|Gene Sokolowski and Abraham Lincoln. |
No better company! .
In 1987 I had already lived and worked in Africa, Asia, New York City and Berkeley, California. I had never forgotten my love for my ancestral homelands of Poland and Czechoslovakia. I had traveled to Eastern Europe for the first time in the 1970s. I wanted to go back. I signed up for the Kosciuszko Foundation's summer session in Krakow, Poland.
I did not know it, but that year, for the first time, the KF devoted a summer session to Polish-Jewish relations. I had not signed up for that; rather, I had signed up for the general session on Polish language and culture. We were all in the same dorm, though, Dom Studencki Piast. We passed on Krakow's cobblestone streets and alleyways.
Somehow I was recruited into the Polish-Jewish study group, and I was attending those lectures and events. Suddenly people were turning to me with vehemence and asking me for the "Polish point of view" on matters that were utterly new to me. My mother had Jewish friends who came to the house and I had no idea of all this tension. In fact I thought of Jews, and indeed black people, as "Us." Them, to me, was WASPs. My friend Charles' Hungarian parents were escapees from 1956. Charles called them "white people." "Don't become one of the white people, Diane," Charles used to say to me.
As part of the Polish-Jewish group, I saw much passion, including fistfights and sobs. I will never forget an elderly Jewish woman from Wilno describing her nostalgia for an apple tree that once grew outside her childhood window. I will also never forget the utterly stoic faces on the Polish rescuers we met.
I met many memorable people, including Rabbi Laurie Skopitz, who I write about in the book Love on the Road 2013.
|Arno in Krakow|
I also met Arno, from Canada. Arno was handsome and charming and very talented. He kept us mesmerized with his brilliant conversations and piano playing. What really got to me about Arno, though, was that for the first time in my life I felt that someone had some awareness of me that others lacked. Arno had been abused by his father. I had been abused, too. Being abused by your parent as a child is an isolating experience. You are different from everyone else. No one else has any idea what you are going through. Arno knew, and I felt connected in a way I had never felt before.
Arno's dad had been in a concentration camp. My parents had been through particularly hellish immigration experiences. Arno and I were both victims of historical injustices that occurred before we were born.
The connection between the microcosm of Arno and me and the macrocosm of Polish-Jewish relations was too obvious to miss.
I returned to the US determined to make some contribution to this field. I was hardly the type you'd imagine as a PhD candidate. I am dyslexic and blue collar. I thought my determination could break down these obstacles.
I decided to return to Poland for the year of 1988-89. I didn't plan on it, but that was the year that communism fell. I spent a lot of time on the street protesting and running from water cannons and Zomo, aka Smurfs, paramilitary police. I worked hard to improve my Polish language skills. I decided that in grad school I'd study Polish folk Christmas plays that feature a Jewish character.
I got my MA at UC Berkeley under the brilliant Alan Dundes, whose scholarship made a huge contribution to my life. I moved on to IU Bloomington where, my first semester there, I was harassed by the professor for whom I worked because I missed four workdays to attend my father's funeral. I was asked to testify against this professor, and I did. During that testimony, that lasted for the entire spring semester, my inner ear burst. For the next six years I was often functionally paralyzed and vomited uncontrollably. Nystagmus, uncontrollable eye tremors, made it all but impossible to read.
On the days when I was relatively healthy, I did nothing but read about Polish-Jewish relations, Christian-Jewish relations, etc.
Doctors told me that people with inner ear problems should not fly. My hopes of conducting research in Poland were dashed.
But another topic was presenting itself to me.
The way my professors talked to me. My professor stopping class to deliver a long lecture on how hateful and worthless Poland was and is, though Poland had absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of the class. A professor getting up and leaving the room in the middle of a meeting and never returning. A professor telling me that my work could not be accepted because I am Polish and Catholic and therefore suspect. A professor telling a Polak joke in class and students laughing. A famous professor cultivating me as his mentee, and then dropping all contact with him when I told him I wanted to work on Polish-Jewish relations.
I'd write about the brute Polak stereotype.
And I did.
