Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger Remembrance of an Historic Night. Not What You'd Expect Me to Say

My parents were peasant immigrants from Eastern Europe. My mother cleaned houses and worked in factories. My dad mined coal as a child and did manual labor as an adult.

My mother was very bright. She was certainly one of the best writers I've ever read. There was no chance that she'd ever be anything but a cleaning woman. Her father, my grandfather, had contracted emphysema in the coal mine. My mom had to quit school and support her younger siblings. She cooked and clean and worked as a nanny for a Jewish family. She learned some Yiddish and introduced us to the Jewish foods she used to cook.

My dad also had to quit school young. His dad had had to fight to pay back his passage from Poland. The "Johnny Bulls" – Americans of English, Irish, Scotch and Welsh ancestry – thought that they could beat my grandfather as he was a small man, a "little Polak." But he beat them. They bushwhacked him one night. Eventually, he died, and my dad, speaking Polish as a first language and only eleven years old, hit the rails during the Depression, trying to find work to support the family. Underage, he joined the Army under false papers and served as "Stanley" though his name was Tony. When he came of age he re-enlisted under his real name. He fought in New Guinea and the Philippines.

I grew up knowing we were different but not sure how or why. My parents regarded our Bohunk identity as shameful, and as trouble. American culture communicated to us that we were the bad guys: people with names and accents like ours fought James Bond and even Rocky and Bullwinkle. Boris Badenov and Natasha were baby boomer's famous cartoon enemies.

As I moved beyond my working class hometown I discovered that many American elites were convinced that we were the world's worst anti-Semites.  

This confused me. One thing I knew for sure was that my mother embraced Jews as "us" not "them." One of her warmest friendships was with a traveling salesman named Dave. Dave and my mother would sit around the kitchen table and exchange stories from the Old Country. I would sit in on these sessions just to enjoy the warmth and sense of home I got from no other visitor to my mother's kitchen. She had other Jewish friends, and the one time she fixed me up with a blind date, it was with the son of another Jewish friend.

In any case, my exploration of why elites label Bohunks as the world's worst anti-Semites would become, one day, my prize-winning scholarly book "Bieganski."

So, we Bohunks were America's Cold War nemesis. We were stigmatized as anti-Semites. Other than that, though, we had no identity. There were no books in the town library about Poles or Slovaks. I know because I looked, obsessively. My teachers could tell me nothing. Unlike Italians, with their Godfather movies, we did not appear in the popular culture. The only really noticeable Poles in popular culture were the "meathead" on "All in the Family" and Stanley Kowalski, a crude, foul rapist, in "Streetcar Named Desire."

We also appeared in America's humor. We were the funny ethnicity, the ethnicity with the word "joke" after it: "Polak joke." You could tell jokes about Polaks that you wouldn't tell about other ethnicities. Johnny Carson, America's favorite humorist, told these jokes.

"How can you tell if your house was robbed by a Polak? The dog is pregnant and the garbage can is empty" gives you the sense of these jokes.

Some thirty years ago an amazing thing happened. The very people who used to despise Bohunks like my parents and me began to show admiration for people like my parents and me. Why? One word: Solidarnosc. The labor union in Poland inspired the world. Us – manual laborers, Catholics, Jews, people with difficult-to-spell names – we were inspiring the world.

I was living in New York City when Jaruzelski cracked down on Solidarity. I hit the streets with my comrades. I was a fellow traveler in those days. Steve Rabinowitz, my boyfriend was a true believer. And Jewish, by the way. Town Hall, a legendary meeting space, hosted an event expressing American Solidarity with Polish Solidarnosc members.

I was more thrilled than I can say. For once in my life it would be cool to be a Bohunk. For once in my life the people around me cared about what I cared about.

I had traveled to my mother's natal village in Slovakia and to Poland and I had seen the horrors of the Soviet Empire with my own eyes. Finally the Americans around me CARED. I felt like electricity was running through me. I felt the world expand in a profound and beautiful way.

