Sunday, July 8, 2012

Bieganski at the Fourth of July Picnic

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Wednesday, July 4th, 2012, I was invited to a picnic. I was a bit nervous because I knew hardly anyone at the picnic, and it took place in a rather ritzy neighborhood. I've never gotten over my earliest trips to ritzy neighborhoods. My mother, an immigrant, a brilliant woman and a natural writer, cleaned houses. When I got sick as a child and could not go to school, she would sometimes take me with her. These visits saddened me more than I can say.

When I attend social events in ritzy neighborhoods, I always feel as if I am under a microscope, and my social betters are watching for that one mistake that can serve as an excuse to toss me back to where I belong.

I know this isn't a correct assumption. I know that I'll never overcome it.

I also know that it is a widely shared anxiety. I know this because there are so many scenes in movies that dramatize this very scenario.

In the 1990 film, "White Palace," Susan Sarandon, fast food waitress, falls for James Spader, rich boy nerd (his perpetual role). Sarandon shows up at his family's Thanksgiving dinner. The patriarch makes a condescending speech about the working class. Sarandon informs him, "Mister, I am the working class." Ouch.

That's a scene you cheer for. A scene so painful I literally had to stop watching. In the 1959 British film "Room at the Top," working class Joe Lampton visits his rich girlfriend's private club. Her peers are contemptuous of Joe – for some reason they insist that "Lampton" is a funny last name. After they are done with him, Joe is nothing but sliced up ribbons on the floor.

But back to my Fourth of July. 2012. New Jersey, USA.

There was a pool; heaven; I love to swim. There were hot dogs, hamburgers, and buns, none of which I'd eat; too nervous. There was beer which I wouldn't drink; ditto. There was pasta salad and chips. Nibbled but never felt satisfied. Ate after I left, when I got home.

I swam and enjoyed that, but thought I ought to at least try to mingle. I stood, a bit frozen, hoping someone would catch my eye and smile and start up a conversation.

A man approached me. He was wearing a t-shirt that identified him as completing a rigorous athletic event. Aha! A ready-made conversation starter. "Did you really do that?" I asked, gesturing to his t-shirt. Yes, he had, he said. I immediately liked this guy. In my own way, I try to keep fit. Fitness: We could talk about that.

He told me his first name – let's call him "Ray." I told him my first name.

"Danusha? What kind of name is that?"

"Polish."

"Oh," he said, never missing a beat. "That means that your grandparents beat up my grandparents." He was Jewish, he said. And I'm Polish. I'm a pogromist. He is a victim. That's what our Fourth of July picnic encounter would prove and seal.

It's a good thing I hadn't had any of the beer. It's a good thing that the cutlery was all plastic. Breaking my arm has put a crimp in my fencing.

I had a good time at this party. This moment will be the moment I'll remember.

As "Bieganski" shows, this moment didn't teach me anything that I don't already know.

I just feel like stopping typing right now. I feel like retreating to a cave high in the Himalaya. As I trek off, uphill, I call back over my shoulder, "Talk amongst yourselves. Send a message by runner if you ever sort this all out."

***

After my grandfather immigrated to America, he was put to work in coal mines by racist exploiters who would chant, "Get me a Hunky; I need a donkey."

Clarence Darrow said of coal miners like my grandfather, "I've seen men so bad off you could use their spit for ink."

My grandfather had to pay back the man who smuggled him from Poland to America. My grandfather was physically small, but very strong. You can see that in the one photo I have of him, his wedding picture. I'm certainly taller than my grandfather was. But the hands at the ends of those sleeves – shovels.

The man who invested in my grandfather's trip across the water made my grandfather fight. This man would skim profits from these fights. "See that little Polak there? I bet he could beat you," the man would say to the "Johnny Bulls," the "English, Irish, Scotch, and Welsh."

One night men beaten by the "little Polak" ambushed him. Boards with nails.

My father, an 11-year-old, fatherless, tried to support the family after that. My illiterate peasant grandmother became a moonshiner. Years of hunger, of living in "Skunk Hollow," so called because richer people dumped their waste in that Bohunk enclave. Finally, still underage, under false papers, my dad joined the army and served, first as "Stanley," then as "Tony." He was with MacArthur in the Philippines. Years later, his men would pronounce my father "The best damn first sergeant in the Pacific theater."

Racism. Fascism. My father put his life on the line, for years, fighting against them.

