Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bieganski is Lithuanian on National Public Radio's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me."

The Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype is not just about Poles. It is about all "Bohunks." Bohunk is an American coinage. It is said to be a combination of "Bohemian" and "Hungarian." It refers to Eastern European, Christian, peasant-descent immigrants and their descendents. Included are Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, and Yugoslavs.

Poles are singled out, as in the Polak joke, because Poles were a large, representational group in the c. 1880-1924 immigration, and because many notorious Nazi death camps, like Auschwitz, were in Nazi-occupied Poland. So, if you want to combine the image of the brutal, stupid peasant with absolute evil, Poland is the go-to location for the stereotyper.

But sometimes other groups are singled out. During the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the American press said things about Serbs it would not say about any other group. Serbs were the new Polaks. The New Yorker talked about driving a stake through the heart of evil Eastern Europeans. Newsweek talked about Serbs as having a "talent for hate and an aptitude for losing." NPR referred to Eastern Europeans' "stink" their "drunken ditties" their "deep seated and emotionally unassailable stupidity" and their "smoke darkened icons."

As "Bieganski" shows, the press followed utterly different rhetorical rules when discussing events in other parts of the world, during the genocide in Rwanda, for example. No one dared referred to Africans' "stink;" in fact journalists and politicians pre-empted stereotyping when discussing that tragedy.

On August 6, 2011, the NPR quiz show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" depicted Lithuanians as perfect Bieganskis. Lithuanians are nationalistic in a hostile, stupidly comic way. They are upset and confused that their country lacks tourism, and convinced of their country's appeal. They believe, foolishly, that Lithuania possesses "majestic Baltic shores."

In fact, though, Lithuanians are violent brutes: they have the highest murder rate in the European Union. And they are unworthy of notice, as NPR panelist Charie Pierce points out: "Lithuania's place in European history is roughly the same as its place on the European continent, namely, on the far north side of the stuff you've actually heard of."

One of this segment's many punch lines: a potential tourist responds to an appeal to visit Lithuania with the line, "I'm convinced. Book me on a one-way ticket to Vilnius." The very idea of travel to Eastern Europe is so repugnant that it is a punch line that someone would want to buy a ticket to go there.

Lithuania stinks. We know that, because panelist Amy Dickinson's punch line is "the unforgettable smell of Lithuania," after which, as the NPR transcript helpfully points out, the audience laughs.

What does Bohunk Lithuania smell like? Dickinson tells NPR listeners: "sausage, cigars and the raw smell of fear." Again, the audience laughs, as noted on the NPR transcript.

Lithuanians are fat; they eat primitive foods, and they are unappealingly Catholic. A "fat friar" from Lithuania "lived on bread and goat cheese. He also weighed approximately 280 pounds."

Mo Rocca knows that Lithuanians, like all Bieganskis, are comically, stupidly, nationalistic, involved in pointless quarrels with other, equally negligible nationalities, obsessed with their own image, and that they devote an inordinate amount of time in fumbling efforts to improve their image:

"The Lithuanian people have had it. They're sick and tired of the outlandish lies they believe Americans tell about them. 'The American people must understand,' says Cultural Minister Jon Mokus, 'that we're not just a bunch of basketball playing, folk dancing, potato dumpling eating yahoos.'

And to combat these scurrilous stereotypes, the government of Lithuania has completed work on Mithuania, a 1,000 acre theme park in Central Missouri, dedicated to righting wrongs about the Baltic country.

Visitors are greeted by giant walk-around puppets, dressed as famous Lithuanians like Charles Bronson and Monica Lewinsky. Rides include a cold beet soup flume ride. The most popular attraction at the park? The live show Latvia Shmatvia, a blistering song and dance takedown of neighboring Baltic Republic and bitter rival Latvia, in which Latvians are portrayed, in the words of Jon Mokus, 'as folk dancing, potato dumpling eating yahoos.'"

If you protest this, you are a Bieganski: stupidly convinced that sophisticated Americans like NPR panelists and NPR listeners actually tell, and laugh at, ugly jokes about you.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"American Poles Deserve Considerable Blame"

"Poles in America conspicuously abandoned the loyalty to the Polish cause that had distinguished their parents' generation...American Poles deserve considerable blame for their failure to defend their nationality's reputation more devotedly."

