Monday, July 25, 2011

"Bieganski" in Markowa, Ulma Family Home: A Highlight of My Trip to Poland and Talks on "Bieganski"

Markowa. Source.
On Saturday, July 23, 2011, Mateusz Szpytma, research worker of the Instytut Pamieci Narodowej Oddzial Krakow, or Institute of National Remembrance, Krakow branch of the Instytut Pamiec Narodowy, hosted a talk by me, Danusha V. Goska, about my book “Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.” The talk took place in the Markowa Museum. My translator was Malgorzata Tarchala. Malgorzata played an essential role in every aspect of the talk. Our official host was the Centrum Kultury Gminy Markowa and the Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Markowej.

I’ve spoken about “Bieganski” in universities, synagogues, churches, and other socially conscious organizations. The Markowa audience was among the very best audiences I’ve ever been lucky enough to address. I could see from their faces during the talk that I was addressing intelligent, committed people who were focusing on my words and letting them sink in.

After the talk, comments continued for ninety minutes. This was the kind of intelligent, focused, grounded, probing and serious feedback that gets to the nub of the most vexing questions. There was no grandstanding, rudeness, or monkey business. Audience members were unfailingly polite. I can’t help but remark that audience members also arrived professionally dressed. This was not a crowd in sweat pants and t-shirts, as I’ve often addressed in the US, but, rather, suits.

Since leaving Markowa, I have been thinking how I could bring these people into contact with others, as part of an international conversation about Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype. More people need to meet people like the citizens of Markowa. I say that especially in response to mail I receive, that insists that, yes, Polish peasants are brutes. I shook enough hands before and after the talk to tell you that these are real farmers and workers, with the unique large, strong hands that only such people have – hands that tell of lifetimes of labor. And they attended to my talk more closely than many an audience on a university campus, and they asked more pertinent questions, and offered superior observations, than many a professor on a university campus.

During this eventful, memorable trip to Poland, addressing the citizens of Markowa was an unforgettable highlight.

Mateusz Szpytma has written important documentation about the Ulma family. During the Nazi occupation of Markowa, Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, a Catholic, peasant family, attempted to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution. Nazis discovered this and murdered the Ulmas and their seven children, along with the Jews they were trying to save. The Nazis shot the children in front of their parents. Mr. Szpytma, using material from Jozef’s library, has shown how, in their attempted rescue of Jews, the Ulmas were acting in accord with their Catholic beliefs, especially as expressed in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Ulma Family, Markowa.
When we arrived in Markowa, I could not help but compare it to my mother’s village in Slovakia, which I visited in 1974, and to Paterson, NJ. Of course that visit to my mother’s village is indelible in my memory: the barn swallows, the flowers, the dirt roads with geese everywhere, the oppressive Soviet presence, the survivors of WW II. Markowa is a far cry from that village. Our hosts put us up in a modern hotel little different from a good quality hotel in the US.

As we drove through Markowa, its obvious order and prosperity impressed me greatly. Long, hard work and a determination to make one’s home, both one’s residence and one’s town, as lovely as possible is evident.

Given that, in the past century, Markowa has lived through disasters and dramatic change too massive to calculate – WWI, WWII, the Soviet era and the advance of global capitalism – that folks here were able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and create not only decent lives, but prosperous, attractive ones, is a powerful testimony to the belief system prevalent in Polish, Catholic, agricultural villages. I live in an American city, Paterson, that evidences in every square foot of real estate that its leaders and citizens refuse to attempt to create decent lives, but rather cling to criminality and dysfunction. Markowa knows something that Paterson and its political and ideological leaders must learn.

Mr. Szpytma’s mother hosted us for a delicious lunch, and then he took us on a tour of the village. We visited the site, marked with a sign, where Nazis mass murdered Jews. We also visited the Ulma home and the site where Nazis murdered them. We visited a monument in their honor. We met Zofia, Jozef Ulma’s sister-in-law, a very sprightly, charming woman who kept trying to get us to stay longer for food and drinks. We entered the house where the Ulma family raised silk worms. There we found Jozef’s library and books signed by him. Our hostess showed us a seventy year old, locally made cabinet. She told us that she is a widow and recently began reading her husband’s diaries. This gave her a sense of strength, which she used to refurbish this old cabinet, and restore it to good use. It’s really a remarkable piece of furniture, with long, sturdy, well made drawers. Malgorzata remarked that one can purchase furniture today that falls apart at the slightest jar, but this cabinet would long outlast its makers.

We met Urszula Niemczak, a really lovely member of the extended Ulma family, living in Wiktoria's former home, who talked in a beautifully direct and uncomplicated way about good work she and her family have done, including for orphans, and how that good work is inspired by the Ulma’s good deed, which, she said, is now passing love down the generations.

Our next stop was the museum. There the association president, Kazimierz Wyczarski,
a village elder, taught us about Markowa’s history, going back hundreds of years. Franciszek Balawejder gave us a tour of the Markowa Skansen. Markowa is a relatively remote agricultural village. That it is the site of such a remarkable skansen is amazing to me. Any location would be made proud by such a museum. It recreates many of the structures and technologies of a traditional peasant village. There are whitewashed houses with clay floors, exposed beams, and straw roofs. Inside these cottages are traditional peasant folk costumes, leather coats, embroidery and beads. There are many tools crafted by village blacksmiths, a loom, a spinning wheel, a windmill, and other traditional technologies. There is also humor: carved and painted horses’ and cows’ heads peek out from stables in the barn.

I was struck by the similarity of items of traditional peasant culture in Poland and those I encountered in use in Nepal when I was a Peace Corps volunteer there. Just like in the Markowa Skansen, my house in Nepal was whitewashed and had a clay floor. My neighbours ground their grain on a quern, like that at the Markowa Skansen, and threshed their grain with an identical threshing tool – a flail with another swinging stick at the end.

Windmill at Markowa Skansen. Source
Peasant home interior. Markowa Skansen. Source

Doukhobors threshing with flails. Source

Nepali threshing with a flail. Source.

I delivered my talk in the museum headquarters. We had a full house. Malgorzata Tarchala provided superb translation services, and, as a knowledgeable activist herself, she added key points which I failed to mention.

My audience was focused and courteous. Malgorzata noted nodding and note-taking. Several excellent questions came up after the talk.

I began, “I’m going to say some disturbing things. But do not despair. We can solve this problem if we unite, support each other, and act strategically. When I was a young person, it seemed as if my family would always live under Soviet communism. But now communism is gone – and we did that. We can do this.”

Below is a rough sketch of some of the ninety minute post talk give-and-take.


I don't think that it is. We often assume that money is the most precious commodity. In fact here is one even more precious, one for which men fight and die: identity. As “Bieganski” details, people who disseminate the Bieganski stereotype do so in order to buttress their own sense of identity.


Stereotypes of Poles in the US have changed over time. Good supplementary reading to Bieganski include Thomas Gladsky’s “Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves” and Andrzej Kapiszewski’s “Conflicts Across the Atlantic.” These books talk about changing images of Poles in the US. The Brute Polak was not as prominent in American popular culture during WW II, for example, as it is today. When Poland regained independence in 1918, some groups did use exaggerated reports of mistreatment of Jews in Poland in political ways. Unfortunately this tactic ultimately hurt Poles and Jews. When reports of the Holocaust first appeared, some denounced these as “crying wolf,” citing previous exaggerated reports.

The Brute Polak image has actually gotten worse in recent years, for reasons outlined in the book.


Of course we can do something about this. We are the people who do the impossible. Look at examples like Irene Sendler, Janusz Korczak, Jan Karski, Lech Walesa. When I was a child, I thought that my relatives would live forever under the oppressive Soviet system. Now that system is gone, and we are the ones who overturned it. We did that. Now we can do this.

Malgorzata reminded me of my own oft-repeated statement: Don’t blame the Jews. Poles and Polonia must unite, support each other, and act strategically. We have many Jewish allies.


That’s a very good question. I am not privy to their private thoughts, but I can say that some argue that emphasizing heroic Poles like Kosciuszko, or books like “Bloodlands” that talk about how much Poles suffered during WW II, is the answer. Both of these approaches are intellectually flawed, and neither will do the job. One can only hope that someday the embassy and Polish American organizations will wake up to these realities. Meanwhile, we have to do what we can without waiting for them to take the lead.


When I heard this comment, of course I thought of Yalta, of Breckinridge Long, or Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the Museum of Natural History, who wrote in the New York Times that prominent Poles like Kosciuszko and Pulaski were not, in fact, genetically Polish, but descendents of superior people who had settled in Poland.

Finally, among her many essential contributions to this trip and to the talk itself, Malgorzata talked, at length, about her activism with Pier 21’s notorious film.

Here in Poland I met a very nice young man, Adam, from Canada, who saw Pier 21’s film with his father. His father was upset, but did not take action.

Malgorzata saw the film and decided that she would take action, and she did. She will not quit till Pier 21 stops the lies and changes the film. Malgorzata is a living, breathing example of activism at work.

