Friday, June 10, 2011

Polish Catholic Peasants. Rescuers of Jews. Because of, not in spite of, their identity.

Wiktoria Ulma and her children. Photographed by her husband, Jozef Ulma. Courtesy Mateusz Szpytma.

This series of blog posts travels inside the mind of an anti-Polish bigot. Much of this is discussed in "Bieganski," a book that offers an x-ray into the anatomy and physiology of bigotry.

1.) The first post offers an introduction.

2.) The second post discusses the concept of universal human progress, its nineteenth century refiners, and its modern-day adherents.

3.) The third post points out echoes of ideas of universal human progress in discussions of Polish-Jewish relations, and points out that these echoes are fallacies.

4.) The fourth post mentions facts that prove the bigots wrong. Polish peasants are entirely capable of ethical behavior.

5.) The fifth post points out that Polish moral leaders responded appropriately to atrocity. Polonia has not adequately communicated their story, and their efforts have been all but forgotten.

There were Polish peasants who responded to the Holocaust heroically while it was happening, and who mourned the loss of Jews after the war ended.

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski's book "Samaritans" includes accounts of peasants who risked all to save Jews. Unfortunately, the book is out of print. Polonia owes it to the world to get this book back into print.

Michael Steinlauf's excellent "Bondage to the Dead" details Polish efforts to come to terms with the Holocaust.

Oswald Rufeisen's book details peasants who saved him from death.


Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma were truly remarkable people. More people should know their names. The Ulmas were a Polish, Catholic, peasant family who sheltered Jews. Nazis murdered the Ulmas and their seven children.

Mateusz Szpytma, of the Krakow Branch of the Institute of the National Remembrance (IPN), told the Ulma's story in the Am-Pol Eagle, the Voice of Polonia.

Szpytma locates the Ulmas firmly in their Polish, Catholic, peasant milieu. Szpytma writes:

"'The Commandment of Love – The Good Samaritan' – under such a title these very words can be found in the bible which Józef and Wiktoria Ulma owned. It's one of the two fragments to be found in the bible marked in red – most probably by Józef Ulma himself (the other one regards loving enemies). With their own life and death they proved these words did not remain an empty slogan for them. Both, Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, together with their six children and eight Jews of the Szall and Goldman families they were hiding, were executed by the Germans on March 24, 1944."

The Ulmas lived in Markowa, a majority Catholic Polish village dating back to the 14th century. Jozef finished four years of elementary school education. He planted a fruit tree nursery. He won awards during the County Agricultural Exhibition in Przeworsk in 1933 for the "ingenious beehives and apiarian tools of own construction and design" and for "exemplary silkworm raising and their lifetime charts."

Ulma was an active Catholic: "he was already a member of the Mass Union of the Przemysl Diocese, which aimed at joint prayers and collecting funds for the construction and reconstruction of local churches and chapels. He was also an active member of the Catholic Youth Association and then the Peasant Youth Union Wici, where he acted as a librarian and photographer."

Wiktoria had played the part of Mary in a Nativity Play.

It's clear: the heroic, martyred Ulmas were Polish. The Ulmas were Catholic. And the Ulmas were agriculturalists, members of Poland's peasant class.

And they rescued Jews.

This defies the above-cited stereotyping of Polish, Catholic, peasants as essentially guilty for the Holocaust.

Yes, we know that Polish Catholic peasants did bad things. No one denies horrific events like the massacre at Jedwabne.

Here's the point: bigots exploit the massacre at Jedwabne to insist that Polish Catholic peasants did bad things because they were Polish Catholic peasants. Their identity is the explanation for the atrocities they committed.

This process is identical to insisting that well known Jews like Bernie Madoff or Lloyd Blankfein who are implicated in financial chicanery did bad things because they are Jewish. There was so much concern that people not stereotype Jews in this way that on January 29, 2010, the Atlantic Monthly ran an article by Michael Kinsley entitled "How to Think about Jewish Bankers."

The point of the article: Yes, some moneymen who have done bad things with money also happen to be Jewish.

No, these men did not do bad things with money because they are Jews. Non Jews can also do bad things with money. Finally, many Jews do good things with money.

The same conclusions apply to Polish, Catholic peasants. Yes, some Polish Catholic peasants did bad things during World War II. They did not do these bad things because they are Polish – other explanations must be found – and those scholarly explanations are offered in "Bieganski." Many Polish Catholic peasants, in accord with Polish, Catholic, peasant values, did good things.

Apparently, alas, this truth is lost on powerful institutions like Yad Vashem.


Hans Joachim Schauss' book "Contemporary Polish Folk Artists" offers a glimpse into Polish folk art and Polish folk artists. I mentioned it in a bibliography of Eastern European folk art.

Schauss' book discusses some Polish folk artists who have dedicated themselves to commemorating the Jews who once lived in their midst, and their murder.

Not all the artists in the book have taken up Jews and the Holocaust as their theme. I mention this book, though, because it is one of the very few English-language publications I've run across that mentions Eastern European peasants in a positive light, that respects their intelligence, creativity and conscience.

