Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bieganski on Steroids: Israel Friedlaender's "The Jews of Russia and Poland"

Israel Friedlaender. Source.

My book "Bieganski" argues that it is acceptable in scholarly, popular, and journalistic discourse to disseminate a negative stereotype of Poles and Polish-Americans as stupid, violent, brutes. In this image, Poles are the world's worst anti-Semites. I didn't know about Israel Friedlaender's "The Jews of Russia and Poland" when I was writing "Bieganski," but had I, I would have quoted Friedlaender extensively.

"The Jews of Russia and Poland" is perhaps the most thoroughly anti-Polish legitimate book I've ever read. By "legitimate" book I mean a book that was not published by a hate organization. The anti-Polish stereotyping in this book is all the more remarkable given that the author, Israel Friedlaender, was probably a genuinely heroic and intelligent man. Page after page of this book stunned me because the racism in it was being expressed by someone I'd probably like as a human being. (He would almost certainly not like me, given my parentage.)

"The Jews of Russia and Poland" was published in 1915. Why should anyone care about it today? The book epitomizes the brute Polak stereotype. It was published by GP Putnam's Sons, New York and London, a major, respected, and still existent publishing house. Israel Friedlaender, the book's author, was a "world famous" scholar and activist deeply rooted in Jewish institutions and movements. This was not a lone wolf spouting random gripes. The anti-Polish hate, based on stereotypes, that shouts from every page of the book was canonical, accepted reality for Friedlaender's milieu.

"The Jews of Russia and Poland" is a mere 214 pages long. It attempts to tell the entire history of Polish Jews in its pages. It tells that history for three very important reasons. Friedlaender, a good and dedicated member of his community, wants to improve conditions for his fellow Jews. He is focused on three epoch-making historical events. In 1915, Poland was about to be reborn. After WW I and the Versailles Treaty, Americans, the audience for Friedlaender's book, will have an impact on the constitution of reborn Poland. Second, Jews were returning to Palestine. Friedlaender wants to boost that return. Finally, Jews were flocking to the US as immigrants. Friedlaender wanted the US – including upper class, American Jews of German descent – to embrace its new Ostjuden, or Eastern European, Jewish immigrants.

To fulfill all his goals, Friedlaender makes non-Jewish Poles out to be irredeemably, indeed, racially, bad people. Friedlaender wants the US and the West to exercise a great deal of influence in newly reborn Poland, because, Friedlaender warns, the Poles cannot be trusted to treat their Jewish citizens fairly. Yes, Jewish immigrants to the US are unappealing – even he does not like them (x, 25, 72). But they are unappealing, Friedlaender insists, because they come from Poland, where they have been treated very badly. In America they will improve. And Jews are really noble people, and the Zionist experiment will turn out magnificently.

Following are just some examples of Friedlaender's pronouncements on Poles: Poland was a land of "impenetrable medieval Jew hatred" Poles "deserve no credit" for providing a homeland for Jews expelled from other countries. Slavs torture Jews "at the beginning of the twentieth century" with "all the agonies of the Middle Ages." Poland was typified not by rule but by "misrule." In Poland Jews experienced "uninterrupted and unparalleled persecution." Poles also "hate everything German."

Polish nobles, or szlachta, were "morbid" "hostile" "degenerate" "contemptuous" "indolent" "extravagant" "prodigal" "inconstant" "instable" "obstinate, combative, quarrelsome," "fond of show and externalities," "prefer shadow to substance," "aimless" "reckless" "a seething cauldron of strife and dissension" "a farce" "miserable" "a canker of lawlessness," "lazy," "helpless," "incapable" "their sole ambition in life was pleasure and amusement," "intemperate (i.e. drunk)" "the lack of executive ability" among Poles.