After the talk and the question-and-answer session, a small group settled in for kielbasa, sok, or juice, pickles, and very good dark rye bread with the local smalec, that includes bits of onion. And, of course, we talked some more. I detailed further aspects of the Bieganski stereotype, and the small crowd gathered around the table contributed their own apt observations. It was a wonderful evening.

The next day we attended mass at Markowa’s St. Dorothy Church. The interior of the church is lovely, with gilded, dark wood carvings and a gothic ceiling. Incantatory prayers had begun before mass, and the church was so crowded I had to kneel in the aisle. Singing was loud and long, putting singing in American Catholic churches to shame. Mass attendees were beautifully dressed.

St. Dorothy's Church, Markowa. Source.
We then visited the Ulma’s grave in the cemetery behind the church and on a hill. From there we could see hills rising to the south, and flat ground to the north. Mr. Szpytma informed us that Markowa is on a border between two geographic areas, and that to the south rose the foothills of the Carpathians.

We then made one last visit to Urszula, who greeted us with a homemade cake: layers of shortcake, cherries, walnuts, chocolate, and cream. This cake was so memorably delicious that I told Urszula that from now on every time I eat cherries I will think of her cake. We watched a bit of a documentary film about Markowa and the Ulma family, but unfortunately no one knew how to order it, or if it is available. Yet another film we Polonians must resurrect from obscurity. I enjoyed my short time in Urszula’s home so much that there were tears in my eyes when we had to move on and bid Urszula goodbye.

Malgorzata and I took our leave of Markowa, grateful and glad that we had come, and sad that we had to go.

Malgorzata Tarchala has kindly offered a Polish translation of the above post:

W sobotę, 23 lipca 2011 roku, na zaproszenie Pana Mateusza Szpytmy, pracownika naukowego Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej w Krakowie, wygłosiłam prelekcję na temat mojej książki „Bieganski: Stereotyp prymitywnego Polaka, jego rola w stosunkach polsko-żydowskich i amerykańskiej kulturze masowej”. Wykład miał miejsce w Skansenie w Markowej. Moim tłumaczem była Małgorzata Tarchała. Małgorzata odegrała znacząca rolę w każdym aspekcie mojego wystąpienia. Naszym oficjalnymi gospodarzami było Centrum Kultury Gminy Markowa oraz Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Markowej

Prelekcje o „Bieganskim” prowadziłam na uniwersytetach, w synagogach, kościołach i w innych ważnych społecznie organizacjach. Słuchacze w Markowej byli jedną z najlepszych grup, do jakiej kiedykolwiek miałam szczęście przemawiać. Podczas wykładu mogłam wnioskować z ich twarzy, że mówię do inteligentnych, zaangażowanych ludzi, którzy byli skupieni i chłonęli moje słowa.

Po wykładzie, komentarze i dyskusja trwały przez 90 minut. To był rodzaj inteligentnej, skupionej, popartej argumentami, głębokiej i poważnej reakcji, która dociera do sedna nawet najbardziej dręczących pytań. Nie było przechwałek, grubiaństwa, niepoważnych pytań. Słuchacze byli niezwykle uprzejmi. Nie mogę nie wspomnieć, że słuchacze przybyli na spotkanie elegancko ubrani. To nie był tłum w przepoconych koszulkach, jak często zdarzało się w USA, lecz raczej - w garniturach.

Od kiedy opuściłam Markową, zastanawiam się jak mogłabym włączyć tych ludzi do międzynarodowej dyskusji o Bieganskim - stereotypie prymitywnego Polaka. Więcej osób powinno poznać mieszkańców Markowej. Mówię to szczególnie w odpowiedzi na otrzymany niedawno e-mail, w którym jego autor twierdzi, że „tak, polscy rolnicy są prymitywni”. Przed i po spotkaniu uścisnęłam wystarczająco wiele dłoni, aby stwierdzić, że ci ludzie byli prawdziwymi rolnikami. Ich unikalnie duże i silne dłonie mówią wiele o ich ciężkiej pracy. I to oni właśnie wzięli udział w spotkaniu uważniej i aktywniej niż jakakolwiek publiczność w kampusach uniwersyteckich. I to oni zadali najbardziej trafne pytania i przedstawili własne obserwacje - lepsze niż uwagi niejednego uniwersyteckiego profesora.

Podczas tej pełnej wyrażeń podróży do Polski, spotkanie z mieszkańcami Markowej było niezapomnianym przeżyciem.

Mateusz Szpytma napisał ważną publikację o rodzinie Ulmów. Podczas okupacji niemieckiej w Markowej, Józef i Wiktoria Ulmowie -  katolicka, chłopska rodzina, próbowali uratować Żydów przed nazistowskimi prześladowaniami. Niemcy odkryli to i zamordowali Ulmów z ich siedmiorgiem dzieci, wraz z ukrywającymi się u nich Żydami. Naziści zastrzelili dzieci na oczach rodziców. Pan Szpytma, bazując na dokumentach dostępnych w biblioteczce Józefa, wykazał, że rodzina Ulmów, w swojej próbie ratowania Żydów działała zgodnie ze swoja katolicka wiarą, szczególnie w kontekście przypowieści o dobrym samarytaninie.

Kiedy dojechaliśmy do Markowej, nie mogłam powstrzymać się od porównania jej do rodzinnej wioski mojej matki na Słowacji, gdzie byłam w roku 1974 oraz do Paterson w stanie New Jersey, gdzie mieszkam. Wizyta we wsi mojej matki jest wciąż niezatarta w mej pamięci: jaskółki w stodole, kwiaty, brudne drogi, gęsi wszędzie, represyjna obecność Sowietów, oraz obecność tych, którzy przeżyli II wojnę światową. Tej wiosce daleko do Markowej. Nasi gospodarze ugościli nas w nowoczesnym hoteliku, tylko lekko odbiegającym od dobrej klasy hoteli w Stanach Zjednoczonych.

Kiedy jechaliśmy przez Markową, byłam pod wielkim wrażeniem oczywistego tam porządku i dobrobytu. Było widoczne, że jest to efektem ciężkiej pracy oraz determinacji do stworzenia jak najpiękniejszego zarówno własnego, jak i wspólnego domu.

Biorąc pod uwagę, że w minionych latach Markowa przeżyła nieszczęścia i dramatyczne zmiany (zbyt wiele by policzyć – I i II wojna światowa, czas dominacji sowieckiej oraz postęp globalnego kapitalizmu), jej mieszkańcy byli w stanie podnieść się, otrzepać z kurzu i stworzyć nie tylko przyzwoite, lecz dobrze prosperujące, atrakcyjne warunki życia. Jest to silnym świadectwem systemu wiary rozpowszechnionego w polskich, katolickich, rolniczych wioskach. Mieszkam w amerykańskim wielkim mieście, Paterson, gdzie na każdym metrze kwadratowym powierzchni widać, że liderzy i mieszkańcy odrzucili próby stworzenia przyzwoitego życia, lecz raczej lgną do przestępczości i dysfunkcjonalności. Markowa wie o czymś, czego Paterson i jego polityczni i ideologiczni liderzy musza się nauczyć.

Mama Pana Szpytmy ugościła nas przesmacznym obiadem, a następnie on zabrał nas na wycieczkę po okolicy. Byliśmy w miejscu, oznaczonym tablicą, gdzie Niemcy masowo mordowali Żydów. Odwiedziliśmy również dom Ulmów oraz miejsce gdzie zostali rozstrzelani przez Nazistów i pomnik ku ich pamięci.

Spotkaliśmy się z Zofią Ulma, szwagierką Józefa Ulmy, bardzo energiczną i czarująco kobietą, która gorąco nalegała abyśmy zostali coś przekąsić. Weszliśmy do pomieszczenia, gdzie Józef Ulma hodował jedwabniki, znaleźliśmy jego biblioteczkę i książki z jego autografami. Nasza gospodyni pokazała nam siedemdziesięcioletni, zrobiony przez tutejszych stolarzy kredens. Powiedziała nam, że jest wdową i ostatnio czytała pamiętniki swojego męża, które dodały jej siły, aby odnowić ten stary kredens i przywrócić go do użytku. To jest nadzwyczajny mebel, z długimi, wytrzymałymi i dobrze wykonanymi szufladami. Małgorzata napomknęła, że meble dziś kupione rozpadają się przy pierwszym wstrząsie, ale ten kredens o wiele lat przeżyje swoich twórców.

Spotkaliśmy Urszulę Niemczak, wspaniałego członka dalszej rodziny Ulmów, mieszkającą obecnie w domu rodzinnym Wiktorii, która mówiła w piękny, bezpośredni i nieskomplikowany sposób o tym, czego ona i jej rodzina dokonała, włączając pomoc sierotom i o tym jak dobre czyny Sług Bożych Ulmów ją inspirują i zostają przekazane dalszym pokoleniom.

Naszym następnym przystankiem było Muzeum – Skansen. Tam, prezes Towarzystwa Przyjaciół Markowej, Pan Kazimierz Wyczarski, szacowna osoba, opowiadał nam o historii Markowej, zaczynając do setek lat wstecz. Następnie Pan Franciszek Balawejder oprowadził nas po Skansenie. Markowa to jest relatywnie mała, rolnicza wioska, stąd moje zaskoczenie, że posiada tak znakomity skansen. Każda wieś byłaby dumna z posiadania u siebie takiego muzeum.

