Poland’s “Lucky Jew” Statues

Poland’s “Lucky Jew” Statues: between philosemitic idolatry and Anti-Semitic demonology
by Alexander Naraniecki

This article engages with David Jacobson’s article in eJewish Philanthropy on Friday 17 August 2012 titled Are We Guilty of Gross Prejudice Towards Poland? This article has stimulated much debate on online blogs and discussion groups on Facebook and other social media particularly in regards to the reference to the “Lucky Jew” statues that were mentioned. This cultural artifact is more than just a quirk of contemporary Polish culture as it potentially says more about the complex role that Jews play in the Polish collective cultural memory and national psyche. Often outside of Poland, Jews often comment on these statues with a mixture of curiosity and repugnance. They are seen as concrete symbols of the historic Polish antisemitism associated with Menachem Begin’s statement that Poles “drink antisemitism with their mother’s milk”. However Poles themselves do not necessarily see the statues in this regard, rather these idols of folk worship associated with domestic prosperity is itself as much a symbol of the complex of Polish attitudes towards Jews which resist easy categorization into either antisemitic and “philosemitic”.

These statues sold in tourist areas are strange cultural artifacts, both disturbing and attractive. The statues generally depict an old grey-haired and bearded Jewish man in traditional Chassidic costume sometimes with a coin or a begging bowl. These statues are generally not realist depictions, but rather child-like characters, endearing rather that imposing, appealing to the child-ego in every adult. Describing “lucky Jew” statues as racist is highly problematic; saying they are insensitive, not politically correct, sure. Rather, these objects may best be understood as a kind of idolatry. These statues appear more an attempt to engage with the Jewish past of Poland, however, in a primitive way. How they are used, who buys them and whether there are multiple uses remains to fully explored. A serious empirical exploration of this cultural phenomenon would illuminate this strange side note to Polish-Jewish relations that results in not inconsiderable cultural misunderstandings. Such idols are objects that deserve greater anthropological attention.

It may be the case that people with these statues in their houses may well be more sympathetic to Jews than those who do not have such statues. Also can such statues help to create sympathetic identification with Poland’s Jewish past? Or are they a demonological reminder of certain folk memories previous generations’ interactions with Jews in which Polish peasants often viewed themselves as economically exploited by a Jewish cast? Such questions need to be explored. Sure these artifacts may be understandably offensive; however, it is important to appreciate that those with such statues in their houses may not think them this way. They may be understood in the same way that “lucky Buddha” statues are used (often by Poles and Jews) in Western countries such as Australia and the US. They may also be compared with the way people collect Matryoshka dolls. People who have Matryoshka dolls are not saying all Russians are all matronly peasant women, rather the statues conform to a psychologically necessary and emotionally comforting archetype. Anthropologically, I think the “lucky Jew” is more the Jungian “old man” archetype, a kind of sacred object to ensure financial prosperity, presented in a childlike form. This idol would appear in cabinets and shelves alongside other ‘sacred’ artifacts that are likely to be found in the Polish house, such as Crucifixes, family portraits and vodka glasses. It is however, understandable that these objects may cause a disturbing sense of unease for Jews. Not only are ‘idols’ particularly offensive from a religious point of view reminiscent of violations against the commandments against idolatry, but that the Jewish old-man archetype, depicted in painting in most Jewish households, is in a rather quixotic form, a kind of object of reverence for some Poles.

What this at very least shows, is that the Jewish presence in Poland has left a psychological imprint on the national psyche, in a very complex way, which cannot easily be categorized in simplistic terms. These idols are at times antisemitic as well as endearing, sometimes more one than the other. Once the anthropological significance of such idols are better understood, a decision may need to be made as to whether such object ought to continue to be sold and have some sort of intrinsic cultural legitimacy, or weather as tourist trinket for Western visitors which simply perpetuate anti-Semitic stereotypes. The difficulty with these artifacts is that they may support an array of uses, some positive, such as elementary attempts at re-engaging with Poland’s Jewish cultural past or indeed one’s own Jewish ancestry; as well as negative stereotyping. Either way, images of particular cultural groups ought not to remain unreflexive, but deserve critical examination by educationalists, academics and policy makers. Given the legacy of the Holocaust, and post-war pogroms against Jews, the later communist era anti-Semitism and post-communist nationalist resurgence, in an era of increased cultural ‘openness’ in Poland such aspects of culture deserve particular scrutiny.

