Sunday, October 2, 2011

"Synagogues, Jewish Schoolhouses, and Jewish Homes: All Laid to Waste and Looted by Nazis and Poles": Bieganski in a Popular, Inspirational Book

Typical Polish, Catholic Peasant in his Traditional Costume -- No, wait ... ???
Small Miracles of the Holocaust by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal
A Genuinely Well-Meaning Book

Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype, is now found in a very well-reviewed inspirational book about the Holocaust, a book written and published by an influential author whose work has been featured on hundreds of television and radio programs and taught in universities. Details below.


First, a brief introduction: What is the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype?

In the use of the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype described below, Poles, especially Polish Catholic peasants, including Polish, Catholic, peasant rescuers of Jews, are located in the historical niche properly occupied by German Nazis.

Many are shocked by this assertion and insist that it is so absurd it is not even worth considering. They write it off as some deluded Polish chauvinist's fantasy.

Others say, well, aren't Poles the world's worst anti-Semites, and weren't they the Nazis' favorite allies?

A minority of people express concern and stick around to see the evidence.

The evidence is everywhere.

"Bieganski" contains much evidence. This blog contains even more.

Bieganski, the Brute Polak is found in films, museums, popular, paperback novels, college curricula, and peer-reviewed books. Those who bring the stereotype to public attention meet sanction and condemnation.

This isn't just a concern for Poles or the other Eastern Europeans like Lithuanians similarly disparaged and ultimately demonized. This is a concern for all ethical human beings.

Holocaust and World War Two history could not be more important. We need to teach them correctly.

Experience has shown that random, one-off letters of protest to this or that institution or person who is disseminating the Bieganski stereotype accomplish nothing.

There needs to be a focused effort to eliminate this stereotype.


THE SMALL MIRACLES SERIES OF BOOKS are inspirational and beautiful. That is why I read them. Here are some of the titles in the series:

Small miracles : extraordinary coincidences from everyday life (1997)
Small miracles II : heartwarming gifts of extraordinary coincidences (1998)
Small miracles of love & friendship : remarkable coincidences of warmth and devotion (1999)
Small miracles for women : extraordinary coincidences of heart and spirit (2000)
Small miracles for the Jewish heart : extraordinary coincidences from yesterday and today (2002)
Small miracles for families : extraordinary coincidences that reaffirm our deepest ties (2003)
Changing course : women's inspiring stories of menopause, midlife, and moving forward (2004)

I very much admire Yitta Halberstam, one of the co-authors of the series of books. I've read a few of the "Small Miracles" books now, and it is obvious that Ms. Halberstam treats these books as her ministry, as her mitzvah.

Halberstam's father, a Holocaust survivor, encouraged this: "My father was thrilled to find that I was a writer, too, and he encouraged me to utilize my skills for the common good." They both wanted to make the world a better place. There could be no better response to the Holocaust. We can't save those who died in the past, but we can work to make the world we inhabit now a better, more ethical one.

That earnest, humanitarian drive shines from every page of every "Small Miracle" book I've read. It's especially remarkable given Halberstam's personal history as the child of a Holocaust survivor. She could have become bitter and hateful and exploitative. She didn't. She has dedicated her writing life to making the world a more loving, faithful, hopeful place. According to, Yitta Halberstam is one of the fifty most influential Jews in America. She has taught the Holocaust at Baruch College. Her work has been featured on hundreds of radio and television programs.


I was reading "Small Miracles of Love and Friendship" when I came across Halberstam's father's story. He was a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland. That story is here.

I am now reading "Small Miracles of the Holocaust": Extraordinary Coincidences of Faith, Hope, and Survival.

The book was well-reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Newsday, People, Belle, the Toronto Star, and a senior minister of Marble Collegiate Church.

The most helpful Amazon costumer review is headlined, "Masterpiece! One of the greatest books ever written on the Holocaust!" and reports, "For those who are educators who want to educate students about the Holocaust, this book is the best book to begin with."

The New York Daily News covered the book in its September 22, 2008 article, "New Book Highlights Holocaust Miracles," here.

The Small Miracles books treat synchronicity, beyond-chance moments when it feels like the hand of God, or a Guardian Angel, or fate, or Providence, or whatever you want to call it, reaches into a human life and alters destiny for the better.

Synchronicity: You find yourself thinking of an old friend, someone you hadn't thought of in years, and, within hours, that friend phones.

World War Two and the Holocaust are so nightmarish that one might conclude that their overwhelming, diabolical evil would obliterate any beam of light.

