In 2020, our “Lucky Jew” project helped us initiate a partnership with the City of Krakow. The “Lucky Jew” project began as a satirical response to the popular problematic practice of buying and selling stereotypical images of Jews with coins, which purport to bring economic luck. A live Jewish performer situates himself in public contexts like marketplaces and other popular spaces and sells images of himself and his own coins. He tells people that they are luckier than the other images, as he is in fact a real Jew, whereas the other images are not. We performed the work several times over three years (https://www.festivalt.com/en-lucky-jew/).
The project attracted the attention of Robert Piaskowski, the senior advisor to the Mayor of Krakow for culture, who was convinced of the need to partner with us to educate the public of the problems with these objects and determine their future. CentrALT established a task force of 4 Jewish leaders in Poland and around the world who, together with the city’s Villa Decius Institute of Culture city, organised several round table events. Over a period of 4 months, some 60 participants including Jewish and non-Jewish leadership from around Poland met to investigate and unpack the problems of “Lucky Jews”. This process resulted in a formal public recommendation by the city to ban the sale of “Lucky Jews”.
of the participants of the round table discussion “Addressing Poland’s ‘Lucky Jews’”
Ethnographers date the first appearance of figurines of Jews in Poland to the 19th century. These figurines were hand-carved in wood and then painted. They typically depicted Jews in traditional dress reading, playing instruments, or working as merchants. Jews—who represented a tenth of 19th-century Polish society—were not the the only demographic depicted by folk artists, mythologized and reduced to caricature: market stalls were abundant with figurines of Cracovians and highlanders, as well as of individuals from various professions, all of which were accorded secret meanings and connotations. Jews, as the ever-present neighbors of Catholic society, appeared frequently in iconography and folklore. Beekeepers even created wooden beehives in the shape of bearded figures in skullcaps—constructions that brought food, abundance, and joy.
The Holocaust changed the landscape of Polish society, and folk representations changed with it. Figurines of Jews timidly began to return to museum competitions, the crafts guild, and Kraków market stalls after World War II, in a completely different symbolic context marked by loss. Echoing the prewar tradition, they returned for good in the 1970s, largely as a result of folk art competitions.
The figurine of a Jew with a coin or moneybag first appeared in souvenir shops and stalls in the early 1980s, in the final decade of Communism, and it quickly became a symbol of prosperity, a charm guaranteed to bring financial luck. It’s now available in virtually every souvenir shop and crafts market in Kraków. Figures and pictures of this type, industrially produced, also began to appear at Emaus—the annual Easter fair in Kraków.
With the rise of this “Jew with a coin,” vendors selling traditional Jewish figurines at Emaus (figurines of Jews without coins) began to advertise their wares with slogans referencing the association with financial luck as well. In this way, a misconception developed in public consciousness that the phenomenon of the “Jew with a coin” is an old tradition in Kraków, with its roots at the Emaus market. With time, the traditional hand-carved figurines were replaced with plastic or mass-produced versions, often turned upside-down every Saturday to “shake the coins out.” But what functions as a lucky charm for some appears as a painful symbol to others, reopening unhealed wounds and calling to mind the stereotype of greedy Jewish financiers.
The “Lucky Jew” falls into a wide spectrum of discriminatory attitudes and practices; the ridicule, denigration, and caricature associated with the object bear the hallmarks of antisemitism. Representatives of the artistic community, MEPs, academics in the fields of ethnology, sociology, history, and Jewish studies, city activists, Jews from Poland and around the world have written in protest of these controversial souvenirs. The phenomenon has been the subject of a number of scientific publications, studies, conferences, and artistic interventions. In 2013, Canadian cultural anthropologist Erica Lehrer created an exhibition documenting and studying this phenomenon at the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków. The city has also received extensive messages from tourists outraged and hurt by the presence of such objects in this city that so painfully experienced the Holocaust and lost a significant part of its population. The public criticism is joined as well by loud expert opinions, including from Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, the media, and prominent figures in the cultural sphere.
The first round table meeting on this subject was organized in November 2020 by Villa Decius, the FestivALT Association, the Jewish Czulent Association, and the Autonomia Foundation. The images and objects were also the subject of talks at the Kraków Multicultural Festival. The conclusions from these meetings and discussions are unequivocal: the presence of these objects, as well as the inscriptions on the stalls (“Żydki” [meaning, roughly, “Yids”], “Żydki for good luck,” etc.), have negative social and cultural effects, and consequently damage the public image of Kraków. The next step was consultations conducted by representatives of the city, cultural institutions, and the social sphere, as well as organizing the next round table meeting.
The meeting, organized by the Villa Decius Institute of Culture and the Mayor of Kraków’s Plenipotentiary for Culture, was held with the participation of representatives of the Kraków City Council, the Department of Culture and National Heritage, the Department of Tourism, the Department of Social Communication, the Department of Administrative Affairs, city and road administrators, and representatives of the scientific community, trade and craft associations, museums (including the Museum of Kraków and the Ethnographic Museum), and the Jewish community. A number of opinions were presented at the meeting, confirming the unequivocally antisemitic dimension of the “Jew with a coin” figurines. It was agreed that the presence of these figurines in souvenir shops and at fairs represents a lack of cultural reflection and sensitivity in the area of so-called difficult heritage. The objects have also been compared, by Jews around the world and many scholars, to such antisemitic practices as burning of a Jewish effigy, the beating of Judas, and caricatures of Jews in far-right pamphlets and publications.
The participants of the round table discussions decided that the city, which lost nearly all of its Jewish inhabitants in the Holocaust, must take all possible steps to keep this phenomenon out of the public spaces of the city. The inappropriateness of this phenomenon was emphasized due to the complex history of Catholic-Jewish relations, as well as the cultural and social effects of the images and the damage to the city’s reputation. The participants committed themselves to taking all possible measures to counteract the phenomenon through the close cooperation of various branches of the municipal government, including informing and educating the public, and broad social engagement around the subject of difficult heritage.
