Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bieganski Is Everywhere: The Poetry Foundation on Czeslaw Milosz and Maximilian Kolbe


Nobel-Prize-Winning Poet Czeslaw Milosz. Source: Wikipedia

Saint Maximilian Kolbel. Source: Saints.SQPN.com

The Poetry Foundation's Logo. Their Site.

"Bieganski" demonstrates that the Brute Polak image is everywhere in Western culture, that it is an essential part of the cultural baggage of Westerners, and that the image does hard work – it provides a scapegoat for Holocaust guilt, and, indeed, guilt for all human hate. Because of the pervasiveness and essential nature of the Brute Polak image, limited efforts like the Kosciuszko Foundation's recent petition to urge media to stop using the phrase "Polish concentration camps," while well-intentioned, are ultimately a dead-end. If the Brute Polak image is to be taken on, it must be named, it must be analyzed, and it must be rejected in whole, not in part.

A reader of this blog emailed me a link to The Poetry Foundation's audio essay on two of the most prominent and celebrated Poles of the twentieth century. Czeslaw Milosz was a Nobel Prize-winning poet. Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest who sacrificed his life at Auschwitz in order that another might live. Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982.

Whatever the stated goal of The Poetry Foundation's audio essay on Milosz and Kolbe, the essay serves this goal with brisk efficiency: it communicates the Brute Polak image. Polish culture, this audio essay informs its listeners, is anti-Semitic. This audio essay identifies Polish identity with anti-Semitism.

The Poetry Foundation is, according to its website,

"an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.

Upon receipt of a major gift from philanthropist Ruth Lilly, the Poetry Foundation was established in 2003, evolving from the Modern Poetry Association, which was founded in 1941. The Poetry Foundation is one of the largest literary foundations in the world."

Admittedly, though The Poetry Foundation is "one of the largest literary foundations in the world," vanishingly few people will ever listen to its audio essay on Czeslaw Milosz and Maximilian Kolbe identifying Polish culture inextricably with anti-Semitism. Given that few will ever hear this essay, why should anyone care?

One might care because this essay demonstrates the truth of the argument of "Bieganski." The Brute Polak stereotype is everywhere, and it serves a purpose: Bieganski is the West's scapegoat for the horrors of anti-Semitism, indeed, for all hate.

In 2004, Willard Gaylon, a professor of clinical psychiatry, published a "wise and very disturbing book" (New York Times book review),"Hatred: The Psychological Descent Into Violence." How to explain hate and violence to good, wholesome, American readers? Gaylon opens his book with a chapter entitled "Confronting Evil Head On." What evil does Gaylon courageously confront for his American audience? The Jihadists who attacked the World Trade Center a few years before publication of his book? The killers at Columbine High School? The Klan? No, Gaylon confronts the ultimate evil: Poles and Poland. Gaylon opens his book with the world's prototypical bigots, haters, and thugs: Poles. Poles hate. Poles torture. Poles kill. If we can understand Poles, we can understand hatred. In this book that purports to go to the source of hatred, there is no place that can stand in for Poland. Poles hate like nobody else.

The Poetry Foundation's audio essay on Czeslaw Milosz and Maximilian Kolbe is very brief – eleven minutes – and restrained. The Poetry Foundation's presenter, Curtis Fox, knows nothing about Poles or Poland. That's clear from the start – he mispronounces both "Czeslaw" and "Milosz" several times throughout the brief essay, making it painful listening. Czeslaw Milosz was the subject of the essay, and a world-renowned, Nobel-Prize-winning poet. When you can't pronounce the name of your subject in an audio internet essay, your lack of concern for any accuracy could not be more obvious. Fox need have no concern for accuracy. He's talking about Poles, and there will be no consequence when he smears them.

Curtis Fox identifies Polish culture with anti-Semitism in a brief phrase, "anti-Semitism is embedded in Polish culture." The essay then participates in Christophobes' necessary slander of Maximilian Kolbe.

Maximilian Kolbe was very Catholic, very Polish, and a very good man. Once Kolbe's canonization made his goodness more widely known, those invested in the Bieganski stereotype needed to get to work to drag him down. Get to work they did. The nadir of their efforts was Christopher Hitchens' declaration that Kolbe was responsible for the Holocaust.

The Poetry Foundation is not so flamboyant in its smear. It merely says, "It is unclear whether or not Kolbe was an anti-Semite."

