Sunday, January 22, 2012

Bieganski and NPR's "This American Life."

Ira Glass, host of "This American Life." Source.
Erin Einhorn. Source.

The National Public Radio Show "This American Life" has been hugely successful. Here's their self-description, from their webpage:

"This American Life is a weekly public radio show broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 1.8 million listeners. It … has won all of the major broadcasting awards. It is also often the most popular podcast in the country, with around 700,000 people downloading each week. [A televised version] won three Emmys … a half dozen stories from the radio show are being developed into films."

In September, 2002, in the episode, "Fake ID: Pole Vault," "This American Life" broadcast the Bieganski stereotype.

New York Daily News reporter Erin Einhorn traveled to Krakow, Poland's Festival of Jewish Culture.

This American Life's host, Ira Glass (cousin of prize-winning composer Philip Glass) and Einhorn told their audience the following:

Jews were wiped out in Poland. By using the passive voice and never mentioning the Nazis or the Germans (a rhetorical tactic similar to that used in Pier 21's Holocaust revisionist film "Oceans of Hope"), and through false analogies equating Poles to European settlers and Jews to Native Americans, and Poles to slaveholders and Jews to slaves, Ira Glass and Erin Einhorn communicate that Poles committed a genocide against Poland's Jews.

An example of the use of passive voice: Poland is "where the Jewish population had been exterminated." If we change this sentence to active voice, we get, "where Nazis exterminated Jews." That's not what "This American Life" says, though – again, they never mention either Nazis or Germans, as a search of their transcript reveals.

An example of a false analogy: Poles listening to Jewish music is comparable to white Americans listening to African American music. Poles = white Americans; Jews = slaves. Not so. Jews were not slaves in Poland; Polish Christians were enserfed, and at times Jewish arendars had the power of life and death over Polish, Christian serfs.

In another false analogy, Poles = European settlers and Jews = Native Americans. Poles listening to Jewish music is comparable to Americans listening to Native American music "after we've driven them off the land." There is so much wrong with this analogy I don't know where to start.

Another: Poles reported to Einhorn that their grandparents remembered Jewish friends. This is denounced; Glass and Einhorn decide that this is comparable to Americans saying, "some of my best friends are Jewish," a clichéd American phrase meant to indicate prejudice.

In short, no matter what Poles do or say, in the privacy of their radio studio, with no Poles present, Einhorn and Glass present Poles' words and actions in the worst possible light, with the worst possible spin, to an American audience who will have no idea of the historical inaccuracies.

Poles, out of psychotic guilt and a desire to appropriate the Jewish essence, now carry out Krakow's Festival of Jewish Culture, which is really "creepy and disturbing," because, after all, it was Poles who committed the Holocaust.

There is "actually," "This American Life" reports, a Polish woman who reads Isaac Bashevis Singer. How dare she!

Krakow's Festival of Jewish Culture is "kitschy and funny" because it is located so close to Auschwitz, where, "This American Life" implies, Poles killed Jews.

Here's a very interesting, ironic aspect of this broadcast.

Glass and Einhorn insist that it is a very bad thing that Poles play Jewish music, buy and read Jewish books, and study Jewish history. Poles are Jews' "enemy" and they "dress as" Jews "only for their own pleasure and amusement" and as part of an effort to erase Jews.

Here's the ironic part: Glass and Einhorn are the only ones allowed to define Polish people and Polish culture. Glass and Einhorn are the only ones allowed to inform the audience as to why Poles are interested in Jewish culture. Glass and Einhorn tell the audience what Krakow's Festival of Jewish Culture is all about.

Glass and Einhorn speak. Poles are silenced.

It is, in fact, Glass and Einhorn who are "dressed as Poles," "for their own pleasure and amusement."

That is what is known as appropriation.

Appropriation is exactly what Glass and Einhorn accuse Poles of doing – Glass and Einhorn insist that Poles are stealing Jewish culture, but it is Einhorn and Glass who are committing this crime of appropriation. And they show zero awareness of it.

