Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Open Letter to Clair Willcox, University of Missouri Press Editor-in-Chief

Mr. Clair Willcox
University of Missouri Press
2910 LeMone Blvd.
Columbia, MO 65201

Dear Mr. Clair Willcox, Editor-in-Chief, University of Missouri Press:

We, the undersigned, write to express our concern about the 2009 University of Missouri Press publication, "They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust." This book distorts history in order to perpetuate a highly destructive and dangerous stereotype of Poles. In this stereotype, Poles are brutes, and are less evolved than modern, secular people. This very stereotype was strategically deployed by the Nazis themselves to justify their atrocities.

Sadly, too many Western elites initially accepted the Nazi claim of merely bringing "discipline" to Slavic "savages." The stereotype was first honed in the US by Scientific Racists to deny Poles entry into the US through the quota acts of the 1920s. American Scientific Racism inspired the Nazis.

The stereotype is used today to rewrite the history of World War Two. For these reasons, every decent person should be concerned about this stereotype. Indeed, it has been named and condemned by important Holocaust scholars and scholars on Polish-Jewish relations, including prominent Jewish scholars and activists on both sides of the Atlantic, for example, Eva Hoffman, Gunnar S. Paulsson, and Adam Michnik.

Further, we are concerned because Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, a co-author of the book, after viewing an Amazon review that critiqued the book, sent an unsolicited e-mail to the author of that Amazon review, an e-mail accusing her of being a pogromist and an expeller of Jews. Antony Polonsky, the world's most important scholar of Polish-Jewish relations, and himself of Polish-Jewish descent, has publicly condemned Rabbi Cukierkorn's racist e-mail.

We request that the University of Missouri Press withdraw the current edition of "They Were Just People" and prepare a revised version. We also request that the University of Missouri Press, in future, exercise more careful and evenhanded oversight of its publications, and that it provide evidence that it has taken steps to insure this.

We note, with sorrow, that those who endorse "They Were Just People" are not prominent scholars in Polish-Jewish relations. One is a past president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. This status does not qualify the speaker to assess a book on Polish-Jewish relations. None of the endorsers is Polish or is a scholar of Polish history or culture. This is not reflective of due application of the rigorous peer review process that honors and safeguards truth.

One of the great gifts, and challenges, of the Information Age is the flood of data in which each citizen swims. One can find books and webpages making any number of outlandish, even destructive, claims. In this new age, university presses and the peer review process have the unique charge to serve truth. We implore the University of Missouri Press not to squander or tarnish this sacred, essential duty: truth.

We ask you to review, carefully, the facts below, that demonstrate beyond question that "They Were Just People" should never have received a university press imprimatur.

"They Were Just People," contrary to its subtitle, does not create vivid impressions of or deep insights into Poles, Poland, or Polish rescuers. Poles are two-dimensional. Given that most American readers will come to this book knowing little or nothing of Poland, and given that the authors say as little about Poland as possible, the overwhelming impression readers will be left with is of a country, Poland, that was worse than Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

An example of this last: "life under Soviet domination was an improvement. For twelve-year-old Felix, it felt as if he had never been so free because he experienced no more attacks from Catholic children" (161). The book profoundly distorts history, here, and makes a mockery of the millions – including Poles and Jews – imprisoned, tortured, dispossessed and murdered by Stalin.

The book is happy to report that on January 17, 1945 "Soviet forces liberate Warsaw" (197). In fact, a new war had begun for Poland. No scholar knowledgeable of Poland would have let that utterly false line pass peer review.

"They Were Just People" creates the impression that, out of no reason other than perverse sinfulness or degradation, Poles and Poland nurtured a deadly hatred of Jews. Example: "the [Polish] population in general was very antagonistic toward the Jewish population, or they didn't care, or they were simply collaborating with the Germans. Many of them ended up with property that belonged to Jewish people" (114). Jews "were more afraid of the Poles than the Germans" (131).

Those who might be perceived as heroes in the US, Polish anti-Nazi resisters, were, in fact, interesting in nothing but killing Jews. "Partisans look for Jews to kill" (133).

Poles are probably so anti-Semitic because they are devoutly Catholic. "the history of anti-Judaism in Christian history" (sic) is to blame (211). "They Were Just People" never mentions the genocide of Catholic Poles that preceded the genocide of the Jews (see historian Michael Phayer on this) or the Scientific Racism that, for decades, first in America, and then in Germany, had identified both Catholic Poles and Jews as life unworthy of life.

The audience is invited to discharge the overwhelming trauma that the Holocaust narrative generates by hating Poles and blaming Christianity, when in fact the ultimate Nazi goal was to eliminate Christianity, and Polish priests were targeted for destruction.