Germans were "made so superior to Poles." Poles had none of the Jews' "ability or energy." Poles "did not hesitate to throttle a Jew by a method cruel and deadly." Polish nobles "would do anything to torture Jewish subjects." The Radziwill family especially committed "unspeakable outrages" and tortured innocent Jewish children and women. "These examples illustrate not only the cruelty of the Polish nobles, but also the aimlessness of their cruelty. It was sheer madness, madness without a particle of method in it, and the Jew had no means whatsoever to guard himself against it…the only way to appease the noble was to crouch and cringe and accept all indignities with a smile." "Polish culture was of little significance."

"The Polish people begrudged the slightest favor shown to the Jews." Poland was "an enemy's land" where the Polish nation conducted "a systematic and organized warfare against Jews. This warfare may be said to constitute the sum and substance of the external history of the Jews in Poland, history not made by Jews, but against them." For the peasants, "Jews serve as the lightning rod of their hatred" they conduct "a slow and grinding struggle in the subterranean regions of economic life. It is essentially a siege war."

The Catholic Church in Poland was a monstrosity. "Orgies of Roman fanaticism," "monstrous forms of intolerance," "kept Poland in darkness," exercised "power over the minds of individuals," with "enormous wealth" the church was "indefatigable in her efforts to destroy Jews and Judaism." "This gospel of hatred" was "the inviolable rule of conduct throughout the whole extent of Polish history." This hatred "breaks out like pus." Priests acted "very much like the gangsters of today." "Consistent hatred typical of the church."

Because of this lousy leadership, Poland is "destitute," where "the only seeds of civilization were planted and cultivated by Germans and Jews." Poland's leaders produce only "lawlessness and misgovernment."

What has this history to do with the rebirth of Poland in the early twentieth century? "No amount of political pledges and diplomatic allurements will save the Poles unless they will bury their past."

In comparison, Jews possess an "extraordinary executive ability and sense of discipline," and "true Jewish sagacity." "The Jews exhibited a remarkable loyalty to Poland." Jewish culture in Poland was "perfect;" again, it reached "perfection;" It was "remarkably advanced." It is characteristic of "Jewish genius," of "the triumph of the few over the many, the weak over the strong, the spirit over the flesh." Jewish culture in Poland "lifted the earth a little nearer to heaven." Jews "displayed their intellectual acumen in their commercial transactions with non-Jews." "Noble living and high thinking characterized the Jews of Poland, and in this ideal atmosphere even their commercialism was robbed of its sordidness. They consecrated their life to God and they were anxious to serve him with all their hearts, their souls, and with all their might." Jewish culture "blossoms forth in its pristine beauty." Polish Jews "were harmonious. They lived and acted in harmony."


I thank Otto Gross who purchased this book for me after coming across it in a used bookstore.


  1. I have already reviewed the book in question, which is authored by Dubnow and Friedlaender. Despite their Polonophobia, the authors present some interesting and very useful information.

    To see my review, please click on my name in this specific posting.

    1. Jan Peczkis, you are talking about a different book.

    2. Evidently, the 3 volume books set that I had reviewed, authored by Dubnow and Friedlaender, had been an expanded and slightly more recent version of the Friedlaender book that you cite.

      I have reviewed a whole series of books about Jews in tsarist Russia, and formed a Listmania about them in the recent past. To see it, please click on my name in this specific posting.

  2. While Freidlaender's rhetoric is not excusable, it is not as if it is without context. This was a particularly difficult period in relations among Poles, Russians, and Jews, with episodes of anti-Jewish violence and anti-Jewish boycotts. Theodore Weeks has a well-balanced article that looks at this subject against the background of the Polish partitions--


    1. Hello, David A. Goldfarb. Thank you for your post and welcome to the blog.

      I'm afraid I don't see the value of your comment. Sorry for being so blunt.

      The book in question is racist. It epitomizes a powerful stereotype. This stereotype has done much harm. It needs to be exposed and refuted. It has not been. My own book is a lonely voice in a troubled field.

      You appear to be attempting to excuse stereotyping (while saying that it is not excusable.)

