|"Barren" by Gary Bagshawe. Source.
The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization and Vision
This post is part of a three-part series.
Part One: The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization and Vision.
PartTwo: Possible Causes for The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization and Vision.
Part Three: There's Hope! What You Can Do about The Crisis inPolonian Leadership, Organization and Vision.
The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization and Vision
1.) Polonians complain about the misrepresentation of Poles.
Google "Polish slander" or "Polish defamation" or "unknown Polish history" or "Polish concentration camps" or anti-Polonism or Antypolonizm or polonophobia and you find website after website, petition after petition, letter after letter, facebook page after facebook page.
Titles like Richard C. Lukas' "Forgotten Survivors: Polish Christians Remember the Nazi Occupation" and "Waiting to be Heard: The Polish Christian Experience Under Nazi and Stalinist Oppression 1939-1955" reflect this complaint: someone is forgetting Polish victims. Someone is not hearing Polish victims.
2.) As "Bieganski" and this blog demonstrate, misrepresentation of Poles and Poland is real. The Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype is standard in schools, museums, media, and scholarship. Immigration, race, class, Holocaust and World War Two history, Catholicism and Christian-Jewish relations are rewritten in a manner that is false and unethical.
3.) A minority of Polonians openly scapegoat Jews, or even just one man – Jan Tomasz Gross – for this misrepresentation of Poles.
"Jews don't like Poles and Jews lie about Poles. Jews have much money. Jews have much power. Jews control the media. Jews control the government. Jews control schools. As long as Jews control things, Poles are helpless. We can never have as much money or power or control as Jews."
Sometimes Polonians blame African Americans, Liberals, Feminists, Gays. "This or that group controls the schools! Controls the media! Controls the culture! Controls the politicians! We poor, helpless, Polish people can't get our story told, because others control everything! We are helpless bystanders!"
4.) As long as Polonians blame "the Jews" – or Jan Tomasz Gross – for Polonians' failures, Polonia fails to grow up. Polonia fails to take responsibility for its own behavior. Polonia fails to act in its own interests.
5.) The organizing strategies that work for Jews and African Americans and Liberals and Feminists and everybody else the blamers blame would work for Poles and Polonians.
6.) Polonians do not make use of these strategies because of a crisis in Polonian leadership, organization, and vision.
7.) YOU can do something about this.
I've been observing ethnic politics all my life. I grew up in a very diverse town in a very diverse state. In my small town, my neighbors had been born in China, India, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Spain, Lebanon, Italy, Ukraine. There were African Americans, Native Americans, and Yiddish speakers.
I've lived in Africa, Asia, Europe, on both coasts, and in the heartland, of the United States.
I've taught students from every major and many of the minor ethnic groups on earth.
My father helped me write my first letter to the president when I was eight. My mother took me to my first march on Washington when I was in my early teens. I've politically organized with Serbs, Muslims, Tibetans, Nepalis, African Americans, the United Auto Workers, feminists, homosexuals, environmentalists, Catholics, Peace Corps Volunteers, etc.
I've been part of many successful organizing efforts, including to open a food bank, a controversial support center for GLBT students, to elect politicians, to get propositions on ballets. I've arranged multi-day conferences, written successful grant proposals, stuffed envelopes, staffed phone banks, attended city council meetings, and made hundreds of cold calls to voters and consumers. I've gone door to door with clipboards soliciting donations for worthy causes. I've registered voters. I've hung posters.
I've published and broadcast. "Political Paralysis" appeared in "The Impossible Will Take a Little While," an activist handbook featuring work by people like Nelson Mandela, Marian Wright Edelman, Henri Nouwen, and Vaclav Havel.
I've had ample opportunity to observe and compare how various groups play politics.
Polish-Americans are the single most self-sabotaging, and the least politically, culturally, academically and economically effective group with whom I have worked.
Why I care about the crisis in Polonian leadership and organizing.
I've seen Mount Everest and the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis, the Dome of the Rock, the Grand Canyon and the Louvre. I've lived in New York City and California's San Francisco Bay Area, visited Paris and London.