The most memorable Poles in "They Were Just People" are very much not rescuers. The most memorable Poles in "They Were Just People" include, rather, a twisted sadist who tormented a starving Jewish boy by carefully laying out, in front of him, rows of apples that he forbade the Jew to touch (58). Why did the Polish sadist do this? We never learn – he is not interviewed, not even to corroborate this harrowing anecdote.

The single most memorable narrative in "They Were Just People" describes a Pole feeding the disinterred, decaying corpses of Jews, ordered murdered by the Nazis, to his pigs.

Did this really happen?

"They Were Just People" provides no evidence that it did. The book reports it as an FOAF – a friend of a friend tale. The teller heard it from someone else who reported hearing it from someone else. Scholars of narrative identify FOAFs as notoriously unreliable and non-veridical. This notorious unreliability did not hinder a university press from publishing the story as if it were unquestionably true – and not just true, but diagnostic and representational of all Poles and Polish culture (94).

"They Were Just People" informs its readers that the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army, was an anti-Semitic organization bent on killing Jews (206, 133). "The Polish underground in general and the AK in particular, displayed little interest in the Jews and certainly took no action to defend them … the AK was imbued with anti-Semitism" (206). This comment does not reflect current scholarly assessment of the Home Army. It would not have passed peer review of a competent reader.

Though, in Poland alone, Nazis mandated death for entire families if one member so much as offered a Jew a glass of water, Poles helped, the book tells us, because they were peasants too greedy or stupid to understand the risk (44, 111, 144). Example: "If German authorities came to that farm and found Jews, she said, 'then he has the same execution that we would have. But the famer was not smart enough to think of this. He was thinking of the big chunk of money he would get.'" The speaker is a Jewish Holocaust survivor, who acknowledges that she survived "Because of a Polish army officer." Even so, "my generation will never forgive" Poles.

Polish-Jewish scholar and author, Eva Hoffman, daughter of two Holocaust survivors, tells a very similar anecdote in her book "Shtetl." Hoffman goes on to question why Jews who survived thanks to Poles often hated Poles. Hoffman shows the insight to probe the power of stereotypes. Hoffman took this step in 1997. "They Were Just People" reveals no awareness of this previous scholarship, or ethical leadership.

Another Polish rescuer, Jan Goral, acted because "the idea of owning sixty more acres intrigued him enough to put the lives of his whole family on the line."

Was callous, reckless, selfish greed really Jan Goral's motivation for building a large bunker and saving eleven Jews? The reader will never know. "They Were Just People"'s authors don't interview Jan Goral. They just accept the venal motivation a Jewish storyteller applies to him as fact.

Of an entire family of rescuers, the book states, "The Switzky family did this more for the money than for any altruistic reason" (144). The Switzkys are also quite stupid; they do not know that the people they are rescuing are Jews. If the Switzkys had known, the Jews "would not have survived" (144). In any case, the Switzkys are verbally abusive of the Jews they are unknowingly, greedily, saving (145). But the Switzkys lose their patience, and decide to hand the Jews over to the Nazis for a reward of sugar.

Were the Switzkys really greedy, stupid, and abusive? The reader will assume so. The authors of the book never verify any of these assessments of the Switzkys. A final note: a more likely spelling of this name is "Switzki," not "Switzky." Even accurately reproducing Polish orthography is not on the authors' agenda.

Poles should never be forgiven (42); most Poles, including priests, collaborated with Nazis (114, 167) or were worse than Nazis (131, 189) and worse than Soviets (161). Leaving Poland for France constitutes "escape" where one can "breathe clean air for the first time" (172). France, of course, in the Vichy regime, significantly collaborated with the Nazis in a way that Poland did not.

The focus is on Jewish survivors. Polish rescuers are not fleshed out. Many lack full names. They are just "Jan," or "a farmer." Wladyslaw Bartoszewski's far superior "The Samaritans" and Block and Drucker's "Rescuers" convey rescuers' hardship, terror, sacrifice and ingenuity. How to: dispose of human waste; acquire food when Nazis kept Poles on starvation rations and monitored every transaction; hide footprints in snow? "Rescuers" tells of Irene Gut Opdyke surrendering her body to save Jews and Stefania Podgorska heeding spectral voices. Polish heroes struggled alone: the Allies repeatedly abandoned and betrayed Poland's Jews and non-Jews.

