Zydki: Polish Figurines of Jews

Another chapter in Polish-Jewish relations.

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They stand in small clusters, praying. They hold carving boards with pig’s heads on them, or haul large canvas bags with money signs on the front. Often, they have long beards and huge noses. Occasionally, they take the form of piggy banks, their insides carved out to make room for coins and dollar bills.

“They” are carved figurines of Jews, hewn out of wood, sculpted from the insides of the branches that shade Polish forests, and are nearly ubiquitous in tourist traps in Poland. Understanding who makes these small wooden zydki (the diminutive, and often pejorative term used for “Jews”), and who buys them, can reveal at least a little bit about contemporary Poland–and its relationship to the 3,000,000 Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust.

A Tourist Reports

On a bitingly cold October afternoon in 2007, I was wandering through a gift shop in Eastern Poland when I stumbled on a shelf full of Jewish figurines. The first one I noticed was a “rabbi” with an oversized nose, a miniature kippah and tallit, and huge, sad, dark eyes. In his hands, he held a carved pig’s head and next to him were more figurines, holding other objects: prayerbooks, Torahs, money bags.
zydki polish jewish figurine
My Jewish friends were appalled. When one asked the cashier who bought these figurines, and why, the cashier shrugged and said, “Poles. They keep them in their homes. For luck. They’re like lucky charms. People think, for example, if you keep a rabbi with a moneybag in your living room, it will help you get rich.”

Are these figurines, I wondered then, Polish rabbit’s feet? And if so, were the woodworkers who carve them–and the folks who buy them–guilty of turning Jews into good-luck charms, of fetishizing Judaism?

The History of Jewish Images in Polish Folk Art

Jewish figurines in Poland pre-date the Holocaust and the Holocaust travel industry that emerged in the wake of Communism. For centuries, representations of Jews were commonplace in Poland, used originally as talismans and amulets–folk symbols that occasionally cast Jews in typically anti-Semitic roles, and tended to have some ritual or supernatural function.

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Jordie Gerson is a newly ordained rabbi and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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