Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bieganski at the Galicia Jewish Museum

On Sunday, July 3rd, 2011, I spoke about my book "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture" at Krakow's Galicia Jewish Museum. I spoke as part of Krakow's world famous Festival of Jewish Culture.

I was hosted by a member of the faculty of Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, the second oldest university in Central Europe, after the Charles University of Prague. My host and his family showed me hospitality such as I have rarely encountered. I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world and to experience unforgettable hospitality on several continents, but this family was truly special. I will long cherish the memory of the time I spent in their home. Their open-hearted graciousness and obvious gentility honored the best of Polish traditions of “a guest in the house is God in the house” and belied the pernicious Brute Polak stereotype.

I am more grateful than I can detail here to this professor and his family, and I am also very grateful to the Galicia Jewish Museum. I am proud to have had the chance to participate, in however small a way, in its vital and honorable work of commemorating the life of a vibrant community that was victimized by an unspeakable crime.

It's frequently said that fear of public speaking is the number one fear. I do not suffer from it. It's like poison ivy; I walk through woods as often as I can and remain immune to the poison ivy that so threatens my hiking companions. I am at a loss to explain to my students how to overcome fear of public speaking.

The morning of the talk I gave myself extra time to go for a walk. I reminded myself that I would now be speaking in Poland, across a language and culture barrier, to a Polish audience, about the country's most controversial topic, that, in the past, I'd been denounced by both Polish chauvinists and Jewish chauvinists, and that that might happen again today, that the Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture is itself controversial, and that anything could happen. I found that I was feeling my usual pre-talk calm.

I reflected on how every piece of hate email I've ever received -- "You are involved in anti-Polish conspiracies!" "You are a pogromist!" -- helped me to prepare for this moment. I had a potential response for any potential extreme comment.

Krakow, for the past several days, had been experiencing exceptionally cold, wet weather. Something told me that, though it was July, I ought to pack a wool sweater, and I do not regret having listened to this little voice. The day of the talk was soggy and chill and I hoped that that might boost attendance. Someone debating whether to attend the talk or toss a frisbee on a lawn would have more incentive to attend.

I'd written my talk for the museum while still in America, second guessing what aspect of "Bieganski" would work best for a Polish audience. One of my favorite experiences talking about "Bieganski" was a talk I gave for the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palisades in Englewood, NJ. There I emphasized the American side of the question of Polish and Jewish stereotypes. This talk in Poland would be very different.

I deeply believe in, and am completely committed to, civil and courteous discourse. For that reason, I often don't use visual aids during talks, or I use them minimally. Eye contact is a key feature of human communication. Eye contact would be all the more important when I was addressing an audience for whom English is a foreign language, on the country's most controversial topic.

As I spoke, I maintained eye contact with my audience. I could see that my listeners were troubled by what I was saying. I don’t think anything they’ve heard so far about Polish-Jewish relations prepared them for this material.

After my talk was over, questions from the audience confirmed what I guessed to be true from eye contact. Audience members expressed shock and outrage. One audience member emphasized how highly America is thought of in Poland. How could American newspapers, films, scholarly books, jokes, say such things about Poles? Don’t Americans really know what happened in Poland?

Audience members from Hungary expressed appreciation for a scholarly dissection of stereotyping, and wanted to know if scholarship on stereotyping could help them combat rising anti-Semitism in Hungary. I am not in touch with anyone actively resisting anti-Semitism in Hungary, and have no resources to offer these good people. If anyone reading this knows of any such resources, please mention them in the comments section. I thank you in advance.

Audience members surmised that maybe the problem had been caused by the peasant immigration of one hundred years ago. Maybe now that highly educated and self confident “children of Solidarity” were representational of Poles on the international scene, the stereotype would die off. I politely disagreed, and recommended chapters in the book that talk about the necessity of Bieganski, and why, in my estimation, the peasant immigration cannot be blamed and is not guilty, and why all the highly professional Polish immigrants in the world will not eliminate the Brute Polak stereotype. In fact, one of the informants for “Bieganski” plainly stated that all the Polish-Americans she knew in real life were urban dwelling, highly educated professionals, and yet she still thought of Poles as rather brutish peasants.

In short, audience reaction shows that “Bieganski” is as poet John Guzlowski titled his Amazon review, “A Necessary Book.”