This is bigotry, and irony, par excellence.

Key quotes from the show's transcript, which, again, never mentions either Nazis or Germans, but purports to tell the truth of the Holocaust in Poland:

"Erin went to live in Poland … She was Jewish, and she was scared of anti-Semitism. Now, many Poles will tell you that this prejudice is completely unfair. But Erin lost Polish family members in the Holocaust. And Poland's where some of the most infamous concentration camps operated, Auschwitz and Birkenau and Treblinka."

Einhorn: "I'd only heard one thing about Poland my entire life, from my mother, from my grandparents, that they [Poles] had always hated Jews. And they had always wanted to see Jews killed. And then, when the Holocaust started to happen, they were happy to see it happen, and they were collaborators. Even though my mother was saved by a Pole, that was always told to me as, well, she only did it for the money."

The cherry on the sundae: "This American Life" misspelled "Krakow" on their webpage. (They've since corrected their misspelling.)

"Krakow" is really not all that hard to spell. In English, it's "Cracow." In Polish, it's "Krakow." Glass and Einhorn defined Poles and Poland for their listeners, and they could not even spell the name of the city about which they wrote.


Back in 2002 I wrote a letter to "This American Life" about "Fake ID: Pole Vault." Of course the letter did no good, any more than individual letters that unorganized Poles send today do any good. We need to change our tactics.

Here are some snips from my letter to "This American Life."

No, as the September 22 segment of "This American Life" suggested, the Holocaust was not invented nor perpetrated by Poles. The Holocaust was a Nazi project that victimized Poles. Millions of Poles, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were murdered by the Nazis, millions more were enslaved. Auschwitz was first built, and functioned, for almost the first two years of its existence, as a concentration camp for Poles incarcerated and murdered as Poles. The country also suffered tremendous material damage. Nazi teams were dispatched with instructions to destroy Polish museums, churches, and monuments.

The victimization of Polish Jews, a literal genocide, was greater than that of Polish non-Jews; that fact does not countenance "This American Life"'s ideology-driven erasure of the suffering of tortured, murdered, and enslaved Polish non-Jews.

By comparing Polish non-Jews' appreciation of Jewish cultural productions with American whites appropriation of Native American or African American forms, Einhorn and Glass all but stated, "The Polaks murdered all the Jews in the Holocaust, and then they stole the Jews' culture and started making money at it."

There are at least two things wrong with "This American Life's" logic here.

First, no, as Ira Glass and Erin Einhorn insisted, Poles are not stealing "Our" American, Jewish culture, when they sing Polish-Jewish songs, read authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer or eat at Jewish restaurants. Isaac Bashevis Singer, for example, did not write much about modern Americans like Ira Glass or Erin Einhorn. He wrote, mostly, about Poland, about a life and a culture and a cuisine that Poles and Jews created together and significantly shared.

Long before the Holocaust, Poles, Jewish and non-Jewish, were sharing cultural productions, not to mention, given intermarriage, gene pools. In the classic Polish play, "The Wedding," a menorah decorates a Christian home. Scholar Anna Maria Orla Bukowska has described how the Polish Christians she studied knew, respected, and incorporated much of Jewish culture. Functioning for their neighbors as "Sabbath goys," or even merely as friends, they learned Yiddish words and Jewish customs and adopted those they admired. Influences flowed both ways. David Buxton has written of how Eastern European folk architecture influenced Jewish synagogues.

Polish-Jewish sociologists like Aleksander Hertz, authors like Eva Hoffman, and children of Polish Jews like Ralph Slovenko wrote of how Polish cultural features, such as disputativeness and humor, found their way into Jewish culture, and eventually came to be thought of as typically Jewish. Slovenko wrote that, as a Jew, he feels culturally at home with Eastern Europeans in a way that he does not with Israelis or American Jews.

Klezmer music didn't spring from Ira Glass' or Erin Einhorn's American world. It is not related to the music of American or Canadian Jews like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Neil Diamond. Klezmer sprang from the musical traditions of Eastern Europe. As even the most cursory of hearings would reveal, it is comparable to non-Jewish musical traditions among Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, Romanian, and Rom peasants.

