Monday, May 16, 2011

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.

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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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