Friday, December 31, 2010

Read This Book: The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt

Rulka Langer's "The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt" is a rip-roaring page-turner, easy to read, spine-tingling, and entertaining. It is also deeply profound. I'm going to buttonhole friends, insisting that they read it; I'll buy copies to give as gifts. "The Mermaid" is not just as delicious to read as a mass market bestseller. It is also essential reading on vital questions of what it means to be a human being, what war is like on a day-to-day basis, and how the Holocaust happened.

Rulka Langer, the heroine and author of "Mermaid," is very much like Katharine Hepburn, the Golden-Age, Hollywood film star. Langer is beautiful, brisk, no-nonsense, and a born heroine. Her very likable presence accompanies the reader through what would otherwise be unbearable scenes. "Mermaid" is so vivid, so cinematic in its details, that I kept seeing it as a Hollywood film.

Langer is a young wife, mother and Vassar grad living in Poland in 1939. Her grandfather was a landed nobleman. Her focus in life is her proud and loving family, parties, fashion, thoroughbred horses, and her fun job for an American advertising firm. In many ways, Langer is very much like a potential American reader for this book – someone who has no idea that within days of a pleasant summer picnic she will confront the greatest evil the world has ever known in her own home – and that the only weapon she will wield in that confrontation is her own sense of honor. World War Two began in Poland, when, on September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded. The Holocaust would take place largely in Poland.

The book opens with sprightly, appealing scenes of Langer's family. You get to like Langer, her brother, her mother, and her children, the characters who will be with you throughout the book. Langer's quick yet detailed style shines in a delightful description of the pleasures of traveling by a horse-drawn carriage through the Polish countryside. You feel as if you are next to Langer as she observes a peasant woman in a red kerchief, and a little black dog, as she calls out, "God's blessings," and field laborers answer back, "May the Lord give it." You wonder, though – is this author a frivolous woman? Will she really be able to write about the German carpet bombing of Polish civilians? Never fear, reader. She will. She will.

In that late Polish summer, straws appear in the wind: rumors of invasion by Nazi Germany. At first, Langer's greatest concern is that Hitler's plans will interfere with her summer vacation. One of the truly stunning strengths of "Mermaid" is its style. Langer's writing is vivid, immediate and frank. It's as if you are her best friend and it's 1939 and you are reading telegraphic updates. Though Langer wrote this book after she'd found safety in America, she doesn't exploit the luxury of hindsight to manage her image, or to make herself out to have been a prescient student of world history fully prepared for blitzkrieg.

"Mermaid" offers a time capsule of world historical events as those events were happening. World War Two and the Holocaust are so vast and so evil that their narrative management is a full time obsession. Today, vocabulary guardians debate whether or not Polish Catholic concentration camp inmates can be said to have been victims of "The Holocaust." Langer wrote her book while World War Two was still occurring, before its immensity had been grasped. She offers a raw, eyewitness view of history's minute-by-minute unfolding, before the narrative managers arrived on the scene.

She tells us that September 1, 1939 (like one September 11, decades later), was a frustratingly beautiful late summer day. Langer devotes the same brisk, vivid sentences to descriptions of starving people butchering horses on Warsaw streets that she had previously devoted to describing her handsome husband.

Langer's style does not change even after, in search of provisions to feed her starving children, she traverses bombed streets flooded with the human blood of her fellow Varsovians, even after Nazis literally walk into her home as she is undressing. You realize that her previous descriptions of leisurely family life were not the fruit of her trivial nature or her sheltered existence. Rather, you realize that Langer's ability to pen a loving, detailed description of the pleasures of carriage rides in the country is the product of supreme self-discipline. This author has been to hell and back. Her aristocratic pose is her heroic resistance to the enemies of civilization.

Langer's descriptions of the madness of war are unforgettable. A seal escapes from the zoo … a man takes over an apartment complex and demands that all pet dogs be shot … beautiful young heroes and heroines materialize from the blood, smoke, and chaos, bond, and are snuffed out … mothers silently resent going without food in order that children be fed.

The Nazis' genocidal plans twist Poles' lives. Evil rumors turn Pole against Pole. Every time resisters kill a German, dozens of Poles are killed in retaliation. A girl is executed for defacing a Nazi propaganda poster.

In recent years, there has been a scholarly and media effort to shift blame for the Holocaust from German Nazis to Poles. Poles, it is said, did not do enough to help Jews during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Gunnar S. Paulsson's "Secret City" is an antidote to such talk, but so is "Mermaid." Langer, a survivor, makes excruciatingly clear how the Nazis terrorized all Poles, paving the way for Nazism's heinous crimes against Jews.

Part of what makes this book bearable is its "happy ending." The reader knows that Langer will get out of Nazi-occupied Warsaw and write and publish this book. Langer's escape is similar to that of Maria von Trapp of "Sound of Music" fame; in fact, von Trapp and Langer became friends. Others of Langer's family and friends were not so fortunate. For example, Langer's husband's father, her children's grandfather, was Jew. He was beaten to death.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Stop Blaming the Jews

I want to compose a longer post on this topic when I have more time. For now, below is an edited cut-and-paste of a comment on an Amazon review.

It is a mistake to frame popular understanding of World War Two as a zero-sum competition between Poles and Jews: Either people know about the Jews who suffered under the Nazis, or people know about the Poles. If people learn about the Jews, the Jews win and the Poles lose. If people learn about the Poles, the Poles win and the Jews lose.

In the real world, it doesn't work that way. People can, and should, know and care about both. They should also know about the handicapped people, and the homosexuals, and the Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Gypsies, aka Romani, and the Soviet POWs, all of whom suffered horribly under the Nazis.

Poles and Polonians have not done their part to make Polish suffering known. Jews have not always and only been the opponents of Poles trying to make their story known. In fact, many Jews have supported Poles in their efforts to make the Polish story known.

It's not the Jews who are primarily responsible for focus on Jews' suffering. It's the Nazis. It was the Nazis who targeted Jews with a genocidal scheme. The genocide of the Jews under the Nazis is of a different order than what happened to the Poles.

Yes, Poles were abducted, transported, enslaved, tortured, and murdered, by both Nazis and Soviets, and then betrayed by the Allies, primarily America and England, but Poland did not lose a comparable percentage of its population as did the Jews, and we can't pretend that that is not true.

Place responsibility where responsibility belongs: Poles and Polonians in America, England, Australia and elsewhere can and must tell their own story. There is no excuse for Polonia's failure to do so. Poles and Polonians must enter graduate programs, research and write books, fund scholarship, and buy, read, and review books. And Poles and Polonians must learn to abandon their all too often resorted to postures of spite, sarcasm, undercutting, and a lack of respect for each other. Poles must learn, once and for all, to unite with and support other Poles.

There's no excuse for Polonia's failure to do these things. None whatsoever. The money is certainly there: Martha Stewart is unimaginably wealthy and is of Polish descent. There is the Kosciuszko Foundation and the Polish American Congress. There are political leaders like Barbara Mikulski. Where is their list of accomplishments in this matter?

Polonia has, indeed, failed. Blaming the Jews for Polonia's failures is a moral and strategic dead-end.

Poland, Love, Communism, and Spring

Poland, love, communism, and spring. A poem.

There are lapwings in the poem. Lapwings are birds. In Polish, they are czajka. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Israeli Education and Poland: What Does Israel Teach Its Schoolchildren about Poland?

Recently, in the comments section of the blog, the question arose: How does Israel educate its schoolchildren about Poland?

I sent the letter, below, to the Israeli Consulate in New York, to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and to Gideon Sa'ar, the Minister of Education.

I also wrote to four scholars and one friend, all of whom have been to Israel and are familiar, to a greater or lesser extent, with Israel.

