Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Stereotype Poles? Why Distort WW II History? Here's Why.

"Poland can serve as an ideal stage for Israeli Jews playing out the drama of their identity, as it provides so many good props and so few competing live actors" Prof. Jackie Feldman


Chapters Five and Nine of "Bieganski" cite Jewish scholars – significantly Peter Novick, Tom Segev, and Jack Kugelmass – whose work offers insight into the process of supporting Jewish identity through the stereotyping of Poles.

Non-Jews also use the Brute Polak stereotype to support their sense of their own identity. As Alan Dundes explained, putting down "white trash" "dumb Polaks," gained popularity among politically correct elites in America after the Civil Rights movement made it problematic for elites automatically to establish their superiority vis-à-vis African Americans.


Ben Gurion University's Prof. Jackie Feldman also offers insight into the stereotyping of Poles for instrumental ends.

Prof. Feldman's excellent and recommended article, "Marking the Boundaries of the Enclave: Defining the Israeli Collective Through the Poland 'Experience'" appeared in Israel Studies, volume 7, issue 2, 2002.

Prof. Feldman's article supports in its every detail and observation the conclusions of Chapters Five and Nine of "Bieganski."


Prof. Feldman describes the Holocaust-oriented trips young Jews take to Poland. Feldman quotes Limor Livnat, Israel's Minister of Education, saying that young Jews "gravitate toward Auschwitz." They "want their feet to tread that cursed earth" (84). Indeed, trips to Poland are a "central rite" in "Israel's civil religion" (90).

Feldman applies anthropologist Dame Mary Douglas' model of an enclave society to these trips.

Mary Douglas (1921-2007) was a prominent British anthropologist. In her model of an enclave society, members "build a strong boundary" around themselves. Enclave members erect "a wall of virtue between themselves and the outside world, a world they never cease to revile" (Douglas, quoted in Feldman, 91).

Feldman argues that Holocaust-oriented trips to Poland are used by organizers to erect and maintain the wall an enclave society requires and desires. Each aspect of the trip is manipulated by organizers to increase the "wall of virtue." Outside the wall is the world enclave society members "never cease to revile."

Poles and Poland cannot be seen in any manner approaching the objective. They exist to serve the enclave, and their image must be manipulated, perceived, and interpreted in a way that serves the enclave. "Modern-day Poland is of no interest. National identity … is all that matters" (93).

As Ferdinand de Saussure observed, we define through opposites. The other, the opposite, against whom young Jews traveling to Poland are encouraged to define themselves, is Poland and its Poles. Because the trips teach young Jews that they are virtuous victims, Poles must be their opposites. Poles must be guilty, hateful, victimizers. These trips offer no opportunity for Poles to be anything else; in fact, the trips are carefully choreographed in such a way as to create and perpetuate Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype.

Trips are designed to bypass cognitive mechanisms and arouse emotion. Holocaust tourists, Feldman argues, are not encouraged to think complex thoughts so much as to feel overwhelming feelings. Those overwhelming feelings are channeled into a particular version of Jewish identity that cannot allow for the universality of human experience.

Participants are programmed to "experience non-Jews as anti-Semites." "A picture of the world is created in which impermeable boundaries separate 'us' from 'them'" (90). The trips communicate to young Jews that the Holocaust never ended; absent the IDF, "they would be on their way to the gas chambers" (84).

Feldman argues that "Visits to Poland by Ministry of Education groups are designed to inscribe upon Israeli youth the sense of belonging to an egalitarian collective with well-defined, but constantly threatened boundaries" (91).

These trips emphasize "the division of the world into Israel and Poland, 'us' and 'them,' life and death" (92).

The trips to Poland began when observers began to fear that forces, including globalization and the passage of time from WW II, were eroding Jewish identity. At the same time, differences between Jews – Sephardic and Ashkenazi, orthodox and secular, doves and hawks – threatened a sense of Jewish unity. The trips to Poland were seen as necessary to buttress Jewish identity and unity.

"Common bases for national identity were seen as weakened … Youth became the prime carriers of globalization [through] TV, fashion, music, MTV, video, the internet … Poland visits have been promoted … as a bulwark against global forces and a means of shoring up loyalty to the national collective."

Trips to Poland, one founder put it, "Made us one nation – the nation that was murdered!" (92)

Mary Douglas said that enclaves maintain their boundaries by associating contact with outsiders with contact with unclean bodily excretions. "An enclave uses defilement for reinforcing its antipathy towards the outsider" (Douglas quoted in Feldman 93).

