Real Jews are scarce in Warsaw, but ‘lucky Jew’ figurines are everywhere
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Real Jews are scarce in Warsaw, but ‘lucky Jew’ figurines are everywhere

Poles can’t get enough of the statuettes — little musicians, rabbis, merchants and bankers, with crooked noses and forked beards; some scholars fear they’re reinforcing the most dangerous of stereotypes

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Ryszard Kucharski's carved Lucky Jew miniatures on display in Warsaw (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
Ryszard Kucharski's carved Lucky Jew miniatures on display in Warsaw (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

WARSAW, Poland — Several dozen gray-bearded men wearing black skullcaps stand rigid in the shop beneath the Nozyk Synagogue, the sole Jewish house of worship to survive Nazi Germany’s annihilation of this city. Their unblinking eyes gaze mournfully ahead, but they haven’t gathered for prayers. They are on sale for $5 apiece.

Wooden and clay statuettes, known to Poles as “Zydki,” little Jews, populate homes and shops across the country, and far outnumber the remnants of a once populous Jewish community. In the past decade, half a century after three million Polish Jews were exterminated, their popularity in Poland has grown significantly.

The little Jews come in a variety of shapes and styles and hark back to the days when most cities in Poland were home to a centuries-old Jewish population. They are miniature musicians, rabbis, merchants and bankers, all sporting the distinctive beard and sidelocks of Orthodox Jews and wearing black frock coats. They are invariably elderly males fashioned in the likeness of anti-Semitic caricatures — crooked noses, forked beards and piercing eyes.

Are they anti-Semitic creations? Some experts hesitate to say so. But they’re certainly stereotypical, the scholars say, and the popularity of a subset of the genre — little Jews holding a symbolic one grosz coin or a bag of money — is seen as a particularly disturbing trend. These figurines are attributed with the ability to bring good fortune in monetary matters. They stand watch at cash registers and in offices.

Also popular are paintings of wizened old men counting coins, which are meant to be flipped over on Saturday so the Jew’s money goes into its owner’s pockets, not his own. Some come accompanied by a printed proverb: “A Jew in the room – a coin in the pocket.”

Remembering the past

Among the narrow cobbled streets of Warsaw’s Old Town visitors can find dozens of tchotchke shops hawking an assortment of wooden dolls and figurines, including ubiquitous Yiddish musicians.

“It’s a Jew. There used to be a lot here, but now there aren’t,” a shopkeeper in Old Town explained, talking about her assemblage of carved wooden figurines brandishing accordions, drums and cellos. “People buy them when they open a business for…” she said, pointing at a statuette holding a gleaming bronze penny, “for good fortune with money.”

More than three and a half million Jews lived in Poland before the start of War War II; today, there are only 20,000 at most.

The Lucky Jews are a shadow of Poland’s multicultural past, where Poles lived cheek-by-jowl with Jews, Germans, Ukrainians, Belorussians and Lithuanians, which ended after World War II.

Jewish miniatures on display in Warsaw (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
Jewish miniatures on display in Warsaw (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

Ryszard Kucharski, a woodcarver who sells figurines at the Old City’s barbican, began making Lucky Jews and other statuettes 25 years ago, when he was 27 years old. He said each of the two-inch linden wood miniatures takes about four hours of careful whittling, which he does by rote.

When he returns home in the evening, he paints on their sorrowful eyes, black clothes and gray beards.

He appeared a little confused when asked what the Jewish miniatures he had on sale were. Eventually, Kucharski explained that the little Jewish men he fashioned were memories of Warsaw past, as were the steel-clad knight and hooded executioner who stood beside them. They were as far removed from his reality, however, as the Santa Clauses, wizards and a solitary Satan on the shelves beside them.

Anti-Semitism or cultural icon?

Adam Szyc, the owner of a kosher food shop beneath the synagogue, said about 60 percent of his customers who buy the Jew statuettes are non-Jews, and they inevitably ask for the ones with the coin.

But he doesn’t carry Jews-with-coins, he said, because the synagogue’s rabbi objected to the message it sent.

