Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bieganski Reviews in American Jewish History and Choice

"Bieganski" has received reviews.

One is by Anna D. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann, and it appeared in American Jewish History. Ms. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann's review accurately recapitulate's one of "Bieganski"'s main arguments.

The other review is by Romuald K. Byczkiewicz, and it appeared in the American Library Association's publication Choice. Choice's review is deeply troubling, because it factually misrepresents "Bieganski." It is regrettable when a publication uses its power to misrepresent a book whose author is not famous, and whose correction few will ever see. I ask Choice to print a retraction. More on that, below.


All authors share the frustration of not being heard. Several years ago, at Indiana University, Prof. James Shapiro delivered a masterful talk on passion plays in Oberammergau, Germany. I was thrilled and gratified. Prof. Shapiro, a prize-winning author, was everything an audience member could desire in a public speaker.

No sooner had the applause died down than a very loud man shot up. Prof. Shapiro, this loud man insisted, had screwed up on this point, and missed this other point, and fudged this third point. I stared at the loud man, aghast.

This incident was an education. It taught me that writing is one thing; being heard is another.


"Bieganski" addresses controversy: Polish-Jewish relations, and the deeply ugly stereotypes of Poles deployed to distort history.

There are traumatized people in both populations. People sometimes respond to their own pain by attempting to cause pain in others. Intense politics are at play. A career can be damaged with a charge of anti-Semitism.

I am placed in the "Polish Catholic" slot. In fact I'm an American of Polish and Slovak ancestry, quite proud of my Catholic upbringing but not an orthodox Catholic. Naïve people assume that my work has been criticized by Jews and championed by Polish Catholics.

My best supporters have disproportionately been Jews and people who are neither Polish nor Jewish. Stuart Vail has been selflessly supporting my writing for years. Stuart is neither Polish nor Jewish; further, we agree on almost no political issues. Stuart is merely an integral man who values good writing.

Rabbi Laurence Skopitz, Rabbi Michael Herzbrun, Prof. Antony Polonsky, Prof. Alan Dundes, Arno Lowi, Simon Stern, Robin and Mark Schaffer, are just a few of those to whom the identity politicians would assign "Jewish – not Polish" identity. Without them, I am nothing. They support me because their humanity transcends anything identity politicians can ever comprehend.

On the other hand, I have received scathing attacks from the "Polish Catholic" camp.

A few months back I received a lengthy e-mail from a complete stranger. The e-mail insisted that it was obvious that I hated Poles and Poland, that I hated peasants and had written a book that would depict Polish peasants in the worst possible light. The e-mail's author insisted that he would use all the power and position he had to do everything he could to undermine "Bieganski."

He based his reaction to the book on its cover, which he had seen on Amazon, before the book was even released. He had read none of its contents.

I have been denounced in at least two Polish publications, Sarmatian Review and Glaukopis. The Glaukopis article identified me as a participant in a conspiracy against Poles and Poland.

So, yes. Authors often go unheard. And those who react to what authors write often are reacting more to their own inner narratives or political gamesmanship than to anything that appears on the author's page. Everything is exaggerated when it comes to the fraught field of Polish-Jewish relations.

The Choice review is something else again. I am an unknown author. "Bieganski" is not a bestseller. More people may be exposed to Choice's inaccurate review than may ever be exposed to "Bieganski" itself. "Bieganski" is the only book on the market right now dedicated to addressing stereotypes of Poles and other Eastern Europeans and how these stereotypes are deployed to distort world history. It does not service truth, or scholarship, for Choice's inaccurate review to remain unaddressed.

In March, 2008, American Jewish History published a review by Anna D. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann of one published chapter of Bieganski, "The Necessity of Bieganski: A Shamed and Horrified World Seeks a Scapegoat." This is the most controversial chapter of the book. It appeared in Polin 19, winner of the Halecki Award.

In her review, Ms. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann writes that, "'The necessity of Bieganski,' Goska finally argues, lies also on an even higher platform: it gives illusion of absolving those who failed in their own test of humanity [during the Holocaust], by placing blame on easily identifiable others."

Ms. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann accurately identifies what my work said. In the American Jewish History review, "Bieganski" was heard.


Less happy news is found in the February, 2011 Choice, published by the American Library Association. This review is by Romuald Byczkiewicz.

There are three major problems with Choice's review of "Bieganski."

The first problem with Choice's review may seem arcane and picayune to a non-scholar. Choice writes that Bieganski is "well researched in the secondary literature." This comment fatally discredits Choice's review. Perhaps Choice's reviewer, Byczkiewicz, did not read the book. Perhaps Byczkiewicz did not understand the book. Perhaps Byczkiewicz is purposely misrepresenting the book. I know no other options.

Let's look at what "secondary" and "primary" mean to a scholar.

"Primary" means an original document that directly records an issue the scholar is researching. A "secondary" source is based on the material in the primary source.

Here's an example. Suppose you wanted to research the OJ Simpson trial. Primary sources include trial transcripts. Secondary sources include newspaper articles based on what was said in the courtroom.

Here's the problem with Choice's use of "secondary" to characterize "Bieganski." Other than "Bieganski," there is almost no scholarly literature on Jewish stereotypes of Poles and their deployment in Polish-Jewish relations. Further, "Bieganski" relies almost exclusively on primary sources.

"Bieganski" argues that the brute Polak stereotype is ubiquitous in academic, journalistic, and popular culture discourse. Examples:
* prominent poet Andrei Codrescu, when commenting on the breakup of Yugoslavia on NPR, denouncing Eastern European Christian peasants, with their "smoke-darkened icons" as possessed of "deep-seated and emotionally unassailable stupidity";
* prominent scholar Thomas Laqueur arguing in the London Review of Books that all Poles, even those who appear not to be anti-Semitic, are essentially anti-Semitic;
* the hit Harrison Ford film "The Fugitive" depicting Polish Americans as particularly dingy and sleazy.

