Thursday, January 10, 2013

Polonia: Make Allies. Linda C. Wisniewski's Guest Blog Post

Author Linda C.Wisniewski tells Polonia we must make allies
Allies: Rev. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,
Heschel was one of many supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. 
In the PFLAG "Stay Close" ad campaign, heterosexuals embrace and support their homosexual family members. 
Israel has many friends and allies who are not Jewish. 

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I hate to be defensive. If only Polish people are standing up and saying we were not anti-Semites, it carries less weight than if we had non-Polish allies speaking up for us. The civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the women's movement, all had powerful allies that were not part of the group unfairly treated.

I learned very young that people would look down on me for being Polish. I learned it from my mother. I went to a Polish elementary school and all of my friends were Polish too. In the neighborhood, nobody called me a Polack. I learned that I should expect that, but actually it never happened. I just grew up expecting it. I was lucky.

In school, I learned about the Holocaust. When I asked my mother why nobody stopped it, she said "we didn't know."

My first husband was Jewish. Our wedding caused earthquakes in both our families. My husband smarted still from being called anti-Jewish names when he was little. His relatives giggled and called me a derogatory name for Gentile woman. An older woman at my workplace warned me that "Jews and Polish people don't get along." She was Polish and Catholic.

The marriage ended after ten years, not because of religion (neither of us was observant by then) but because we looked at life in different ways. I read about the concentration camps in occupied Poland and in Germany, and learned that some of my people collaborated or participated in genocide, like some Germans and Ukrainians and French and Italians. I felt sad but not defensive, because I believe we need to acknowledge the good and bad in all of us. There were bad Americans at My Lai and Abu Ghraib and bad Poles at Jedwabne.

In 2010, I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau with my second husband, Polish American like me. We were guided by Polish citizens who were very respectful of the sites. They said they could not do it every day, the story is so sad. I will never understand the cruelty of genocide, but I do understand how "we didn't know" became an excuse for inaction. Ursula Hegi's novel, Stones From the River, made it clear for me, for the first time. Ordinary people hoped the Nazis would go away, or that the crimes would not touch them or their friends or family. The movement grew and grew aided by prejudice and fear until it became so powerful it took huge armies to halt the horror.

In Krakow, we visited the Kazimierz district and learned about a Jewish revival in Poland. I felt a dual patriotism when a Polish college professor said "we have the pain of a phantom limb here" as he talked about the loss of so many of Poland's Jews. I thought of the loss of so many Native Americans in the early days of my birth country. Same kinds of losses, same delayed acknowledgement.

In my youth, I laughed nervously at Polish jokes. I even told a few myself, to show I had a good sense of humor and could laugh at myself. One day I stopped, not in a big moment of epiphany, but because I felt false, phony, and inauthentic for mocking my ancestry. I didn't really believe Poles were brutes, stupid or drunks. When I told a friend her Polish jokes offended me, she was angry. She called me judgmental and said many people laughed at Polish, Italian and Irish jokes. It's all in fun, she said. Then count me out, I replied. I didn't give a detailed explanation or try to defend my position. I just resolved then and there to speak up, walk away, and not allow ethnic jokes or their ugly cousin, hate speech, in my presence.

For the rest of the world to understand that Poland did not build concentration camps for Jews, and that Polish people welcomed Jews for many years before Hitler came to power, and that Poles are not brutes, we will need allies from other ethnic backgrounds. Otherwise, I think our protests will be dismissed as whining and defensive.

But to gain these allies, we need to keep talking and writing about this in a factual, clear and not embittered way. We need to frame it as part of the larger struggle for social justice and equality. Then I think we will succeed in seeing all people as individuals, some more flawed than others, but no one as an unjust stereotype.

Linda C.Wisniewski is a writer and memoir teacher. Her book, Off Kilter: A Woman's Journey to Peace With Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Visit her website and blog at


Linda C Wisniewski is correct. "Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype" is very much not a chauvinist book. It very much is a book that, as Wisniewski says, frames the struggle against the Brute Polak stereotype as part of the larger struggle for social justice and equality.

This stereotype will only be defeated when Polonians and others adopt the strategies described in the three-part blog post entitled "The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision."


