Friday, June 17, 2011

A Rant about a Scholarly Article about Polish Woodcarvers


I just finished reading "Repopulating Jewish Poland – In Wood" by Erica Lehrer, currently in the history department at Concordia University, where she is Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in Post-Conflict Memory, Ethnography & Museology.

Lehrer's article talks about contemporary Polish wood carvers who carve figurines of Jewish characters, and sell them for the tourist market.

There are no blatant lies, no "Polish concentration camps," no over the top hatreds: "Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother's milk" in Lehrer's article. Her article is not "They Were Just People" (Poles saved Jews because the Poles were too stupid to realize the risk and too greedy to pass up Jewish Gold) or the Yad Vashem page smearing the Ulma family.

While I was reading the article, though, I underlined sentence after sentence that suggested to me that the author harbors a foundational contempt for Poles and that contempt comes out in her every word choice, every careful use of scare quotes, every detail she chooses to focus on. Example: a carver has a pack of Marlboro cigarettes handy while carving – this is highlighted in order to discredit the carver, to make him out to be, what – a Nazi? Or just Bieganski?

Another carver's workshop is "bunker like." No facts are adduced: no heights, colors, dimensions. Just Lehrer's feelings that the workshop is "bunker like." This is not scholarship. This is the diary of a young lady in a bad mood. Scholarship relies on replicable facts, not subjective feelings. But this article, published in a peer-reviewed journal, is more about Lehrer's feelings than facts. It offers her subjective response to what she is viewing, written in purple prose, rather than concrete descriptions that would generate, in the reader's mind, the image Lehrer sees. It's more diary than scholarship, and the diary of someone who has a chip on her shoulder that impedes her vision. Lehrer tries, and fails, to come to terms with that failing. She admits the chip on her shoulder, and then justifies it. She is sad about the Holocaust. So are all decent people. We don't all use that sadness as an excuse to belittle, and misrepresent, others.

The article paints the usual picture, but sotto voce, with no money shots. "Few Poles shoulder the weight" of Polish guilt over the Holocaust. Poles are consistently poor, simple and stupid people who "subsist" by "scavenging" the crumbs of Holocaust tourism. Poles do not do this out of any deep motivations. They do it for cash.

In addition to money, another possible motivation for Polish wood carvers carving Jewish figurines: Jewish triumphalism. Somehow, Jews are so powerful, that they have managed, through some supernatural means, to compel these simpleminded Poles, who could never conceive of commemorating Jews on their own, to carve Jews, as a sign of Jewish presence in Poland: "No matter how many times you try to put the Jews down, they pop up." Really. Lehrer quotes a Jewish woman who believes this. With no critical commentary.

Poles didn't care about Jewish suffering during the Holocaust because Poles did not include Jews in their "universe of obligation" (346). Poles didn't suffer themselves under the Nazis; they were just witnesses of others' suffering. Lehrer never says this last in so many words – she just mentions Poles as witnesses of Jews' suffering, while carefully never mentioning any Polish suffering. But Poles do imagine themselves to have suffered: "The Christ of nations."

Poland must come to terms with itself and "others." Jews face no such burden. Jews are apparently all born tolerant and multicultural. And they understand Poles really well, and explain them to the world in articles like this.

Poles who carve Jewish figurines are doing this as part of a guilty Polish attempt to "placate" dead Jews. Oh, yeah. Poles are real superstitious – they see visions of dead Jews. Poles carved "mean … Nazi" anti-Semitic figurines before large numbers of Western tourists arrived after communism. I was in Poland before the fall of communism and the arrival of large numbers of tourists and I saw Jewish figurines. I didn't see "mean … Nazi" carvings. It would be helpful if Lehrer could adduce facts to support her point. Photos, descriptions, interviews.

Depicting Jews in black coats and with large noses is anti-Semitic. I remember an American Jewish friend haranguing me about Hollywood actors in Biblical epics. She demanded not just bigger noses on the actors, but, specifically, bigger hooked noses. Is it always anti-Semitic to ask for relatively prominent noses in artistic depictions of Jews? My friend who wanted to see them in Biblical films would argue that it is not. It is, however, always anti-Polish to describe Polish art as "Nazi" art without any supporting evidence.

