Memory in Fragments: Reassembling Jewish Life in Poland

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

Marysia Galbraith and Clay Nelson in the News

Dr. Marysia Galbraith

Galbraith book coverAs covered in The Crimson White and A&S Desktop News, Dr. Marysia Galbraith has received a third Fulbright award to continue her longitudinal study of identity in Poland. Dr. Galbraith, who has worked in Poland for over 20 years, was awarded the Fulbright to investigate whether Jews in Poland self-identify as Jewish and Polish. This study expands on ideas outlined in her recent book, Being and Becoming European in Poland: European Integration and Self-Identity, which examines Polish self-identity as part of the European Union.

As highlighted in the Tuscaloosa News and UA News, PhD student Clay Nelson has received a graduate research assistantship from the Office of Archaeological Research (OAR) and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to look at Creek homeland sites. The goal of the project is to finds links between the archaeological record of the Tennessee Valley and sites in Alabama and Georgia. Nelson will be advised by Dr. Ian Brown and Eugene Futato, deputy director of OAR. Nelson’s goal is to better understand what was happening in the Southeastern U.S. after European contact.

Graduate Students Receive Awards

Dr. Jason DeCaro with Honors Day 2014 awardees Francois Dengah, Paul Eubanks, Clay Nelson, Erik Porth, and Rachel Briggs

We’re very proud of our students, who continue to earn numerous accolades for their efforts in advancing anthropology. In the spring 2014, there were numerous award winners.

Paul Eubanks was the winner of the 2014 Bob Work Award for Scholarly Excellence in Archaeology for a paper entitled “The Timing and Distribution of Caddo Salt Production in Northwestern Louisiana.”

Dr. Jason DeCaro with Honors Day 2014 awardees Francois Dengah, Paul Eubanks, Clay Nelson, Erik Porth, and Rachel Briggs
Dr. Jason DeCaro with Honors Day 2014 awardees Francois Dengah, Paul Eubanks, Clay Nelson, Erik Porth, and Rachel Briggs

Kareen Hawsey and Paul Eubanks were the 2014-15 co-winners of the David and Elizabeth DeJarnette Endowed Scholarship, which is awarded at the annual spring DeJarnette barbecue at Moundville Archaeological Park. David DeJarnette, a southeast archaeologist, was the first anthropologist at the University of Alabama. The DeJarnette Scholarship is awarded each year to support graduate research about Moundville or Moundville-related topics.

Adviser Bill Dressler with Best Dissertation Award winner Francois Dengah
Adviser Bill Dressler with Best Dissertation Award winner Francois Dengah

Lauren Marsh, a 2014 graduate in anthropology, won a Fulbright Award from the U.S. State Department to serve in Sichuan Province, China as an English Teaching Assistant and conduct research on the Nutrition Literacy of Infant Caregivers during 2014-2015.

Max Stein, a PhD student currently conducting fieldwork in Peru, was the 2014 winner of the Allen R. Maxwell Endowed Anthropology Scholarship. This scholarship honors the late Professor Allen Maxwell, who was a pioneer anthropology of Southeast Asia and a longtime and much admired faculty member of our department. Professor Maxwell dedicated his career to the kinds of ethnographic and linguistic research that this scholarship is designed to support.

During Honors Week (March 31 – April 4), numerous Anthropology students were recognized for excellence. A committee of faculty emeriti selected Dr. Francois Dengah for Outstanding Doctoral Thesis. Elizabeth Wix, Lessye Demoss, Luke Donohue, and Paul Eubanks were recognized as Graduate Council Fellows. Kareen Hawsey was awarded a National Alumni Association License Tag Graduate Fellow, which is given to a resident of Alabama with potential to make an outstanding contribution to the people of the state. Brass Bralley was recognized as a McNair Graduate Fellow, which are awarded to low income, first-generation college students, or members of a group traditionally underrepresented in graduate education.

Finally, the January 2014 round of the Graduate School Research and Travel Awards, which is available several times a year, was particularly tough, with 16 submissions. This is testimony to the efforts students and professors are giving to producing excellent proposals. We are delighted that all proposals submitted by the Department to the Graduate School received some funding. January 2014 awardees include doctoral students Rachel Briggs and Lynn Funkhouser and master’s students Achsah DorseyEmma Koenig, and Elizabeth Wix.

Oths, Knight, Persons, Lynn, DeCaro, and Galbraith Receive Awards

Department of Anthropology promotional video
Dr. Kathryn Oths
Dr. Kathryn Oths

Dr. Kathy Oths has been selected by the College of Arts and Sciences as an A&S Distinguished Teaching Fellow for 2014-2017. This is such a wonderful honor and so richly deserved. It serves as a fabulous bookend for Prof. Oths having recently been selected as an NAA 2014 Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award recipient.

Drs. Jim Knight and Brooke Persons were part of a multi-national team recognized by a National Award of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba 2013. The team interpreted excavations at El Chorro de Maita in Cuba and identified it as a post-colonial contact indigenous community and cemetery. It is the first site of this type and has been recognized as one of the most important Cuban social sciences achievements of 2013.

Dr. Christopher Lynn was the recipient of an Arts and Sciences CARSCA (College Academy for Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity) grant for a project entitled “Retention and Emotional Salience of Evolution Education via Comedy and Hip Hop.” In collaboration with Dr. William Evans of Telecommunication and Film, this project will use survey and skin conductance methods to test the impact of evolution education when delivered via hip hop playwright Baba Brinkman’s award-winning “Rap Guide to Evolution” show versus a stand lecture format.

Dr. Marysia Galbraith
Dr. Marysia Galbraith

Drs. Jason DeCaro and Marysia Galbraith were awarded Research Grants Committee support for their projects “The Culture of Child Caregiving in Mwanza, Tanzania” and “Jewish Heritage in Poland: Remembered Pasts and Imagined Futures,” respectively.

Dr. Galbraith also has the rare honor of receiving a third Fulbright award to conduct her Jewish-Polish heritage project, which will also involve documenting and recovering her own Polish heritage. There is little precedent in anthropology for projects like Dr. Galbraith’s, which document changes in self-identity and views of life from teen to adult. As a Fulbright Scholar, Dr. Galbraith will also be affiliated with Adam Mickiewicz University, which will enable her to connect and collaborate with Polish scholars.