Ohio University Press gave me a signed contract promising publication within a year. During that year I never heard from them … I emailed … what's going on? At the end of a year I received a letter from the press' editor. My book was "sensitive" and "controversial." I needed to make changes for Ohio University Press to publish it.
The changes: take a book written about negative stereotypes of Poles and turn it into a book about how anti-Semitic Poles are.
I. Kid. You. Not.
I have so many stories like that. They stretch across almost a decade. How about this one. On the campus of Fordham University, a Catholic school, I was told that I needed a Jewish scholar to endorse the book before Fordham University Press could publish it.
"A Jewish scholar does endorse the book," I pointed out. "Antony Polonsky."
Yes, but, he doesn't look Jewish in a photograph, and "Polonsky" sounds like it could be a Polish name.
Finally, Academic Studies Press published Bieganski. They are to be lauded for their courage. And the publishers are Jewish themselves, so please don't assume that all this cowardice and venality is a Jewish problem.
But my determination did not win the day. I never got the tenure-track job. I have never taught a class where I could apply the knowledge I gained from writing Bieganski. Adjuncts teach what we are told to teach. One semester I taught Caribbean literature.
It's frustrating and heartbreaking but life goes on.
In August, 2019, I received an email from a stranger. Given that I blog about Polish-Jewish relations and stereotypes of Poles, I receive a fair amount of angry and irrational email. The email's sender, Dr. Marek Blazejak, said he was part of an organizing committee putting together a conference on misrepresentation of Polish history re: World War II. There are some extremists on all sides of this question and I don't want to associate with extremists. I said, "tell me more," which is pretty non-committal.
I also asked others. Did they know about this conference? Were the planners okay, or were they extremists?
What do I mean by extremists? I think of two kinds.
The first kind denies that any Polish person has ever done any bad thing. Think, for example, of the particularly nightmarish 1946 Kielce pogrom. In 1946, in Kielce, Poland, Poles stoned Jewish Holocaust survivors to death on the basis of blood libel. Approximately 40 Jews were killed, with a gun, a bayonet, or with clubs, fists, and stones. Women and children were killed.
Decent people are horrified by this event. Some claim that it's all the fault of Soviet Russian occupiers. I consider such people to be extremists. Poles killed these Jews, and blaming these killings on the Russians is not helpful.
Attempts to whitewash events like the Kielce pogrom is one form of extremism. There are others. Some insist that all Poles are guilty and must be smeared in perpetuity. I don't want to be part of that form of extremism, either.
I asked around about the conference and I could not discover much.
I agreed to speak. I'm a big believer in dialogue and I thought that no matter who organized or attended the conference, they could benefit from my talk.
I hope to post a subsequent post offering a less personal overview of the conference. In this post I want to talk about some personal aspects.
First, I was nervous about going. My car is twenty years old. I know zip about car maintenance. I can't even change a tire. The New York to DC corridor is one of the busiest routes in the world. Buses are cheap and trains are nice, but I have health problems.
After a surgery three years ago, I developed an issue that doctors, so far, have been unable to diagnose or treat. The salient feature of this issue is pain. I tell people that I'm experiencing "torture level pain" and they respond, "Yes, I have arthritis" or "Yes, I've fallen down stairs."
Now. I'm an old lady and I have arthritis, too. And I've fallen. This isn't what I'm talking about.
I'm talking about torture-level pain.
Luckily the pain is not long lasting, but when it hits, it's overwhelming. Nothing addresses it. Too, I lose the ability to use affected muscles.
I could be driving down the New Jersey Turnpike and suddenly lose the ability to move my hand. Scary.
About ten doctors, at this point, have tried to diagnose the issue. I've been tested for, and given drugs to treat, Lou Gehrig's disease, Parkinson's, cerebral palsy, polio, and MS. Fun! Nobody, so far, knows what's going on, but one thing I do know is that when I am immobile, things get worse. As long as I keep moving, I'm relatively okay.
So, I didn't dare take the bus. Scared as I was, I had to drive. If the pain started up, I could pull into a rest stop and walk around, and I did just that.