Polish wood carvings of Jews are analogous to "Tobacco Store Indians." Americans sometimes had such carvings. This was after Americans wiped out Native Americans. Did Poles wipe out Poland's Jews? Does Lehrer clarify? No.

Jozef Regula, a Polish carver of Jewish figurines, turns his house inside out to be hospitable to Lehrer, yet somehow she manages to depict him as a clueless, anti-Semitic buffoon. She dismisses his hospitality as an "abrupt establishment of sympathy." For crying out loud! Regula hands his house over to her, his memories, his spiritual experiences: all she can do is sneer.

Her main point: Poles who never knew any Jews carve their typically Polish, nasty stereotypes of Jews. Polish culture is to blame. Lehrer quotes Alina Cala on this. What Lehrer never shows any awareness of, any at all, is that she, Lehrer, is doing the exact same thing she accuses her Polish wood carvers of doing.

Lehrer doesn't know Poles. Her contempt is like a force field that prevents her from making any intimate, human contact with Poles – she never acknowledges any common humanity she shares with Poles. Rather, when Poles attempt to make intimate contact with her, she quarantines them as unworthy and outside the boundaries of what she is willing to touch, or be touched by – or eat. Their chicken is not kosher. She never says this openly to the Poles attempting contact with her – again, there is a quarantine around her thoughts. When conversing with the simpleminded Poles, they look at her "quizzically." She opens up only when she meets Max Rogers, a Hassidic Jew who travels to Poland regularly but "rejects any attachment to Poland." When with Rogers, Lehrer talks about her pent up negative responses to the Poles who were open and hospitable to her, eager to connect with her.

Lehrer indicts Poles as ignorant of Jewish culture. Rogers, Lehrer's Jewish secret sharer, though he travels regularly to Poland, can't recognize a Chrystus Frasobliwy, the most common Polish folk art theme. Rogers is also hostile. In a Midrash – his own, or canonical, I do not know – Rogers contrasts Jewish holiness – a Torah scroll – with a "bad man," to whom Jozef Regula, and, by extension, all Polish Catholics, are made analogous. As long as Rogers can see a Jewish man in one of Regula's carvings, he likes the statue. When he finally realizes that the statue is of Jesus, Rogers rejects it.

Lehrer tries to convince the reader to be scandalized that Regula gave her a Chrystus Frasobliwy carving. My friend, the late Rabbi Laurie Skopitz, used to send me Jewish amulets. I keep them near me at all times. I do not care that they are Jewish and I am not. I wonder if Erica Lehrer could ever understand that. If she ever came to, she would have become a different person than the one who wrote this article.

The animatronic, fantasy Poles Lehrer attempts to animate in her article are unrecognizable to me. I am 50% Polish-American. I've been to Poland several times. I've visited – in their homes – with Polish Communists, Catholics, dissidents, self-identified Neo-Pagans, coal miners, peasants, pierced punks, street fighters, fans of Western music – and I've never met anyone as stupid, as repulsive, as not human, as the Poles Lehrer writes about. Her hostility to Poles created these negative images on the page. And her lousy ethnography.

All I can think of is the pain that I would feel, were I Jozef Regula, and were I to read Erica Lehrer's article "about" "me." Scare quotes in honor of Lehrer.

I support excellent scholarship that treats anti-Semitism in Poland. See my Amazon reviews of Jan Tomasz Gross' "Fear," and Brian Porter's "When Nationalism Began to Hate," etc.

That's not what this article is.

I interviewed Jewish Americans and Canadians for "Bieganski." Much of those interviews never made it into the finished book. That's because my informants, all of whom I fell in love with – maybe with the exception of Danielle, although I'd love to see how the intervening years have changed her, if at all – my informants were utterly frank with me. When people are utterly frank with a scholar who is writing for publication that scholar owes the informants, the truth, scholarship, and her own humanity, the duty of treating those informants with respect.