"Just People" erases all this vital information, and more: the unique demographic, economic, educational, and political realities of interwar, wartime, and postwar Poland that can never excuse Polish anti-Semitism, but that certainly reveal as specious Tammeus and Cukierkorn's insistence that Poles be understood no differently than twenty-first century, suburban Americans. Their "readers' guide" presumes to present ethical questions, without ever probing the genuine ethical realities Poles faced. The authors reveal a damning degree of ignorance, if not hostility, when they condemn Poles for using the terms "Poles" and "Jews" (186) when there are very good reasons for these terms that are used universally by scholars invested in the topic.

"Just People" never mentions that Auschwitz was built and used for Polish prisoners during its first 18 months, that the Einsatzgruppen targeted Polish elites, that Polish convents were remarkable in their rescue of Jewish children. Polish Zegota was the only government-sponsored underground agency in Nazi-occupied Europe devoted to aiding Jews. The authors never mention this. The authors mention Ponary, never that 20,000 Poles were killed there. The number of Polish non-Jews murdered, exiled, tortured, and enslaved reaches into the millions. Poles rescued even as they lived in Hell.

"They Were Just People" is part of a trend, analyzed in detail by Ben Gurion University scholar Dr. Jackie Feldman in his 2002 Israel Studies article, "Marking the Boundaries of the Enclave: Defining the Israeli Collective Through the Poland 'Experience.'" As Dr. Feldman demonstrates, some have decided, for ideological reasons, to rewrite Holocaust history and cast Polish Catholics in the role that German Nazis properly play. One tactic in this revisionism is to denigrate Polish Catholic rescuers. "They Were Just People" serves this ideological end of Holocaust revisionism.

Mr. Willcox, we, the undersigned, look forward to your communication with us on these important matters. Everyone faces a moment when conscience should function above politics, profit, or ease. We hope that the University of Missouri Press will exhibit the qualities necessary to meet and master this moment.

Thank you.

William Adasiewicz, Grandson of Polish Immigrants, Member Polish Cultural Center of the Pacific and Polish Arts and Cultural Foundation. Redwood City, CA.

Stuart Balcomb, artist, composer, editor, TheScreamOnline.

Mary C. Bielski President of Marie Sklodowska Curie Professional Women's Association, New York.

Phil Boiarski

Antoinette Cooney

Nancy Forrest, Executive Director, Eugene Springfield Solidarity Network/Jobs with Justice

Danusha V. Goska, PhD, WPUNJ, (author, "Bieganski").

John Guzlowski, PhD, Son of Buchenwald Survivor (author, "Lightning and Ashes").

Vincent Knapczyk, President of the Polish Army Veterans Association Of America

Stefan Komar, NY Police Pulaski Association, Son of Witold Komar, Member of Polish Home Army Battalion "Zoska", acknowledged by Yad Vashem for saving 350 Jews during the Warsaw Uprising.

Mary Krane Derr, Poet and Writer of Polish Descent.

Leonard Kress, Professor of Communications and Humanities, Owens Community College; translator of Polish literature, including Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. (author, "Sappho's Apples").

Witold J. Lawrynowicz

Krystyna Mew, Daughter of Polish-Jewish Gulag Prisoner (publisher of her father's memoir, "Lost Between Worlds" by Edward Herzbaum).

Krzysztof Nowak of The Katyn Forest Massacre Memorial Committee, Inc.

Christopher Olechowski, Adjutant General, Polish Army Veterans Association of America

Christina Pacosz, poet, author "A Great Deal of Doing: The Missouri Leadbelt Riot of 1917."

Peter Rechniewski Litt. B MA, grandson of Dr. Stanislaw Rechtszaft, murdered in 1943 by SS at Umschlagplatz, buried in Warsaw's Jewish Cemetery.

William H. Szych, Grandson of Polish Immigrants.

Małgorzata Tarchała, Polish Catholic, brought up to respect history, other nations, and all religions, living in Heidelberg, Germany.

Szymon Tolak

Caria Tomczykowska, President, The Polish Arts and Culture Foundation.

Michał Tyrpa, President, Paradis Judaeorum Foundation; founder of "Przypomnijmy o Rotmistrzu" worldwide civic initiative to commemorate Witold Pilecki.

Margaret Wacker


  1. If anyone would like to co-sign this letter, please feel free to add your name. Thank you.

  2. Leonard Kress, Professor of Communications and Humanities, Owens Community College; translator of Polish literature, including Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz.

  3. Great letter...well done Danusha!

  4. Mary Krane Derr, poet & writer of Polish descent

  5. Peter Rechniewski Litt.B MA, grandfather Dr. Stanislaw Rechtszaft murdered in 1943 by SS at Umschlagplatz, buried in Warsaw's Jewish Cemetary.