M.B.B. Biskupski from "Conclusion," "Hollywood's War with Poland 1939-1945."

I'll be back soon with a review of Biskupski's book, one every Polish American should purchase, read, review on Amazon, and support in every way.

I'll disagree with one feature of Biskupski's quote, above. American Poles don't deserve blame for failing to "defend their nationality's reputation devotedly." That makes the problem sound like one of chauvinism.

Rather, Poles -- not just American Poles but Poles in Poland as well -- deserve blame for allowing a key nation to be misrepresented on the world stage. 

As both "Bieganski" and Biskupski make clear, that failure has allowed World War II and Holocaust history to be rewritten.

But, but, Polish Americans say, "I wrote a letter to the New York Times when it used the phrase, 'Polish Concentration Camps'!"

Sorry. That is not what is called for. 

What is called for?

People who care about this matter need to unite, support each other, organize, and act strategically.

People who care about this matter need to *purchase* both "Bieganski" and Biskupski's book. Too many Polish Americans protest against spending money on books -- I've received an embarrassing and depressing number of such complaints. People who wish to make an impact on culture and scholarship need to become part of culture and scholarship, and one way to do that is to financially support publishers who publish books whose message the purchaser supports. Simply put, the Polonians who complain to me about purchasing books are telling publishers, loud and clear, "Don't publish books on Polish topics because we won't reward you for doing so." 

Read the books. Review them on Amazon. It is a tragic reflection of Polonia's refusal to prepare itself intellectually to discuss negative stereotyping of Poles that Biskupski's book has only one serious review on Amazon. 

Invite these books' authors to speak at organized events. 

And, as Saul Alinksy says, name the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it. The target is not the phrase "Polish concentration camps" or Polak jokes or Borat. These are all merely manifestations of a deeply rooted problem, one Polonians are not ready even to begin to address until they arm themselves intellectually with "Bieganski" and Biskupski. 

After that, school curricula, hiring practices, journalism, and popular culture must be effectively and relentlessly targeted until there is change.

There are enough Polish Americans to accomplish this. There is enough money. All that is lacking is will. That's where the "blame" that Biskupski talks about comes in. We could do this. But we aren't even talking about doing this. We tell ourselves that writing one letter to the NYT about the phrase "Polish concentration camps" is enough. It's a good thing to do. An honorable thing to do. 

It is not enough, though. 

The longest journey does indeed begin with a single step. Let that step be in the right direction. Toward significant action, rather than just window dressing that we engage in order to tell ourselves that we are really doing something -- patting oneself on the back for writing the easily dismissed random letter to this or that publication that uses the phrase "Polish concentration camps" is just such a wrong direction.

Let our steps take us in the right direction, that of passing on history accurately to the next generation. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Hollywood Exculpates Nazi Germany: "Decision Before Dawn"

So sensitive, so beautiful, so elegant: How could you hold a grudge against Germans like this?
In "Decision Before Dawn," Hollywood and Washington demanded that America embrace Nazi  Germany.

Poster for the Hollywood film "Decision Before Dawn." 

Chapter Seven of "Bieganski" explains why America, the West, and Israel needed to exculpate Germany for its Nazi crimes. It also goes into some of the reasons why Poland made a perfect repository for Holocaust guilt.

"Decision Before Dawn" is a black-and-white, Hollywood combat film starring an impressive American and German cast including Oskar Werner, Klaus Kinski, Hildegard Knef, Gary Merrill, and Richard Basehart. It was directed by Anatole Litvak, who was born in Kiev of Jewish parents. "Decision Before Dawn" is similar to film noir. It is gritty, its protagonist is doomed and dies at the end, major scenes are shot at night in grim urban landscapes, and there is voiceover narration.

Film critic Leonard Maltin praised "Decision Before Dawn" as a top-notch WW II espionage thriller" with a "perceptive script." The New York Times called it "as stirring a drama as you'll any you'll want to see." "Decision Before Dawn" was nominated for an Academy Award for 1951's Best Picture.