Są tam odtworzone struktury i technologie używane w tradycyjnych chłopskich wioskach. Znajdują się tam bielone wapnem domy z glinianą podłogą, wystającymi belkami i słomianymi dachami. W środku tych chałup są tradycyjne, lokalne stroje, skórzane płaszcze, hafty i korale. Jest tam wiele narzędzi wykonanych przez wiejskich kowali oraz krosno, kołowrotek, wiatrak i inne tradycyjne technologie. Nie brakuje tam również humoru: na przykład wyrzeźbione i pomalowane końskie i krowie łby zerkające znad koryta w stajni.

Uderzyło mnie podobieństwo pewnych elementów tej tradycyjnej chłopskiej kultury w Polsce do tych, jakie napotkałam w Nepalu, kiedy byłam wolontariuszką w Korpusie Pokoju. Tak jak w tym skansenie, moja izba w Nepalu była bielona wapnem i miała glinianą podłogę. Moi sąsiedzi mielili ziarna takimi żarnami, jakie były w Skansenie oraz młócili zboże identycznymi narzędziami do młócenia – cepami.

Mój wykład obył się w budynku administracyjnym Skansenu. Była pełna sala. Małgorzata zapewniła znakomite tłumaczenie i sama, jako znająca się na rzeczy aktywistka, dodała kilka kluczowych aspektów, o których zapomniałabym wspomnieć. 

Słuchacze byli skupieni i uprzejmi. Małgorzata zauważyła przytakiwanie i robiących notatki. Po wykładzie zadano kilkanaście znakomitych pytań.

Zaczęłam następująco: „Mam zamiar powiedzieć kilka wstrząsających rzeczy. Ale nie traćmy nadziei. Możemy rozwiązać ten problem, jeśli się zjednoczymy, będziemy się wspomagać i działać strategicznie. Kiedy byłam mała dziewczynką, wyglądało na to, że moi krewni już zawsze będą mieszkać pod kontrolą sowieckiego systemu. Komunizmu już nie ma – i to my tego doprowadziliśmy. My możemy tego dokonać”.

Poniżej szkic niektórych aspektów z tej dziewięćdziesięciominutowej wymiany poglądów.

O ŻĄDANIA RESTYTUCJI MIENIA? Nie sądzę, aby tutaj o to chodziło. Często zakładamy, że pieniądze są najwartościowszym towarem. Ale tak faktycznie, jest coś bardziej cennego, coś, o co ludzie walczą i za co umierają: tożsamość. Jak wykazałam w „ Bieganskim”, osoby, które rozpowszechniają stereotyp Polaka robią to, by wzmocnić swoje poczucie tożsamości.


Stereotyp Polaka w Stanach Zjednoczonych zmieniał się w czasie. Polecam dodatkową lekturę: Thomas Gladsky’s “Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves” (tłum MTA: Tomasz Gladsky: Książęta, Chłopi i Inne Polskie osobowości”) oraz Andrzej Kapiszewski “Conflicts Across the Atlantic” (tłum: MTA “Konflikty wzdłuż Atlantyku”). Te książki traktują o tym, jak zmieniał się obraz Polaka w Stanach Zjednoczonych. Stereotyp prymitywnego Polaka nie był tak rozpowszechniony w amerykańskiej kulturze podczas drugiej wojny światowej, jak jest obecnie. Kiedy Polska odzyskała niepodległość w roku 1918, niektóre Grupy użyły wyolbrzymionych raportów o złym traktowaniu Żydów w Polsce do celów politycznych. Niestety ta taktyka ostatecznie rani i Polaków i Żydów. Kiedy pojawiły się pierwsze raporty z okresu Holokaustu, niektórzy nazwali je „podnoszeniem fałszywego alarmu”, cytując poprzednie przesadzone raporty.

Właściwe, obraz Polaka pogorszył się w ostatnich latach, a o powodach piszę w swojej książce „Bieganski”.


Oczywiście, że możemy coś z tym zrobić. To my jesteśmy tymi ludźmi, którzy dokonują rzeczy niemożliwych. Popatrzmy na przykłady jak Irena Sendler, Jan Karski, Lech Wałęsa. Kiedy byłam dzieckiem myślałam ze moi krewni już wiecznie będą żyć pod opresją sowiecką. Teraz to już przeszłość, i my jesteśmy tymi, którzy dokonali tego przewrotu. Teraz możemy dokonać czegoś innego.

Małgorzata przypomniała mi o moich własnych często powtarzanych słowach: Nie wolno nam obwiniać Żydów. Polacy i Polonia musi się zjednoczyć, wesprzeć wzajemnie i działać strategicznie. Mamy wielu żydowskich sprzymierzeńców.


To bardzo dobre pytanie. Nie jestem wtajemniczona w ich osobiste poglądy, ale niektórzy uważają, że rozwiązaniem jest podkreślanie heroicznych Polaków jak Kościuszko albo książka jak „Bloodlands” Timothy’ego Snyder’sa („Skrwawione ziemie”, Europa pomiędzy Hitlerem a Stalinem), która ukazuje jak bardzo Polacy ucierpieli podczas II wojny światowej. Oba te podejścia są niewystarczające i żadne z nich do końca nie rozwiąże problemu.

Możemy mieć tylko nadzieję, że pewnego dnia polskie ambasady i organizacje polonijne w Ameryce obudzą się i zauważą realia. W międzyczasie musimy robić, co możemy, nie czekając, by nas inni poprowadzili.


Kiedy usłyszałam ten komentarz, to oczywiście pomyślałam o Jałcie, Breckinridge Long, czy Henrym Fairfield Osborn’ie, prezesie amerykańskiego Muzeum Historii Naturalnej, który napisał w New York Times, że prominentni Polacy jak Kościuszko czy Pułaski faktycznie nie byli etnicznymi Polakami, ale potomkami innych, lepszych grup etnicznych, które osiedliły się na terytorium Polski.

Pod koniec, poza oczywistym wkładem w moją podróż oraz sam wykład, Małgorzata opowiedziała, długo i szczegółowo, o swoich działaniach dotyczących filmu w Muzeum Imigracji w Kanadzie.

Tutaj, w Polsce, spotkałam bardzo miłego, młodego człowieka, Adama z Kanady, który widział ten film wraz ze swoim ojcem. Jego ojciec był zniesmaczony tym, co zobaczył, ale nie podjął żadnego działania.

Małgorzata zobaczyła ten film i zdecydowała się podjąć działanie. Nie podda się dopóki Pier 21 (Muzeum w Kanadzie) nie przestanie przekłamywać historii i nie zmieni treści filmu. Małgorzata jest żywym przykładem aktywności w działaniu.

Po sesji pytań i odpowiedzi, w małej grupie usiedliśmy do stołu by posmakować kiełbasy, soku, ogórków kiszonych oraz bardzo dobrego ciemnego żytniego chleba z wiejskim smalcem i cebulą. I oczywiście, wciąż rozmawialiśmy. Nakreśliłam inne aspekty stereotypu Polaka, a małe grono zebrane wokół stołu dodało własne trafne obserwacje. To był cudowny wieczór.

Następnego dnia uczestniczyliśmy we Mszy Świętej w markowskim Kościele pod wezwaniem świętej Doroty. Wnętrze kościoła jest wspaniałe, z pozłacanymi rzeźbami z ciemnego drewna i neo-gotyckimi sklepieniami. Modlitwy rozpoczęły się przed Mszą i kościół był tak pełen ludzi, że musiałam klękać w przejściu. Śpiew był tak głośny i długi, że mógłby zawstydzić amerykańskie kościoły katolickie. Uczestnicy Mszy byli jak zwykle elegancko ubrani.
Potem odwiedziliśmy grób rodziny Ulmów na pobliskim cmentarzu, na wzgórzu. Stamtąd mogliśmy zobaczyć wzgórza na południu i płaskowyż na północy. Pan Szpytma poinformował nas, że Markowa leży na granicy dwóch krain geograficznych i tereny na południu to początek Przedgórza Karpackiego.

Na końcu odwiedziliśmy ponownie Panią Urszulę, która ugościła nas domowym ciastem: przekładańcem z czereśniami, orzechami, czekoladą i bitą śmietaną. To ciasto było tak niesamowicie smaczne, że powiedziałam Urszuli, że od teraz, kiedy będę jadła wiśnie, będę myśleć o jej cieście. Obejrzeliśmy fragment filmu dokumentalnego o Markowej i rodzinie Ulmów, ale niestety nikt nie wiedział gdzie go można zamówić i czy jest dostępny.

Jest to kolejny film, który Polonia powinna ocalić od zapomnienia. Byłam tak bardzo zadowolona z tej krótkiej wizyty w domu Urszuli, że miałam łzy w oczach, kiedy musieliśmy już wychodzić i pożegnać Urszulę.

Małgorzata i ja wyjechałyśmy z Markowej wdzięczne i zadowolone, że przyjechałyśmy, ale smutne, że musiałyśmy wyjechać.

