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'This reminds us Jews that we can't forget the Holocaust'

Why ‘Lucky Jew’ dolls are more popular than actual Jews in Poland

Going against long-held Polish tradition, Krakow’s municipality will slowly phase out the souvenir caricatures after acknowledging the trinkets are antisemitic

'Lucky Jew Doll' figurines purchased in the Polish cities of Krakow, Warsaw, and Zamosc. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
'Lucky Jew Doll' figurines purchased in the Polish cities of Krakow, Warsaw, and Zamosc. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

For 10 years, Polish tour guide Alicja Ziolo led groups around her native Krakow, where so-called “Lucky Jew” figurines and portraits of money-holding Jews are a souvenir of choice.

“In my father’s home, he has a little painting of a Jew counting money,” Ziolo told The Times of Israel. “He believes it is supposed to bring luck and prosperity to his household.”

During the past three years, Ziolo said she came to see the “negative connotations” of the Polish-made tchotchkes. Influenced by the opinions of Jewish tourists, Ziolo also took part in a community-organized discussion on the topic with other stakeholders in Krakow tourism.

“Talking to Jewish visitors made me see the inappropriateness of the dolls and paintings,” said Ziolo. “I don’t like them and I think we can rise above things like this.”

Before the Holocaust, Poland was home to 3 million Jews. Nearly all of them were murdered in Nazi-built death camps, and fewer than 15,000 Jews live in the country today. In other words, there are probably more “Lucky Jews” for sale in Poland than there are Jews.

According to Ziolo, the dolls have a long tradition in Polish folklore. Specifically, Krakow has for centuries hosted an annual Easter fair where Jew dolls with springs for legs — to imitate a Jewish man praying — became popular. Importantly, the dolls did not have coins attached to them and they were sold alongside dolls representing other ethnic groups in Poland.

‘Lucky Jews’ purchased in Warsaw’s old city, 2014. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Since 2017, the nonprofit CentrALT has sought to deepen understanding of the stereotypes behind the figurines and shop-side images of “Lucky Jews.” Known for tackling thorny issues in Polish-Jewish relations, CentrALT petitioned Krakow’s municipality and ultimately convinced them to declare the dolls and paintings antisemitic.

“The city, which experienced such tragedy during the war and the Holocaust, must be aware that certain items sold in the public sphere are perceived through the filter of these tragic events,” read a letter issued by the municipality in June, co-signed by 49 officials.

According to the representatives, “Only cooperation and dialogue will make it possible to change commonly held attitudes and remove these offensive figurines as well as the antisemitic inscriptions/signage on the stalls.”

After the letter was published, some Israeli media outlets reported the figurines had been banned in Krakow. According to CentrALT co-founder Michael Rubenfeld, however, there is no legal mechanism for a ban and attempts to impose one are a bad idea.

CentrALT co-founder Michael Rubenfeld as a Lucky Jew Doll in Krakow, 2018. (courtesy)

“There’s not actually been a ban,” Rubenfeld said. “What has happened is that the city has publicly stated that [the dolls and paintings] are antisemitic, and they feel they should be phased out.”

According to Rubenfeld, Krakow mayor Jacek Majchrowski has expressed “warm feelings” about Lucky Jew Dolls in the past. Last year, Majchrowski responded to a member of parliament’s inquiry about the figurines with a thumbs-up review.

“The purchase of such a figurine is nothing more than the purchase of a talisman that is supposed to magically ensure happiness and financial success, which rather boils down to a positive social perception of their functions,” wrote Majchrowski.

“This is also evidenced by the way the characters of such Jews are presented — jovial, friendly old men evoke warm feelings, associated primarily with resourcefulness and diligence,” wrote the Krakow mayor.

Three years ago, Rubenfeld dressed “Jewishly” and sold portraits of himself to Polish passers-by. Setting up a “Lucky Jew” stall, Rubenfeld sold self-branded paraphernalia — including mugs — to curious Poles of all ages, and recorded the stunt in a tongue-in-cheek video.

“If people are profiting off my luck, then I should be able to profit off my luck,” said Rubenfeld in the video.

Rubenfeld’s “provocation” attracted the attention of the mayor’s culture advisor, Robert Piaskowski, who started to work with CentrALT on the issue. Since the end of 2019, CentrALT has held three discussion forums and created several exhibits related to “Lucky Jews” for sale in Krakow.