      Look -- every cultural product has, as you put it, context. So what? How does that context lessen stereotyping, or the damage that stereotypes do?

      In fact, that context *does not* lessen stereotyping.

      Let me give you an example. Regular readers of this blog know that I was crippled for life after an ugly encounter with a powerful African American professor at Indiana University.

      Guess what? In spite of that -- I do not allow people to use the n word in my presence.

      Context? Plenty of context. I was physically damaged and financially ruined by a vicious racist who happened to be black.

      That does not justify stereotyping.

      get it?

      Probably every reader of this blog knows that the Polish szlachta were very imperfect people, too many of whom did contribute to Poland's downfall.

      We all know, or at least I hope we all know, that there was anti-Jewish prejudice and violence at this time.

      How does one species of hate excuse or lessen another species of hate?

      Or am I missing your point?

      I hope you can forgive me for being so blunt. And I do welcome you and your comments. I just fail to see the value in this one. I'm open to being educated.

  3. Brian Koralewski (Brian Lewski)August 28, 2012 at 5:58 PM

    Mr. Goldfarb please ask yourself, why were there anti-Jewish boycotts? Perhaps because they had control over many of the middle-class trade shops, that Polish peasants were attempting to break into. This isn't "antisemitism" (although undoubtedly many such as yourself are so quick to jump on that word) but simple economic competition.

  4. Danusha,

    My point is that given the racist rhetoric on all sides in this period, it is unsurprising that some Jewish intellectuals were not immune to it, and indeed if they had been, it would have been remarkable. For instance, if we put Friedlaender's statements alongside some of the examples of rhetoric that Brian Porter-Szűcs cites in his recent research on anti-semitism in the Polish Catholic church, we would both lament the racial stereotyping on both sides, and we might try to understand why, in the even broader context of 1000 years of Polish-Jewish coexistence, there had been such low points.

    Weeks' article does try to do that, and I think that's an interesting and productive approach.

    1. David, I applaud your not being put off by my blunt approach to your post.

      Let me invite you to do something.

      You say, David, that the author you cite takes "an interesting and productive approach."

      Let me invite you to take what I consider to be an interesting and productive approach.

      Let me read you state, "Friedlaender's book is racist. His racism is not random. It is part of a pattern that goes back centuries and persists in 2012. Friedlaender disseminates what has been called the Bieganski stereotype of Poles as something like animals. Friedlaender does that quite consciously, selling the image to American, Protestant, anti-Catholic and anti-Slavic readers. he does it to advance three causes: the embrace of Jewish immigrants in the US, the Zionist project in Palestine, and the American overseeing of Poland's rebirth.

      His doing so is wrong and immoral. In fact, any use of the Brute Polak stereotype is immoral."

      No, David, I don't expect you to say that.

      But I would have liked to have seen something like that before you began attempting to change the focus of the discussion and to trivialize the stereotyping of Poles as animals to achieve political ends, regardless of how that stereotyping affected Poles at a very vulnerable time in their history.

      Me, David? I am on record as condemning stereotyping and racism again and again and again and again.

      You can find my statements against racism and stereotyping in my published work, on this blog, and all over the web.

      I do this because racism and stereotyping are wrong.

      I do not try to change the subject. I do not trivialize. I just condemn them, no matter the environment, no matter the risk, no matter the potential loss or gain.

    2. Perhaps I don't feel it is necessary to state the obvious--that any racial stereotyping is immoral. I think you know that I believe that, and I know that you believe that, but at the same time, I don't believe that things are so simple. We can say there was wrong done on many sides and stop at that, but it is more meaningful to me to understand why these things happened and what the alternatives were.