Now, thirty years later, that night of support for Solidarnosc at Town Hall is a chapter in history books. Then I was just a kid, with wide, dewy eyes. I knew the people on the stage were celebrities; I could tell from audience reaction to them. I really didn't know who they were, though.

Susan Sontag was there. I had probably not heard of her before that night. She said something I've never forgotten, because I thought it was such a brilliant way for her to get her point across. She said, if one person read nothing but Reader's Digest, and another person read nothing but – and she named some leftie publication with which I was totally unfamiliar – I've since forgotten the name – which person would know more about the failings of the Soviet system?

She was making a point. Mainstream America was telling the truth about how bad Communism was, while American leftists were not.

I was, of course, at the time, an American leftist. Some decades would pass before I would put two together with two and realize that the left was not for me.

I'm learning just now, through Google, that Sontag's comments that Solidarnosc night at Town Hall were reported in the New York Times, TIME, The Washington Post, the New York Post, The LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, the Nation, and the New Republic. Of course I didn't know that at the time. I just thought that that one lady said something neat.

Pete Seeger took the stage. My image of him was positive. He was a kindly folksinger. He was way more of a celebrity than Susan Sontag. I was thrilled and moved that he was on our team. He was a real, live Americans – no hyphen, no last name ending in a vowel, no grandparents who couldn't speak English, no parents who did the work no one else wanted to do, no relatives in the Old Country who lived under the boot. Pete Seeger was one of the real, live Americans who suddenly was not only seeing us, the Bohunks, but respecting us. Joining in our cause! Helping us to come out from under the boot!

Pete Seeger took the stage.

Now, see, what I am about to type is so horrible, so much not what you want to hear about this kindly folksinger, I want to stop my narrative right here. I want to fast forward to the present day and tell you that I just listened to a slew of encomiums for Pete Seeger on NPR, his natural habitat.

Prof. Alan Chartock, a friend of Pete Seeger's, was just on NPR talking about what a great guy Seeger was. Chartock says that Burl Ives testified against Pete Seeger to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger eventually forgave Ives for this. I greatly admire forgiveness and it touches me no end that Seeger forgave Burl Ives. Chartock also talked about Seeger's environmental activism and I admire that, too. I'm also an environmentalist. It's the cause I donate money to the most regularly.

I know it. Pete Seeger. Great guy.

I hate Pete Seeger. Mere mention of his name makes me angry and sad.

Let's go back to that night at Town Hall, where the idealistic daughter of a Bohunk coal miner and house cleaner, there with her date Steve Rabinowitz, is thrilled finally to feel part of a group in the country she was born in.

Pete Seeger took the stage.

And he trashed us all. He dumped the sticky, ugly substance of hate on us. He did it because he hated us. And his hate was okay.

Seeger, instead of voicing support for Solidarity, delivered a self-righteous lecture about how Poles oppress Jews.

If you haven't read "Bieganski," I can't begin to explain to you here how wrong this was. Because you don't really think about us – Bohunks – in any serious way. We are the joke ethnicity. We are the bete noir. We are the prototype of the brutish hater.

Solidarity thrilled and inspired the world, and your image of us began to raise its head up above the mud.

Seeger's speech, on that night, at that moment, pushed us back down into the mud again.

Since Bohunks aren't taken seriously, let me try this.

Suppose, on the night that Barak Obama was inaugurated, Pete Seeger stood up at a celebration in a legendary public space and said, "Let us never forget that black people beat and torture white people. Remember Reginald Denny?"

That's how bad what Seeger did that night was.

Great guy. Great guy.

He's gone now, so I can't wait for him to ask me for my forgiveness.