Tłumaczenie własne (bez gwarancji) za zgodą autorki:


Friday, July 22, 2011

Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945 Exhibit at the Schindler Museum

Nazis destroy Adam Mickiewicz monument in Krakow. Source
Nazis round up Jews in Krakow. source
Everybody’s talking about the “Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945” exhibit at the Oscar Schindler Enamel Factory Museum in Krakow.

Ruth told me about it first. She hated it. She hated it so badly she tried to backtrack and leave it via the route by which she had entered, but museum staff told her that she could not exit that way. There were photos on the walls of victimized Jews, Ruth reported to me, and recorded shouts of barking dogs, and the passageway was narrow. From what Ruth said, I concluded that she felt manipulated and terrorized by the exhibit.

Denise, on the other hand, loved it. She took the day off from class, and spent five hours in the museum “Crying the entire time.”

Agnes’ eyes grew solemn when she recommended the exhibit to me. She showed me a photo she had taken at the exhibit: marionettes made to look like Hitler and like a Hasidic Joseph with Mary and Jesus. “What do these puppets mean?” I asked Agnes. “I don’t know,” she confessed, in a low voice.

After I finally went to the exhibit, I described my experience to Dominic, a young Polish-American man from Staten Island. “It sounds like a blitzkrieg,” he said. Check.

Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory is just that – the very building in which Oskar Schindler, Nazi party member, rescuer of Jews, and subject of a book by Thomas Keneally and a film by Steven Spielberg, manufactured enamel ware. “Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945” is a 2010 permanent exhibition. It offers an avalanche of information delivered in media directed at the senses of sight, sound, and touch. Visitors navigate a narrow passage along with many others. One is cramped and crowded. Visitors are always seeing, hearing, or touching visions, sounds, and objects that evoke the Nazi invasion and occupation of Krakow.

I was disoriented and overwhelmed by the exhibition. I kept seeking a more orderly, smoothly flowing, and systematic passage through it. I realized that perhaps the curators wanted to create this sense of overwhelm in visitors. Visitors get a small taste of what it must have been like to be invaded and occupied by Nazis.

The exhibit opens with a pleasant room on whose walls hang photographs of happy, normal people. Initially I had no idea of what this room represented. As I gazed at the photos, I realized: this was Krakow before the Nazi invasion. Normal, happy people leading normal, happy lives, just like you and me: partying, getting dressed up, playing sports, working, falling in love, buying and selling, planning a future.

This room, like most, was chock-full of period realia: There are vintage fedora hats and coats hanging on vintage clothes racks, full kitchens and bedrooms, posters – movie posters, Nazi propaganda posters, Home Army / Armia Krajowa posters – and enamelware from Schindler’s factory. There are newspapers published by the occupiers. There is a reconstruction of a Nazi uniform. The sound system pipes in, as appropriate given the accompanying display, music, barking dogs, marching boots, speeches, sirens, Polish Catholic women singing a dirge-like hymn that becomes a meditative chant.

There are time stamps throughout the museum – I think that they are actual time stamps from Schindler’s factory. The visitor can use these stamps to stamp cards, supplied by the museum, describing significant dates in the occupation. Some stamp a Nazi emblem, some a red Soviet star, some a Polish eagle, and some a star of David.

Often, there is no physical barrier between the museum-goer and these objects. I wonder how, or even if, the museum prevents visitors from pocketing items.

Subsequent to the first room, there is a room showing vintage newsreel footage of Jewish life in Kazimierz, and more everyday life in Krakow. There are straws in the wind – reports of German spies captured and executed. Poles try to raise money for armaments. On September 1, 1939, Nazis invade.

Those invested in the Bieganski stereotype insist that Polish culture and identity are, per se, guilty of being “worse than the Nazis” and must be jettisoned in favor of superior culture and identity learned from superior others. The Nazis did not see Polish culture and identity as anything like their own, and worked very hard at cultural genocide and makeover. That genocide resulted in the virtually total destruction of Warsaw, Poland’s capital.

Krakow was not as physically devastated as Warsaw was, but it was made over by the Nazis. The Nazis did destroy the Grunwald monument to the Polish-Lithuanian defeat of the Teutonic Knights at the 1410 Battle of Grunwald, the equestrian statue of Tadeusz Kosciuszko at Wawel, and the Statue of Adam Mickiewicz in Rynek Glowny, or the Main Square. They renamed the Rynek “Adolf Hitler Platz.” They planned to destroy Kopiec Kosciuszki and Pilsudski, two manmade mounds in honor of Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Josef Pilsudski. The museum lays out detailed architectural diagrams for a fully remade, Nazified and Germanized Krakow.

As one Krakovian recounted in a televised interview, Nazis inundated Krakow with anti-Semitic propaganda. You think Jews are your friends? Are okay? Think again. They are pimps, liars, typhus carriers, lice.

In video interviews of Krakovians who lived through the occupation, complex relations between Poles and Jews are described. There were anti-Semitic incidents committed by some Krakow residents and these are recorded with candor and without excuses. There were also significant and mutually beneficial interactions between Poles and Jews and these are reported as well.

Shortly after the museum goer is exposed to the invasion, she enters a room simulating the room at the Jagiellonian University where professors were summoned by the Nazis to be denounced and shipped off to concentration camps. A recording recreates the speech. Photos of the professors line the walls.

In another room, Krakovian survivor Roman Polanski’s written childhood reminiscences line the walls.

One room recreates a vintage tram. Out the tram window, one sees footage shot by the Nazis.

Another room recreates in detail the grim, cramped setting in which a Pole sheltered ten Jews. You look at this tiny space and say to yourself, “Ten people. Ten people.”

Upon entering one room, the visitor is confronted with two Nazi flags suspended from the ceiling. I’d never been so close to a life-size Nazi flag before, and I stopped dead in my tracks. I very much wanted to spit on the flags. I strategized spitting on the flags in a way that would not be detected by museum staff. I thought all visitors should spit on these flags, and that that in itself would make an profound exhibit. I realized that the sight of these life-size Nazi flags, so close, was bringing out a side of me that would cause the museum workers trouble and get me thrown out. I walked swiftly past.

Another room was more challenging. Wall to wall, inescapably, the floor was covered with floor tiles, each emblazoned with a swastika. I hesitated before entering the room. I wanted no contact with the contaminating symbol. I finally stepped into the room and realized what the curators were saying to me. If you lived in Poland 1939-1945, you could not escape Nazism.

Some rooms replicated cells where Nazis tortured prisoners. There were actual whips and shackles, and photos of those tortured and killed. One room screened, amazingly, actual footage of the Plaszow concentration camp when it was still operational. The film was shot by an amazingly courageous Home Army / Armia Krajowa spy.

There is no happy ending to this story, at least not in the museum itself. One of the final items in the exhibit is a giant oil painting of Uncle Joe, that great liberator of people, Stalin. Krakow went from the hands of one genocidal monster into the hands of his Soviet counterpart.

The exit of the exhibit is, appropriately enough, a black, tunnel-like hallway with a spongy floor. Hey, this exhibit says to visitors. We lived through these hells. You are here only for a simulated taste of them. Count your blessings as you open the door marked “EXIT.”

Photo by Adam Kowalski

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Lovely Spooky Night at Jama Michalika

Jama Michalika, Michael's Cave. Source

I'd planned to go to Jama Michalika, Michael's cave, a famous Krakow literary cafe. This trip has been so busy I had not had time to do so. My departure date is drawing near (Boo Hoo!) and I thought I'd never make it. 

Last night, after dinner, one of my favorite fellow students here said, "Does anyone want to go to Jama Michalika? My mother used to go there and she wants me to check it out."

And so we went.

We went to Wierzynek first, allegedly Krakow's oldest and most expensive restaurant. I reminded my friends that they didn't have forks in the fourteenth century, when the restaurant, so it claims, first opened. 

We moved on to Jama Michalika, and it was as I remembered it: sort of like my Aunt Tetka's house: busy, over stuffed, dark, moody, aromatic of former meals, guests, and pets, very, very mitteleuropa.  

There are puppets and paintings and dusky mirrors and Persian carpets and art deco lamps and hairpin lace tablecloths and stained glass.  

There were four of us. Adam is a very nice young man from Winnipeg. I asked him if he were familiar with Pier 21's notorious film. He said that he had seen it with his father, who was upset by it, and who declared that it was "horse---t." I asked for permission to quote Adam on that. 

By chance, we sat directly across from Karol Frycz's famous depiction of Rachel, the Jewish woman who "unleashes the mystery" in Wyspianski's "The Wedding," or "Wesele." You can see that illustration here. Jama Michalika was a famous hangout for the Mloda Polska or Young Poland literary movement. Stanislaw Wyspianski, who wrote "Wesele," or "The Wedding" hung out here. 

In our small group, I was able to unload about some thornier aspects of Polish American politics (basically, we don't unite, support, and organize with each other) and even thornier aspects of Polish Jewish relations in a post-Holocaust world, material too difficult to talk about on the blog.

