Friday, September 30, 2011

The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 Continues to Disseminate the Brute Polak Stereotype

Tanya Bouchard, who has designed backpacks for children,
decides what is "representational" of Poles during World War Two.

Ever design one of these?
Then YOU may be qualified to teach  Immigration, Holocaust, and World-War-Two History!

The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 shows a film called "Oceans of Hope" that is an archetypal example of the "Bieganski" stereotype. It locates Polish, Christian, rescuers of Jews in the historical niche properly occupied by German Nazis. It sets up that historical revision by beginning with a false and stereotyped depiction of Slavic immigrants to Canada as fat, dumb, happy, without history, and laughable.

One can read a previous blog post about this film here.

Pier 21's revision is not the result of casual or isolated error. It is part of a strategic revision of Holocaust and World War Two history, concomitant strategic revision of immigration history and a pernicious stereotypification of Eastern European peasantry as only slightly more sophisticated than animals.

One may ask – why would anyone want to place Polish, Christian rescuers of Jews in the historical niche properly occupied by German Nazis? Why would anyone want to disseminate false images of Eastern European peasantry and immigrants?

The answer is complex, and best mastered through a reading of "Bieganski."

An activist, Malgorzata Tarchala, has been writing letters to Pier 21 politely requesting that they reconsider the film.

Needless to say, given that she is just one person, Pier 21 has found it easy to dismiss her polite requests.

The Polish Embassy also wrote to Pier 21.

On September 7, 2011, Pier 21 Chief Curator Tanya Bouchard, whose previous museum experience includes designing backpacks for children, wrote to Ambassador Kosiniak-Kamysz of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Ottawa, Canada regarding "Oceans of Hope."

She wrote that "Oceans of Hope" is, and this is a quote from her letter, "acceptable as it is a representation of facts of the time."

Her letter addresses none of the points found here. It doesn't have to. She has power; Polonia has yet to exercise any power in relation to its own stereotypification; she can say whatever she wants. She could say that Hitler was born in Warsaw and that the Nazis loved Poles; no Polonian would or could take any significant action to address any absurdity.

Bouchard's letter is false, of course. There is nothing representational about "Oceans of Hope."

What Bouchard and Pier 21 believe to be true, though, is this: Poles, Polish-Americans, Polish-Canadians, and Polonians worldwide will do nothing to remove this film.

I fear that Pier 21 is correct. Polonia has yet to unite, engage in mutual support, and act strategically in response to the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype.

In response to Pier 21 alone, I've seen several letters sent by various Polonians. None acted in unison with anyone else. I approached one previous letter-writer and he declined to participate in any new action. I approached a man who saw the film with his father. Both were outraged by it. Neither offered to participate in any response to the film. No letter I saw cited "Bieganski," the one scholarly book that addresses the brute Polak stereotype. Writers make vague statements about how the film upset them. One particularly bad letter focused on how the film made someone cry.

This isn't about a vague sense of unease this or that Pole felt walking out of the film with teary eyes. This isn't about "dishonoring the Polish nation," whatever that means. This isn't an issue that only a handful of disgruntled Poles might care about for about five minutes before forgetting about it and moving on to something more entertaining.

This is one incidence of a culture-wide systematic historical revision, documented in a scholarly book. This is something that anyone who cares about truth might care about. This is something that right-thinking Jews that I know personally care deeply about – and have taken action in response to. The Bieganski, brute Polak stereotype requires informed, educated, unified, cool-headed, professional, strategic action by activists who are willing to work with others over the long haul and who have committed themselves to not stopping until the film is gone.

As long as Polonians decline to do what is necessary, the Brute Polak stereotype will continue to dominate, including in immigration history, World War Two history, and Holocaust history. Not because it is true. But because Polonians declined to take appropriate action. And people who design backpacks for children will decide what constitutes "representational" histories of World War Two, the Holocaust, Immigration, and Eastern European peasantry.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Bieganski in Peace Corps, and in the Heart of Darkness

Walt Kelly's "Pogo" and Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" sent the same message:
"We have met the enemy and he is us." 
A journey into the Heart of Darkness -- toward "Others," or into our own souls?
Jozef Korzeniowski, aka Joseph Conrad. You can see the wisdom and compassion in his face. 

I learned last week that a new anthology of writing about the Peace Corps is soon to appear. A contributor to the anthology posted the following announcement: that he would be publishing an essay in that Peace Corps anthology "about Antisemitism in Poland."


Before I began my own Peace Corps service, PCDC – Peace Corps Washington – advised me to read "Heart of Darkness."

I read "Heart of Darkness" in the first apartment I moved into after I left my parents' home. The most remarkable landmark I could see from the window of my bedroom was the World Trade Center. The landmark was all too appropriate to the content of the book, it would later turn out.

"Heart of Darkness" was one of those books I read in that apartment in one sitting. The other was Albert Camus' "The Plague." Both books would stay with me for the rest of my life.

Luckily I also read Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" there, an almost hallucinogenically life-affirming book.

But Camus' "The Plague" also inspired and exhilarated me – perhaps an odd reaction to a book about bubonic plague.

"Heart of Darkness" terrified me. Really. I was a tough kid. I had worked as a nurse's aid for many years by that point; I was used to debriding pressure ulcers and preparing corpses for their last journey. I had lived on the streets and known what it is to have someone press the point of a knife into my back and to calculate what move I'd make next that would not result in the knifepoint driving in deeper. But something about "Heart of Darkness" really rattled my soul.

"Heart of Darkness" tells the story of Marlow, a British man traveling up the Congo River in Africa during the days of Belgian colonization. Marlow keeps hearing about a man named Kurtz, a "universal genius," who lives in the bush. The African "savages" and "natives" look upon Kurtz as a God. "He came to them with thunder and lightning." Kurtz commands the marvels of modern technology. The Africans are impressed by that. Marlow meets Kurtz. Kurtz is dying. His final words are "The horror, the horror."

It turns out that Kurtz was not a universal genius. Kurtz was a really bad guy who did really bad things. He did these bad things when he was living alone in the African bush. He felt entitled to do bad things. He was superior, the Africans inferior.

I didn't articulate it at the time, but I think this is why this book so troubled me: "Heart of Darkness" closed off any escape route from evil.

See, we all think we are better. We all think we are qualified to work for "The International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs." There was never an actual society for the suppression of savage customs – Conrad made up the title. Conrad is criticizing European colonizers in Africa who said that they were there to enlighten the savages, but who were really there to exploit them and their natural resources.

"Heart of Darkness" tells us that we are not what we imagine ourselves to be. We are not better. We are not superior.

"Heart of Darkness" also tells us that evil is not what we think it is. It is not out there, locatable outside ourselves, ready to be suppressed.

We are part of the problem. We are not qualified to suppress savage customs. "The horror, the horror," is not out there – it's not in the bush (exclusively). It is not located in an "Other," the black African – at least not exclusively. "We have met the enemy and he is us." The horror is inside of our own souls. It's our arrogance, our greed, our sadism. Until we confront "the horror, the horror" in our own societies, we only exacerbate "the horror the horror" in those societies we colonize and exploit.

Sadly, idealism is often the very quality that morphs into "the horror, the horror." Idealism in practice confronts the realities of the real world: savages who don't want to be "saved." Systems that don't want to change. Primarily, the idealist's own arrogance and ego.

These real-world complexities can warp an idealist. An idealist so warped can become a hater without peer.

Not always. There is a way idealists can avoid becoming warped. They can surrender to a Higher Power – for me, that Higher Power is the loving, forgiving and just, Judeo-Christian God. "I won't save the world today, and I won't become world famous by doing so. I'll just do what God asks, and allows me, to do, and have faith for the rest." That kind of reality-tempered idealism, that kind of surrender to that kind of God, works wonders. Mother Teresa was that kind of humble, God-surrendered idealist. She didn't need to save the world. She needed to wash one dying leper. Mother Teresa said, "We can do no great things. Only small things with great love." Those are the words of a humble idealist.

Narcissistic, arrogant idealism creates monsters like Kurtz, like the nineteen hijackers, who did, of course surrender to their idea of God – and their idea of God is one that warps.


I was involved with Peace Corps, both overseas and in the US, for several years. I served twice, once in Africa and once in Asia. On PC's behalf, I also trained volunteers. I published in a few Peace Corps publications, and participated in conferences. I visited with volunteers in countries other than those in which I served. I kept in touch with Peace Corps and my Peace Corps buddies for years afterward, up to today, visiting former vols in several US states. On behalf of volunteers, I prepared a report about PC operations and delivered that to PCDC, on PCDC's dime.

I lived a movie. I met famous people. I traveled to exotic locales. I saw wild rhinos and trekked so close to Mount Everest I was certain, if only I were a better shot, I could hit it with a rock. I learned libraries full of lessons. My fellow volunteers were exciting, funny, smart, colorful, creative, gifted people. Really, glow-in-the-dark special.

Peace Corps was the most flawed institution I've ever been a part of, and that's saying a lot, because I've also been part of American academia and the Roman Catholic Church.

I've soundly criticized academia on this blog. And I acknowledge that the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis is a serious problem that the church has yet to adequately address. And, yes, proportionate to its size, Peace Corps is even more flawed.

