Calling Them ‘Antisemitic Images,’ Krakow Bans Sale of Jewish Figurines Holding Coins

The figures are sold in souvenir stores throughout Poland and are sometimes seen as good luck charms. Krakow is the first city to ban them

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Jewish figurines each holding a one-grosz piece in Poland.
Jewish figurines each holding a one-grosz piece in Poland.Credit: Meir Bulka
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Figurines of Jews holding coins, which have been sold for decades in Poland, have been banned by the Krakow authorities as antisemitic and will no longer be sold at stands on the historical Market Square or on any land owned by the municipality.

“These figures are antisemitic and it’s time for us to realize that,” Robert Piaskowski, the mayor’s culture chief, told the daily Gazeta Wyborcza. “In a city like Krakow, with such a difficult heritage and a painful past, they should not be sold.”

Known as Zydzi (ZHYD-zhi), which simply means Jews, the figurines are sold all over Poland and can be found in homes and offices, where they are sometimes regarded as good luck charms.

They became especially popular after the fall of the communist regime in 1989. In recent years, a debate has arisen over how to view them. Some Poles see them as evidence of the deep-rooted antisemitism their country has suffered for centuries, while others view them in nostalgic terms, a reminder of the era when Poland was home to a large Jewish community before the Holocaust.

Many Israeli and Jewish tourists seeing the figurines in cities like Warsaw and Krakow are shocked and condemn them as antisemitic because they play on the stereotype of Jews and money.

Piaskowski told Gazeta Wyborcza that the city’s new stance was adopted after consulting for a year with the Jewish community, several other institutions and the owners of the businesses selling the figures.

A group of nearly 50 organizations and individuals representing Jewish groups, museums, cultural and academic institutions, tourism bodies and municipal offices then released a joint letter.

Krakow's Market Square in 2013.Credit: Moshe Gilad

“The sale of images of Jews with coins, in souvenir stores and markets, is clear evidence of insensitivity to heritage,” the letter says. It adds that the city has also received letters from Jews around the world and researchers who consider the figurines an antisemitic phenomenon no different than the cartoons of Jews in neo-Nazi publications or the custom of beating a doll representing a Jew at Easter ceremonies.

“Krakow, which lost nearly its entire Jewish population during World War II, must take steps with all means at its disposal to stop this phenomenon in public areas,” the letter adds.

Sales of the figurines are now barred in Market Square, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site and the city’s most popular tourist destination, as well as at stalls elsewhere in Krakow on city-owned land. Contracts with businesses operating on these properties will include a clause banning the sale of the figurines.

The Polish media reported that the organizers of seasonal fairs, like those around Easter, have also agreed to bar the figures from stalls. The municipality is striving to educate other store owners about the issue and to ask them to remove the figurines.

Wooden statues of Jews were common in 19th-century Poland. They portrayed Jews with a holy text or a musical instrument and were widely used in popular ceremonies around Christmas and Easter. In the 20th century, the images depicted Jews working in various trades such as shoemakers, water haulers and tailors.

The image of a Jew with a coin only became common after the fall of communism and the return of capitalism in Poland.

The source of the connection between Jews and money is very old. It was echoed in the New Testament and was a common theme in the Middle Ages through the Nazi era.

The stereotype held that Jews, who often engaged in business, were essential to economic prosperity but oppressed the locals, robbing them of their livelihoods and money, and otherwise acting stingily. This stereotype held even though many Jews lived in wretched poverty.

In modern times, the connection between Jews and money has even been considered laudatory, seen as evidence of the community's success. When communism fell, these figurines were adopted as good luck charms.

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