We wound up the evening with card readings. I have Kat Black's Golden deck with me, consisting of collages of medieval artwork, just perfect for Krakow. One of my querents said, after I read him, "This is the first time in my life I've been mind-f---ed." Which was positive feedback.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bieganski at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin

Wojtyla and Wyszynski, Catholic University of Lublin. Source

On Monday, July 18th, 2011, The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, or KUL, hosted a talk by me, Danusha V. Goska, about my book, “Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.”

The question-and-answer period included controversial comments. I experienced my first moments of insomnia during this hyper-busy trip when pondering some of these comments. I will offer a detailed account of that, below. First, I must attempt to honor the extraordinary hospitality I was shown in Lublin.

I’ve been lucky enough to be hosted in several private residences during this trip, and in each case, the hospitality shown me has been extraordinarily generous and, in the best sense of the word, genteel. I know that modern Americans don’t use the word “genteel” very often without irony, and that is a shame. I can just say that with my hosts, I have not opened a single door – all have been opened for me.

My hosts in Lublin were Professors Chris Garbowski and Monika Adamczyk Garbowska. I also met and enjoyed chatting with their sons Jacek and Marcin. My hosts met my every need, and went above and beyond the call of duty. Monika anticipated what a traveler most desires – clean clothes – and volunteered to launder mine. I confessed that, traveling light, I had no back-ups. Monika further displayed her generosity. She gave me a lovely, flowing red dress with white flowers, and a white and red marbleized necklace that complimented the dress perfectly. In this elegant attire, I felt *almost* as soignée as a Polish pani.

I mentioned in passing that it was nice to be out of the dorm, where the food has all too often left something to be desired. After I mentioned fresh fruit with longing, Monika immediately left and came back bearing succulent apples, nectarines, raspberries, and blueberries.

Chris and Monika took me to the Lublin Village Museum, one of my favorite outings on this trip to Poland. We happened upon a festival of local food, dance, and song. The festival lifted my spirits. Too many Poles, for my taste, invest in the Bieganski stereotype and see folk culture as second-rate. Too, the communists exploited folklore in a vein attempt to prove their legitimacy. This rendered folklore suspect. Chris told me that the trend that assessed folklore as un-cool has been reversing in recent years. One manifestation: at the village museum, we happened upon a celebration of local foodways. Serenaded by singers in folk costume, we strolled among booths set up by producers of local honey, pierogies – stuffed with lentils – onion bread, a.k.a. bialys, pickles and rye bread. I bought a makowiec almost as good as my own, and that’s saying a lot.

Chris and Monika took me out to dinner at Chata, a traditional restaurant located in a former farm decorated with farm implements and folk toys. Waitresses wear traditional folk dress. Whole-wheat bread was served with smalec. I had nalesniki stuffed with spinach and Perla chmielowa pils, the local brew. Yum!

Chris took me on a walking tour of Lublin’s very lovely old town. It is smaller but less crowded, less commercial, and less decadent than Krakow’s old town in these post-communist, stag-party days. Chris took me to Grodzka Gate – NN Theater Museum. This museum commemorates Lublin’s large Jewish community, which was murdered by the Nazis. In photographs, audio recordings, activities for school children, and artworks, the museum evidenced profound concern, compassion, scholarship and conscience. Those who are convinced that Poles have no conscience and have done nothing in response to the Holocaust – and such voices are quoted in “Bieganski” and on this blog – will encounter evidence to the contrary in Polish institutions like the Grodzka Gate Teatr NN museum.

Now to my talk.

I was greeted by Anna Tarnowska-Waszak, Deputy Director of the School of Polish Language and Culture. I had to compliment Anna on her English, which she spoke with more command and beauty than many an American.

Anna escorted me to the venue for my talk. I was humbled to learn that that very room was Pope John Paul II’s favorite lecture room when he was a faculty member at KUL. A plaque on the desk commemorates his presence. Black-and-white, framed photographs from his days on campus line the walls. From each of the photos, Karol Wojtyla’s tremendous charisma shines. An unfailingly photogenic guy!

I love speaking, teaching, and communicating. My talk went off without a hitch. The question-and-answer session, though, caused some sleepless moments later that night.

Variations on the same themes have found their way to my email inbox since the Tygodnik Powszechny published an article about “Bieganski.” I paraphrase these themes, below. Not all of these came up with equal emphasis in Lublin, but some did. The speakers here are themselves Poles, speaking in Poland:


Yes, Poles, living in Poland, have sent me such messages. Variations occur after I talk about the book here in conversations with Poles.

One possible response:

African Americans commit a disproportionate share of violent crime in America. The Sambo stereotype offers no insight into this statistic.

In recent news, Jews have been disproportionately represented in headlines revolving around men in high finance behaving badly: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Bernard Madoff, Lloyd Blankfein. The Shylock stereotype offers no insight into these men or their alleged crimes.

Yes, Polish peasant immigrants to the US were dirty, illiterate, and muscular. The Bieganski stereotype is not an apt tool for understanding Poles or peasants or working people or poor people or Christians or any combination of the above.

Stereotypes are comparable to nightmares. They contain bits of recognizable reality in a twisted matrix that is more a reflection of our own fears and failures than a reflection of objectively verifiable reality.

African Americans, Jews, Polish peasants, are, first and foremost, human beings in the same way that those who stereotype them are human beings. In the same way that we want, need and deserve to be understood in all our complexity, those we stereotype deserve to be understood in all their complexity.


Again, Polish peasants are not responsible for the Bieganski stereotype. They are not, in a word, the pigs that the Bieganski stereotype insists that they are.

Too, as informants quoted in Bieganski make clear, even exposure to white collar Poles does not decommission the stereotype.

YOU CLAIM THAT THERE IS A NEGATIVE STEREOTYPE OF POLES IN AMERICA. THIS CAN’T BE TRUE. America is the Promised Land! They helped us defeat communism! Tadeusz Kosciuszko helped America win the revolution! And America named a bridge after him!

You are correct. America is a land of high ideals. I am very proud of our Founding Fathers and the Constitution.

But America is also a geopolitical player that acts in its own self interest. From Scientific Racists like Madison Grant to Breckinridge Long to Yalta to the Bieganski stereotype, Americans have at times made choices unhelpful to Poles.


No, I am quoting representational material from all levels of American culture, from folk culture like jokes, popular culture like films and New York Times articles, and elite culture like peer-reviewed, scholarly articles.

The methodology is rigorous and standard. The chapter on Bieganski in the mainstream press uses *every* article from Lexis-Nexis on the material it addresses. That is a massive amount of data. The chapter on film addresses only films recognized by the AFI as highly successful both critically and financially. The quotes from scholarly material are from high-impact scholars.

“Bieganski”’s description of stereotypes of Poles and Jews in American culture agrees with previous scholars, including Alan Dundes, one of the most important folklorists of all time.

The material in “Bieganski” is not extreme or anecdotal, but, rather, is entirely representational, and selected in accord with rigorous and received academic criteria.


Alas, that is not the case. “Bieganski” and the blog dedicated to it cite material from peer-reviewed, scholarly publications.


If only that were so. “Bieganski” offers statistics on the amount and kind of coverage Irena Sendler receives in America. It is not encouraging. This blog talks about a scholarly article by Jackie Feldman, an Israeli scholar, who analyzes how Polish Christian rescuers of Jews are targeted for diminishment by those invested in the Bieganski stereotype. A film shown in a museum diminishes Polish Christian rescuers. A Yad Vashem web page diminishes Polish Christian rescuers who were martyred by Nazis. A recent book about sexual abuse of women during the Holocaust diminishes Polish Christian rescuers. This is all documented, in detail, in the book and on the blog.


There was a prominent Polish American present. I will attempt to paraphrase his comments here. I did not bring a recording device and may paraphrase these comments incorrectly.

The PPA stated that his own research shows that people do not associate Poles with anti-Semitism. This is so contrary to widely accepted understandings that I am not at all sure if I heard this correctly.

The PPA also stated that people associate Poles with loudness, dressing badly, and Catholicism. He said that that contradicted my data.

He said that Timothy Snyder’s book “Bloodlands” would clear everything up. Once people saw how much Poles suffered, that would make negative behavior by Poles easier to understand.

He said that the Kosciuszko Foundation effectively protested stereotypes of Poles.

Again, the notion that people do not stereotype Poles as anti-Semites contradicts all the data I’ve seen and my own research.

That some stereotype Poles as loud, Catholic, and bad dressers is not a contradiction to the Bieganski argument; rather, it supports it. As the book details, the Brute Polak is the perfect scapegoat, for all the wrong reasons.

I am sure that Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands” is a fine book. For many very good reasons, it is not the response to the problem posed by the Bieganski stereotype.

The Kosciuszko Foundation’s petition protesting newspapers’ use of the term “Polish concentration camps” is a Band-Aid on cancer. That phrase is one leaf on a deeply rooted tree. The KF opted not to address the roots. The petition remained top-down; it never became grass roots. The KF did not use it as a way to generate greater involvement, organization, and strategic action on the part of millions of Polish Americans who remain culturally dormant.