Of course, these are all busy people, and they will no doubt have limited time to devote to this question, but I will happily post whatever answers I receive.

Below please find the note I sent to the official bodies mentioned above:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Hello, I write about Polish-Jewish relations and several recent posts on the blog devoted to my book "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture" caused me to question how Poland is taught in Israeli schools.

Unfortunately, there is some evidence that Israeli schools have presented a skewed and negative image of Poland. For example, in his book "The Seventh Million," Israeli historian Tom Segev depicts Israeli schoolchildren as blaming Poland and Poles for the Holocaust "because someone has to be guilty of the Holocaust. We have to hate someone, and we've already made up with the Germans." Segev also mentions a museum that depicts all Jews in Poland as poor and with bent backs, but fails to mention that some Jews in Poland were successful and happy – because that image, Segev says, does not fit Israel's image of Jews in Poland. Segev quotes a schoolteacher telling children, "Jew hatred is as natural to Poland as blue is to the sky."

Marion Marzynski's film "Shtetl" includes a disturbing scene depicting Israeli schoolchildren at Ramat Aviv high school attacking Zbigniew Romaniuk, a Polish historian who had worked diligently to restore his town's Jewish history, and who was undeserving of the rude and hostile treatment these schoolchildren showed him. The schoolchildren state the following falsehoods as if there were true: that the Poles could have defeated the Nazis if they wanted to, that Poles are responsible for the Holocaust, that anti-Semitism is an essential and inextricable part of Polish identity, that there was no difference between the Polish underground and the Nazis, etc. The full transcript.

That negative depictions of Poles and Poland are not accidental to Israel or Israeli identity is suggested by a provocative and telling 2007 statement by Israeli politician Zevulun Orlev. Orlev argued that teaching Israeli schoolchildren that Poland is a "cursed" land, Poland is "the valley of death," and that Poland is the modern analog to the Egypt of the book of Exodus, is central to building a sense of Jewish and Israeli identity.

As has frequently been pointed out, Poland was the most significant site of Diaspora for Jews for hundreds of years, with estimates of seventy-five or even eighty percent of the world's Jews living in Poland before the twentieth century. Most of American Jews trace their ancestry to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Most of Israel's leaders do, as well. Many of the cultural features one thinks of as Jewish, from potato pancakes to Hasidic dress to a sarcastic sense of humor, are rooted in Poland rather than in the Torah. Tragically, given the location of Nazi death camps like Auschwitz in occupied Poland, the Holocaust took place, largely, in Poland. Given this, it is a matter of some import how Israeli schools educate, or fail to educate, their students about Poland.

I am eager to learn about how Poland is taught in Israeli schools. Are the pictures that Segev, Marzynski, and Orlev paint accurate? Or has Israel improved its teaching of Poland in Israeli schools?

I look forward to receiving as much information from you as you care to share. I would be very, very grateful for any statement that you might allow me to post on my blog. Links to online curriculum materials would be especially welcome.

Thank you.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

March of the Living Responds

The November 16, 2010 post, "March of the Living: A Rabbinical Student's Sermon," was critical of March of the Living, a yearly pilgrimage of Jewish students to concentration camps in Poland.

Too, "Bieganski" includes transcripts of interviews with MOL participants who expressed a conviction that Poles are inveterate anti-Semites. These MOL participants evidenced a complete lack of awareness that Poles were interned in concentration camps like Auschwitz and Majdanek, or that Poles had resisted the Nazis and helped Jews. One MOL participant, a self-identified educator, boasted a "comprehensive" knowledge of the Holocaust, but had never heard of Jan Karski.

"Bieganski" is not alone. For example, in the 2007 scholarly book, "Rethinking Poles and Jews: Troubled Past, Brighter Future," Carolyn Slutsky offers tough criticism of MOL.

MOL has changed, though, Jeremy Simons, author of the above-linked sermon, insisted to me. MOL has, he says, in recent years, improved relations with Poles.

After posting Jeremy's sermon, I wrote to March of the Living and asked for comment, and for permission to post that comment.

I've now received both. Please find March of the Living's full and unedited response to me, below.


The following items demonstrate our strong, positive involvement with the Polish community:

• We work very closely with numerous Ministries in Poland as we implement our annual program.

• Last year we happened to be in Poland during the very tragic plane crash which killed the President and other key members of the Polish government. We observed a moment of silence during the March of the Living a few days later, and tied black ribbons to our flags. Some of the students also went to visit the memorial sights that were set up at the Presidential palace in Warsaw and in Krakow.

• Every year a senior member of the Polish Government participates in our program.

• Many of our groups meet annually with their high school counterparts in Poland.

• We have large groups of Polish students and Polish religious organizations on the March. In 2010, we had close to 1,500 Polish participants. We have developed a working relationship with the Polish Ministry of Education, the Shalom Ministry Association in Oswiecim (headed by Roman Gawel) and with the Olive Tree Foundation, an entity that provides educational instruction throughout Poland on the Holocaust and the State of Israel.

• Our groups have developed a warm relationship with the new generation of Polish guides and these guides, with their enhanced education, have played a meaningful/valuable role in the implementation of our mission in Poland.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Glaukopis Misspells G - O - S - K - A, or I am Denounced in Poland

It's been brought to my attention that Glaukopis, a Polish publication, has published an article that mentions me. The article is by John Radzilowski. Its title is "On Polish Historical Studies in the United States: The case of Professor Marek Jan Chodakiewicz."

I don't read Glaukopis, but a friend does, and forwarded the article to me.

The article's main point is that there is a conspiracy afoot to damage the career of Polish-American historian Marek Jan Chodakiewicz. Those working to damage Chodakiewicz have this motive: they want to protect Politically Correct, and anti-Polish, ideology in America.

The guilty parties who have damaged Chodakiewicz include the following: Antony Polonsky, Piotr Wrobel, Istvan Deak, Joanna Michlic, and … drumroll, please … I'm embarrassed to type my own name after such a list of luminaries … me.

I try to tell my students that you don't have to probe very far to deflate conspiracy theories; they are absurd on their face, and those who believe in them are not processing reality accurately.

The above list is not plausible as a list of people who would conspire to damage Chodakiewicz, to damage Poland, or to protect politically correct ideologies.

In fact, with the exception of my name, if you removed the scholarly contributions of this group of people to advancing understanding of Poland in the West, you'd be left with a very anemic scholarship.

I'm lucky enough to have been reading this list of scholars for a very long time. As a Polish American, I would be heartsick if I didn't have access to Wrobel, Polonsky, Deak. I must confess that I'm not a fan of Prof. Michlic's scholarship, but I respect her efforts.

See, I grew up during an era where there was nothing – and I mean nothing – available on the Polish or Polish American experience, or, for that matter, the Slovak experience, the Lithuanian experience, the Serb experience – I've written about this silence in an essay.

Reading Polonsky, Wrobel, Deak – it's a miraculous experience to me. These scholars and others like them gave my own history to me. I cherish these names.

And – Politically Correct? Again and again I've seen these scholars stand up in public and say what needed to be said about Eastern Europe, damn the inevitable criticism from those who want to demonize anyone living east of Germany.

That's point number one. If anyone in Poland is uninformed enough to believe that these scholars are worthy of being disrespected in the pages of a Polish publication, I sincerely hope that that person will learn more about the scholars.

Point number two: me? Are you serious?

Grouping me with the above scholars pays me an utterly unearned compliment. I'll tell you this – I probably bake better cookies than Istvan Deak, but that is the only arena in which I would compete with him.

To suggest that I have the clout to damage an academic's career is really, really, REALLY beyond belief. I barely have enough power to fail a student who doesn't hand in a final paper. And – I beg of you – don't let this information leak out to my students!

