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.