I find myself working here in a very crowded field. At all the commemorative events, concerts, and exhibitions, I’m one of many taking photos, writing notes, and doing interviews. The press is there, along with filmmakers, and even other ethnographers. And more often than not, the organizers of events are doing their own documentation for their websites or promotional materials. All of this is a testament of the widespread interest in Jewish heritage in Poland. It’s also, I think, reflective of our mediated lives. Everything is posted on Facebook or a blog such as this one.
It was very different when I began fieldwork 25 years ago. In the Bieszczady Mountains in particular, local residents sometimes wondered if I was a spy. Why else would I spend so much time in such a remote place asking all kinds of questions? I was the only foreigner and the only anthropologist in the small town of Lesko, where I lived for a year.
I’ve had two interesting experiences in the last week alone. First, I interviewed an Israeli woman who lives in Poland. She works as a Hebrew teacher and she is doing a documentary film about what it means to be a Jew (Żyd) in Poland. Over the course of our conversation, I shared some of my own quest for information about my family. Now she wants to interview me for her film. And then today, while attending an educational event sponsored by the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews and coordinated by a local museum curator and schoolteacher, I met another ethnographer who is traveling with the exhibition and interviewing people involved with Jewish heritage work in each of the places that are part of the tour.
And next week, I will be the guest speaker at the unveiling of a commemorative monument at the site of the Jewish cemetery in Piła.
This all brings home the impossibility of being an invisible, objective observer in the research I am doing. The participant side of participant-observation is far more robust. I am a collaborator, a lecturer, and myself a subject of other peoples’ projects. All I can do is keep writing notes about how intertwined I become in the various projects I witness. In Jewish Poland Revisted, Erica Lehrer made a similar observation about her “postmodern field site” in Kazimierz, Krakow’s former Jewish quarter which she describes as “transnational, increasingly cyber-mediated, tangled up with flows of tourism” and a site for “the confrontation, dialogue, or at times blurring among ethnography and other practices of cultural representation, translation and brokering” (2014:7; she also describes it as a crowded field of endeavor). I can only wonder at how invisible this all was to me until I started asking the right questions and finding people who are seeking their own answers to them.