Most PCVs I had contact with, in several countries where PCVs serve, didn't actually do what their job descriptions said that they did. Teachers, more often than not, didn't teach. Fish farmers didn't raise fish. Community organizers didn't organize communities.

We were sent to dysfunctional societies, where, more often than not, schools don't run, there are no supplies, and entrenched power relations mitigate against any change that will benefit those who most need change: women, children, low status people. And Peace Corps had zero interest in addressing any root causes – in fact, if we brought up root causes, like the caste system or entrenched misogyny, we were accused of being cultural imperialists. Who's to say that gouging out little girls' clitorises is a bad thing? So, basically, we were sent out on fools' errands.

What did we do, if we were not teaching, growing food for hungry communities, scattering the blessings of representational democracy?

What do you think we did? Young, single, away from home for the first time since we graduated college, pockets full of monopoly money that could buy us anything in-country and nothing any place else, no supervision, and thrust into absurd, nihilistic scenarios?

We partied, man, we partied.

Nobody parties like Peace Corps volunteers. Rock stars? Don't waste my time. The residents of Sodom and Gomorrah envied us.

I could tell you stories …

The drugs, the sex, the dancing, the flamboyant outrageousness of it all. Uppers. Downers. Narcotics. Hash. Morphine. Moonshine, the dancing that went on for days, the public displays of S&M…

I'll stop there.

I knew one group of volunteers, nicknamed "The Fish," who never, in their entire service, ever did any work. They wanted to. They couldn't. The official bureaucracy never supplied them with even the most rudimentary tools of their trade. They wondered around a Third World country for two and a half years, traveling from party to party.

I'm not here to criticize that. If you want to criticize that use of taxpayer dollars, feel free, but that's not why I'm writing this blog post.

There was another serious problem with the utter disconnect between how Peace Corps sells itself and what Peace Corps really is.

Imagine being an American girl, weighing a bit over one hundred pounds, no muscles – your life has been servants and Ivy League schools – why would you need muscles? You're alone in a remote African village. Imagine being raped, at night, by a stranger who breaks into your isolated dwelling, where you have no electricity, no running water, no way of contacting anyone. Where your nearest neighbor is out of range of your scream. That's bad enough, no?

Then imagine being told by PCDC that you can't talk about that to anyone, can't get any services, and, if you make any trouble, you will face trouble, like, for example, when it comes time to claim your "readjustment allowance."

That happened to a woman I knew. Google "Peace Corps" and "rape." Here's a recent excerpt from the New York Times:

"Jess Smochek arrived in Bangladesh in 2004 as a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer with dreams of teaching English and 'helping the world.' She left six weeks later a rape victim after being brutalized in an alley by a knife-wielding gang. When she returned to the United States, the reception she received from Peace Corps officials was as devastating, she said, as the rape itself."

My most disturbing Peace Corps tale is actually really hard for me to tell. I've never told it in public before. It involves someone else, someone else's life, so I'll be vague with details.

One day I was going for a walk. It was a nice, sunny day, and I had some free time. I was in a Third World village.

A local kid approached me. "Mees, Mees" – her pronunciation of "Miss" – "Mees, your friend is over there!" the kid pointed to a hospital set up by, iirc, Canadians. There were just a couple of Canadians on staff.

I had no idea what the kid was talking about. For some reason, I followed the kid. I could not believe what I saw.

One of my fellow PCVs was lying, suspended, on a piece of plastic, with a hole in the bottom so that waste could pour through. Her body was the color of camo gear. Her kidneys had shut down. She was clearly dying, alone, in horrible pain.

I sprang to action. I went to the one telephone I knew of in this village, in the post office. It took me hours of begging and pleading and arguing to get a call through. I was lectured on how dying of dysentery was not such a big deal; local people died of dysentery every day. I wouldn't leave. Hours, and hours I argued: get the call through. Get the call through.

Peace Corps tells vols that it will send an evacuation helicopter if you need it in a medical emergency. I finally got the call through. They refused to send a helicopter. They said that *the next day* they would send *a jeep.*

A jeep. For a twelve-hour ride over bumpy, dangerous, unpaved roads. For a dying young lady in excruciating pain.

I wondered how much morphine they'd have to use on her to make the ride possible. I wonder how they found a vein that could support the IV in her drained, skeletal body.

I received a post card from that young lady some months later. She told me she was learning to walk again.

I could tell you more such stories.

PCVs who lost it, who needed to be "psycho-vacced," but were left in their village to slowly lose their marbles, one by one. Or lost their intestines. Or their lives.

But that's not what I wrote this blog to focus on.

What I want to focus on is this: the "Heart of Darkness" I encountered in Peace Corps.

I'm not talking about individual "hearts of darkness;" I'm not talking about one or two bad apples – any more than the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis is about one or two bad apples. I'm not talking about something separate from the nature, the essence of Peace Corps.

I'm talking about a very big, unaddressed problem with the essence of Peace Corps itself. Something so corrupting that, at this point, I think it would be a really good thing if Peace Corps were put on hiatus.

I'm talking about the soul, not of this or that volunteer, but of Peace Corps itself.

A big chunk of Peace Corps' raison d'etre, its reason for being, its soul, its day-to-day functioning, has nothing to do with "saving the world" in the best sense of that phrase.

A big chunk – maybe the most significant chunk – of Peace Corps' raison d'etre, its soul, its day-to-day functioning, is a modern, prettied up, multicultural version of "white man's burden," of "the horror, the horror." The Peace Corps I knew overseas, in several countries, and the Peace Corps I met face-to-face and had sit down talks with in the US, exists so that American arrogance can put privileged Americans in exotic situations so that they can feel superior and have colorful adventures, at the American taxpayers', and local citizens', expense – and then parlay those adventures into jobs where their arrogant cluelessness and multi-culti pretense will continue to be rewarded.

The other Peace Corps may exist, too. The idealism, the beauty, the small school built in a remote locale, the water tap in a village that never had one, the bridge, the paved road. I met one vol, Judy, who did build a water tap in a remote village that had never had one before. I met one guy, Scott, who did build a bridge.

But the "heart of darkness" Peace Corps is the bigger part of Peace Corps that I encountered.

Just a few anecdotes:

I and all other PCVs was issued a Peace Corps Volunteer's health care manual.

It wasn't enough that I followed its hygiene guidelines. I was encouraged to worship – literally to worship – the health care manual's author. He was a MacArthur "Genius Grant" winner. Our Peace Corps trainer called this man "a living saint."

I was not willing to worship a human being. Too, something about the health care manual hit me wrong. I was reprimanded for not being part of the group, not being idealistic enough, for being churlish.

In 1993, the very Peace Corps trainer, and later country director, who had insisted that I worship this health care manual's author went public with allegations that the health care manuals' author, the living saint, the MacArthur genius grant award winner, had used his status in Third World villages to have sex with boys between the ages of 12 and 16.

Another anecdote.

In PC I knew a girl – I really can't call her a woman – who came from a very privileged American family. Her ancestors had arrived, not on the Mayflower, but on a subsequent ship carrying religious dissidents from England. They were among a group who made great fortunes over two hundred years before. Her life as a member of a privileged elite was still floating on that, over two centuries later. She hired an African man to clean her house, so that she could, as she described in juicy, enthusiastic detail to me, gaze at his very black body and the articulated muscles underneath, as he, in minimal clothing (this was a very hot country) labored for her in his domestic, gender-transgressing, maid-like chores.

One man I knew told me that he "had to" sleep with an African prostitute – a desperate, impoverished village woman who did agricultural labor during the day – he paid her a piece of cloth – because "If I went back to New York, and told the guys there that I had not banged a black woman, they'd never let me live it down."

I knew more than one male PCV who left their own babies behind in the village, along with their African "wives." No vows. Just sex. And clean laundry.

This was so common there were jokes about it. A sample:

A Peace Corps volunteer is about to leave. The Village Elder calls him in. "You are leaving behind a half-white child. You need to address this matter."

The Peace Corps volunteer panics. Busted! He looks out the window and sees a flock of sheep. Amidst all that white wool, there is one black lamb. Aha, he thinks. He turns to the Village Elder, and points out the black lamb.

"If you don't tell anyone about me, I won't tell anyone about you."

The joke implies, of course, that the Village Elder has sex with sheep – and is so low he can reproduce with them. There was another famous Peace Corps story in circulation about an African woman who turned herself into a pig. This story was widely believed to be true.

There was this joke: Africans are so stupid that, during the dry season, they don't think that the river shrinks, they think that the land rises.

In Asia, I heard this one: The Neutron bomb is perfect for India. Save all the glorious architecture; get rid of the annoying Indians.

Telling these jokes was okay. Our sense of entitlement made it okay. We were heroic idealists, better than everyone else. Especially we were superior to those hopeless cases we came to save, who resisted our salvation.

The most celebrated PCV I knew, the kind who gets newspaper write-ups both in America and overseas, was a deathly cynical fulltime party animal and druggie. He knew how to milk the publicity machine just enough, yank its crank and tweak it just enough with photo-ops and free goodies brought to the village, to make a name for himself, a name he traded in for big cash prizes – a glam job with international development when his term was over.

The Peace Corps director in one country I visited was notorious among Peace Corps volunteers for feeling up every female volunteer he could get his hands on, often while his wife was at the same party. He went on to be the director of a major mulit-culti institution in Vermont.