Such problematic, and in my opinion disturbing cultural artifacts such as “lucky Jew” idols need to be seen in relation to what the Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schuldrich described as the “thaw” in Polish-Jewish relations which have for much of the twentieth century been “frozen”. Such a renewal of acceptance and interest in Jewish culture in Poland suggests that Polskosc (Polishness) and Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) are not mutually exclusive, but that Poles in Poland are finding that Polishness requires a Jewish component. The resulting celebration of the ‘revival’ of Jewish culture ‘without Jews’ may be hard for many Jews to understand given the supposedly anti-Semitic character of the country, however such a phenomenon is quite understandable for anyone familiar with Polish history, culture and mentalité. This national resurgence in Jewish culture in Poland is not about cynical self-interest, nor about guilt as some may suggest as the phenomenon goes beyond what would be expected if this were the case. I suggest that it is about the need to fill a national void that becomes more apparent as Poles reflect upon their past, their literature and art and the landscape and architecture of their towns and cities. The notion of Poland as containing philosemitic characteristics which sees Jewish history and culture as an intrinsic component may be a difficult proposition for many Jews outside Poland. How the Jewish community will react to this will also raise many questions.

Dr. Alexander Naraniecki is a Research Fellow at Deakin University’s Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation in Melbourne Australia and is active in Polish-Jewish dialogue in Australia as well as contributes to the Holocaust educational syllabus in Poland.

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Comments

  1. Debbie Seiden says

    I am curious about what would link “Jew” with “lucky”in the mind of a contemporary Pole, in a country where the Jews were really “unlucky” in their demise and disappearance from the community landscape during the shoah.
    If these statues represent for some a link to a pre war nostalgic memory of a Poland that included both Jews (and better times?) then perhaps the mixed message of the statue reads…
    Jews are greedy, but their success is linked nonetheless to God’s favor.
    Link to Jew (despite the Jew himself) = link to God’s favor.

  2. says

    Dr. Alexander Naraniecki’s posting is full of evocative insights.

    Most Jews are surprised to hear about the “lucky charm Jewish dolls.” If you get off the beaten path of Warsaw – Tokochin-Krakow-Auschwitz you discover that the dolls are more pervasive.

    In Lodz at the local Jewish themed restaurant gives you a doll, when you pay your bill. The little doll of is of a Hassidic attired Jew with full beards holding a grosz (penny). The restaurant’s central Jewish feature besides a violinist playing music from “Fiddler on the Roof,” is a life size Hassidic doll with payot with an old time cash register and the groszene up to his waist.

    In Gydinia a beauty parlor removed its lucky charm Jews when a Jewish customer expressed her dismay. Indeed most Poles don’t think of these dolls as problematic. (When I was a child in the 60’s my Polish born mother had a doll of a chimney sweeper in her china closet in Phoenix, Arizona).

    I enjoyed the stereotypes and folks ways that apparently Polish Jews and Polish Catholics seemed to share. This is hardly the encounter between the core of Polish Catholic culture and Polish Jewish culture that people may be seeking. A diverse and more confident Polish Jewish community needs to come in to existence before that conversation can happen in a serious way.

    When 19th Century Shtetl attire frames your ideas of Jews and Judaism it is hard — for Polish Jews and Polish Catholics — to think of Jews in the way most modern Jews like to think of themselves. Many Jews do not identify with Jews dressed in the costumes of Hassidic groups. Many modern Jews feel uncomfortable and even resent the costumes. The costumes reflect Crown Heights and B’nai B’rak and the people that wear them in public spaces are off the reservation! Encountering that stereotype in Poland is even more startling for many visiting Jews. There seems to be a bit of internal anti-semitism and also some embarrassment.

    The real everyday visible anti-semitism in Poland is in the sports language on the walls of train stations. When Jews are described as the opponents in a football match the expression “beat the Jews!” and other such descriptive language abounds.