When you are poor and chronically ill, the world is a scary place abounding in traps, bushwhacks, delays, potholes and thwarted hopes. Living in a city like Paterson you just get used to things not working.
As soon as I drove beyond Paterson I was kind of surprised that the New Jersey Turnpike is not beset by dinosaurs, volcanos, and earthquakes. I mean, I was so ready to be eaten alive by the New Jersey Turnpike and it was just … a drive. Smooth road, drivers obeying traffic regulations, car doing what I hoped it would do.
My first memento mori was in Delaware. Traffic slowed to a crawl. Accident up ahead. Back in St. Francis School the nuns taught us to pray the Hail Mary when we saw emergency rescue vehicles. I did.
When I actually saw the accident, I gasped. An 18-wheeler was very far off the road. It had plowed up trees and dirt and its front looked like an accordion. The truck must have been going at something like full speed. I googled and found the truck driver's name. I went to his Facebook page, and I found, at the top of his page, a photo of the very truck I saw, but when it was brand new. God rest your soul, sir.
When I drove past the exit for Johns Hopkins I shouted out loud encouragement to a loved one who had traveled there to have a brain tumor removed. I asked if I could visit but I was told it would be a bad time, so I kept driving.
|Source: Delaware Online|
|Source: Delaware Online|
|Source: Delaware Online|
High school friend Terry and her husband Chuck put me up for my first night in the DC area. It was really wonderful seeing Terry again. We had not seen each other since high school. It was as if no time had passed. Terry was warm and welcoming.
My hometown was tiny, but there were people from the Philippines, China, India, Ukraine, Poland, Lebanon, Italy, Ireland, Finland, Spain, Slovakia, Ramapo Mountain people, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, all in that tiny little town. We all worked for a living, often at unglamorous jobs like cleaning houses and making candles. We got along. I have no memory, none, of ever locking the door on my house or needing a key to enter the house. If your neighbor left his car lights on, you opened the car door and turned the lights off. People entered our house without knocking. If you did something bad, the neighbors told your parents before you got home. It was that kind of town.
Terry had gotten tickets to attend a dinner at which Nancy Pelosi spoke. The food was fantastic. Nancy's speech was good. She was rational and patriotic. She invoked God, the Founding Fathers, and Ronald Reagan, all lovingly. Draw your own comparisons with any other contemporary public figure. You can hear Nancy's talk here.
That night I slept with a tiny kitten named Emily. Emily showed up in Terry's yard as a starving cast-off, and warm-hearted Terry took her in and is giving her a good home. Emily walked on my face, a fuzzy, delicate, kitten paw massage, and snuggled inside the blankets with me. Later, when I returned from DC, Emily looked as if we had never met. Cats are so fickle.
I took the Metro into DC with Chuck, a PhD who works for the government doing good things for poor people, God bless him. I checked into the hotel, carefully keeping my backpack in the bathtub, a "hack" to avoid bedbugs. There may be no dinosaurs on the New Jersey Turnpike, but I've heard enough hotel/bedbug stories to be paranoid.
I reported to the Press Club.
The venue was lush. Gorgeous navy blue, white, and gold wall-to-wall carpeting, huge screen for our visual aids.
Excellent food. Croissant sandwiches. Choice of filling: grilled vegetables, roast beef, chicken, tuna. Super rich, dark and delicious brownies for dessert. Still and sparkling Saratoga water, and several flavors of iced tea. We had great food throughout the conference.
That night the Indian Embassy invited us for a screening of a film about WW II era Polish refugee children taken in by a compassionate maharaja in India. I have been in love with the best of India since I was five years old. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. It was very touching for me to be among Polish people in an Indian embassy.
The Nepali ambassador was there. After the film was over, I overcame my shyness, walked up to him and said, "तपाईंको देश धेरै रमाइलो छ" The ambassador's face lit up. He touched me all over and gave me what he told me was his personal phone number and insisted that I come to his house for दाल भट. I never did call him. I am too shy. I will send him a note through the mail. But this encounter was very moving to me.
