In her book Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relationsand American Popular Culture, Danusha Goska produced one of the most intellectually and emotionally challenging books I’ve ever read. She takes prevalent tropes of Poles (the term “Bieganski” comes from an anti-Semitic Polish character in the book Sophie’s Choice) and examines them from cultural, sociological, historical and economic perspectives. From the range of references, it’s clear that Goska has done her homework and consulted with Jews, Poles and others who know the topics outlined in the book’s title—and who lived through the history behind the stereotypes. Goska heads directly into many incendiary issues: the development of stereotypes in the United States, what Jews have written about Poles, what Poles have written about Jews, what American politicians and Jews did (and did not do) during the Holocaust. She covers a lot of territory in a relatively short book.
Bieganski challenged me because I’m very familiar with the stereotypes and several of her source materials. She looks at books like Maus and Hitler’s Willing Executioners and movies such as Borat (which I turned off after five minutes, unable to stomach the whole concept) and The Apartment and points out themes that flew right by me. I’ll leave a detailed analysis of her critiques to scholars, but the book gave me a fresh way of looking at Poles in culture and history. In other words, Goska made me think—that’s the highest accolade I can pay for any book. She demands to be read and engaged on Jewish-Polish history and clashing perspectives on portrayals of the Holocaust. My copy of the book bears many highlighted passages that aptly summarized her views. One example:
"In the racist expression of the Bieganski stereotype, no narrative arch is possible. When a Pole exhibits what appears to be positive or neutral attitudes or behaviors toward Jews, that must be understood as a temporary failure of his anti-Semitic essence fully to express itself."
Bieganski constantly surprised me. Sometimes it discussed at length matters that are dated and felt tangential to her thesis, such as media responses to a 1993 speech by the Nation of Islam’s Khalid Abdul Muhammad. At other times, the book was compelling in ways I could have never imagined. For example, Goska compared A Streetcar Named Desire to The Apartment, a 1960 movie with Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray that won the Oscar for Best Picture. I saw The Apartment and any Polish content didn’t make an impression on me. I might have sensed strong characters, but I didn’t think of them in particularly ethnic terms. Goska draws out the positive images and themes of “Bohunks” (a term used to cover Eastern European groups).
The discussion becomes especially grim in the chapter “The Necessity of Bieganski: A Shamed and Horrified World Seeks a Scapegoat,” about Polish and Jewish narratives of the World War II, and American responses to the Holocaust. She writes,
"In 1999, Blanche Weisen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt revealed that nearly sainted first lady to be an anti-Semite. Her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is widely considered “the best friend American Jews ever had.” Cook “curled in agony” as her research revealed that, again and again, when the Roosevelts and their friends, including their Jewish friends, had every reason, every bit of necessary information and power, and every precedent to speak out against the brewing Holocaust, and to act, they remained passive and silent, or indulged in anti-Semitism."
Bieganski will stay in my mind for a long time. It challenges conventional thinking, and gives me a new way to assess materials, such as the books of Princeton professor Jan Gross (Neighbors, Fear and Golden Harvest), Jan Karski’s Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State and Polish cinema (Katyń, The Zookeeper’s Wife). Its ideas are as relevant as ever, given new Polish laws regarding discussion of the Holocaust in the news these days. Even Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat fame, is back with his Showtime series Who is America? The book forces me to ask myself: what do I think on a topic, and how much of that thinking is based on direct experience, and how much on materials passed by me that I accept—unthinkingly?
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