Somehow, in all that, running from czars, from bigoted Americans, liberating the Pacific, cleaning houses, coughing up their lungs … somehow my people managed not to find the time to beat up the grandparents of this man I met at the Fourth of July party.

After talking about the poverty and struggle my parents endured, I am supposed to cap off with an account of how I have made it in America. My siblings have. They cast off the Bohunk identity. Their children, my nominal nieces and nephews, know nothing, and care even less, about the peasants they are separated from by one generation. They don't know any of these stories. Not about the chicken thieves, white witches, dissidents, Red Army rape survivors, fire-breathing communists and devout Catholics in their family tree. They have American identity, and comfort, American names, and money.

Me? Regular blog readers know my story. I'm a Bohunk in the Ivory Tower. Partly because attitudes like those expressed by "Ray" are so pervasive, I'll never get the title, the income, the health insurance, the job security, for which my performance, and my professional evaluations, qualify me.

"Ray." The Fourth of July party. Hot dogs, hamburgers, swimming pool. He was a handsome guy. Nice. We could have been friends.

He was with a woman, also very nice, attractive. When introducing herself, she mentioned that she works for UMDNJ. UMDNJ has been involved in notorious scandals in recent years. One involved misuse of cadaver body parts. I was tempted to ask Ray's date, "So, do you sell human body parts? Like your coworkers?" But I refrained.

***

C'mon. It's not that big of a deal.

You're right. People make these kinds of comments associating some posited Polish essence with atrocity – that is, Bieganski – regularly.

But in typing all this up, I realize it hurt me and angered me more than I at first realized.

I think I need to go for a long walk.

Talk amongst yourselves.


30 comments:

  1. I get this type of back-handed insult often myself, and I know how it makes me feel. I'm sorry you had to experience it, although I'm sure it's not the first time.... Ignorance - very frustrating!

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  2. Danusha, I wish you had told Ray in person what you said here.
    My kids and I went to see the widow of an uncle who had been taken prisoner by the Soviets at age 11 for being a Pole, lied about his age to enlist in the army under Anders and fought at Monte Casino. Yet, never spoke much of the years from 1939-1948. This part of his story wasn't even told at his funeral.
    His wife's sister, also at the party on the 4th, was the widow of a man who was at death's door when the concentration camp he was in, in Germany, was liberated by the Americans. His mother had died in Auschwitz, because she was a Pole. At least he told his wife and son his story so they would remember.
    They celebrated the freedom they came to know in America, the true meaning of the 4th of July.

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  3. Sorry that your 4th of July picnic was spoiled by that pathetic, Polonophobic remark. I would have said, "Did you know that British historian Norman Davies figured that on the order of 99.99% of Poles never took part in a pogrom and on the order of 99.9% of Jews never experienced one? So I guess that it is pretty unlikely that my grandfather beat up your grandfather."

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  4. Sadly many American Jews think that their ancestors left Poland because of pogroms and other anti-semitic acts. They don't even take under consideration other possibilities. For example: one factory build in Poland meant bankruptcy for many Jewish craftsmen. It's not persecution. It's progress.
    All those stories about pogroms should not be accepted without question. When I hear such story I want to know more. Name of that place, date of pogrom, and what happened before and after. Story told by someone's grandpa about some pogrom, long time ago, somewhere in Poland isn't enought for me. I want facts not fairy tales. And I expect the same from others. People believing in unconfirmed stories have caused enought pain in the past. Let's not repeat their mistakes. Hearsay evidence is no evidence.

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  5. Eva PL, thanks for reading and responding. Yes, we all get this kind of backhanded insult. My hope is that my book "Bieganski" will get us thinking about it and doing something about it and changing it.

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  6. Margaret, thank you very much for the substance of your post. We all know these people -- people like my father who actually FOUGHT THE FASCISTS. How many of these parlor wasps who make stinging, unanswerable comments about Polaks actually can say that they have done that? None, I would have to guess. When you put your life on the line for freedom and decency, you find these kind of ugly word games trivial and unworthy.

    Margaret, you say you wish I had said to "Ray" what I said here. Two responses to that:

    I made a good faith attempt to find contact info for him, and I sent him a message telling him that I blogged about our encounter here. So he may read what I wrote. I hope he does.