But if you meet enough survivors and hear their stories, or read them in print, you soon realize that synchronicity occurs even in hell-on-earth.

My own father experienced it. My dad was one of those American GIs who really did save the world. He saw heavy combat in the Pacific Theater. He had a dream that his brother, half a world away, had died. In fact, his brother had unexpectedly died.

My favorite account of Holocaust synchronicity is that of Stefanie Podgorska. Podgorska was a poor, Polish Catholic teenage villager. Her mother and brother had been taken to Nazi Germany for slave labor. Under the impossible conditions of Nazi-occupied Poland, she was taking care of a six year old sister. And she rescued thirteen Jews. At a key point, a disembodied voice told her what to do to foil Nazi plans. You can't scoff at the story of a teenage girl who singlehandedly managed to defy the Nazis. She tells you a disembodied voice told her what to do, you believe her.

"Small Miracles of the Holocaust" contains many such stories. Beyond chance events that, even in hell, seem to evidence a God, a meaning, a something beyond that which we can understand. Jewish families are reunited. Jewish men, women, and children survive. Jewish artifacts are rescued.

For that reason, I have to admire this book.

What's not to like?


"Small Miracles of the Holocaust", while recounting the most uplifting of stories, stories that everyone might benefit from reading, disseminates the Bieganski stereotype. It contributes to a revision of Holocaust and World War Two history.

In "Small Miracles" Poles and German Nazis become virtually indistinguishable. Example: "synagogues, Jewish schoolhouses and Jewish homes had all been laid waste and looted by the Nazis and the Poles" (132).

A Jewish survivor tells his story. Before the war started, this Jewish survivor, Rabbi Shapira, had encounters with a rabidly anti-Semitic Polish Catholic peasant, who later saves him. The story, below, as copied from the book:

"Rabbi Shapira often encountered a Polish peasant named Herr Mueller, a rabid anti-Semite. Whenever he would chance upon Herr Mueller tilling the soil or planting new crops, he would sing out, 'Good morning, Herr Mueller!' Stony face and grim, Herr Mueller never answered. He would turn his back on the rabbi, pretending he hadn't heard the greeting.

Rabbi Shapira was undaunted by Herr Mueller's hostile behavior. He continued to greet him effusively, every time he passed him on the road. The Nazis' rise to power sparked and inflamed the simmering hatred of other Polish peasants much like Herr Mueller…the Nazis capitalized on this hatred, counted on it, manipulating it toward their own evil ends. In Eastern Europe, the Jews of Poland were the first group to be rounded up and deported" (135).

Rabbi Shapira is rounded up. He disembarks from a cattle car. He witnesses a selection: a uniformed Nazi officer flicking a baton to the right, to the left, to determine which Jew will live and which will die."Who is this man who could so easily and dispassionately send a human being to his death for no other reason than the fact that he was Jewish?" Rabbi Shapira wonders.

"He watched as the people at the beginning of the line approached the man for inspection. Some of them averted their gaze, avoiding eye contact with the Nazi … Rabbi Shapira determined to look boldly into the Nazi's eyes, pin him with his stare, and try to make him see the human being standing before him. The line moved forward. It seemed to take only a second to condemn a man to the chimneys.

The rabbi's turn came. He started into the officer's eyes… 'Good morning, Herr Mueller,' said the Rabbi. A muscle twitched on the Nazi's face, the only hint that he had heard the rabbi speak. He paused for a heartbeat before responding, 'Good Morning Herr Rabbiner!'"

The uniformed Nazi officer, a "rabidly anti-semitic Polish peasant" named Herr Mueller, sent Rabbi Shapira to the line of those saved to do slave labor (135-6).

How even to begin to detail everything wrong with the above account?

How about with the above sentence: "In Eastern Europe, the Jews of Poland were the first group to be rounded up and deported."

Jews were not the first rounded up. The first – and last – victims of Nazi mass murder were handicapped people. "First, they came for the Jews"? No, first they came for the halt and the lame. And they were still mass killing them after they retreated from other final solutions: "The Euthanasia Program continued until the last days of World War II, expanding to include an ever wider range of victims, including geriatric patients, bombing victims, and foreign forced laborers," as the USHMM museum records on its website, linked above.

In Poland, a Nazi genocide of Polish Catholics preceded the implementation of the final solution against Jews. Auschwitz was a concentration camp for Poles before it focused on Jews.

"Herr" is a German word, not Polish. The Polish word for "sir" or "mister" is "Pan." The two words aren't even close.

"Mueller" is a German name, not a Polish one.

Nazis didn't "count on" Polish peasants – Nazis mass murdered, tortured, and ruined Polish peasants.