I could go on. But you don't really need me to – just read the "Decameron" and you'll get the general idea.

Why does any of this matter? I don't know that it does. I've sat on these memories for years, never feeling any need to bring them up. If people want to believe the lies Peace Corps peddles about itself, they have my sympathy. If Peace Corps never wants to wake up to itself, there's nothing I can do about that.

The decadent partying of Peace Corps was supported by the same foundation that supported the Peace Corps' shameful treatment of rape victims. Both were supported by Peace Corps' heart of darkness.

We are idealists.

We are saving the world.

We are sacrificing a great deal to do that – we left our comfortable homes and are now relieving ourselves of parasite-riddled waste in filthy outhouses.

Because we are so idealistic, so self sacrificing, we are special. We are deserving. We are privileged. We are better than you.

Any criticism of what we do must be demonized. Thus the shameful treatment of rape victims. They were seen as casting dispersions on Peace Corps.

Me? I rented a room in this heart of darkness. I partied. I was arrogant.

What changed? I grew up. I realized that Peace Corps was lying. I saw the lies in front of my eyes.

In PCDC, in a government office, staffed by US taxpayer-funded employees, on Peace Corps' dime, I delivered a detailed report I had written with the cooperation of several volunteers in a country so dangerous the ambassador and the Marines had been evacuated – but not the PCVs. The report detailed rapes, kidnappings for ransom, stabbings, and fatal bombings. It detailed that all this danger was being risked for very little gain – teachers couldn't teach. Schools didn't run. Engineers' projects were sabotaged by locals. One community organizer had retired from the field and was slowly going mad in a hut.

The country director looked me right in the eye with a huge dollop of contempt. How dare I criticize Peace Corps? How dare I disparage its idealistic, self-sacrificing mission to save the world? I was obviously not an idealist. I could never understand. "Peace Corps will have every man, woman, and child in that village living like an American within twenty years."

Yes, those are the exact words. I did not change one syllable. Some things you never forget.

In addition to seeing what Peace Corps was doing wrong, I saw what others were doing right, including Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity, with whom I volunteered. Using cold water from an outdoor, communal pump, I hand washed lice out of the clothing of homeless, dying Hindus. The result? Cleaner clothes, and fewer lice, for homeless, dying Hindus. "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

I met Sir Edmund Hillary, who impressed me as a truly great man. He could party, too. Though in his sixties, and undertaking a strenuous trek, he drank me under the table.

His Himalayan Trust struck me as doing something that Peace Corps was not doing: real work. I met Jesuits, who were educating Third World kids, and Mennonites and other Christian missionaries. Unlike Peace Corps, they did not send lone, naïve, kids into impossible situations. They sent seasoned professionals, with full support, into hospitals and schools for real work.


What's all this got to do with Bieganski, the brute Polak stereotype, you may ask?


In Kurtz's day, you felt superior if you were a British, Victorian gentleman. In fact, E. B. Tylor, the father of anthropology, placed that very creature on the top of his evolutionary ladder.

Elites have thrown out E. B. Tylor's ladder.

Elites still feel superior.

And that sense of entitlement, of superiority, prevents them from taking a good, hard look at themselves, and their own flaws.

Bieganski and other contemptuous stereotypes facilitate that process. We don't need to confront our own racism, our own anti-Semitism, elites think. We've already fixed that problem. You can find people making statements like that in Chapter Two of "Bieganski." You can find a published author and successful scholar claiming that Americans have never killed Jews as Poles have. Have never been prejudiced against Jews as Poles have. Americans are better. Poles are worse. The heart of darkness is always out there. Not in here.

People who like resorting to the Bieganski stereotype always defend themselves thus: "I believe we need to talk openly about Polish anti-Semitism!"

Well, of course we do. Talking openly about Polish anti-Semitism is not the problem.

Rather, what is the problem is that people who have not come to terms with the bigotries and injustices of their own group using Bieganski as a way to continue to refuse to confront, and address, their own failings.

That's what I fear an essay about Polish anti-Semitism in a Peace Corps anthology might just contribute to, in however small a way. That feeling that Peace Corps volunteers and the wider Peace Corps community are a superior, entitled species who need never take stock, not of isolated incidents of personal failure, but of endemic institutional rot.

I could be wrong. I have not read the essay, or the anthology. If this essay were to mention Polish anti-Semitism in the context of the rampant elitism, exploitation, and a refusal to take a look at one's own failings that are root and branch of Peace Corps, that would be a good thing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Great American Love Story: Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey

Think this is the Great Jewish-WASP Romance? Think again. 
Anzia Yezierska, "a planet on fire rushing toward a darker star with which she must merge to complete their double destiny." Really!
John Dewey. Dead. White. Male. Source.

You can see the idealism in her eyes. Source
And you can see the idealism in his. And a bit of stubborn self-righteousness in his chin. John Dewey in 1902.

Readers cannot hope to encounter any writer nearly as passionate, or as maddening, as Anzia Yezierska. The woman explodes on the page.

And this crazily,





Polish-Jewish-American immigrant sweatshop worker and woman writer, Anzia Yezierska, loved John Dewey, wildly successful ultra-WASP, Vermonter, philosopher, Progressive, and liberal education reformer.

A married man.

Decades older than Yezierska. (She did not know the date of her birth and could not say how old she was.)





A scholar with an international reputation that lasts to this day.

Yezierska and Dewey were the proverbial fire and ice.

They never even had sex.

After a brief, initial spark, Dewey cut Yezierska off completely, refusing to so much as speak to her. She continued to obsess on her one encounter with him for the rest of her life.

Readers can wallow in one thinly fictionalized retelling of their few brief moments together in one Yezierska book after another.

It's embarrassing, really.




I can't get enough of it.


"The Bread Givers" was my first Yezierska book. I had already read all the Dead White Males one must chew through to earn a BA in English. I was so resentful of being force-fed Dead White Males – none Polish except Jozef Korzeniowski, who was packaged and sold as a great "English" author; none working class; none whose last name ended in a vowel – that it took me decades to value the Dead White Males, to realize how great they really are.

I had already read dead white females: Louisa May Alcott. Margaret Mitchell, Charlotte Bronte. Loved them all, of course.

Reading Yezierska's "The Bread Givers," I felt like I was learning to read for the first time.

I said as much to my friend, Joe Whitmeyer.

He said, no, "The Bread Givers" is not a great book.

He knew it was not because, as he said, when he and his white-collar, Ivy League, male college buddies read James Joyce, they all thought Joyce was writing about them, and no one felt that way about "The Bread Givers."

I wanted to brain and bury Joe right then and there. I may have. I have not heard from him since this incident.

That same miserable attitude prevails when it comes to academically-deigned ethnic niches in literary canons. The great American ethnic authors are "people of color;" Yezierska doesn't count – she's "white." Feh. As she might have said.

The great American Jewish twentieth century novelist? No question. Philip Roth. Male, white-collar, removed from his Galician Jewish immigrant ancestors by two comfortable suburban American generations. Never toiled in a sweatshop. Tapped for greatness while still a student – at the prestigious University of Chicago. Obsessed with his ego and his schmeckel.

English department chairs are also obsessed with their egos and their shmeckels; of course they'd grant Roth their imprimatur.

Me? I enjoyed a gossipy, tell-all memoir about Philip Roth much more than a book by Philip Roth.

Roth's shoes don't smell of manure. Yezierska's definitely do.

Anzia Yezierska is to Philip Roth as James Brown is to Barack Obama.

Yezierska's passion for justice is as – well – passionate as her hunger and thirst for true love. Anzia Yezierska did not suffer fools, or conventional, powerful "truths." She gave me one of my favorite quotes for "Bieganski." A book, really, about people who think they know Poles, but who really don't.

"'How will you set about to know the Poles? … How can Americans with their cold hearts and clear heads ever come to know people burning up with a million volatile ideas? … Who cares for the culture immigrants bring with them? They may sell the labor of their bodies. But how many get the chance to give to America the hopes in their hearts, the dreams of their minds? … [She realizes that academics' study of Poles is only a 'slumming adventure,' 'ethnic entertainment' to save the researcher 'from looking into the depths where things get complicated and unutterable'] 'You know less about the Poles than when you started out to study them … You know nothing about the heart of the Poles. Without love, what is there to write about?' (Yezierska All 37-38; 80-82; 108-09)."

Oh, Anzia. In passages like that, you make my heart go pitter pat. I feel like I've found my one, true, woman-writer Messiah.

But then you turn around and drive me crazy again!

I think she really was a little nuts. I don't mean that in a fun way.

I think Anzia Yezierska was probably obsessive compulsive, and maybe suffered from a bit of narcissistic personality disorder.

I KNOW! I know it's horrible to celebrate a Romantic from the past, someone who exhibits the kind of raw passion that is outlawed today in our Cool Is All era, and then slap a medical diagnosis on her.

But you read book after book after book by Yezierska, and you see her play out the doomed Dewey romance over and over again, and you witness her tragic inability to move on, to put things into perspective, to, perhaps, laugh at herself, and your heart breaks, and you wish you could help her. But you can't. And so you read the next book.

"Hungry Hearts: Wings" tells the story of a Jewish immigrant woman who falls head over heels in love with a cold, superior, American WASP. And their doomed romance.