    But -- you wanted me to say at the picnic what I said here

    Margaret, you are missing this point -- what I said here was not available to me at the picnic. When he said that to me, I wasn't thinking any of this. None of us think that quickly. After someone slaps us in the face at a social function where we are the outsider, we don't have readymade come-backs. We flounder.

    that's why the French invented the term "esprit de escalier," Google it. :-)

    But, most important -- None of what I wrote, above, about this event was CONSCIOUS. At the picnic, I didn't think any of these things.

    i had to let several days pass and sit down at a keyboard and allow myself to write in "stream of consciousness" style to get it all down.

    THIS IS WHAT POLONIA NEEDS TO BE DOING. Consciousness raising. Let yourself think about how you feel when someone makes a Polak joke, when you see a dumb, crude, violent character in a film who is a Bohunk of some kind.

    Make the subconscious conscious.

    That's one of the important points here. we need to do this work, all of us.

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  7. Jan Peczkis, thank you for those statistics. The "You are a Polak so you are a pogromist" statements is so offensive on so many levels I don't feel comfortable attempting to address it in a rational manner.

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  8. Lukasz, I hope you read "Bieganski."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didin't read the book, yet. Still waiting for it in polish. But I visit this blog quite often.

      Delete
  9. Got a really interesting note from someone who knows "Ray."

    Here it is:

    "I'm sorry 'Ray', who really is a lovely guy, made a dumb joke that upset you. I find it hard to relate, but I accept how you feel."

    Lovely?

    Dumb joke?

    Upset *me*? (I'm the problem. Too sensitive.)

    "find it hard to relate" the speaker is not Polish, has not had a career sabotaged by this bigotry.

    "I accept how you feel."

    Gracious!

    PS: I like this person a lot. I think what this person, wrote, above, is representational of how most people who aren't Polish would react.

    It's Polonia's job to change that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Americans have problems with understanding how Poles feel. They think that everywere is just like in America. Differences are hard for them to comprehend. We should use similarities. For example: "do You have any Indians burried in Your garden?", "have You lynched any blacks lately?", or "had fun with napalm in Vietnam?". And add "You all Americans do that, don't you?".
      And if they don't understand what happened in German occupied Poland than I suggest comparing Poles to black slaves, Jews to Indians, and Nazis...Well go figure.
      As for Righteous Among the Nations. Well, this is hard one. The closest things to Righteous Gentiles in America are those seven dwarfs, who hid Snow White. I know they are not real, but what else can I wrote? Japanese Americans were send to the camps and none of them was hidden by their neighbours. Or am I wrong?

      Delete
  10. I'm sorry you met such an ill-mannered person on what should have been a pleasant occasion. It is hard to know how to respond... especially if you have a conscience about spoiling the day out for others. Plus, as you say, you don't know that you are going to meet such nastiness in such a setting. It takes you completely by surprise. I would never speak to anyone like that - let alone a complete stranger I met at a party.

    What i might say to him - were he to turn up just now when I am prepared for it - I am looking out over the English Channel but see no Good Ship Bigotry approaching - is this. I think I would congratulate him on knowing the Political Correctness Handbook so well. It defines exactly who is "uber" and who is "unter" - who you may speak to like that and who you may not. However, I might then add, my own choice is to try to follow the standards of the Creator of life, the God of Abraham, who asks us to treat all with kindness and respect. And its a choice available to all.

    Its troubling to know that such hatred is being nurtured in some, or perhaps many?, households. No good will come of it. I might have pointed out that my father's and my grandfather's experiences could cause me to go up to various groups of people at parties and be hateful to them. But my parents didn't bring me up that way, for which I am deeply grateful. They didn't make these collective judgements, and so didn't pass them on to us.

    And as I said, Jehovah asks us to treat all in the way that we ourselves would want to be treated - and to keep "the law of loving-kindness" on our tongue when we speak.

    On the other hand, taken by surprise, I might have had a moral failure, and just have said "AND we shot Bambi's mother!" and stomped off...

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    Replies
    1. Sue, you are exactly correct about how events like this are all about solidifying who is "unter" and who is "uber."

      Delete
  11. A reader posted this message:

    "Should put that ignoramus in his place Danusha."

    I'm going to disagree strongly with this reader. I warned him.

    Look. There are at least two kind of activism when it comes to Bieganski.

    Option One:

    Attention deficit, chauvinist, whack-a-mole activism.

    Option Two:

    Long haul. Take the fight seriously. Educate yourself. Build for the future.

