The World that Ceased to Exist/ LUD 1995 t.79

Dublin Core


The World that Ceased to Exist/ LUD 1995 t.79


mniejszości etniczne i narodowe - Polska
Żydzi - Polska


LUD 1995 t.79, s.231-240


Goldberg-Mulkiewicz, Olga


Polskie Towarzystwo Ludoznawcze









PDF Text


Lud, vol. 79, 1995

Hebrew University




Studying a culture that an anthropologist has not had a direct contact with
is not a new phenomenon in our discipline. Already during World War II,
a seminar of Ruth Benedict inspired papers whose authors were drawing from
other, non-traditional sources, looking for materials that would replace a field
interview or observation (Mead, Matraux, 1953). The papers written in the
seminar concerned "inaccessible" cultures; the reasons why anthropologists
were not able to conduct their research in situ, i.e. among the people they were
interested, were of a political nature. The time of war created a specific
situation; on the one hand, it was difficult to cross the border, but on the other,
there was a need to acquire knowledge about societies that were either on the
enemy's side or that were conquered. Because of the post-war division of the
world, the methods applied in anthropological studies conducted at a distance
were for some time still continued and improved, despite repeated criticism
of the very essence of such studies and their purposes, and despite many
objections concerning the employed methodology.
In time, the methods developed in that period became outdated, and studies
conducted at a distance were discontinued. Nonetheless, it should be emphasized that they provided grounds for a discussion about the possibilities of
carrying out anthropological studies on cultures that ceased to exist at all as
a result of a disaster caused by the war. This refers also to the possibility of
studying the culture of Eastern European Jews.
The aftermath of the total extermination of Jewish people in the territory
of Eastern Europe during World War II was not only that the people were
killed, but also that to a large degree the material culture and the art that
represented that culture vanished too. The task that the anthropologists
interested in traditional Jewish culture had to face involved the development of
methods which would permit reconstruction of what had been destroyed
during the war. The task was the more difficult that in the period preceding
the Holocaust, studies on traditional Jewish culture had only just begun

(Weinreich, 1959) l. The first thing to do was then to start an intensive search
for all kinds of materials scattered outside the Jewish ethnographic literature
on that subject (Goldberg-Mulkiewicz,
1988). Particular authors to a large
extent relied on fiction in Yiddish which possessed a fair share of authenticity.
The ethnographic photo archives were extended, and their goal was not only
to collect old photo albums and family pictures, but also to copy the already
published photographs that were of value for the ethnologist2. A campaign
for the search for preserved works of art and culture was also organized, and
is still continued by museums. Recently, a campaign for documenting the
artifacts related to traditional Jewish art has been launched 3. There is no
doubt, however, that of all those sources of information about the traditional
Jewish community the most essential is direct contact with respondents,
and - if possible - with the area previously populated by the community. It
should be emphasized that the Jewish community was closely linked with its
traditional place of living. Such links, strengthened by many historical and
religious reasons, on the one hand united the Jewish community, but on the
other, separated it from the non-Jewish neighbors. In Eastern Europe, and
primarily in Poland, all these processes led to the formation of a specific
provincial Jewish culture whose model has been classified as a characteristic
cultural unit among other traditional territorial groups. Hence, by using the
commonly accepted name shtetl, we mean not so much a geographical area,
a definite place, an Eastern European town, as it may be suggested by
a literal translation of the word, but rather a Jewish community that lived
there4, a community of a specific structure, governed by its own, strictly
defined laws which, on the one hand, resulted from particular historical
processes, but on the other, remained subject to the commandments of Jewish
A standard approach often taken by scholars interested in the Jewish
town - which actually still seems valid - involves referring to the memory of
those who survived the Holocaust. Such an approach, however, often faces
many of obstacles that the contemporaries are not always aware of.
l The publications
which I am quoting in the present paper are certainly not lhe only ones
pertaining to the problematic. I believe, however, that they are lhe most characteristic or contain
the most interesting data.
l The
largest one is in New York in the YIWO.
3 The center of Jewish documentation
of traditional art founded at Hebrew University in
Jerusalem has in its archives descriptions and photographs of individual artefacts of all the Jewish
groups of the diaspora and Israel, including Poland.
4 The term shtetl that
I am using here in reference to the Jewish town does not imply that
I exclude the existence on the same territory of a Polish population next to the Jewish one. Still,
such an approach is justified by the homogeneity of the Jewish community and separate laws lhal
governed it.

