Sunday, May 29, 2011

"The Kikey Ones": Bieganski as a Support for Polish Identity and Polish Self-Hatred

Phil Green (Gregory Peck) schools Miss Wales (June Havoc) in "Gentleman's Agreement" 1947.

Phil Green, a handsome magazine journalist, has just revealed to Miss Elaine Wales, his secretary, a cool and soignée blond, that he is a Jew.

Miss Wales relaxes her guard. She reveals that she, too, has disguised her identity in order to pass, in order to be perceived as a Gentile, in order to work at this prestigious publication.

In fact, Miss Wales had to change her name to get her current job as a secretary. Her real name had been Estelle Walovsky. When she applied for jobs as Estelle Walovsky, she received no offers. When she applied for the same job, with the same CV, as Elaine Wales, she was hired. The job she received, via this subterfuge, was as Phil Green's secretary.

Green is outraged. He tells his boss that the company must hire any qualified applicant, regardless of religion.

But Miss Wales is not happy. She tells Phil Green. Their conversation, below:

Miss Wales: You're practically inviting any type at all to apply.

Green: Any type? What do you mean?

Miss Wales: Mr. Green, you don't want things changed around here, do you? Even though you are a writer, and it's different for writers.

Green: How?

Miss Wales: Get one wrong one in here, and it'll come out of us. It's no fun being the fall guy for the kikey ones.

Green: Words like yid and kike and kikey and nigger and coon make me sick no matter who says them.

Miss Wales: But, sometimes I even say it about me. Like if I'm about to do something I know I shouldn't I say, ''Don't be such a little kike.'' That's all. Let one objectionable one in here –

Green: What do you mean by "objectionable?"

Miss Wales: Loud and too much rouge –

Green: This magazine doesn't hire any loud, vulgar girls. Why should they start?

Miss Wales: You know the sort that starts trouble in a place like this and the sort that doesn't, like you or me –

Green: You mean because we don't look especially Jewish, because we're OK Jews, with us it can be kept comfortable and quiet?

Miss Wales: I didn't say –

Green: Miss Wales, I hate anti-Semitism and I hate it from you or anybody who's Jewish as much as I hate it from Gentiles.
June Havoc plays Miss Wales

Recently Tygodnik Powszechny posted, on the magazine's facebook webpage, a link to their coverage of "Bieganski."

Several posters, with speed, alacrity and hammer-like emphasis – no nuance, no room for discussion – rushed to insist that Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype, is no stereotype; rather, Poles really are lowlifes, stupid, bigoted, crude, con artists, the worst. There was no need to cite social science research, or to compare Poles with any other ethnic group. Poles are the nadir. Period.

Not all posts contained this content. Many did. And they received "like" votes.

These are people posting in the Polish language, on the webpage of a Polish publication. One can assume that the posters are themselves Polish.

An example of a comment: A Polish person was overheard referring to African Americans as "asfalt." Ipso facto, Poles are the world's worst bigots.

No denying. Referring to an African American as "asfalt" is racist and disgusting.

Italian Americans refer to African Americans as "mulignan."

Jews refer to African Americans as "schwartzes."

Arabs refer to blacks as "abdi" – the Arabic word for black and the word for slave.

I live in multicultural New Jersey. All these phrases and attendant attitudes are part of my day-to-day life.

I don't mention this reality to excuse any Poles who use the word "asfalt." I mention this because nothing about ethnicity in America can be understood in isolation. That would be obvious to anyone, but to the posters insisting that Poles are the unquestioned nadir, this reality is not necessary.

What was necessary is for these posters was to rush forward and insist the worst about the Poles.

Why? It's counterintuitive.

In attempting to explain the situation to me, my facebook friends talked about current tensions in Polish society: the post-communist, modernization, "wojna polsko-polska." Others mentioned Poles who miss the mostly rural, devoutly Catholic and traditional past v. Poles eager to modernize.

That's all true and important and good.

But there is something else going on.

Here's my best guess:

Poles and Polonians know about what I call "Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype."

They know that Poles are understood as the nadir, the bad guy, the irredeemable beast.

They have two choices.

They can fight that stereotype.

Given that the stereotype is so all pervasive, they will probably lose. They will lose arguments, friendships, respect, jobs, funding.

Or, they can make the "correct" choice, in a Darwinian sense. They can align themselves with the power group, the overwhelming tide of opinion, in America, England, Germany, the scholars, the newspapers, the films, the museums, the novels, the websites about poetry, the paperback bestseller – all amply documented in "Bieganski" the book and this blog – that participate in rewriting the Holocaust, American immigration history, American labor history, and current American multicultural realities by exploiting Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype.

For the enhancement of their own survival, their own earning power, their own social networks, their own status, they can rush to say, yes, yes, Poles really are the worst.

And, by saying this, they also say – and there is no need to state this overtly – "I'm not one of those brute Polaks. I'm one of the superior, evolved people. Just like you. Because I see and say how bad other Poles are."