Tuesday night the pain struck. It was the worst night I've had since this all began three years ago. It was terrifying. I spent the entire night screaming and writhing. I did not sleep. The pain is very erratic. Its erratic arrival and duration make it very hard to see any cause and effect, other than that I do better when I'm moving and worse when I'm sitting still. I made it a point to walk around DC. I walked *seven miles* on Tuesday!
Maybe the caffeine? I noticed a relationship between caffeine consumption and pain. Perhaps because when I am sitting still I am usually working and sipping diet cola? I cut caffeine out of my diet over a year ago.
Driving down, I experienced white-line fever and drank a Diet Coke on the road. I also drank iced tea at the conference. Was that it? I don't know. All I know is that Tuesday night was hell. And I was scheduled to speak Wednesday morning. And I did.
I hope to say more about my talk in a subsequent post.
After my talk, I was leaning against the wall and a gentleman walked up behind me and nudged my arm. "Would you like to step outside?" he asked.
I had no idea who he was and "Would you like to step outside" sounded like something you'd say in a bar to someone whom you wanted to punch in the face. But "Always say yes" is the first rule of improvisational theater and also the first rule of speaking on Polish-Jewish relations. So, I said yes.
In the hallway, the mystery man introduced himself. It was Gene Sokolowski! Gene tells his story here. As the title says, Gene is the son of a concentration camp survivor, and the grandson of a Nazi officer.
I had never met Gene before, and I guess I assumed he'd be like so many other children of that godforsaken era – a dour and bitter person whose heaviness you could feel from across the room. In fact Gene is a charmer, handsome and genial, with a ready-for-broadcast-news voice. We later walked to the Lincoln Memorial together.
I loved this conference. I still have no idea if the planners are extremists of any stripe. I didn't spend much time talking to any of them. The conference was jam-packed with speakers, events, and food. I heard only one talk that struck me as potentially setting off any alarms, a "reconsideration" of Roman Dmowski. I would have liked to have had a hearty discussion after that presentation, but time would not allow it.
I loved being in rooms filled with people with whom I have something in common, who think and care about some of the same things I think and care about. I loved the quality of the scholarship. The presenters were all serious people who had depths of knowledge on important matters. I loved the obvious outlay of expenditures. God bless the donors who made all this possible, from my hotel room mere blocks from the White House and Capital dome to the ultra-rich brownies. I loved the multiculturalism, the bonds between Poland and India and other lands where Polish refugees found shelter.
I want to say something difficult, so I may as well get it over with.
As far as I could tell, everyone at this conference was Polish. I found myself thinking, and saying, we really should have black people here, Jewish people here, etc.
On the last day, I realized that I had had a good experience with just Polish people.
I thought of an exchange that occurred on Facebook in March, 2018.
I had just posted a video on Facebook called "Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype."
Again, I had given my life to this work, and I had no means to share it. Not many people were buying the book. I wasn't teaching the classes I had hoped, someday, to teach on this topic. I wanted, before I die, to share my work. I thought a video would be a way to do that.
I am not tech savvy. I am a Luddite. I muddled through creating a video discussing my work. It took me a week to put the video together.
"Bill," a Facebook friend of Jewish ethnicity (I see no sign that he is religiously observant) posted the following:
"I've just listened to 20 or so minutes of your Bieganski presentation. It's interesting but, at least so far, is slanted in very specific ways. One way is evident in your repeated comments about the 'Shylock stereotype.' There are equally pervasive stereotypes of Jews that have been even more deadly, the Christ-killer stereotype being the most obvious, persistent, & destructive to Jewish life on this planet. That stereotype was a presiding trope throughout Europe - & that most definitely included throughout Poland - before, during, & after the Holocaust. Perhaps you touch on this stereotype, this blood libel, later in your book & in your video, but it certainly doesn't come up in the section I've listened to & read."
I assess what Bill wrote as astoundingly contemptuous, condescending, and hostile.
My work is "slanted in very specific ways." What an ugly accusation. Bill provided zero support for this accusation.