  1. Since it is consistent with this blog, a listing of notable non-Poles, who supported Poles and Poland in the past, may be of interest to your readers. This item, to which Dr. Goska had already commented in the past, can be seen by clicking on my name in this specific posting.

  2. ///all had powerful allies that were not part of the group unfairly treated.

    Indeed.They had powerful left-wing do-gooders who could show off their goodness by helping those who were weak.Sorry, that does not apply to everyone-I am interpolating that from what I am observing today…

    ///I learned very young that people would look down on me for being Polish.
    Yes.That is why I like neo-nazis better-they are at least frank about their hatred, not like the left-wing liberals loving f.e all things African but despising Slavs.

    ///like some Germans
    Some=very,very many-one must,imho, also count the whole German administration,policeforce,journalists who made it possible in the first place. Don’t get me wrong-but I am totally against dividing up the guilt between several nations-because it whitewashes the Nazi German leading role in it.

    ///laughed nervously at Polish jokes.
    Me too. Now, I am telling contra-jokes and anecdotes about other nations. Here is one: Go to Poland,your (stolen) car is already there. (German prejudice) My answer-Go to Germany,your grandmas jewels are already there. Or this with being good at stealing. My answer-During Christmas, Polish families often buy living carps,put them in a tank of water. But when it comes to killing them, they go look for a German.They are what you call experts in that field. Shocking? I don’t care. Many people whom I told that to asked me why and I explained. As virtually no one knows about Polish suffering during WWII, the effects are positive. (Unfortunately, Polands government does not want to talk about that-it does not want “to offend” our “friends”, f.e in the West).

    ///Italian and Irish jokes
    Are there Japanese jokes? Chinese jokes? Black jokes? American jokes? How come?

    ///we will need allies from other ethnic backgrounds
    I believe the help of the Polish government would be the most important one. With this, it looks very,very bad. Radek Sikorski is not able to promote anything besides his wifes books. Than again,if s.o has a tenure in f.e Black studies-why should he help Poles? There is still “so much invisible racism out there…”.
    ///We need to frame it as part of the larger struggle for social justice and equality
    Incredible.But yes, You are right.I also believe we should discover our self-worth and realize the immense hypocrisy and dig out the skeletons others have in their closet (like the fate of the St. Lois, the way Britain was handling its mandate in Palestine,the Vichy regime and the smallness of la Resistance ect) for all to see.Also,promote loudly our own heroes.And hope,that the times become more conservative-I have realize that Poles are hated the most by “liberals” and “progressives”. Like I said in the past- Polish is the new black

  3. Hanna, I appreciate your intelligence, passion, and willingness to think outside the box.

    But -- there's always a but -- I'm going to politely disagree with you.

    I'll give just one example. During Solidarnosc / Martial Law, the US supported Poland in significant ways. The government helped Solidarnosc, and non-governmental groups, like labor unions, supported Solidarnosc.

    You can't pooh pooh that or pretend it didn't happen.

    1. US government helped Solidarnosc because it was in their own interests. Talibs got Stingers, we received photocopiers. But it was Poles who were bleeding for freedom.

    2. Lukasz, I find your negativity unproductive. What good will come of your attitude? That is not a rhetorical question. It is a real one, one I ask you to consider.

      The US helped Solidarity out of its own interests?

      So? Help is help.

      I remember those days in America. I remember the enthusiasm and concern for Poland. You do not benefit anyone by belittling it. You risk alienating potential allies, which sabotages your own announced cause.

      Look -- if the goal is to go through life with a chip on your shoulder, talking about how everyone has failed you and how you are a helpless victim, then congratulations.

      If your goal is to accomplish something, to eliminate the Brute Polak stereotype, then consider engaging in behaviors that will accomplish that.

    3. Well-Łukasz is kind of right. Americans,or rather,the US government,is also an ally of Saudi Arabia-the main sponsor for Islamic terrorism on earth.Or of several other dictatorships. Im not saying it in a negative way-it serves their purpose and thats what does count. I would like to refer to Dmowski on that matter, who was a staunch advocate of immitating succesfull nations instead of bleeding for fuzzy feelings things like helping others ect.

