Friday, August 14, 2015

A Controversial Question Continued

Recently, on this blog, we discussed Chris Helinsky's interesting question. "So I was wondering if the wealth of Poland's Jews, whatever there was to be had, was based on the despoiling and exploiting the serfs?"

Several people addressed the question from various angles. You can read the replies here.

For what it's worth, here are my thoughts.

First, I am not an historian and "Bieganski the Brute Polak" is not a history book. It's a book about the stereotype of Poles as brutes and as the world's worst antisemites, and even the world's worst haters.

I answer Chris' question on that basis.

Here's my answer: When you look at the above photo, what do you see?

Do you see a rich capitalist oppressing a worker?

Do you see a man oppressing a woman?

Do you see an entrepreneur providing employment for a fortunate employee?

Do you see the talented rising to the top and someone who is just looking for a job she can do till she gets married taking advantage of that?

I can think of any number of people who would interpret this picture in one of these ways.

That's the answer, I think, to Chris' question. I think it's question of interpretation. It's a question of what glasses you are wearing when you look at the situation. Are they left-wing glasses, right-wing glasses, Polish Catholic glasses, Polish Jewish glasses?

Just today a Facebook friend from an aristocratic background talked about how badly her family was treated under communism. That life experience is going to inform how she sees things.

Me? I come from a peasant background. I see Poland's aristocracy as exploiters and oppressors of the peasantry. Jan Slomka, in "From Serfdom to Self-Government," talks about the master owning even the wind – the master controlled windmills. 

My grandmother never learned to read. One of my older relatives spoke of never being able to go to a doctor. Never. He remembered peasants being whipped. That level of oppression is abhorrent to me.

Yes, the peasants did the heavy labor. They benefited the least financially and they had the fewest options.

Yes, many Jews did profit.

Yes, the aristocracy profited even more.

Polish aristocrats and Polish Jews are on record as having had contemptuous attitudes to Polish peasants. Peasants were "bydlo," cattle.

Historians put aristocrats at the top of the social pyramid. Jews weren't at the top because they were a minority that was often threatened and even killed for their difference alone. We can say that Jews profited; we can't say that Jews ruled. 

And we must remain aware that while they profited, Jews contributed essential services to the Polish economy. As Andrew Schonberger pointed out, after the Nazis wiped out the Jews, the economies of EE floundered. There are many reasons for that, but the elimination of the economic middleman is one. That pattern has transpired in other countries where middlemen have been eliminated, often by communist or nationalist purges. See, for example, Uganda after the expulsion of Indians.

Some people bristled at Chris' question. I didn't find that bristling helpful. I think we can talk about difficult questions without assuming the worst of each other.

Polish peasant by Paul Szutzer


  1. Thanks Danusha for running the discussion.

    I know Polish-Jewish relations are your area of professional interest. It's a worthwhile topic, and you've done a lot to bring parties together.

    But are Polish-Jewish relations any worse than any other relations when groups with different backgrounds come into contact ? As your presentation pointed out, Jews come from a history of 4000 years. Poles have their own history, and reasons to be proud of it. I know many other examples when nations with different backgrounds are forced to share the same geographical space.

    My native Transylvania is a case in point, where different people live together for centuries. Their relations are not without traps and pitfalls, but the relative isolation behind the mountains has also forged people together to some extent.

    Would be interesting to see a comparative analysis of various such tense relationships. My gut feeling is that the tension depends on the amount of different history. If the cultures coming into contact are very different, then the friction can be higher.

    Are Polish-German relations much better ? Are Jewish-Ukrainean relations much better ? Polish-Russian ? Jewish-Lithuanian ? On and on it goes. I had catarthic fun, when a Cambodian-born colleague explained how much the peoples of Indo-China hate each other.

    With the Polish-Jewish relationship, it may not be all bad. I saw religious Jews still dressing the way Polish nobility dressed in the 1500s when Jews were invited to live in a tolerant Poland. I tasted cucumbers prepared the Polish way, by traditional Jews. I know today's Poland carries memories of Jewish custom.

    Interaction can be positive as well. There is always something to learn from each other, whether it comes from short-wave radio or the mother's milk. Ah, I nearly forgot Facebook -:


    1. Andrew you can find the answers to the questions you ask me, at least my answers, in my book Bieganski, which I hope you will read.

    2. Hello,
      I really enjoyed reading Your posts Mr. Schonberger. In fact, entire discussion was very polite and civilised. That was so refreshing.

      Dr Goska, I can't wait for polish edition of "Bieganski". October 12?,1.html

      Mr. Peczkis, I have a link for You too.

    3. Lukasz Andrew is very talented with words. I want him to contribute a guest blog entry and I'm sure someday when he has time he will.

      And thank you for letting me know the date that Bieganski will arrive in Poland. Will you buy it and read it, I hope?

    4. I will. I also visited two libraries in my neighbourhood and persuaded them to buy Your book as soon as it becomes available.

  2. We must remember that the large Jewish economic class in Poland hindered the passing of feudalism.

    Long after the abolition of serfdom, the peasantry was stuck in abject poverty, in subsistence agriculture, largely because the next higher economic niche--the shopkeepers, the tailors, the shoemakers, etc.--was preoccupied by Jews.

    In like manner, the landowners were stuck in a quasi-feudal system, because the large presence of wealthy Jews meant that it was difficult for the nobility to abandon their estate-based living in favor of becoming bankers, industrialists, etc.--as these niches were also preoccupied by Jews. For further discussion on the latter, please click on my name in this specific posting.

    1. Jews were a suspect minority who sometimes faced deadly prejudice. They were not in control of Poland's economic system.

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the matter. Perception is very important in regards to how we think about other people and groups. In this case it is like and iceberg. With an iceberg you can see what is above the water but the real mass is below and unseen. As you say it is creating a general image with incomplete information and an absence of understanding of individual circumstances.

    Chris Helinsky


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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