    3. These "things" happen when:

      1) there is no interbreeding b/t two groups of people and a desire to keep others out or keep itself separate (you can put the blame finger in any direction); and

      2) one group occupies a distinct and, in some ways, privileged, niche in mainstream society, while the other represents [90]% of the population (counting Ukrainians Belorussians here b/c the issues were largely the same);

      mainstream is relevant here b/c if you're not mainstream you can be separate and pretty much do what you want; notice that no one raves about the injustices perpetrated by the Amish (well almost no one);

      item 2 may also occur without friction (or less friction) if the "[90]%" is itself divided among various groups (vide US) such that various bogeymen may be invoked for various groups and alliances become ever changing;

      Put differently, preserving one's ethnic identity and playing an important (prominent, visible, whatever you like) role in mainstream society are incompatible with
      avoiding ire unless other groups are a cause of even more ire;

      as always, indiscriminate sex is the solution

    4. but, of course, everyone knows this, which is why this entire discussion is a bit disingenous;

      I also don't get why we need to bring the Jewish people into this? Do you know what Russian authors wrote about Poles? Or, for that matter, German ones? Those stereotypes survived in the US as well &, historically, have been much more harmful to Poles;

    5. Anonymous, please post under a real name. Thank you.

      You ask, "I also don't get why we need to bring the Jewish people into this?"

      this blog is devoted to the book, "Bieganski: the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture."

      Given that that is our topic, we talk a lot about Poles and Jews.

      In any case, we also talk about stereotypes of Poles in American media, and in German-Nazi propaganda.

      We don't talk much about Russian stereotypes of Poles because they are less pertinent to the matter at hand, but we do know about them.

      BTW, "we" is me and the others who post here.

      Again, in the future, please post under a real name.

  5. "Because of this lousy leadership, Poland is "destitute," where "the only seeds of civilization were planted and cultivated by Germans and Jews."

    hahahaha....... how amusing; how lovely to fast forward another 25 years!!!!!

    You see the same venomous hatred today when certain people write books such as "What's wrong with Kansas?" What's "wrong" with Kansas is what's (still) right with America.

  6. yes, you should read some of the German rhetoric from the same time. Mostly in agreement with the above - just replace Jewish with German.

  7. On the other hand, these stereotypes persist, of course. recently at a party I was informed that "the Poles killed all the smart people" in WWII. I replied "apparently, however, not all the obnoxious ones". The lady who previously found it interesting to talk to me when she found out I was Polish (the conversation starter on her part was "oh, how interesting, my housekeeper was Polish.") did not speak to me for the entire evening after that; she only cringed when at the end of the evening, I observed that "we must do this again some time".

  8. Mr. Koralewski,

    One interesting argument that Brian Porter-Szűcs makes is that the church hierarchy promoted anti-Jewish boycotts using antisemitic language as a way of redirecting the impulse toward anti-Jewish violence on the part of less-educated parishioners, using one species of racism to prevent a worse species of racism. The message was arguably, "yes, support your own, don't buy from them, but don't hurt anyone."

    1. ahhh...... the Church had to restrain the savage hordes - of course; after all it is a "Catholic" Church whereas the apemen are just virulent hate

  9. Thanks to Danusha for the book update and to the good hunting of Otto to find it.

    Its clear by the lively debate and evident new readers finding the blog that the topic was of high value.

    Is there any way of knowing the number of books that were printed? Has anyone researched for contemporary reference? In any case it was published at an ideal moment to have an impact on opinions of Poland at a critical moment in history, making its vile slurs all the worse.


    1. MB -- as always, please read "Bieganski." You will find more recent examples of stereotyping of Poles that more or less follows the pattern followed by Friedlaender. Readers often remark that the recent date of many examples and the sources -- the New York Times, for example -- shock them.

      If this topic interests you, you might also want to read "Conflicts Across the Atlantic" by Andrzej Kapiszewski

    2. Yes, CONFLICTS ACROSS THE ATLANTIC is a fascinating book. To read my review of it, please click on my name in this specific posting.

  10. David, hope you find this comment. It is in reply to you.

    You wrote:

    "I don't feel it is necessary to state the obvious"

    David, I don't know if you know anything about the story behind the publication of the book "Bieganski."