"Decision Before Dawn" does include scenes of combat and genuinely arresting footage of bombed-out cities in Germany. It's not really a movie-movie, though – its main reason for existing is not entertainment or art or clever plot. Its main purpose is propaganda. "Decision Before Dawn" exists to manipulate American hearts and minds vis-à-vis Nazi Germany.

"Decision Before Dawn" does not take place *after* World War II, but, rather, *during* World War II, when American GIs are still being killed by Nazi soldiers. "Decision Before Dawn"'s tough assignment: win American hearts and minds, not just for Germany, but for Nazi Germany.

"Decision Before Dawn"'s purpose is announced, loud and clear, in several features: its didactic voiceover narration, its awkward story-within-a-lecture structure, and exhortatory onscreen text. "Decision Before Dawn"'s purpose as propaganda is also underlined by the film's support. The US Armed Forces supported it. Several cast members are actually American GIs. And "Decision Before Dawn"'s status as a propaganda film is revealed in the games it plays with its audience. Again and again, "Decision" introduces Germans who *might* be bad guys, but who turn out to be good guys. With this game, the film says to the audience – if you conclude, based on available evidence, that this German is bad, we will prove you wrong. You don't want to be proved wrong, now, do you?

The film plays this game most significantly with a character named "Tiger" played by Hans Christian Blech. Again and again, for no reason central to the plot, Blech is made to look suspicious, and again and again, he is proven trustworthy. One character, Gary Merrill, even comments on this.

The film plays this game shamelessly with a cute little Nazi boy, whom the film first makes you hate and fear, and then cajoles you into loving and forgiving.

The film begins with a little lecture, the first of many. Onscreen text informs the viewer that "a regime" – Nazism is not mentioned by name – "brought destruction to its own country." The destruction Nazism wrought was not, in fact, primarily, directed against Germany, but, rather, against Jews. "Decision Before Dawn" never mentions that. I don't think the word "Jew" is ever spoken in the film, though I can't swear to it. The Holocaust is merely alluded to when the one bad German character mentions that he has gold for sale. One can guess that he stole the gold from Jews, though Jews are not named.

In this film's view, Germans did not vote for or support Hitler. They did not participate in the Holocaust or the 1944-45 Battle of the Bulge against American troops just a few short years previous to this film's release. Rather, "a regime" "brought destruction" to Germany.

Germans are victims.

But Germans are more than just victims. Germans are beautiful, poignant, heroic, and willing to sacrifice their very lives in order to help Americans defeat Nazism. And the Germans who are victims? They've been victimized, not just by that nasty "regime," but by American bombs. Oh, America, you naughty country. Don't you feel bad? Don't you feel sorry for the German babies your bombs killed? That's okay, you can take care of that by forgetting all about Nazism and those pesky Jews and giving Germany the Marshall Plan.

The film's awkward structure betrays its purpose as propaganda. The very first scene shows Germans shooting a spy. Who is this spy? We don't yet know. But this scene emphasizes that the German spies in this film are facing death. In short, they are noble, self sacrificing, heroic.

Interestingly, the voiceover narration informs us that we will never know the true name of the heroic German spies the film will introduce us to, even though they are real people and the filmmakers know their real names. This feature hammers home the sermon's point. Any German might be a good German. We haven't told you the names of the good Germans, so you can't be sure. Don't judge any German negatively.

At first, Richard Basehart is positioned as the Angry American who won't support the recruitment of Germans as spies to help the Americans. Gary Merrill is the cool, hip, progressive American who is ready to recruit German spies. Merrill gives Basehart a little lecture on how essential Germans are to the American war effort.

In the next scene, Basehart is shown shooting at Germans. This is just plain silly, the film points out. These Germans are wounded, surrendering, nice, and handsome. One of the Germans is Oskar Werner, one of the most beautiful and sensitive males ever to grace the silver screen. He has the trembling nostrils of a young colt and lush, curvaceous lips that evoke sensual feeling. His large eyes recollect dreams and poetry, not mass rallies – or graves. He's definitely German, though – he has ultra blond hair and a German accent. This is Young Werther's tender German accent, though, not Hitler's. Werner goes out of his way to thank Basehart for kind treatment.