What Bill wrote is also factually false. I do mention blood libel in this video and I discuss it at length in my book Bieganski. Bill couldn't be bothered to attend to my work before he condemned it in the harshest terms possible.
But there's more.
Bill launches into an attack on Christianity. Christianity itself is responsible for hate. It's all about Jews as "Christ-killers" Bill wrote, "the most obvious, persistent, & destructive to Jewish life on this planet. That stereotype was a presiding trope throughout Europe - & that most definitely included throughout Poland - before, during, & after the Holocaust."
I've seen this observation many times, most recently in Bari Weiss' new book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism. I review Weiss' book here. Weiss, like Bill, blames all anti-Semitism on Christians and Christianity.
As I mention in "Against Identifying Nazism with Christianity," this trend is not limited to Facebook posts. Nowadays too many revisionists want to conflate Nazism with Christianity.
To folks holding this conviction, any time any hater harms a Jew, it is, not just the fault of Christians, but of Christianity itself.
Japan has a thriving anti-Semitism industry. Japan's anti-Semitism is the fault of Christians and Christianity.
Islam's foundational texts teach a hatred of Jews that is terrifying and unmoderated by conflicting texts. That is the fault of Christians and Christianity. Weiss says as much in her book.
What about atheist leftists like UK Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn? Their anti-Semitism, though they are atheists, is all the fault of Christians and Christianity.
Bill is wrong. "Christ-Killer" is *not* the most destructive trope.
I don't know Bill well, but I have seen no evidence on his page that he has devoted disciplined study to anti-Semitism. He certainly did not support his condescending accusations against me with any scholarship.
I spent years of my life reading accounts of anti-Semitic atrocities, documents, and movements around the world. On the basis of these years of research, I stand by my assertion that the Shylock stereotype is the greater danger.
Bill conflated the "Christ-killer" trope with blood libel. Again, no. I address blood libel at length in Bieganski. Blood libel is *not* best understood in relation to "Christ-killer" tropes. It is best understood as body-exploitation folklore, a genre of folklore that existed before Christianity and that still prompts atrocities today, utterly without reference to either Christianity or Judaism.
Bill assumes, as do too many Jewish people I've met, that Christians are steeped in "Christ-killer" imagery. I never even heard of this motif till I started studying Polish-Jewish relations. I grew up in a Catholic home, attended mass weekly if not daily, and went to Catholic school. I know other Catholics who say the same. Bill ignorantly assumes ugly things about my faith and my tradition and he doesn't even question his own assumptions.
What did I hear? "How do you drive a Jew crazy? Put him in a round room and tell him that there is a nickel in the corner."
I also heard this: "How do you drive a Polak crazy? Put him in a round room and tell him to piss in the corner."
And this: "What do you call the son of a Jewish father and a Polish mother? A janitor in a medical school."
Unlike Bill, I devoted years of my life to studying these images.
There are some people who criticize Judaism who do what Bill did. They allege that Judaism, as a religion, is the source of hatred. They cite the Birkat haMinim, a prayer that Christians be destroyed, they cite profoundly disturbing passages about Jesus in the Talmud, and Polish-Jewish memoirists like Leon Weliczker Wells who described, in detail, the religiously-supported, utter separation that his observant Jewish family maintained from Catholic Poles. (See his memoir, specifically page 8.) For example, Jews could not break bread with Catholic Poles because "wine became un-kosher if a gentile merely looked at it … We never spoke Polish. Polish was negatively called goish."
In fact there was a scholar who did blame problems between Jews and non-Jews on Jewish religion: Israel Shahak. He was a Holocaust survivor and an Israeli professor of organic chemistry. He wrote a very controversial book. And he was pilloried for it.
Yes, there are problematic verses in the New Testament. Anti-Semites have capitalized on those verses. If I had magic scissors, I would cut them out. I don't have magic scissors. But here's the thing. There are much worse verses in the Old Testament. The New Testament authors were Jews writing in a self-critical, over-the-top Jewish tradition of calling down imprecations from God on those perceived to be sinners. Jews and Christians must work together to defuse the power of these verses.
