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.