"Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead:"
The Difficulty in Treating Polish Jews as Ordinary Humans
Anne Karpf wrote of the difficulties she faced whenever she felt any discomfort with her parents. "Hating one's parents is a necessary stage of childhood, like becoming potty-trained. We bypassed it. How could you hate those who'd already been hated so much?" Whenever Karpf was a naughty daughter, others reminded her, "Remember what she's been though." Karpf resented this. "I came to abominate what she'd been through no longer on her account, but on ours" (Karpf 38). Karpf's parents' status as virtuous victims defined her as something else. "Their world had been split into good and bad: if you weren't one, you must be the other" (Karpf 40). And virtuous victims they had to be.
It's hard to speak about Holocaust survivors in anything but a reverent tone or without turning their suffering into a sacrament. People expect of them abnormally high standards of behavior, as if a dehumanizing experience might somehow dignify and elevate, and along with their worldly goods, they should also have lost all worldliness. (Karpf 249)
One of the barriers to seeing Bieganski as a stereotype, rather than an accurate representation of reality, is the romanticization of pre-Holocaust Polish Jewish culture, typified by elite authors like Sholem Aleichem, source of the stories on which Fiddler on the Roof was based, and the post-Holocaust, Margaret-Mead-inspired, Life is with People. In them, Poland's Jews are depicted as saintly. By extension, and through application of The Law of Two to a Scene and The Law of Contrast, these works militate against their large audiences seeing Poland's non-Jews as anything but Bieganski. David Roskies summed up this popular understanding. "Jews danced and prayed all day until the Cossacks came and burned the place down" (18). Antony Polonsky pointed out that "Examples of … elevated nostalgia could easily be multiplied." He quoted that of prominent American rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel.
The little Jewish communities in Eastern Europe were like sacred texts opened before the eyes of God, so close were the houses of worship to Mount Sinai. In the humble wooden synagogues, looking as if they were deliberately closing themselves off from the world, the Jews purified the souls that God had given them and perfected their likeness to God…Even plain men were like artists who knew how to fill weekday hours with mystic beauty. (Polonsky "Shtetl")...Read the rest of this passage in Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype
Read the full New York Times article about the documentary film here.