    4. Hallo again- I think I own an explanation as to why I am so sceptical with regards to getting help from f.e the Gay community-I was basing my doubts on the fact that, at least in Europe, Poland is defamed on Pride parades as a country similar to---Iran.Or Russia. I am kidding You not-in Western European newspapers (mainly liberal/"progressive"/left-wing ones) Poland is defamed sometimes as if it were Saudi-Arabia.The latter one is not at all defamed (although homosexuals are murdered there)-you should not bite the hand that gives you lots of money,after all. Ive been myself twice verbally put down/abused by gays for the crime of being Polish. But I really do not know what the situation is in America....I believe that the only thing these activist will see will be Poland "failure" to introduce gay marriage.Perhaps they will "want to help" with buying ad-space anouncing the "backwardness" of Poland- As to feminists-they will probably "want to help" "deconstructing" the "Matka Polska" "myth" or help organize more useless demonstrations in Poland called manify.That is why, in conclusion, asking Blacks for help might be the best bet, I think. There are many good things in African/Black-Polish relations which could, if made more widely known, foster a feeling of solidarity :-)

    5. Hanna, in US, where I live, gays do not harass us for being Polish. My children were put down by Jews and it was devastating. I like your comments, you are my kind of person. On topic of allies Linda is right; just look how Jews and gays unite in attacks on Obama's nomination for Chuck Hagel for the secretary of defense. We will see how successfully. For our cause, I do not see practical adoption of this tactic.

    6. There were money coming from USA for Solidarity movement but it stuck somewhere in Vatican run by Jesuits.

  4. I also wonder why Mrs Wisniewski compared Polish Jews to Native Americans? I'm sorry but that seat is taken. Poles are the natives here, we didin't sold that birthright for a bowl of stew. And we had no way to stop the Holocaust. Just like your "Indians" had no way to stop slavery on those cotton plantations.
    I'm also surprised that Americans feel "phantom limb". Wasn't the US Army responsible for, shall we say, "final solution of the Indian question"? It wasn't some invader who chopped off that Native American limb.
    My family lived in Eastern Poland. No camps in the area. Grandma learned about Auschwitz when her cousin came from that place. With a tatoo on his forearm. If she had knew about it before that, she would do nothing. Because defenseless peasants were no match for the German Army. Guys in fancy uniforms. One day they came to village, went from house to house, they dragged off men, women and children, and shot them near the church. And relatives were watching.
    If Americans can't imagine that, then I have a sugestion. Twin Towers are falling. And You can do NOTHING.
    How that feels?

    1. Lukasz, I am surprised by your negative attitude to Linda. She is a published Polish American author and she is part of this struggle. You are addressing her as if she were your enemy. I don't see how that is helpful.

      Why not ask your questions of Linda in a friendly and respectful way?

    2. The perspective is breathtaking...and so difficult to try to explain to those who can't fathom it.

    3. I'm not adressing Mrs Wisniewski as my enemy. She made comparisons in her text. Typical for Americans. They try to understand other people by using parallels. They also imagine themselves in their place.
      Mrs Wisniewski made comparisons. She compared Poles with Americans. I disagree with her. Thugs from Jedwabne represented no one, exept themselves. No uniforms, no insignia. They weren't foreign soldiers. It makes a difference. Even if the crimes were similar.
      Another parallel is also improper. We didin't decimated Polish Jews. Or any other Jews in Europe. Our "phantom limb" is a result of outside forces.
      I didin't like those comparisons. My comment was harsh, that is true. I should have wrote it in more civil way. Next time I will wait till I calm down.

    4. Lukasz, of course I see your point. At the same time, I think we benefit by recognizing compatriots and allies and saluting them for the good they do rather than starting out by jumping all over them and criticizing their errors. Don't you think?

      I'm grateful to Linda for this essay. I think her point about allies is brilliant and necessary. That's what I want to focus on -- her taking the time to write this essay, and her comment about allies.

      I also think the Native American analogy is a mistake, but I'm not going to focus on that.

    5. Danusha, why do you think that "Native American analogy is a mistake"? Actually, I like it.

    6. Because it is the Poles that were the "natives" in this case - it is as if the French demanded of the Mohicans to have done more to stop the slaughter of the French colonists by the English.

      There is a deeper problem with Ms. Wisniewski's viewpoint - once you allow the other side to set the discussion terms, half the battle is lost - as written elsewhere, your name will not remain untarnished, no matter the conclusion, if the debate framework is one of "are you a [pedophile/anti-semite/racist/cheater/murderer, etc]"

      But in the court of public opinion, the normal presumption of innocence is reversed.