SS officers carried out selections. I am unaware of any Polish peasant becoming an SS officer entrusted to carry out a selection after the Nazi invasion. If I am mistaken on this, I hope someone will inform me.

Finally, this passage's insistence on associating typical peasant activities – tilling and planting – with anti-Semitism and genocide is entirely consistent with the Bieganski worldview, and utterly disgusting in its complete moral bankruptcy. 

Nazis did not "count on" Polish peasants; Nazis enslaved and murdered Polish peasants.
They are doing so, here, for fun. See here.
German Nazis: Killing. Poles: Being killed. See? Different. Source
Many more photos of Nazis' treatment of Poles here.
The passage cited above is not alone in this 272-page, inspirational book. It is part of a pattern.

Not all the passages are so egregious. In all, though, the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype is pervasive.

One of the weirdest, saddest, most predictable (to anyone who has read "Bieganski") and most telling features of this book is its treatment of Polish rescuers of Jews.

There are more Polish rescuers of Jews honored at Yad Vashem than there are from any other national group. Yet Poles faced the most impossible conditions. They themselves were targeted for enslavement and eventual genocide, as Hitler plainly stated: "I have placed my death-head formation in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language."

Rescuing Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland put the rescuer's and the rescuer's entire family at risk. Rescuers needed to, daily, feed their Jews from their own starvation rations, and not arouse suspicion by doing so. They had to dispose of waste, cover tracks in snow in winter and odors in summer. Their job was impossible, and yet they did it.

Further, no Jew was saved by just one person. Jews were saved by one person after another, by casual encounters, by organized networks. Behind every saved Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland, behind every Polish rescuer at Yad Vashem, are untold numbers of heroic individuals who did the right thing, and did so with a gun to their heads. Excellent books that document this include "Samaritans," "Secret City," and "In the Lion's Den."

"Small Miracles" doesn't much care about Polish rescuers of Jews. For the most part, they have no names. They have no personalities. They don't do anything ingenious, heroic, or creative. They have no lives outside of, at a key moment in a Jewish survivor's narrative, serving as "a peasant" who – at the risk of his or her own life – gave food, shelter, documents, or information that allowed the Jewish survivor's narrative to continue. They are only mentioned at moments in the plot when they are needed to advance the narrative.

Helen Fein gave us the famous phrase, "universe of obligation." You can find the phrase on thousands of webpages designed to teach about ethics in a post-Holocaust world. Why didn't more people save Jews? Because, this argument goes, they did not see Jews as part of their "universe of obligation."

There is also a "universe of humanization": The people one decides are fully human, fully three dimensional, fully worthy of engagement.

Polish Catholic peasants are very much not a part of many Jewish Holocaust authors "universe of humanization." We are two dimensional to them. We have no names. We are "the peasant who gave Shlomo food at just that moment so that G-d's glory could be proven."

This is just so sad. One would think that one of the primary lessons of the Holocaust for ethical people – and I have no doubt that Yitta Halberstam is someone deeply committed to ethics – would be "people are people." People have names. People have life stories. People are individual – not cardboard cut-outs.

This disregard of Polish Catholic people's full humanity and complexity is especially evident in "Small Miracles of the Holocaust" because Halberstam devotes so much energy to developing her Jewish characters in full, even in very short anecdotes – the stories in the book average between two and three pages each. In these very brief stories, we learn Jewish characters' names, favorite pastimes, strengths, successes. Halberstam follows her characters far into their futures, closing stories with the names of their future spouses, children, and grandchildren. No such attention is lavished on Polish rescuers.

An example. A Polish Catholic stood ready to rescue an entire Jewish family that planned to escape from a Nazi labor camp. At a key moment, this Pole "stepped out of the dark" (8-9) in order to take the Jews.

And … that is it.


That is the entire story, reference to, mention of, characterization of, honoring of, this Pole.

No mention of his or her name … hometown … favorite color … wife or kids or husband or grandkids or … anything.

Universe of Humanization. The people to whom you give names. The people whose feelings matter to you. The people who are more than cardboard cutouts, outlines. The people with depth, with histories, with futures.

Yitta, look at us Poles again, and invite yourself to see all these features of a full human being, that you describe so lovingly when you are talking about Jewish characters, when you look at Poles.

This dehumanization of non-Jewish characters turns up in words used for non-Jews. Gentile, the translation of the Hebrew word "goy," is, of course, a problematic term. Enough so that one website, for the Jewish Outreach Institute, includes this pledge:

"I do solemnly swear never to use the g word again - singular or plural [goy, goyim] - or any of its derivatives [goyishe] and to banish from my vocabulary shagetz and shiksa as well. Furthermore, I promise to stop and correct anyone who does so in my presence."