Poland offers something you can get no place else. It's not the Wawel palace; Versailles dwarfs it. It's not Chopin; you can hear his music anywhere. It's not big, flat, fields of rye or poppy or potatoes. I mean, come on.
Hell came to earth in Poland, and Poland produced heroes. Poland offers the best of humanity, in the midst of the worst of humanity.
During the Nazi occupation, Warsaw Mayor Stefan Starzynski said, "Through where there were fine orphanages is now rubble; though where there were parks, there are today barricades, covered with dead; though our libraries burn, and our hospitals, it will not be in one hundred years, but today, that Warsaw, by defending the honor of Poland, stands at the pinnacle of its greatness and glory."
Warsaw, by showing its courage and determination in the hellish conditions of the Nazi occupation, revealed Warsaw's – and humanity's – truest, and best face.
What do leaders do?
Leaders are role models. Leaders have done admirable things, and others look up to them.
Leaders acquire resources and distribute them to the community. The head lioness in the pride is the head lioness because she's the one who kills the game and brings it back for the rest of the pride to eat.
Leaders cultivate team spirit. Leaders make sure team members cooperate with, and are loyal to each team member.
Leaders establish the status and power of the group among other groups in the wider world.
Leaders recognize talent and cultivate it.
Leaders nurture, and pass the work on to, the next generation. Leaders are as much about the future as the past and the present.
A remarkable leader in my own life was UC Berkeley Prof. Alan Dundes.
My first year at Berkeley, Prof. Dundes told me I was "the wrong minority" to receive funding.
Prof. Dundes "pulled strings he didn't know existed" in order to get me funding for my second year.
Prof. Dundes told me I was talented. He selected which of my works I should focus on publishing, told me exactly what I needed to do to improve them for publication, and exactly what journals to submit them to.
I moved away from Berkeley. I wrote to Prof. Dundes often.
Prof. Dundes was the most important scholar in his field anywhere on planet earth. He made regular media appearances and hobnobbed with the rich and powerful.
Prof. Dundes never indicated I was unworthy of his time. Prof. Dundes never let one of my questions slip by. He responded as if my most casual observation were fascinating and worthy of his focused attention.
More than ten years after I was his student, Alan Dundes went over my CV with a fine-toothed comb and made suggestions on how to improve it. He told me what jobs to apply for, at what schools. He wrote me stellar letters of recommendation.
In March of 2005, I received a long personal email from Prof. Dundes, one I found so moving I found it hard to reply to. A few days later, he was gone. Now, six years after his death, when I introduce my own students to Alan Dundes' work, I do so with joy and pride. I am passing his work on to the next generation.
I work to build team spirit among my students. I make sure they bond to each other as much as to me. Dundes taught me that: We're all in this together.
Prof. Dundes' and I fought like cats and dogs. We came from dramatically different social classes and we disagreed violently on money, sex, gender, social class, religion, theory – everything. We were not friends. Prof. Dundes didn't do all he did for me because he liked me.
Prof. Dundes did all he did for me because he was an excellent teacher, scholar, and leader. He knew how to fulfill his role in life, and he did so, brilliantly.
Prof. Dundes' ancestors came from Łódź, which he pronounced, as Polish Jews do, "L O D Z," to rhyme with "clods," not "W O O D J" to rhyme with "huge" as Polish Catholics do.
I have never had a relationship anything like I had with Prof. Dundes with a member of my own demographic, an American of Polish Catholic descent. Nor anything like the relationships I had with Rabbi Laurence Skopitz, Prof. Antony Polonsky, Robin Schaffer, Arno Lowi, or Simon Stern. Or Stuart Balcomb – of Anglo-Saxon and Finnish descent.
When I was an unpublished house-cleaner, the daughter of an immigrant who also cleaned houses for a living, these Jewish people, and Stuart, told me that I was talented, and that I should publish. They nurtured my writing for years before I did publish.
The message I got from my own milieu, my fellow Polish Catholics, was that the most important thing for a woman to be is pretty, and since I was not pretty and I was blue collar, I should spend my life cleaning other women's houses.
Polonians don't need to learn how to like each other.
Polonians need better to function as mentors, leaders and activists. They need better to nurture and cultivate their own future.
