Jewish Studies Jewish Heritage and Cultural Revival in Poland
Marta Duch-Dyngosz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0213


Interest in the Jewish heritage and Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland, has grown in recent decades. The cultural phenomenon has been termed variously as the “Jewish renaissance,” “Jewish revival,” or “Jewish boom” and has demonstrated enormous complexity. The phenomenon consists of two intertwined social processes: a Jewish communal revival and a Jewish heritage celebration, the latter of which includes various cultural initiatives undertaken by outsiders to the Jewish community. The opening of the Eastern Bloc after the collapse of communism made foreign institutional support and funding for the renewal of Jewish communal life available. The growing popularity of heritage and Holocaust tourism enabled the gentrification of neglected historical Jewish neighborhoods and sites and renovation or restoration of material Jewish heritage. Increasingly people have pursued their Jewish roots upon discovering them. The “unexpected generation”—the generation of Poles born between the late 1970s and the early 1990s who claimed their Jewish ancestry as teenagers—has emerged carrying their own notions of Jewishness. Simultaneously, growing interest by non-Jewish Poles in Jews and all things Jewish has been observable in the multiplication of Jewish-style cultural products, in the opening of new cultural institutions (of which the most notable is the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw), and in the emergence of Jewish studies programs at many universities. However, as many Polish cities and towns hold Jewish festivals of some kind and concerts of klezmer music are organized all over the country, artists, intellectuals, and scholars approach the “Jewish revival” with widely divergent views. They do so mainly because Poland was the geographic epicenter of the Holocaust. Little remains of Poland’s large, vibrant, and diverse Jewish communities, which, prior to World War II, constituted approximately 10 percent of the Polish population. Until recently, most historical and sociological analysis of Jews in Poland after World War II concluded that the Jewish community will soon end. Estimates of the number of members of Jewish communities range from a little over 7,000 to 20,000 people. Polish society remains overtly homogenous in terms of its ethnicity and religion, identifying mostly as Roman Catholic. Therefore, the revival of Jewish culture and the preservation of Jewish memory have been carried out mainly by non-Jews and, for the most part, for non-Jewish audiences. Consequently, the phenomenon has been often perceived as a simulacrum, as a cultural theft lacking authenticity—morally ambivalent endeavors concerning Polish complicity in the Holocaust and widespread anti-Semitism. Yet, some scholars have put forward another reading of the Jewish cultural revival, one that is not mere imitation and reproduction of the lost heritage but rather one that entails the reinvention of a new Jewish culture, which may create a new Jewish/non-Jewish contact zone. The latter approach acknowledges the role that both Polish and foreign Jewish communities have played in the phenomenon.

General Overview

Gruber 2002 discusses the visible and growing interest in Europe in Jewish history and culture in the context of a scarce presence of indigenous Jewish communities. Consequently, Gruber, an American journalist, critically engages with a “virtual Jewish world,” as she calls it. While traveling through Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic, she observes various manifestations of the phenomenon: the reclaiming of the material heritage, the representation of Jewishness through tourism and museums, and, to a much lesser extent, a revival of Jewish local communities. A stimulating debate on the boundaries of Jewishness, Jewish culture, and identity is carried on in the collection of insightful articles published in Bronner 2014, critically referring to Gruber’s category of “virtual Jewish culture.” A similar approach is found in Lehrer and Meng 2014, which points to the opening of spaces marked as “Jewish” to support various forms of Jewishness in Europe. The history of urban Jewish sites and political attitudes toward Jewish heritage in Poland and in Germany during the communist era after World War II marks Meng 2011. Lehrer 2013 is an ethnographic case study of the historic Jewish district in Krakow., Kazimierz, scrutinizes different social practices toward a Jewish heritage performed by both Jewish (foreign and local) and non-Jewish actors in the context of the growing tourism phenomenon in present-day Poland. By the same token, Waligórska 2013 thoroughly explores a case study of the klezmer revival as one of the most vivid examples of non-Jewish involvement in contemporary Jewish life, comparing present-day Poland and Germany. Both authors perceive a “Jewish boom” as an opportunity to create a social sphere where Jews and non-Jews may encounter and discuss the difficult and painful heritage of the Holocaust. Steinlauf 1997 examines changes in how Poles perceived the murder by Nazi Germany of three million of their fellow Jewish citizens during the war. Michlic and Melchior 2013 provides a concise history of coming to terms with the difficult memory of the Holocaust in Poland, identifying the most important mnemonic practices and mnemonic products that have opened up the Polish public sphere to Jewishness and other representations of otherness as well. A collection of essays, Potel 2009 describes the work of memory with respect to Jewish heritage undertaken in Poland that the author witnessed during his stay in Poland. Daum and Rudavsky 2005 deals with generational shifts in the contemporary Jewish community regarding the need for conciliation with the non-Jewish world. The film tells the story of Menachem Daum’s family, who go on a highly charged emotional journey to Poland and rediscover the history of their ancestors and the people who rescued them.

  • Bronner, Simmon J., ed. Framing Jewish Culture: Boundaries and Representations. Jewish Cultural Studies 4. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2014.

    The articles, divided into three thematic parts, tackle the question of defining contemporary Jewishness.

  • Daum, Menachem, and Oren Rudavsky, dirs. Hiding and Seeking. New York: First Run Features, 2005.

    The film presents an ultra-Orthodox perspective on religion after the Holocaust. Filmmakers attempt to come to terms with Jewish attitudes toward non-Jews and put an end to the transmission of hatred from generation to generation.

  • Gruber, Ruth Ellen. Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

    A lively reflection is made by an American journalist on a growing interest across Europe in Jewish heritage, its various manifestations, and the motivations of participants.

  • Lehrer, Erica. Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

    This ethnography of Jewish heritage tourism in Kraków’s much discussed Kazimierz district documents thoughtful involvement with the Jewish past in trying to understand the different motivations of the individual social actors involved.

  • Lehrer, Erica, and Michael Meng, eds. Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.

    The collection of essays written by thirteen scholars offers a comprehensive analysis of the real and imagined Jewish spaces in Poland, their meanings, (ab)uses, and legacy.

  • Meng, Michael. Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674062818

    A comprehensive study of how Jewish sites after World War II fell prey to the dynamics of memory and political instrumentalization in major cities in Poland and Germany.

  • Michlic, Joanna Beata, and Małgorzata Melchior. “The Memory of the Holocaust in Post-1989 Poland: Renewal—Its Accomplishments and Its Powerlessness,” In Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Postcommunist Europe. Edited by John-Paul Himka and Joanna Beata Michlic, 403–450. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1ddr8vf.19

    The concise historical summary of the most relevant manifestations of both the instrumentalization of the memory of the Jews and the Holocaust and a self-critical inquiry of shameful aspects of past Polish-Jewish relations.

  • Potel, Yean Yves. La fin de l’innocence: La Pologne face à son passé juif. Paris: Éditions Autrement, 2009.

    DOI: 10.3917/autre.potel.2009.01

    A collection of essays on the work of memory of members of Polish society regarding Jewish culture and history.

  • Steinlauf, Michael. Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

    A complex analysis of how Poles have dealt with the consequences of the Holocaust. Provides insight into the complex political, historical, and psychological background that impacted the memory of these tragic events in Poland after World War II.

  • Waligórska, Magdalena. Klezmer’s Afterlife: An Ethnography of the Jewish Music Revival in Poland and Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199995790.001.0001

    An ethnographic comparative study of klezmer revival in Poland and Germany studied through the perspective of various individuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

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