Merely the inclusion of my name on this list renders the main idea of the entire article not only absurd, but laughably so.

Further – no intelligent person who has read more than one line of writing by me would ever group me with the Politically Correct or the ideologically pure. My complete lack of Political Correctness or Ideological Purity is immediately evident to anyone who has an above one-digit IQ. I'll go further – my book, "Bieganski," is the single most Politically Incorrect book on Polish Jewish relations ever written.

I'm tempted, at this point, to confess. Yes, Yes! I want to shout. I am part of the conspiracy! I'm glad we've all been found out and can come out of hiding and shout our truth to the world! Black helicopters flew me to Area 51, where top Army brass, "Greys" – Greys are space aliens to you civilians – Art Bell, Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey greeted me. Sinatra and Harvey kept insisting that we play cards, but both became very agitated anytime they were dealt the queen of diamonds. Ultimately, though, my fearless leaders decided that I would never make a really great conspirator, because I am dyslexic. I kept forgetting if the pellet with the poison was in the flagon with the dragon or the vessel with the pestle.

All right, enough kidding around.

My role in the conspiracy: Six years ago, I wrote a review of one of Chodakiewicz's books for a small journal. I acknowledged the strengths of Chodakiewicz's work, and pointed out its weak points. That's what book reviewers do. It's not what powerful conspirators do. Here's the review in question.

I am unaware of anyone having any reaction to this review (except for the author of the Glaukopis article.) In short, my guess is that very few people ever read the review. In any case, I stand by the review.

Glaukopis fails to make the case that Marek Jan Chodakiewicz has been professionally damaged at all. Chodakiewicz held the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies at the University of Virginia. President Bush appointed him to a 5-year term to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He holds the Kosciuszko Chair in Polish Studies at Institute of World Politics. He has published several books and articles. His books are all on sale at Amazon, and have received good reviews.

Chodakiewicz has received several grants and awards, as listed on his Wikipedia page.

Glaukopis' Polish readers may not realize this, but America is in a recession right now. The official unemployment rate is close to ten percent; unofficial estimates are higher.

The recession is especially bad among PhDs. I know excellent teachers and scholars, with publications and strong letters of recommendation, who have been unable to find full-time jobs. These marginally-employed PhDs have no job security, no health insurance, and, given the job market, very little hope for any kind of a normal future in academia.

Given the Depression-like, not Recession-like, conditions on the American humanities academic job market, for anyone to attempt to depict a man who has published, won awards, and held endowed chairs as a victim is not just inaccurate, it's distasteful.

One last thing. I must protest Glaukopis' insistence on spelling my name incorrectly. This may seem like a small point – heck, it is a small point. But there's something bigger behind it.

When conspiracy theorists intentionally misspell your name, they are attempting to state that they know who you are better than you do. They are saying, "She's hiding behind this false name, but we know her real name." They are attempting to destroy your real identity and reconstruct a new one for you, one that fits their conspiracy.

For the record, I'd like to state that Glaukopis' implausible conspiracy theory got this fact wrong. I am not, and have never been, Danusia Gośka. I'm not Polish. I'm a Polish American. "Danusia" makes no sense over here. "Danusha" does.

Further, my family's name has not ever been "Gośka," on either side of the Atlantic. Glaukopis, your misspelling of my proud Polish father's perfectly good Polish-American name does not reflect well on your adherence to accuracy, your respect of your fellow Polonians, or your ability to serve your readers.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

No Mourning for Richard Holbrooke; Rather, Mourn His Victims

I actively opposed both US invasions of Iraq. I actively opposed US bombing of Serbia.

The two experiences were completely different.

My leftist and progressive friends applauded and supported my opposition to the US invasion of Iraq.

Serbia? "Nuke 'em" was too common an attitude.

In Bloomington, Indiana, a liberal university town, I went door to door, trying to build a coalition against the bombing. I was told to visit a prominent African American preacher who had a record of support for social justice issues. I'll never forget what he said to me, through the crack in the door – he would not let me enter.

"As an African American, I have a historical responsibility to stand with the oppressed people of color against their white oppressors."

He really thought that. He really though that Serbs were white oppressors and their opponents in the conflicts over the breakup of Yugoslavia were historically oppressed, dark-skinned people.

I am not making this up. I wish I were.

Where did America get the idea that Christian, Slavic Serbs were all evil, oppressive monsters and the former Yugoslavia's Muslims were all blameless and innocuous?

Largely from our Democratic leadership at the time. Bill Clinton delivered a profoundly dishonest speech from the Oval Office on primetime TV. Richard Holbrooke used racist terms to discuss Serbs.

My book, "Bieganski," talks about how elite media voices, including the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Newsweek, demonized Serbs in utterly racist fashion. "Bieganski" compares that coverage to coverage of the genocide in Rwanda. When it came to Rwanda, the same media sources, often the same authors, decried racist understandings. Two different languages were used to discuss atrocities committed by Slavic Serbs, and to discuss atrocities committed by black Africans.

NPR has been covering Holbrooke's death, playing clips of him saying things like, "You have to understand the Serbs. Serbs are tribal. They engage in mythological thinking. They are invested in an image of themselves as victims." I'm paraphrasing what I heard on NPR.

Here's the problem with Holbrooke's self-serving propaganda. The Serbs really were victims. They weren't imagining their victimization. And the Serbs confronted enemies who were certainly tribal and who certainly had them targeted, for a very long time, for genocide and enslavement.

Look at a map. Serbs are on the receiving end of the tip of the spear of jihad. Do a Google search of "Turkey massacres Balkans." Learn the word "devshirme." Another word: "sakaliba." Slavic slave boys castrated by Muslim owners. I mention this because the insistence that Serbs must be historical oppressors because they are "white" is ... not supported by history.

The single most unforgettable sentence written during the conflicts around the breakup of the former Yugoslavia appeared in the New York Times on April 17, 1994. General Ratko Mladic was trying to explain to a reporter his rationale for fighting non-Serbs. Excerpt, below, from the New York Times.


Successive United Nations commanders have tried to understand the general's relentless prosecution of the war against the Bosnian Muslims. In one exchange at Sarajevo, Lieut. Gen. Lars-Eric Walgren, who departed last year, asked General Mladic why he kept up his onslaught.

"General, do you remember your father?" General Mladic responded.

"Yes," General Walgren said.

"In my case," General Mladic said, "my son is the first in many generations to know his father. Because there have been so many attacks on the Serbian people, children do not know their fathers."

No. No one excuses, no one justifies, the slaughters the Serbs committed.

Rather, decent people condemn the blatant racism and open lies employed by the Clinton administration in their propaganda to the American people justifying America's bombing of Serbia.

That is why there is no mourning for Richard Holbrooke here. Rather I mourn the victims of the Clinton's administration's policies in the former Yugoslavia. Those victims include the truth.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Her Father's Eyes, Her Yearning

Christmas Eve in Auschwitz. Source

"Burning Questions: The Story of Catholic Poles in the Holocaust," a multiple-award-winning documentary, offers all the rewards of a home movie: it is stunningly intimate and heartfelt. The title and subtitle are unintentionally misleading. The documentary could better be titled "An American Daughter and a Polish Father Explore His Family's Suffering During WWII."

Mishael Porembski and her father, Jan. Source

"Burning Questions" tells a simple, easy-to-follow story: the relationship between a very beautiful, young, American girl, Mishael Porembski, and her mysterious, very handsome, foreign-born father, TV cameraman Jan Porembski. As Mishael puts it: "My father's eyes hid a world I'd never fully seen … Even as a child, I could sense that my father wasn't altogether happy. There was a somberness that would wash over him. This quiet sadness would create a yearning in me … One area of my father's life was off limits – his homeland, Poland … My father was interned in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I've always wondered. Was my [Polish, Catholic] father a survivor of the Holocaust?" One of Mishael's aunts was in Ravensbruck; the other was in Auschwitz.