    It was finished in 2002. It was immediately accepted for publication by Ohio University Press. An editor there called it "wonderful" and I received a signed contract. Still have it, as a matter of fact. The contract promised a published book within a year.

    Instead, at the end of the year, I received a letter saying that the book could not be published. It was "controversial" for a Polish Catholic (me -- I'm hardly Polish -- born in the US of a Polish father and a Slovak mother; had to learn Polish as a foreign language. Not a typical Catholic. Active feminist and organizer for gay rights. Pro choice.)

    It was "controversial" for someone labeled as a Polish Catholic to even suggest that Jews stereotype Poles.

    The book went from publisher to publisher for years. The same story, over and over again. Editors would embrace it, promise publication, and then, when they got a whiff of controversy, would drop it.

    I was told, by established figures in academia, that I should change my name, publish under a false name, or take on a Jewish co-author.

    One publisher said they would publish the book if I could get a Jewish scholar to support it.

    i said a Jewish scholar did support "Bieganski," and that that scholar was Antony Polonsky, a truly great man.

    This publisher said that Antony Polonsky was not Jewish enough, because he didn't look obviously Jewish, and his name sounded too Polish.

    The point of these sob stories -- it is hugely controversial to say that Jews stereotype Poles.

    We haven't gotten there yet. We haven't gotten to the point where it is acceptable to say this, never mind obvious to say this.

    It is, in fact, still taboo to say this. It is still hugely risky to say this.

    That's exactly why it needs to be said.

    It is okay, though, to say really racist things about Poles.

    As for the rest of your post -- of course. Of course we talk about why these things happen. That's why "Bieganski" is hundreds of pages long.

    But, as this post demonstrates, that basic, first step -- even just acknowledging that this stereotyping is going on -- is still a taboo, risky step.

    it is a step that must be taken.

  11. Sorry to hear of your publication woes, Danusha. Don't change your name, and I don't know for whom Antony Polonsky is "insufficiently Jewish" or why it should matter, but for such persons, I'm probably "insufficiently Jewish" as well. If you recall, we were both learning Polish as a foreign language in the summer of 1987 I think it was, and we've met at the occasional conference over the years, so I know about your project, but hadn't heard the publication details.

    1. David! I thought that was you but I wasn't sure. How wonderful! It's so cool to reconnect.

      Thank you!

    2. Now, as for context.

      I think the best context to understand Friedlaender's book politically are the three historical events mentioned: immigration, Zionism, and Poland's rebirth.

      The intellectual context is Scientific Racism.

      Strangely enough, even people who themselves were reduced to a low status by Scientific Racism bought into Scientific Racism. An example -- Roman Dmowski. American Scientific Racists despised Poles and yet Dmowski adopted Scientific Racist ideas, mores the pity.

      Even some Jews bought into Scientific Racism. Anzia Yezierska uses the vocabulary and ideas in her own writing, especially in "Salome of the Tenements."

      Friedlaender, too. he talks about Poles as a "race." He talks about Jewish marriages being "eugenic" (!) because Jews marry smart men.

    3. On the ubiquity and problems of "scientific racism" we're in agreement.

    4. It's even in Gone with the Wind. Mitchell keeps talking about Gerald O'Hara's character being the product of his Irish "race" and Ellen's character being the product of her French "race." And Ashley as being racially unfit to survive.


  12. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2194930/HITLER-Jewish-groups-India-urge-owners-clothing-store-change-shops-name.html

    And the beat goes on. This is not directly related but may be of interest to blog readers. It ties in with some previous blog-mentions of certain seeming insensitivities to Western norms in Asia. Well, this guy claims he had no idea who "Hitler" was yet was able to make a very specially dotted "i" in his logo.

    1. MB that article about the Indian man naming his shop "Hitler" is hideous. That man ... needs to be reeducated.


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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