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Describing Who?

Poland in Photographs by Jewish Artists

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Joanna Auron-Gorska

«Describing Who?» reveals the significance of photographs taken in contemporary Poland by professional American, French and Israeli Jewish photographers. Writing critically from the vantage point of her Polish and Jewish background, Joanna Auron-Górska argues that while visual representations of Poland and the Poles may appear atemporal, they are neither ahistorical nor apolitical. They are, instead, influenced by the culturally conditioned construct within which Poland serves to maintain the memory of the Shoah, by war trauma, and by post-war politics. The attitudes of foreign Western Jewry to non-Jewish Poles and Poland have so far received limited scholarship; this analysis is a contribution towards enlightening the conversation between Poles and Jews from outside of Poland.
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Chapter 7. Hatred Personified

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After the Nazis had virtually murdered off Polish Jews the Polish cultural machine experienced a structural breakdown. In the sudden absence of actual Jews there appeared a stand-in: the sculptured and painted representations referred to as żydki. Michael C. Steinlauf’s Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust contains a photograph of two such sculptures, captioned “Jews through Polish Eyes”172. Such photographs illustrate numerous press articles and blogs describing Jewish tourists’ visits to Poland. They illustrate also scholarly articles by Ruth E. Gruber, a researcher in the renewal of Jewish culture in Poland, and by Erica Lehrer, an anthropologist studying the assimilation of Jewish heritage by the Polish culture. Brenner’s portrayals of the Jews and the Poles are separated by a photograph of just such a carving.

These crudely-drawn, painted or sculptured figures, virtually all male, can be considered a manifestation of folklore or evidence and tool of antisemitism – and are, probably, all of the above. Even the name ascribed them – the żydek (plural żydki) – is a patronising diminutive connoting distance and disrespect. Comical and intriguing; nostalgic, but also sinister – Banasiewicz-Ossowska notes the “caricatural and in effect anti-semitic character of most of these toys”173 – they have existed in Poland since the 19th century, and were first created by the Krakow bricklayers who carved and sold them to supplement their income out of the building season. Lehrer’s “Repopulating Jewish Poland – in Wood” finds the “proto-form” of these little carvings in the traditional...

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