In other words, they play Miss Wales' game.


The late, great John Garfield is one of my favorite actors. Like me, he was the working class child of Eastern European immigrants. Like my dad, he was sent to reform school.

Garfield couldn't play Miss Wales' game if he wanted to. As old timers might have said, "He had the map of Israel all over his face." He was politically active in a politically incorrect way – yes I identify – and he died young, of a heart attack.

There's a scene in "Gentleman's Agreement" where Garfield just can't take it any more. He stands up, and he punches a bigot out.

Miss Wales is a nice lady. But I'm with Garfield – aka Jacob Julius Garfinkle.

It's better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
John Garfield Stands Up

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The "New" Germany Knew about Eichmann's Whereabouts in 1952

Eichmann. NOT a Sexy Nazi

"Bieganski" addresses the question: Why are Poles and Poland often tainted with guilt for the Holocaust in a way that Germans and Germany often not? Some of my informants, when asked about possible travel to Poland, insisted they would never travel to such a guilty, dangerous, anti-Semitic country. Then, without irony, they would quickly mention how much they'd enjoyed trips to Austria or Germany, and how they'd love to return.

The answer to this question is complex. One answer was hinted at by Tom Segev in his excellent book, "The Seventh Million: Israelis and the Holocaust."

In 1960, Israeli Mossad agents captured SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. Eichmann had organized mass deportations of Jews to ghettoes and extermination centers. The trial was televised.

The Eichmann trial, according to Segev, its drama and unambiguous climax, helped to clear Germany's name, and to usher in the concept of a "new" Germany that was cleansed of taint. One obviously bad man could be put on trial, convicted, and hanged, as Eichmann was. After his execution, the rest of Germany could move on.

A recent article in the New York Times suggests that Germany might not have been as "new" after World War II as one might have liked.

When Israelis captured Eichmann, West Germans swore that they had had no idea that he had been hiding in Argentina. In fact, this article states, they knew as early as 1952, and did nothing about it.

Neither West Germans nor Americans were keen to arrest Eichmann. Germans today don't want to think about their government's knowledge of his whereabouts. Both Germany and the US employed Nazis in government jobs. Both want to retain the positive image of post-war Germany.


50 Years After Trial, Eichmann Secrets Live On

By Michael Kimmelman

Published: May 8, 2011

Germany is famous for confronting its Nazi past. But confronting the years after the war is another matter. The latest proof comes as the country’s foreign intelligence agency, the BND, refuses to declassify several thousand secret files detailing what Adolf Eichmann, the high-ranking Nazi who helped orchestrate the Holocaust, was doing between 1945 and his capture by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires in 1960. More than a few Germans have been speculating that the refusal has as much to do with tarnishing a cherished era as with betraying potential sources.

The 50th anniversary of Eichmann’s trial this spring has cast the early days of the postwar Federal Republic in a fresh historical light. Those were the years when the new West Germany held itself up as the cure for what ailed a humiliated and broken nation, and as an alternative to the Communist East.

Link to full text of article.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tygodnik Powszechny Publishes an Article on "Bieganski"

Tygodnik Powszechny, a Catholic Polish weekly magazine, is an historic publication. It was founded in 1945 under Adam Stefan Cardinal Sapieha, himself an historic personage who helped Poland survive Nazi and then Soviet occupation, and who mentored a young Karol Wojtyla.

Tygodnik Powszechny has published Maria Czapska, who had taken part in Zegota, Karol Wojtyla, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Leszek Kolakowski, Stanislaw Lem, Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert.

After anti-Semitic attacks in post World-War-II Poland, for example the Kielce pogrom, Tygodnik Powszechny was one of several "outstanding literary and public-interest weeklies" in Poland that protested. "The moral pitch of their articles is so high, so dramatic, so full of exasperation, that one reads them as mourning prayers." Poles "spoke in print, forming the republique de lettres and humanities of postwar Poland" according to "Lessons and Legacies: The Holocaust in International Perspective" (85).

Tygodnik Powszechny was closed in 1953 after refusing to print Stalin's obituary. Jerzy Turowicz, Tygodnik Powszechny's editor, decided that since he could say nothing good about Stalin, he would say nothing at all.

Under Soviet domination, Tygodnik Powszechny gave voice to the opposition. The Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Politics reports that it "constantly pushed the limits of censorship" and that editor Turowicz's "masterful Aesopian prose often transcended those limits."

Under Soviet domination, Tygodnik Powszechny was "Poland's best newspaper: the most reliable source of undoctored information, and the most stimulating forum for social commentary … [it] unmasked the ideological pretensions of the regime and sketched the contours of a truly democratic society with an intellectual integrity and depth that could not be approached by even the most sophisticated of the communist journals.

The regime constantly harassed Tygodnik Powszechny … [including] by manipulating its circulation through the government's control over newsprint … readers passed issues along through a network of intellectual dissent … there were also direct threats on editors and contributors … Bishop Karol Wojtyla was unofficial protector of the newspaper's staff." from "The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism" by George Weigel.

