Friday, October 19, 2012

Bieganski at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

On Thursday, October 18, 2012, I had the honor of presenting a talk about “Bieganski” at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I was a guest of the Mosse-Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies. There was a lively and heartfelt discussion after the talk. I enjoyed this trip tremendously, and this post will include a bit about Polish-Jewish relations, and a bit of the personal, as well.

I flew not long after surgery. I was a bit worried – would I measure up?

So far, everything has gone off without a hitch. I thank the many good people who sent prayers my way. I have felt no fatigue, neither while traveling nor while delivering the talk.

Prof. James P. Leary was key in inviting me to Madison. Prof. Leary is an Irish-American scholar who is a great friend to Polonia. After he became aware of my work several years ago, Prof. Leary contacted me and has been a stalwart supporter and warmhearted friend ever since. Unfortunately he is currently in Iceland, so we were unable to meet.

I was met at the airport by
Prof. Herbert S. Lewis, a scholar I greatly admire. Prof. Lewis is the author of “The Passion of Franz Boas.” I first contacted Prof. Lewis several years ago to ask him a question about Franz Boas, a scholar mentioned in “Bieganski.” We stopped for a delicious lunch of humus and couscous, and we talked about roots and identity. Prof. Lewis, like me, is from New Jersey, and he has some ancestry from Poland, and also England.

I mentioned that I tear up when I mention the Polish national anthem. Herb said the Hatikvah moves him to tears. I said it moves me to tears, as well, and of course we mentioned that it comes from a tune used by Bedrich Smetana, from my mother’s birthplace of Czechoslovakia.

The Jewish Studies Center’s very charming Kesha Weber shepherded me from the hotel to the speaking venue. I was introduced by
Rachel Brenner, who was born in Poland. She is the author of “Writing as Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust.”

I’ve spoken enough about Polish-Jewish relations to know that I needed to tell the audience that I was not going to say what they might have expected me to say.

The speaker on Polish-Jewish relations faces two challenges:

1.) Most people have never heard of Polish-Jewish relations, don’t care about the topic, and don’t realize that it has any significance to them whatsoever.

2.) Those who have heard about Polish-Jewish relations are, all too often, rabid partisans of one side or another.

I see my job as doing two things:

1.) I must address those in the audience who may not realize that the Polish-Jewish interface has universal significance. Not just because Auschwitz is in Poland. But because it is part of our job here as humans to figure out how to get along with each other, including those we define as “other.” The Polish-Jewish interface offers lessons on that, and this story is all too often distorted and abused, rather than used in the best way it could be.

2.) I must let those in the audience who are familiar with Polish-Jewish relations know that I am not going to say the predictable things that they may want me to say.

What predictable things do people expect?

One side will want me to say that Jews have suffered more than any other people on earth, and that Poles are the world’s worst anti-Semites.

I don’t say that.

The other side will want me to say that Poles are the most gloriously heroic people on earth, that they have suffered more than anyone, and that Polish anti-Semitism is no big deal. Oh, and: Kosciuszko! Pilsudski! Chopin!

I don’t say that.

If you’ve read, and understood, the book, and if you read this blog, you know exactly what I said. And you know that parts of it are hard to hear. Hard for Poles to hear. Hard for Jews to hear. Hard for anyone to hear.

I very much liked the reaction I received from the audience. From reading facial expressions, I had a sense that they hadn’t heard all this before, but they were following me, with open, intelligent minds, and with interest.

I asked how many people identified as Jewish, and how many identified as Polish. About a third of the audience raised their hands to the first question, and about a third to the second, leaving about a third identifying as neither.

That was very heartening to me. I was saying the same, hard things to Polonians, to Jews, and to members of neither group, and all were ready to listen, understand, care, and engage.

Given that reaction, I can’t help but think that the time is ripe and the opportunity is there for us – all of us who care about this – to seize this moment and CHANGE things. To name the Bieganski stereotype for what it is, understand it, and get past it. I can only hope that Polonia will consider doing this.

The question and answer period was lively and rewarding to me. People asked key questions.

A young lady with a slight Polish accent reported shock at what young Americans learn about Poland – that the Poles were more or less a minor version of the Nazis, that they never fought or suffered, that they murdered Jews just as the Nazis did.