    Option One:

    Find the phrase "Polish concentration camp" in a website. Pop off a poorly written, belligerent letter to the site. Be a chauvinist. Focus exclusively on Poland and what a great country it is. Never talk about the wider context. The site changes the wording to "Nazi concentration camp." Feel like you've won a big victory. Relax with a beer. You've done your part!

    This attention deficit activism has accomplished exactly nothing in the fight against Bieganski.

    What will?

    Serious, educated, organized activism. Described in the blog "The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision."

    I'm in this for the long haul. I do not crave a fix of "wow, I just did a good thing!" Relax with a beer. Not for me.

    I am not a chauvinist. I have never presented the weak and easily dismissible "Poland is a great country" argument.

    I am looking at the big picture. The Bieganski stereotype is a problem not just for me, but for everyone. People who aren't Polish find the "Poland is a great country" chauvinism laughable. I never present it. I talk about how why Bieganski matters to people who aren't Polish.

    Want to know what I mean? Buy the book. Read it. Do not send me an email asking for a free copy. Invite me to speak. Non-Polonians have. Time for Polonians to do so.

    I'm not interested in barroom brawls. I don't call people names. I'm trying to fight for truth, and that takes self-discipline and knowledge, not a toolbox full of nasty ad hominem comments.

    Calling Ray an ignoramus at the picnic would have accomplished nothing. Given what transpired time and thought and writing about it here may accomplish something, if Polonia ever decides to attend to the tasks ahead of it, as described in "The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, organization, and vision."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Brian Koralewski (Brian Lewski)July 11, 2012 at 8:11 PM

      Well he is an ignoramus and deserves to know. Next time, perhaps he would have thought twice about saying something dimwitted. It's not being a chauvinist - on the contrary, it's being honest. I never thought that the honest truth would equate with egotism.

      Secondly, I agree with Lukasz - Americans have no concept of the words "nationality" and "heritage." To them, "heritage" implies barbecues, the World Series, the Super Bowl, and Thanksgiving, if that. They don't know their own pasts, and they have no desire to know - that's a big reason why they will never realize Poland's sensitivity to her history.

      Delete
    2. Brian, I'll politely disagree.

      Look. This is a war. A long war. I'm not involved in Polish Jewish relations just today. I'm in it for the long haul, for my entire life.

      I am a soldier on a battlefield. Some weapons and tactics work. Other weapons and tactics do not work.

      Ad hominem commentary does not work. When Poles engage in it, it makes the Poles who do engage in it look belligerent and ignorant. Calling other people names proves no larger point.

      The only thing you get when you resort to ad hominem is one person feeling like he has blown off steam and another person feeling insulted and alienated.

      That scenario does nothing for Polonia.

      Nothing. Nothing.

      Other approaches work better.

      Ray is not the first person I've met who believes all Poles are brutes. He may be the thousandth.

      How much better to treat such people respectfully, and turn them into our allies?

      For one such turn around, please read this blog post:

      http://bieganski-the-blog.blogspot.com/2011/04/light-shines-in-darkness-laurie-skopitz.html

      And, in the long haul, the only thing that will make any dent in the Brute Polak stereotype is organized, strategic behavior on the part of organized, concerned, committed Polonians and allies. We can't blame the Rays of this world for our own, ongoing, inexcusable failures.

      Delete
    3. Brian Koralewski (Brian Lewski)July 11, 2012 at 8:55 PM

      Alright Danusha - I'll agree with you on that note.

      However, ignorant comments notwithstanding, I will always strive for everyone to know the truth about Poland. I won't call them an "ignoramus" out loud, but I will make sure that they at least learn something.

      Delete
    4. Brian:

      "I will always strive for everyone to know the truth about Poland."

      Excellent. That's my goal, as well.

      So take the best road to learning. What approach will help people learn the most, the best?

      Probably calling them names won't lead to learning. Other approaches might work better.

      Brian, i want you to BUY and read Bieganski.

      And invite me to speak.

      Delete
  12. Ray, you should know that you have hurt the person who does more for improvement of Polish –Jewish relations than anyone else.
    Do not follow shortcut in your life. If you care, please read "Bieganski" and then comment here. We will be waiting.

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    Replies
    1. thank you to whomever posted this. I found it really touching.