In January, 1987, Tygodnik Powszechny began a new era in Polish-Jewish relations when it published a groundbreaking essay by Jan Blonski, "The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto."

Tygodnik Powszechny is the only publication, other than Italy's Il Tempo, to have interviewed Pope John Paul II.

After Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize, Tygodnik Powszechny was the only magazine in which he published his poems.

***   ***   ***
Tygodnik Powszechny is scheduled to publish an article about "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture" by Danusha V. Goska. The article is scheduled to appear in its May 29, 2011 issue, and I encourage interested readers to support Tygodnik Powszechny by purchasing a copy of the magazine and having a look.

I thank Magda Rittenhouse, author of the article. For his invaluable help, I am indebted to Witold Turopolski.

"Bieganski" is the cover story of the May 29, 2011 issue of Tygodnik Powszechny. 

Link to online preview of the article that will appear in full in the print version.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

One Photo That Says Much: Lucja Siemienowski Adams and Her Two Babies, Slonim, 1939

It's a lovely photo, isn't it? Anyone, anywhere, immediately enters the heart of the photo, and identifies: A family. A home. A mother's love. The future in the babies' eyes. Tradition in the homestead. You can almost step into the photo. As welcome guest, you enjoy the hospitality of this loving family. Through lace curtains, a cool glass in your hand, you watch butterflies flit through the garden, and tell, and hear long, old, stories.

Lucja Siemienowski Adams wrote this caption beneath her photo: "Two babies, Henryk and Danuta – 1939 in Slonim, northeastern Poland before World War II started and our region was invaded by the Russians. My husband was arrested and deported to a forced labor camp in Kolyma in far northeastern Russia in November, 1939. My mother-in-law, the two children and I were deported in a cattle transport train to a hard labor camp in Siberia in February 1940."

I asked permission to share the photo here. Lucja responded, "It is fine to share my pictures. I only have a couple from that time, since we had to leave mostly everything behind when we were deported."

Kolyma may not be familiar to the reader. In fact, the name "Kolyma" should be as well known, and as notorious, as Auschwitz.

"Bieganski" exposes stereotypical images of Brute Polaks pervasive in Western culture, and analyzes why the Brute Polak image is so central to Western thought today. The photo, above, and the story behind it, does much of the same hard work. It shows human beings. It tells the truth.
Caption beneath this photo: 

Uganda, Africa at our Polish refugee settlement in Koia, close to Kampala near Lake Victoria - sometime between 1943 and 1947.

Caption beneath this photo: 
Me in Uganda in the mid 1940's. I had learned English and was now an elementary school teacher where both the Polish refugee children and the natives attended school.

These are just a few of Lucja's photos. Hers is just one story. Please learn more. 

Simply a Fine Poem by Jan Kot

Jan Kot. Photo courtesy Danuta Reah

I read the poem, below, on the webpage of the facebook group, "The Way Back." I immediately fell in love with the poem for its embodiedness, its spontaneity, economy, authority – for its joy, for its heartbreak.

The poem's author is Jan Kot. His photo is above.


I didn’t see you


Was too late

Do you remember when

you came to see me

standing there on Gorzow Station

Where is Janek? Did he forgotten to meet me?

And when I crept behind you

pick you off the ground

and twirl. And you pleaded

Put me down. Put me down Janek.

What all this people will say.

And then you kiss me and ruffle my hair


About the poem, Danuta Reah, Jan Kot's daughter, wrote:

"I'd like to share a poem my father wrote. He was an officer in the Polish cavalry and escaped after the invasions of 1939. He joined the Polish Free Forces in Britain as a paratrooper, and was seriously injured when a parachute drop went wrong. He wasn't able to return to Poland for decades after the war – and by the time he was able to return, his mother was dead. This poem is about the last time he saw her."

Danuta, under the pen name Carla Banks, is the author of the highly recommended WWII-related murder mystery, "The Forest of Souls."

Danuta also shared the photo, below. The photo is from the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Minsk, Belarus. The young woman is Masha Bruskina, a 17 year old Jewish partisan.

I want people to look at this photo. The media feeds us Sexy Nazis. Many buy it. I do not. This is what real Nazis looked like, as they snuffed out human lives, lives like our own, like our friends, like our parents, like our children. They looked ugly.

Friday, May 20, 2011

I Support Israel, and as an American I Never Thought I'd Have to Emphasize That

I Support Israel, and as an American I Never Thought I'd Have to Emphasize That: My headline for this blog entry was going to be, "Obama to Israel: Drop Dead," but I googled the phrase and discovered that thousands of websites have gotten there before me.

