Sunday, February 9, 2014

Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun Responds to Bieganski-Style Stereotyping in "Shtetl"

Source and Artist Unknown; I found this on the web with no attribution. 

On April 17, 1996, the PBS series Frontline aired "Shtetl," a documentary by Marian Marzynski about Polish-Jewish relations. The PBS website for "Shtetl" is here.

I shared my response to "Shtetl" with the director of Indiana University's Polish Studies Center, Prof. Tim Wiles. Prof. Wiles encouraged me to publish my essay.

Prof. Wiles was at a loss, though, in recommending to me an appropriate venue. He couldn't think of any nationally known publications that would be interested in a Polish American perspective on PBS's skewed take on WW II and the Holocaust in Poland.

In my search, I contacted Jewish publications. One I contacted was Tikkun Magazine.

Tikkun's Rabbi Michael Lerner sent me an interesting response.

I address Rabbi Lerner's response in this blog post.

Why take time now to address a television documentary that aired almost twenty years ago?

Because, in the intervening years since "Shtetl" first aired, nothing has changed. Any Polonian writer attempting to address these issues would face the exact same quandary I faced back in 1996. When we do attempt to make our voices heard, we face the same objections that Rabbi Lerner voiced in response to me.

Please read the full text of my essay responding to Shtetl here.

Rabbi Lerner's letter to me in response to my "Shtetl" essay is one-and-a-half pages long, with a one-inch margin. It is single space. I mention this because it is an unusually long letter from an editor to a writer who has sent a query. Rabbi Lerner has much to say on this topic.

It's especially unusual that Rabbi Lerner wrote such a long letter to me because he states plainly in his first sentence that he has chosen not to publish my essay about "Shtetl."

Why send a lengthy, detailed letter to a writer you are rejecting?

Polish-Jewish relations arouse much passion. So much that even after telling a writer you won't publish her essay, you write her a lengthy letter that takes issue with her essay.

Rabbi Lerner says that my essay "doesn't even begin to confront the issues that have been raised about Polish collaboration with Nazis and the widespread anti-Semitism in Polish culture."

Rabbi Lerner goes on. He says my essay appears "in the face of a strong predisposition among Jews who had relatives in Poland to believe a different story than the one you tell."

Then Rabbi Lerner says that he might publish my essay, if I can make some changes.

Rabbi Lerner lists eight objections to my essay. He says if I can adequately address these charges, he will publish my essay.

I paraphrase Rabbi Lerner's list of objections, below. With permission from Rabbi Lerner I include a jpeg of the letter, but I think it might be hard to read. 

1. Rabbi Lerner wanted me to account for significant anti-Semitism in Polish society before the Nazi conquest.

2. I mentioned in my essay that before the Nazis arrived in eastern Poland, the Soviets had invaded first. After the Soviet invasion, Soviets deported large numbers of Poles to the interior of Russia. The exact number is in dispute. Estimates range from a third of a million to a million.

It is widely commented upon that Jews did sometimes greet invading Soviets with bread, salt, and flowers, and Jews did sometimes mock Poles, saying things like, "You have lost your independence and we celebrate that." Many argue that this unsympathetic, and even hostile reaction from Jews toward Poles when Poles were victimized by Russian Soviets disinclined Poles to feel sympathy when, later, Germans arrived and deported Jews.

In response to my mention of these Soviet deportations of ethnic Poles and some Jews' unsympathetic response, Rabbi Lerner wrote, "A significant number [of the Poles deported] were in fact pro-fascist forces or anti-Semites eager to destroy Jews…that might have effected whether Jews would protest their fate."

It strikes me as implausible to assert that between a third of a million and a million deported Polish victims of Soviet aggression were "pro-fascists" or "anti-Semites eager to destroy Jews." It strikes me as offensive to suggest that these largely innocent victims deserved their horrific fates in Soviet camps. I mean no offense to Rabbi Lerner, but his comment here does strike me as every bit as offensive as Holocaust denial.

There are a couple of previous blog posts about some of these Poles deported by Soviets. One is here. Another is here.

3. Rabbi Lerner wanted me to account for Jews who were "repudiated or even threatened by" Polish anti-Nazi resistance forces. He wanted me to account for Poles' failure adequately to aid the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He wanted me to account for the Warsaw Uprising which was staged at a time when it could not help Jews.

4. Rabbi Lerner wanted me to account for those Polish peasants who did not respond adequately when Jews approached them to request aid. Rabbi Lerner wanted me to account for Polish partisans who "shared the anti-Semitism of the Nazis they were fighting."