It's more than hypersensitivity about terms of exclusion that might cause one to object to how Halberstam uses "Christian" and "Gentile" in "Small Miracles of the Holocaust." Given how Halberstam uses these words, one would get the impression from this book that Nazism was a Christian phenomenon, and that all Gentiles were united in oppressing all Jews.

That's just not true.

Nazism was not Christian.

Non-Jews (like my father, who volunteered), who could have been innocent bystanders, gave up their comfortable lives to fight and die to defeat fascism.

Millions of non-Jews were murdered by the Nazis, including the handicapped people and Polish Catholics mentioned above. There were others, as well: Jehovah's Witnesses, Gypsies, aka Rom, Soviet POWs, etc.

When non-Jews do something bad, though, often, the word "Christian" or "Gentile" is not used. Rather, then the word "Pole" is often used.

But, it could be worse. Poles could be experience a fate worse than being ignored. In fact, in "Small Miracles of the Holocaust," they do experience a worse fate than being ignored. They become props, pawns.

"Small Miracles of the Holocaust" is probably the most popular telling of the story of Leopold Socha, an almost unbelievably heroic man. I'm not even going to attempt to summarize Socha's heroism – just read his story. Yad Vashem tells Socha's breathtaking story here.

In "Small Miracles," Polish Catholic Leopold Socha's superhuman heroism is reduced to a bombastic jerk's boast, to Socha's being a pawn in the decidedly Jewish God's hands, to a freak occurrence among the always and eternally anti-Semitic Poles.

Halberstam depicts Socha as a braggart who saved Jews only so he could brag about it (43). This is utterly implausible – no one is that desperate for praise. In any case, Socha is dead and can't refute what Halberstam felt it necessary to write about him in order to denigrate this Polish Catholic's heroism.

Halberstam devotes little ink to detailing how Polish Catholic rescuers kept Jews alive, but she devotes almost all of one page – a lot in a book of two- and three-page anecdotes – to putting words in Socha's mouth, using actual quotations marks to have Socha say, paraphrase, "I once robbed Jews, and I felt guilty about it, and I'm making up for it now, because the God of Israel is making me do so."

Agency is removed from the Polish Catholic who went above and beyond the call of the heroic in a way that you or I probably never will, and located agency in the God of Israel's grudge match with Polish Catholics. Just as God forced the Pharaoh to release the slaves, God forced Socha, against his own craven Polish, Jewish-victimizing nature – to rescue Jews.

Finally, the Socha account ends, not as with accounts of Jewish survivors, with an update on his child or grandchildren or any efforts to honor Socha, but with a Polish anti-Semite making an obnoxious comment at Socha's funeral. That Polish anti-Semite quite literally gets the last word. The moral is clear: Polish, Catholic Leopold Socha's heroism and love of Jewish victims of Nazism is not the main point here. The main point here is that Socha was a bad man who stole from Jews and our God made him make up for it, and they're all a bunch of stinking anti-Semites, as you can see from this one comment made at Socha's funeral. So much for inspiration. 

Leopold Socha: Polish Catholic sewer worker and heroic rescuer of Jews.
He deserves better than to be reduced to a guilty, boastful pawn in the hands of God. 
Poles are not the only ones depicted as virtually indistinguishable from Nazis here; Lithuanians, Hungarians and Ukrainians are similarly treated.

What can be done? This: concerned people can unite, support each other, organize, and act strategically. Yitta Halberstam can't be blamed. She's a good person, working to make the world a better place. She deploys the Brute Eastern European stereotype innocently. She thinks it's true. She thinks it's true because it is so all-pervasive.

We need to do what Saul Alinsky said to do: "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." The target is Bieganski, a stereotype of Brute Polish and other Eastern European Christian peasants as the world's worst people. When we decide to change it, it will change. It's up to us. Other ethnic groups – African Americans, Jews, Muslims – have organized against stereotypes of their ethnicities with great success.


  1. The peasants were supposed to wait indefinitely and leave the stuff in place so that the Germans would have first pick, as was their right.


  2. You might find this of interest.


  3. can't be blamed.

    such a deal.

    find the golem in Bieganski


  4. Some of these complaints about looting etc, while understandable in that everyone hates to feel their life dissolve around them, and loss of possessions is/feels like a violation -- some of these complaints seem grounded in a privileged American context, or perhaps a formerly Polish upper class one like it -- not taking cognizance of the fact that with the German invasion, civilization ceased in the occupied countries. The old ground rules ceased to exist. People did what they had to do, or thought they had to, to survive.