After the talk, several attendees made time to chat with me, to further engage the ideas presented. The prominent Polish American did not, and I am sorry that that is the case. He and I both care about, and are working on, the same issues. Through mutual, respectful, supportive engagement, we could both serve Polonia and scholarship better than we do now apart.

Polish Americans will not accomplish any cultural goals commensurate to our size or to the contributions of our neighbors until we unite, support each other, organize, and act strategically.

On a more hopeful note: I was uplifted by the response from Larry, a pilot from Westfield, New Jersey. His facial expressions – eyebrows high; jaw low – let me know that he was hearing and internalizing what I was saying. I liked his question, as well – “Can we blame history books?” He brought up the recent controversies about textbooks in Texas. I was also gratified by the presence of a woman from Mexico. Mexicans, too, are stereotyped. I wish she and I could have talked afterward, but she had other obligations.

On a less hopeful note: as with my talk at the Galicia Jewish Museum, the audience was very small. I hope that the day comes when more in Poland and Polonia choose to support Polonian authors like me, and books like “Bieganski.”

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lublin's Open Air Village Museum

Photo by lucassith source

Yesterday my excellent hosts here in Lublin took me to the Muzeum Wsi Lubelskiej, or Open Air Village Museum in Lublin. Museums like this, that preserve traditional peasant culture and crafts, are vital. We won’t always have unending access to cheap and readily available fossil fuels that do everything for us. Skansens, or outdoor museums like Lublin’s Open Air Village Museum, preserve technological solutions to human problems. They show us how our not so distant ancestors harnessed energy from wind and water, how they heated, lit, and cooled homes without air-conditioning or central heating, and how they lived rich, full lives without plastic or computers or television. They are evidence of traditional people’s ingenuity and depth, and they offer us clues about how to solve our own problems. And they are very fun places to be on a bright, sunny summer day. I am very grateful to Professors Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska and Chris Garbowski for introducing me to this fascinating museum.

I have been lucky enough to live traditional life in traditional villages, in Slovakia, Poland, Africa, and Asia. I lived in Africa and Asia for years, without electricity, running water, or reliable motorized transport.

I remember one day watching my next door neighbor in Nepal. He began the day by squatting on the ground and looking at a pile of stuff that, to me, looked like random dirt and plant material. Within a few hours, using his bare hands and a khukri, or traditional Nepali knife, and material he acquired from surrounding woods, he had put together a sturdy, vermin-proof platform to dry and store grain over the winter. I was astounded.

Similarly, I remember watching my Uncle Jan, or John, in Slovakia, when he was in his sixties, shimmy up a tall, frail sapling, insert his bare hand into a ball of bees, and bring that ball down to the ground, to place it back into the hive, from which it had escaped. My uncle was a small farmer. He smoked his own pork in his basement. He was most amazing with bees. He could do anything with bees, without protective gear. He and I went for a walk in a forest one day. He found a basket-full of delicious, edible mushrooms, where I found only brown leaves and forest floor. He could interpret every sound in the forest, pointing out that we were just steps away from wild boar that I didn’t even hear. He casually picked bits of edible plants, and encouraged me to eat them. All this bounty, which he saw so readily, was invisible to me.

Peasants are not “Bieganski.” They are not stupider than we, not coarser, not different species. They have our intelligence and aesthetics and our same questions. We can learn from them.

In early July, at the Galicia Jewish Museum, two master carpenters, neither Polish nor Jewish, talked about building a traditional Polish-Jewish wooden synagogue, from scratch, with just an ax. They said that reanimating the skills possessed by Polish village carpenters was a worthy goal. Human technology, especially technology able to create a work of great beauty like a wooden church or synagogue, should not be allowed to slip into extinction. We become different, better, broader people when we exercise traditional skills. On June 15th, 2011, the New York Times ran an article about bringing the three hundred year old Sanok synagogue back to life here. I know that acquiring food by making contacts with neighbors, bringing it home, making a wood fire, also gotten from neighbors, and cooking that food over a wood fire I had to make myself taught me something about being human that I don’t get from cooking food bought in a supermarket over an electric stove.

I’d like to invite Polish Americans who are uncomfortable with their own peasant ancestry, or who think that the only face Poles can and should show to the world is the face of aristocrats, Nobel prize winners, and flawless heroes, to reassess peasantry. Look closer. You will find worthy, intelligent, creative human beings, people worthy of your pride, not just in their ability to survive, but to thrive, under harsh and demanding conditions.

Some lovely photos of the museum by Lukasz Sitarek here.

A detailed shot of how clothes used to be made found here.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

An Unknown Film You Simply Must See: Better than Lanzmann's "Shoah."

From "Birthplace" a Pawel Lozinski film. Source.

Pawel Lozinski’s 1992 documentary film “Birthplace” or “Miejsce Urodzenia” is one of the best films addressing the Holocaust I’ve ever seen. It is all but unknown. The International Movie Database page for the film is virtually empty. I was introduced to the film by Annamaria Orla-Bukowski. Without her, I probably never would have heard of it.

“Birthplace” is a better film than Claude Lanzmann’s much celebrated “Shoah.”

In “Birthplace,” Pawel Lozinski films Henryk Grynberg returning to a Polish shtetl where he survived World War Two with the aid of Polish Catholic peasants.

Polish-American author Henryk Grynberg has been cited previously on this blog.

Filmmaker Pawel Lozinski is the son of Marcel Lozinski, who made two of my favorite Polish films, 1988’s “Witnesses” and the 1993 film “89 mm from Europe.”

So far, so familiar. We’ve seen many such films, from Lanzmann’s “Shoah” to Marian Marzynski’s “Shtetl” to Menachem Daum’s “Hiding and Seeking.” These are the Polish-Holocaust version of “white man’s burden” films. There is a long pan of Polish countryside. There is lachrymose music. A car full of well-dressed Americans, tall and with good teeth, drives up to a Polish peasant farmhouse deep in the countryside. Roosters crow. Dogs bark. Passing neighbors ask, “What the heck?” Passengers emerge from a car, along with a film crew, thrust their lenses into peasant faces, and demand: “Why didn’t you stop the Holocaust?”

“Shoah” and “Shtetl” and “Hiding and Seeking” are all “Us v. Them” movies. All offer the viewer the chance to feel superior to Polish peasants. They did this. Not us. We could not do such an awful thing as commit atrocities in the Holocaust. We are tall and clean; we have good teeth; we have indoor plumbing. They have dirt under their fingernails and work in muck. No wonder they do bad things. No wonder we are ethically, as well as sartorially, superior.

Lanzmann, peacock that he is, carries this to extremes. He does not speak directly to Poles. He uses a translator, and, given that I speak English and a reasonable amount of French and Polish, I can attest that in at least one key instance, his translation is a distortion. Elegant French man. Dirty Polish peasant. Lanzmann does feature one good Pole: the aristocratic Jan Karski.

Timothy Snyder well described this genre of filmmaking and its message in this quote:

"TOOTHLESS, UNEDUCATED, ANTI-SEMITIC POLISH PEASANTS, names absent or misspelled, impossible objects of identification…Lanzmann wanted to make an important point about the continuity of CHRISTIAN ANTI-SEMITISM after and despite the Holocaust … There is an undeniable moral and aesthetic power to the scenes in which POLISH PEASANTS REVEAL THEIR ANTI-SEMITIC UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORLD in their very descriptions of the Holocaust … how does Lanzmann direct this power? He flatters us with it, unmistakably separating the western allies from A BARBAROUS POLISH COUNTRYSIDE where such things as DEATH FACILITIES could be erected."

“Birthplace” is not that movie. It is a much better movie. A deeply moving one.

Henryk Grynberg is not an outsider. He speaks fluent Polish to people he knows and in many ways is like.

There is no them. There is only us. That is the miracle of “Birthplace.”

No one is translating. Grynberg is speaking Polish to Polish-speaking people. He lived in their houses, drank their milk. They knew his mother and ate cake at her wedding. They went to school with his relatives, whom they name and describe with intimacy.

The peasants in “Birthplace” are every bit as dirty as the peasants in any of the films mentioned above. They are wearing shoddy, unflattering clothes. One man, who says some very tough things, is wearing a laughably ridiculous hat.

The film takes care of that. It does not turn these badly dressed, dirty, hard working peasants into the very bad them; it does not turn us, the viewers, into a very different us. They are the entire screen. No one shows up and gets all huffy in French silk and talks Fransay at them. No one onscreen is counting the seconds till he can get back to his five-star hotel. We are all in this together. The wall is finally torn down. We are them. We are these Polish peasants, because they are the only humans on the landscape. We are given no choice but to identify.

That is the miracle of “Birthplace.”

I think that so many rushed so quickly and insistently to hate Polish peasants after “Neighbors” came out because they needed to distance themselves from the atrocities peasants committed. “I could never do that I could never do that I could never do that.” “Birthplace” offers no such comfort. Oh, yes you could. Nothing that is human is foreign to you.

Polish peasants are the world of the film.

There are good people. Deeply, courageously good people. They are ambiguous people. Shall I believe that man? Not? Why not?

There is at least one frighteningly cold man who releases chilling words from a face deeply creased by sun and wind and cold and hard work he could never escape.