In a subsequent scene, Gary Merrill is shown interviewing potential German recruits for the American effort. Klaus Kinski, acting creepy, says he joined "the party" – the party in question is not named, just as "the regime" was not named – just to get a promotion.

Hans Christian Blech, a German recruited to spy for Americans says, "I have no political convictions. I could never afford any." "Shouting seig heil" was "one swindle I never fell for." It's clear this guy wants to spy just for the cash. Blech jokes about how he spent his time in the war, not killing Americans, but seeking out widows to romance.

"We just closed our eyes and went along," another German says. "Like most, I talk, but I do nothing."

In fact, throughout its runtime, "Decision Before Dawn" acts as a defense attorney for Nazi Germany. Again, I emphasize "Nazi." This film's action took place *during* the war. It demands that we embrace, not a postwar Germany, not apologetic, post-Nuremberg Trial Germans, but Third Reich Germans. No defense attorney for a New Jersey Mafioso has ever been so bold in his demands on a jury.

The film produces a running line-up of adorable, beautiful, sexy, poignant, needy, vulnerable, decent, honorable German Nazis. Its script is a series of harangues directed at the viewer. This poor Nazi lady had a baby that was killed in American bombing. How could you be so cruel as to reject her? This poor Nazi officer has a bad heart and could die a horrible death before your very eyes. How could your humanity allow you to deny him that hypodermic full of nitroglycerin?

When you really think it can't go any further, the film tosses in an adorable Nazi cherub, a perfectly beautiful, blond boy child sad because his daddy has been away at the front for a year. What's next? An adorable Nazi puppy? Litvak never goes quite that far.

You've got the whole catalogue of excuses here: I never said "seig heil." I am just a follower. I just did it for my career. Your American bombs killed my baby!

Back to the film's plot, such as it is.

When he volunteers to spy against his fellow Germans, Oskar Werner says, "Fighting against Germans now is fighting for them. I believe in a life in which one is not always afraid. In which people are free and honest with each other. I know we won't have this in Germany until we have lost." So noble you just want to puke, ya know?

There is one really bad German in "Decision Before Dawn": Wilfried Seyferth as Scholtz. This real Nazi is low class. He is fat. He is unshaven. He wears ill fitting clothing. He is a rude bully. He traffics in gold stolen from Jews. The word "Jew" is never said – I don't think it's ever said in the entire film. It's just implied that he stole his gold from dead Jews. Scholtz menaces Oskar Werner, the hero.

Ah, so that's it. There was ONE bad German. And the rest were regular guys, just like us. And because these Nazis were so pushy, obnoxious, and low class, Germany's really sensitive, polite people, its Oskar Werners, don't quite know how to get them to stop doing that bad Nazi thing.

Now that's revision. In fact, of course, Nazis, Nazi supporters, and those who provided Nazism with its foundations included royalty, PhDs, and world-class scholars.

As is usual with propaganda films, "Decision Before Dawn" includes a character who voices the audience's misgivings. This character is proven wrong.

The job of expressing the audience's misgivings about embracing Germans is Richard Basehart's. He resists Gary Merrill's plan to recruit Germans to help the Americans. The words Basehart is given to voice his, and the audience's, misgivings about embracing Germans are interesting, "I think they're all a bunch of lice," Basehart says.

It's an odd thing to say. "Lice" is not a common insult in American English. Basehart would more likely have said, "bastards" or sons of bitches."

"Lice" is, of coruse, the word Nazis themselves used in propaganda against Jews.

Ah. So, "Decision Before Dawn" is saying that any American who resists its embrace of Nazi Germany is just as judgmental as the Nazis themselves. Clever!

"He's kidding himself about why he's working for us." Basehart argues about one German.

Oh, come on, Merrill cajoles. Let's not be prejudiced! "I think you are wrong about the boy." Note the endearing diminutive word "boy," rather than the correct word, "man." Merrill insists that Basehart accompany Oskar Werner. "It may do you some good." Oh, boy. This film really announces its purpose as propaganda.