Although the non-Jews who associate Jews with money may not necessarily be anti-Semites, the correlation represents a “narrow view of Jews,” Szyc said.

Dr. Erica Lehrer, an anthropologist at Montreal’s Concordia University, has studied the phenomenon of Jewish figurines for over a decade. She curated an exhibit last year in Krakow exploring the miniatures, their cultural significance and perceptions.

In a lecture in north Tel Aviv earlier this month, she explained that one popular Polish tradition of carving figurines originated in Krakow, where wooden toy figures were sold at an annual Easter fair. Jewish characters became popular around the mid-19th century. Only in the past couple of decades have the Easter toys holding coins transformed into talismans attributed with good luck, as well as into mementos of a bygone Poland in which Jews formed a merchant class.

She said that most Poles don’t consider Lucky Jews to be anti-Semitic, but instead represent a “longing for something that doesn’t exist,” a selective memory of the country’s past and a desire to tap into the Jews’ assumed power. “Some of these memories are mixed with mythology,” she said, referring to the stereotypical association of Jews with money. A rare few document images of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.

While Lucky Jews “certainly embody stereotypes about Jews,” Lehrer explained, echoing Szyc, they aren’t a clear-cut case of anti-Semitism. It’s a more ambiguous phenomenon. To some extent there’s a reverence of Jews involved in the culture of the Jew-with-coin figurines, she said, “expressions of nostalgia” for a “violently lost world.”

“In Polish folk culture, Jews were seen as both pious and immoral, wise and crafty, and connected to higher powers in ways that could be dangerous but also desirable,” she said.

‘This superficial approval cloaks a sinister view of Jewish influence over money and the market, creating a sense of distance and difference. It also conjures links with supernatural powers, instilling fear. It is only a small step between this allegedly positive image and suspicion, resentment, and finally hatred’ — Dr. Stanislaw Krajewski

“Today, one can see the continuation of folk superstitions about Jewish power in the ‘lucky’ figurines with coins, which is also colored by centuries-old Christian ideas about commerce as sinful, as well as European anti-Semitic ideas about rich Jews controlling the world.”

A recent study by a University of Warsaw psychologist found widespread Polish belief in a Jewish conspiracy to “control the international financial institutions” as well as the Polish economy and business sphere.

“Today, with a range of different kinds of figurines, as well as new generations of consumers including tourists, it’s hard to know which ideas, which memories, which myths the figurines represent for their makers and their buyers,” Lehrer said.

“It’s a phenomenon that shows how deeply rooted Jews are in the Polish consciousness,” she said. But she admitted she finds the growing trend of Jews holding and counting coins “disturbing.”

Dr. Stanislaw Krajewski, a Jewish-Polish professor of philosophy, wrote in the catalog accompanying Lehrer’s exhibition that he “resent[s] how the negative statement made by these figures is smuggled under the veil of something positive. It is said to be a sign of reverence for Jewish merits, abilities and magical powers.

“But this superficial approval cloaks a sinister view of Jewish influence over money and the market, creating a sense of distance and difference. It also conjures links with supernatural powers, instilling fear. It is only a small step between this allegedly positive image and suspicion, resentment, and finally hatred,” he wrote.

Despite their prevalence, Lucky Jews make no appearance in the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Although the museum features an exhaustive chronicling of the centuries of Polish Jewish history, its exhibit for the decades following the Holocaust is noticeably brief and largely ignores the gradual revival of Polish Jewish life in recent years.

“We had to be very selective in post-’89,” Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the museum’s curator, said in an email. She noted that curators did give the figurines two pages in the museum catalog. “If we had been able to show objects [in the gallery] we would have included them.”

Lehrer said she’d like to bring the exhibition to Israel, perhaps at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot-Museum of the Jewish People, but fears that the statuettes might serve only to reinforce Israeli over-simplified perceptions of Poles. Reactions by Jews and Poles to the Krakow exhibition published on its website range from outrage to thanks.

“I would like people to think of these figurines in a more complicated way,” she said.

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