Sunday, February 27, 2011

Polish Scum Responds

A photo of Poles and Polish Americans.
Do we look like scum to you?
If so, why? 

On July 28, 2007, the Boston Globe published "Silence Lifts on Poland's Jews," an essay by Rabbi Joseph Polak, Director of the Florence and Chafetz Hillel House at Boston University.

Rabbi Polak's essay is now on the homepage of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

That is unfortunate.

Quickly after its 2007 appearance in the Boston Globe, a fan cut and pasted Rabbi Polak's essay to another website, with a new title. The new title was "Polish Scum."

Rabbi Polak, in "Silence Lifts on Poland's Jews," exploits the brute Polak stereotype that "Bieganski" exposes and critiques.

Rabbi Polak's essay begins with his equation of Poland with the murder of Jews. Poland has no other identity in Rabbi Polak's essay.

Jews, Rabbi Polak reports, "were brought there to be murdered." Note Rabbi Polak's use of the passive voice. Had Rabbi Polak used the active voice, he would have had to identify who brought Jews to Poland to be murdered. Rewrite Rabbi Polak's opening sentence in the active voice: "German Nazis brought Jews to occupied Poland to murder them."

That is a very different sentence.

Provide a key detail: "German Nazis brought Jews to occupied Poland to murder them in concentration camps that included Polish prisoners and Polish victims."

With the inclusion of that key detail in the opening sentence, the entire essay becomes a different essay.

In Rabbi Polak's lengthy essay, Germans are mentioned, once, in passing, in the third paragraph. What did these Germans do? They offered "a little help" to Poles in murdering Jews.

In Rabbi Polak's worldview, now sanctioned by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Germans didn't build Auschwitz to incarcerate, torture and murder Poles, eighteen months before its dedication to Jewish victims – although, in historical fact, they did. Germans didn't kill Poles for helping Jews – again, they actually did. Germans didn't commit what historian Michael Phayer called a genocide of Polish Catholics, before they got down to the genocide of the Jews. But they did. In Rabbi Polak's essay, none of that happened. Rabbi Polak's selective focus contributes to his depiction of Poles as scum.

Rabbi Polak allows that, in 2007, after his visit, "Poles are finally beginning to deal with these ghosts in their midst."

Rabbi Polak's word choices locate essentially anti-Semitic Poland, languishing in the past, and contrast that Poland with the future, and modern, evolved persons like himself and other non-Poles, who visit Poland and teach Poles about their debased state.

Thanks to visits like his, Rabbi Polak reports, Poles are learning to be "thoughtful." They are learning to be "truthful." Poland is "turning a corner," an American expression meaning to begin a new direction. Before the arrival of Rabbi Polak and others like him, not thought and truth, but stupidity and lies, had constituted the Polish character.

Poland, foolishly, saw itself as a "victim among victims" of Nazi aggression.

In fact, Rabbi Polak and other disseminators of the brute Polak stereotype are the ones who falsify history. Poland very much was a "victim among victims." To deny Nazism's, and communism's goals and crimes against Poland is tantamount to Holocaust denial.

Warsaw, 1945 source

Poland, Rabbi Polak reports, never referred to its Jews; Poland was silent. Again, this is false. Poles very much did address the Holocaust before the arrival of Rabbi Polak; this is recorded in English-language books that Rabbi Polak could and should have cited, including several volumes of "Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry" and "Bondage to the Dead."

It is true that public discourse about anything and everything was deeply distorted and truncated under the Communists. This distortion of public discourse was proverbial and all-pervasive. Public discourse was corrupted around everything from Soviet economics – "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us" – to the chronic shortage of feminine hygiene products. A government that penalizes citizens for mentioning consumer-goods shortages is not going to allow vigorous discussion of the Holocaust.

Though not hampered by Soviet oppression, American and Israeli Jews also long-delayed their own response to the Holocaust. As Peter Novick, Jerzy Kosinski and Tom Segev have pointed out, there was measurably more attention paid to the Holocaust in America and Israel generations after WW II ended than during the war itself.

Even so, even under impossible conditions, Poles managed to publish essays, poetry, and broadsides, and to make films. Poles like Czeslaw Milosz, Jerzy Ficowski, Jan Blonski, Marcel Lozinski and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, and institutions like the Jagiellonian University, took up the issue of the Holocaust and Polish culpability when it was risky to do so. Even simple Polish wood carvers chose to commemorate Poland's lost Jews in their carvings, and announced that they did so to rescue the memory of their lost Jewish neighbors.

Jerzy Kosinski visited Poland, his birthplace, long before Rabbi Polak got there. In 1988, he published an essay about his experience. He wrote that returning to Poland after many years away, he was eagerly received by young people. "With so much Jewish cultural legacy steaming from the spiritually fertile Polish soil, to these young men and women Polish-Jewish relations are a mystery – mystery, not stigmata. They are as prompted to know me better as I am eager to know them." This process was a mutually fruitful exchange, Kosinski reported. He reported that he was so "rejuvenated by what I found within myself during my twelve days in Poland [that] I started a new romance with my thousand-year-old, Polish-Jewish soul."