I grew up with veterans of WW II. My dad was a combat sergeant in the Pacific Theater. Several of my friends had parents who were concentration camp survivors: Polish Catholics, Polish Jews, Ukrainian Orthodox. That post-WWII-America recognized that Israel was a miracle, a good thing, a tiny state, an American ally in a very bad neighborhood, an honorable democracy, the appropriate home of millions of people who, we now know genetics show, go back in that Holy Land for thousands of years, and who suffered, but survived, under domination by hostile, genocidal neighbors: Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, and invading Jihadis from the Saudi peninsula, using a text that identifies Jews and Christians as monkeys and pigs as their ethical guide. Jews from Yemen, Iraq, Iran, and Morocco left dhimmitude and made aliyah and the world looked on and glowed.

Now the world is turned upside down. Christians burn in Egypt and Obama talks about the peaceful unity of Muslim and Copt, and, in the same speech, talks in cozy vocabulary more appropriate to a church basement of Jews and Arabs holding a "swap" meet to bargain land for peace. Yeah, that worked really well in Gaza. But the ministry of politically correct truths says so so it must be true.

Simpleminded people see Polish-Jewish relations as two opposing teams: Polish Catholics v. Polish Jews. Those people are stupid and worth listening to only as case studies in bigotry. In fact those worth listening to realize that Poles and Jews are essential to each other.

Further, those worth listening to realize that the Brute Polak stereotype can be disseminated by anyone, not just Jews. Examples on this blog include a book by a Liberal German-American Presbyterian Elder. And Jews have been among those in the forefront of fighting against the Brute Polak stereotype.

Similarly, simpleminded people may think that anti-Polish prejudice and anti-Jewish prejudice would not co-exist. Au contraire.

In a previous post I detailed some of my own experiences as a Bohunk in the Ivory Tower. I described a graduate school classroom where I was asked to apologize for being Polish. In fact that same professor made anti-Semitic, anti-Israel statements. That will not make sense to anyone who, mistakenly, sees Polish-Jewish relations through the failed "Poles v. Jews" paradigm.

In fact the world is far more complex. Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype is beloved of a certain kind of mindset that has come to dominate in elite circles in recent years. An exemplar of this mindset: the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Tony Kushner, who has made anti-Catholic – "Pope John Paul II endorses murder" – and anti-Israel statements. An example of this mindset at work is NPR's recent firing of Juan Williams. This post explains why, for elites of this mindset, Muslims trump blacks.

So, yes, me, Polish-Slovak-Catholic American, author of a book critical of stereotypes of Poles, I support Israel. And I never thought I'd have to emphasize that publicly. I never thought my country would become a place where I'd have to.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Brute Polak on German Television

German TV in ‘Polish stereotype’ row

National stereotypes are up for debate once more after a German TV station ran a comedy sketch showing a beer-drinking Pole living in a dung-scattered sty with his pet goat Zubrowka.

The sketch, entitled Pole sucht Frau ('A Pole searches for a wife'), presents Marek, a cursing young Pole, who in the style of a reality TV program, attempts to entice a string of blonde German women to live with him in his muddy abode.

Marek, who sleeps on a bed of straw, shares his lunch of carrots with his beloved goat Zubrowka, but hopes to entice a German spouse.

The sketch, which takes its cue from the Dutch hit 'A Farmer Wants a Wife', was produced by a private German TV channel.

The part of the rustic Pole is played by comic Wojciech Oleszczak, originally from Slupsk, but resident in Germany for many years.

His character of an uncouth Pole has already garnered some success in Germany. In previous sketches, Marek notes than he has two brothers, one called pig and the other called donkey. However, the comedian insists that his intentions are constructive.

"I want to be an ambassador of Poland, using humour to unite the nations," he has said in the past.

Likewise, his manager holds that his character, Marek, is not a negative creation.

"Marek is not intended to offend Poles, because he is not a symbol of a Pole. He laughs at himself and the characters that he created."

However, whether Oleszczak's sketches tickle the humour of his fellow Poles is less certain. Indeed, the comedian has admitted to having had death threats in the past.

Thank you to Malgorzata for sending me this link.

Bieganski in "In Spite of Darkness" a Catholic Documentary

"Bieganski" details how history is distorted in order to render the Brute Polak stereotype a canonical element of the worldview of any person socialized in the Western world. While viewing the world through the prism of ethnic and religious stereotypes has been thoroughly discredited when it comes to some ethnicities, in the case of the Brute Polak stereotype, those who insist on its truth often assume a mantle of moral authority. When they are confronted with their promulgation of ugly stereotypes, they assume an air of righteous indignation.

Some insist that the Brute Polak stereotype is the provenance of only one ethnicity. Some mistakenly "blame the Jews." Scapegoating Jews is a moral, ethical, and strategic failure. The Brute Polak stereotype can certainly be found in products produced by Catholics; indeed, it can be found in some Poles' worldviews (more on that in a later post).

Chapter Seven of "Bieganski" mentions "Constantine's Sword," a very high profile, award-winning book about anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in the Catholic church. The book's celebrity author, James Carroll, is a former Catholic priest.