5. Rabbi Lerner wanted me to account for the "absence of a more active resistance … compared, say, with resistance in France."

6. Rabbi Lerner wanted me to account for Poles "willingly becoming accomplices to the Nazis [who were] honored by fellow Poles."

7. Rabbi Lerner asked me to account for "Poles attacking Jews who had survived the camps when they returned to their villages … after the Nazis had been defeated."

8. Rabbi Lerner asked me to account for "the way that Polish communists adopted anti-Semitism … because in their estimation this would be a popular card to play that would bring them support with the Polish people."

Rabbi Lerner closed by saying that "Shtetl" did use "unfair techniques" but only to "elicit a truth that is widely known." Given that it is widely known that Poles are brutish anti-Semites, "how deep ought one's outrage be?" Rabbi Lerner asked rhetorically, suggesting that one's outrage at the stereotyping of Poles need not be deep at all. Poles deserve to be stereotyped as subhuman, because, after all, they are. No, Rabbi Lerner does not say that specifically, but that is his implication.

Rabbi Lerner, in closing, says, "If you can answer these concerns in this piece, without significantly lengthening it (perhaps by revising some parts and cutting other parts), I'd be happy to consider the piece."


I cannot devote space in this blog entry to the line between stereotype, half-truth, and distortion in Rabbi Lerner's list of concerns.

I can say that decent persons have always acknowledged the existence of anti-Semitism in Poland, and have always resisted it. The work of one such person, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, is described in this blog post. Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma are discussed here.

Neither this blog nor "Bieganski" the book is part of any effort to deny anti-Semitism anywhere. Rather, "Bieganski" the book and blog is about a fight against distortion and stereotyping.

In fact, I have addressed all of the concerns Rabbi Lerner lists, above. I address them in the book "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in American Popular Culture and Polish-Jewish Relations."

"Bieganski" is a book. Only a book-length work could adequately address all the points Rabbi Lerner lists, above.

Rabbi Lerner demanded that I address all those points while also addressing the dehumanizing stereotyping and historical distortion in Marzynski's "Shtetl."

The task that Rabbi Lerner demanded of me is Sisyphean. It is a task that can never be accomplished.

Please note: Rabbi Lerner did not guarantee that he would publish my essay even if I did address every point he mentioned. He said he would only consider it.

That's pretty much how it works with Bieganski. Poles stand accused. They must somehow compress language into soundbites, and address the entire mix of facts and distortions in Rabbi Lerner's letter. Only then may their application to be spoken of as human beings be considered. But their application may still be rejected.

Why talk about it here?

Because all Poles are stereotyped. Because all Poles are assumed to be anti-Semitic brutes. Because all Poles are called upon to do what Rabbi Lerner demanded, above. And because these distortions distort WW II and Holocaust history, and that matters to everyone.

The accusations:

Tell me why you didn't resist the Nazis, as the French did!

Tell me why I should care that the Soviets deported you Poles, when you were all just a bunch of fascist anti-Semites who deserved to be deported!

Tell me why none of you helped the Jews during the Ghetto Uprising!

And when Poles don't answer these questions to their accusers' satisfaction, they are categorized as brutes, as Bieganski.


What should we do?

First, we should not blame others, including Jews. Please read these blog posts entitled "Stop Blaming the Jews" here and here.

What we should do is outlined here

Rabbi Michael Lerner's February, 2014 to this series of blog posts is here.


  1. Rabbi Lerner's ignorance is beyond abysmal. That is all that I am going to say.

  2. An eternal optimist, I like to think that there has been some recognition in Holocaust Studies of the need to question the "unfair techniques" used to stereotype Poles. This article by Lawrence Blum is one bright spot, for instance:

    1. Thanks for this link.

      Lawrence Blum shows an atypical appreciation of the German-imposed death penalty, as well as Poles having a "We are next for extermination" attitude. He also soundly repudiates "Polish death camps" as well as the insinuation that "Poles were worse than the Nazis."

      On the other hand, Blum adheres to the familiar template that elevates the genocide of Jews over that of Poles (even though he values the deaths of individuals, be they Poles or Jews). He also adheres to the template that attributes the negative aspects of past Polish-Jewish relations solely to the Poles.

    2. It appears that Poles have been used as Europe's scapegoat. Are people unaware of the anti-antisemitism in England and France. The Dreyfus affair is an early example. In addition, is there definitive proof of the allegations that have been made against the entire ethnic group?

    3. Carol you wrote, "It appears that Poles have been used as Europe's scapegoat."

      That is one of the points of my work.


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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