Because of the tragedy of war only a few Jews from Eastern Europe have
survived. Those who came back to their homeland for a longer period of time
are exceptional, and we know only of few cases of Jews who decided to stay in
the same town in which, they had lived before. There are many, mainly
psychological, reasons for the above, which definitely reaches beyond the scope
of this paper. The research on the residual traditional Jewish communities in
Poland provides data about the mobility of Jews in the postwar period or
about the development of new local groups in which, however, one should not
look for traces of continuation of the tradition from before the war 5.
A large Jewish diaspora originating from the area of our interest to which
the anthropologist automatically refers does not constitute a group of uniform
cultural features - as it is assumed by most contemporary researches. On the
contrary, this community is highly differentiated, and the differences are of
various nature. It is very difficult to establish features that would unmistakably
identify those differences; nevertheless, I will try to indicate the aspects which
should not be neglected, especially since some of them are very helpful in
evaluating the material presently obtained from respondents.
For the contemporary researches, a crucial issue is the time when his or her
respondent left the area of our interest. Apart from such an obvious factor as
the age at which he or she left, it is also necessary to identify and take into
account the causes of displacement. Ideological reasons and involvement in
the Zionist movement highly contributed to a more objective opinion about
the Jewish population that stayed in Poland and its living conditions.
Departure caused by the growing anti-Semitism or by hunger left wounds that
were hard to heal and thus tinted the relations with subjectivism. The postwar
emigration - in particular its later waves of 1956 and 1968 - mostly
encompassed people engaged in the life of Polish society who only reluctantly
recollect the period under investigation. The problem of objectivism or of the
most often encountered idealization of the memories of one's youth, either
conscious or even unconscious selection of these memories (Goldberg-Mulkiewicz, 1991), will be left outside the scope of the present paper.
To properly define the research problematic and, as a consequence, to
obtain valid results, it is also important to take into account the place of
settlement of the contemporary respondent. For the most part, Jews that live in
the countries of diaspora, in particular in the United States or in South
America, observe the tradition inherited from their countries of origin 6 and in
5 This was proved by the field studies performed among the Jewish population
a local religious group in Łódź. M ost of its members settled down in this town after the war, yet
majority of them eame from the area that now is outside Poland.
ó Here we should
be very careful and distinguish the studies on the transformation
traditional provincial culture in groups of the diaspora from those which aim at reproduction
the traditions observed in the town.


the first place, from the town they or their parents left behind. The communities
living in Israel are engaged in this kind of activity to a much lesser extent. The
reasons for rather ambivalent attitudes of the inhabitants of Israel to their past
in the diaspora should be sought in their involvement in the problems of the
state. Besides, already in the interwar period the Zionist emigration consciously
reduced its ties with the country of origin, thus obeying one of the fundamental
laws of its ideology which advocated breaking with the tradition, developing
a new society, and building up a new country based on new and completely
different laws. Such an approach to the past was continued in the period of
formation and development of the state of Israel, which favored the unification
of its inhabitants coming from many different parts of the world. The basic goal
of many compatriots from Eastern European towns who were very active in
Israel was to save Jewish communes from oblivion. This has been manifested
first of all by publishing a book commemorating the past life in Europe
1991) and by organizing an event on the occasion of
any anniversary of the extermination of a particular community to commemorate those who were killed. The main concern of the compatriots is to
strengthen the ties among the former inhabitants of the town that presently live
on different continents and to pass down to the children and grandchildren the
memory of the native shtetl. However, most descendants are not interested in
studying their family past 7.
Taking into account the stratification of Jewish communities, we should
look for the traces of life in diaspora among the strata closer to tradition,
i.e. primarily among the orthodox Jews. They cultivate knowledge of the
language of diaspora, which is Yiddish, respect the traditional intragroup social
strafification, wear the old clothing of Polish Jews and observe some elements
of rituals brought from Eastern Europe. Without any doubt then it can be
claimed that the Hasidic groups, both in Israel and in other countries of
diaspora, continue some of the shtetl traditions contained in many aspects of
their culture. Still, we must remember that such Jews form self-contained
communities conforming to only one tradition, that of a definite Hasidic court,
which displaces other, no less important and sometimes even richer, components of the shtetl culture. If we rely on the Hasidic tradition only, we will
make an often committed mistake and overemphasize the importance of the
of the Hasidim to the global picture of life in the shtetl
community. It should be stressed that the popular image of a town inhabited
7 Evidence in support of a lack of close interest in the former town includes the fact that, when
asked about the place of origin of their parents, contemporary young people can often supply the
name of the town, yet in most cases they are not aware where it actually was or is, whether it was
big or small, etc. Only the recently started school trips of Israeli students to Poland have somewhat
strengthened their ties with the place of origin of their parents.