The film follows Mishael's earnest attempt to understand both her father's hidden pain and American media's lies about Poland. The viewer gets a sense of what confronts Mishael five minutes into the movie. She is attempting to film her father. He glares at her. His face is utterly unforgiving and remote. This is a man who has seen the worst. One can only applaud Mishael's courage.

Viewers who are themselves of Polish descent, and whose family members remember WWII, will recognize their own loved ones in this film. I recognize the stoic, apparently emotionless faces and tightly compressed lips that greeted my attempts to understand that cataclysm. I recognize the casual way with which a former Auschwitz prisoner rolls up her arm and displays her tattooed number, as if it were of no import. On an undistinguished Warsaw side street, what might appear to be nothing but a brick wall is marked by a small cross. Jan reminisces about walking past this wall as a small boy, and seeing German Nazis executing Poles against it. Some Poles sang the National Anthem as they died. I recognized the previously tough, granite-like facial features melting into tears as victims, decades later, suddenly hit upon a new memory of their own victimization. I could only nod when Aunt Stefania forces Mishael to eat more than she wants, and when Mishael reports that her aunt walks in on her while she's in the bathroom. Privacy? What's that?

While watching close-ups of Aunt Maria's casual recounting of her days as a prisoner in Auschwitz, and her father's initial lack of on-camera emotion, I was reminded how more celebrated filmmakers, Claude Lanzmann in "Shoah" and Marian Marzynski in "Shtetl," used Poles' stoicism to indict them as without feeling for Nazi victims. In fact, Poles were victims of Nazis, too, and Polish stoicism is a coping mechanism, not a badge of Polish indifference.

Mishael's grandfather, Henryk Porebski, looks like a delightful, carefree man in the one photo we see of him. This handsome young dandy is wearing a straw hat and carrying a cane. He is imitating the American film comedian, Charlie Chaplin. Nazis took Henryk, and he was never heard from again.

Jan, Henryk's son, now an old man himself, stares at the camera coldly. "Someone will ask, 'Tell me about your father,'" Jan says. His face is not cold because he does not care. His face is cold because he has lived with this pain all his life, with no comfort, not even knowledge of the location of his father's remains. Later, Jan is shown reading the Polish national epic poem, "Pan Tadeusz." Jan reads but a few lines before he is choked by tears. "I thought I was over certain things but I guess I'm not," he confesses.

Mishael visits with Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland. Schudrich is compassionate and questioning. How do you explain this suffering, this pain, he asks? It is natural to want to lash out, he says. This is a great tragedy, he says, "because the anger is being misplaced." Hope can be found, Schudrich says, in "feeling someone else's suffering." Schudrich also says, "If people don't know about your suffering, it's your obligation to talk about it. It's nobody else's obligation." Poles, Schudrich alleges, have not made their suffering known to the world. Schudrich is right. Polish Americans are especially at fault in this regard.

Szymon Szurmiej, Vice President of the World Federation of Polish Jews, points out that Poland was the only country where Nazis mandated the death penalty, for the entire family, for the crime of aiding Jews. In spite of this, he points out, several thousand Poles, more than any other nationality, are honored at Yad Vashem for saving Jews.

"Burning Questions" is not a systematic, theoretically-based presentation of Polish suffering during WWII, and it is not a systematic refutation of the charge, frequently encountered in American media, that Poles are the equivalent of, or even worse than, German Nazis. Because of the sometimes less-than-Hollywood production values, and the lack of systematic, theoretical scaffolding, I might award this documentary four out of five stars. I award it five stars, though, for this reason – no one else has done what Mishael Porembski has with this film. The Polish story is untold in America. Yes, there are writers, and I am one of them, but we have not successfully brought our work before significant enough audiences. We Polish-Americans are unknown, as Porembski demonstrates, even to our own selves. She deserves the extra star not for technical excellence or deep background, but for having the courage, and determination, to tell a story that has, so far, been silenced and ignored – including by those who have lived it, and their American children and grandchildren.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hanukkah-Phobia at the New York Times

Czarek Sokolowski

The New York Times op-ed page has run a few pieces dissing Hanukkah. I read the first such piece in 1997 and it struck me as a one-off. In it the Times inveighs: We shouldn't assume that the "Disney" version of Hanukkah is correct; Hanukkah is "linked with nationalism and military prowess" of intolerant "traditionalist" Jews "scandalized" by "naked wrestling" that Hellenized Jews favored. Hanukkah's true story, one of tense conflict between nationalist Jews and Jewish fans of naked wrestling, is a joyless cautionary tale for modern Israelis, the piece insisted. This grim, Hanukkah-phobic op-ed was as far from yet another commentary on "Twas the Night Before Christmas" – the Times likes those – as one could get.

In 2005 the Times published "A Beginner's Guide to Hanukkah," a weird and ugly little op-ed piece by Jonathan Safran Foer, the overhyped writer of the moment. A joyless read.

Okay, I thought, Foer's is another NYT op-ed that disses Hanukkah, but by way of dissing Christmas, so maybe Times Hanukkah-phobia isn't really a trend.

But here comes another NYT op-ed piece putting the kibosh on Hanukkah spirit. "Hanukkah struggles to find a path to Jewish hearts," the author says. "It's so hard to get excited about" Hanukkah, says the Times.

What's the deal? Why all this hating on Hanukkah?

It's a holiday that involves lighting candles, eating chocolate, and playing with a top. Very good so far. Am I missing something?

The Times has annoyed me much over the years in its various screwball stances on big issues, but its Hanukkah-phobia is a bridge too far.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

NYT: Poles Turning on Poles & One Authentic Polish Joke & One Jewish Joke

The word "Solidarity" carried so much magic because it expressed a quality Poles dreamed of: sticking together, supporting each other, not allowing Poland's enemies to drive Poles apart. Adam Michnik, Jewish, Lech Walesa, Catholic, intellectuals and workers, students and clerics, united in that magical time.

Otherwise, Poles are notorious, among Poles, for their lack of solidarity with each other.

I was told this joke in Poland, by a Pole, in Polish:

Tourists are in hell. Their guide explains that there is a devil in each cauldron full of sinners, percolating over flames, in order to keep sinners down near the hottest part of the pot.

"But there are no devils in some of these cauldrons," the tourists note.

"Those cauldrons are full of Poles," the tour guide explains. "They keep each other down."

The NYT reports that Poles in Poland are turning on each other. Excerpts:

“We have a beautiful face in tough times and during difficult moments, but in normal times, we are lost,” said Jan Oldakowski, an opposition member of the Parliament who was one of several members of the opposition Law and Justice Party to recently quit the party to form a more centrist coalition. “With freedom, Poles do not know how to cooperate with each other.” The political leadership is at war with itself. Personal attacks and insults are flying. Politicians have traded accusations of drug abuse, mental illness, collaborating with the Nazis and being agents of Moscow. They have said of one another that they would be better off dead.

“Poles always feel they need to have an enemy,” Urszula Slawinska, 38, said one day as she walked along a sidewalk in Warsaw, an average citizen, headed home, uninvolved in politics, yet keenly aware of what was happening around her. “Because of our history we define ourselves, to be Polish meant to protect our country. So now that we don’t have to protect ourselves, we still need to find an enemy.” ... “I am very pessimistic,” said the Rev. Maciej Zieba, a popular priest here. “It is a providential moment for Poland. The political life is awful. For me as a Catholic priest, it is not good, either.”