We can use stories like those below to diagnose our flaws and to act to improve.
It is right and necessary to tell these stories now to you, the readers of this blog – you are people who care about Polonia. It is right and necessary for you to act in response to these realities.
I was a teenager. I was fascinated by all things Polish. While attending high school full time, I worked full time as a nurse's aid. I saved every penny, and entered an academic program about Poland. I met my very first Polish-American leader. The leader of this academic program was well known among Polish-Americans. I deeply admired this man's work, and I still do. It is essential to me.
He had an affair with one of my fellow students. The grapevine reported that this went on every session – that he always picked a student to make his lover.
What if we ran into his wife? No doubt he expected us to protect his lie. And were female Polish-Americans eagerly exploring their ancestry really nothing more than a stable of potential lovers for this famous Polish-American man? How could he regard any of us with any respect?
Years later, my work on Polish-American issues required me to contact prominent Polish-Americans. This man was one. He never responded to any of my communications to him, thus handicapping my work.
In 1981, General Jaruzelski declared Martial Law. Solidarity was crushed and Poland was in need. My friend Lauren and I went to a Polish-American organization in New York City.
We walked up to the Polish-American head of the organization and said we wanted to help support Poland.
The Polish-American leader said, "You are just two silly little girls who don't speak Polish. There is nothing you can do. Get out."
Lauren and I protested outside the NYC Polish Consulate ourselves. We made our own signs.
There we met a large number of other people who were protesting, including two young men who would later become our boyfriends: Mitch and Steve.
Mitch, Steve, Lauren, me, and dozens of others protested outside the Polish Consulate regularly. We got up before dawn and walked up and down the streets of Manhattan hanging fliers exhorting people to join our protest. We held meetings at night in a Greenwich Village union hall, planning our actions. We sold buttons and t-shirts saying, "Teach Yourself Polish: Strajk!"
There were tensions in the group. There was a loudmouth named N. whom no one liked. A man, his ex-wife, and her new husband were all group members.
We didn't focus on tensions. We didn't waste our time gossiping, backstabbing or settling personal scores over imagined slights. We kept our eyes on the prize: showing our support for oppressed Poles and Poland.
We were persistent enough, and dramatic enough in our protests, that film of our protests made it to the nightly news broadcasts.
Mitch, Steve, and most of the dozens of others involved in these NYC protests against the crushing of Solidarity were not Polish Catholics. They were Jews.
I asked Mitch, a native New Yorker, why he got up before dawn, went to meetings after work, and stayed up late organizing to help Poland. "My haht is wid de woikas," he replied, in his heavy New York accent. "My heart is with the workers."
My friend's luminous beauty stopped men in their tracks on the street. She, like me, was on fire with a passion for Poland. Her life's goal was to publish a book that honored her immigrant ancestors' story.
She came into contact with a prominent, older, Polish-American leader who promised to help her. The promises of this Polish-American man who had made it to the top in America looked like the stairway to heaven to my friend. When she arrived at the meeting, "He threw me up against the wall and fondled my breasts." He swore that she was especially talented, that he could help her, that they could do great things together for Polish culture. He would divorce his wife for her.
Eventually he dropped her, telling her that their affair posed a threat to his professional advancement.
She had a nervous breakdown. She never published her manuscript.
I know my friend should not have succumbed to this powerful, older man's blandishments.
I also know she was young, vulnerable, and emotionally burdened by the "Dumb Polak" image. She was on fire with a romantic dedication to create a lasting work of art for Polish-Americans like her own grandmother.
Recently, I was approached by an older, established, financially comfortable Polish-American professional woman with an advanced degree. She's at a point in her life when she is thinking about charitable giving to significant causes, and about passing on her values to future generations.
She had recently encountered a book that identified Poles and Poland as responsible for the Holocaust. She wanted to do something.
She attended a social event with a prominent Polish-American leader. She shared biographical details with this man – they were roughly the same age, from the same neighborhood, and the same immigration wave.
She approached him to touch base, to see if they knew any of the same people, and to see what she could contribute to matters of value to them both. She wanted to donate money, to volunteer, to advance Polish-American culture. She was in a position to do all of these things; her own children were grown, and she had more money than she knew what to do with. She had the time to devote to honoring her heritage.