exclusively by the Hasidim is simply wrong; in most cases it is based either on
postwar literature or on mass media which in this way try to reconstruct the
world of Polish Jews that perished. Undoubtedly, the Hasidic groups constituted the most distinct and colourful social communities, and as such they
remained in the memory of their former neighbors, yet they were not the only
inhabitants of a Jewish shtetl.
By referring to the memory of our informers we force them to reconstruct
the world of their childhood and youth. As regards the settled society or
immigrant groups that were for many reasons displaced some time ago, this
reconstruction seems to be a relatively easy task. However, studying the Jewish
community, we deal with a different problem. In this case, the recollection of
the world of youth implies both the resurrection and extermination of this
world, which is why it is not always possible. Right after the war many
anthropologists had to give up their studies among the Jewish immigrants
because the respondents were not able to recollect the world that had ceased
to exist. Reluctance to remember the tragic past has been encountered by
anthropologists even to the present.
Studying a culture that perished in reality, but exists in the memory
inevitably imposes some restrictions on the topic under consideration. We
must be aware of the impossibility of obtaining some data, of the deformations
resulting from an ordinary process of idealization of one's past, of the stereotypization of the Eastern European Jewish tradition, and of the assumption by
the respondents of the structural model of the Jewish town that was commonly
accepted by fiction (Miron, 1981; Weissenberg, 1930), mass media or some
anthropological studies (Zborowski, Herzog, 1953). A scholar should not
ignore a frequently occurring phenomenon of subjection of the respondents to
the influence of other traditional societies, which blurs the recollected picture of
their hometown. Under the influence of their new societies the respondents
tend to submit their own recollections to those derived from the stories of their
present neighbors who in the past lived in a completely different region of
Poland, yet now at the new place along with the respondent form a group of
former residents of Eastern Europe.
Another factor that should be taken into account in a attempt to base our
studies on a model most closely related to the Eastern European Jewish town,
is that we also are subject to the process of mythologization. As we know,
myths differ and they do not have to be complementary. The most common
myth refers to the supposed dominance of Hasidic culture and its overwhelming influence on all walks of life in a shtetl. The Hasidic culture as the most
colourful feature of the Jewish community that destinguished it most visibly
from the neighbors has been most perspicuously preserved - as it was already
mentioned - in the memory of non-Jews. A considerable charge of mysticism,
so characteristic
of the Hasidim, created in the Jewish tradition

a unique picture of the Hasidic community. A direct consequence of the above
has been the myth of shtetl living in a state of ideal harmony, in accordance
with the law of the Hasidic tradition fixed in Jewish fiction and in other arts
such as film or theater. Beside this myth, there is also another one, widely
known from literature (Weissenberg, 1930), which shows the poverty of
a Jewish town and its hopeless life devoid of any prospects as well as the
necessity to rebel against such a situation 8. The third myth concerns the
picture of a town created by Księgi pamięci [Books of Memory] (Goldberg-Mulkiewicz, 1991) which overemphasizes the significance of the activity of
cultural and social organizations, in particular of youth groups cultivating the
ideology of Zionism.
Defying the commonly accepted mythologization of the traditional shtetl
and recognizing the need to collect materials from the respondents as quickly
as possible, a few years after the war studies on the atlas of Jewish culture and
language in Eastern Eurpe were launched; they were considered the most
important and also the most possible kind of studies to carry out (Weinreich,
1960). That implied a shift of focus from a local Jewish community to
a considerably larger group, including the core of the Ashkenazi Jewry as
a whole9.
The organizers of these studies, primarily conducted in the United States,
relied on a valid assumption that the language of immigrants remained the
most resistant to all kinds of influences that memory cannot resist. The results
of these studies have significantly extended the scope of knowledge about the
Jewish community in general. First of all, the studies provided grounds for
finding out and presenting on maps not only the difference in the dialects of
Yiddish, but also for formulating conclusions about regional differentiation of
particular cultural phenomena as well as about family and annual rituals and
traditional folk culture. Moreover, the results of the studies allowed the
formulation of a hypothesis suggesting a new division of the Yiddish society
into regional groups. They proved that the areas populated by Jews did not
overlap with the boundaries that marked cultural differences among the
non-Jewish inhabitants of the same area (Weinreich, 1962). It is regrettable that
contemporary anthropologists very rarely use in their studies the data from
this atlas, which are essential in research on larger areas. However, even
dealing with territories of a smaller geographical range, we should not forget
that the regional boundaries were often disturbed by the high mobility of the
Hasidic communities. The Hasidim visiting the courts of their saintly rabbis
which were sometimes very distant from one another met there inhabitants of
8 The conviction about common poverty of the Jewish masses in Poland before World War II
has been lingering on till today in many countries of the diaspora.
9 In time the studies have been expanded to include also the Askhenazi Jewry living in Europe.