There is a man so disturbed and disturbing he is a five-act tragedy, or a crime novel, all to himself.

The good. The terrifying. The depressing. All Polish peasants. Every last one. Just like you. Just like me.

And they all live cheek by jowl, in the same Polish village.

I always object when I read people saying that Poles were worse than the Nazis. I object because it’s not true.

Polish peasants in “Birthplace” say that there are people, among their own neighbors, who were worse than the Nazis.

From their mouths, it is a totally different statement.

This is what I hear: many of these people risked their very lives to help Jews. Many. Not one or two righteous, but many.

And, in their own midst, there were people so debased, so heartless, that they would kill a Jew just to be able to steal his cow. And they hated these people. And they remembered their names. They could not do anything about their hate for their evil neighbors under Nazism, or Communism. But someone showed up with a microphone and a camera, and all those memories came alive. And they took action. This film shows them doing exactly that. All Polish peasants. All in one, mutually-dependent, village setting.

The plot of the film follows Henryk Grynberg trying to find out what happened to his father. Though the chance that anyone will watch this film based on this blog post are rare, I will not reveal the ending, because I really do not want to spoil it for you. It’s that good. I watched the film in a room full of students and, though I tried, I could not avoid crying audibly at this film’s stunning climax.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Annamaria Orla-Bukowska Leads a Walking Tour of Kazimierz, Krakow's Jewish Neighborhood

Kazimierz before WW II source
On Monday, July 11, 2011, Prof. Annamaria Orla-Bukowska lead her Jagiellonian University summer school students on a two-hour walking tour of Kazimierz, a Jewish neighborhood of Krakow, Poland, dating back to the fourteenth century. Prof. Orla-Bukowska's great beauty, her elegance, her depth and breadth of knowledge, her dedication, compassion, and commitment were like beacons that lit our way and sparks that inspired each student. After the tour I asked random participants what they thought. Irene is a bright and dedicated college student from the US. Her eyes grew wide and sparkled: "It was great! And she and I talked for an hour afterward – she kept showing me new things!" Uel, an gray-haired educator, greatly appreciated Prof. Orla-Bukowska's objectivity on the challenging topic of Polish-Jewish relations. As a Protestant from Belfast, Uel is familiar with sectarian strife.

I am a words person. I tell new acquaintances, "I'm very bad with faces and names, but if you tell me your story, I'll never forget it." My work on Polish-Jewish relations revolves around films, texts, jokes, slurs, and other cultural products constructed, primarily, of words.

There are of course Jews living in Kazimierz, in Krakow, and in Poland today, but the majority of Krakow's pre-World War Two Jewish population was murdered by the Nazis. Material culture remains: private residences in which Jewish families lived, schools, community centers, several synagogues, and cemeteries.

Prof. Orla-Bukowska brought this material culture to life; she drew forth words, ideas, and people from the stones. If you are interested in Polish-Jewish relations, you owe it to yourself to discover the published work of Annamaria Orla-Bukowska.

As "Bieganski" shows, even texts that are meant to represent the highest level of truth – university press, peer-reviewed publications – often tell a false narrative: all Jews in Poland lived always in poverty, fear, and trembling; all Polish Catholics were all-powerful and all-hateful pogromists; given teleology, the Holocaust was inevitable.

The work of Annamaria Orla-Bukowska brings to light a different reality. In fact, as many scholars demonstrate, many Jews were able to feel secure, prosperous, and stable in Poland for a long time. While maintaining their own cultural traditions and religious beliefs, many Polish Catholics and Polish Jews from all strata of society took mutually beneficial and collegial interactions as a normal part of life. The Holocaust was not, as is so often argued – as shown in “Bieganski” – the inevitable climax of the trajectory of Polish-Jewish history. It was, rather, an historic event, brought about by many factors, and it was committed, primarily, by German Nazis, fully in accord with Nazi ideology that was imported into Poland, and that had significant intellectual roots in the US.

No responsible Pole, including Prof. Orla-Bukowska, denies that there was anti-Semitism in Poland, or that some Poles did commit anti-Semitic acts, including in Krakow, including murder, and even in the post-war era. But those atrocities are not the defining acts of Polish-Jewish relations. Rather, for the bulk of Polish Catholics and Polish Jews, for the bulk of history, co-existence was the day-to-day reality and expectation of Catholics and Jews. Prof. Orla-Bukowska pointed out the intersection of Ulica Bozego Ciala and Ulica Meiselsa. The first is “Street of Corpus Christi” or the Body of Christ; the second street is named after Rabbi Meisels, the chief Rabbi of Krakow.

Again and again, Prof. Orla-Bukowska brought our attention to material culture that demonstrated the worldview of Kazimierz's Jews: we are prosperous, we are an important part of the life of this country, we are here more or less permanently, and we are Polish-identified. Kazimierz's Jews' commitment to, and integration into a wider idea of the Polish nation is demonstrated in their material culture.

In her walking tour, Prof. Orla-Bukowska demonstrated a profound knowledge of Judaism, and a real affection and respect for it. She encouraged us to experience Jewish life in Kazimierz through Kazimierz's remaining material culture, and through our three-dimensional experience of it. We touched stones left by visitors on Jewish graves, donned shawls and yarmulkes in order to visit synagogues, noted the mezuzah on the doorway as we entered a fully kosher hotel (no sheets made of mixed fabrics) and sweated a bit as we walked through a hot, humid, and fully functional mikvah.

We visited what had been a community center that was decorated with a bas relief frieze depicting a key event in Polish-Jewish history. Prof. Orla-Bukowska pointed out that this relief had been erected in the early twentieth century, when in fact, politically, there was no political entity called Poland. In geo-political reality, Krakow was located in the Austrian Empire. Even so, Kazimierz's Jews identified with Polish history and culture through their bas relief.

We ended our tour with a plaque dedicated to a local paper bag magnate who strongly self-identified as a *Polish* Jew.

We visited the site of Kazimierz's Sunday market. Why Sunday? The Jewish Sabbath would be over, and the Catholics would congregate nearby in order to attend mass, and, after mass, would have time for marketing. We saw many buildings that had been the childhood homes of Prof. Orla-Bukowska's many Jewish friends, located in Israel and the US. We also saw the childhood home of Helena Rubenstein, the woman who made a fortune with cosmetics. We saw a playground that was carved out of the site of several properties now in dispute because of post-war property claims. Kazimierz, before its recent revival, in the postwar years, had become a place with a reputation for street crime. Local women tried to use this empty lot to build a playground. Because of property claims, they were granted permission to restore only a chunk of the lot. Children play on a small area; the surrounding lot is overgrown weeds.

We saw buildings with beautiful, ancient facades crumbling into dust; one way to get around UNESCO's high demands on how one can renovate a building in an historic district like Kazimierz. If the building is not kept up, it becomes unsafe, and it is allowed to be torn down, and a new building may be put in its place. The new buildings stick out like sore thumbs in ancient Kazimierz. One renovator faced a big struggle over whether or not he could install plastic, not glass, windows, as plastic made for better insulation. Some renovators resorted to bribes to get buildings built their way.

Prof. Orla-Bukowska was graceful in her persistence efforts to communicate to her students: Jewish life was a vital aspect of Polish history and culture. It was a bit different from non-Jewish life – non-Jews bring flowers to graveyards; Jews bring little stones to place atop the grave – but the differences in Jewish culture make it no less worthy. Prof. Orla-Bukowska accomplished so much in her talk, and one constant theme was this: we must understand various cultures. Understanding is a key pathway to mutual co-existence.

Prof. Orla-Bukowska was born in the US. I can only imagine the sacrifices she made when she came to Communist Poland to live in 1985. She has spoken of contacting her friends, monks, in those days to acquire literature about Polish Jewish relations that Poland’s Soviet leaders had banned. Her commitment to Polish-Jewish relations is highly admirable, and exceptional.

Poles are buried all over the world: Siberia, were they were exiled, Brazil, where they built roads, Haiti, where they first fought against, and then with, rebelling slaves, Missouri, as poet Christina Pacosz describes, site of a riot that drove Poles out of town, Monte Cassino. Anyone who would dedicate him or herself to the memory of the Poles who lived in these various locations with the dedication of Annamaria Orla-Bukowska would truly be an admirable person.

For more on co-existence of Poles and Jews, please see this post.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Storozynski's Vanilla Kosciuszko, Milosz's Angels and Devils, and Bieganski the Brute Polak.



What is the best strategy for stereotyped ethnic minorities? During the Civil Rights Movement, black men famously marched with signs reading, “I am a man.” The Guerilla Girls wear guerilla masks to protest art galleries that refuse to show artwork by women. Gay people celebrate Gay Pride parades.

Is highlighting pure and perfect heroes the best strategy for Poles? Is it the only strategy? Or are other approaches to stereotyping, and to all of Polish identity, available? Are these alternate strategies underused by Polish organizations? If so, why? What have we got to be afraid of?