Now the not so good news. Attendance for the talk was small. I am grateful for every audience member, and for the obvious intellect, integrity and compassion shown by each audience member in his or her comments. But audience members themselves said, some rather heatedly, “This should have been better attended. This should have been more widely publicized. This needs to be discussed by more people.”

One Pole said to me, “When Jan Tomasz Gross was here, he received as much advertising as a McDonald’s hamburger.”

I am sure that many factors are at work. I want to say this, though, and there is an important reason for saying it.

I mentioned to an internet group devoted to discussion of Polish matters that I’d be traveling to Poland soon, and would be available to talk about “Bieganski.” An official of at least one prominent, national Polish-American fraternal organization, local Polish clubs, and the Polish embassy were members of that group. None of them offered any contacts to arrange a speaking venue. None offered any help to publicize my talks.

The talks I will deliver in Poland have been made possible by a friend of mine, a university professor of Polish-Jewish descent.

This is why I mention this: I have seen a minority of Polish Americans mention on internet discussion groups something like the following: “No one tells the Polish story. Everyone tells the Jews’ story. Poles are being mistreated. Jews have much power. Poles have no power.” Again, those who voice such statements are a minority, but a consistent minority in online Polish-interest discussion groups.

My point is this: “Bieganski” has been supported by Jews. The most significant support I received for speaking engagements during this trip to Poland came from a scholar of Polish-Jewish ancestry and a Jewish museum. The Jagiellonian University professor hosting me is Polish Catholic, and my first hostess was Polish Catholic. Poles in Poland did their part.

My experience has consistently belied the stereotype of Jews as having too much power, or the stereotype of Jews as blocking scholarship pertinent to Poles. I cannot accept comments that further the stereotype of Jews acting as a monolithic group to consistently block Polish scholarship. Rather, I recommend that concerned Polish Americans unite, behave in a civil manner with each other, support each other, and act strategically. To the extent that that is already happening, bravo. May it increase.


  1. OK, now you really piqued my interest. I would love to either hear your talk or get the content to read, to know exactly what you are saying. Today I am ordering your book. Cannot say that what I have heard (most of my adult life in America) coming from the mouths of Catholic Poles about Jewish Poles has been positive. But, my mother-in-law sheltered Jews in her basement during WWII, and my father taught me to be open-minded to all people, all professions, all religions..... I don't personally have too much experience with Polish Jews. Many of my clients are Russian Jews, who treat me with respect and follow my advice; when I tell them my family's story, they are intrigued and ask to borrow my books or want to meet my mother. So for now, until I learn more, I am a bit confused. But of one thing I am certain, and I wholeheartedly agree with your comment that Polish Americans should unite, behave in a civil manner with each other and support each other; I don't know if you are referring to the Catholic vs. Jewish aspect or behavior in general, but I have seen the opposite too many times, and it made me crazy.

  2. Danusha - I wish I could have been there to hear your presentation. To travel so far and speak to just a handful - that is hard to accept. I've done it though with poetry most of my life. The "witnesses" - see Muriel Rukeyser here in The Life of Poetry - willing to attend are always only a handful. And I am glad you were able to dispel the false belief that this Bieganski came about because of all the illiterate and desperate for work Poles - my grandfathers and grandmothers on both sides -who came to the U.S. in the migration from Polska a hundred years ago. Good job!!!Christina Pacosz

  3. Anna and Christina, thank you for your comments.

  4. Danusha, I am in Warsaw at present and when here I go to Radio cafe a charming restaurant in ul.Nowogrodzka (56). The proprietor is Stanislaw (Stash) Pruszynski, a journalist who worked for years for Radio Free Europe and lived in the States and Canada for many years before returning to Poland. His father was on Sikorski's staff during the war. the cafe's walls are covered with journalistic memorabilia from the PRL and Radio Free Europe years. I told him about "Bieganski" and he is very interested in your ideas. He is involved in a salon which meets here on Mondays and where people tell discuss their ideas and experiences about Poland, Polish culture and Poland's place in the world.
    His contact details are as follows; phone 22-625-27-84, mob 602-316-808. there is also a website He seems to have a lot of contacts.
    All the best

  5. hi, Peter, I sent an email but did not receive a reply.


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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