other, often equally remote regions. From their gatherings, especially those
related to holidays, they brought to their hometowns traditions celebrated in
the courts of the rabbis along with elements of culture borrowed from their
coreligionists from other parts of the country. This was manifested by
of traditional music of other regions, tales and legends
constituting oral folklore, and the acceptance of individual components of
different rituals or elements of traditional clothing, particularly of men.
Another field that was relatively slightly affected by outside influence and
cultural transitions was oral folklore. This has been corroborated by the results
of numerous studies conducted mainly by Jewish folklore scholars in Israel and
in all countries of the diaspora. The folklore of Eastern European Jewry has
been the subject of many papers and publications based on the preserved
material. The aforementioned difficulties may ais o be encountered in other
fields of research. For reasons already discussed, they become particularly
significant when studies are conducted in Poland. Actually, the possibilities for
studying the culture of Polish Jews are limited to just a few areas of research.
ln thc first place, it has been possible to study the stereotype of a Jew in the
culture of Polish peasants. Research on this subject is mainly based on direct
field studies, nowadays conducted among the non-Jewish population (Cała,
1987) or on available sources that were not yet processed by ethnologists.
1980; Jastrzębski, 1989). We should, however, constantly keep in mind what is unfortunately not always respected in many
publications, that contemporary studies, and particularly field studies, are
implicated in the general conditions governing the process of stereotype
formation. Apart from the problem of emotional involvement of the anthropologists in the evaluation of material, scholars should not forget about the
many different factors that affect the process of stereotype development in
general, and in particular the stereotype of a Jew in Poland (Irwin-Zarecka,
Material-based studies whose authors aim at thorough examination of
specific problems of material culture or artistic handicraft have to draw from
former ethnographic publications, the already existing museum collections
(Frankel, 1975; Goldberg-Mulkiewicz, 1976) or from published or unpublished
field materials collected for other reasons, which contain interesting data
relevant to the conducted study (Goldberg-Mulkiewicz,
The centuries-long coexistence of the Polish and Jewish culture on the same
territory created conditions conducive to mutual borrowings. The first to show
interest in this problematic were folklore specialists on Polish and Polish-Ukrainian cultures (Franko, 1892) l o as well as on Jewish culture (Sadan,
la I do not think it is necessary to quote the all extensive literature
I consider I. Franko's work as the most representative in this respect.

on that subject, as

1980) 11. Later anthropologists extended their interests to include rituals and
folk art (Fryś-Pietraszkowa, 1989; Goldberg-Mulkiewicz, 1989). Nonetheless, it
seems to me that mutual borrowings have not yet been fully explored.
Enriching our knowledge with more data will undoubtedly contribute to
a better understanding of many aspects of both cultures 12.
H is really surprising how few objects of the traditional Jewish culture have
been preserved. The limits of this article do not permit consideration of the
reasons for this phenomenon, yet we must be aware that the material basis that
a contemporary ethnographer has at his or her disposal is very scarce13. Quite
often the museum or private collections that ethnographers may use lack the
most fundamental documentation concerning the function of a given object, its
provenance, and the name of the maker and owner. One should also remember
that such objects were frequently moved from place to place, even at the time
when they still functioned in the Jewish culture. They often travelled even
outside the country where they were made, which was the case of elements of
the dowry or components of synagogue furnishing and decoration, often
ordered in faraway places. Most often even the prewar collections do not have
appropriate documentation. Coming after the war across a Jewish cult object
in a local antique shop did not necessarily have to imply that it came from the
local area.
The only valid exceptions are cemeteries and the remaining synagogues
bearing the traces of the original decoration or houses that are used for ritual
purposes or in which Jews dwelled in the past. That group of objects, however,
is predominantly the subject of interest of art historians. Particularly rich are
the collections of tombstones found in Jewish cemeteries which are now being
taken care of by restorers or individual museums. The preserved inscriptions
and bas-reliefs decorating the tombstones, which are often of great artistic
value, may provide a significant amount of information. Unfortunately, the
research in this field has practically just begun and thus far has not reached
beyond the initial stage of documentation.
The popularization
of basic
meanings of Jewish symbols related to the tombs undoubtedly fosters interest
in Jewish culture in general, which does not, however, equal a systematic study
of this culture.
11 The arlicle was writlen and published earlier in Hebrew, but I am quoting from its English
version. It is not the only article of this author who in all his works expressed much interest in the
problem of the Polish-Ukrainian·Jewish
cultural frontier.
12 This problem
has been thoroughly and in an interesting way covered by Eugenia
Prokop-Janiec (1992) who, in the basis of the Polish-Jewish literature produced between the world
wars, showed the richness of the problematic involved in the study of the cultural frontier.
13 The reasons for this state of affairs were discussed in my paper devoted to the beginning of
the studies on the ethnography of Polish Jews and to the Jewish problematic in studies writlen in
Polish (Goldberg-Mulkiewicz,

