Friday, March 25, 2011

Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn Levels "Pogromist" Allegation

I received an e-mail this morning from Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn alleging that I am a pogromist, or participant in pogroms, that is, government-incited, or at least tolerated, anti-Jewish riots. Pogroms are particularly heinous events, often involving not just murder, but public humiliation, rape, and torture.

Rabbi Cukierkorn leveled this accusation at me because I posted a critical Amazon review of a book he co-authored, "They Were Just People." I will include the full text of my review, below, and a link.

I also mentioned "They Were Just People" in a recent blog post about a 1917 anti-Polish riot that resulted in the terrorizing and expulsion of Polish immigrants from the lead mining region of Missouri.

Rabbi Cukierkorn's allegation that I am a pogromist is troubling to me for several reasons:

Rabbi Cukierkorn is a man of God.

Rabbi Cukierkorn is a religious leader.

Rabbi Cukierkorn's opinions of Poles have been given the imprimatur of the University of Missouri Press. Rabbi Cukierkorn knows nothing about me except this: I am Polish-American, and I object to stereotyping of Poles. That is enough for Rabbi Cukierkorn to accuse me of being a pogromist. It is troubling to me that a book by a man who holds that worldview has been granted sanction by the University of Missouri Press.

I must ask the University of Missouri Press: If a Polish Catholic priest did not like a Jewish reader's Amazon review, and sent that reader an email accusing the Jewish reader of being a "Shylock," would the University of Missouri publish that priest's assessments of Jews?

I hope, and assume, that the answer to the previous question is "No."

Responding to any criticism of racist stereotyping of Poles with a charge that the person who criticized anti-Polish stereotyping is a pogromist is a rhetorical strategy. This strategy cripples and distorts discourse about Poles and Jews, about the Holocaust, and about World War Two. Too many good people are, simply, afraid to speak up when Poles are stereotyped and scapegoated, and when history is rewritten to serve stereotyping rather than truth.


I welcome input from Bill Tammeus, Rabbi Cukierkorn, or the University of Missouri Press. I welcome input that addresses the key points in my Amazon review and subsequent comments, and that does not stoop to ad hominem invective and stereotyping.

The Brute Polak stereotype gained power in America, as chapter three of "Bieganski" shows, when peasant immigrants arrived in America from Eastern Europe. Scientific racists like Madison Grant put a veneer of respectability, even ethics, on elite Americans' instinctive recoil from dirty, alien, peasants from Eastern Europe.

Madison Grant and other scientific racists assured elite America that it was not only natural to be disgusted by Bohunk peasants; it was also virtuous to feel that disgust. Bohunks were no only disgusting, they were very, very bad.

Chapter Seven of "Bieganski," which was previously published in Polin, and well reviewed in Shofar and American Jewish History, shows how Nazis defined themselves as "decent" while condemning Eastern European peasants as dirty and undisciplined.

Anti-Bohunk images that were communicated and sanctioned by scientific racists in the US, and by Nazis, are alive today. They are used strategically. As the American Jewish History reviewer of "Bieganski" said, "'The necessity of Bieganski,' Goska finally argues, lies also on an even higher platform: it gives illusion of absolving those who failed in their own test of humanity [during the Holocaust], by placing blame on easily identifiable others."

Elites today use a timeworn image – The Brute Polak – to justify their own hate of ethnic others. One hundred years ago, elites despised Polish, Catholic peasants, and justified that hatred, even as they exiled Poles from living in Missouri's lead mining region, and passed the notorious Quota Acts that defined Poles and other Eastern and Southern European immigrants as racially inferior, and denying them entry to the US.

Today, as in the past, elites continue to despise Polish, Catholic peasants, and, as in the past, they continue to justify that hatred – even to identify it as virtuous. Elites no longer drive Poles out with riots. Now they exile and lynch Poles with language.

