Polish student from Lehrer’s research team in Krakow, to get a range of perspectives on what it means to create, sell, buy, own and encounter dolls and toys representing different ethnic groups.
Shtetl: How long have Polish people been making and selling these figurines?
Lehrer: It depends what you count as a figurine. In my exhibit, I include what I see as precursors to the figurines that are sold today, for example wooden figures used as ritual characters in Christmas nativity puppet theatres. Or these wonderfully interesting “figural beehives,” where you have an almost life-sized wooden figure – among them Jews – that are carved out and perforated with holes so bees will fly in and make honey. The earliest mention of figurines for more strictly aesthetic (that is, not ritual or functional) purposes in the Polish context is in 1874, when one carver was bringing a batch of them to sell at Krakow’s Emaus Easter market fair, where they are still sold today.
Shtetl: What is their purpose? What do some of the different figurines evoke?
Lehrer: Again, it depends! Here the differences are whom you are asking, as well as which genre of figurines you are looking at. The exhibition title, “Souvenir, Talisman, Toy,” tries to capture the three main modes I’ve identified in the figurines: first, as touchstones for memory, whether as tourist keepsakes or as tokens of deeply nostalgic or even political attempts to reconnect with the Jewish past; second, as good luck charms that are meant to bring prosperity at home or in business (for real!); and lastly, as playthings that lightly mock Jewish dress, facial features, or behaviors – this last category existed among other local types, like gluttonous monks, so-called “gypsies,” mountain people, etc. Historically speaking, a major shift in purpose and meaning came, de facto, with the Holocaust. It means something different to make little figurines of Jews when they’re living among you, than it does once they’ve all been murdered.
Shtetl: What’s up with the Chassidic rubber duckies in the exhibit?
Lehrer: I’ve included one section of the exhibit where I’m bringing in other, non-Polish figurines or related objects, to try to stretch visitors’ thinking about what these figurines are, how they function, and that such ethnic memorabilia is both not limited to Jews (by showing Aboriginal and African American items), and also that Jewish figurines, even fun-poking ones, are not limited to Poland. They’re made in Israel, North America, and elsewhere. The rubber duck with the Chasidic Jewish head is actually sold in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, although in that case it’s part of some avant-garde art provocation. Only in Berlin!
Shtetl: What are you hoping will come of this exhibit?
Lehrer: First, I basically want to expose two foreign perspectives to each other. On the one hand, most Poles simply do not partake in the memory culture that Jews, many North Americans, and some parts of Western Europe take for granted, where there has been a great sensitization to both legacies of antisemitism specifically, and racialized imagery more generally. In pluralistic societies, populations have gone through some painful processes of coming to terms with how images of minorities can be not only hurtful, but really poison the environment in which those minorities try to be understood without prejudice. Jews, on the other hand, generally see the figurines solely as evidence of Polish anti-semitism. They don’t see that there is a huge range of their forms, that they have a long, shifting history in Poland, and that some of the meanings are quite positively disposed towards Jews. They also don’t see how the market in figurines has been increased by Jewish tourism! So the figurines have to be seen in shifting, globally interconnected contexts.
Second, since the figurines are such powerfully disputed objects, and embody many difficult themes in Polish-Jewish relations, I want to use them as a kind of “talking stick,” to provoke dialogue. So this project is also about a different way of curating in museums, which have long been very conflict-avoidant and celebratory. Ethnographic museums, in particular, tend to make culture seem bounded, whole, unitary, and seamless, and always seen from the point of view of outsiders to the culture on display. I want to see whether we can use multiple perspectives on a single object to give a more diverse audience a sense of ownership over museums and their contents. I want everyone to feel that their own experiences and perspective on museum objects are given a voice. So the project is as much about museums as it is about figurines.
Shtetl: Are the figurines good or bad for the Jews?