The former polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, who served for 10 years, said the best way to describe Poland today was with a short story: “A group of children say to a rabbi, ‘Please tell us in a few words what the situation is,’ ” and the rabbi answers, ‘Good.’ “The children say, ‘Perhaps you can use a few more words, and the rabbi responds, ‘Not good.’” The former president laughed, but then said that the story was not funny.

Full text of NYT article, Poland, Lacking External Enemies, Turns on Itself by Michael Slackman.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Forgiving Dr. Mengele

Eva Kor is the reason to see the film "Forgiving Dr. Mengle." She is charming, heroic, and a model of strength, determination, and love in action. She and others like her are living proof that evil's victories are always temporary.

I was afraid to watch "Forgiving Dr. Mengele." Hitler was one of the most evil men who ever lived, but, as far as I know, Hitler didn't personally kill or torture anyone. Josef Mengele, on the other hand, used medical tools and procedures to torture innocent victims at Auschwitz. Mengele focused on children, and on twins. Mengele is the stuff of nightmares.

I hesitated before popping the DVD in the machine. In combat, Mengele won the Iron Cross for rescuing two German soldiers from a burning tank. Retired from the front and sent to be "camp doctor" at Auschwitz, he destroyed countless innocent lives. After the war, Mengele escaped, with the support of many German and South American friends, and died a free civilian's natural, comfortable death in 1979. I began thinking about what kind of hell would be appropriate for a Josef Mengele. I wondered what he thought about before he went to sleep at night.

Once the DVD began playing, I quickly realized that "Forgiving Dr. Mengele" isn't about Mengele at all. It's about Eva Kor, a delightful and inspirational human being. She's a real estate agent in Terre Haute, Indiana. Kor, a well-dressed senior citizen with a Mitteleuropa accent, is shown bustling about, hammering in lawn signs that advertise property for sale, guiding potential buyers, and making grilled cheese sandwiches for her two loving children and her husband in their modest suburban home. Kor is a woman of action, not reflection. In spite of her age, she moves like a bullet, directly toward her target. She acts, rather than sits and ponders. You know she loves her family because she feeds them. Her daughter describes Kor as "unhesitant," and the viewer agrees. Kor is shown giving inspirational speeches to school children, and opening up her own, small, Holocaust memorial museum. Kor and her twin sister Miriam were survivors of Mengele's torture.

Kor met with a former Nazi doctor, Hans Munch. Munch had resisted Nazi commands to take part in selections that condemned prisoners to death. He also engaged in ruses to protect prisoners' lives; former prisoners testified to this after the war. Munch was acquitted of war crimes. In 1995, Kor and Munch together issued a statement condemning the Holocaust. Kor forgave Munch. Kor was asked if she could forgive Mengele. After much thought, she said she could. Kor was challenged and her stance was rejected by other survivors.

The film shows Eva Kor at home, in schools, and at her museum. It shows her meeting with Munch and speaking with him at Auschwitz. The film also shows other twin survivors saying that they can't forgive Mengele. Finally, there is a brief, awkward and out-of-place meeting between Eva Kor and Muslim Arabs, lead by Sami Adwan. Kor appears to be the only Jew at the meeting. She is confronted by several Arabs who, while glaring at Kor with undisguised hate, proceed to tell her that Jews are responsible for all the problems in their lives, and that Jews never lived in Israel before 1945. They're wrong on all counts – they get both their facts wrong and their approach. It is simply distasteful to recruit an elderly, female, Holocaust survivor, get her alone in a room, and harangue her with blatant anti-Semitism. The film doesn't comment on this encounter. No conclusion is reached. One wonders why it was included.

There are a few things I wish the film had done differently. I would have liked more background on Kor's biography. What was life like after she left the camp and returned to Romania? How did she travel to Israel, and then the US? Most importantly, I never understood Kor's definition of the word "forgiveness." What does it mean to forgive? What does it mean to forgive Mengele? If he were alive today, would Kor hope for legal proceedings against him? Is Kor's insistence on forgiveness rooted in any religious belief? The film records the destruction, by fire, of Kor's Terre Haute Holocaust Memorial Museum. No one has been caught – but are there no clues the filmmaker's can bring to the viewers' attention?

My reservations are small. "Forgiving Dr. Mengele" is a moving, engaging, and inspirational film. Eva Kor's abundant life and her insistence on love make it so.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Bieganski" Wins Halecki Award

Oscar Halecki, Polish Historian
I have just been informed that "Bieganski" has won the Polish American Historical Association's Halecki Award for the Outstanding Book on the Polish Experience in America in 2010.

This is very poignant for me because the first book-length work about Poland I ever had any contact with was Oscar Halecki's "History of Poland."

I thank the Polish American Historical Association and I thank my truly heroic friends who stuck with me through thick and thin.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

March of the Living: A Rabbinical Student's Sermon

Jeremy Simons is an American rabbinical student. I talk about his paper on March of the Living here.

Jeremy wanted me to know that many Jews, like him, are eager for reconciliation with Poles. He shared with me the text of his sermon on this topic. Jeremy delivered this sermon in 2010 in Israel to seminary students on Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. I was very moved by Jeremy's sermon, and, with his generous permission, that sermon is reproduced below in its entirety.

Most of the images on this page are from the work of Artur Szyk, who was proud to be both Jewish and Polish.

Shoah Reflection
Jeremy Simons

Today marks the commemoration of the darkest chapter in our people's modern history. Two days [ago] marked the darkest day in Poland's short history as a free country. A plane crashed in the woods killing the Polish president, his wife, the leader of every branch of Polish military, as well as dozens of other officials. They were on the way to what was to be a historic event: the commemoration of 20,000 Polish officers executed in 1939 at the hands of the Soviets—an event the Russians blamed on the Nazis and refused to take responsibility for, until now. If you are a Polish Jew, as I am, this is a difficult week. But in one of the articles I read yesterday, I found a sign of hope—a sign so meaningful, at least to me, that it's caused me to change my entire message for today. I'll speak to that in a minute, but let me start with some background.

First, the biography. Like many people in this room, I am a Polish Jew. I also am the product of an interfaith marriage. My father is Jewish, my mother is Catholic. My father is from Boston, my mother is from Kluczbork—a small town in southwest Poland.


I'll spare you the whole story, but in short, they met in London in their early 20's, got married, moved to the US, and had me. I took my first trip to Poland when I was only a year old. Since then I have been back 12 times, totaling the better part of a year. I've spent this time with my family in Kluczbork, toured the countryside, studied in Krakow, and for better or worse spent a lot of time in Auschwitz. I've marched as a participant in the March of the Living, toured on my own or with friends, surveyed residents of the town for my undergraduate thesis, and visited my extended family that lives two miles from the camp.

As a child, I led something of a double life. Nine months of the year I was a normal kid growing up in Sharon, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Sharon is something like 85% Jewish. I grew up in a town where schools were closed for the high holidays and the cafeteria served peanut butter and matza for one week out of the year. I grew up in a town where even the Christians were a little bit Jewish. But for three months out of that year, when my friends would go off to Jewish camp, I would go off to Poland. They would go to tefillah and I would play in the rectory of the church where my great uncle served as priest—long before I knew what a rectory was or why it was weird that a Jewish kid from Boston would be there.

It wasn't until I turned 16 that I realized these two worlds didn't mix. I had heard about the March of the Living—a pilgrimage trip that marches through Auschwitz and other camps—and I felt I needed to go. I spent the year raising the money and preparing for what I thought would be a life changing experience.