There's a short film, Marcel Lozinski's 80 MM Od Europy. Eleven minutes. A salute to Bohunks. Watch it here

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bieganski on Saturday Night Live

Slavs are peasants in babushkas. They speak a simpleton pidgin. Their lives are so horrible that they wake up in tears. They want to commit suicide but "the line is too long." They have strange customs for mating, involving chases to the death. Wolves eat them. Their laughter sounds like other people's wheezes and coughs. Women date dogs -- actual dogs. These dogs are so superior to Slavs they become lawyers. Slavs are, in short, Bieganski, as performed by Kate McKinnon as Olya Povlatsky on Saturday Night Live 

Watch her here

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Poland, a Nation of Anti-Semites, Complicit in the Holocaust" Response by Michal Karski to Jacob Flaws

Blog reader Michal Karski wrote to ask if I would post his reply to the brute Polak stereotype as it appears in an MA thesis by Jacob Flaws.

I said I'd be happy to post Mr. Karski's reply.

Jacob Flaws' 2011 MA thesis is entitled "Bystanders, Blackmailers, and Perpetrators: Polish Complicity During the Holocaust." According to internet records here, it was submitted to Iowa State University in 2011 by Jacob Flaws.

Its title gives you the main idea of the document. Poles during World War II and the Holocaust are best characterized as "bystanders, blackmailers, and perpetrators." Poles are complicit in the Holocaust. Poles are not heroes; Poles are not victims.

This image will be familiar to anyone who has read "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture." This is the dominant and standard image of Poles in American media, academia, and journalism. Poles are not taking effective action to change it. Thus, this image thrives.

Michal Karski's response to "Bystanders, Blackmailers, and Perpetrators" is below.

A Few Thoughts on the Master's thesis by Jacob A. Flaws
entitled "Bystanders, Blackmailers and Perpetrators:
Polish Complicity During the Holocaust"

by Michal Karski

To begin with, I'm in no position to question the scholarly methods employed by Mr. Flaws or to cast doubt on his scholarship in general. The thesis looks to my untrained eye like a solid piece of writing, backed up with careful research and thorough, if perhaps, by definition, selective, use of evidence. My contention here is that only one side of the picture is being presented. The very nature of his chosen subject, as described in the title, makes it necessarily biased. We cannot expect the person representing the case for the prosecution to indulge in defending the accused. And the accused, in this case, is the entire Polish nation.

The essence of his argument, to put it in its simplest form, is that Poland, a nation of anti-Semites, was complicit in the Holocaust. The thesis goes on to attempt to substantiate this proposition, predominantly by means of some shocking and truly disturbing survivor testimonies. As in Claude Lanzmann's harrowing and monumental documentary film "Shoah", the result makes for very depressing and uncomfortable reading by any person with Polish connections. The overall impression is of a nation with an allegedly ingrained hatred of Jewish people, at best indifferent to the plight of their Jewish neighbors and at worst happy to see their destruction.

No one would expect any examples of courage and selflessness by Polish individuals to be offered by way of counterbalance in a prosecution statement. But, as in Lanzmann's epic film, the large-scale omission of any mention of acts of common human decency, let alone examples of heroism, such as those of Witold Pilecki, for example, tends to distort the whole picture, especially when the tone is set by overwhelmingly negative witness statements.

Mr. Flaws gives the general pre-war background of Christian-Jewish relations in Poland and alleges large scale sympathy for the Nazi anti-Jewish agenda, which, according to him, inevitably led to collusion in the German Third Reich's extermination policy.

The contention here seems to be that the involvement of Polish people in the Holocaust was just a question of degree, ranging from passive acquiescence to active participation. Exceptions to allegedly overwhelming Polish anti-Semitism are rarely mentioned.

Collusion takes the form of ill-treatment of Jews or simply the unwillingness to help. Individuals and groups stand accused of actual involvement in perpetrating murder. The Armia Krajowa (Home Army) is mentioned in this thesis in an extremely negative light, (just as their image has been tarnished in the recent German television series "Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter" aka "Our Mothers, Our Fathers" or "Generation War").

No doubt there were rogue elements and people deserving of the death penalty for collaboration, which is what the orders of the Polish Government in Exile explicitly stated, but the participation of Jewish fighters in the ranks of the AK, especially after the collapse of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, might have been worth a mention, as is the very fact that in a supposedly anti-Semitic society, patriotic Jewish soldiers wore Polish uniforms and fought with the Allies against the Germans at various battlegrounds all over Europe on many fronts, from North Africa to Norway.