A man wearing a yarmulke said that when he goes to baseball games in Chicago Polish fans throw popcorn at him and the police do nothing to intervene.

Mrs. Lewis chided me for making a sarcastic comment about my reaction to Germans. In my answer to her, I said that a post on this blog, Otto Gross’ “Ripples of Sin,” helped to change, not so much my mind, but my heart, about Germans.

Mrs. Lewis also mentioned that, just as we should not stereotype by ethnicity, we should not stereotype by socioeconomic class. I agreed strongly and mentioned the Ulma family, peasants, who sacrificed their lives and the lives of their children for saving Jews.

Two people asked similar questions Their gist: if more people encounter decent, white-collar Poles in real life, will that weaken the stereotype?

I said that when I was younger, like many people, I invested in the notion of human progress – that, as time goes on, people get better and better, and nasty things like stereotypes are defeated. Now that I’m older, I see that that is not the case. There is genocidal anti-Semitism loose in the world again today. One need only listen to the statements by the leader of Iran. Too, one of my informants told me clearly that the Poles she knows in real life are white collar professionals, but when she hears the world “Pole” she thinks of a working class person in rumpled clothing, dirt under the fingernails, no education.

After the lecture, I enjoyed Ethiopian food at Buraka with John Cash, an old friend from my days at IUB. John and I had not seen each other in seven years, and yet eating a meal with him felt completely natural. I thought about my essay “Never Be An Immigrant,” and reuniting with old friends in Poland in 2011 whom I had not seen in over twenty years. Those reunions, too, felt … natural. I guess the heart does not possess a stop watch.

The photo, above, is of an unexpected, surprising delight on this trip. I had a layover in Detroit. The photo is of a tunnel in the Detroit airport. The tunnel is lined with a curved screen on which amorphous, floating shapes in blues, pinks, purples, and occasional flashes of yellow flicker and dance. New Age music accompanies the visual display. It takes about five minutes to walk through this tunnel.

I applaud the airport for including this brief foray into a trance, dreamlike state for its travelers. I liked the tunnel so much I went back and walked through it a couple of more times, and I felt de-stressed and revived each time.

Human decisions and human will make up the human world. Polonia can decide to play its cards differently regarding the Bieganski stereotype. The audience in Madison showed the readiness of many Poles, Jews, and others for civil dialogue and a rejection of the Bieganski stereotype and a confrontational, enemy-approach. Those who would like to take action on this matter might want to read the three-part blog post on the Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision.


  1. "...the heart does not possess a stop watch." Love this....

  2. That's my hometown - always thinking about other states of consciousness. Wish I could have been at Madison. I was so happy to hear that you were able to conduct the events/etc. despite your health. Polonia - are you listening? Christina Pacosz

    1. Christina, honored to have your feedback

      You ask if Polonia is listening.

      Well, you read the blog so you know the story. Since "Bieganski" has been published, I've been writing to Polonian leaders, offering to speak. I've contacted everyone I can think of -- you know the names, organizations, venues. No need for me to spell it out.

      The most frequent response I receive is dead silence. No response at all.

      Then some ask for free copies of the book.

      And a few send disparaging replies. We have considered your offer and decided that your work has no merit to Polonia.

    2. Danusha,

      I wonder if an email campaign of those of us in Polish American studies who disagree with these disparaging spokespeople from mainstream groups in Polonia might open up your opportunities. If many emails came in at the same time, minds sometimes change. Might be worth a try, anyway.

  3. Enjoyed this post. Would have liked to have been there.

    1. John Guzlowski, you CAN be there. Anyone can invite me to speak. I went to University of Wisconsin-Madison because they invited me.

  4. Thanks Danusha - that was a valiant effort, especially given your drastic medical circumstances!

    Love the tunnel - sounds like it was quite healing! And so glad you managed to get there, give the talk, and find a responsive audience. Hopefully, you will have made some of them think.

    And I do agree with your neutral stance - is that quite the right word? But i mean, your perspective being that both sides have suffered and that neither side is perfect.

    This balance is what is usually missing - or perhaps carefully and deliberately omitted.