Only thanks to the cooperation of business owners, tourism organizations, guides, representatives of the city, educational institutions, and cultural institutions (especially museums), will it be possible to make the sensitive to the consequences of irresponsibly selling antisemitic objects.
Additionally, it was emphasized that there is an urgent need to promote and support traditional craftsmanship among sellers, stall owners, and fair organizers in the spirit of understanding the complexity of the phenomenon and the emotions it causes. The proprietors of commercial centers (market halls, malls, etc.) and event organizers will have the opportunity to make informed decisions about the objects being sold and where they come from.
The participants of the round tables call for reflection on this subject and for taking all possible actions to cause a positive change in the ways this phenomenon is thought about, considered and addressed—a concrete change in our shared reality.
This phenomenon is socially and culturally harmful, difficult to accept, and painful for some of our inhabitants, as well as for a significant number of tourists visiting our city hoping to learn about the space of coexistence their ancestors inhabited as well as the genocide that targeted their families. The city, which experienced such incredible 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.
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.
The participants of the round table discussions decided that the events organized in the urban space are a showcase, as well as an element of our culture and tradition, through the prism of which we are perceived not only by residents, but also tourists and guests, whose opinion translates into the international image and potential, including tourism potential, of the Kraków. Hence, all participants of the round table discussions undertook to take all possible actions within their areas of influence to educate and make their audience sensitive to the harms of this phenomenon and remove this practice from the public space of a city with such a complex and difficult history.
- Robert Piaskowski – Culture Representative of the Mayor of Kraków
- Dominika Kasprowicz – Head of the Villa Decius Institute for Culture
- Marcin Hanczakowski – City of Kraków Roads Authority
- Elżbieta Kusina – President of the Federation of Tourist Guide Associations
- Bogusław Sonik – Member of the Polish Parliament
- Tomasz Popiołek – Head of the the Administrative Department of the Kraków City Hall
- Anna Kurzejowska – Head of the Department, Department of Culture and National Heritage
- Michał Czerski – Head of IMAGO Folk Art Center Ltd.
- Kazimierz Nowak – President of the Board of IMAGO Folk Art Center Ltd.
- Marcin Hanczakowski – Head of City of Kraków Roads Authority
- prof. dr hab. Adam Kaźmierczyk – Head of the Institute of Jewish Studies at the Jagiellonian University
- Dr. Edyta Gawron – Institute of Jewish Studies at the Jagiellonian University
- prof. dr hab. Zdzisław Mach – Institute of European Studies at the Jagiellonian University
- Małgorzata Oleszkiewicz – Senior Curator, Ethnographic Museum of Kraków
- Katarzyna Piszczkiewicz – Project Coordinator, Ethnographic Museum of Kraków
- Magdalena Zych – Curator, Ethnographic Museum of Kraków
- Łucja Piekarska-Duraj – Assistant Professor, UNESCO Chair on Holocaust Education
- Magda Rubenfeld Koralewska, Co-director of FestivALT, Jewish Heritage of Kraków Advisory Team
- Katarzyna Wysocka – Head of the Department of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Nicolaus Copernicus University
- Monika Chylaszek – Head of the Social Communication Department of the Kraków City Hall
- Barbara Bieniek – President of “Secession”, the Professional City Guides Association of Kraków
- Anna Grabowska – Head of the Podgórze Cultural Center
- Dr. Andrzej Siwek – National Heritage Institute, Head of the Local Department in Kraków
- Janusz Kowalski – President of the Małopolska Chamber of Craft and Entrepreneurship in Kraków
- Tadeusz Jakubowicz – Chairman of the Jewish Religious Community of Kraków
- Dr. Małgorzata Jantos – Jagiellonian University, Member of Kraków City Council
- Nina Gabryś – Advisor of the Mayor of the City of Krakow on Equality Policy
- Izabela Błaszczyk – Head of the Kraków Festival Office
- Tomasz Daros – Chairman of the Promotion and Tourism Committee of the Kraków City Council
- Piotr Laskowski – Polish Chamber of Tourism, Małopolska Branch
- Elżbieta Kantor – Head of the Tourism Department of the Kraków City Hall
- Izabela Biniek – Head of the Kraków Cultural Forum
- Dr. Michał Niezabitowski – Head of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków
- Piotr Kempf – Head of the Municipal Greenery Administration in Kraków
- Krzysztof Cieciński – Polania Foundation in Kraków and Reconciliation Foundation in Kielce
- Erica Lehrer – Professor, Concordia University, Montreal
- Anna Makówka-Kwapisiewicz – Czulent Jewish Association
- Piotr Kwapisiewicz – President of the Czulent Jewish Association, Member of Interdisciplinary Team of Cooperation for the implementation of the “Open Kraków” Programme realization, Jewish Heritage of Kraków Advisory Team
- Artur Wabik – Jewish Heritage of Kraków Advisory Team
- Karolina Harazim – PR and Communication Specialist for FestivALT
- Michael Rubenfeld – Co-director of FestivALT
- Berenika Błaszak – Jewish Heritage of Kraków Advisory Team
- Jakub Niewiadomski – Kontakt Magazine Editor
- Jason Francisco – Emory University, Atlanta, FestivALT
- Jakub Nowakowski – Head of the Galicia Jewish Museum
- Maria Lempart – Zwierzyniec House, Museum of Kraków Branch Manager
- Ignacy Dudkiewicz – Kontakt Magazine Editor-in-chief
- Joanna Wawrzyniak – Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Sociology, University of Warsaw
- Eugeniusz Duda – ret. Senior Curator, Historical Museum of the City of Kraków