Feldman points out that Israeli youth visiting Poland equated Poland with uncleanness and unclean bodily excretions and the violation of bodily orifices. Trip graduates communicated that sense of Polish uncleanness to subsequent young people making the trip. They told other young people that Polish food "stinks" and is "disgusting," Polish water is "brown," and "not fit for humans." Even McDonald's in Poland is "grungy." Polish toilet paper is unacceptable. "Pee whenever you get the chance." "Hotels are flooded with drunks and whores." One guide, Feldman reports, "took ten days of food with him from Israel, refusing to eat anything that grew on 'impure Polish soil'" (93-4).

Feldman argues that there is a sharp boundary drawn between how young Jewish visitors to Poland behave when in their own group and what they understand as their own space, and how they behave when Poles are present, and when they feel themselves to be in Poland. Feldman says that these behavior differences "becomes a prototype of imagined historic Polish-Jewish and Gentile-Jewish relations" (95). Outside of their "bubble" of contact with fellow Jews, the world around them, that is, Poland, is "a place of hostile, strange surroundings, wandering, and the inevitable end" (95).

"The Israeli guard accompanying each bus" is "the guardian of gateways to and from Poland." "Security measures … eliminate any possibility for casual contact with Poles." Feldman quoted a group leader implying to young Jewish visitors to Poland that they must be rushed from Holocaust site to Holocaust site because if they linger, they will be in danger from Poles who might do them bodily harm (95).

Clothing, too, is used to maintain a boundary between Jews and surrounding Poles. Sweatshirts are "emblazoned with a large barbed wire star of David surrounding the letters 'ISRAEL'" (96).

In the handbook for participants, youth are told, "We remind the Poles of this dark chapter in our history and theirs … the Poles are forced to confront their past anew, and their role in the tragedy of the Jewish people." Feldman quotes Mary Douglas, "To vilify the outsider is a way of justifying" the enclave's disdain for the outsider. "The lines between 'us' and 'them' reflect widely held Israeli positions (e.g. that Poles are anti-Semites)." Any event that suggests otherwise – that suggests that maybe, just maybe, some Poles are NOT anti-Semites, is "neutralized through scheduling and rhetorical devices" (96).

What do enclave members do when they encounter realities that do not agree with their narrative? In concrete terms, what happens when a young Jew on such a trip meets a nice Polish person?

Mary Douglas outlines five strategies. Feldman applies Douglas' strategies to Jewish youth visiting Poland (96-7).

Feldman mentions that a great stumbling block to the enclave is the beauty of Poland, or the attractiveness of individual Poles. To maintain the enclave, this attractiveness must be overcome. "Israeli students expect Poland to look like a Holocaust movie" with "mud, ugly, gray people … they are sometimes disappointed to find that [Polish] scenery, weather, men or women can be quite beautiful." Soon, though, under their guides' tutelage, visitors learn to "simply ignore" any attractions Poland offers (97).

Guides encourage visitors "not to give the Poles a penny more than necessary." On one occasion, visitors admitted to shoplifting in Poland. Their Orthodox group leader "dismissed it as a sin that results from a good deed (averah haba'ah b'mitzvah) – in other words, depriving Poles of income" (98).

Polish students "are considered the enemy." Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neriah wrote that "it is a sacred obligation to remember the deeds of the Polish people who are imbued with a venomous hatred towards all Jews…these are the very people who helped carry out mass murder, and whose children also slaughtered many … Remember our murdered and remember our murderers" (98).

Feldman cites a commentator who notes the de-emphasizing of universal standards of morality by "many rabbinical leaders." Hostility to Poles is justified by the Talmudic proverb, "Esau hates Jacob." Poles are Esau; Jews are Jacob. Since, in this formulation, all Poles hate all Jews, it is appropriate for Jews to hate Poles in return (99). In Genesis, Esau is the rough, outdoorsy, impetuous, less favored brother. Jacob is the patriarch who takes the name "Israel."
Assigning Poles the Esau identity has a long tradition.

Feldman comments on how even the presence of a "righteous Gentile," that is a Pole who saved Jews, is handled in such a manner as to reinforce the "us v. them" paradigm. Audiences are encouraged to conclude that "righteous Gentiles" are not like other Poles, are, rather, completely unconnected to their Polish milieu (100). In fact Feldman says, through the use of a poem, Poland is equated with Sodom. The atypical Pole who helped Jews did so because he is the one righteous man in Sodom.

Because living Jews in Poland do not mesh with the dominant paradigm of "Poland = Death," young visitors have been kept from interacting with living Polish Jews. In fact, in their prayer ceremonies, contrary to Jewish custom that advises that Jews worship according to local custom, young Jewish visitors worship in Sephardic, not Ashkenazi, style.