God, but she could love: "I'll wash your shirts for you! If you would even only talk with me…" "I wish I were the leather holding his feet!"

"Salome of the Tenements" – could there be a better title? How about "Arrogant Begger," another by Yezierska?

"Salome of the Tenements" tells the heartbreaking story of a – you guessed it – Jewish immigrant woman who falls head over heels in love with a cold, superior, American WASP. And their doomed romance.

"I'd wrap my soul around him like a living flame."

"This girl was an electric radiance divinely formed of flesh and blood."

"Her abandon, her nakedness, staggered him. The product of generations of Puritans, he retreated into his shell."

She responds: "His dead ancestors, his rigid training, prevented him from being warm and spontaneous. 'You live too much inside your head! Too much ashes from book learning is choking up your natural feelings!' This man was bound in with centuries of natural inhibitions it would take cataclysmic love to break down."

WASPS, she decides, "hold in their feelings like they hold little dogs on chains. They do tricks with them all day long."

"I am a flame of longing. A soul consumed with hunger for heights beyond reach. I am the ache of unvoiced dreams, the clamor of suppressed desires. I am the unlived lives of generations stifled in Siberian prisons. I am the urge of the ages for the free, the beautiful that never was on land or sea."

"And I am a Puritan whose fathers were afraid to trust. We are bound by our possessions of property, knowledge, and tradition."

Frustration is inevitable.

Her frustration with him: "Always at arm's length. Always cased in ice. So you can never touch them. Never get near them. I never know what goes on in his head. But everybody can tell what's going on inside of me. I'm naked and helpless as a child just born. The blood rushes to my face and betrays me every time I look at him."

And his frustration with her: "He instinctively recoiled at this outburst of demonstrativeness. The whole gamut of the Russian Jew – the pendulum swinging from abject servility to boldest aggressiveness."

To him, she is only a specimen: "his was the enthusiasm of the scientist for the specimen of his experimentation, of the sculptor for the clay that would take form under this touch. Her lack of contact with Americanizing agencies appalled him."

And, so, she got over him – at the end of the story. And then she took a break before moving on to the next story, in which she would fall in love with him all over again, and they would recoil from each other again – from exactly those qualities that first attracted them to each other – and then get over him. Until the next book.


Yezierska is worth talking about not just because she is Yezierska. She tells, not just the story of Yezierska and Dewey, but of passion and rationality, of immigrants and Americans, of outsiders and insiders, of youth and age.

How about Jews and Gentiles? I don't see it that way. Yezierska is every bit as much Polish as she is Jewish; see her quote, above, standing up for the Poles in what she saw as Dewey and other social scientists' snobbish dehumanization of them.

Put Yezierska in a "Jewish" box with Philip Roth, more than in the "Polish" or "immigrant" box? I don't see it. They would, simply, hate each other.

Make it "easier" – Jewish women who were her contemporaries? Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein? What did Parker, nee Rothschild, born in her family's oceanfront summerhouse, have in common with Yezierska, a girl who didn't know her own birth year, never mind her birth date, and grew up milking cows and yearning to read and write?

Gertrude Stein's "a rose is a rose is a rose" is cool. Yezierska was NEVER cool. She was never Paris, either, unlike Stein, who spent years there rubbing shoulders with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yezierska probably would have eventually punched Ernest Hemingway, and probably knocked him out.

Don't misunderstand – Yezierska is certainly, proudly, wildly Jewish. But her yearning for Dewey was more about a passionate, uneducated and poor immigrant yearning for a cool, rational, successful professor, rather than a Jewish woman yearning for a Gentile man. She says as much herself. It's always his coolness, his success, his scholarship, she craves. It's never his non-Jewishness she yearns for.

My students and I discussed Yezierska and Dewey in class. New Jersey is wildly diverse, and so are my classes. My students are immigrants themselves, and children of immigrants.

I think they held their noses when reading of Yezierska and Dewey's messy and pointless passion. "She's trying to hard."

"He's a player."

None of my students seemed to get what seemed horribly, tragically, wonderful obvious to me – that neither Yezierska nor Dewey was acting in a calculating fashion. They were both simply overwhelmed.

Overwhelm – do we still have that delicious, tear-jerking fate in our sensory overload world?

Philip Roth is to Anzia Yezierska as James Brown is to Barack Obama. 
Anzia Yezierska. Read her. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

"Das Boot": Moral Relativism, Macho Grunge, Boredom, and Disgust

Universally acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made

Jurgen Prochnow, Das Boot's handsome, "openly anti-Nazi" captain. 

So the other night, I overcame thirty years of resistance and putting-it-off and finally sat down with the tooth-gritted intention of watching "Das Boot," Wolfgang Peterson's 1981 U-boat movie.

"Das Boot" is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.

I have never wanted to see it but have long felt that I should. I should see it because I'm a film fan and these movies that are universally acclaimed as among the greatest films ever made are our homework.

Really – we punish each other when we have not done our homework. Karen, one of my film fan friends, every time she sees me, and I mean EVERY TIME, and we see each other every couple of weeks, in the middle of our conversation, will stop, assume a school teachery look, squint her eyes, point her finger, and ask, "Have you seen it yet?"

"No," I say. Depending on my mood, I say this truculently, defiantly, coyly, ashamed. The "it" in question is "The Godfather," another one of those films universally acclaimed as among the greatest films ever made, a movie I refuse to watch, because, a Jersey girl, I have had face-to-face encounters with Mafiosi, and they are NOTHING like the glamorized Hollywood / HBO productions you people who love "The Godfather" and "The Sopranos" fantasize that they are. Mafiosi are ugly, unromantic, scum.

So, back to the f---ing Nazi film.

I should, of course, see "Das Boot" not just because I'm a film fan and "Das Boot" is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made. I should see "Das Boot" because I published
Bieganski, a book addressing popular cultures images of Poles, Jews, Germans – and Nazis. These images play a role in how the Holocaust is understood. Who is guilty? Who could have committed these horrible crimes? And why?

I sat through hours of repulsive trash to write that book. The Nazi propaganda film "The Eternal Jew" is a hate crime – not just against humanity, but against cinema itself – that no sentient being should ever have to endure. American author
Raymond Federman's take on Poles is not much easier to stomach.

So, yeah, I should watch "Das Boot."

I remember when it first came out. I was living in New York City and I had a lot of friends, some of them mainstream, some of them fringe-dwellers. All very interesting. It was a really hardcore fringe-dwelling cabby who most fervently recommended "Das Boot" to me. He also wanted me to see Nazi propaganda films he had gone out of his way to obtain from some underground source. "If you just watch these movies, you'll see that what you learned in school about Nazism was not all true."

Uh huh. Yeah, I think I'll pass.

Whatever Wolfgang Peterson's intentions, I have never been able to get over that association – between my weirdo cab driver friend who insisted that the Nazis were really not all that bad, and that their really cool, well-made movies was proof of that, and his affection for "Das Boot."

So, teeth in full grit position, I sat down and tried to watch "Das Boot."

I immediately realized, from the opening scene, that everything I had long feared about "Das Boot" was right there on the screen for me to see.

Nazi soldiers and sailors were just regular Joes like you and me.

And they suffered! And we, the Allies, made them suffer! And we should feel sorry for them!

Insert firebombing of Dresden here. And all those other big, bad things the big, bad Allies did: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, displacement of Germans after World War Two.



From its opening scenes, heck, even before it starts, "Das Boot" hammers that message into the viewer: Nazi sailors were just regular Joes like you and me. And they suffered, too!

A script appears onscreen before the film starts: Hitler sent out 40,000 sailors on U-boats. Fewer then 10,000 returned.

You are supposed to feel really sad. Really sad for these poor, poor Nazi sailors.

Me? "Ten thousand too many," I snort. Are there any left? Tell me where. I'll torpedo the bastard right now.

In the opening shots, the onscreen Nazis are not goose-stepping, invading Poland, torturing Jews or sieg heil-ing. They are singing songs, pulling hi-jinks, drinking beer, getting rowdy, and then, in a high spirited prank, urinating on the car carrying their commanding officer.

Just a bunch of regular Joes! Just like you and me!

Nazis just wanna have fun!

Hey, wait a second, the viewer asks. Was this really what Nazism was all about? Young colts having a good time and then some disembodied, mean force sends them out on U-boats to die? Wasn't there that little matter of … An election, in which 38 % of Germans voted for Hitler? Mass rallies, in which thousands of Germans stood at rapt attention for Hitler? Piles of archived love letters, from men and women, pledging immortal fealty to Hitler? Endless war crimes, committed by uncounted Germans, who gratuitously tortured Jews, Poles, Slovaks, Russian POWs, homosexuals … ???

Oh, yes. The film addresses that, also in the opening moments. There is a party. A beautiful woman is singing. Men are sexually harassing her. In "Das Boot," that sexual harassment of a pretty girl is a good thing. It shows that these men are – Regular Joes! Just like you and me! They just want to have fun with this pretty girl!

A man swaggers into the party. The camera follows him. He gets up on a stage. And he mocks Hitler!

See? See? I told you, these Germans are just like you and me! They didn't like Hitler, either! SO DON'T JUDGE THE GERMANS you big, bad, judgmental person! It was just this one guy, Hitler, who was really bad. Everyone else just wanted to have fun, and then they "were sent" – please note passive voice; they did not go willingly – they "were sent" out on U-boats to be killed! In their tens of thousands! By Americans, like you!