Today, the timeworn image of the unsavory peasant, Catholic Pole is exploited thus. Elites locate the horrible crime of anti-Semitism exclusively, diagnostically, and essentially in peasant, Catholic Poles. "Anti-Semitism equals Poles equals Polish Catholic peasants equals Poland": this formula absolves elites of ever being suspected of, or feeling guilt for, anti-Semitism or any other ethnic hate. "We are not Polish, Catholic peasants; therefore, we are above reproach."


Here is a link to my Amazon review of "They Were Just People," the book co-authored by Rabbi Cukierkorn, who accused me of being a pogromist because I critiqued his book.

Here is the full text of my Amazon review of "They Were Just People":

"They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland during the Holocaust" appears wholesome and high-minded. The proverbial one candle – "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness" – illuminates the black cover. The title is clever – Polish rescuers identified the Jews they saved as "just people," meaning, "simply people." These rescuers can be identified as "just people," as in "righteous people." Co-author Tammeus is a Presbyterian elder whose surname suggests German ancestry; Cukierkorn is descended from Polish Rabbis. Maggie Finefrock, my old Peace Corps buddy, sent me the book. What could be wrong with this picture?

"They Were Just People" systematically erases important facts in distortion so careful it's hard to believe it occurred by chance. A book that purports to be about tolerance is in fact a book that may contribute to the cultivation of ignorant arrogance and even hate. Neither the University of Missouri nor any other American university press would publish a Holocaust-related book that so carefully presented an equally skewed depiction of Jews. That a university press gave this book the green light says much, none of it good, about double standards in academia.

Writing about Polish-Jewish relations during World War Two is one of the hardest tasks any author might ever undertake. Strides have been made by authors like Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Eva Hoffman, Gunnar S. Paulsson, Antony Polonsky, Michael C. Steinlauf, Nechama Tec, and Leon Weliczker Wells. Tammeus and Cukierkorn appear either to be unaware of these authors' efforts at fairness or so dismissive of them that they need not incorporate their ethical heritage. Rather, Tammeus and Cukierkorn revert to a completely false simplification designed to use Poles as primitive villains in order to flatter American readers.

"They Were Just People," contrary to its subtitle, does not create vivid impressions of or deep insights into Poles, Poland, or Polish rescuers. Poles, here, 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, and that, out of no reason other than perverse sinfulness or degradation, nurtured a deadly hatred of Jews. The audience is invited to discharge the overwhelming trauma that the Holocaust narrative generates by hating Poles.

The most memorable Poles 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. Another Pole feeds Jews to his pigs (94).

The Home Army was an anti-Semitic organization bent on killing Jews (206, 133) this comment does not reflect current scholarly assessment of the Home Army. 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); 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) and perhaps enjoy some refreshing Vichy water.

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 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.

On the plus side: The anecdotes here support important realities discussed in better books: Jews who were integrated into Polish culture had a better chance of survival; the survival of one Jew depended on the participation of many Poles who can never be named, never mind honored. Jews received food, shelter, documents, housing, supportive testimonials, and guidance from Poles they'd never met, and would never see again. When asked why they helped, many Poles cited their Christian faith as inspiration.

[At the end of the review, I included the links, below, to better books on the same topic.]

The Samaritans: Heroes of the Holocaust.
Zegota: The rescue of Jews in wartime Poland
Your Life Is Worth Mine: How Polish Nuns Saved Hundreds of Jewish Children in German-Occupied Poland, 1939-1945
Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust


Here is a link to the blog post relating anti-Polish hate in Missouri, old and new.


Here is the full text of my e-mail to Bill Tammeus, which he forwarded to Rabbi Cukierkorn:

"Hello, I mention you in a blog post:"

Here is the full text, phone number deleted, of Rabbi Cukierkorn's email to me:

"As a Proud descendant of Polish Jews, I am flabbergasted by your gratuitous hate and disparagement of my co-author.  The world would be a much better place if people knew what they are talking about before acting in hurtful ways.

I will be delighted to talk with you and share my views that are committed to my understanding of the truth in the land that welcomed us when we were expelled from Spain.  Chances are you will not call me, showing that had you had the chance you would be among those doing the expelling or taking part in the pogrom...


Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn"


  1. I do not think ad honimen accusations of the sort made by Rabbi Cukierkorn aid a rational discussion of this complex and painful problem.

    Antony Polonsky

  2. I am grateful for, and honored by, Prof. Polonsky's post, above, and his support.

    Prof. Polonsky is known to anyone who has any serious interest in Polish-Jewish relations.

    His Brandeis University webpage is here:

  3. Conformer with a CauseMarch 26, 2011 at 5:54 PM

    Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn wrote

    "had you had the chance you would be among those doing the expelling or taking part in the pogrom..."

    Not sure why your response is so moderate. Surely saying that someone would kill Jews if they had the chance is libellous?

  4. Hi, Conformer. Thanks for you comment.

    I'm not the lawsuit type. And what Rabbi Cukierkorn said is not about me; he and I have had zero contact, other than his sending me an email yesterday.

    He's not talking to me. He's talking to "a generic Polak," whom he immediately identifies as a pogromist and an expeller of Jews.

    That is, of course, his own personal prejudice, and he is welcome to it.

    The problem is that his work has been sanctioned by a university press.

    So, no, no lawsuit.

    Rather, this is what should happen: some Polish-American organization should take up this issue, approach the University of Missouri press, and request that the current edition of the "They Were Just People" be withdrawn from sale, and that an edition with appropriate corrections be made available.

    Further, a Polish-American organization should make itself known to university presses. Oversight should be exercised.

    We're not asking for censorship. We acknowledge that Poles have done bad things. We are aware of Kielce, Jedwabne, and Dmowski. We welcome serious scholarship on every aspect of Polish history, both the good and the bad.

    We ask, though, that complicated matters be handled with responsibility and balance, and handled by knowledgeable, caring authors, not with hate-mongering, exercised by people who look at any given Pole and see a pogromist.

  5. These kinds of responses to reasonable and fair-minded argument make me weep. It seems to me that there are some who still insist that racial hatred is the only way forward, and do not and will not accept facts that go against their strongly held views. I would recomment to anyone Philip Zimbardo's book 'The Lucifer Effect.' Zimbardo looks at a series of horrific events, including the Nazi's persecution of the Jews in the last war, and shows that all people have the capacity to commit dreadful acts - we tend to follow the herd - and very few of us find the ability to say 'No' and to be heroes. He uses the example of the actions of Batallion 101 to demonstrate how very ordinary people are quickly corrupted. Those of us who believe we would never do something like that are often the most vulnerable to evil, because we have no protection agaist our own innate capacities. Until we recognise that pogroms, inquisitions and holocausts arise from something innate in human beings - not Poles, not Germans, not Jews but human beings, these things will continue to happen.
    I am so sorry you have been on the receiving end of this vicious and bigoted slur, Danusha.

  6. Danuta JR, thank you so much for your intelligent and thoughtful post. I think again and again of a quote that I think was originally from Terence: "Nothing that is human is foreign to me."

    When i was studying the scientific racists, it was very much not my goal to hate them. It was my goal to understand them. It took me years to get to that point, but I may have gotten there.

    When I spoke at the UU Church last year, I began my talk with an exercise I've developed for my students. My goal is to bring them to that same place -- to a place of understanding people who commit heinous acts.

    An African American woman with gray in her hair approached me afterward and told me that I'd helped her to understand racism in a way she had never understood it before. I was moved to tears.

    Yes, alas, in academia and in journalism, ethnicity is still used as the method for "understanding" atrocities like Jedwabne. "This is what Poles do." Poles are pogromists by nature.

    People who think this way classify me as a Pole, therefore, I am a pogromist.

    What I say, and what "Bieganski" says, loud and clear, is that there is no "they." there is only "we."

  7. I would like to make one comment, or I should say ask a question.
    If poles are what he said they are, then why did my grand father received medal of honor from Yad Vashem, for sheltering and ultimately saving lives of jewish family of five, during the world war two in Poland.

  8. anonymous, thank you for your comment.


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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