Byczkiewicz misunderstands these and hundreds of other examples as "secondary" sources.

If "Bieganski" were concerned with Andrei Codrescu as an expert witness on the breakup of Yugoslavia, then, yes, he would be a secondary source. But "Bieganski" is very much not citing Codrescu as a reliable source on the breakup of Yugoslavia. Rather, Codrescu, Laqueur, "The Fugitive," are all cited as purveyors of the Bieganski stereotype. These are all primary sources, as is most of the book.

One may approve of "Bieganski's" methodology, or disapprove of it, but Choice's review completely fails to so much as recognize and accurately identify it. Any such disapproval as that Choice attempted, ineptly, to express would have to take issue not just with "Bieganski" but with the methodology of an entire corpus of scholarship on stereotypes of Jews, African Americans, homosexuals and women. Choice has placed itself in opposition to a significant body of scholarship.

Second, and tragically, Choice's review is defamatory. "Bieganski," Choice claims, "glosses over the reality of anti-Semitic attitudes held by some Poles." If Choice can effectively tar "Bieganski" as anti-Semitic, it effectively undermines the only book on the market right now that addresses racist stereotypes of Eastern Europeans, stereotypes that are used to distort history – including Holocaust history – as the American Jewish History review accurately noted.

Antony Polonsky edits the book series in which "Bieganski" appeared. I ask Choice: would the Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies give his imprimatur – or, if you must, his hechsher – to a book that "glossed over" Polish anti-Semitism?

Igor and Kira Nemirovsky, religiously observant Jews, published "Bieganski."

Father John T. Pawlikowski endorsed "Bieganski." I ask Choice: would the recipient of the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award for Distinguished Contributions to Religion and the Distinguished Service Award from the American Jewish Committee state, as Father Pawlikowski did, that "Bieganski" "offers no apologetic for genuine instances of Polish anti-Semitism" if that were not true?

What does the book itself say? An excerpt:

"Discussion of the Bieganski stereotype will raise alarms. In 2001, Jan Tomasz Gross published Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland; in 2006, he published Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz. Gross' works gained new attention for shocking crimes committed by Poles against Jews during the World-War-Two era. This author concurs with Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, Polish journalist and diplomat. "Neighbors is a book which had to be written … If I want to have a moral right to justified pride in [Polish] rescuers, then I must admit to a sense of shame over [Polish] killers."

Magdziak-Miszewska goes on to state, "It is all too human to seek justification and symmetry for our own guilt." This work is not an attempt to create the impression of a symmetry of suffering, or an attempt to justify Polish crimes. Poles, as a group, suffered horribly during World War Two; Jews, as a group, suffered worse. There is no symmetry. There is no justification. This work stands in accord with the statement by the late Polish leader, Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, who wrote of Polish crimes,

Nothing can justify the killing of people by stoning, by butchering with knives, the decapitations, the stabbing with sharpened stakes, the wholesale murder of women and men, of the old and the young, driven to the Jewish cemetery, the burying alive of still breathing victims, the drowning of women with their children in the pond, and at the end the driving of the remaining victims to the barn and burning them alive (Nowak-Jezioranski).

The two phenomena – Polish guilt for Polish crimes, and stereotyping of Poles – are both real. The reality of one does not negate the reality of the other."

Choice: please explain how the above statement and others like it, found throughout "Bieganski," "glosses over" Polish anti-Semitism.

If Choice cannot produce evidence supporting its charge that "Bieganski" "glosses over" Polish anti-Semitism, it is incumbent upon Choice to print a retraction.

Finally, a style note. Choice's reviewer found the book "dizzying." Too many facts, he protests. "Too many notes," a notorious line from the film "Amadeus," comes to mind.

Authors on stereotyping cull facts from many sources: popular culture, politics, journalism, scholarship. As a writer, and a teacher, I'm always aware of this. I always introduce my reader to any new name, providing the personage's historical era, their field of influence, and their impact. For example, before discussing Thomas Laqueur, mentioned above, "Bieganski" identifies him as the Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor of History at U. C. Berkeley, and a prominent historian of masturbation.

It is possible that Mr. Byczkiewicz found the array of facts in the book "dizzying." Will others find it so? Curious readers are courteously invited to sample one chapter of the book in the February, 2011 issue of TheScreamOnline. If dizziness ensues, I will provide Dramamine.


  1. I am very much looking forward to getting this book next week. From everything I have read it goes beyond the black and white and explores the hundreds of shades of grey that permeate the subject matter.I hope reading this will help me understand my own, often contradictory experiences.

  2. Anna Robaczewska, hello, and thank you for your comment. I look forward to hearing your reaction to the book. I'd also like to hear about your own contradictory experiences!

  3. Of all the writers who have appeared in TheScreamOnline since 2001, Dr. Danusha Goska stands out as being painstakingly concerned about researching her topics and documenting her sources. She is incapable of writing out of spite -- especially of denigrating a particular ethnic group. She uses her prodigious talent to enhance awareness of her topics, in a way that is purely her own.

    For those to say that she is anti-Semitic or anti-Polish is laughable, and I would venture to say that they did not read her book, but based their opinions on misinformation, their own prejudices, and/or the erroneous opinions of others. For the American Library Association to publish this sort of review is irresponsible and unconscionable.

    Stuart Vail
    Art, Photography, Literature, Music, Film


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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