In conclusion, we must agree with an assumption that the study of the
traditional culture of Polish Jews is possible, yet it requires both thorough
preparation and the compliance of the anthropologist with limitations that
cannot be surmounted.

Cała Alina




w polskiej






[The Image of a Jew in Polish Folk
Socjologii, Warszawa.

Franko Ivan
1892; 1893 Wojna żydowska, przyczynek
do studiów nad literaturą
ludową [The Jewish War.
A Contribution to the Studyon
Folk Literature], "Wisła" vol. 6, 7.
Frankel Giza



of Polish


in the Nineteenth

and Twelltieth


"Jewish Art" vol. 2.


w kulturze
wsi [Contribution
of the Jewish
to the Village's Culture], "Polska Sztuka Ludowa" 43, fasc. 1 - 2.


Goldberg-M ulkiewicz Olga









in Eastern



Review" vol. 2.

[A Figure of the Jew in Polish Folk
35, fasc. 3 - 4.
The Stereotype
of the Jew in Polish Folklore, in: Studies in Aggadah and Jewish
Folklore, cd. I. Ben-Ami, J. Dan, The Magnes Press, Jerusalem.
w etnografii
polskiej [The Jewish Problematic in Polish
Ethnography, "Lud" vol. n.










Sztuka Ludowa"






a żydowską

[Penetration of the Elements of Folk Art between the Polish and Jewish Community], "Polska Sztuka Ludowa" 43, fasc. 1- 2.
Księga pamięci a mit żydowskiego
miasteczka [The Book of Memory and the Myth of
a 1cwish Town], "Etnografia Polska" vol. 35, fasc. 2.
Irwin-Zarecka Iwona
The Jew in Contemporary
Poland, Transaction Publishers,
New Brunswick and Oxford.
Jastrzębski Jerzy
Żyd jako "obcy" ijako "swój" w kulturze wsi polskiej XIX wieku [The lew as "One of
Us" and as "One of Them" in the Culture of a 19th C. Polish Village], "Literatura
Ludowa" 33, fasc. 4 - 6.
Mead Margaret. Metraux Rhod
The Study of a Culture at a Distance, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Miron Dan
Der image frm sztetl, I. L. Perec Verlag, Tel-Aviv.
Prokop-Janice Eugenia
literatura polsko-żydowska
[The Polish-Jewish Literature between
the World Wars], Universitas, Kraków.

Sadan Dov

Plica Polonica", in: The Field of Yiddish, cd. M. I. Herzog, B. Kirsehenblatt-Gimblett,
D. Miron, R. Wisse Institute for the Study of Human Issues,
Weinreich Uriel; Wienreich Beatrice
Yiddish Language
and Folklore, "Janua Linguarum" vol. 10.
Wienreich Uriel
Wegen a naje.~ jidiszen szprach un kullur-atlas,
"Di Goldene Kejt" vol. 37.
Culture Geography
at a Distance: Some Prohlems in the Study (if East European
Jewry. Proceedings (if 1962 Annual Spring Meeting in American Ethnological Society,
27 - 29, Seattle.
Weissenberg Icchak Meir
A Shtetl, Emes Verlag, Moskva.
Zborowski Marek, Herzog Elizabeth
Life is with People - the Culture of the Shtell, International Universities Press Inc.


by Elżhieta




Goldberg-Mulkiewicz, Olga, “The World that Ceased to Exist/ LUD 1995 t.79,” Cyfrowa Etnografia, Dostęp 6 października 2022,

Formaty wyjściowe