Second, no, as the September 22 edition of "This American Life" insisted, Poles did not first begin to show appreciation for Jewish culture after the Holocaust. According to scholars of Polish-Jewish relations, including Jewish ones like Harold B. Segel, Poland has long been unique among European nations for its philo-semitism, expressed, for example, in Polish art literature. Polish authors like Eliza Orzeszkowa plunged into Jewish culture and life, learned Yiddish, and wrote of Jewish life with great intimacy, sympathy and detail. They did this long before the Nazi Holocaust was even imagined.

No, Poles did not sit idly by while Ira Glass and Erin Einhorn's grandmothers were being persecuted in the Holocaust. Poland produced Zegota, the only underground group devoted exclusively to the rescue of Jews, and the largest number of national rescuers honored at Yad Vashem. This in spite of their being, as historian Michael Steinlauf, himself the child of Holocaust survivors, wrote, after Jews and Gypsies, the third most persecuted national group in Hitler's Europe. Yes, there were Polish traitors and collaborators. Sadly, there were also Jewish ones. To hold these failures up as representatives of either group is a stance that neither group should accept.

My research has shown that as young American Jews know less and less about Poland, they adopt, more and more, bigoted anti-Polish attitudes. I have interviewed college-educated young adults who are completely unaware of the presence of any non-Jews at Auschwitz, completely unaware of Zegota, completely unaware of people like Jan Karski, and who insist that all Poles were Nazis.


As ever, I repeat: Don't blame the Jews. Polonia has many Jewish allies. We need, rather, to look to ourselves, to our own self-sabotage. We are responsible for the Bieganski stereotype, because we could work to change it, and we are not doing that work. We could start here.

In a subsequent post, I hope to write about a recent "This American Life" program that got Poland very right.


  1. This business of making false equations of Polish Jews with America's victim groups is all too common. Recall the original Bieganski in Styron's SOPHIE'S CHOICE. Styron falsely equated the American blacks of the South with Poland's Jews. For a short list of just a few of the most elementary differences between Jews and blacks, please click on my name in this posting.

  2. "Poles always hated the Jews...My mother was saved by a Pole... she did it for the money." Why I am not surprised? She could have said same thing about Leopold Socha and many other polish Righteous among the Nations. By the way, there is a new movie by Agnieszka Holland. It's called "In darkness" ("W ciemności"). I've read some reviews on American sites. It's disturbing how easy it is for autors to condemn that man. Of course one of them mentioned "altruist" Schindler, propably just to diminish "mercenary" Socha. But from what I know Schindler was a Nazi party member and a war-profiteer. He took over polish factory in Krakow and used Jews as low-paid workers. When his Nazi buddies started to kill Jews, Schindler had a change of heart and saved some of his workers. And he didin't risk his life while doing it. Yet in America it is Schindler who became an icon image of Righteous Gentile. Educated, well-dressed businessman. Very American I guess. Much easier to accept his righteousness.

  3. Imagine my surprise.


  4. For a detailed, eye-opening account of the destruction of Krakows's Jews by the Nazi Germans, please click on my name in this posting.


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.
This blog welcomes comments from readers that address those themes. Off-topic and anti-Semitic posts are likely to be deleted.
Your comment is more likely to be posted if:
Your comment includes a real first and last name.
Your comment uses Standard English spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
Your comment uses I-statements rather than You-statements.
Your comment states a position based on facts, rather than on ad hominem material.
Your comment includes readily verifiable factual material, rather than speculation that veers wildly away from established facts.
T'he full meaning of your comment is clear to the comment moderator the first time he or she glances over it.
You comment is less likely to be posted if:
You do not include a first and last name.
Your comment is not in Standard English, with enough errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar to make the comment's meaning difficult to discern.
Your comment includes ad hominem statements, or You-statements.
You have previously posted, or attempted to post, in an inappropriate manner.
You keep repeating the same things over and over and over again.