This was a social and cultural event – the very kind of event where this kind of networking and schmoozing can take place to achieve concrete goals.
She approached the Polish-American leader, ready to shake his hand. Smiling.
The Polish-American leader would not make eye contact with her. Aggressively, he ignored her. She tried; he moved away. She followed; he moved farther away. He was working very hard at meeting with others at the event who had higher social status than she.
The woman was insulted and enraged. Her desire to become economically, culturally and politically active in service to Polish-American issues was thwarted.
I attended a formal dinner for Polish-American leaders. The dinner was funded by a concerned and generous Polish-American who wanted to contribute to Polonia. The food and setting were expensive. Almost all those at the dinner were Polish-Americans. Throughout the two-hour event, the Polish-Americans present shouted at each other: insults, statements of personal aggrandizement, denunciations. They yelled about matters that had nothing to do with the Polish-American issues that were on the agenda. Words like "idiot" and "fool" were used.
I silently shrank into myself, counting the minutes until this farce ended. I had been naïve enough to bring a guest, someone not interested in Polish matters. I peeked across the table at this person, mortified and heartbroken.
Here we were, all of us Polish-Americans who had done something in our fields for Polonia, and the only conversation we could have was an incoherent shouting match as if at the table of a family whose father is a bullying drunk.
A Polish-American leader told me, "There is so much our group would like to do, but we can't, because we don't have any funds."
"Why don't you have any funds?" I asked.
"Because we all sued each other, and that depleted our treasury."
I had not been published by Polish-American publishers, or in Polish-American publications.
I wrote to a Polish-American leader. By that point, I'd earned thousands of dollars from my writing, won prizes, and been well-reviewed. I asked how I could bring my writing to the attention of Polish-American readers and Polish-American publications – since I so often wrote and published on Polish-American topics.
This Polish-American leader wrote back to me, paraphrase, "Keep your day job. You just don't have what it takes. No one will ever publish you. You stink."
Editors who have published me receive similar denunciations from Polish-Americans. They often bring these missives to my attention, with a puzzled question, "Why is this Polish-American person writing to us to denounce you in this way: 'Her writing stinks! You should not publish her!'"
These communications are so bizarre, so irrational, I didn't know, at first, how to process them. Over time, I began to see a pattern.
I was talking to a Polish-American writer whose work I'd come to admire. This author got to the heart of Polish-American issues in a way that no other Polish-American writer's work did. I told this writer how much I admired her literary output.
The writer wrote back. I was shocked to discover that this author, over and over again, had sent work to Polish-American publications. These publications not only did not publish her, they didn't even bother to respond at all. This writer's output, which I admired so much for telling the heart of the Polish-American story, was published by non-Polish-American presses.
Further, this Polish-American woman writer had encountered resistance from Americans who harbored anti-Polish prejudices. She was stuck between Polish American presses and editors who wouldn't respond to her submissions, and non-Polish Americans who resisted her because of their anti-Polish bigotry.
Then I heard from yet another author. He was not Polish himself, but he wrote about Polish themes. He had struggled for years to get his work published. "Polish-Americans don't buy books," publishers told him. They liked his work, but feared that publishing it would be too great a financial risk.
Then I heard from another writer. She had been flagrantly and publicly insulted at a reading … by a Polish-American cultural leader.
And then yet another Polish-American writer. His prize-winning work had been memorably insulted … by a Polish-American editor.
In July, 2007, Rabbi Joseph Polak published "Silence Lifts on Poland's Jews" in the Boston Globe. The essay promulgated the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype.
In November, 2007, Fox TV broadcast this joke on its "Back to You" sitcom: "Bowling is in your Polish blood, like kielbasa and collaborating with the Nazis."
I wanted to respond.
After decades of work on Polish issues, of interacting with Polonians in real life and on the internet, I had no contacts, none, who would respond in an organized way.
No organizations. Not even an ad-hoc group. No networks.
On my own, I sent a response to the Boston Globe. Not only did they refuse to publish it, they didn't even respond to my submission till my Jewish ally, Rabbi Michael Herzbrun, wrote to them. The Boston Globe's response was curt and contemptuous. You can read my unpublished response to Rabbi Polak here.
