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  • Jewish? Heritage? In Poland?:A Brief Manifesto & an Ethnographic-Design Intervention into Jewish Tourism to Poland
  • Erica Lehrer (bio) and Hannah Smotrich (bio)

In this article a social anthropologist and a graphic designer describe their collaboration on a public cultural project designed to enlarge the boundaries of Jewish tourism to Poland. The authors discuss how "Conversation Maps," an interrelated set of alternative brochures, postcards, and website, aim to encourage visitors to consider the complex heritage of Jewish Poland, too often reduced to a post Holocaust cemetery.

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There is something unique about Jewish tourism to Poland. Jewish tourists see nothing quaint about the local culture either Jewish or non-Jewish; their interest is in the dead rather than the living. They go back as antiquarians rather than ethnographers; consequently, they bring back with them no experiences that deepen their knowledge of the local culture. The experiences they remember are likely to be those that enhance an already existing negative opinion. Indeed, they are the experiences they expect to have in Poland, and because they confirm deeply held convictions, they are almost a desired part of the trip.

—Jack Kugelmass [End Page 36]

Research on Jewish travel to Poland has been done by a number of scholars, including Rona Sheramy, Jackie Feldman, Zvi Gitelman, and Jack Kugelmass (of the above epigraph).* All illustrate similar trends in which travel is structured around antagonism to and isolation from Poles and present-day Polish life.

Whether in the form of self-censorship among adults, or pedagogical structuring in youth trips, there are some key elements widely present in this kind of travel. I will group these for brevity's sake.

  • What do Jewish travelers to Poland see? Overwhelmingly, they see "the camps," and an enormous number of people see only this. Poland is a symbol of the Jewish past, Jewish alienation, and Jewish destruction. Period. Many itineraries continue on to Israel, which forms a symbolic counterpoint: the Jewish future, Jewish fulfillment, and Jewish security.

  • How do Jewish travelers see Poland? Youth tours, in particular, are structured to create an experience that heightens the symbolic negativity—with lots of security, limited contact with Polish present-day reality, and an exhausting schedule of camps, ghettos, and mass graves. Emotional catharsis is encouraged over historical understanding, the Holocaust is the only historical event that matters, and forging a group identity of victimhood through an attempt to create personal experiences of the Holocaust is primary.

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  • What do such travelers miss? They miss ten centuries of Jewish cultural development and flowering. They miss the fact that there is a dramatically-expanding Jewish community in Poland in the present day. Also unnoticed are the increasingly common efforts by non-Jewish Poles to grapple with Poland's Jewish history and their own responsibility towards it. Pressing questions about Jewish identity, cultural ownership, and the ways in which memory is politicized—questions that [End Page 37] reframe accepted distinctions between "us" and "them"—go unasked.

  • Why is this relevant? Recent estimates put the number of Jewish visitors to Poland in excess of 100,000 from the United States and Israel annually. Not all of these, of course, travel in the manner I have described. Some Jews go seeking family roots, some trace Jewish religious or cultural heritage, and a few even visit Poland in an attempt to confront their own, complex post-Holocaust identity issues. But mass, ideological, "mission" travel is powerful because it is a key component of both Israeli national identity building and the American Jewish battle against assimilation.

Further, the numbers and more import tantly the visibility of such mass travel leave a lasting impression among Poles. There are deep feelings of resentment among Poles that guilt is being displaced from German perpetrators of the Holocaust onto Poles. Their own victimhood and suffering at the hands of the Nazis is not only ignored, but in the process they are retroactively cast as Nazis. An example of this Polish sentiment is visible in the recent Polish government petition to UNESCO to officially change the name "Auschwitz Concentration Camp" to the "Former Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration...


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pp. 36-41
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2012
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