Carroll uses Poland as his arch example of Catholic anti-Semitism when he states that he would "remain at the foot of the cross at Auschwitz" to tell the horrific tale of Catholic anti-Semitism. Carroll shamelessly distorts Poland's history to make his exploitation of the Bieganski stereotype acceptable.

Carroll's exploitation of the Bieganski stereotype may have served this purpose: the really bad Catholics are the Polish Catholics. Carroll is not Polish. Carroll can be seen as a good Catholic.

In short: Bieganski can work for Catholics.


"In Spite of Darkness: A Spiritual Encounter with Auschwitz" is a 2008 documentary directed by Christof Wolf, SJ, a German, Catholic priest. It's made my Loyola Productions, a German, Catholic production company.

It's a little-seen documentary. The international movie database page for the movie lists no reviews nor discussions, which is unusual. The Rotten Tomatoes page also lists no reviews.

"In Spite of Darkness" is a lovely film. It is entirely professionally produced: lighting, sound, editing: all are excellent. The soundtrack is the lachrymose string music, similar to the soundtrack of "Schindler's List," that we've come to associate with cinematic treatments of the Holocaust. The music is beautiful and appropriate. The only problem with it is that it has become the soundtrack of the Holocaust – we are too used to it, and it may lull us into not thinking, seeing, and feeling afresh.

"In Spite of Darkness" consists largely of interviews with five people who attended a spiritual retreat at Auschwitz. One is an older German woman, the granddaughter of a Nazi. Another is an older Jewish-American woman, the daughter of a Jewish survivor; she frankly reports that her survivor father was abusive. One is thirty-something Israeli rabbi. He rejects the "ownership" of suffering promulgated by groups like MOL. He reports having a conversation with a Jewish person saying that she didn't want to hear about any suffering of anyone on "the other side" because that might make her feel compassion for non-Jews. One participant is a gray-haired Catholic priest from Dorchester. One participant, a "Zen Peace Maker" and Buddhist-inspired believer in reincarnation, implied that it is possible that people at Auschwitz suffered as part of a karmic payback. (I wanted to reach through the screen and forcibly re-educate him.) This participant was supercilious in the literal sense of the word – his eyebrows remained high above his eyes in a facial expression that struck me as the facial expression of one who was trying not to feel the full horror of what he was confronting.

Because this movie was so lovely, so carefully crafted, so high-minded, and made by a priest, no less, because everyone involved very obviously wanted to be part of making the world a better place, I very much wanted to like it.

The documentary effectively communicated that:

Only Jews suffered at Auschwitz;

Auschwitz was an extension of previous centuries' gentile persecution of Jews. The Scientific Racism that targeted handicapped Germans, Polish Catholic priests, homosexuals, and others, is not mentioned;

Poland is the country where Auschwitz is located. The film was sure to open in Krakow's stary miasto or old town square, to focus on the Sukiennice, a distinctive Krakow icon, and to show a Polish carriage driver with his horse;

Krakow's Sukiennice. When making a documentary about the Holocaust, be sure to include shots of this Polish cultural icon. And be sure not to mention Scientific Racism. 

Pope John Paul II cared about Polish Jewish relations out of a sense of Catholic guilt.

Twenty-eight minutes into the film, the Catholic priest from Dorchester mentions "there were Polish intelligentsia, gypsies, and gay people" in Auschwitz. This throwaway comment, this one, single, reference to Polish Auschwitz victims, reduces Poles to the notorious phrase "and others." Terese Pencak Schwartz mentions this phrase in her "Forgotten Holocaust"

"In Spite of Darkness" declines to acknowledge the realities of
Poles at Auschwitz.

For the first 18 months of its existence, Auschwitz was dedicated to destroying Poles as Poles.

150,000 Poles were imprisoned at Auschwitz. Half died.

These included historical important individuals: Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Jan Mosdorf, Zofia Kossak Szczucka, Maximilian Kolbe, Edek Galinski, Tadeusz Borowski and Witold Pilecki, to mention a few.

There's a reason why Polish suffering at Auschwitz has been airbrushed out of this documentary. It's not random. It's part of a pattern. This pattern is described in the book "

Yes, we must focus on Jewish victims. To fail to focus on Jewish victims at Auschwitz distorts history unforgiveably. But so thoroughly to erase and distort Polish victimization is more than offensive. It is strategic. It serves to support the Brute Polak stereotype.

Historical revisionism becomes more than strange forty minutes into the film.
Marian Kolodziej is introduced. The footage of Kolodziej, an Auschwitz survivor and one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, is the most moving portion of the film. This footage alone makes the film worth seeing.

The rabbi says "Marian and [his wife] Halina are shining, radiating figures. They are living proof that one could suffer a lot and transform suffering into compassion, beauty, art, and humor, and not be bitter and complaining and thinking all the time that it's better to close up. Marion and Halina are open."