  5. Lots of interesting ideas in the blogpost and the replies - hello all - and Jan P you are a another tireless worker at the Polish media issues coal face. I am only a part timer.

    I have already explained why I can't take part in the politics of anything, so won't again. But re the idea of alliances... I do worry that the way it worked in America was by playing one group off against each other, encouraging others to nurture wrongs - often real and existing wrongs of course - but, in other words, encouraging people to "keep account" of the injury, when our Creator has told us to do the opposite.

    Though I can't claim to have made a study of it - so I stand to be corrected.

    Where I hope we can ally ourselves with others is in learning how to treat them. We know just what it is like to be the butt of hateful jokes. So I would say, let Poles/Polonians be known as people who do not tell that sort of joke.

    As for anyone foolish enough to ask me why Poles "did nothing" to stop the Holocaust - and to be fair, no-one has yet - I would point out to them that Poles like my father and so many others fought against Hitler from the first to the last day of WW2, and their reward was brutal betrayal the moment the war ended, and vilification ever since.

    And I would then ask them, given that the nations that stayed out of the war and stayed neutral or that fought on the Axis side and lost are treated with much more respect, what lesson should us Poles/Polonians learn from that.

    I hope the one we will learn will be that of neutrality - of being "no part" of the world.

  6. I wished you could all have been sitting with me at the Kingdom Hall last night. In nearly two hours of Bible teaching, among the timely reminders we we received were these words of Jesus:
    "However, I say to you that everyone who continues wrathful with his brother will be accountable to the court of justice; but whoever addresses his brother with an unspeakable word of contempt will be accountable to the Supreme Court; whereas whoever says, ‘You despicable fool!’ will be liable to the fiery Ge‧hen′na." - Matthew 5:22

    To treat others with contempt, as if they were worthless - very specifically in the words used, morally worthless - is as serious as it gets. The "fiery Gehenna" is called "the second death". It is the death from which there is no resurrection.

    These are not obscure words. They are from the Sermon on the Mount.

    So we have the guide of the Inspired Scriptures, to get us safely through the moral minefield that is this present system of things on the earth.

    Where "the world" will tell us that "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me", we know personally how untrue that is, and how true God's word is when it teaches us that one wrong word can do as much damage as the little spark that sets a forest fire.

    So we are getting a reinforcement in the wisdom of treating others, of speaking to them and of them with kindness and respect, as our Creator requires. And I believe we can really be empowered by this.

    That is one of the reason why I feel very grateful that my father was Polish.

    Though, re the contemptuous Polish "jokes", are they on the wane now? And if so, why?

    My own thought is that the idea of us all being as thick as two short planks doesn't quite gel with the idea of us being the Evil Masterminds behind the horrors of WW2.

    But I may well be wrong.

  7. Sometimes it's hard but I try to resist blaming a particular ethnic group for perpetrating the crimes of some or many of their members. I think it's more helpful to look at people as individuals. Including ourselves. Stand up for what you believe, and stand up for justice everywhere.

  8. I read this blog post with interest. I think where I would disagree with the writer is in her description of the Polish people using the 'we didn't know' defence, and saying 'Ordinary people hoped the Nazis would go away, or that the crimes would not touch them or their friends or family.'

    I think it's important to remember that Auschwitz was built initially to hold Poles (Jew and Gentile), and that the Poles were identified by Hitler as Untermensch who should be driven out of Europe, apart from a small number who would be kept as slave workers to support the Reich. Hitler planned to ban education for Poles and to destroy most of them.

    Later, when the Holocaust began, any Poles found helping the Jews were sentenced to death (usual method: hanging with a short drop - a horrible way to die) along with their families. It wasn't that they didn't know - the amazing thing was how many helped the Jews even then. I'm not sure I would have been brave enough. Possibly, just possibly, if it were only me at risk, but no, not if my children faced the penalties as well. I'm not proud of that - but I can't pretend to be better than I am.

    This is not to deny the other side - that there were Polish people (and French people and British people and Italian people and American people - I could go on) who were anti-Semitic. But it's important to remember that being a Pole in occupied Poland wasn't like being French in occupied France.

    But I agree with Ms Wisniewski that we need support from other groups.


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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