Alex Storozynski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, America’s most prominent Polish-American organization, delivered the introductory lecture of the Jagiellonian University Summer School on July 4, 2011 in the historic aula of the Collegium Novum. Previous addresses had been delivered by Nobel-Prize-winner Czeslaw Milosz, and Academy-Award-winner Andrzej Wajda. Jan Matejko’s painting of Copernicus’ “Conversation with God” hangs in the aula, and this is where Nazis rounded up Jagiellonian University professors to send them to the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps.

Collegium Novum Aula source

Purely by chance, I was seated right next to President Storozynski during his lecture. He appeared to be using no notes, which is an impressive feat, for a lengthy, fact-filled talk that had to, and did, mesh seamlessly with his slide show. The topic of Storozynski’s talk was Tadeusz Kosciuszko. The talk provided the listener with many interesting details about Kosciuszko’s amazing life and admirable work.

After the talk was over, I realized that it could have been fully comprehended by a student in fifth grade. I also realized that though the talk addressed profound issues of war and peace, oppression and domination, slavery and freedom, and life and death, it was so soothing it could have been told as a bedtime story. Finally I realized that Kosciuszko was depicted as flawless. He never suffered a dark night of the soul. He never so much as farted.

These are all good things, very good things. Polonia needs educational, inspirational, and fact-filled material that is easily accessible to the widest possible audience. That’s exactly what this talk was. So far so good. Very good.

Here’s why this is worth talking about, and here is the issue Polonia must overcome if it wants ever to gain enough strength to eliminate the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype.

Some Polonians insist that the “bedtime story for a fifth grader about a flawless, uncomplicated knight on horseback” is the *only* way to tell the Polish story. Our only characters are knights and fair damsels in distress – not peasants, not coal miners, not cleaning women. Our only appropriate group function is a Chopin concert or a debutante ball, not a poetry reading – by a struggling poet, not a Nobel-Prize-winning one – or a labor union meeting. Our only appropriate religious orientation is Catholic, not Jewish, or, heaven forfend, atheist. Our only appropriate leader is a middle aged man, not a woman, not a young person, not – now this is going too far! – an openly gay person.

That approach to Polish identity will never be able to adequately address the brute Polak stereotype.

As I say in “Bieganski,” the American press was flooded with the most egregious stereotyping of Poles as arch haters in the wake of the publication of Jan Tomasz Gross’ book “Neighbors.” And, as I say there, I was able to find *no* published articles in the mainstream press from leaders of Polish American organizations that even began to address that stereotypification of Poles, not only as the world’s worst anti-Semites, but as the world’s worst haters.

Perhaps the reason for that failure is an overreliance on hero worship and simplistic images. Perhaps hero worship and simplistic images, while entirely worthy in their own right, just can’t do the intellectual work that needs doing in response to the kind of invective and distortion “Bieganski” records.

I’m not saying that hero worship and simplistic images are bad things. They have their value and their place. President Storozynski’s speech was a terrific example of well supported, professionally delivered communication for a wide audience. I’m glad such material exists and I’d happily and gratefully make use of it, and I’ve used material like it in the past.

I’m saying that if we want to be effective, we need to harness *more* strategies. We need to acknowledge that Gross’ book was good and necessary, that the press response to it was reflective of a deeply-rooted, pernicious problem, and that we need to address that problem by understanding bad things Poles have done through rigorous, sophisticated scholarship. And I’m saying that I have encountered resistance from those who insist that talk about perfect heroes is our only appropriate public statement.

Their argument can be summed up this: The New York Times or a film shown in a museum or a peer-reviewed scholarly book says that Poles are the world’s worst haters, the world’s worst anti-Semites, worse than Nazis and Soviets? How to respond? Mention Chopin. Mention Marie Curie. Mention John Paul II.

My argument can be summed up thus: mentioning heroes is not enough. We need more sophisticated analysis, as well as hero worship.

Mind: President Storozynski did not deliver his talk as a response to negative stereotyping of Poles. I am merely using his talk as an example of an approach that I think is great, but that needs to be supplemented with other approaches.

I wanted to get a sense of how others responded to Storozynski’s talk. I interviewed several participants in the summer program. I did not tell my informants my opinion of the speech before eliciting their opinion; I did tell them I was writing for my blog. Informants chose for themselves whether they wanted to be identified here by first name or full name, age, location, etc.

Lea, a university student from the US, said, immediately and without prompting, “It’s as if Kosciuszko never did anything bad. I mean, he must have done some bad things. Storozynski talked only about the good things. I’m sure there were bad things.”

Ruth, a professional from England, said, “The talk was dumbed down and popularist. He missed the chance to link Kosciuszko’s life with current themes, for example, prejudices against African Americans and Muslims. It was history for the kindergarten.”

A Jagiellonian university professor said that the talk was “very American. Like something you’d see on TV.”

Douglas Bajan, 18, from Yonkers, currently attended Lehigh, said, “I’ve always known about Kosciuszko. I come from a Polish family. Before this speech, I didn’t know how far reaching Kosciuszko’s influence was. He contributed to America, France, and Poland. I had no idea he was so relevant. The speech was very well said. My reaction is positive. It provided a lot of information. It made me more aware of my heritage. It boosted my pride. Kosciuszko was an amazing figure. The knowledge will stick with me.”

Dave Barker, 19, from Limerick, Ireland, attending Trinity College, son of a Polish mother, said, “It was a bit of a hagiography. It was just the good stuff. I’m sure Kosciuszko did some bad stuff. It was something you’d tell a kid. I didn’t know Kosciuszko was a painter. It was a really good speech. It’s hard to say what the impact of the speech on me will be. Kosciuszko is an inspirational figure. Every nation does hagiographies with its patriotic figures.”

Ryan Klink, 21, attending Illinois State, said, “I’m not Polish at all. I didn’t know much about Kosciuszko. The speech had a lot of impact. It surprised me. We don’t learn about Kosciuszko in the US. Or, maybe I was sleeping during that history class or maybe I heard his name and couldn’t understand it. He’s an inspirational guy. My reaction to the speech was positive.”

Prof. Ewa Nowakowska is currently offering her excellent and very popular summer session courses on Polish literature. Prof. Nowakowska began her survey course, as one might expect, with the medieval Bogurodzica, one of the first surviving works of literature in the Polish language. But Prof. Nowakowska is not burying her students in the Middle Ages, without reference to contemporary realities.

From the first day of the course, she has invited us to consider the artistic brilliance of Adam Mickiewicz’s poetry and his vision of Polish Messianism, and to place those beautiful words up against the ungodly body count and destruction of the Warsaw Uprising. She has invited us to consider the magnificent invocation of Mary’s grace in Bogurodzica, a hymn that was sung by Polish knights marching off to fight jihad at the 1444 Battle of Varna. Again, invoking Bogurodzica, Prof. Nowakowska read to her students a recent letter to a Polish publication. The letter was written by group protesting a 2009 Madonna concert to be held in Poland on the feast of the assumption.

Prof. Nowakowska introduced us to Czeslaw Milosz’s 1994 address opening the summer school. I have not got the full text of Milosz’s talk with me; I base what I write here on notes I took in Prof. Nowakowska’s class. I plan to acquire a copy of Milosz’s talk and will correct this blog entry against that text.

Milosz’s title was “Polish Contrasts.” He said, “Poland, land of contrasts. I know of no land with so many angels, and so many devils. To try to live in Poland, you may as will try to live in a doorway.”

These few brief words struck me as brilliant, the doorway metaphor especially so. The obvious reference is to Poland as a crossroads between Germany and Russia, but also, at times, Sweden and Turkey. Polish geography is God’s playground.

Less obvious is an echo of the work of two anthropologists. Arnold van Gennep studied rites of passage – those ceremonies, rites and rituals that take us through life. Victor Turner’s worked on liminality – the in between moments of life. Turner uses doorways – liminal places – from the Latin word for “lintel” – as metaphors for those in-between spaces in life where the old regime ends and the new regime has not yet begun. Sample doorways include the teen years, a crossroads between childhood and adulthood, or that space you enter after you lose you old job (or spouse or home) and before you find a new one. Humanity expresses this understanding of doorways in its yearly holidays: Christmas, Groundhog Day, May Day, Fourth of July, Halloween, all are placed around yearly and seasonal doorways – solstices and equinoxes – as fall gives way to winter, winter gives way to spring, etc.

In Turner’s metaphor, doorways are in-between places. Anything can happen in a doorway. There are no rules. There is no governing power. Released from conventional norms, people find love or hate, their best selves, or their worst, in life’s doorways.

This is why I love Poland. It is a land of contrasts, a land of angels and demons, a land that is a giant doorway that proves the best or worst in its occupants. When I read about people like Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Irena Sendler, Jan Karski, Janusz Korczak, I read about flawed people like me – Karski attempted suicide – who have been forced to attempt to live, and to live honorably – in a doorway, a land where the old rules get stripped away with ferocious regularity. These are ballet dancers performing their feats on the head of a pin.

This is the Poland that must be presented accurately in popular speech, in journalism, in popular culture, and in scholarly literature.

This profound complexity is the challenge and strength of Polish identity, and it must be fully harnessed in any attempt to address the Brute Polak stereotype.

This is the Poland that has much of great importance to teach the world.