Saturday, June 26, 2010

Get Me a Hunky; Comments from Readers

Potato Eaters. Vincent van Gogh. Source: Wikipedia

"Get me a hunky; I need a donkey" provoked interesting feedback from readers. Comments including the following:

* Readers, too, had Polish immigrant parents, both Catholic and Jewish, who maintained silence about their pasts.

* Peasant life was much harder than is commonly acknowledged.

* Immigration was much tougher than is commonly acknowledged.

* Poles, as well as Russians, might oppress their fellow Poles.

Adam Walaszek's article, "'How Could It All Appear so Rosy?': Re-Emigrants from the United States in Poland, 1891 – 1924" addresses all of these points.

Walaszek used peasant and worker memoirs and letters to show that many Polish immigrants wanted and planned, not to stay in America, but to return to Poland. Those who did return were often shocked.

* They had gotten used to American wealth and were horrified by the poverty of Polish villages and the hardship of peasant life.

* They had gotten used to American democracy and were stunned by the power exercised by Polish priests and village politics.

* They had cherished dreams that, once Poland was freed from foreign domination, Poland would become a "democratic, affluent, peasants' Poland." Instead, they returned to discover that Poles had changed "a czarist truncheon for a Polish one."

Snips from Walaszek's not-to-be-missed article:

"I only wished to [return to Poland.] I cried and cried for my mother for a year. I was homesick and I could not find a place for myself. At night I always dreamed that I would die. I was extremely homesick."

Immigration was jarring. Poles "jumped from feudalism to capitalism within the space of one month"

Upon return to Poland, some wrote,

"I was wondering if the twentieth century, with all its miracles, has arrived here, or whether the time had stopped somewhere around the caveman era"

"Even in our family houses the walls have rotted away and warped where the supportive beams sank below the level of the ground and the whole house was slowly bending down."

"I disliked the old customs of our people, I disliked the huge bare feet of our girls, elderly women, children and men ... It seemed to me somehow archaic, slave-like, and simply primitive and unaesthetical. I was surprised and indignant on seeing that people do not bathe in villages, they do not know what a bath is, whereas most country cottages are joined directly to barns and pigsties. I will not believe it if anyone tells me that a peasant wearing coarse trousers, a shirt, a russet coat and a sheepskin hat or a peasant woman with red bare legs wearing a bawdy, pleated Gypsy-like skirt, a shapeless blouse and some head scarf, look nice and human like."

"I was shown a blind beggar with an intelligent face leaning against the wall of the Old Theater [in Krakow's Szczepanski Square.] An old woman dressed in rags was walking along. Rags which Poles in Passaic, New York, or Chicago would throw into the garbage cans would be like royal outfits for this poor woman."

Returning migrants were treated with suspicion and outright hostility. Priests denounced them from pulpits, to the point of demanding of non-immigrant wives that they not allow returning immigrant husbands into the home. Returning immigrants' businesses were sabotaged.

One returning immigrant wrote

"[My own people] pulled me to pieces. It was entirely different in NY. The people here are so dumb and mean. They look upon the Polish Americans as if they were criminals."

A priest preached in church that the returning immigrants should have been shot. The Polish American newspaper, "Ameryka Echo," was burned by a priest.

How this all relates to stereotypes of Poles, and Polish-Jewish relations. Humans – not just Poles, not just Jews, but humans – often judge and feel contempt for workers, peasants, dirty people, the poor. It's an old joke – when people claim to have been reincarnated from some past life, in their past life they often claim to have been Cleopatra, or some other prominent, royal personage. It's less attractive to claim to have been what most humans have been: anonymous, poor, dirty, oppressed, overworked, and short-lived.

Simple hatred of the poor and the unfortunate for their sin of poverty and misfortune is the oldest, most universal, and most crushing hatred.

We could learn to appreciate and honor the strengths and gifts of peasants. We haven't yet done so.

We can't come to terms with the brute Polak stereotype until we come to terms with our own classism, our own conviction that someone with dirt under her nails is a lesser human than we.

So often scholars get away with arguing that Poles expressed hostility to Jews because Poles' essence is anti-Semitic. If they even try to be more intellectually developed than that – and they often don't make even that effort, even in the most elite and academically sanctioned prose, condemning Poles with a racism that would be taboo were it applied to any other ethnic group – they'll claim that it is Poles' Catholicism that makes them anti-Semitic.

This is balderdash. There is ample scholarship on the inescapable political realities of colonized, invaded, deprived, peasant societies. In Walaszek's article, one reads of Polish peasants expressing a hostility to their own kin from America – if and when these Polish peasants feared that those kin would upset a very fragile, post-war, post-colonization status quo of village economics, land ownership, religious belief, and divisions of power.

Those who demonize Poles insist on viewing them from the perspective of 20th and 21st century Americans, with their wealth, democracy, and unlimited opportunities. From that perspective, the behaviors described above appear to be the mere malice and backwardness of one group of essentially debased people, Poles.

George Foster, an American anthropologist, developed the concept of "limited good" as a way of understanding ALL societies, especially peasant societies, where chronic scarcity is a fact of life. Foster wanted to understand such societies on their own terms. He rejected applying American values to peasant society. Application of "limited good" would illuminate the tensions of Polish peasant life that Walaszek details, above.

With the tool of limited good, these behaviors become understandable as an expression of universal human tendencies.

I can't think of a single prominent scholar of Polish-Jewish relations who makes any sustained use of Foster in discussions of Polish-Jewish relations. Perhaps this is so because it serves these scholars' ends to depict Poles, as is acceptable, in the academy, in the mainstream press, and in popular culture, as possessed of a nasty and intractable Polish essence, "Polish anti-Semitism."

George Foster and Limited Good

Adam Walaszek
"How Could It All Appear So Rosy?"

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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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