Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Bieganski Stereotype: Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty? Filip Mazurczak Weighs In.

Filip Mazurczak, whose work is linked in this blog here, here, and here, sent me a couple of questions. I respond to them below.

FM: Regardless of whether or not you agree with me that anti-Polish prejudices are fading, do you at least agree with me that the following trends are encouraging and represent a sea change previous generations could have found it difficult to imagine?

DVG: I don't think that anti-Polish prejudices are fading. I don't think that there has been any sea change. About "encouragement." I don't see anything to be encouraged about. What I see in Polonia is a crisis in leadership, organization, and vision. I describe what I see in a series of blog posts linked here.

I could be wrong. Further research would be needed. There is no money and no interest in further research. That lack of interest and money for research is representational of the problem.

FM: The so-called Polish joke is, by all accounts, fading into obscurity. I spent most of my life in the United States in a Polish family and whenever I told people of my background they responded either positively or neutrally. In fact, I didn't even know that such jokes existed until I was 16, and if I were not of Polish background it's likely I never would have known they exist.

From what I have read, they were common on the Johnny Carson show and other pop culture in the 1960s and 1970s, but I would argue that most young Americans are unfamiliar with them. Instead, primitive, vulgar ethnic humor that I have seen in the United States has mostly targeted Hispanics (and sometimes blacks). The literature I have read on ethnic stereotypes confirms that since the late 1970s, the "Polish joke" has fallen into disuse in the United States.

DVG: Filip you first wrote to me a long time ago, in April, 2013, and I responded briefly. I responded briefly because I was put off by your note because you said something similar in your initial message to what you say, above.

You had said, in your initial note from April, 2013, that you were reading Bieganski and you wanted to respond to it. And then you started talking about Polish jokes.

My feeling was then, and it is now, that you aren't responding to Bieganski. Bieganski makes almost no reference to Polish jokes. It offers no sustained analysis or discussion of Polish jokes. Bieganski isn't about Polish jokes. Why are you telling me that things are getting so much better because there are fewer Polish jokes, when in fact I hardly mention Polish jokes?

Second, all jokes are said to be in decline.

On June 10, 2014, the Oakland Tribune reported "The Death of the Joke", which you can read here. "Seriously, the Joke is Dead," reported the New York Times on May 22, 2005, which you can read here.

Why cite the death of a dead form to argue for a "sea change" for the better?

In any case, read some recent Polish jokes from England here. Read about an international incident involving a Polish joke in August, 2014, at a swimming competition, here. And read some American Polish jokes, copyright 2014, here.

Again, though, Bieganski is not about Polish jokes.

FM: Polish Righteous among the Nations are much better known.

DVG: I am Polish-Slovak American. I've been to Poland several times. I've gone out of my way to educate myself about Polish matters. I had not heard of Witold Pilecki until a few years ago.

FM: When I was in high school more than a decade ago, we spent a full two months (sic!) of English class solely devoted to the Holocaust, and it was largely Judeo-centric (for my class presentation, I talked about the various different groups targeted by the Third Reich from Jews and Slavs to Roma and black Germans) because I was sick of this. Back then, most educational material seemed to suggest that only the Danes and a handful of Dutch (and, of course, Oskar Schindler) cared about Jews; the rest of Europe was glad to see them go.

However, since then Irena Sendler has become much better known and tons of educational material has been created about her. Jan Karski is similarly becoming better known, and a book about the Zabinski family was on the New York Times bestseller list and there are plans for a Hollywood adaptation. When I look at Holocaust education materials produced today, a lot more attention is given to Polish Righteous.

Recently, Israel's new president went to Poland for his first foreign visit. It was related to the opening of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. In his speech (you can read its transcript on the website of Israel's embassy in Warsaw if I recall correctly), the Israeli president praised Poland for coming to terms with dark episodes in its past (he specifically mentioned the pogroms in Jedwabne and Kielce) and gave much praise to Poland's Righteous Gentiles, saying that several generations of Israelis owe their lives to them.

This is a huge break from the past. In the 1970s, Prime Minister Menachem Begin/Mieczys┼éaw Biegun  said that the Poles overwhelmingly collaborated with Nazi Germany and the whole of Poland had not more than 100 people who aided Jews on Dutch television. Not long after, another Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir (born Janicki) famously said that "all Poles suck anti-Semitism with their mothers' milk".

I don't know if you're aware of the controversy related to the building of a monument to Righteous Poles in Warsaw next to the POLIN Museum. It is a Jewish initiative and has received the blessing, among others, of Poland's chief rabbi (whom I hold in high regard). However, it is being protested by leftist Polish intellectuals.

[Filip Mazurczak's article on this topic is here]

I'm not saying that everything is peachy. Many Jews still harbor anti-Polish prejudices, just as many Poles harbor anti-Semitic ones (and many Americans have prejudices against Hispanics and blacks, Turks have prejudices against Kurds and Armenians, Belgians have against Congolese, etc.). But don't you think that the trends I discussed above indicate that things are moving in the right direction?

DVG: No, I don't. Again, I could be wrong. The chapter in Bieganski that I invite you to read is entitled "The Necessity of Bieganski." Nothing in that chapter has changed. This blog offers regular updates. 


  1. The stereotype has certainly changed, as we have all gone from being as thick as two short planks to being the Evil Genuises (Genii?) behind the horrors of WW2.

  2. Fascinating interview.

    Sea change?

    The sea change won't come until they close the Holocaust museums and replace them with museums that give equal time to all the victim peoples of genocide, including the Poles.

    The sea change won't come until we move beyond the standard narrative of Jews as victims and Poles as anti-Semites, and we see Jews "come to terms with the past" in terms of past and present Jewish wrongs towards the Polish nation.

    In the hundreds of works I have read related to this subject, I have seen almost no indicator that any such sea change is in the offing.

  3. I couldn't disagree more with Jan's post, above.

    My own suggestions are found in the "Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision' post in this blog.


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.
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