      Delete
  13. Interesting that you have got an oblique apology... I don't know what to think about that. Does Ray realise it was at least ill-mannered to approach someone in that way - especially on a pleasant social occasion - even if they are from a minority group defined as "unter"? And could you be a "lovely" guy if you insulted anyone from an "uber" group? Surely if you got your PC underwear in a twist like that you could be in a lot of trouble! So, quite apart from the fact that I love Jehovah's standards of respect and courtesy towards all (and feel bad every time I fail to reach it), this does show what practical wisdom the Bible contains. If you never treat any human being as if they are inferior, then you don't have to worry how "the world" is currently defining them.

    Long Live the Gallant Allies of Eurasia and Down with the Evil Axis Powers of Oceania! (or vice versa of course, depending on which day this post hits the blog)

    ReplyDelete
  14. Lukasz, may I ask you a favor?

    I don't know how connected you are to the Polish publishing world.

    I have been trying to find a Polish publisher for Bieganski for years.

    No luck. I've had two signed contracts -- TWO -- and those publishers simply flaked out on me.

    I've had publishers demand that I send them free copies of the book. One of my supporters footed the bill for that. Very expensive. Never heard back.

    Etc etc etc.

    Can you, as a concerned Pole living in Poland, scan the scene and make contacts for me?

    If you find yourself in a book shop, look at who is publishing serious books on Polish-Jewish relations, see if that publisher has a website, and send them an email about Bieganski.

    That's what I've been doing.

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    Replies
    1. Sadly I don't have any contacts in publishing world. But I did some checking in book shops. I found one book on Polish-Jewish relations (Chodakiewicz's "After Holocaust") published by IPN. And several other book that may touch that subject. Mostly published by ZNAK (for example Wiesenthal's "Justice, not vengeance", or Aronson's "Years of turmoil"). Some by ISKRY (biography of Janusz Korczak). The is also MIDRASZ (Zenon Neumark's "Hidding in the open"). All those publishers have websites.
      I can send an email to each of those publishers and inform them about Bieganski, but I don't guarantee that they will respond.

      Delete
    2. Lukasz, thank you, thank you very much. I really appreciate your doing that.

      Poland needs "Bieganski." Poles should be helping in whatever way they can to make that happen. I've done what I can, and if others take action, it will happen.

      There is too much whining in Polonia and not enough effective action.

      Delete
  15. Sue, "Does Ray realise it was at least ill-mannered to approach someone in that way - especially on a pleasant social occasion - even if they are from a minority group defined as "unter"?"

    No, he does not. In general, people in America do not. Poles are pigs. Remember? Maus? You can say anything you want to them, and they just have to smile and take it.

    "And could you be a "lovely" guy if you insulted anyone from an "uber" group?"

    That's just it. It's my point in a nutshell. I'm trying to make the unconscious conscious, the invisible rules visible. It is an invisible rule that this can occur. I want to make that rule visible, get people thinking about it.

    BTW, Sue, if you feel so inspired, can you recommend this blog entry to your sis? I'd love to hear her input.

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    Replies
    1. For better or worse, reading Bieganski made me something of a Slavophile insofar as I would expect less anti-Polonism among Bohunk \ Slavic populations than in, shall we say, Sweden or mainstream America. Maybe because two people from "unter" groups (according to official PC guidelines) can talk to each other on equal terms? Without expecting to get insulted AND being expected to take it with a smile.

      It it indeed funny how Political Correctness imposes inequality (X is to be vilified, Y is to be glorified) justified by "inequality back in the day". An "unter" does not stand up to an "uber" - that would be impolite and uncouth. But the other way round - lovely guys.

      Delete
  16. Lukasz, you wrote:

    "do You have any Indians burried in Your garden?", "have You lynched any blacks lately?", or "had fun with napalm in Vietnam?". And add "You all Americans do that, don't you?".

    I'll politely disagree with you here. And I will wait for you to read the book before I tell you why. I do talk about this technique in the introduction. I think it is problematic at best.

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  17. I can also specifically state that none of my relatives participated in any pogroms in Poland. Or at least my father never did and he never said anything about others who may have. He was an honest story teller and would have said so if anyone in his family had done any such thing. However, my father related stories about encountering anti-Semitism and anti-Rom feelings in the small town/farming community of Modliborzyce in SE Poland. It is a fact that the synagogue was burned in the early days of WWII and the local Jewish community attempted to flee the German onslaught. They were sent to camps. My father mourned his many friends until he died. Christina Pacosz

    ReplyDelete

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