The daughter of a survivor says, "I love Marion and Halina. They are saints. His paintings are like nightmares. Maybe that is what makes him so peaceful. That gets the horror out of him. That was something my father could not do. His ability to not have any anger is really remarkable to me. I love him."

Unless I missed it – and maybe I did – please watch the film and correct me – the film never mentions that Marian Kolodziej was a Polish Catholic. The words "Polish" and "Catholic" are simply never spoken. A student watching this film, and, indeed, students are among its intended audiences, would have no way of knowing.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"The Forest of Souls" by Carla Banks, aka Danuta Reah


"The Forest of Souls" is like one of those slices of turquoise that has striations running through it, stripes of some other substance that is very much not turquoise. In this cross-section of mined earth, brought like a landed fish to the surface and polished as a pendant, you see a stripe of brilliant sky blue, bisected by something dirt brown, bisected by brilliant blue again, as if it had never been interrupted. The two substances intermingle, but they never blend. In this sense, "The Forest of Souls" mirrors the very topics it addresses.

"The Forest of Souls" could be a beach book, one you read just as a page-turner, just for fun. But it could also be a book that causes you to cry, to ponder, to never forget, and to complicate just what atrocity, and which victims, you are remembering. Similarly, this multilayered structure mirrors the presence of the past in the present, the presence of immigrant cultures in mainstream cultures, and the presence of private secrets in public personas. It mirrors the persistence of marginalized histories that canonical narratives work to silence for expediency's sake.

"The Forest of Souls" takes place in modern-day England. People drive around in cars and call the police when there is trouble and are polite to each other. But every character in this comfortable, cool, crisp, civil landscape is haunted, in one way or another, by a very different world, a world of forests and swamps, of fairy tale witches and wolves who devour children, a world where even log houses constructed deep in sun-dappled, birch and pine forests are never far enough away from the outside world to be safe. This haunted and haunting Eastern Europe – Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania – is a land of unspeakable atrocity and deeply evil, treacherous human specimens. Or maybe not. Maybe it is a land of heartbreaking and selfless self-sacrifice and a heroism that is never told, never honored, the kind of utterly tragic heroism that dies, silent, unrecorded, with its martyred hero. One is not sure, in "The Forest of Souls," until the very last page.

"The Forest of Souls," is, thus, a meditation on guilt and innocence, and an instructional manual on how twisted those apparently diametrically opposed substances became in Nazi- and Soviet-era Eastern Europe.

On the other hand, "The Forest of Souls" is a straightforward murder mystery. An apparently innocuous university researcher, in a library, no less, is garroted. Whodunit? The book drops clues and proceeds methodically toward a satisfying and genuinely surprisingly revelation. The search entails a glamorous Russian émigré, a macho journalist, and a creepily realistically disgruntled ex-husband. It's an interesting crew, and there is a low-key romance.

The murder mystery here intrigued me. I did what one does when reading a murder mystery: the add and subtract calculations that cause one to pick a favorite candidate as the murderer.

The historical references educated and saddened me. "The Forest of Souls" references some lesser known horrors of the World-War-II era – not the more famous Auschwitz but the lesser known Maly Trostenets extermination camp, and the uncounted thousands, forgotten by the wider world, murdered by Soviets in the Kurapaty Forest.

One very worthy feature of "The Forest of Souls" is that one can read it as one likes. If you really just want a beach book, a murder mystery, you can choose not to linger on the passages that touch on atrocity. But if you want to ponder these passages and everything they imply, you have a book to chew on for a long time. Danuta Reah, writing here under the pseudonym Carla Banks, keeps her cards close to her chest. She does not harangue or push an agenda. It's clear, though, that she cares about the millions killed in places most people haven't even heard about, and the diabolically complex patchwork of competing ideologies and atrocities that dropped like a curse on the peasants and working people of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century.

"Dragon in my Pocket" by Denise Coughlin

Denise's Coughlin's "Dragon in my Pocket" is a sweet, surprisingly rich and wise children's picture book. It's the kind of book that reminds you that the big truths really can be conveyed in a children's story, and that age and time may alter by degree, but not necessarily in kind, what obstacles we face and what tools we can use in overcoming those obstacles. The story is accompanied by charming and delightful water color illustrations by Bill Kastan.

"Dragon" tells the story of Sebastian, a good but small kid, who is bullied by Nathan at school. Sebastian is also anxious about turning out the lights at night because he fears that a dragon is hiding in his closet.

Sebastian has a caring grandmother, Busia. Busia steps in and tells Sebastian a story. Busia comes from a land far, far away. There, in Krakow, hundreds of years ago, there was once a dragon that was defeated by Krakus, a brave young man. So far so good. But then, centuries later, a new dragon arrived. This new dragon was much worse than the first one. The illustration accompanying this story depicts a menacing dragon commanding the sky above an entire city. Busia insists that even this dragon was conquered by "many good people … They did not let this dragon steal their spirits because they were frightened. They protected their hearts … dragons get smaller and smaller when we let our brave and loving hearts get larger and larger."