There's a similar scene aboard the U-boat, once it sets out to sea. The ruggedly handsome captain, played by Jurgen Prochnow, is, as Wikipedia puts it (it's not just me imagining all this) "openly anti-Nazi."

Handsome U-boat commander Jurgen Prochnow vehemently expresses anti-Nazi views, and protests the Nazi government sending innocent young boys out to die on U-boats. Oh, it's so poignant.

Okay, okay, the viewer thinks. Maybe these Germans were really not so bad. But were these innocent young boys on U-boats just … dying? Weren't they also … Killing? I mean, how else did U-boats get the nicknames, "grey wolves" and "wolf pack"?

The movie addresses that, too. The U-boat is shown sinking an "enemy" ship. (American? English? Populated with teenage farmboys from Arkansas who never left home before being drafted, who were sent out to defend the lives and liberty of people they never met?)

Sailors from the "enemy" ship are shown burning alive, pleading for help, jumping into the North Atlantic, and drowning.

And the regular Joes on the U-boat watch in compassion. They blame the enemy, the Americans or the Brits, for not sending rescue craft.

Really. REALLY. Compassionate Nazis watch innocent victims of their worldwide horror and feel sad because of these men's horrible deaths and blame that on Americans.

Now that's moral relativism for ya.

What else makes "Das Boot" worthy to be universally acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made?

Well, as I was watching it, I was really wishing that my old professor,
Alan Dundes, were still alive. Prof. Dundes published a book, "Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder," that argues that German culture shows evidence of anal fixation. There is, Dundes argues, simply many mentions of poop, farts, pee, and heinies in German songs, jokes, proverbs, etc. And there are a lot of poop, farts, pee, and heinies in "Das Boot." My aesthetic life was not enhanced by watching a naked German buttocks fill my screen. Not the first time or any time after that.

All these references to the nether regions of the human body have one intention, seamless with the intent of the rest of the film: See? The Germans were just regular guys like you and me. We have heinies; they have heinies. Here is photographic evidence! We all want to have fun with our heinies!

Wolfgang Peterson should read Alan Dundes. Dundes argues, in "Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder," that there is such a thing as German national character. That it manifests in all these heinie references. And at Auschwitz. But I digress.

Full disclosure: I never made it through "Das Boot." The film was so amateurish in its obvious propaganda that I just couldn't get past not so much my own offense, but my boredom. I'll watch a compelling, offensive movie, but never a boring, offensive movie. Indeed, the negative reviews of "Das Boot" at the International Movie Database mention boredom as the reason the reviewer gave the film a low score. I watched about half an hour, and then watched fan-posted clips on "Youtube," including one immodestly titled "best movie scene ever." (Not.)

The highest-rated reviews for "Das Boot" at the International Movie Database agree: "Das Boot" is a great film because it makes you root for, sympathize with, and pity Nazis. Quotes from four actual reviews; many more reviews expressing the exact same sentiments could be quoted:

"What impresses me the most about the film, as the title makes apparent, is that it's a German made film about a German U-boat. Patriotism for my own country would tend to make me hate the crew on this ship by definition (especially if portrayed as typical mindless killing machine Nazis), but these characters are so well developed and played like human-beings facing difficult decisions that I find myself sympathizing with these guys."

"This is a very rare portrayal of battle through the eyes of our enemy and will actually have you cheering for the 'bad guys'"

"You sympathize with the crew, and FEEL their plight as they struggle, cramped in a rickety U-boat against the odds…to make you feel like you are trapped in an underwater coffin with nothing to do, nowhere to go"

"To see a film that showed 'the enemy' as human beings, with hopes, fears and dreams… As i grew up i began to understand more about the second world war and was able to make up my own mind as to whether the 'evil Nazis' were all that the cinema portrayed them to be."

And there you have it. The word "evil" in quotes. Because the Nazis really weren't all that evil. Moral relativism.

There was a great deal of evil during World War Two. Who is responsible? Read "Bieganski" for clues.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fate? Chance? God? Or ... ???

Boys in Whitstable Town, England. Noboyuki Tagaguchi source


It was the thirties in Poland – the tense prewar years – and relations between Jews and gentiles had already become strained.

But my father – five years old and already an iconoclast – refused to surrender to the fear and suspicion that began to envelop his town. Even at five, he was possessed of a free spirit and a genuinely loving one as well, so he continued his friendships with non-Jewish children, despite the temper of the time.

There was one particular young boy my father was especially friendly with, and, as all young children are wont to do, they swapped things. Toys, foreign stamps, stories, jokes. One day, on an unusual display of ecumenism, they playfully decided to swap prayers.

"You teach me a Jewish prayer, and I'll teach you a Christian one," proposed the Polish lad one day. In their sweet, trusting innocence, both thought it would b e fun. They had no idea how horrified their respective parents would have been had they learned what their children planned.

Their repertoires were, understandably, limited, so they both chose important prayers, cornerstones of their respective faiths.

"Let's memorize them!" the Polish lad exclaimed.

And so they did.

Then years passed, and everything changed.

By then, most of the Jews of the shtetl had been transported to ghettoes or concentration camps or were long dead.

My rather, now fifteen and orphaned, was fleeing Europe, disguised as a Gentile, aided by his Germanic facial features and forged documents. So far, he had been successful in eluding the Nazis.

One day, he was on a train when a Nazi soldier boarded his car and demanded to see everyone's papers. He scrutinized every document intently, and seemed satisfied. Then he approached my father. My father handed him his forged documents, which had always passed muster. But for some reason, this particular Nazi was suspicious. He inspected the documents over and over again and regarded my rather with narrowed eyes that flashed skepticism. Inside, my father was trembling badly. He was sure the Nazi knew him for the imposter that he was that he would soon be killed.

Finally, the Nazi turned to him and said with a contemptuous sneer, "So, you are a Christian, my friend? Well, just to prove that you are who you say you are, why don't you recite, right now, here on the spot, such and such Christian prayer that all good Christians know!"

And the solider smiled in glee, waiting to pounce on his obvious prey.

But somewhere inside my father, a long-buried memory stirred. So he obliged the soldier, reciting the prayer perfectly. The soldier, surprised, let him go, never knowing that the Christian prayer he had asked my father to recite was the only one he knew.

For the prayer that the soldier had demanded my father recite was the same prayer that his little Christian friend had taught him ten years before and insisted the he memorize.

And my father, who had an excellent memory, hadn't forgotten a single word.

My father continued to flee across Europe, and made it onto a boast to Palestine. He survived the war and rebuilt his life. And, as one of his enduring legacies, he taught his children to respect all human beings, regardless of race, religion, or creed.

After all, it was the friendship of a young Christian boy that had ultimately saved his life.

From: Small Miracles of Love and Friendship: Remarkable Coincidences of Warmth and Devotion.

Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal. Adams Media Corporation: Holbrook, Massachusetts, 1999. 

Available through Amazon

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9-11 Terror Attacks; One Polish-American Responds

Freedom Fighter; Creator of Great Art

Porn fan

A Salute to Empty Hands

"Shall I inform you upon whom the devils descend?
As to the poets, those who go astray follow them." (The Koran, 26:221-4)

"The enemy is in the house…Oh God, do You exist? You do and yet You
do not avenge. - Have You not had enough of Moscow's crimes - or - or are
You Yourself a Muscovite? I here, useless! And I here empty-handed.
At times I can only groan, suffer, and pour out my despair at my piano!"
from Chopin's diary, at the time of the November Uprising.

I was always picked last in gym.
I do not know how to kill a man with my bare hands.
When my other cheek is turned,
it's toward a screwball comedy.

Fascists churn out gripping visuals:
Nuremberg, September 11. 
The black box records his final words:
"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Allah."

Only iron discipline turns the head away.
I exercise what gym class never taught me:
the discipline beauty demands. 

"Poetry after Auschwitz"? You betcha.
Absent poetry, we couldn't pronounce the word.
We couldn't move but for collisions
on sterile sand sucking spilled human blood. 

That runt consumptive Polak, Chopin,
wanted to fight.  His friends laughed.
So he placed wine corks between his fingers every night
to stretch them apart, to play.

Europe said: "Such beautiful music; these people should be free."
Thank you. But you are fickle, and will forget.
We do not: "Live as if you are free," our pope said.
And we do, at the piano, on the page, and in the heart.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

America Embraces the Axis: "A Majority of One" 1961 Rosalind Russell and Alec Guinness

Which of the above photos constitutes propaganda?

"A Majority of One" is a genuinely bad movie, but it's hard not to feel affection for it. It's one of those last gasps of Golden Age Hollywood. It stars classic film star Rosalind Russell as Mrs. Jacoby, a Jewish widow, and Alec Guinness as Mr. Asano, a Japanese businessman, who meet and fall in love after World War Two. Here are two Golden Age stars doing their Golden Age thing: playing ethnic minorities in a stereotyped manner just short of minstrelsy.

The film was made in 1961, and a new Hollywood was aborning, one in which the old-fashioned star system was dying, and it would become taboo for a British actor to play a Japanese man by altering his eyelids with make-up and prosthetics. Rosalind Russell was Irish Catholic and her Yiddishe Mama causes protest today.