The Boston Globe can do this. All American media outlets can do this. They can promote the Bieganski stereotype without fear because they know that there are no effective groups who will respond in any organized way that has any economic, political, or cultural impact.
Sure, they'll receive random letters from random individuals. So what?
In November, 2007, without any effective network, I sent a letter, as an individual, to Fox TV. You can see that letter here. How much more impact that letter would have had on Fox TV had there been a national, or better, an international presence of mutually supportive Polonians, organized at the grassroots level and committed to consistent, effective action, behind it.
"Bieganski" was close to publication. I needed to check thousands of facts. Given the controversial nature of the book, I knew it was imperative that I get every fact scrupulously correct.
I tracked down phone numbers and email addresses and contacted historical players directly.
I had to contact many Jews, many of whom I have publicly criticized. Three notable names: Art Spiegelman, author of "Maus," a book I have repeatedly and publicly condemned in the harshest terms possible, Rabbi Avi Weiss, who planned and carried out the controversial protest at the convent near Auschwitz, which I criticized harshly, and Steven Pinker, a prominent scientist, then at Harvard.
In response to queries from me, a complete nobody, these Jewish men were courteous and professional. They answered my questions. They gave me permission to quote them. Not one negative word was exchanged between us.
I often had very different experiences when contacting Polish sources. Often, I received no response. On one memorable occasion, after I'd dialed a Polish-American professor at an Ivy League university, during normal business hours, I had to hold the phone away from my ear. The general message of his tirade: "I am a very important person, and you are nobody. Don't bother me."
"Bieganski" was finally published. It had been covered in front-page stories in the US and Poland, and won an award. The jacket included strong endorsements from world-class scholars. I had just returned from Poland, where I spoke about the book at a couple of museums and a university.
I sent out emails to American schools and cultural institutions offering to speak.
A US Jewish university immediately responded, courteously, with an invitation and an honorarium.
A Polish-American cultural leader to whom I sent the exact same email responded by denigrating me, my work, and my peasant ancestry.
I've been poring over academic job listings for ten years. Painstakingly reviewing these job announcements in the vain search for a tenure-track job has taught me much. Academic job announcements in the humanities value some ethnicities more than others. African American and Hispanic American identities and/or areas of research and publication are most frequently cited as making a candidate attractive, or even as the bare minimum requirement, for academic employment.
After that, one earns points for Native American, Asian, Gay, Arab, Pacific Islander, Jewish, and, in a few rare cases, Italian, Irish, and even Basque identities and research and publication focus.
Never, not once, in ten years of looking at thousands of job announcements in a wide variety of humanities jobs, including teaching freshman composition, film, creative writing, folklore, world literature, and gender studies, have I seen any Bohunk ethnicity or focus listed as having any appeal to any employer.
Bravo to African American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, Arab, Gay, Jewish, Italian, Irish and Basque activists for making themselves visible and valuable in academia. For making their scholars employable. For making their stories known. For endowing their worldview with authority and respect.
Bohunks – Polish-Americans, Ukrainian-Americans, Slovak-Americans, etc, have not done the same work, and they suffer for it. Their literature, film, experience, worldview, are disrespected, misrepresented, stuffed down the memory hole, trashed.
|Drought. Altrendo Nature. Source.
Every last one.
"We don't know how to lead."
"We don't know how to organize."
"We don't support our own."
"We devote more energy to fighting among ourselves than to accomplishing concrete goals."
"Polish snobbery is still a problem."
"Polish self-hatred is still a problem."
Members of other groups recognize each other publicly, reach out, form bonds, and support each other. That reaching out and bonding are their source of strength.
Because I live in New Jersey, a very diverse state, I witness this on a daily basis.
Friday, November 4, I was standing in line at a supermarket. I'd met my cashier once before. He has bright blond hair and pale skin, but his nametag identified him as "Abdul." He was Muslim, but Circassian, a European Muslim group.
As I waited in line, the cashier from the next aisle called over to Abdul. "You're new?"
"Yes," Abdul replied.
"From the Middle East?"
"Yes," Abdul replied.