Busia's words are amazingly wise. They will work for any reader, of any age, whether that reader is aware of the horrors that visited twentieth-century Poland or not.

Busia gives Sebastian a stone dragon, one she bought as a souvenir in Krakow. She accompanies this gift to Sebastian with more sage advise. Newly equipped with a "dragon in his pocket," Sebastian confronts schoolyard bullies with a new approach, and a happy ending.

"Dragon in my Pocket" is a truly lovely book. I read it through more than once and teared up each time. I wish someone had given me a book with this book's message when I was a kid, and I hope parents will give their children this special gift.

"Dragon in My Pocket" on Amazon

Author Denise Coughlin's homepage

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Krystyna Mew on Jozefa Janina Jaskolska, One of Many Unsung Polish Heroines

Jozefa Janina Jaskolska nee Liszewska, center. Circa 1953
Krystyna's comments: "My grandmother in the middle, my mother and my sister on the left and my aunt and my cousin on the right. The photo was taken in Wales UK around 1953/4"

Krystyna Mew wrote to share the story of her Polish-Catholic grandmother, who helped Jews during the Holocaust. That story is below.

Krystyna is of Polish-Catholic and Polish-Jewish descent.

Her father, Edward Herzbaum, wrote the excellent memoir, "Lost Between Worlds." That book's webpage is here. I posted a review of the book here.

Krystyna's story, in her own words:


I have become increasingly disillusioned and depressed by the realization that most people are totally unaware of the crucial role played by Poland in overcoming Nazi Germany in World War II. They are also unaware of the suffering the Poles endured at the hands of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia at this time.

But even worse than this is the realization that Poles, and their descendants, are being slurred with the label of 'anti-Semite.'

Not a few Poles, but the entire nation. This is totally unacceptable!

I do not deny that some cases of anti-Semitism did exist in Poland, but you cannot condemn an entire nation for a few individuals' actions.

I am the daughter of a Polish-Catholic mother and a Polish-Jewish father.

My maternal grandmother was living in Warsaw with her two daughters and her teacher husband at the outbreak of war. She was a strict Catholic and probably thought of as anti-Semitic, due to her religious beliefs.

Despite this, for some part of the war, she sheltered a Jewish mother and her children, even though this endangered not only her life but also that of her young family. This is not documented. Clearly any documentation of such acts would further endanger lives and so it is not surprising that we lack such documentation of these positive acts.

How many other thousands of such cases of Poles helping Jews were also not documented? These acts of bravery were not done for recognition but simply as acts of humanitarian kindness.

If all Poles were really anti-Semitic, why was Poland the only country in which the Nazis imposed a death penalty on any person (and their entire family) found to be helping Jews?

The Nazis would not have found it necessary to introduce this law if most Poles were anti-Semitic!!

I have also heard that the Poles are accused of being anti-Semitic by virtue of the fact that they stood by whilst Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis. This is totally unfair.

I wonder how many of us would have been brave enough to risk our families' lives under these circumstances.

Please, please, those of you who accuse Poles of being anti-Semitic, review the evidence and stop maligning those who fought on the same side as you, to overcome the regime that perpetrated the Holocaust.

"My grandmother's ID card. 1942."

"My mother's student ID card."

"The booklet my grandmother was given when she arrived in the UK 1st November 1946."

"Where my grandmother lived in Warsaw. Taken 2009."

"Where my grandmother lived in Warsaw. Taken 2009."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Pots of Food for Nazi Victims. A Jeweled Necklace.

Source: The New York Times
Title: Property Lost in Holocaust Is Cataloged Online
Byline: Isabel Kershner
Publication date: May 2, 2011

…Yet there were also moments of kindness and heroism, one of which has recently come to light. The granddaughter of a Polish woman who lived just outside the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II presented Mr. Brown with his first piece of recovered property this week. She said her grandmother used to leave food for the forced laborers outside the camp in pots hidden in the bushes. One night, when she came to collect the empty pots, she found a jeweled necklace that had been placed in one of them.

The granddaughter, Magdalena Wojciechowska, 40, of Lodz, Poland, returned the necklace to Mr. Brown, saying it was “Jewish property.” After taking the necklace to New York for the news conference, Mr. Brown said he would hand it over for safekeeping to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.
Full text

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bieganski at Yad Vashem; Yad Vashem Dishonors the Heroic Wiktoria and Jozef Ulma

Ulma family. From Mateusz Szpytma, The Risk of Survival, The Institute of National Remembrance 2009. Source

Wiktoria and Jozef Ulma were two heroic peasant, Catholic, Poles who were martyred by the Nazis for sheltering Jews. Their remarkable story is told in detail at the website of the Am-Pol Eagle, the Voice of Polonia.

