Poland's mantelpiece Jews


Some people have porcelain cats on their mantelpieces; others have ceramic Buddhas. In Poland, people have small statues of Jews.

The wooden or clay figurines (above, a selection), found in markets across the country, generally feature thin men with long faces and large noses.

Some wear Chasidic clothing, others play music or walk the dog. More controversially, there are Jews piggybacking on the devil, and others holding coins.

Opinions vary over what the figurines represent. For Dr Shimon Samuels, Director for International Relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, some demonstrate Polish superstition regarding Jews.

"They are sold in huge numbers outside football matches and people buy them to bring luck to their side," he said. "But if their team loses, then the Jews are blamed."

They show Jews as mythological creatures

Dr Samuels described the figurines as caricatures that persist as Poland's "phantom limb syndrome… A limb has been amputated but the body still wants to scratch, in this case, the missing Jews.

"The automatic clientele for figurines of stereotypical Jews gripping silver coins is the tip of the iceberg. Below the waterline there are many problems which need to be worked on."

An American anthropologist who curated an exhibition of the figurines in Krakow said Jewish culture was deeply rooted in Polish consciousness.

Erica Lehrer said that the figurines represented many different stereotypes, as well as a desire to remember. "They embody some bits of historical memory of Jews as seen through their mostly peasant neighbours' eyes - but mixed with myth, sometimes nostalgia, and after the war, occasionally empathy."

Dr Lehrer, who works at Concordia University in Montreal, curated an exhibition, Souvenir, Talisman, Toy, at the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Krakow last year, which has recently published its catalogue, Lucky Jews. "The figurines do suggest that Jews are seen by many Poles as much as mythological creatures as unique individuals," she said. "But folk art is also a difficult form for expressing individuality."

Dr Lehrer agreed that the figurines showing a Jew holding a coin drew on a long history of antisemitic imagery. "It's hard to cleanse the figurines of that no matter how positively some Poles say they intend this image to be. The idea of the moneyed Jew as a sinister character has deep roots in the Christian world."

Though the figurines can be traced to the era before the Second World War, when 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland, they became particularly popular after the fall of Communism. There are now around 20,000 Jews living in the country.

"Poland is making incredibly significant progress in embracing and working through its Jewish history and heritage," said Dr Lehrer.

"Young people in particular are doing amazing cultural projects that recognise Jewishness as part of their own inheritance."

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