It is not unclear. After the haters got to work pumping out anti-Kolbe propaganda, two men, St. Louis University history professor Daniel L. Schlafly, Jr., and Warren P. Green, director of the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies, closely examined Kolbe and cleared him of the charges against him. Further, Sigmund Gorson, an Auschwitz survivor, testified:

"He knew I was a Jewish boy. That made no difference. His heart was bigger than persons – that is, whether they were Jewish, Catholic or whatever. He loved everyone. He dispensed love and nothing but love. For one thing, he gave away so much of his meager rations that to me it was a miracle he could live.

Now it is easy to be nice, to be charitable, to be humble, when times are good and peace prevails. For someone to be as Father Kolbe was in that time and place – I can only say the way he was is beyond words.

I am a Jew by my heritage as the son of a Jewish mother, and I am of the Jewish faith and very proud of it. And not only did I love Maximilian Kolbe very, very much at Auschwitz, where he befriended me, but I will love him until the last moments of my life."

The Poetry Foundation claims that Kolbe offered help to Nazism's victims "without reference to who they were." This is not true. Kolbe knew that Jews were targeted, and he defied Nazism by helping Jews, with reference to who they were. Kolbe was very aware that approximately two thousand of the refugees from Nazism whom he helped were Jews. In fact, after celebrating winter holidays in a Christian manner, Kolbe arranged for a party that was not specifically Christian, for his Jewish guests. A spokesperson said to Kolbe,

"tomorrow we leave. We've been treated here with much loving concern. We've always felt someone closest to us was sympathetic with us. For the blessing of his all around kindness, in the name of all the Jews present here, we want to express our warm and sincere thanks to you, Father Maximilian, and to all the Brothers. But words are inadequate for what our hearts desire to say."

Another said,

"If God permits us to live through this war, we will repay Niepokalanow a hundredfold. And, as for the benevolence shown her to the Jewish refugees from Poznan, we shall never forget it." ("A Man for Others" 120).

Kolbe knew what he was risking. He had previously been arrested by Nazis, who declared him a "Polish swine" "destined for extermination." Many priests had been arrested and murdered by Nazis. Kolbe knew he would be martyred. And he did what he did anyway. Why? Kolbe himself explained,

"No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?"

Listeners will not meet this extraordinary hero in The Poetry Foundation's audio essay. They will meet, merely, a man who was perhaps an anti-Semite who didn't notice that he was helping Jews.

One might argue that this blog makes too much of the very brief phrase in The Poetry Foundation's audio essay that anti-Semitism is "embedded in Polish culture."

It is undeniable that anti-Semitism was very strong in Polish cultural and political life in the interwar period. "Bieganski" discusses this thoroughly in Chapter Six. That chapter makes clear why it is a very bad move to scapegoat Poles and Poland for anti-Semitism, and, indeed, for all hate. Those same economic and societal mechanisms that prompted powerful anti-Semitism in interwar Poland have not disappeared. They are at work, in full force, in a variety of cultures, involving various populations and religions. By scapegoating Poles, scholars, religious leaders, sociologists and journalists decline to understand powerful, negative forces that continue to foment violence.

The Poetry Foundation's Curtis Fox had no real reason for invoking anti-Semitism in a discussion of Czeslaw Milosz or Maximilian Kolbe. His invoking it did nothing to illuminate his topic. Why did he even bring it up? He had to. Poles / Poland = anti-Semitism in Western consciousness. "Bieganski" establishes that that is the case.

One of the most important, well-endowed, literary foundations in the world could not mention a Polish Nobel Prize Laureate – or a Polish saint – without smearing them with the Bieganski-Brute-Polak brush.

In any case, the very phrase is not one that would have been applied to any other culture. Fox would never talk of the "anti-gentile attitudes embedded in Jewish culture" had he been discussing I. B. Singer. Fox would never talk of the "anti-Semitism embedded in Muslim culture" had been discussing Naguib Mahfouz. He would never mention the "anti-Semitism embedded in African American culture" had he been discussing Toni Morrison.

Fox would do none of the above because, were he to do so, he would be stepping on the toes of people who would hit back.

Poles have yet to organize and hit back against the Bieganski Brute Polak stereotype. So Curtis Fox, and The Poetry Foundation, can slander Poles however they like.

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