odpowiedz…please respond installation 2011
My grandparents were Polish Jews and my mother was a refugee from Nazi Europe. I stumbled into “the field” of post-Communist Poland’s Jewish tourism industry in the early-1990s, just as it was developing. Something of a Jewish tourist myself, I was fascinated by a curious new category of social actors emerging amidst massive socio-political transformation and historical reckoning: non-Jewish brokers and producers of Jewish heritage – musicians, artists, guides, founders of Jewish museums and festivals and shops and cafes. Often overlooked, mis-categorized as Jews, or condemned as pretending to be, I wanted to know more about who these culture-brokers were, and how they understood their vocations.
Was their apparent celebration of Jewishness an appropriation and distortion of “my” cultural heritage, for comforting consumption in a country still struggling to assimilate hard truths about its own treatment of Jews before, during, and after their extermination by the German Nazis? Or were these people engaging in an activist memory project, returning an important thread of history to the public eye, and helping to rethink their own national story? Most other Jewish tourists I met pronounced the former. I was drawn to those culture brokers who increasingly struck me as engaged in the latter.
My own shift from a position of suspicion to one of inspiration had methodological repercussions. I was no longer content to mine my fieldsite for extractable data that would contribute to theory far away, among strangers. I wanted to speak alongside my research interlocutors, not only about them. I thought I might highlight, emulate, enhance and expand what I saw as their best efforts, to be complicit in and add my voice to what I increasingly saw as a shared cultural project: deploying historical knowledge, personal memory and experience, and cultural convictions to create social space for encounter and dialogue, and subvert constraining mythologies and ossified emotional postures common to both Polish and Jewish national projects.
I began experimenting with ways to curate the fruits of my ethnographic research in the public spaces these culture brokers had created, to re-work and re-frame the cultural materials I had gleaned locally and re-insert them back into the flow of social life there, to be considered – and responded to – by people to whom they mattered uniquely. See the results of one project here:
Erica Lehrer is assistant professor in the departments of History and Sociology/Anthropology at Concordia University, where she holds the Canada Research Chair in Post-Conflict Memory, Ethnography and Museology. She is the director of CEREV (Centre for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the aftermath of Violence) . Her work thus far has focused on post-Holocaust Jewish culture; memory, heritage, museums, and tourism; ethnography; intercultural dialogue; and public scholarship. She is co-editor of Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places (Palgrave 2011) and Revisiting Jewish Poland: Tourism, Memory, Reconciliation (University of Indiana 2012).