On the International Movie Database discussion board for the film, posters protest that it is wrong, wrong, wrong, for a white man to play a Japanese. There is similar, but less, protest against a Catholic playing a Jew. Because this is so wrong, posters insist, they will boycott the film and they will refuse the film their willing suspension of disbelief.

Aesthetically, this politically correct change is a tragedy. We don't go to see "Swan Lake" hoping to see real swans onstage. We go to see "Swan Lake" exactly so that we can see ballet dancers evoking swans with their powerful, practiced ballet moves.

I love "Majority of One," in spite of its heavy-handed preaching and overt propaganda, because I love seeing classic film star Alec Guinness evoking a Japanese man with his speech, hand gestures, and body language. I also warmly appreciate Rosalind Russell's salute to Jewish mothers.

"A Majority of One" is a preachy movie. It hammers into audiences: "We must forget the hard feelings generated by World War Two. We must not be bigoted, not against Black people moving into formerly Jewish New York neighborhoods, and we must not be bigoted against the Japs we fought during World War Two."

All cultures are different, the movie tells us, but those differences are just superficial. As they become acquainted, Mr. Asano, the Japanese millionaire, and Mrs. Jacoby, the Jewish widow, mention aspects of their respective cultures that, at first, seem different, but, after a few sentences of comparison, come out exactly the same.

For example, Japanese people worship in shrines; Jewish people worship by blessing Sabbath candles – ultimately, "God's house is God's house," as Mrs. Jacoby says after being invited to a Japanese shrine. Japanese people eat raw fish; Jewish people eat gefilte fish. Japanese people toast with "Kanpai" and Jews say "L'Chaim."

Japanese have a fall festival – Shubun no hi – "We decorate our houses with grains and fruits of the earth." So do Jews! "We do the same! We have a sukkah. A little hut we build. We put on grapes and apples." "It sounds enchanting. I hope you invite me to one of your festivals."

Jews put up with a lot: "Whatever comes into your life you take." So do Japanese: "You transcend. It's the philosophy of the Zen Buddhists." "You mean, if you have tsouris – trouble – you come out of it a better person if you live through it." "Obviously you have studied Zen Buddhism … Kvelling would make an excellent addition to the Japanese vocabulary."

Japanese people wear kimonos and listen to "Sakura." Jewish people wear dowdy dresses – but can look very fetching in borrowed kimonos when their dresses conveniently get wet in the rain.

Yes, SOME Japanese people did bad things during World War Two. Mrs. Jacoby's son was an American soldier killed by the Japanese. But Mrs. Jacoby learns her lesson. She learns to forgive and embrace – literally – a Japanese man.

"A Majority of One" opens with a revolving globe made up of vertical stripes of dull colors. "It's a Small World After All!" the Warner Brothers logo appears over the globe. Two bronze busts appear: one of Mrs. Jacoby (Rosalind Russell), one of Koichi Asano (Alec Guinness). Bronze busts! This movie takes itself very seriously. Then two hands appear – one is reaching down, from above. One is reaching up, from below. They never actually touch.

The film opens with Mrs. Jacoby's fat, slutty, and obnoxious neighbor, who, on a visit, is eating too many of Mrs. Jacoby's chocolates. The bad neighbor complains about Blacks moving into their previously Jewish, New York City neighborhood.

Jerome is Mrs. Jacoby's son-in-law. He is young, he is modern, and he will have nothing of bigotry! Jerome lectures the bad, fat, older neighbor against bigotry.

Jerome has been assigned to work in Japan. Mrs. Jacoby will travel there with her daughter and son-in-law.

One of the most poignant scenes in the movie shows an American Airlines plane taking off, and Mrs. Jacoby listening to the very beautiful uniformed stewardesses talking about oxygen masks. These were the days when flying was special, a little scary, and very elegant. There is even space between airplane seats! Sigh. Those were the days.

While traveling to Japan from California on a cruise ship, Mrs. Jacoby meets Mr. Asano. (They never refer to each other by first names.) Mr. Asano is painstakingly polite to Mrs. Jacoby, but she is brusque and rude to him. Finally, in a very un-Japanese manner, Mr. Asano confronts Mrs. Jacoby.

"You take this attitude because I am Japanese?"

"Yes, because of my son."

"He was in some way affected by the war?"

She is disgusted by this polite circumlocution. "He was in some way affected." She quotes the telegram she received from the government. Her son was killed.

Mr. Asano will not be outdone in the poignancy department. He tells Mrs. Jacoby that his son was killed by the American military and that his daughter – pause for tears – he really does pause – was a nurse in Hiroshima.

Ah, so it is all relative. Americans suffered in the war. Japanese suffered in the war. It's no different, right? But, wait, didn't the Japanese actually start the war? Mrs. Jacoby says,

"All because you and Mr. Hitler wanted to run the world."

"My wife and I did not so wish Mrs. Jacoby. Nor our son nor our daughter nor anybody we knew. What most of us wished for was a happy and peaceful existence with the flowers, the moon and the sunshine. Is that so very different from what you wished, Mrs. Jacoby?"

Through tears, she responds, "No."

"Then, shall we start again?" Asano asks. "How do you do?" he asks, as if they were meeting for the first time.

She responds, "How do you do?" and, overcome by tears, she walks away.

Later, her son-in-law says to Mr. Asano, "I think she does understand a little now."

Asano won't be outdone in the graciousness department. "You mother-in-law has every justification to hate us. I wonder which is worse – war or its aftermath?"

Mr. Asano could not be a nicer guy. He's a saint, really.

Later, on deck, Mr. Asano sneezes. Mrs. Jacoby springs into action. She has cough drops. She has medical advice. She takes Mr. Asano under her wing. She is a Jewish mother, after all! Their romance begins.

Mr. Asano and Mrs. Jacoby dance on the ship's deck. Alice, Mrs. Jacoby's daughter, witnesses this. She and Jerome are horrified. They object and refuse Mrs. Jacoby permission to continue this affair. Again, the movie is hammering home a lesson: Jerome had been very adamant and self-righteous, earlier, when lecturing the bad neighbor about her anti-black bigotry. Now the self-righteous, modern young man is revealed to be a bigot – against Japanese. He can't stand the sight of his Jewish mother-in-law in the arms of a Japanese man.

It becomes Mrs. Jacoby's turn to lecture, and she does. You talked to me about bigotry! She remonstrates.

Here's the weird thing – the movie lectures its audience about what a bad thing bigotry is, but the movie itself is bigoted.

Hollywood would not allow a real, live Japanese actor play a real, live Japanese character. And even Jack Warner, Jewish himself, would not allow a real, live Jewish actress to play a Jewish character. Don't get me wrong – Alec Guinness is great in his part, and Rosalind Russell, in her own way, is marvelous. But the racism that mandated that they had to take these roles is despicable.

Gertrude Berg, who really was Jewish, won the Tony award as Mrs. Jacoby on Broadway.

Mr. Asano and Mrs. Jacoby never refer to each other by their first names. They never touch in a way that could be interpreted as exhibiting any warmth or intimacy. Even when they dance, they dance with the stiff caution of ten-year-olds in their first formal dance class. This could be a romance about two people in their own isolation booths. The movie says, "Shame on you!" to Alice and Jerome for begrudging Asano and Mrs. Jacoby their affair, but the movie itself won't let them develop their affair.

Thus, even though it lectures against bigotry, "A Majority of One" is part of a longstanding Hollywood tradition that demands that love between Caucasians and Asians be handled gingerly at best.

1915's "The Cheat" starred Sessue Hayakawa as an Asian man who attempted to possess a white woman, Fannie Ward (the name is really too perfect.) It ends badly for all. 1919's "Broken Blossoms," or "The Yellow Man and the Girl" ends with death. 1933's "Bitter Tea of General Yen" ends with death. 1958's "South Pacific"'s white-Asian romance ends with death, in 1960's "The World of Suzie Wong" Suzie's child dies, in "The King and I" the King dies, 1955's "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" ends with the death of one of the leads… you get the idea. Asian-white romances are trouble, and the only way films could resolve them was by killing someone off. At least "A Majority of One" never kills anyone off. But it never lets Jacoby and Asano kiss.

The movie does its work, though. It tells audiences that Japanese people are just like us, and we must embrace them.

Problem: Just twenty short years before the film was made. Japanese people were committing atrocities every bit as horrific as those committed by the Nazis at their worst. Japanese doctors, for example, committed unspeakable crimes against Chinese prisoners of war – and those torturers lived out their natural life-spans in Japan after the war. They never faced justice in anything like a Nuremberg Trial. Japanese soldiers made life on earth hell for Korean comfort women. Japan has refused to apologize. Japanese leaders still worship at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

Hey, but, that's all okay. Because average Japanese people are just like average Jewish people.

In short, "A Majority of One," a film I can't help but like, does the same propaganda work as "
Decision Before Dawn."

One can argue about whether the agenda of these films – insisting that America must forgive and forget its erstwhile Axis enemies – is moral or immoral.

The point is, though, that World War Two's atrocities generated epic amounts of grief, rage, and disgust. That grief, rage, and disgust needed a target. America worked hard to exculpate Germany and Japan. For too many audiences, the target is now
Bieganski, the Brute Polak.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

MBB Biskupski's "Hollywood's War with Poland 1939-1945."