"Me, too. My name is Mo. I'm from Syria." He reached across me and shook Abdul's hand. "I've been here for a while," Mo said. "If you need help with anything, look for me."
It's a small moment. Through such small moments, in spite of resistance, Muslims have become successful political players, as evidenced by Governor Christie's controversial appointment of Sohail Mohammed to New Jersey's superior court.
I regularly attend faculty training sessions. Semester after semester, senior African American faculty reach out to newly hired African American faculty. They take them out of the meeting, welcome them to campus, and offer to be guides, mentors, and friends.
My Hispanic colleague and fellow professor spends her weekends helping undocumented Hispanic immigrants.
At Indiana University there was an older gay professor who regularly mentored and guided young gay students. There was a gay Lutheran minister who went out of his way to make himself available to gay kids on campus. This minister saved my friend David's life when David was feeling suicidal.
I know of hiring committees who decide that a job, whether it is stated in the job announcement or not, will go to an African American or a Hispanic American.
Mind: Poor, white Christians – a group Bohunks are likely to belong to – are among the most underrepresented groups on elite college campuses. I've never heard any Bohunk professor make any supportive comment, ever, about his or her fellow Bohunks, certainly not as regards hiring or admissions.
Zora Neale Hurston was a very good writer, but lost. Few people read her.
She was an African American woman.
Television celebrity Oprah Winfrey resurrected Zora Neale Hurston. She championed her work, and brought it to a new generation of readers.
Indiana University scholar Henry Glassie inspired me to discover Anton Piotrowski, a Polish-American coal miner and poet. Glassie had encountered Piotrowski's poetry in an archive in Pennsylvania. Glassie spoke with passion about the power of Piotrowski's poetry to convey the Polish-American experience. Henry Glassie is not Polish. I think he is Irish-American.
I put a call out: "Where is Anton Piotrowski's poetry?" I asked reference librarians. I asked Polish-American organizations. I asked Polish-American scholars.
No one had heard of Anton Piotrowski.
One night, I received a phone call.
"Are you the person seeking Anton Piotrwoski's poetry?"
"I have his poetry."
"Great! Please share it with me!"
"I don't know what you plan to do with it."
"How can you be so suspicious?" I asked, exasperated. "I'm a Polish-American scholar. My father mined coal as a little boy in Pennsylvania. This is unknown Polish-American poetry. I just want to read it."
"Maybe the poetry is not good enough," she said.
"Please!" I begged.The poems were finally published in 1998.
They are excellent.
Are Anton Piotrowski's poems on any syllabi anywhere?
Is anybody reading these priceless records of Polonian experience?The book has no Amazon reviews, and it is now out of print.
You've heard of the Brothers Grimm and you think their name synonymous with folklore. In fact, the Grimm Brothers were phonies. They were German nationalists, not real folklorists; the Nazis easily exploited their work.
Still, Germany profits from and promotes the Grimms. You can take "Brothers Grimm" tours in Germany.
Alan Dundes introduced me to Oskar Kolberg, a real folklorist, and a Pole. Kolberg amassed one of the largest and most important folklore collections in the world. Dundes wanted to see Kolberg's work introduced to Americans. Have Poles even managed to translate Kolberg's work into English?
This uniquely important scholar is lost to the English-speaking world. Because no one has bothered to translate his work.
***Jan Peczkis is an Amazon reviewer who seeks out books and other media by and about Poles and doggedly reviews them on Amazon. Bravo Jan Peczkis.
Are Polish people just plain cheap, uncaring, and vicious?
No, that's not the point.
In fact, Polish people are warm, caring, and generous.
Is the problem, then, that Poles cannot organize?
Poles can organize. Poles brought down the Soviet Empire. They did this, not through melodramatic internet posts. They did this the way that Mitch and Steve and others protested against Martial Law in New York City back in 1981. Poles brought down communism through committed organizing.
I was in Poland 1988-89. I protested. I attended Solidarity meetings with recognizable figures like Jacek Kuron. I protested with the KPN, Konfederacja Polski Niepodległej, or Confederation of Independent Poland, a nationalistic and irredentist group. I protested with the Pomarańczowa Alternatywa, or Orange Alternative, an anarchic and absurdist group. I protested with random punks with safety pins in their pierced nostrils. I protested with grandmothers. I was lucky enough to meet Lech Walesa, and to ask him face-to-face questions about activism in Poland.