Jews who lived in Poland before the Holocaust are depicted as Orthodox, rather than assimilated to Polish culture. This emphasizes the "us v. them" paradigm. Pre-war Polish Jews are "alien in the Kingdom of Amalek."
Amalek, of course, is the condemned nation against whom Old Testament Jews conducted a genocidal war. One can see that the Bible is used to define Poland as utterly cursed and other: as Esau, as Sodom, as Amalek (100).

Jews living in Poland today "post a potential threat" to the us v. them paradigm because these Jews choose to live in Poland. For this reason, Holocaust tours have avoided contact with living Polish Jews (101).

Ceremonies in Poland, Feldman argues, are designed in such a way as to reinforce the "with me" v. "against me" paradigm. Differences between Jews disappear. It doesn't matter if they disagree politically or socially; no differences between Jews matter at all, any more. The important differentiation is between Jews and outsiders, who are, in Poland, of course, Polish Catholics (105).

Feldman closes with recommendations for restructuring young Jews' visits to Poland in a way that will inculcate universal values, rather than hostile chauvinism. Jews must redefine their experience in Poland, rather than continue to depict it as "a long, dark period of suffering and persecution … of fragile existence imbued with fear and humiliation" (106).


Political mastermind Karl Rove said, "Attack an opponent's strength. Make it a weakness."

It is widely known that there are more trees planted at Yad Vashem in honor of Polish rescuers than rescuers from any other nation. The number is too small. Conditions in Poland were magnitudes worse than in any other Nazi occupied country. Many rescuers can never be honored.

One would think that Poles' status as rescuers would serve to counter the Brute Polak stereotype.

Interestingly, in recent years, university presses have published books that depict Polish rescuers as sex deviants, profiteers, reckless fools, and sadists.

They Were Just People," a University of Missouri press book, depicts Polish rescuers acting out of greed or stupidity. Of one, the book says, "If German authorities came to that farm and found Jews, she said, 'then he has the same execution that we would have. But the famer was not smart enough to think of this. He was thinking of the big chunk of money he would get.'" The speaker is a Jewish Holocaust survivor, who acknowledges that she survived "Because of a Polish army officer." Even so, "my generation will never forgive" Poles.

Another Polish rescuer, Jan Goral, acted because "the idea of owning sixty more acres intrigued him enough to put the lives of his whole family on the line." (Nazis killed entire families of Poles if anyone in that family aided a Jew in any way.)

Was callous, reckless, selfish greed really Jan Goral's motivation for building a large bunker and saving 11 Jews? We don't know. "They Were Just People"'s authors don't interview Jan Goral. They just accept this venal motivation as fact.

The most memorable narrative in "They Were Just People" describes a Pole feeding the disinterred, decaying corpses of Jews, ordered murdered by the Nazis, to his pigs.

Did this really happen?

"They Were Just People" provides no evidence that it did. The book reports it as an foaf – a friend of a friend tale. The teller heard it from someone else who reported hearing it from someone else. FOAFs are notoriously unreliable. This notorious unreliability did not hinder a university press from publishing the story as if it were unquestionably true.

The "Polish peasant disinters Jewish corpses and feeds them to his pigs" narrative neatly meets the requirements for the Holocaust-trip strategy Jackie Feldman describes, above. Feldman argues that Holocaust trips position the Polish rescuers young Jews are allowed to encounter in such a way as to define these Poles as the one good man in Sodom. That's exactly the purpose of the pig story in "They Were Just People." The teller says as much: "that was the kind of people who lived there [in Poland]." Other than the one family that helped this Holocaust survivor, Poles are the kind of people who would disinter Jewish corpses and feed those corpses to their pigs.

The location of this nauseating, horrifying tale in a book purportedly about Polish rescuers, along with statements from survivors like "We will never forgive the Poles," serves effectively to satisfy Karl Rove's strategy of attacking one's opponent on his strength.

Ha, this book says. You think Polish rescuers deserve respect? You naïve fool.

Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women," published by Brandeis University Press, includes few lengthy, contextualized accounts of sexual violence. The lengthiest account in the book involves no German Nazis. Rather, in this account, it is a Catholic Pole who sexually assaults a Jewish girl. The Catholic Pole does not hand a Jewish girl over to the Nazis. In exchange, he demands a sexual encounter with her. An additional remarkable feature: the account is fiction. A university press publishes a self-identified "groundbreaking" book addressing sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust, and devotes its longest account, not to assaults by German Nazis, but to an assault by a Pole, and not a nonfiction account, but a fictional one.

