Unsettled Heritage. Living next to Poland's Material Jewish Traces after the Holocaust

Weizman, Yechiel
Anzahl Seiten
306 S., 30 Abb.
$ 45,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Zuzanna Dziuban, Institute of Culture Studies and Theater History, Austrian Academy of Sciences

In recent years, many important studies have been published on the aftermath of the Holocaust in Poland. These studies have examined both the broader political dynamics within the country and the complex fates of Jewish survivors.1 Intervening in this scholarly discussion, Yechiel Weizman’s "Unsettled Heritage" proposes a fresh perspective on the postwar period. Indeed, "Unsettled Heritage" examines the postwar period through the prism of the material, political, and affective trajectories of sites of worship and Jewish cemeteries that survived in small provincial towns after the Holocaust. Spanning four decades, from the immediate postwar period until the 1989 political and economic transition in Poland, Weizman’s book builds upon meticulous archival research to reveal a fascinating – and acutely uneven – power relationship negotiated between local authorities, national bodies, and Jewish organizations, all of which have laid claim to the material legacy of the hundreds of years of Jewish history in Poland that were almost completely annihilated by the Holocaust. The book is also supplemented by a short discussion of the post-1989 period.

Although "Unsettled Heritage" is careful to acknowledge postwar attempts by Jewish survivors and various Jewish organizations to reclaim the lives of Jewish people in Poland and recover their prewar and wartime communal properties, the book primarily focuses on the practices and discourses revolving and evolving around “Jewish spaces” as told by non-Jewish Poles. "Unsettled Heritage" is a historical and anthropological study about the perceptions and affective dispositions of people confronted daily with the material traces of a largely absent minority that has been brutally murdered. Moreover, his book speaks to a broader body of scholarship entangled in the complex repercussions of political violence for populations and communities inhabiting the forcefully deserted spaces of the “Other.”2 Simultaneously, based on a thorough reading of Polish and international academic works on postwar Poland, "Unsettled Heritage" proposes an important intervention into this specialized field of research.

The unquestionable value of Weizman’s study lies in its in-depth engagement with countless documents pertaining to Jewish cemeteries and sites of worship created by those who decided their fates in postwar Poland. These documents include rulings by the national legislature, letters sent by representatives of local governments to national bodies, and the responses they received. In his book, Weizman documents hundreds of such exchanges and analyzes their explicit content and implicit undertones. He critically examines the rhetorical strategies and stylistic devices found in the myriad of requests to repurpose or demolish synagogues and liquidate Jewish cemeteries, many of which are sites of wartime massacres, and identifies meaningful patterns within them. Indeed, his approach is compelling and innovative. By employing the tools of critical discourse analysis, Weizman unpacks the discursive and rhetorical strategies used by local officials to effectively absent Jews in their localities and position Polish people as the legitimate “inheritors” of the material traces of this community.

The bureaucratic discourse of local governments in small towns across Poland was, in Weizman’s view, not so much descriptive as performative – it articulated a desire for a complete “disappearance” of Jews and “actively shaped and legitimized the demographic order in postwar Poland” (p. 61). Subsequently, "Unsettled Heritage" goes on to argue that the letters sent by local mayors and other provincial officials ruling over the former shtetls played an active role in shaping the language concerning Jewish spaces (as “absent,” “formerly Jewish,” and having been neglected by those who had “disappeared”), which was still quite prevalent in Poland. Countering the often-articulated assertion that it was the state socialist government that, from the outset of its rule, was behind the (often violent) misappropriation and erasure of “Jewish spaces,” "Unsettled Heritage" shows that it was essentially a bottom-up development. By dwelling on the dichotomy between the attitudes of the state and local political figures towards Jewish communal heritage, Weizman clarifies that while local governments tolerated (and even participated in) the widespread plunder and abuse of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, the state fiercely condemned such practices, at least in the immediate postwar years. Only later did it adopt a local perspective on Jewish heritage, mainly to seek popular legitimacy.

It is Weizman’s engagement with the multiple instances of vandalism and profanation that befell Jewish religious sites in Poland that renders "Unsettled Heritage" a rather unsettling read. Throughout the period Weizman analyzes, Jewish cemeteries and synagogues were scavenged, destroyed, littered in, and even used as public toilets, and the human remains buried in Jewish necropolises were subjected to various forms of violence. This sense of “unsettlement” is made even more palpable by Weizman’s engagement with sources containing Jewish accounts filled with pain and despair over the postwar fate of Jewish sites of worship and prewar burial sites, as well as the suffering of Holocaust victims. This serves as a tangible reminder of the affective reality shaped by the violent practices of local Poles and the “pragmatic” bureaucratic decisions of local governments.

Nevertheless, this affective reality is not foregrounded in the book. Instead, "Unsettled Heritage" focuses on the troubling character of Jewish material heritage for non-Jewish Poles. Each chapter of the book thematizes a sense of unease surrounding “Jewish sites” – the “unsettling” heritage in Poland. Weizman employs the concepts of ambivalence (rooted in the very ambivalent status of the Jews), liminality (of Jewish sacral spaces and cemeteries), abjectuality, and haunting presence (sometimes taking the form of evil and revengeful Jewish ghosts) to unpack this sense of unease. On a more pragmatic domain, the unsettling character of this unsettled heritage seems to speak to enduring fears surrounding the ownership status of “Jewish sites” and lingering anticipation over their eventual return and restitution. Notably, this fear exists alongside straightforward antisemitic “obsessive anxiety” (p. 165) regarding the potential harm that could be inflicted on Poland’s image abroad by so-called international “Jewish circles” lamenting the destruction of Jewish cemeteries and sites of worship. The book neither fully resolves the tension between these two dimensions nor brings into full relief the implicit sources of unease and the explicit politics towards Jewish sites articulated in provincial practices and bureaucratic discourse. A resulting ambivalence, therefore, runs through "Unsettled Heritage" and remains, in my reading, a structuring principle of this fascinating book.

1 See, for instance, Łukasz Krzyżanowski, Ghost Citizens. Jewish Return to a Postwar City, Harvard 2020; Joanna Tokarska-Bakir , Pod Klątwą. Społeczny portret pogromu kieleckiego, Warszawa 2018; Natalia Aleksiun, Returning from the Land of the Dead. Jews in Eastern Galicia in the Immediate Aftermath of the Holocaust, in: Jewish History Quarterly 246, 2 (2013), pp. 256–270; Konrad Matyjaszek, Produkcja przestrzeni żydowskiej w dawnej i współczesnej Polsce, Kraków 2019; Ewa Koźmińska-Frejlak, Po Zagładzie. Praktyki asymilacyjne ocalałych jako strategie zadomawiania się w Polsce (1944/1945–1950), Warszawa 2022.
2 See, for instance, Yael Navaro-Yashin, The Make-Believe Space. Affective Geography in a Post-War Polity, Durham 2012; Alice Von Bieberstein, Treasure/Fetish/Gift. Hunting for ‘Armenian Gold’ in Post-Genocide Turkish Kurdistan, in: Subjectivity 10, 2 (2017), pp. 170–189; Ugur Üngör / Mehmed Polatel, Confiscation and Destruction. The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property, London 2011.

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