This excellent article details how the Ulma's risking their lives, and the lives of their seven children, to save Jews from the Holocaust, was a choice deeply rooted in their Polish, Catholic, peasant spirituality. As the article puts it,

"'The Commandment of Love – The Good Samaritan' – under such a title these very words can be found in the bible which Józef and Wiktoria Ulma owned. It's one of the two fragments to be found in the bible marked in red – most probably by Józef Ulma himself (the other one regards loving enemies). With their own life and death they proved these words did not remain an empty slogan for them. Both, Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, together with their six children and eight Jews of the Szall and Goldman families they were hiding, were executed by the Germans on March 24, 1944."

Wiktoria was pregnant at the time. A Pole who reburied her testified that her child was discovered partially outside of her body. Thus, one counts seven Ulma children lost to Nazism.

Yad Vashem tells the Ulma story quite differently than does the Am-Pol Eagle. I sent Yad Vashem an email taking them to task for their account of the Ulmas. My email, rapidly composed and no doubt imperfect because it is written in pained outrage, is below. I hope others of conscience will also write to Yad Vashem. Here is an email address: feedback [at] yadvashem [dot]

Dear Yad Vashem:

Of course, like good people everywhere, I honor and respect the terrific and tragically necessary work that Yad Vashem does. God bless you.

I'm writing today with a complaint, however. This morning I had a look at your webpage devoted to the Ulma family, who were martyred for protecting Jews.

Rather than beginning your page with a salute to this incomparably heroic and loving family, you begin with a racist smear against Poles.

All responsible persons acknowledge that there was significant anti-Semitism in Poland in the interwar, wartime, and post-war era. I'm not writing to you to deny that. All responsible persons know that we must discuss and understand this anti-Semitism. I'm not asking you to hide Polish anti-Semitism. In fact, I invite you to read "Bieganski," my own book's, frank discussion of anti-Semitism in Poland.

I'm writing, rather, to say that by opening your page devoted to the Ulmas with an unsupported statement charging that most Poles were indifferent or hostile to Jewish Holocaust victims (how on earth do you know?) you are not honoring the Ulmas, rather, you are dishonoring them.

In a blog entry devoted to my own book, "Bieganski," I discuss the work of Jewish, Israeli professor Jackie Feldman. Dr. Feldman points out that those Jews who would stereotype all Poles as evil manipulate accounts of Polish rescuers of Jews. This blog entry is here.

Unfortunately, Yad Vashem, in your webpage devoted to the Ulmas, you do exactly that. Rather than opening with, and emphasizing, the Ulmas heroism, you depict them, as Dr. Feldman mentions, as lone and anomalous heroes in a sea of Polish monsters. You state categorically, with no support, that most Poles were indifferent to the Holocaust, and you immediately invoke the massacre of Jews by Poles in Jedwabne.

In fact the Ulmas were were true Poles, born and raised in Poland, and acting on Polish, Catholic ideals.

I would like you to consider the following. In the blog devoted to my book, I talk about Jews who have been heroic supporters of Poland. I do that in this series of posts.

How would you feel, my friends, if I began that series of posts by saying, as you do about the Ulmas, "While most Jews held goyim in contempt, some Jews actually went against the grain of their culture and loved and supported Poland." I would NEVER make such a statement, a statement analogous to your statement about the Ulmas. I would never make such a statement because to do so would be a false, hatemongering lie.

Further, as you invoke Jedwabne, what if, every time I talked about Jews, I said something like this: "Many Jews betrayed Poles to the Soviets." Or, "Many Jews joined the Soviets and tortured Polish heroes after WW II."

Sadly, these are facts. Many Jews did betray Poles to the Soviets, and Jews, under the Soviets, did torture Polish heroes after WW II.

But to mention those complicated and troubling facts every time I talk about Jews who served Poland would be a terrible error. It would be racist.

It is no less a racist error for you to invoke Jedwabne in the first paragraph of your "salute" to the heroic Ulma family, who gave their lives for Jews and who do not deserve this smear.

If you can see how wrong it would be for me to open a web page devoted to talking about Jews who loved and served Poland by saying, "While most Jews held goyim in contempt," or "Under the Soviets, Jews tortured Poles," can you not see why it is very wrong for you to open a page devoted to the Ulmas with a statement about how most Poles were supportive of the Holocaust, or an invocation of Jedwabne?

Further, you do not mention that the Polish underground executed Wlodzimierz Les for his crime of collaborating with the Nazis, including his crime of betraying the Ulmas and the Jews they sheltered. By failing to mention this act of justice carried out by Poles, you contribute to the image of the Ulmas as lone decent people in a sea of Polish monsters.

You mention, but don't emphasize, that in spite of the horrendous massacre of the Ulma family and their Jewish charges, some in their village actually continued to shelter Jews. This is superhuman heroism.

In the name of human decency, please think about this, and please change your shameful page. The work you are doing to commemorate Holocaust victims is much more important than this kind of petty hate.

Thank you.

A photograph, by Jozef Ulma, of a Polish peasant home. Source.