As is often the case in work that locates Holocaust guilt in Catholic Poles, Germans are exculpated at least once in "Sexual Violence." Contributor Eva Fogelman, a psychologist, quotes one Jewish Holocaust survivor as reporting, "I was never raped by a German. Not one German ever laid a finger on me." The Germans, Fogelman reports, "liked her looks, but treated her like a Fraulein, giving her food and milk." "By contrast with her praise of the Germans, she said, 'What I do hate is Ukrainians and Poles. I shiver when I see them in the streets'" (269). In case the reader misses the point, Fogelman, lists "Germans, Poles, Ukrainians" as "persecutors" (272).


Polonia has not responded to the Bieganski image with effective strategy. Polonian organizations, like the Kosciuszko Foundation, have not, as far as I know, even acknowledged the existence of the Brute Polak stereotype.

There are piecemeal efforts, like a petition to get press organs to stop identifying German, Nazi concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland as "Polish concentration camps," but these efforts merely put a band-aid on cancer. The Brute Polak stereotype must be recognized for what it is, and addressed head-on.

Till that day, Polonia does not have the microphone. Polonia is not controlling the discourse.

That being the case, every time Poles or Polonians cite Polish rescuers, audiences hear "Polish Rescuers … those people who helped Jews out of greed or stupidity or sadism or lust."

That's what audiences hear because the Brute Polak image has been made dominant through journalism, media, and academia. Audiences, no less than young Jews on Holocaust tours of Poland, have been conditioned to hear selectively.


It goes without saying that Holocaust tours in Poland are not the definitive expression of Jewish culture today.
There are many Jews who love and value Poland. There are also many Jews who have never heard of, never mind taken, a Holocaust tour of Poland, and who would find much about these tours unappealing. As stated above, Jewish scholars have lead the way in offering critiques of the chauvinism and anti-Polonism of these tours. In fact, a rabbinical student allowed me to post his own critique of these tours here.

In other words, though this material is disturbing, we cannot allow it – or anything – to tempt us to fall into hatred's traps. And
we must not blame all Jews for what some Jews are doing. We must remain mindful that many Jews have been allies to Poles in combating generalizations, and many non-Jews have trafficked in stereotypes of Poles. We must regretfully admit the chauvinists and distorters of history among Polish Catholics.

Rather, what we must do is confront this material in a clearheaded way. People of good faith, who want a better tomorrow, must act on this material to discourage stereotyping and encourage the kind of universal values promoted by heroes Irena Sendler and Janusz Korczak.

Black and White Beach. Source.


  1. So much hatred over so many years. It does no one any good. The author of "They Were Just People" should examine his conscience.

  2. Danusha, once again, a great blog entry by you. I like how you ended a very sad story on a positive note. "People of good faith who want a better tomorrow" must indeed fight against any stereotyping. Taking a stand in these matters is outside the comfort zone for many people. Reminding us of the example of the courage of those like Sendler and Korczak helps put this all in perspective and may help some get beyond the comfort zone.

  3. Conformer with a CauseApril 5, 2011 at 9:50 PM

    Talking about distorting WW2 history to sledge Poles, I stumbled across an interesting historical distortion in the UK's Guardian newspaper in an article on dirt....

    In it Suzanne Moore wrote

    " In pre-war Poland, antisemitism became medicialised. Jews were associated with disease. One shocking image reads: "Jews are lice, they cause typhus." Ethnic cleansing depends precisely on defining a whole swath of people as "matter out of place", as a dirty disease that needs to be eradicated."

    The poster as demonstrated here

    and as pointed in a number of comments under the article was of course a Nazi German-published poster in 1941 intended to instill a fear of Jews among Christian Poles.

    Intriguingly neither the Guardian newspaper nor Suzanne Moore have yet bothered to post a correction. Suzanne Moore has an article every Saturday - it will be interesting to see if she is a big enough person to at least include a small comment admitting she got it wrong.

    I found this interesting because Suzanne Moore could have got her facts right and still not affected the whole point of her article in anyway.

  4. Conformer with a Cause, thank you for sharing that, which I find quite shocking. These lies never fail to shock. What you say is exactly correct -- the article would have been unchanged had she told the truth about the Nazi poster. She equated Poles with Nazis in a way that was utterly gratuitous to her main point. That demonstrates how important the Bieganski / Brute Polak image has become to Western culture, including pop culture, journalism, and academics.

    I sincerely thank you for sharing that here.


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.
These themes include the false and damaging stereotype of Poles as brutes who are uniquely hateful and responsible for atrocity, and this stereotype's use in distorting WW II history and all accounts of atrocity.
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