In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Materiality and Holocaust Memory: Activating and Theorizing Poland’s Unquiet Places
  • Erica Lehrer (bio)

In the summer of 1992, I participated in a new program at the budding Research Centre on the History and Culture of Jews in Poland at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, on ul. Batorego (est. 1986, the first of its kind at a Polish university). Titled “Tracing the Jewish Heritage in Poland,” it gathered a cadre of established and emerging experts—among them site specialists Adam Bartosz, Eugeniusz Duda, Leszek Hońdo, Sławomir Kapralski, Monika Krajewska, and Andrzej Paluch—who presented the state of local scholarship, cultural production, and material heritage to a motley handful of foreign Jews, including two Holocaust survivors, a filmmaker, a Judaica librarian from UCLA, and a few students like myself, along with two or three local Polish “philosemites,” an emerging category of non-Jewish individuals ethically or emotionally motivated to engage with their country’s forgotten Jewish past.

The challenges of language, knowledge, and cultural sensitivities on both sides made this a bumpy ride, but the most profound confrontation took place during the group’s minibus tour across the southeastern Polish countryside, visiting former Galician shtetls and listening to local inhabitants’ recollections of their Jewish neighbors. It was a deeply unsettling experience and exposed a vast array of assumptions I didn’t realize I had. The most central was that Poland was a Jewish void. Instead, I was met by a landscape littered with the physical traces of the country’s prewar Jewish community of 3,300,000 people. I was an aspiring photographer then, and the roofless synagogues that now served as forest floors (the biblical polychrome murals obscured by leafy canopies) and the farmer’s field cobbled with a path of matsevot (tombstones whose Hebrew letters faced up under the wooden wheels of a hay-laden cart) formed indelible images. [End Page 239]

Such images and fragments would become increasingly meaningful to roots-seeking foreign Jews with Polish ancestry (like myself), as well as to local Jewish and non-Jewish Poles who began to rediscover this landscape in the following decades.1 My most moving encounter was meeting an elderly Catholic stonemason, one Jan Sasak, in the formerly half-Jewish town of Przeworsk, who had made with his own hands a monument to his murdered Jewish neighbors at the site of the local bus station, which the municipality had built by paving over the town’s former Jewish cemetery.2 Gnawing at the edges of this inspiring, humble gesture was the fact that Mr. Sasak took pains to ensure that his neighbors did not know we were visiting him to express appreciation for an act whose heroic interpretation they did not share.

In Poland, the geographic epicenter of the Holocaust, relations with Jewishness are often mediated by material objects, which stand in for the missing, murdered, or exiled people to whom they once belonged. The war and its aftermath separated Poland’s Jewish community from most of its physical property, which fell into the hands of the surrounding Polish Catholic population. The existence of local, vernacular Polish meanings for the country’s wide variety of formerly Jewish objects and sites became a topic of interest to researchers beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These “disinherited” objects, which have been incompletely rein-herited by non-Jewish Poles, carry the curious Polish name pożydowskie (“post-Jewish”).

It is to the Polish scholars, artists, and activists fighting to retain the visibility of the country’s Jewish past (in the face of both oblivion and other Polish efforts to erase it) that I dedicate these brief reflections. Despite some deep hermeneutical (and perhaps political) disagreements and a diversity of approaches to inquiry and knowledge production,3 I treat these individuals here as an interdisciplinary intellectual-ethical community defined by a shared field of inquiry. Their engagement with these once-Jewish [End Page 240] sites and objects constitutes an important act of heritage custodianship, redefining both sides of that term and calling into being multiethnic communities of care and implication4 that contrast with the government’s abysmal record on Jewish property restitution. Intertwined with this grassroots activity...