Review of Bieganski by Kimberly Wachtel
I just finished reading Bieganski: The Brute Polack Stereotype, Its Role in Polish- Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture by Dr. Danusha Goska. The heart-wrenching, complex realities and stories captured my mind and heart. Goska's brave and honest writing pulled me in. The information revealed and the topics discussed about Poles and Jews are what most people, in polite conversation, do not want to talk about or bring up. "Don't go there. It is too touchy." Goska bravely goes there and brings to the forefront a history of the Polish people and Polish Jews that needs to be openly discussed and understood.
Stereotypes have defined these cultures in a negative light for far too long. It is time to understand and look at our assumptions and biases. I give Goska a standing ovation for collecting all this harrowing, at times horrific, yet important, information for her book. Goska's agenda is not to side with Poles or Jews. Her agenda is to uncover, reveal and discuss an elephant in the room: the misrepresentation and stereotyping of Poles in contemporary culture by some people and organizations. She has introduced me to a whole wide world. Goska writes:
"Stereotyping occurs when insupportable conclusions are drawn from demonstrable facts. These conclusions come from a limited perspective. To the Polish peasant who saw Jews only as tavern keepers or estate managers who lured Poles into excessive drink and then pressured ruined, drunken peasants to pay very high tavern tabs, or pressured desperate serfs to work to fill grain quotas, the Jew is a greedy drug pushing slave driver, no more, no less.
To the Jew whose most memorable encounter with a Polish peasant was the Pole who drank to excess and toiled like a mule in the fields, the Pole is a bestial drunk. The Pole did not factor into his assessment the tender Jewish parent, or the intimidated Jew pressured by the Polish magnate to wring the peasants for all they were worth. The Jews did not see the exuberance, generosity and creativity that the peasant displayed with his peers."
With all stereotyping we choose to see only one side of a story. The simplification of Jewish or Polish culture perpetuates misunderstandings, bigotry and hatred. When you bring into the mix horrific world events like the rise of the Nazis, the Holocaust and the power play Poland experienced at the hands of Russia and the Soviet Union, the stereotypes are compounded by the awfulness and the ugliness of these times and events.
I had not heard of this book and I didn't really think about Polish and/or Jewish stereotypes much before the spring of 2011. This all changed when I went on a quest to Poland to meet my relatives and to study art history and ethnography through a summer school program at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. I met Dr. Goska on this trip and that is how I learned about Bieganski.
A couple months before I embarked on my trip, I attended a Georgian singing workshop, in a New England town near where I live. I spoke with a man about my plans to travel. When I said I was going to spend a little over a month in Poland, a look of astonishment appeared on his face, followed by a question. "Why would you want to go to Poland?" he scoffed.
I was taken aback by the suspicious energy that was driving this inquiry. An awkward pause in our conversation followed. He then said, "The people of Poland are anti-semitic. My nephew was there this past year and he was horrified by what he saw and what he experienced. Poles hate Jews."
His demeanor and blanket definition of a whole race of people alarmed me. Aside from the "dumb-Polack" jokes I heard growing up, this was the first serious run in I've had with the stereotyping of Polish people. This "Bieganski" moment shook me awake. Interactions like this one, documented and undocumented, is why Bieganski is such an important book. Bieganski has been an instrumental book in helping me to understand Polish / Jewish relations.
Goska unveils how Poles are stereotyped in popular media by writing extensively of the portrayal of Poles in American cinema and in the press. She devotes early chapters in Bieganski to these fascinating topics. You have to read these chapters to believe it!
Chapter 6: The Peasant and Middleman Minority Theory was particularly eye-opening to read. I found this chapter helpful for understanding the core issues explaining the rise of Polish / Jewish stereotypes. Jews were the middleman minority in Poland for hundreds of years.
"Middleman minority populations are concentrated in urban, skilled and mercantile professions. Their Socioeconomic status falls between elites and peasants. To some extent, they operate under their own code, and are not limited by the surrounding culture's taboos that impede business progress for those rooted in their communities (Bonacich 584). Middleman minorities have at least a ritual tie to another territory, and if only in a mythic sense, experience themselves as 'sojourners.' The sojourner mindset encourages the choice for easily liquidated professions and the amassing of capital, while at the same time it erects barriers to the forming of bonds with members of what Bonacich calls the 'host' society. Bonds are formed with other members of the middleman group, even those geographically distant (585-86; 593)."
Chapter 6 provides a theory and one possible explanation of why relationships between Poles and Jews have not always been smooth, easy or easily understood.
Poles and Poland, as well as the Jews, were victims of the Nazis. Chapter 7 in Bieganski, The Necessity of Bieganski: A Shamed and Horrified World Seeks a Scapegoat, begins to explain the question that I have in all of this. Why are Poles sometimes blamed by Jews and others for the Holocaust? Why are Poles sometimes blamed for allowing the Holocaust to happen? It was Nazi Germany who brought all of this about. Nazi Germany caused the suffering and deaths of millions of Jews AND Polish people and others. The problem is as Goska writes here:
"If one does not single out Poles, whom can one blame? The answer is too terrifying to attract an audience. Given the worlds response to the Holocaust, and to events since, like the auto-genocide in Cambodia, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski wrote:
'Humanity has failed and continues to fail ... the only people who did not fail and who completely confirmed their humanity were those who responded to this test by making the ultimate choice and who died helping their neighbors. No one living can say that of himself. No on living can - whether for political or polemical reasons - demand it of others.'"
I've read comments about Bieganski, in book reviews and on the Bieganski blog, where others sometimes want to label Goska as an anti-semite and/or anti-Polish. Both criticisms are flawed and narrow. Bieganski is such an important book because Dr. Goska brings to light stories of Jews and Poles that help air out the the stink that builds up and perpetuates stereotypes.
It is time to move beyond the past, towards a more understanding, kind-hearted, compassionate view of the Polish-Jewish history. As long as there is an US and a THEM, there will be stereotypes. Our human selves are flawed yet the religions which represent the Jews and the Poles, Judaism and Christianity, teach kindness, compassion and understanding. Unfortunately, until we can rise higher than our human hurts and gain a level of compassion and forgiveness, there will be negative stereotypes.
"It is time for people of good will to stop scapegoating, to stop insisting that one ethnic group is uniquely prone to stereotypical thinking. It is time for people of good will to join together to a way to address all stereotypical thinking, including that engaged in by stereotyped people themselves."
One of the many things I take away from this necessary book is to tread lightly and question assumptions: personal assumptions and assumptions made by others including the media, academia, and world and religious leaders. Bieganski deserves to be widely read and discussed , especially by Polish-Americans, Poles and Jews. It deserves to be included in academic courses about Jewish and Polish relations. The Bieganski issue is not black and white.
Goska does a fair and thorough job revealing the shades of gray found in the stories she shares and tells. Goska does not paint the picture that all Poles are good and all Jews are bad, nor vice versa. Instead she walks a fine line in her writing revealing the hurtful stories, both true and untrue, that are perpetuated about these two intertwined cultures and ethnicities.
You can see this review on Amazon here.
You can read more about Kimberly Wachtel's work on Polish, Hungarian, and Jewish art and life here.