Here is a brief summary of my research project in Poland:
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? It might appear that too little is left, or that any attempt to piece together fragments will just expose more horror, trauma, and death. After all, Poland’s numerous and diverse Jewish communities were destroyed in the Holocaust. The few survivors who returned after World War II were made to feel unwelcome by inhospitable neighbors and a political regime that demonized them. By 1968, nearly no Jews were left in Poland. A collective amnesia erased most remaining traces of Poland’s Jews. Physical reminders were torn down or repurposed, and even memories were pushed out of consciousness or silenced. Can anything be gained by revisiting all that has been lost?
I explore these questions on two levels. First, on the social level, I focus on what is actually being done with physical traces of Jewish culture. I have visited Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, including the places where no marker is left of their location. I have also gone to places where active memory work is being done, including commemorative monuments and websites. I have viewed museums and archives where some materials and records are collected. I have talked with curators, artists, historians, and others who engage with the objects of Jewish memory in various ways. From these explorations, it is clear that the silence surrounding Jewish culture in Poland has been challenged at least since the Solidarity period at the beginning of the 1980s, when rediscovering Poland’s historical ethnic and religious diversity was a way of protesting state socialist nationalism which limited all kinds of expressions of difference and freedom. The steady growth of interest in Jewish culture in Poland has been manifested most recently in major projects like Warsaw’s new Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, but also in much quieter ways in smaller communities all over Poland. I use ethnographic methods to examine the ways contemporary memory projects piece together the fragments of Jewish memory. If you know where to look, fragments of Jewish lives (and deaths) can be found even where whole Jewish communities and their most visible elements like synagogues and cemeteries have been destroyed. 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.
Second, I explore the fragments of Jewish culture on the personal level. Central to this is the archeology of my own hidden Jewish ancestry. I have dug up secret family photographs, pieced together the memories of living relatives, sifted through numerous archives and online records, and finally I discovered extended family I never knew I had—in Israel, the United States, and Europe. But not in Poland, where only scattered hints of my ancestors’ lives remain. In addition to tracing my own family history, I have been gathering the flashes of memory held by witnesses (and others who like me are witnesses of witnesses), as well as the efforts of contemporary Jews to revive the practice of Jewish culture and religion in Poland.