Review below:

The majority of the text consists of the words of artists themselves. Schauss likes wood carving, painting, and ceramics, so the book suffers for disincluding needlework and papercuts, and, thereby, disincluding women. In spite of that flaw, the book is carried by its strengths: the pithy, direct words of Polish folk artists on what they do and why they do it. In this absence of theory and analysis, questions do arise: e.g., how is it that the artists say they copy no one and yet their work is so readily identifiable as being part of Polish folk art? What role in the creation of a allegedly purely folk aesthetic did the urban, communist Cepelia play in its sponsoring of some artists, and its rejection of others? What is a reader to make of it when a Polish man states that the German family who owned him as a slave during the war treated him well when he reports working from four a.m. till ten p.m. and being made to stand outside during air raids? Photographs of the artists accompany each chapter; these compelling photographs of rough hewn peasants suggest that the artists themselves are works of art. Several photographs illustrate the works of each artist featured; about half are in color.

All the artists are amateurs; inner drive is only compulsion. Many artists are poor and were slave laborers under the Nazis. Jan Gacek, wood carver, thumps his chest and proclaims, "My work! My work!" had only four years education; doesn't mind coming in last in contests: "'The first shall be last and the last shall be first,'" ... "I don't polish or smarten up anything; after all, human beings have their blemishes as well" ... also a story teller ... Jan Madej, carver ... began to carve while minding cattle as a child ... "I don't carve what I actually see" ... Edward Kolacz, carver ... only one subject, the laboring villager. He is handicapped. "I have never seen a smile on Edward Kolacz's face" ... even at 13 worked twelve to sixteen hours a day ... carved whenever he had a chance ... "I never had an education so I can't write like an author -- I can only impart my experience and ideas in terms of plastic art" ... "I am very ill, but I hope to die with a carving in my hand" ... was in Auschwitz at liberation; this has affected his art ... is never satisfied unless audience understands what he is trying to express ... wants to record, in his art, history of now absent Jews in Poland.

Stanislaw Holda ... deaf from birth ... had to roam as a child ... no statement; can't speak ... Wladyslawa Wlodarzewska, painter ... her motif: a fine lady ... father was prisoner in WW I; she had to work ... made her own paintbrush; had never seen one ... painting relieves her pain. Waclaw Suska, carver ... slave in Germany ... "I can't complain" ... "Every figure must be different" ... Stanislaw Denkiewicz, carver ... carved while minding cattle as a child; hid it; afraid neighbors would laugh. His elder brother used to burn his carvings, as they detracted from farm labor. His wife died during a German house search ... didn't carve during WW II "it wasn't the time for that sort of thing" ... wants his grandsons to carry on ... records in his work how people lived before machines ... Jan Reczkowski, ceramist ... wants to add to glory of Poland ... carved while minding cows ... does Jewish figures in order to commemorate Jews who were exterminated in Poland ... works in Goral tradition ... fires his own wares.

Antoni Baran, carver ... factory worker ... learned to carve while minding the cows ... never looks at works of other wood carvers ... does it for pleasure and passion ... astonishes himself with his own work ... Wladyslawa Iwanska, painter ... used to draw on bread wrappings and clouded window panes; her mother grumbled ... Wojciech Oleksy, deaf, carver ... his niece says at first no one knew what to do with the things he made. Wladyslaw Chajec, carver, inspired by pilgrimage to Auschwitz. Waclaw Czerwinski, carver ... mother died in Ravensbruck ... carves from wood from Chelmno forest, site of extermination camp ... "one must be able to identify with the other man and to feel the burden he carries...when I carve it's as if I were reading a page of my own diary" ... carves Jews "as an indictment to the that the persecuted should not remain mute." Stanislaw Majewski, carver ... slave labor in Germany ... "learned professors" admire his work ... "I make it all up out of my own head ... you mustn't copy; that's no good."

Bazyli Albiczuk, painter ... paints his own garden, at various seasons ... as a child, painted with cinders from the stove ... began to paint after the war, "for during the war our village was set on fire and we had to move eastwards" ... time plays a big role in his paintings ... Adela and Bronislaw Chojeta, painter and carver ... carved dolls while minding cattle ... would give these to other kids to get them to mind the cattle ... escaping from Germans during war. His wife encouraged him when he wanted to give up. Jozef Lurka, carver ... Germans plunged bayonets into hay under which he hid ... his mother saw him carried away ... that has stayed with him ... influenced his Stations of the Cross ... "Life itself has given me my spiritual education...our folk art is rooted in devotional subjects." Jozef Chajec, carver ... slave labor in Germany; "They were good people" ... carved Satan and Hitler embracing ... Stanislaw Zagajewski, ceramist ... an orphan and scrap merchant ... an outsider ... does works on a monumental scale; copies no one ... very aware of his critics ... chance plays a role in his art; changes in weather, street traffic: "a monkey turns into a bear" ... Szczepan Mucha ... neighbors make fun of him ... Germans set fire to his village ... slave labor in Germany ... "nothing but s---" ... carves traditional demons.

Adam Zegadlo, carver ... made and sold toys during war so he could buy food ... carves Jewish figures ... worked 14 years in a Jewish factory ... "They were good people who looked after me and trained me ... I make these wood carvings in honor of their memory. I believe that when you feel sympathy for someone who has played an important role in your life, then you should attempt to portray some of it ... I can still visualize them today. I went to the synagogue, too, to find out about their creed. It is my aim not to let the traces of this ancient culture sink into oblivion."

To view the next post in this series, The Polish Catholic Conscience, click here

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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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