Memory in Fragments: Reassembling Jewish Life in Poland

My grandmother's family (in about 1918)
My grandmother’s family (in about 1918)

My research on Jewish heritage asks: what can be done with the fragments of Jewish culture that remain in Poland, sometimes hidden and sometimes in plain sight? And what value does such memory work have? I explore these questions on two levels: the social level where I focus on what is actually being done with physical traces of Jewish culture in the absence of living Jewish communities, and on the personal level via the archeology of my own hidden Jewish ancestry. These fragments can reveal something about the past, even if it is just in an incomplete and shattered form. And they can point toward the future—the possibilities that might emerge out of traces of memory.

A pool in the ground of a Jewish cemetery. Most of the gravestones were destroyed by the Nazis, and then the pool was built during the Communist period (Photo: M. Galbraith).
A pool in the ground of a Jewish cemetery. Most of the gravestones were destroyed by the Nazis, and then the pool was built during the Communist period (Photo: M. Galbraith).

For 1000 years, until World War II, Jewish culture flourished in the Polish lands, increasing to 10% of the population of the country (3 million people). Most were murdered in the Holocaust, and even the 300,000 who survived faced prejudice and persecution after the war. By 1968, nearly no Jews remained in Poland, and in the oppressive environment imposed by communist leadership, there was very little space to even talk about Jews, leaving the physical traces of their culture to be forgotten and destroyed.

I was fortunate to receive a sabbatical leave and a Fulbright Research Fellowship to spend the 2014-2015 academic year in Poland seeking out the fragments of Jewish life that still remain. I was affiliated with the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, where I taught one class per semester and participated in the Institute’s academic life. I travelled throughout Poland and beyond, visiting archives, conducting interviews and acting as a participant-observer at festivals, commemorations, and sites associated with Jewish communities and their brutal destruction. I also gave 10 guest lectures and conference presentations, half of which were in Polish (a real accomplishment for me—Polish is a challenging language).

The opening of the commemorative rock garden (lapidarium) for recovered fragments of Jewish gravestones, December 2014 (Photo: M. Galbraith).
The opening of the commemorative rock garden (lapidarium) for recovered fragments of Jewish gravestones, December 2014 (Photo: M. Galbraith).

Over the course of the year, I documented the profound contrasts between places characterized by what Iwona Irwin-Zarecka calls the “absence of memory,” and others dominated by an exuberant revival of interest in Jewish culture. These contrasting and often competing orientations are exemplified by one site in which a swimming pool was dug into the Jewish cemetery leaving no visible trace of its former use, and another in which the fragments of headstones were recovered and returned to the town’s physical and contemplative space in a commemorative stone garden. I witnessed the profound efforts many Poles, most of whom are not Jewish, have made to discover, uncover, celebrate, and reanimate the fragments of once thriving Jewish communities. These efforts hint at the possibility of redefining the often contentious relations between Poles and Jews and offer a pathway toward reconciliation.

Visiting my cousins in Israel, February 2015 (descendants of my grandmother's sister) (Photo: M.Galbraith).
Visiting my cousins in Israel, February 2015 (descendants of my grandmother’s sister) (Photo: M.Galbraith).

My more personal journey has led me to archival records of my ancestors, but more importantly to my living relatives, descendants of my grandmother’s siblings, and the possibility of another level of reconciliation. Significantly, I have no relatives left in Poland itself. I can’t even visit my family’s graves, or look at the houses where they used to live or the places where they used to worship. Nearly everything was destroyed. But I have reunited branches of the family that were lost to each other when my grandmother converted to Catholicism, and then were further dispersed in the US, Israel, and elsewhere after evading death in World War II.

This is not easy research because I am perpetually confronted with unimaginable acts of destruction and mass murder. What used to be will never return; there are no more Jews in most communities in Poland. And yet finally, 70 years after the worst offenses were committed, new life is emerging out of the ashes. I have been documenting this process of reassembly of the fragments of Jewish life in Poland.

Find out more about my research on my blog Uncovering Jewish Heritage (uncoveringjewishheritage.wordpress.com) and in a video of a lecture I gave in September 2015: “Memory in Fragments: Reassembling Jewish Life in Poland” (https://vimeo.com/146044703).

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