Two weeks before I left my mother attended a parent meeting led by the trip leader, a rabbi. He stressed to parents that their children must come with everything they need. Things like batteries and film are of a poorer quality in Poland, he said. Almost as an afterthought, he added, "besides, you don't want to be supporting their economy anyway." My mother came home from that meeting crying. I realized that night that I existed in two very separate worlds. Going on the trip confirmed this feeling. This was not the Poland of my youthful summers with fishing trips and picnics with the neighbors. No, this was the Poland portrayed as being filled with anti-Semites, a place so dangerous we needed not only armed guards, but Israeli guards to protect us.

There's more overlap between my two identities than one might think. Let's start with food. After meeting my father and learning more about Judaism, my mother discovered she had been keeping kosher. If you ask anyone in her family they will tell you: never serve dairy along with meat unless you want to get sick! This was a hard-and-fast rule in her house growing up and one that you didn't question. It goes beyond mere kashrut. Depending on who you ask, either we're all eating Polish food, or they're eating ours. When I was there in January my grandmother whipped up my favorite dish: fried pancakes made of potato and onion held together with egg. All that's different is the name. We say latke, they say platke.

There's also music. Every year since 1988 the city of Krakow holds a week-long Jewish music and culture festival—one of the largest in the world. Chances are you have never heard of it. Despite my interest, I found out only after literally stumbling into it by accident while studying in Krakow. Let me paint the picture: outside in the middle of the main square of the old Jewish quarter is a giant stage with an equally giant menorah as the backdrop. Klezmer blasts from speakers throughout the square. When I was there in 2003, there were 10,000 other people. Last year the number doubled to 20,000. Above my head was the camera boom for Poland's Channel 1—broadcasting the concert live throughout the country. People scream and dance and, aside from the tourists, 99% of them were not Jewish.

But klezmer and kashrut aren't enough. What do Poles really think? I wasn't sure, so I asked. I constructed my senior thesis around interviewing Jewish participants in the March of the living as well as residents of Oswiecim, the town the Germans call Auschwitz. Eighty percent of the residents of Oswiecim, 80%, reported a favorable view of Jews. One woman said she used to light candles in the cemetery—until they started locking it to prevent vandalism. Sixty percent said they wanted to meet Jews when they came to Auschwitz, to talk about their shared suffering. So what do the Jews think? As part of my research I interviewed a professor of Jewish studies at Jagiellonian University in Krakow who has attempted to run dialogue groups between Polish and Jewish teens. She had a waiting list on the Polish side every time. And every time she tried to meet with groups from the March of the Living, she was given the cold shoulder.

So back to the dual tragedies of this week. Where is the hope? In a few hours 10,000 Jewish teenagers will March between Auschwitz and Birkenau. The article I read yesterday [reports that] they will be wearing black ribbons as a tribute to Poland's tragedy. Based on my personal experience and my research, I can say with near certainty this would not have happened ten years ago when I marched. We have gone from "not wanting to support their economy" to recognizing the Jewish people have a strong claim, but not a monopoly, on tragedy. Since its inception in 1988, every group of marchers has been addressed by a representative of the Polish government; on several occasions it was the now deceased president. On every Yom HaShoah the Polish government has acknowledged the suffering of the Jewish people. This will be the first time the acknowledgement of Polish suffering, of any kind, has been reciprocated.

Before the official march begins, the participants will tour the camp. The state museum of Auschwitz is housed in a series of barracks, each of which has been converted into museum space. Each is dedicated to a different topic. The participants will undoubtedly visit the barrack dedicated to the Jewish suffering, and the barrack dedicated to material evidence of the genocide—that's where they keep the infamous piles of suitcases, eyeglasses, and shoes. But they most likely will not enter the barrack dedicated to Polish suffering and it's a shame they don't. If they did they would see something shocking. On the walls they would see the pictures that have come to represent the Shoah that we all know: the woman shielding her child from the rifle of a Nazi soldier, the man staring blankly at the camera while he sits at the edge of a pit waiting to die, and others. The shock comes in reading the captions: the victims are identified not as Jews, but as Poles. Both sides have found these anonymous pictures and both sides have claimed the victims as their own.

Let us use this Yom HaShoah as a chance to acknowledge that the people in those pictures were not Poles, nor were they Jews. In all likelihood, they were Polish Jews. Yes, our people suffered the most. But our tragedy is not at all diminished by acknowledging theirs. I commend the March of the Living for finally doing exactly that and encourage all of us to follow in their path.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

NYT: Nazis Given Safe Haven in US

From the NYT, November 13, 2010:
Nazis Were Given ‘Safe Haven’ in U.S., Report Says

WASHINGTON — A secret history of the United States government’s Nazi-hunting operation concludes that American intelligence officials created a “safe haven” in the United States for Nazis and their collaborators after World War II, and it details decades of clashes, often hidden, with other nations over war criminals here and abroad.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Suffering. God. Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki.

"Chrystus Frasobliwy" or "Worried Christ"
by Wladyslaw Skoczykas

I once received an email from a friend who asked me to tell him my understanding of God and suffering. I said:

I just put Henryk Gorecki's "Miserere" into the CD player. I love this CD, but I ration listening to it, because it is too powerful for common hours. After beginning in a barely audible whisper, so unobtrusive that it is annoying – has the music started? What are they saying? – the unaccompanied chorus begins to sound unstoppable – reverent, orderly, but unstoppable. They voice a barely perceptible drip, drip, drip that morphs into a gently lapping, and then an overwhelming, ocean wave. These singers, first a male chorus, and then women, are saints marching on their knees, but, nonetheless, marching. They repeat the same words over and over. It sounds as if they are chanting, "Make way" or "We win," but what they are really chanting, over and over, throughout the entire half-hour piece is "Domine deus noster, miserere nobis," "Lord our God, have mercy on us." This is supplication and self-mortification as power.

Gorecki wrote "Miserere" in 1981, in protest against Communists beating up on demonstrators from the Polish Peasant Party and Rural Solidarity. Gorecki knew that, since his work was a protest, it would have to bide its time before any audible performance. I was in Poland as Communism was falling – and as "Miserere" had its first hearing. As I listen, now, to Gorecki's ghostly chorus quietly, slowly, determinedly chant, rising, inevitably, to an unconquerable crescendo, I think of those gray, underfed, betrayed peasants, cleaning women, coal miners, shipyard workers, marching, inexorably, toward freedom, and their own apotheosis.

You open, "Suffering," and I raise your bet, "Poland. The Christ of Nations, a long-suffering motherland that is repeatedly invaded, and repeatedly rises up to show her invaders that the worst suffering exists only to demonstrate the best in the human spirit." Poland, land of Auschwitz. Poland, land of Irena Sendler, who endured Nazi torture rather than betray the Jewish children she had rescued. Poland, birthplace of Pope John Paul II, who had been a slave laborer for the Nazis, Lech Walesa and Adam Michnik, who, together with other former prisoners from other nations, and peacefully, took down the Soviet Empire. Without the night, we cannot recognize light.

One problem with biographies of giants like these is that they are too often exploited to silence discussion. If some middle class teenager in Ohio is so sad he wants to hang himself and he doesn't know why, invoking the nightmare of Nazism to make that kid feel that his own problems are trivial, or invoking heroism to shame that kid into feeling weak, escapes the duties assigned to those who witness suffering.

When we talk about God and suffering we need to surrender. Our contribution will not be final. Our words will be a cross-section of an ever-flowing stream. We need to go in search of answers, but compassion demands that we never conclude that we've reached the destination where the answers reside. One signature of suffering is the fresh intensity of it in each one suddenly afflicted. Suffering is being without answers, even if you have read all of the best books. If we encounter a sufferer who doesn't know anything but suffering, we need to be willing to share her fresh, new, individual hell.