Basehart is not the only one to get a lecture about how lovable Germans really are. The team includes a very beautiful French girl, Monique, who is utterly gratuitous to any plot. She is just the very good looking French girl who succumbs to Werner's undeniable charm. Monique and Werner have almost no contact, but what little contact she has with Werner is enough to make her French knees weak.

Merrill confronts Monique. "Are you in love with him?" he asks Monique, in a fatherly way.

"He's a bastard, like all the others. We have too much to forget before we can love any of them," Monique insists. But Monique really is in love with him.

So, some of the people who don't like Germans are bigots who need some good done to them by contact with Germans. And the rest are secretly in love with Germans, or at least with Oskar Werner.

There is, alas, no consummation of Monique's love. Before Werner parachutes into Germany, Monique supplies him. He gazes at her in an utterly romantic, pure way as she puts a compass, German cigarettes, and Benzedrine tablets into his travel kit, and her eyes betray that she wishes she could slip herself into his backpack, as well, as he marches off to his dangerous, heroic mission.

Werner parachutes into Germany on a mission for the Americans. In his wanderings he encounters a German officer with a heart problem. In detailed scenes, Werner is shown caring tenderly for this man. Germans are nice the film keeps telling us, Germans are nice!

Again, the film's structure betrays its purpose as propaganda, not as plot-driven entertainment. At one point, as he's skulking around Nazi Germany, like Snoopy behind enemy lines in "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," Hildegarde Knef invades Werner's hotel room. She's young, beautiful, sexy, and utterly German. Her room invasion has nothing to do with the plot, but there really is no plot, other than showing off Werner's combination of undeniable Teutonic identity and sweet, sweet soul – and using those hot qualities to teach the Richard Baseharts of the world a lesson about how nice Germans really are, and how the whole Nazi thing was just a matter of "a regime" that harmed its own country while people just like you and me were too scared to protest.

Hildegarde Knef apparently invaded Werner's hotel room not to seduce him, but rather to give a speech. Her speech is bathetic. She has been victimized by war. She cries visible tears. Her face scrunches up in sorrow. She really plays this scene for the hardest of hearts in the very last row of the theater. Your hands are not clean, she tells Werner. Now you are as dirty as the rest of us are. Why is Hildegarde Knef dirty? Her child was killed in a bombing raid. "I just hated everybody. I was hungry. I was looking for a little kindness and love. Here I am, dirty, miserable, and alone, and there are thousands and thousands like me." At this point of moral relativism – don't we all have dirty hands? Which one of us is clean enough to judge this grieving mother? – don't you just want to hug Nazi Germany to your bosom?

As Werner picks his way through a tragically bombed-out Mannheim – America, look what your bombs did to these poor, nice people – his path crosses with a German woman out after curfew. She has gone out in search of medical supplies – iodine. Please don't turn me in, she begs! God bless you, she says, when Werner says he won't. Oh, these poor, sad, victimized Germans. See how they invoke God!

A sweet little boy tries to denounce Werner and his team – at first we hate and fear this kid – but in the end he can't do it. Ah, yes, another Nazi we at first thought was bad – silly us! – but who turns out to be really, really good.

When discussing films one is not supposed to reveal the ending, but if you don't know how this movie ends by now there's no hope for you. Werner gives his all to defeating Nazi Germany. Not only does he give his all, he sacrifices his father's life, as well. He serves as a decoy to allow Basehart to complete the mission. He is heroic and noble. And Richard Basehart changes his mind about Germans. Just in case the audience wonders whether or not that really happened, a speech is tacked on to the end. See? Basehart sermonizes. They really aren't all bad. We, the American audience, must change our minds, as well. The film leaves us no other choice.

"A traitor's always a traitor," Merrill says, in an effort to shake Basehart out of his sadness over Werner's death. "In a war, you use whoever you can to save lives."

"He was just another Kraut," a young soldier says.

Not so, says the movie. Basehart is shot next to a crucifix – yes, that's right, a crucifix, standing up incongruously in a Third Reich battlefield – a crucifix. In the final scene, all you see is Basehart as he eulogizes Werner's sacrifice, and this crucifix as obvious as a thumb in your eye. Werner is a Christ figure who gave his life to save his friend, and his country. In case the viewer is too dumb to get all this, Basehart, in a voiceover, reminds the audience that it does not know Werner's real name – this film, we have been told, was based on a true story of a real German whose name we have not been told – and that his "sacrifice" must always be remembered.