    Looting meant having things that one could trade for the essentials of life. Primo Levi's the Reawakening refers to this kind of thing. Not being in this position of scrounging meant one was likely already spared in some way.

    Trading a ring for food that never came while in POW camp, and then liberated from POW camp, walking/hitching across Germany, Poland, and Russia, Dad found the Russians, caught up in the drive on Berlin, an irregular source of food, so looked for things to "loot" and trade for food. People will rightly value life over such things, and not feel bad about it either.

    amazing that they should think the world should stand still, and others suffer privation, if not starvation, to preserve their tchotchkes.

    This was not a world of middle class or upper class privilege.

    Bieganski = Golem = Admetus Complex


  5. A blog reader sent this in. I prefer that readers post their own messages, but in this case I'll make an exception and post this message for the reader:

    In theory, the “Herr Mueller” could have been Volksdeutsch but there seems to be so little factual background given its impossible to say. Does it say where exactly the event is supposed to have happened? Was it an area likely to have Volksdeutsch living there?

    The apparent slander of Socha was to me the most disturbing thing you pointed out in the story. It is that type of innocently mouthed hatred that really hard to take.

    Regarding today’s propagation of the Bieganski myth, the “bad peasant” and Polish anti-Semitism broadly, there has been no shortage inside Poland as well. Some blame it on what has been termed the “1968 Generation” that has reached the top of academic and political power in today’s Poland, Europe and the US. Of course they’ll soon flame out but they have plenty of trained Young left behind… Of particular note are the Bieganski-like contributions of the famous Solidarity era Polish dissident and Polish 1968-er Adam Michik, who is the editor and co-owner of Poland’s largest circulation newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. Michnik, a near legendary figure from the early Solidarity movement, is today a reliable apologist for Soviet era Communists and a disseminator of “popular” Bieganski-like views, appearing with the likes of present day Western European “1968-ers” like Daniel Cohn-Bendit and receiving recent awards from a variety of left of center international organizations. Michnik and Cohn-Bendit even double teamed vs. Hungary recently, using polemics that go back to a Bieganski stereotype. Michnik is often the go-to guy when a quote on Poland is needed by the New York Times or Eurpoean newspapers. His quotes, such as his take on the T. Gross book Neighbors, seldom disappoint the powers that seek them out. Michnik’s trick, it seems, is to separate “good Poles” who are not nationalistic and are left of center politically, from “bad Poles” who conveniently fit the Bieganski stereotype and just happen to be right of center politically and with a strong Roman Catholic identity. Michnik is thus able to tar political opponents with a convenient negative stereotype and look “worldly” at the same time. Of course Michnik is not alone with these views in today’s Poland. Nationalism is a key Bieganski trait and a particularly onerous one in Left, Internationalist thought generally. Some domestic pressure has been put on Michnik but he has taken to suing Polish writers who oppose his views rather than argue with them. Michnik has been mostly successful in defending his turf, even getting competitive newspaper ads banned from Polish TV, on “extremist” grounds. At any rate, I think it shows that the Bieganski-like stereotype remains a functional political tool in today’s Poland, making it even more difficult to combat anywhere else. For the Kwasniewski’s and Tusk’s, an apologetic Poland is a greased slide into the EU’s more elite levels, whether the apology is needed or not.


  6. I don't read Michnik regularly so I can't offer a conclusive comment.

    I met Michnik in Indiana. It was very exciting for me, as he had been one of my heroes. We shared a car ride together and I was very effusive.

    Before my trip to Poland this summer, I contacted him, reminded him of our meeting, and asked if he'd consider having me speak.

    No way.

    I was disappointed, but that's just one incident. Again, I don't read him regularly, so I can't comment on what MB has written, above.

  7. Dear Danusha,

    Thank you for publishing my comment. I am back on line now...
    I used to be a fan of Michnik as well, like most everyone else in the early Solidarnosc daya. The argument now is that Michnik, with his fame and newspaper publishing fortune has "gone mainstream", which where he lives, in Europe, means promoting leftist ideals that would have been antithetic in the original Solidarnosc concept. Some also call Michnik's family pedigree of Communists into question, but I'd rather focus on the man himself's actions rather than his family history.
    Best Regards,
    Michael Bobkowski

  8. You are very welcome. Thank you for your comment.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
These themes include the false and damaging stereotype of Poles as brutes who are uniquely hateful and responsible for atrocity, and this stereotype's use in distorting WW II history and all accounts of atrocity.
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