    Yes, we do need more exploration and conversation between living representatives of both cultures.

    Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak
    Executive Director
    Beit Polska, the Progressive Jewish Community in Poland

  3. Miriam Finder Tasini says

    Mr Jacobson has addressed a crucial problem of in the history of the Polish Jewry and our relationship with the Polish non-Jews. I am Jewish born in Krakow Poland and my parents carried out me as a baby just ahead of the Germans. I returned to Poland for the first time as a professor to help establish a new psychoanalytic institute. This gave me the opportunity to explore my family and Jewish family history in Poland. My book summarizing my research “Where Are We Going” will be published in October.

    King Kazimierz the Great ( and wise) invited the Jews to Poland in the fourteenth century. In the past 600 hundred years have made vast intellectual and commercial contributions to life in Poland. Our intellectual and artistic contributions are continuing to be recognized. The establishment of the Museum and the music festivals represent the acknowledgment of Jewish creativity.

    During my numerous visits to Poland in the past twelve years I have had the opportunity to witness efforts to reestablish Jewish life at Beit Warszawa in Warsaw and the reopening of the Jewish synagogues in Krakow.

    Unfortunately over the years as I have spoken about my experience in Poland the survivors and their heirs always raise the question of the recovery of Jewish property.

    The unrecovered Jewish properties in Poland are estimated to be over 30 BILLION dollars. The failure to recover the industrial properties established and built by my grandfather taken over has been a very discouraging experience. The properties have been taken over initially by Germans and subsequently by the Polish government.

    Polish government will need to reevaluate the policy started by the communists which might be regarded as antisemitic and follow the restitution policies of the other European countries.

  4. Brian K. says

    What arrogance of the above comments – they all forget that it was Poland who allowed the Jews entry and relative peace for over 600 years, and that the majority of Poles (i.e. Polish Catholics) suffered almost as terribly as Polish Jews during WW2.

    Poland owing restitution? Give me a break – Poland is still owed restitution from Germany and Russia, the two countries that attacked and took control of its lands in the first place. Stop griping about Poland “owing restitution” and go over to the real perpetrators – the Russians and Germans.

  5. Rochelle Henner says

    If Brian K were so confident of his response, why not leave a last name? As far as Jews and Poles suffering almost equally – you need to do a little math – 90% of Poland’s Jews were killed in WWII; Jewish life in Poland was wiped off the map. Less than 10% of Catholic Poles were killed during the war – a great deal of suffering, but Polish Catholic life obviously was not destroyed. And of course if there are no survivors, who is there to worry about the property confiscated by the government, or for that matter, by “neighbors”.

  6. ?ukasz Klimek says

    Hello Rochelle,
    I agree that, by percent, more Jewish Poles were killed than Catholic Poles. But we are talking about people not numbers. I think that what Brian wanted to say is that everyone lost family members, suffered humiliation and experienced fear. Germans were killing people not only in the ghetto.
    As for property loss, it’s was injustice and it should be given back. If it’s possible.
    Dear Rochelle, are You aware that half of polish pre-war teritory was given to Joseph “Uncle Joe” Stalin by our “allies”? Do You know that many towns and cities were in ruins? That communists confiscated private property to destroy middle and upper classes? That millions of people were expelled from East? Often they were given houses of their Jewish countrymen. Also many buildings in Poland are not original, but copies rebuild after the war.
    I live in house build by my father, so I don’t feel guilty, but I do feel sorry. Most of ordinary Poles simply don’t understand why should they pay for German invasion and Soviet domination. Many descendants of Polish Jews live in Canada, USA and Australia. How would they feel if some native demanded his ancestors land back?
    I don’t know why Miriam didin’t get her grandfather’s property back. Maybe it was bureaucracy’s fault. I wish her all the best. Not only her family suffered a material loss but she was also deprived of historical legacy.
    Please don’t judge Poles too hastily. If it wasn’t for foreign occupation and imported regime, we could have been neighbors.
    P.S. I’m sorry for any mistakes. English is not my first language.