World War II was horrific. The Holocaust was nightmarish beyond words. Someone must be guilty. Now that we've exculpated the Germans, who can we blame? Hmm… As a young Israeli is quoted as saying in Tom Segev's "The Seventh Million, the Israelis and the Holocaust," We have to blame somebody, and we've already made up with the Germans.

That youngster's solution? Blame Poland. 

Monique, how could you not love me! I'm Oskar Werner!
Oh, but Oskar, I do love you, I do, but consummating our love would violate your status as a German Christ figure.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bieganski in the New York Times: Ari L. Goldman on the Crown Heights Riot or the Crown Heights Pogrom


Move along. There is nothing to see here. Identified on web as a photo of a Jewish father and son injured in the 1991 Crown Heights Riot / Pogrom. 

On August 9, 2011, The Jewish Week published an article by Ari L. Goldman alleging that the New York Times, American's newspaper of record, systematically altered news coverage, not just opinion, but facts as well, in order to erase the anti-Semitic nature of what is alternately called the "Crown Heights Riot" or the "Crown Heights Pogrom."

The Crown Heights Riot / Pogrom: During three days of violence in 1991, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Lemrick Nelson, leading a crowd of African Americans yelling, "Kill the Jew," stabbed Jewish scholar Yankel Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum died.

Lemrick Nelson's lawyer acknowledged that his client stabbed Rosenbaum; Nelson himself confessed. Before he died, Rosenbaum identified Nelson as his killer. Nelson was acquitted, released, and taken out to a celebratory dinner by jurors, only two of whom were white; none were Jews.

The Crown Heights Riot is covered in "Bieganski."

Ari L. Goldman was a reporter for the New York Times. He knew the neighborhood intimately. He was an eyewitness to the riot. He reported events, in real time, while they were happening, to the New York Times. In his article, he alleges that the New York Times systematically altered material in order to downplay the anti-Semitic nature of the riot.

Goldman alleges that the New York Times, distorting his reports, published as fact material that was "simply untrue."

Goldman did not protest. From his article:

"In all my reporting during the riots I never saw — or heard of — any violence by Jews against blacks. But the Times was dedicated to this version of events: blacks and Jews clashing amid racial tensions. To show Jewish culpability in the riots, the paper even ran a picture — laughable even at the time — of a chasidic man brandishing an open umbrella before a police officer in riot gear. The caption read: 'A police officer scuffling with a Hasidic man yesterday on President Street.'

I was outraged but I held my tongue. I was a loyal Times employee and deferred to my editors. I figured that other reporters on the streets were witnessing parts of the story I was not seeing."

Goldman reached a breaking point:
"But then I reached my breaking point. On Aug. 21, as I stood in a group of chasidic men in front of the Lubavitch headquarters, a group of demonstrators were coming down Eastern Parkway. 'Heil Hitler,' they chanted. 'Death to the Jews.'

Police in riot gear stood nearby but did nothing.

Suddenly rocks and bottles started to fly toward us and a chasidic man just a few feet away from me was hit in the throat and fell to the ground. Some ran to help the injured man but most of us ran for cover. I ran for a payphone and, my hands shaking with rage, dialed my editor. I spoke in a way that I never had before or since when talking to a boss.

'You don’t know what’s happening here!' I yelled. 'I am on the streets getting attacked. Someone next to me just got hit. I am writing memos and what comes out in the paper? ‘Hasidim and blacks clashed’? That’s not what is happening here. Jews are being attacked! You’ve got this story all wrong. All wrong.'"

Why this matters to Polish-Jewish relations; why "Bieganski" covered the Crown Heights Riot / Pogrom.

"Bieganski" demonstrates, irrefutably, in minute detail, that the American press, when covering allegations of anti-Semitism against Poles, and allegations of anti-Semitism amongst other groups, especially African Americans, uses two completely different rhetorical strategies. The differences are so great it is as if two utterly distinct languages are used.