Rabbi Polak says that Poland's treatment of Jews was a "mixed bag," that Poland made an effort, "centuries long, of preserving the Jews' otherness." This statement is bizarre. Jews enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in Poland. Leaders of the Jewish community used that autonomy to preserve Jews' otherness. Every historian working on Polish-Jewish relations agrees on this point. The average Boston Globe reader would not know that. Thus, Rabbi Polak gets away with saying something that is utterly contrary to the historical record – something that serves a racist stereotype.

Because Poles are themselves so unevolved, outsiders, modern, superior, non-Poles, must, as Rabbi Polak puts it, "make Poland itself cry for its murdered Jews."

No Pole, before Rabbi Polak and other superior, modern people arrived, has ever felt any sadness over the Holocaust. As Rabbi Polak puts it, visitors will ask, "Does anybody here miss them?" It will take outsiders to bring to Poles' attention that they haven't the emotional depth to miss or to mourn Poland's murdered Jews. Again, these non-Polish visitors will force upon debased Poles a key question: "Why Poland did so little to save" its Jews.

Why did Poland do so little to save Jews? Rabbi Polak leaves the question a rhetorical one. He never attempts to answer it. Answers are complicated, of course. One quick and easy answer is the conditions of Nazi occupation in Poland. This catastrophic, genocidal occupation is a bagatelle to Rabbi Polak. Poland murdered its Jews, Rabbi Polak says, "with a little help from Germans," mentioning the Germans only once, in passing, in his lengthy essay. Poland and the Poles' debased essence are fully responsible for the Holocaust. As Rabbi Polak puts it, "death oozes everywhere from its [Poland's] pores."

After I read Rabbi Polak's piece in 2007, I was troubled. How to describe, in a short essay that the Boston Globe might consider publishing, in fewer than one thousand words, all that was misleading, racist, and harmful in Rabbi Polak's piece? How to present deeply complicated truths?

I wrote the piece, below, and sent it to the Boston Globe and the rabbi himself. Weeks went by. I received no reply from the Boston Globe. I resubmitted and received a form rejection.

Below, please find my response to "Silence Lifts on Poland's Jews" submitted to, and rejected by the Boston Globe:


In 1941, Oswald Rufeisen was walking along a street. A peasant passed on a horse cart. The stranger gestured for Rufeisen to join him. "The Nazis are murdering Jews. I will hide you." Rufeisen was incredulous; Germans were civilized. Who was this Pole? Was this a trap? The Pole persisted. Rufeisen gave in. The Pole saved Rufeisen's life.

In 1987, I was attending a Polish-Jewish conference. Our meetings roiled, like a summer thunderstorm. I had been debating all night with the son of a concentration camp survivor. We took a break around dawn, silently strolling Krakow's cobblestones. Viewing glistening dewdrops on a spider web, this young Canadian Jew, who had never before been to Poland, began to recite, in Polish, the poetry of national bard Adam Mickiewicz.

I study Polish-Jewish relations. In hell, one discovers diamonds unavailable in any other mine. One example: Stefania Podgorska, a Polish teenager who saved 13 Jews thanks to a disembodied voice that directed her to shelter.

I've read thousands of books, articles, and internet posts. I've met key historical figures. I've traveled to Poland and Israel. I've conducted hundreds of interviews. You think I'm about to say, "This qualifies me." Think again. The more I read, the more I am agog, the more I want to say, "I have no right to speak." Because, in the Polish-Jewish narrative, whipsawing plot twists never let up. One example: after the war, Podgorska was dismissed, by a Jew she saved, as an inferior and superfluous "goyka." So, I do speak, because mainstream media simplifies this narrative beyond recognition.

What I think I've learned is this: hate, all hate, is wrong; and human beings, including those we least suspect, shelter reservoirs of goodness and strength.

The years before World War Two were a perfect storm. A toxic cloud circled the globe. Scientific Racism, a perversion of Darwinism, pitted "races" in a struggle for survival of the fittest. American racists cited "evidence" that Poles and Jews, inter alia, were essentially unfit; their entry was barred in 1924. In England, Nazism's sympathizers included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In Poland, some nationalists, the Endeks, struggling against three occupying empires, rejected Poland's traditional tolerance, and adopted a Poland-for-Poles stance. World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Versailles Treaty, and the Depression set the stage for racism's most diabolical manifestation: Nazism.