Readers of Jewish ancestry will probably know already that many Jewish soldiers are honored at Polish military cemeteries such as the one at Monte Cassino in Italy. What may not be quite so well known is that several hundred Jewish officers were among the twenty-two thousand and more Polish soldiers who were murdered by the NKVD in the summary executions which go by the collective name of the Katyn Massacre.

In this context, an essential, candid and quite unflattering account of Polish-Jewish relations in the Army can be found in Salomon Slowes's book "The Road to Katyn: A Soldier's Story" (London 1992). Slowes was a Polish officer who survived Soviet captivity and missed being executed at Katyn. He then went through the Middle East with the Anders army, and, despite having the opportunity to remain in what was later to become Israel, as some of his fellow Jewish servicemen did, continued to fight in the Italian campaign alongside his Polish compatriots.

"Whatever the reason behind the passivity displayed by the Poles and recorded by Jewish survivors," writes Mr. Flaws, "the idleness of millions of local Polish inhabitants helped the Germans carry out the Holocaust."

This probably goes to the crux of the argument. "Idleness" is certainly a rather unusual term to be using to describe a population living under the Nazi jackboot, unsure whether they themselves were going to be executed on the street at random by a German patrol for any sign of support for Jews.

However, no sane Polish person could ever deny that there were – and still are – active anti-Semitic extremists in Poland; people whom Flaws describes in his thesis as a "small percentage of "super" anti-Semitic Poles" (80).

"The number of perpetrators was comparatively small in relation to bystanders" says Flaws on page 2. "Bystander" is a term which I believe was first used by Lanzmann in his above-mentioned film. The word can be misleading. A bystander is someone who sees what is going on but chooses not to get involved. The implication is that the motivation for inaction is either cowardice, indifference or a tacit acquiescence in what is happening.

On page 39 Mr. Flaws writes: "To determine why many Poles remained indifferent throughout the Holocaust is a difficult issue. Individual reasons certainly vary, but there are a few plausible theories as to why so many Poles complied with indifference when many more could have theoretically intervened."

He continues: "One major reason why Poles did not help was because of fear. The Poles were often motivated to remain silent 'simply by fear of reprisals' from the Germans. One of the strictest measures passed by the Germans upon invading Poland was to issue the death penalty for any Poles caught hiding or otherwise assisting Jews. Furthermore, the Germans' new laws regarding Polish citizens established the death penalty in almost every paragraph...for all offenses, including the most trivial."

"Poland was the only country during the war where such forceful laws were in place, and the fear they generated was palpable amongst Polish citizens."

It takes an unusual human being to risk his/her life in order to come to the aid of a complete stranger, when the penalty for doing so is certain death. It seems to me that this overriding reason for the so-called "complicity" is not emphasized nearly enough.

There are other accusations in the thesis. Mr. Flaws examines levels of "complicity" in the crimes of the German invaders, ranging from indifference through to actual murder.

Naturally, as mentioned before, the reader does not expect any positive aspects of Polish-Jewish relations to emerge in a piece offered by the prosecution. (Perhaps the term should more accurately refer to Christian-Jewish relations, since the Jews discussed here were Polish citizens.)

Chapter Four, "Scavengers, Blackmailers and Extremists" makes for particularly depressing reading, where actions of people are described, who, although they did not themselves murder individual Jews, certainly (at best) took advantage of their plight and, at worst, betrayed them and thereby sent them to a certain death.

However, on page 57 Mr. Flaws writes: "While anti-Semitism existed throughout Polish society, the essential idea is that it was likely a small percentage of 'super' anti-Semitic Poles who utilized blackmail and extortion to gain advantage from the situation."

Did anti-Semitism really exist "throughout" Polish society? The word makes it seem that it was widespread and prevalent. Mr. Flaws cites the discrimination against Jewish students in pre-war Poland but fails to mention any positive aspects of Christian-Jewish relations.