This review first appeared on John Guzlowski's "Writing the Polish Diaspora" blog, here.

MBB Biskupski's "Hollywood's War with Poland: 1939-1945" is a must-buy, must-read and must-keep book for several audiences. Twenty-first century American citizens seeking insight into ethnic jockeying for power will want to read this book. Conspiracy theorists fascinated by the ability of popular culture to twist human minds will find support for their most Orwellian nightmares. Polish Americans who care about the abysmal position of Polonia in the arts, politics, journalism and academia will buy, read, and reread it. Biskupski's style is straightforward, without academic or aesthetic flourishes. The average reader will have no problem.

HWWP is an essential resource that proves, beyond any question, that powerful people, prompted by geopolitical competition and deep hostility worked hard to sully the image of Poles, Polish-Americans, and Poland. They did this during World War II, when Poland was playing a key historical role. World War II began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Nazis located notorious death camps like Auschwitz in Poland; Poland is an essential site of the Holocaust. As part of its treaty with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union invaded as well, and Poland would be central to the Cold War. In short, when Poland was being crucified by two of the most murderous regimes in world history, Hollywood, with US government supervision and approval, did everything it could to convince its audiences that Poles were unworthy of support or even concern – in fact, Hollywood told its audiences that the Poles were deeply flawed people who probably deserved everything they got. This is the Big Lie writ with lightning – not by Goebbels, but by Washington and Hollywood.

HWWP provides another important service for anyone who studies ethnicity in America. Powerful forces in academia, politics, journalism and popular culture have insisted that the American ethnic landscape is literally black-and-white: poor and oppressed blacks struggle against privileged and powerful whites for their piece of the American pie. Perhaps the most notorious and resented example of this worldview are those check-off boxes that ask scholarship applicants and academic job candidates to identify as several different varieties of "persons of color" while offering only one choice for "white" people. In fact the black-white myth has never reflected reality, and American whites have come in varieties of rich and poor, powerful and disempowered. HWWP depicts Polish-Americans as the utterly disempowered, fecklessly looking on while their ancestral homeland was ruined and their ethnicity was degraded.

Film fans may scoff at the very title of "Hollywood's War with Poland." Hollywood simply did not make many memorable films that feature Polish or Polish-American characters in leading roles. 1939 is known as Hollywood's annus mirabilis. "Gone with the Wind," "Wizard of Oz," "Stagecoach," "Ninotchka," and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" were all in theaters that year, and a Pole is only mentioned in passing in one of these films: as screen goddess' Greta Garbo's lover in "Ninotchka." Perhaps the most famous Hollywood production that was made, and takes place, during World War II is "Casablanca," and there are no Poles in that. The most celebrated film about post-war America is 1946's "The Best Years of Our Lives." In that film, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) a veteran suffering from PTSD, has a nightmarish flashback of combat. In a panic, he speaks of trying to save Gadorsky, a fellow soldier. In another scene, a poor and uneducated, but stalwart and worthy, war veteran and Slavic American, Novak, applies for, and receives, a bank loan to make a new start for himself. The film teaches audiences to like inarticulate working men like Novak.

HWWP acknowledges that Hollywood made few memorable films with identifiable Polish characters. The book focuses instead on movies little seen or discussed today. Biskupski argues that moviegoers of sixty years ago attended many films, not just major productions, but B movies, serials, and government propaganda films as well. These include two forgotten romance films: 1935's "The Wedding Night," and 1944's "In Our Time," and two more overtly propagandistic films: 1943's "Mission to Moscow" and "The Nazis Strike." As Biskupski shows, in these films and many others, negative Polish characters abound. These characters are not negative in a random way; rather, their distastefulness fits a pattern, one Biskupski outlines again and again and again. Through reference to changing versions of pre-production scripts and inter-office memos, often between representatives of Washington and Hollywood, Biskupski demonstrates that distasteful Poles are the products of careful planning. Polish aristocrats are ineffectual, selfish, fascists. Polish peasants and working people are thuggish, sexually coarse, stupid. In short, this is the Bieganski stereotype.

This negative stereotype, Biskupski argues, didn't come about purely by chance. Two factors developed and honed it. The United States was at war with Nazi Germany and wanted the Soviets to keep fighting on the Eastern Front lest a separate peace would allow Nazis to devote all their power to fighting Americans on an eventual Western Front. Of all nations, Poland presented the politician, the historian, the filmmaker and the ethicist with a quandary. Poland was invaded by both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia in September 1939. To this day, the debate continues: who was worse, Hitler or Stalin? No one has the definitive answer. To Roosevelt, though, the answer was clear; America needed to ally with Stalin. Problem: Communist Russia was held in low regard by Americans. The Red Scare of 1919-1920, when America expressed hate and fear of communists and communism, had not occurred all that long before 1939, when World War II began. Americans, who had learned to hate and fear Russians and communism during the Red Scare, needed to be manipulated into embracing their new Soviet ally. Washington directed Hollywood to bring about this dramatic transformation of American hearts and minds. Washington demanded, and got, films celebrating the Soviet Union.

Hollywood enthusiastically embraced Washington's commission. A good percentage of Hollywood's screenwriters, actors, and other movers and shakers were leftists, if not card-carrying members of the Communist Party. To convince Americans that defeating Hitler was worth American blood and treasure, and that the Soviets were a worthy ally, Americans needed to be educated about Hitler's evil, and the Soviets' benignity. This narrative would be a tough sell: the Soviets had been the Nazis' ally just a few short years before the US entered the war, and had signed the August, 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. The Nazis invaded Poland, a bad thing, but the Soviets had invaded as well, and they also had invaded Finland. Nazis mass-murdered and exiled Poles; Soviets mass-murdered and exiled Poles. Nazis demanded other countries' territory; Soviets demanded Polish and Finnish territory. With alacrity, and with adherence to the concept that truth is of value only in so far as it advances the revolution, Hollywood screenwriters did the work of Soviet propagandists. There was no depth to which they would not sink in their insistence on exculpating Mother Russia. Hollywood devised films that depicted the tragic victims of Stalin's purges and show trials as guilty and worthy of the death penalty. Hollywood worked to justify the Hitler-Stalin pact. Hollywood assured its audiences that the Soviet invasion of Poland was a good thing. Are you reaching for your Orwell yet? And your Dramamine?

In the past, Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union fought over territory. Today ethnic groups fight over another commodity: the right to speak of one's own victimization, both in terms of actual body counts and in terms of the cultural victimization that results from negative stereotyping. Poles and Polish Americans are mocked and trivialized when they attempt to speak of their victimization. This happens in staff meetings on university campuses, in the press, and in seminal books. Just one example: James Carroll's very important 2001 book "Constantine's Sword," about Catholic anti-Semitism, describes Poles as being "particularly inclined to define" themselves as victims, in contrast to Jews, who actually do suffer. Art Speigelman justified depicting Poles as pigs in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning comic book "Maus," by saying that "the afflicted" – those who have suffered – understand his work. Poles have not suffered, in this view, and so their opinions don't count. In 2003, Bozenna Urbanowicz Gilbride, who had been in two Nazi camps, and whose mother had also been in two Nazi camps, was told she could no longer refer to herself as a Holocaust survivor because she is not Jewish. These and other dismissals of Polish suffering are strategic. At a meeting at Indiana University, an African American university official told me that he works against public acknowledgement of women's and homosexual's status as victimized groups. Why, I asked, stunned. Because if we acknowledge women and homosexuals as victims, he said, money will flow from programs for African Americans toward programs for women and homosexuals. Status as victim equals justified recipient of commodities, from cash to respect to scholarly attention and placement in curricula. Thus, it is important to belittle any discussion of Poles as victims of stereotyping. Acknowledgement of Polish suffering would require rearrangements of thought patterns, of attention, and of resources. Thus the importance of Biskupski's book.

HWWP is not perfect. Again and again, Biskupski insists that America just did not care about Poland or Poles. As "Bieganski" shows, America was obsessed with Poles and Poland, and America violated its own best traditions in passing the Quota Acts while citing the danger of immigration of people like the Poles. Congressional testimony, articles in the popular press, including the Saturday Evening Post, the New York Times and Atlantic Monthly, and foundational anthropological publications cite the Poles as the very reason America needed to shut its borders. The SAT test, a rite-of-passage for American youth, was first promoted as a test that proved the intellectual inferiority of Poles. This obsession with Poles gave rise to that American cultural icon, the Polak joke. Biskupski never situates his discussion of the brute Polak in American films in relation to America's primary ethnic conflict, that between blacks and whites. Doing so would have offered insight. Poles are the prototypical poor white ethnic. They are the wretched of the earth it is okay for elites to hate, even while embracing African Americans, and using that embrace as a badge of liberalism.