Massive, bulky narratives – a thousand years of Polish-Jewish relations and the black hole of World War Two – are simplified by sound bite culture: Poles become essential anti-Semites; everyone else, including the British Royal Family and followers of Oswald Mosley and Churchill and Roosevelt who heard Jan Karski's report and did not act, the Ivy League universities, the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, that all supported Scientific Racism – everyone – is exculpated. The essential, brute Polak takes on everyone's guilt. Important voices like Adam Michnik and Ewa Hoffman have refuted this charge; some of their fellow Jews have criticized them for mending fences with Poles.

Not Poland's good name – neither vanity nor even honor – is the treasure at stake here. Read the primary documents of Scientific Racism. Gathering only enough "evidence" to explain our fellow human beings as essentially different is exactly racism's error.

We may convince ourselves that this or that anecdote proves that Poles are essentially anti-Semitic … that African Americans are essentially lazy … that Jews are … fill-in-the-blank.

That method of thought, that is so easy, that is slickly seductive, that rewards our synapses with the conviction that we've got it all figured out, is what we must resist. Not for the sake of the Poles. Not for the sake of the African Americans, the Muslims or the Jews. We must resist that form of thought for ourselves. We must retain our intellectual and spiritual integrity, in a world that tempts us to believe that human beings and entire nations can be divided between the good and the bad, with us, and our nation, always firmly in the former category.

If you asked me where I am, in my twenty years of study of Polish-Jewish relations, I would tell you that every time I crack a new book, every time I interview a new source, I take that proverbial journey-inaugurating first step; I see a new horizon. I can't enumerate here the facts that counter the sound bite of Poles as essential anti-Semites. I can, though, say that when you find some evidence that convinces you that your neighbor is something essentially other than yourself, that is exactly when you must begin to question.


When his "Polish Scum" essay first appeared, I emailed Rabbi Polak and informed him of my concerns. Other concerned Polonians did, as well. Rabbi Polak was intransigent; he reported no movement in this thoughts about Poles.

I have sent Rabbi Polak an e-mail informing him of this blog post, and invited him to respond. If Rabbi Polak does respond, I will post his entire response, unedited.


  1. How reliable is the Rabbi's memory? How reliable is his command of the English language?
    He was 3 years old when liberated, and cannot remember the faces of his adoptive family. He was never incarcerated in Poland.

  2. How reliable is the Rabbi's memory? How reliable is his command of the English language?
    He was 3 years old when liberated, and cannot remember the faces of his adoptive family. He was never incarcerated in Poland.

    "•Two weeks before liberation the Nazis decided to send a section of the camp toward Poland. Joseph and his parents were among those who were loaded on three trains for this journey. The trains started out with 2500 people. They were intercepted by the Soviet Army and liberated by Marshall Zhukov. At that point there 1900 people still alive. Joseph’s father died at this time and his mother was given up for dead.

    •Joseph was taken back to Holland and adopted by a Jewish family. He has no recollection of the faces of the members of that family."

  3. Out for a walk today, I met an older lady with a Red Sox hat and I always engage fellow fans when I see the hat in Virginia. We had a nice discussion and I told her I was currently very involved in researching my Polish heritage....and this is what she said...Oh you mean Polish Jokes? She seemed like such an intelligent woman up to that point.

    About three years ago I mentioned to a colleague at work that I of Polish hertitage on both sides of my heritage. He said: I wouldn't go around repeating that.

    Like you, I have met too many people are either completely ignorant of the what happened to Poland in WWII or they have bought into the idea that Poland somehow contributed to the Jewish holocaust, or the only thing they know about Poland is Polish jokes.

  4. William H. Szych, I am very grateful for your openess.

    In the past four months alone, I've had two students, both under age 23, tell me that they are of Polish origin but that they have changed their names to disguise that, and that they did not want me to mention their ancestry to anyone.

  5. I would email the Museum itself and complain. That is what I intend to do in the most strongest terms. To give them the benefit of the doubt at this stage, it may be that there is simply no-one there with native competence of English who saw this article for what it was. Let's hope so and let's hope that with enough complaints they will take it down.

    The Museum should (amongst other things), be there to foster tolerance and work towards bringing Poles and Jews together but the tone, structure and substance of Polak's article are intended to do the very opposite. His agenda and sense of self-importance are clear

    If the Museum doesn't eventually take this article down my very modest, intended gift to it of 5,000 zl will never be made.

  6. Peter Rechniewski, thank you very much for reading and responding. I really appreciate it.

    If you do email the museum, could you please post an update here? I would greatly appreciate it.

    FWIW, Rabbi Polak did respond to my email alerting him to my blog post on this matter. He said he is very busy right now and will offer a longer response later when he has more time.

    He's always been very courteous in his emails to me, so I have nothing against him personally. It's the essay I find objectionable, for the reasons mentioned.

  7. I wrote to the museum asking that the statement be withdrawn.

  8. Thank you John. I have also written. Let us hope.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Eyton, I wish you had found this blog before, when I was still active. I retired from Polish Jewish matters when I realized that Polonia had virtually no interest in my work and there was zero hope of any forward movement on any of these matters.


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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