Piaskowski told The Times of Israel that the municipality has come to view “Lucky Jews” as responsible for “opening unhealed wounds and evoking painful associations with the infamous antisemitic propaganda” of Nazi Germany.

The most photographed passageway in Kazimierz, the heart of Jewish life in Krakow, Poland, May 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

People from 130 countries call Krakow home, said Piaskowski, and the city has “a very coherent policy of remembrance” when it comes to World War II and the Holocaust. The municipality works with half a dozen local Jewish organizations to “negotiate this memory together,” he said, as demonstrated by the “Lucky Jews” issue.

‘It personified my feelings’

In October, Margaux Dinerman organized a trip to central Europe, including sites of Holocaust memory. The California-based tourist’s introduction to Jewish figurines and paintings did not take place in Poland, but 500 miles away in Prague’s historic Wenceslas Square.

“I saw ones made of glass and also ones that resembled Russian dolls,” Dinerman said. “But I was most bothered by some of dolls that show [the ritual slaughter of] chickens,” said Dinerman, who said some figurines — such as Jews with klezmer instruments — are less problematic for her.

‘Lucky Jews’ for sale in Krakow, October 2021 (Margaux Dinerman)

From Prague, Dinerman visited Krakow and the city’s Church of Saint Mary square. Strolling through the fabled market hall, Dinerman said she saw more than a handful of vendors selling “Lucky Jew” paintings and figurines.

“The general idea of the dolls I saw was that all Jews have money and control the world,” said Dinerman, who purchased a figurine to bring home.

“To me, it personified my feelings about being in Krakow. I want it to be a reminder that you can’t ever forget this history,” said Dinerman.

Following the genocide of European Jewry, the market for “Lucky Jews” went underground. With the reappearance of “Lucky Jews” in the late 1970s, Polish business owners started to turn paintings of Jews upside-down once a week to bring luck.

In Warsaw’s old city, Zamosc’s main square, or Bialystok’s market, “Lucky Jews” are a fixture at souvenir mongers. Earlier this year, media reported on candle versions of “Lucky Jews” sold largely online in Poland.

Pre-Holocaust ‘Jewish peddler’ figurine made in Germany. (USHMM)

Several historians have said that to some Polish citizens, the dolls reflect mourning the loss of the country’s Jews. CentrALT’s Rubenfeld said he agrees with that assessment.

“It sounds bizarre, but given how little reflection Poland has done on the psychological effects of the eradication of Poland’s Jewish people, the ‘Lucky Jew’ images began to give people feelings of comfort and nostalgia for a romanticized pre-war reality,” said Rubenfeld.

According to Lena Rubenfeld, co-founder of CentrALT with her husband, some Poles view buying “Lucky Jews” as “a tribute to the community.”

“This is a problematic stereotype but people don’t see it as a problem. They see it as a positive thing and buy them for their friends,” Lena Rubenfeld said.

To challenge people’s perception of “Lucky Jews” in Krakow, CentrALT is launching a public competition to designate the city’s “official” new Jewish souvenir. According to Rubenfeld, the market for Jewish figurines and paintings became so overheated that some manufacturing takes place in China now.

“We are trying to bring the society along,” said Michael Rubenfeld. “We want to change the consciousness of the buyers and sellers.”

In cyberspace, there has been a stunning proliferation of “Lucky Jew” marketing in recent years. According to a recent study on the topic, the “financial success” connotations of purchasing “Lucky Jews” has fueled the trend, which includes offering buyers elaborate “positioning” instructions for new paintings.

Annual ‘FestivALT’ put on by CentrALT in Krakow, Poland, 2019. (Courtesy)

According to researchers, “The phenomenon of trading figurines of Jews on the internet is truly contemporary, capturing the transformative journey of Poland from a socialist command economy to private facing capitalist enterprise, along with current tastes, purchasing trends, and new methods of marketing.”

The figurines are also sold by a handful of Polish merchants on Etsy, suggesting a market outside of Poland for what some of the sellers call “wedding cake toppers.” In general, Poland’s Jewish-themed tchotchkes produce a host of reactions in people, depending on the individual, said CentrALT’s Michael Rubenfeld.

“To be honest, if you look at most of the images with money, the Jews are rarely portrayed as malicious or ‘money grubbing’ — and where a Jew will look at an image of a Jew with money, they will instantly see something negative, a non-Jew in Poland might just see a Jew,” he said.

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