Another problem is the belief that suffering always elevates. The Poles I met were so self-conscious of their own status as a crucified nation that they would broach this in conversation with me: "They say suffering makes you noble, and that you should seek it out. That is nonsense, and it is poison. We know because we see it. Suffering can destroy you. It is how you respond to the suffering that you can't avoid that makes all the difference, not the suffering itself. You should not seek it out; but you should not run away from a goal if you must endure suffering to achieve it."

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki
December 6, 1933 – November 12, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

March of the Living: Poland as an Aid to Jewish Identity in an Era of Assimilation

photo credit: Yossi Selinger

In 2005, Jeremy Simons, an Ohio State University senior, wrote "Polish Jewish Relations: an In-Depth Look at the March of the Living."

Charles Dundee forward Jeremy's paper to me.

Jeremy's work, in its major conclusions, agrees with mine in "Bieganski." The March of the Living that Simons studied in 2005 (it has since changed, he urges me to consider), did foster Jewish identity by contrasting a grey, cold, intractably alien and anti-Semitic Poland, land of nothing but death, nothing, really, but the Holocaust, with Israel, sunny and warm land of rebirth. MOTL did so by resisting MOTL participants' contact with Poles, including Polish Jews, by not educating MOTL participants in Poles' victimization under the Nazis, by equating Poles with Nazis, and by overemphasizing Polish anti-Semitism.

March of the Living is an annual event that takes thousands of teenage Jews from countries all over the world, on trips to Auschwitz, in Poland, and then to Israel. It has been widely criticized, including by Jews, for isolating its participants from surrounding populations of Poles and Polish Jews, for traumatizing participants and for emphasizing a Jewish identity based on victimization.

My own book, "Bieganski," includes references to numerous criticisms of March of the Living, including by prominent entertainer Theodore Bikel, by journalists, politicians and scholars, including Peter Novick in his book "The Holocaust in American Life," Tom Segev in his book "The Seventh Million: Israelis and the Holocaust," criticism of "Holocaust tourism" by Jack Kugelmass, and by participants in a lengthy internet debate. "Bieganski" also features a lengthy transcript from a March participant, Danielle, who inadvertently exposed the ethnocentrism, ignorance, arrogance, and bigotry MOTL can entail. Danielle's transcript cannot be fully detailed here.

Danielle castigated Poles for being able to live next to a concentration camp where many Jews suffered. Danielle revealed no awareness that Polish Catholics had suffered and died in that same camp. Danielle announced that she was an expert in Holocaust history – yet she'd never heard of Jan Karski. Danielle was surprised when she first arrived in Poland, because "Everything was in color. The only thing I knew of Eastern Europe was in black and white. Probably from movies. I'm thinking reels of Holocaust films. I pictured gray, cold, concrete. I wasn't aware that I was thinking this until we landed and everything was in color … There is nothing attractive about Poland. Even though I know it's in color my mind has degenerated back to black and white."

Interestingly, Jeremy's work also repeatedly refers to descriptions of Poland as a bleak, black and white land that pervade MOTL thinking and publications.

While working on Bieganski, I was repeatedly told that I could not research – be funded for – publish – be credited with – the work I was doing because I am Polish and Catholic. (In fact I'm American-born and hardly orthodox. These realities do not matter to the identity politicians.)

Jeremy Simons, the Ohio State University grad who authored "Polish Jewish Relations: An In-Depth Look at the March of the Living," is not only Jewish, he is currently in rabbinical school. With minor exceptions, his observations echo my own. Given the similarities, it is most remarkable that we had no contact while writing our respective works.

"Since 1945 Jews have eyed Poles with suspicion and even contempt—they were collaborators during the Holocaust," Jeremy begins.

Jeremy reports that Jewish assimilation to non-Jewish populations is a concern: "demographics illustrate that fewer and fewer people are choosing to remain Jewish."

MOTL, and MOTL's version of Poland, help alleviate the concern: "research has shown that participants feel a stronger bond toward their religion after attending the trip."

The research Jeremy cites was a study commissioned by MOTL and conducted by City College of New York Sociology and Judaic Studies Professor William Helmreich.

Helmreich's "research involved interviewing some 300 former participants that marched in 1992, 1999, and 2003 … His results show that the program is successful in its goal of strengthening Jewish identity. Not surprisingly, 93% of respondents felt the trip led to 'an increase in Jewish identity' … The program seems to espouse a particular view of Jewish identity based on persecution. 'The March of the Living definitely scared me into seeing what the future has in store for the Jewish people'" one participant reported.

Jeremy quotes Professor Tamar Rudavsky: "'[Jewish identity] should not be based on "don't forget what they did to us."' She went on to say that the March could, in theory, change from this paradigm if it allowed for the inclusion of other human atrocities besides the Holocaust. She quickly added, "And I suspect that will never happen."

"That will never happen," perhaps, because, as one informant put it, the theme of the march is not universal tolerance, but, rather, Jewish identity. One of Jeremy's informants said, "We have not … had interactions with Jewish Polish teenagers. Honestly, my goal of the trip is not to deal with the question of tolerance. My goal of the trip is to deal with the Jewish experience. If I were focusing more on the Holocaust I would probably deal more with these Polish teenagers."

A very negative Poland, populated by anti-Semitic victimizers, land of many of their ancestors, is contrasted with a very positive Israel: "Virtually everyone I spoke with either implied or explicitly stated that the March framed Poland in a negative light … I found that the March of the Living does portray both Poland and Poles negatively … it is likely that in order to reach its goal of emotionally affecting these students, Poland is portrayed as a place of great sadness which is then contrasted with Israel—the land of milk and honey. Even if this might be irresponsible, I found no evidence that it is malicious … the goal is to give students a stronger sense of Jewish identity … it appears the program encourages an identity based, at least in part, on themes of victimization and persecution … Currently the March provides a false picture of Poland. It appears the organizers do so to suit their needs: To build emotion, to contrast with a glorified Israel"

"The first page of the 2000 [MOTL] study guide informs the participant she will experience 'a journey from darkness to light.' The 2005 brochure speaks of a 'study of contrasts' between Israel and Poland. More implicitly, the brochure features an array of photographs of both Poland and Israel. Every picture in Israel is sunny whereas all the pictures of Poland, save for one are overcast. A view of the website shows color pictures of Israel contrasted with black and white pictures of Poland … the image has been retained over the years in order to create the impression that Poland is a dark, dreary country."

One concerned Polish observer reported, "I've had guides almost directly tell me that they were glad that the weather was bad because they needed to have the feeling that it was dark and grey and cold and then you come to Israel where it's sunny and warm."

Another aspect of the negative depiction of Poland is minimization of Poland's suffering under the Nazis. Jeremy reports that this is reflective of a lack of any attention paid to Polish suffering. "More telling is the lack of world attention given to the Polish plight. In conducting an internet data search, it took a considerable amount of time to find data regarding Polish casualties whereas figures on Jews were relatively easy to obtain … from my interviews with former participants of the March of the Living it seems that many Jews are unaware that Poles were also imprisoned and murdered in the camp."

Also, MOTL overemphasized Polish anti-Semitism. Here are quotes from Jeremy's informants, MOTL participants: "I have seen leaders speaking with hatred several times." "After [the trip] they said they hated the Poles, they hated Poland." "They felt they were free. They felt they were imprisoned in Poland. It could be that some of the leaders promoted it." "Kevin commented that the group leaders seemed to imply Polish responsibility was on par with the Nazis."

One MOTL participant "noted that the students were told not to spend money in Poland, which undoubtedly can only lead to an increase of resentment amongst Poles."

One participant reported that after the March, other participants said "they hated the Poles, they hated Poland. Now they were told not to spend the money in Poland but to spend the money in Israel. Not that you had to, but let's leave the money to Israel and not to Poland. They left Poland not liking it, hating it.