One of my informants made a comment about African Americans that was so shocking to me I almost felt my hair rise above my head. Another told me a story about a very bad rabbi that could have been an HBO miniseries, it was so rife with corruption and titillation. That material never made it into the final book. I respected – I loved – my informants. And scholarship. And truth.

What I strove for, above all, was to get my informant's humanity on the page, as well as their words. I took flak for that. Too many words, some readers complained. No, I insisted. It takes that many words to establish this informant's personhood, which I will not violate. And you can't begin to understand Polish Jewish relations until you understand – not to mention develop a tolerance for and patience with – Polish and Jewish people.


When I was alienated by an informant, Danielle, say, I let the reader know, and know why. And I included enough of Danielle's data to see her point of view.

Erica Lehrer treated her informants as an opportunity to certify her worst prejudices against Poles. And now she's got a full time professorship. And, from the acknowledgements the article lists, it appears that her "work" was fully funded. "Repopulating Jewish Poland" won an honorable mention from the American Folklore Society. Thank you again, Academia.

I've lived intimately with peasants, in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. I know that peasants can possess a dignity, wisdom, and strength that is often completely unknown to modern people. Rather, modern people are content to see peasants as Bieganski, as brutes, as near animals.

Please buy and read an excellent book that really gets to the heart of the kind of people I met in remote villages in Poland – in Africa – in Asia – who are otherwise unknown to the rest of the world. It's Hans Joachim Schauss's "Contemporary Polish Folk Artists." I talk about that book in the final portion of this blog post.

Here's the article. Tell me what I got wrong. Tell me what I missed.

Here's a photo of Jozef Regula with carvings.

4 comments:

  1. This article does not reflect my own experience of the Polish memory of the Jews of Poland. In Lodz, for example, the Jewish cemetery is treated with respect as a burial place for the Jewish people who helped to build that city. The Holocaust forms part of that memory. The Pole Getowa is where the dead of the ghetto and those murdered by the Nazis are buried in unmarked graves, Jews, Roma and Poles. But the memories of the Jews are not as victims but as people who were a vital part of the community. There is a statue of Arthur Rubenstein playing the piano on Pietrkowska, and the palaces of the industrialists whose tombs stand in the cemetery are preserved and treated with pride.

    I agree with you that too many people will blindly stereotype the Poles into a caricature of predjudiced evil - often too stupid to know any better, while not recognising the stereotype that is often made of the Jews - a patronising image of a people who are universally good, universally victims and universally tolerant. I told such a person about Chaim Rumkowski's words when he found out that the Nazis planned to put 5000 Roma into the Ghetto with the Jews: 'We are forced to take about 5000 Gypsies into the ghetto. I've explained that we cannot live together with them. Gypsies are the sort of people who can to anything. First they rob and then they set fire and soon everything is in flames, including your factories and materials.' (Alan Adelson and Robert Lapides (ed.). Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege. NY: 1989, pg. 173) He refused to believe this. Rumkowski couldn't possibly have said that, because he was a Jew, and Jews are universally etc etc., rather than flawed, ambiguous human beings as much prone to vice and virue as anyone else.

    I think, all too often, people will find what they intend to find in a place, and only see what they want to see.

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  2. Thank you for your comments.

    Usually I like to let time pass after reading a document before blogging about it. In this case I did not and my post shows it -- I'm screaming.

    But, Danuta, your comment is very rational and pertinent and I thank you for it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was just in Krakow where I bought a beautiful carving by Jozefa Regula. I found his work not at all offensive to me as a Jew, the way I felt about many of the caricatured Jewish carvings and plastic souvenirs for sale in Krakow. The owner of the shop pointed very proudly to an article by Erica Lehrer when I asked about the artist. I do not know if this is the same article you review here, as the link above did not work when I clicked it. However, the article I read in the shop was very respectful of Regula and his work, and very nuanced about the complex emotional territory of non-Jews making art for Jewish and non Jewish tourists to Kazimierz. I did not see any attacking of Regula or Poles in general for anti-semitism in the article I read, and neither was there a denial of the Holocaust or the history.

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