Zydki: Polish Figurines of Jews

Another chapter in Polish-Jewish relations.

Print this page Print this page

They stand in small clusters, praying. They hold carving boards with pig's heads on them, or haul large canvas bags with money signs on the front. Often, they have long beards and huge noses. Occasionally, they take the form of piggy banks, their insides carved out to make room for coins and dollar bills.

"They" are carved figurines of Jews, hewn out of wood, sculpted from the insides of the branches that shade Polish forests, and are nearly ubiquitous in tourist traps in Poland. Understanding who makes these small wooden zydki (the diminutive, and often pejorative term used for "Jews"), and who buys them, can reveal at least a little bit about contemporary Poland--and its relationship to the 3,000,000 Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust.

A Tourist Reports

On a bitingly cold October afternoon in 2007, I was wandering through a gift shop in Eastern Poland when I stumbled on a shelf full of Jewish figurines. The first one I noticed was a "rabbi" with an oversized nose, a miniature kippah and tallit, and huge, sad, dark eyes. In his hands, he held a carved pig's head and next to him were more figurines, holding other objects: prayerbooks, Torahs, money bags.
zydki polish jewish figurine
My Jewish friends were appalled. When one asked the cashier who bought these figurines, and why, the cashier shrugged and said, "Poles. They keep them in their homes. For luck. They're like lucky charms. People think, for example, if you keep a rabbi with a moneybag in your living room, it will help you get rich."

Are these figurines, I wondered then, Polish rabbit's feet? And if so, were the woodworkers who carve them--and the folks who buy them--guilty of turning Jews into good-luck charms, of fetishizing Judaism?

The History of Jewish Images in Polish Folk Art

Jewish figurines in Poland pre-date the Holocaust and the Holocaust travel industry that emerged in the wake of Communism. For centuries, representations of Jews were commonplace in Poland, used originally as talismans and amulets--folk symbols that occasionally cast Jews in typically anti-Semitic roles, and tended to have some ritual or supernatural function.

For example, at a church festival in Southern Poland it was an annual tradition to hang an effigy of a Jew from a tree and set it on fire. Like effigies and various other representations of Jews in Polish folk art, Jewish figurines represented Polish ideas about and ambivalence toward Jews and Judaism.

According to Dr. Erica Lehrer, an assistant professor of history at Concordia University in Montreal, there's been a process of evolution in the way Jews have been represented in Polish folk art over the past hundred years. She explains that as late as the 1800s, these representations were treated like talismans among Polish peasants. But after the war, when Polish folk art began to be valued by the government, the Communist state started sponsoring competitions on carving--which included figurines of Jews.

Though their form was similar to pre-war figurines, in the 1970s and 80s the symbolic significance of these figurines shifted, and took on political meaning. At this time, public discussion of Jewish culture and history was strictly controlled by the Communist government. Figurines of Jews became a political icon for members of the Polish Democratic movement, representing not only Jews, but the struggle against a government which refused to teach about the Holocaust, or Jews.

The Tchotchke Market

But eventually, as Communism faded in the early 1990s and tourism increased, Jewish figurines transitioned from being politicized to being commodified. Polish artisans discovered there was a market for these figures, which had, in the intervening years, become souvenirs, tourist tchotchkes as likely to be bought by Jewish-Americans as non-Jewish Germans or Austrians.

Perhaps fittingly, Jewish visitors began to have an influence on the newest iteration of Jewish figurines. In conversation with Polish artisans, Jewish visitors began to explain what they found offensive, and what nostalgic. The market shifted to reflect these preferences, and rabbis holding Torahs began to appear on store shelves alongside Jewish figurines playing in klezmer bands. As a result, says Lehrer, "The figures became not just a Polish product but a product caught between Polish and Jewish people's ideas of the mythical Jewish past in Poland."

Today, Jewish figurines are as likely to be shaped by nostalgia as stereotypes. Some--like the ones I saw that October afternoon--still sport oversized noses and hold moneybags, but they are now mixed in with more marketable figurines that romanticize Poland's Jewish past.

Which may, ultimately, reflect the status of Judaism in contemporary Poland. Today, Jews and Poland's Jewish past are treated with a mixture of animus and nostalgia, awe and hostility, and the Holocaust tourism that helps support the Polish economy is both resented and revered. Like Jewish figurines, the real Jews who fill hotel rooms in Krakow and Warsaw occupy a place in the Polish imagination that straddles the line between actuality and fantasy, memory and the desire to forget.

Jordie Gerson

Jordie Gerson is a newly ordained rabbi and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.