Biskupski insists on the distinction between, for example, a Polish American and a Slovak American in an American movie. Biskupski bristles at the word "Bohunk," suggesting that it arises only from American ignorance about and hostility to Eastern Europeans. In fact, the word "Bohunk," and the concept it describes, makes perfect sense in the American context. Poles, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Hungarians, and Yugoslavs shared similar cultural traits in the old country, and occupied similar socioeconomic niches in this country. Two immigration classics: "The Jungle," about a Lithuanian meat packer in Chicago, and "Out of this Furnace," about a Slovak steel worker near Pittsburgh, could just as easily have been written about Poles. Biskupski argues that Victor Laszlo in "Casablanca" had to have been Czech because Czechoslovakia had no territorial grievances with the Soviet Union, while Poland did. Question: Did American audiences make this distinction? Did they care? As Christopher in the television series "The Sopranos" put it, "Czechoslovakian? That's a type of Polak, right?" Scholar Michael Novak, a Slovak American, complains that people tell him Polak jokes; they see those jokes as being about him. This blurring of boundaries does not occur strictly on this side of the Atlantic; poet Adam Mickiewicz began "Pan Tadeusz," Poland's national epic, with lines praising Lithuania, and the Polish folk hero, Janosik, was actually Slovak; Queen Jadwiga grew up in Hungary. Just so, in American films, characters slide between Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, and other Bohunk identities. This book would be of interest to scholars of a variety of Bohunk ethnicities, not just Poles.

The American concept of the Bohunk is significant to American stereotypes of Poles and other Eastern Europeans and the use of films to disseminate and reinforce these stereotypes. In fact an iconic Hollywood production did introduce American audiences to indelible images of Eastern Europe, and that film, more influential than perhaps any Biskupski discusses save "Casablanca," is the 1931 Bela Lugosi film "Dracula." This film opens to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and peasants repeatedly blessing themselves and invoking the Virgin; there is a roadside cross; a peasant woman gives a British man a crucifix as protection. A British tourist comments that the setting is a relic of "a bygone age." Peasants in authentic costumes, including embroidery, vests, shawls, caps and headscarves are shown in a typical, Eastern European cottage, complete with straw roof. You may as well be in a Skansen. "Dracula," and Maria Ouspenskaya's heavily accented presence in subsequent Wolfman films, communicate loud and clear to American audiences: if you're looking for the scary dark side, the vaguely demonic, the dangerous, the primitive, the irrational, the creepily religious, the superstitious, the sexually perverse, the grotesque, the medieval, Eastern Europe is your go-to location. To this day, every Halloween, Americans wishing to communicate these qualities imitate a vaguely Eastern European accent.

Biskupski devotes no time to an ethnography of audience reception – how did pro-Soviet, anti-Polish films go down with American audiences? With brief references to opinion polls, Biskupski says that these films went down exactly as the filmmakers intended. Todd Bennet, in his article, "Culture, Power, and Mission to Moscow: Film and Soviet American Relations During World War II" argues otherwise. Bennet reports that Americans were often unconvinced, if not outright offended, by pro-Soviet material in American films. There was even a backlash. Significantly, one letter-writer to Warner Brothers studios insulted Harry Warner for being foreign born, and, thus, in league with the Russians. Warner was born in Poland. The American letter-writer apparently could not distinguish between Poles and Russians.

Biskupski's narrow focus on the influence of Hollywood's pro-Soviet Communist Party does not allow for a discussion as to why the Brute Polak image was popular before World War II, after World War II, in print, for example in Nelson Algren's books, or in European films. Andrzej Wajda's "Promised Land" features a Polish aristocrat worse than any to appear in a Hollywood film, and coarse peasants as well. The 1999 Polish film, "With Fire and Sword," features peasants who are drunken, violent torturers and thieves. There are hopelessly stupid and crude peasants in the Czech films "Zelary" and "The Cow," a lengthy scene of cat torture in the critically acclaimed 1994 film "Satantango" set in a Hungarian village, and comically stupid, sexually debased, criminal, violent, and lusty Yugoslav immigrants in the 1981 Swedish film, "Montenegro." In short, Biskupski is correct, and he proves himself correct; communism did inspire Hollywood screenwriters to craft negative Polish characters in World War II era films. But there's more to it than that, and that's why I hope readers will read HWWP and "Bieganski" together. "Bieganski" talks in greater detail about the narratological reasons why storytellers, both on the page and on the screen, often choose to depict Bohunks as brutes.

HWWP's cut-and-dried approach allows little attention to the magic or artistry of film. Biskupski identifies Hedy Lamarr, not Greta Garbo, as the eponymous star of "Ninotchka" (244). No classic film fan would ever make this gaffe; it's like confusing Joe DiMaggio with Vince Lombardi. This is more than a surface complaint. Biskupski rightly argues against a Czech being the leader of the resistance in "Casablanca." At the same time, "Casablanca" is such an overt Hollywood confection that one wonders if anyone has ever viewed it and come away with a sense that the Poles were not doing their part to fight the Nazis, while the Czechs were. Aesthetics affects reception. I've watched "Casablanca" numerous times. I am as much of a nationalist Polish viewer as that film has never had. Yet I've never watched "Casablanca" and had a problem with Laszlo being Czech and not Polish. My attention is focused on the lighting on Ingrid Bergman's lovely face, whether Captain Renault (Claude Rains) is a good guy or a bad guy – or gay or straight – and the film's witty repartee. Biskupski makes clear that filmmakers intended to create ugly Polish characters. Whether or not filmmakers are always successful in their goals is a very different question. Bennett argues that "Mission to Moscow," intended to boost the Soviet Union in the eyes of Americans, actually boosted the US in the eyes of Soviet citizens. When the film was shown there, Russians were given a taste of what life is like in America, and they realized that capitalism was much better than their communist homeland. In any case, as a Polish historian, Biskupski makes up for his lack of film-fan sensitivity with the meticulous attention he pays to pertinent historical facts, attention that probably no film scholar would ever devote to this topic. For example, Biskupski points out the disconnect between the depiction of Polish airmen in American films and the performance of real Polish airmen in the actual Battle of Britain (280).

There is an unavoidable, controversial aspect to HWWP. Jews were overwhelmingly represented among those slandering Poles, Polish Americans, and Poland during Poland's darkest hour. Just one example: Anatole Litvak participated in creating "Why We Fight," which Biskupski excoriates as anti-Polish. Later, Litvak would make "Decision Before Dawn," a film that helped America re-embrace Germany. It's painful to contemplate a Ukrainian-born Jewish American filmmaker who helped America to see Poland in a negative light, but then helped America to exculpate Germany.

World War II was not the first time American Jews contributed to a negative American assessment of Poland. Andrzej Kapiszewski's "Conflicts Across the Atlantic: Essays on Polish-Jewish Relations in the United States During World War I and in the Interwar Years" reports that American Jews often undermined Polish efforts for its own rebirth in 1918 after over one hundred years of colonial status under Prussia, Russia, and Austria. In a typical incident, in 1914, American Jewish newspapers published an open letter alleging that "barbaric" Poland did not deserve independence. To mention this reality risks opprobrium, and, indeed, stating this risks appearing to offer support for the very sorts of hate-mongers who created World War II. When, in 1989, Cardinal Glemp mentioned that Jews had sullied Poland's reputation in the press, he was sued by Alan Dershowitz and widely denounced as a wild-eyed anti-Semite.

Silence does us no good either, though. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in any silence around Polish-Jewish relations, those with the worst intentions become the most loud. So let us state this plainly: American Jews played a significant role in contributing to highly negative images of Poland at two of Poland's most vulnerable historical moments. Now that we've said that openly, we can say the next necessary thing: it was not an essential Jewish identity that brought this about. Not all those insulting Poland were Jewish. Frank Capra, maker of "Why We Fight," was Sicilian-born and Catholic. Roosevelt was no Jew. Not all Jews were anti-Polish. In 1937, MGM, under Louis B. Mayer, released "Conquest," a film that romanticizes Poland and depicts bestial Russians hoards ravaging an elegant Polish estate; heroic Poles respond in a civilized and courageous manner. Too, Jews played a significant role in creating a positive image of Poland during the face-off between Solidarity and communism. The New York Times, under significantly Jewish leadership, published Pulitzer-prize winning, highly sympathetic coverage by journalist John Darnton. Biskupski emphasizes that filmmakers were influenced by communism, not their Jewish identity.

If Polish chauvinists are gratified by anything I've written above, I hope that this paragraph causes them to wipe the smug look off their faces. Biskupski's conclusion contains two sentences that should give every Polish American pause: By 1939, "the Poles in America had conspicuously abandoned the loyalty to the Polish cause that had distinguished their parents' generation…American Poles deserve considerable blame for their failure to defend their nationality's reputation more devotedly." And defend it they could have – Biskupski repeatedly mentions Irish Americans, who were abundantly successful in bringing about significant changes to American film, including the introduction of the Production Code, the inclusion of numerous positive Irish characters, and the plethora of positive depictions of Irish Catholic priests in American film. Biskupski mentions pressures to assimilate, poverty, and lack of education as reasons for Polish-American failures to affect the negative depictions of Poles in films. In fact, though, poor people lacking formal education have organized to make change; witness Satygraha, the Civil Rights Movement, The United Farm Workers, and, indeed, Polish American strikers who played a significant role in the 1936-37 Flint sit-down strike. Further, as my own book shows, the Bieganski image has not gotten better since World War II, but worse. Today's wealthy and comfortable Polish Americans have yet to take significant cultural, political, and academic action against this image, which, in museums, in peer-reviewed books, and in entertainment and documentary films, is used to rewrite World War II history and place Polish, Catholic peasants in the position rightfully occupied by German Nazis. Polish Americans need to act. Their first act after finishing reading this review can be to purchase "Hollywood's War with Poland," and also "Bieganski."