A Chabad rabbi who sells these figurines in Krakow says: everything in the world can be used for good or bad. In analyzing the figurines, I try see them from different people’s points of view: for whom are they bad and how, and for whom good, and in what ways? And then as a curator, my goal is to figure out how they can be put on display in ways that create more understanding among the different people who feel connected to them. They can be seen as a kind of “line in the sand,” or an intercultural bridge. I prefer to treat them as the latter.
Lehrer has said that there are some wonderful artisans working on wood carvings of Jews in Poland and they see it as a way of commemorating, paying hommage to and connecting with the Jewish past of Poland and Jewish people living and visiting there today. Ethnic memorabilia, dolls, and toys are not unique to the Polish context. Shtetl spoke with art historian Heather Igloliorte
at Concordia University who will be joining Lehrer for a panel discussion at the Ethnographic Museum in Krakow. Igliorte writes and researches on contemporary Inuit, First Nations, and Métis art, as well as the global exhibition of Indigenous arts and culture.
Shtetl: What is the significance of Aboriginal/ Native-American “trinkets” in North America? What is most important for us to understand about them?
Igloliorte: In North America you can find representations of Native people just about anywhere – you can see anything from a little plastic figurine at the gas station to an almost life-size “cigar store Indian” and many things in between. They are everywhere. There are “Eskimo Barbies” and sports teams mascots and Halloween (fancy dress) costumes so you can dress up like “Pocahontas,” a “Chief,” or a “Warrior.” The thing that most of these items have in common is that they tend to trivialize and homogenize Native culture down to just a few stereotypical elements from out of an imagined “Wild West,” such as feather headdresses, buckskin fringe clothing, tomahawks, peace pipes and war paint. These images are almost always based on the dominant society’s fantasy about what Native people and culture is like, and almost never reflects the reality. The toys and logos are based on a Hollywood idea of an Indian, not on any actual Native societies.
Given the history of violence, genocide and assimilation historically perpetrated against Native people on this continent, and the fact that those legacies of violence and colonization still very much affect Native people today, it is so frustrating to continue to see these caricatures of us made by others. In Canada and the US, Native people find a lot (not all!) but a lot of that stuff offensive and hurtful, because it makes a mockery out of Native people and trivializes our cultures, languages, clothing, histories, spirituality, and so on – and perpetuates the ideas that were used to justify our colonization in the first place.
Ola Godlewska is a student in Poland who worked with Lehrer on the Souvenir,Talisman, Toy exhibit.
Shtetl: What do you think about the Jewish reactions you’ve seen to these objects?
Godlewska: Before the project I never considered these figurines to be offensive, I never realized how many emotions they can trigger, to me they were just a part of folklore I guess, and sometimes I didn’t notice them and didn’t pay attention. The reactions I’ve seen – anger, sadness, surprise, make me rethink the problem. I understand now that they can be very hurtful to Jewish people, since they use a stereotype and that is always dangerous. They also seem to dehumanize Jews, making them into talismans. It is sad that most of us didn’t notice it before, I guess we’ve grown used to hurtful stereotypes and that is a scary thought, but also a first step to making some changes.
Shtetl: Had you noticed these objects before working on this project?
Godlewska: It’s hard to say – I guess I have seen them but I didn’t really see 🙂 They melted into one big souvenir among dragons and kitchen magnets and keychains and such. I never heard anyone talk about them before, never seen them in any house, or maybe I didn’t notice? Of course, I’m rarely a tourist in Poland and usually don’t enter souvenir shops (in any country – there’s nothing authentic there, I guess the “Jew with a coin” proves this). Now it’s hard not to look for them – wherever I go I search for figurines.
These figurines travel – and quite a few have ended up on shelves in
Jewish homes across the world. To capture and better understand them in their “natural habitats,” Lehrer has designed a crowd-sourcing website www.jewishfigs.org to document these figurines wherever they may be found. If you have one or see one, upload a photo and description of it and become part of the virtual exhibit.
The Talisman, Souvenir, Toy exhibition takes place during the 2013 Jewish Culture Festival happening in Krakow right now.
For more perspectives on Jewish life in Poland today, check out the Shtetl on the Shortwave podcast New Jewish Culture in Poland