As for Judaism's anti-gentile verses. There are other verses, many in the Bible and in the Talmud, that celebrate and insist on human unity and importance, regardless of ethnicity or region. The Talmud interprets the creation of Adam in Genesis to mean that all men are equal in the eyes of God, and all men are brothers. Again and again in the Old Testament, non-Jews are celebrated as heroes. See Rahab and Ruth.
God liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The Israelites pass through the Red Sea, but Pharaoh's troops drown in that same sea. Angels begin to sing in celebration of their death. In the Talmud, God says to the angels, "How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying?" The Talmud, in this story, affirms the unity of humanity, and the importance of all people, no matter their religion or ethnicity, in the eyes of God.
Yes, you can pick and choose verses from the Torah or Talmud and through legerdemain use those verses to indict Judaism itself as a source of evil. But to do so is misleading and leaves out important material.
Similarly, if you quote Leon Weliczer Wells on how divorced from, and contemptuous of, his observant Jewish family was of surrounding Poles, you leave out important material if you don't also mention Jews like Michal Landy and other Jews who fought and sometimes died for Poland.
Yes, you can pick and choose verses from the New Testament and insist that those verses prove that Christianity is evil. But you must leave out certain facts. The New Testament never recommends that Christians hurt or kill anyone. Jesus is Jewish. His followers are Jews. Almost every verse in the NT has a parallel in the Old. The NT teaches that "Salvation is from the Jews"
Yes, Bill and Bari Weiss can pick and choose verses from the New Testament and claim that those verses explain, for all time, anti-Semitism wherever it crops up, from Japan to Iran to ancient, pre-Christian Rome to modern day atheist leftists. When Bill and Bari do this, they are wrong.
Years of reading on this topic have convinced me that the middleman minority paradigm has more explanatory power than Matthew 27: 24-25. Denigrating Christianity on the basis of selective reading is no more of an honorable project than denigrating Judaism on the basis of selective reading.
Back to the conference. Again, I found myself thinking, "We should have a more diverse crowd here."
But then I realized. If we had had a more diverse crowd, there would be people like Bill and Bari there, and their only reason for being there would be to put us down, to make us feel ashamed, and to use our identity as proof of their own prejudices. And that would have made the conference a very different experience.
This kind of kneejerk contempt for Polish people is all-too-often expressed by Poles themselves. In September, a Polish-American mentioned the conference on the Facebook page for PAHA, The Polish American Historical Association. Another Polish-American responded, "My suspicions were immediately aroused by two of the program's 5 goals: 'Overcoming false stereotypes about Poland and Poles in the US, primarily in the context of World War II and its aftermath' and 'Publication and distribution of a conference book on the history of Poland, with corrections of the most prevalent and striking falsehoods' … [the conference's] agenda and presentations must be viewed critically, if not with suspicion."
I asked this man why he felt it necessary to denounce a conference he knew nothing about. He told me I was too stupid and ignorant to understand the depth of his comment.
I emailed him this morning and told him I'd be writing about his comment. Did he want to explain? I haven't received any reply.
Again, as I said above, there are extremists out there who deny that any Polish person ever did any bad thing. Those extremists are to be avoided. I did not encounter those extremists at the conference, as far as I know. I heard one talk that struck me as controversial, the one on insisting that we need to look again at Roman Dmowski.
My point is that even some Polish people have internalized self-hate and view anything Poles say with a jaundiced eye, and I was happy to be in an environment where I didn't have constantly to be on the defensive against irrational attacks and contempt.
There's so much more to say, but this is long enough. I'd better stop here and save the rest for a subsequent post.
I am low-income and chronically ill. Before I left for the conference, I realized I did not have enough money for gas, tolls, and snacks. I thought, if ten people donate ten dollars each, that should be enough. I asked on the blog and on Facebook for donations.
Facebook friends came through, very quickly, with more than enough donations. I am very grateful to them.
Note that many donors are not Polish, and some are Jewish. This is testimony to the donors' generosity and willingness to support scholarship. God bless them!
Teresa Rybkowska Klatka
Dr. Edward "Rusty" Walker
Karen A. Wyle