When things got tense, Polish men I didn't even know reached out to me, asking, "Are you okay? Do you have friends? Do you know what to do if they start breaking heads?" I saw Polish priests protect protestors from Zomo riot police. When the Zomo tear-gassed us, unseen hands shepherded us into a medieval Krakow courtyard, where ministering angels – teen girls – held rags soaked with vinegar under our noses and advised us not to touch our eyes.
Poles can organize.
In 1994, I arrived at Indiana University to pursue a PhD. My first semester at IU, I received word that my father was dying.
I was working for a professor at IU. She said that I could not leave to say goodbye to my dying father because she would soon be hosting a conference and she needed me to type up the program. I left anyway. I lost four workdays to attending my father's funeral, who died just as my train from Indiana was pulling in to New York's Penn Station.
I returned to IU and the professor for whom I worked did some very bad things.
An IU dean told me that this professor had a history of abusive behavior, that she was, in fact, a "sociopath," but that no one would stop her, because they were afraid of being called "racist" or "sexist." She was a minority female.
I was a Bohunk. Bohunks have no status on university campuses, so I was an easy target.
I was asked to testify against the professor, and I did, throughout the entirety of the spring semester.
My inner ear burst, perhaps in response to the stress of these events, and I became crippled. I was poor and could not get medical care – in any case, vestibular disorders are "orphan diseases" and no one has devoted research to discovering fool-proof treatment.
I wrote to Polish-American organizations. I received no reply.
No reply. Not "keep your chin up." Not "we are in your corner." Not "we wish you the best."
Certainly not: "We think globally and act locally. We recognize that these events constitute a statement about the value of Bohunk students on American campuses, and we will advise you through the legal, medical, cultural, ethical, and academic ramifications of these events."
Nothing. No reply.
Had I been an African American student who had been harassed by a white professor? I would have been supported by a number of African American groups. The story would have been covered in the newspaper.
A Polish-American official on the IU campus learned what happened to me.
I can't provide any details about this person. This person prefers to remain anonymous.
This official summoned me to her spacious – intimidating – office, with its spectacular view, and told me that she would help.
This official told me that the reason she was helping me was that she was also Polish-American. One, she wanted to help a fellow Polish-American in whose life she saw some of her own story, and, two, her Polish-American background caused her to be committed to struggles against injustice.
She defied university directives, contributed significantly to my ability to complete my PhD at IU, to research, write, and eventually publish "Bieganski."
She helped me in ways that were extraordinarily generous, brave, and strong. This is simply one of the most powerful, admirable people I've ever met.
She told me, in no uncertain terms, "I don't want to be publicly identified as Polish-American. I changed my name early in life."
In fact, she had an "adopted family" of a completely different ethnicity. She spent holidays, weddings and funerals, not with her natal Polish-American family, but with this other family, of a very different ethnicity.
She had grown up in very difficult conditions. There was drinking and extreme domestic violence in the family. Her family was culturally backward: no books or music in the house. The family was closed off to the wider world. She craved an intellectually, politically, and culturally active life.
She left home, never to look back. Outside the home, she experienced anti-Polish bigotry.
She adopted a WASP name, and dropped any public association with Polishness.
In short: when a Polish-American graduate student was being crushed on a university campus, Polish-American organizations sat passively by, as they would later when I was told by a potential publisher for "Bieganski," "You can't say this because you are Polish and Catholic."
In this vacuum of leadership, organization, and vision, a Polish-American individual was heroically brave and generous and made my completing a PhD, writing and publishing
And this person does not want to be publicly identified as Polish-American. And wants nothing to do with Polish-American organizations, which strike her as nationalistic and narrow – too much like the family she worked to escape.
We need to stop blaming the Jews.
Without denial or defensiveness, we need to look honestly at our own behavior, and adopt behaviors that result in the elusive success and power we all seek to eliminate the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype.
Next: PartTwo: Possible Causes for The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization andVision.