    Can the Bieganski stereotype change? Well, media-wise and academic-wise I believe it could change in an instant if the politics required. But its reaching hearts that is important.

    Because if the politics change, then what it may simply mean is that someone else will get put in the frame. I note, very sadly, that sanctions are now being imposed on the people of Iran, which is going to lead to a great deal of suffering - especially among the poor and the working-classes - the most powerless people.

    I am looking forward to an earth on which no-on is "the baddie", no-one is getting picked on, and obedient humankind will become the one loving family we were always meant to be.

    In the meantime, while we wait for the incoming Kingdom of God, we need to try and be as peaceable with each other as we can. And hopefully you have made a bit of peace there with your talk.

    Thanks again.

  5. Here's hoping you receive more invitations to speak at such civilized venues. You are a true mensch, Dr. Goska.

    You wrote, "Those who have heard about Polish-Jewish relations are, all too often, rabid partisans of one side or another."

    I'd like to add that too many of those who write and speak about Polish-Jewish relations are men. Women such as yourself will, I think, do much to elevate the discussion and make it less of a pissing contest.

    Keep at it.

    1. Hi, LR! Thank you so much for the positive feedback. I share your hope that I receive more invitations to speak! I'd love to receive some from some Polish American organizations. One is right across the river from me in Manhattan ...

  6. Thanks for the recap. Super valuable.

  7. Dear Danusha, this might be of general interest to You:

    1. Hello Hanno,
      That's an interesting article. But it's in Polish, so English speakers won't understand a word. While this interview is copied from respected history magazine ("Uważam Rze Historia"), I suspect that it's not a legal copy. Also this site is a little weird. Decent articles writen by professional historians and anti-izraeli rubbish writen by some politically correct Hamas-lovers. All mixed up. Bałagan. You should be carefull when posting a link. Some anti-semitic text on such site and even Your best intentions will be misinterpreted. But the article itself is great. Thank You.

    2. I agree-the site itself is kind of weird and I was looking for a decent one where the interview was also posted.Because I believe it to be very profound and important-I myself have experienced the consternation when telling people that in Poland between 5-6 mio people were murdered (Polish citizens),around half of them not of Jewish faith. This,for some reason, is taken as an insult,even as a try to "relativize the Holocaust". I believe such a claim is anti-Semitic.Why? Because people (perhaps unwillingly?) are telling,though this, that somehow Jewish suffering is worse,so dont even dare to take pitance an the Poles,Slavs,Gypsies (...these vile anti-Semites blah blah.)Of course, this causes a feeling of worthlessness (historically, when Nazi Germans occupied Poland, they introduced a special law for Jews and Poles,making it possible for a German to murder/rob/rape them and to get off scot-free,while in the opposite case Jews and Poles were automatically persecuted and executed-their lives were worthless),a feeling that the other group is entitled to everything,and is arrogant about it ect-this causes feelings of mistrust,even anger, hatred and,in this case, anti-Semitic sentiments (which are not completely without real-life reasons) as time goes by. This is why I also detest the anti-Polish hate speech of people like Debbie Schlussel-she is making a horrible name for Jewish people (and she is not telling the truth,also)

  8. One more thing I want to mention. An older man in the audience mentioned that when he was a kid, people would beat him up based on his identity, and that those people made clear to him who they were. He never stated this explicitly, but I gathered that he himself was Jewish, and the people beating him up were Polish. And that this all occurred in the US.

    He then said something I found very poignant. He said he was willing to forgive and forget. I think he said that at least partly as a gesture to me, someone on the "Polish Catholic" side of the aisle. (I put that phrase in quotes, because as all this goes, I, Sue Knight, who is an English Jehovah's Witness, Danuta Reah, an English atheist, would all be identified as "Polish Catholics." Me? I'm an American raised Catholic but not at all an Orthodox one.)

    I said to the man, "I want to forgive, but I don't think we should forget. I do not support any attempt to erase Polish anti-Semitism or to trivialize it or sweep it under the rug, or any other anti-Semitism. That is part of our history and we have to be mindful of it and it is our duty to work to defeat it."

  9. Interesting point Danusha - yes, we would all of us be identified as "Polish Catholics" in this context.


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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