  6. I thank everyone who has cosigned, and I've added your names. Thank you.

  7. It is about time that all misconceptions about Polish involvement in Jew persecution were dealt with. Several members of my family put their own life on the line to protect their Jewish friends and even strangers during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
    Please include my name on your list. It is a shame that University students should be subjected to such one sided view. This could cause irreparable damage. Your letter to Mr. Willcox was well written and expresses my views perfectly. Thank you. Mary C. Bielski President of Marie Sklodowska Curie Professional Women's Association, New York

  8. I am so honored by the cosignatories here. I will update the list about once a day. Thank you!

  9. We have to stop ignorance in America about Poland’s holocaust during Second World War. The schools cannot teach about WWII without its beginning in 1939, without division of Poland, genocide and ethnic cleansing of Polish citizens, done in cooperation, by Nazis and Bolsheviks. Poland was betrayed by Great Britain and France in 1939, than by USA and UK in 1943 (Tehran). Who will pay for all of this?
    No other country suffered more grievously than Poland, during World War II. Poland was invaded from the west by Germans and from the east by Soviets. Almost one fifth of Poland’s population was killed which made Poland a nation of the largest losses. The aggressors exterminated almost half of Polish intelligentsia, destroyed a large part of Polish culture, its economy and infrastructure, and shifted its borders. From an independent country, Poland became a satellite of the soviet totalitarian system. By war’s end, Poland’s population was reduced from 35 million to 23 million (by 37%). This decrease was due to soldiers killed in battles, civilians murdered on occupied territories, citizens deported by Germans or Soviets and others who escaped the terror of war and never returned. One more thing, Poland did not exist as a country during World War II, there was no Polish law, government, education system, or cultural. After WWII betrayed Poles lost their independence to Moscow. No one can blame Poland for anything during this period. No one should expect any retribution out of totally broken nation. Today, thanks only to Poles themselves, they are independent. They suppose to ask for retribution of all the losses, decimated population, destroyed country and lost three generations during half a century under totalitarian rules 1939-1989.
    Who suppose to pay and how for all of this, to fulfill justice?

    Szymon Tolak

  10. todays left wing academics are the most bigoted group in america today and have contributed mightily to the dumbing down of americas youth and our failure to compete on the economic world stage. antoinette cooney

  11. Having read the bigoted, hateful and historically distorting quotes in this letter attributable to the authors of "They Were Just People" I cannot imagine that the University of Missouri Press can possibly maintain any integrity without completely disassociating itself from the authors and the text itself. I sign this letter!
    Stefan Komar,
    NY Police Pulaski Association
    Son of Witold Komar,
    Member of Polish Home Army Battalion "Zoska",
    acknowledged by Yad Vashem for saving 350 Jews
    during the Warsaw Uprising.

  12. Signing this letter on my behalf and behalf of The Katyn Forest Massacre Memorial Committee, Inc.
    Krzysztof Nowak

  13. It is very sad that enemies of Polish people never stop publishing books and writing articles in the press about polish Catholics antisemitism and collaboration with Nazis. Shame on you,there have been many Jews saved by Poles, who are still alive living happy in many countries including the USA. Look at some of the Jews, who assisted Germans or Russians at those tragic times. At the the age of sixteen, along with my entire family Feb 10th 1940, was escorted by Russian soldiers, against our free will, escorted to a train and forced to go to Siberia. It is time to stop spreading those accusations, and start treating each other respectfully. You poison the minds of the young generation, and for us older citizens who suffered through World War II, you show complete disrespect and disregard for what other cultures had to endure.

  14. Witold J. LawrynowiczApril 4, 2011 at 11:14 PM

    Spreading lies is easy; defending against them is always much more difficult. Did the publisher of this book really believe this story or are they so ignorant they would publish anything? Does freedom of expression cover the spread of blatant lies?

    Witold J. Lawrynowicz

  15. It is unfortunate that the editors of this publication fail to understand that this type of skewed and blatantly distorted writing breeds nothing less then contempt and hatred in a particularly significant period when both Jewish and Polish scholars are attempting to bring to light invaluable balanced, documented of that horrific period in Poland's history. Publishing a book so filled with venomous anti-Polonism is morally reprehensible and can only remind us of the same distortions used for propaganda purposes by the Nazis and Soviets at tha time.
    On behalf of the Polish Army Veterans Association of America we strongly protest and denounce "They were Just People," and hope that you are willing to offer an unbiased explanation along with an apology to all the Polish community.
    Christopher Olechowski
    Adjutant General, PAVA


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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