At this point it might have been appropriate to point to the Jewish contribution to the cultural life of pre-war Polish society. Just one single example might suffice; and this would be the person of the hugely popular and intensely patriotic Marian Hemar. Perhaps a more accurate word would be "in" Polish society rather than "throughout". Racism, for example, exists in many contemporary western societies but is not widespread and prevalent. Anti-Muslim sentiments exist in many contemporary societies, but are not widespread and prevalent.

On page 80 Mr. Flaws says: "It is very likely that this small percentage of 'super' anti-Semitic Poles constituted the majority of those Poles who actively perpetrated the Holocaust."

It is noteworthy that Mr. Flaws in the introduction to his thesis writes that the pre-war Jewish population in Poland was 3.3 million (over half of the entire Jewish population in Europe at the time). I may be mistaken, but I don't recall reading anywhere in the thesis precisely why there should have been such a concentration of Jews in one particular country.

The answer to that, of course, as many people have noted over the years, is that Poland was seen as a safe haven for persecuted religious minorities from the times of the late Middle Ages onwards, particularly when the rest of Europe was convulsed by religious wars.

In his last chapter "Conclusions", Mr. Flaws offers this summary: "By far the most widely practiced form of complicity was the bystander phenomenon. The reason most Poles were bystanders was because the Holocaust happened on such a large scale."

The problem with this analysis, it seems to me, is that the above statement omits the simple explanation – which Flaws himself had offered previously – that the so-called "bystanders", who were for the most part unarmed civilians, were terrified for their own safety and for their own lives.

Any defense of Poland might offer as examples not only the actions of exceptionally brave individuals such as Irena Sendler and many others who risked their lives and those of their families to aid Jews, but also organizations such as Żegota, which was specifically framed for this purpose. The counter-argument which is often made at this point, is that these people were exceptions; that the general population was, as contended in this thesis, overwhelmingly anti-Semitic.

It is difficult to summon witnesses for the defense who might be able to disprove this allegation, and who could demonstrate that many ordinary Christian individuals and families took enormous risks, to their safety and their lives, by sheltering their Jewish friends and neighbors. Many of those people who might have given evidence were killed by the Nazis. There are documented instances of villagers who dared to give aid to Jews being executed and their villages burnt down by the Germans.

Mr. Flaws cannot be held responsible for the extreme views of commentators who quote his thesis to support their claims, but his marshalling of the evidence to present Polish-Jewish relations in the worst possible light does seem to extend an invitation for some intemperate commentators on both sides of the Polish-Jewish divide to generalize (and worse). The entire subject needs to be handled with honesty on all sides. And perhaps the slightest suggestion of charity.

- by Michal Karski


Further comments added by D Goska, taken from Wikipedia:

More about Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter "Generation War." "The Economist stated that hardly any German TV drama ever caused that much public debate. While some critics commended the series as well-crafted, many critics were enraged by parts of the story, including the portrayal of Polish anti-Nazi resistance, the trivialization of the persecution of Jews by Nazi Germany and the whitewashing of the difference between non-German victims and German perpetrators…

In Poland the series has caused additional controversy, with many commentators stating that the screenwriters sought to slander the Polish anti-Nazi underground army of Armia Krajowa. In particular, the Polish resistance is shown as anti-Semitic, and according to some critics, even more so than the Nazi German characters. The Polish ambassador in Austria, Jerzy Marganski, and the Polish embassy in Germany sent a letter of complaint to the German broadcaster ZDF. The broadcaster issued a statement that it was regrettable that the role of Polish characters had been interpreted as unfair and hurtful: "The deeds and responsibility of the Germans should in no way be relativized."

The Polish ambassador to the USA, Ryszard Schnepf, sent a written complaint to Music Box, who had bought the US rights to the series. He was supported by the director of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, Łukasz Kamiński, who is afraid that in America people unfamiliar with European history may convince people that Armia Krajowa members were anti-semites. Plans to broadcast the series in the UK led to a demonstration of Polish activists in London." Source

"Bystanders Blackmailers and Perpetrators: Polish Complicity During the Holocaust" is available for purchase and review on Amazon, here.