|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:
BUT POLES REALLY ARE BIEGANSKI … BRUTES … BIGOTS … ANTI-SEMITES … PIGS … WORTHLESS … DIRTY … DRUNKEN … PEASANTS.
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.
AS HIGH STATUS, ELITE POLES EMIGRATE, THE BIEGANSKI STEREOTYPE WILL WEAKEN AND DISAPPEAR.
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.
YOU ARE QUOTING ONLY EXTREME MATERIAL. THESE ARE JUST ANECDOTES THAT PROVE NOTHING.
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.
YES, BUT, SCHOLARS HAVE GOTTEN PAST ALL THIS. SCHOLARS DON’T SAY THESE AWFUL THINGS ABOUT POLES.
Alas, that is not the case. “Bieganski” and the blog dedicated to it cite material from peer-reviewed, scholarly publications.
ATTENTION PAID TO FAMOUS RESCUERS LIKE IRENA SENDLER WILL CORRECT ALL THIS.
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.”