Carolyn Slutsky, in her contribution to the book "Rethinking Poles and Jews," also criticizes the MOTL admonition that Jews not spend money in Poland. She reports that Jewish youngsters were told by MOTL personnel not to "leave any good Jewish money in Poland"

Any aspect of Poland that is not related to anti-Semitism or the Holocaust was of little interest to MOTL: "The Poles appeared to be trying to foster a dialogue. One day during dinner the students found pamphlets (in English) about the positive aspects of Polish/Jewish history. Despite these small efforts, it appeared the participants were not interested in learning about Poland. 'We went to Warsaw [to see non-Jewish sites] twice which was optional. The guides tried to show us things but the students really weren't interested in seeing it.'"

As described in Bieganski, given the relentless association of Poland with the Holocaust, and the tunnel vision that erases any other aspect of Polish identity, Poland becomes metonymical for the Holocaust. One of Jeremy's informants said, "In Israel people talk about these trips as 'Trips to Poland.' They're not Shoah trips, that's not what they're called. They're called trip to Poland. The whole stereotype is that it's all Poland. It's all Poland's fault, somebody's got to be blamed."

A negative depiction of Poland cements Jewish identity during a time of rising assimilation. One informant, in a typed response that Jeremy did not correct, wrote: "there I are times when I have to remind myself, remember poland, people died for your relgion! Thast when I try and be a "better" jew, or at least more aware and a better person. I also feel mmore connected with my Grandparents, who are holocaust survivors, and they know that ive been there and thought about them and my relatives who perished there."

The emphasis on Poland as a land of violent anti-Semites is so great that some report feeling disappointed that they did not encounter anti-Semitism in Poland.

One MOTL participant told Jeremy, "I was sort of looking forward to having all those anti-Semites, so we could show them that 'we are here.'" Caught off guard, I asked if he felt disappointed that there was no one there yelling at him. "In a way I did. It's weird to say that…"

On informant reported, "All there was was a little group of [Polish] kids cheering us on waving an Israeli flag someone had given them."

One informant was disappointed at the nice weather in Poland. "I still wish the weather were harsher."

Jeremy interviewed scholar Anna Maria Orla Bukowska. She expressed frustration that she had tried to create positive contact between Poles and Jews, and been rebuffed.

Orla Bukowska told an interesting story of attempting to walk down a sidewalk in Krakow and being forced off the sidewalk by MOTL participants. She realized that if she had stood her ground she would have been castigated as an anti-Semite.

Jeremy acknowledges that his research is limited, but cautiously reports that "I have reached several conclusions. Perhaps most surprising is that the 'widespread' Polish anti-Semitism feared by Jews is largely a myth. The findings of this paper cannot be used to argue it does not exist—and I doubt anyone could argue such a thing. Rather, I can show that the notion that all or even most Poles have negative attitudes toward Jews is simply not true."

The good news here is Jeremy Simons himself. While reading his paper, I knew I was in contact with, simply, a decent human being, a nice guy, who was doing everything he could to be fair. Jeremy is Jewish and I am Polish and I sensed, while reading this work, that Jeremy had no desire to hurt me or people like me – this is an exceptional feeling while reading about the highly tense field of Polish-Jewish relations. Jeremy doesn't have a chip on his shoulder or a grudge he's trying to settle through his scholarship. He wants to be fair, to Jews and Poles, and his scholarship evidenced that.

Scholars like Jeremy Simons are the candle in the darkness.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Glenn Beck. George Soros. Charges of Antisemitism. Your thoughts?

Glenn Beck is criticizing George Soros. Some are accusing Beck of antisemitism in these criticisms. I'm not qualified to judge; I did not see the Beck program criticizing George Soros.

I did just watch the youtube video, linked below.  I don't know who produced this video.

I do judge the video, below, as antisemitic. Soros' Judaism is invoked. Why? What does the fact that he has Jewish ancestry to do with Beck's criticisms? Images of Jews are shown in accompaniment to ominous music. The "puppet master" metaphor echoes slanders against Jews, including the Protocols.

I'm not saying Glenn Beck is antisemitic. I'm not saying Fox is antisemitic. I'm saying this film clip is antisemitic, intentionally or accidentally. I'm not attributing intention. I'm judging the images on the screen.

I'd like to hear from others their thoughts on this.

Link to youtube video

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Taras Bulba: Candidate for Flamboyantly Bad Movie Hall of Fame

Yul Brynner, Burly Cossack
Burly Cossacks!

"Taras Bulba" is a prime candidate for the Flamboyantly Bad Movie Hall of Fame. It's sad to give a thumbs-down review to a movie that features the late, and missed, Yul Brynner, but hey – I'm a Cossack, and I skewer babies for lunch.

"Taras Bulba" offers two attractions: exhibitions of burly Cossack manhood, and hatred of Poles. The lead singers of the Village People – a cowboy, a construction worker, a cop – look like little girls in comparison to "Taras Bulba"'s Cossacks.

Burly macho Cossacks duel by racing their horses over a widening crack in the earth; the first to slip into the crack loses (and presumably dies), but receives a eulogy worthy of a Burly Cossack. Burly Cossacks walk a plank over a pit of fighting bears while chugging vodka, they lift up off the ground a fully grown horse on which sits a fully grown rider, they chop off the hand of an evil Polish character, they plunge their newborn baby boys into freezing cold streams, they lay siege to a city and party down while its citizens die of plague. Cossacks wrestle with their dads, kill their sons, trample their hetmans, ignore their wives, orgy with Gypsies, vault on extemporized trampolines, and thunder across the steppes in carefully choreographed ballet that would make Busby Berkeley's heart beat like those prancing horse's hooves and his eyes well up with envy and admiration.

With all of that, how can this movie suck so bad, and be such a painful, boring slog to sit through? Direction, production, set design, dialogue: nothing works here. Other than Yul Brynner, nothing in this movie comes together. Well – the horses are nice.

An epic doesn't have to be real – it has to create a conceivable alternate world. In what conceivable alternate world is it possible that Yul Brynner is the biological father of Tony Curtis? You get the picture.

Neither Yul Brynner nor Charlton Heston is a believable ancient Egyptian, but they are utterly believable as each other's nemesis in "The Ten Commandments." Yul Brynner was a real live Russian wild man. When Brynner had lung cancer, he continued to do the demanding waltz in the stage production of "The King and I." Tony Curtis was Bernard Schwartz of the undying Bronx accent who, in fights, used to protect his pretty face because he knew it was his fortune. These two are not related; onscreen they clash as if colliding while walking home from the sets of two different films.

Movies can do hate in gripping, even if morally bankrupt ways; we've known that since "Birth of a Nation." But "Taras Bulba"'s hatred of Poles is laughable. Poles here are not dumb Polaks. They are, rather, snobbish noblemen, too effete to fight, and sadomasochistic Catholics who order the torture of Cossacks and then kneel before a crucifix as the torture is carried out. The real sadomasochists are the filmmakers who created these scenes and the audience members who receive a pleasurable, anti-clerical thrill while watching them. The caricature is so two-dimensional no matter what twisted thing the movie has the Poles do – eventually they tie a pretty girl to a stake – it's boring. Yeah, yeah, the viewer wants to scream at the screen. You want me to hate the Poles. Ho, hum. Can't you get this lead balloon of a movie off the ground?

Who was behind this bomb, anyway? Was it a desire on some Hollywood mogul's part to get back at the Poles? But then why cast Cossacks as the heroes, given the many populations brutalized by this warrior people, including those who suffered under the Cossacks who allied themselves with Hitler? The source material, Nikolai Gogol's novel, is anti-Polish, but it is also anti-Semitic; Jewish characters did not make it into this film version. I don't know the backstory behind this film, and the film itself is such a bore I can't bring myself to research the question.