"Bieganski" further demonstrates that these two distinct rhetorical styles are employed not just in the mainstream press, but in scholarly discourse, as well. "Bieganski" demonstrates that this style strongly influenced public discourse about the break-up of Yugoslavia, the American-led bombing of Serbia and the genocide in Rwanda.

What are Polonian institutions doing about this? Right now, nothing of significance. They continue to insist that telling stories of heroes like Kosciuszko and suffering, as in the book "Bloodlands," is the answer.

It's not.

The full text of Ari L. Goldman's article is here.

The Jerusalem Post's response to Ari L. Goldman's article is here.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"You ARE a Pig"

Question: Why should I care about Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype?

Answer: You should care because it distorts Holocaust and World War II history.

You should care because the Holocaust and WW II are such massive, and essential, narratives, that they are used as case studies in ethics and atrocity, and our human responsibility in relation to these.

You should care because the Brute Polak stereotype twists our brains, our hearts, our ethics and our politics. All of us. Not just Poles, not just Jews.

Remember: Willard Gaylin, a psychiatrist and bioethicist, recently published a book about hate. All hate. Not Polish hate. And whom did he select as his prototypical haters with which to open his book? Polish, Catholic, peasants. To understand any hate anywhere, this author insisted, one must understand Polish, Catholic, peasants. They are the archetypal haters in journalistic, academic, religious, and political discourse in America today.

Remember: when President Clinton gave a speech justifying NATO bombing, he used the Bieganski stereotype. Historians condemned his speech as false, but Clinton had a bigger microphone than the historians protesting his speech.


Question: Can you provide examples?

Answer: Sure. "Bieganski" is full of examples. Two more, below. One concerns Art Spiegelman's book "Maus"; the other, Pier 21's revisionist Holocaust film, "Oceans of Hope." Let's look at both examples.

Art Spiegelman's comic book "Maus" is used to teach students about the Holocaust. It is required reading in high schools and colleges. At least one college used "Maus" to teach the English language to visiting Japanese tourists.

"Maus" depicts Poles as pigs.

When Spiegelman was asked about this by a reporter, he said that Poles had not suffered under the Nazis, and, because they had not suffered, they did not understand his work. In any case, Spiegelman dismissed Poles' "squealing." "Squeal," of course, is the sound pigs make. For "Bieganski," I asked Spiegelman for a comment on this material, and, through his agent, he sent a message saying that he declined to comment. Of course he is free to offer explanatory commentary at any time.

A recent, brief, Amazon review of "Maus," and Amazon reader replies to this review, offer a glimpse into how "Bieganski" works.

On April 21, 2011, an Amazon reviewer, John MacArthur, posted a brief, quiet, respectful review of "Maus." He said, inter alia, "I know many Poles are offended by the depiction of Poles as pigs." All quotes here are unedited cut-and-paste from the August 14, 2011 Amazon page.

One would think that that was not a very complicated or controversial statement. "I know many Poles are offended by the depiction of Poles as pigs."

Place any other ethnicity in there. "I know many Jews are offended by the depiction of Jews as pigs."

"I know many Blacks are offended by the depiction of Blacks as pigs."

Would controversy result?

Ah, but these are Poles. And Poles' job is to agree, "We are pigs." If Poles don't agree, well, then, they are pigs.

Readers responded to MacArthur's review. One, writing under the code name "noelbeast," wrote,

"We also don't want to hide the past." Okay. So if Poles object to being depicted as pigs, that means they are hiding from the past.

I disagree. Poles have never been pigs, not even in the past.

This commenter also wrote, "There were anti-Semitic Poles during WWII … Maus is recalling, however, an incredibly offensive time, and one that must always be portrayed as honestly and vividly as possibly to avoid a repeat of history. Thus if some Poles were quite wrong with their actions during WWII, it is our duty to remember that, and preserve history, not sweep it under the rug."

No responsible person denies that. In fact, caring, responsible Poles are now, and have always, addressed anti-Semitism in Poland, often at the risk of their own lives and liberty.

Noelbeast's insistence that an acknowledgement of anti-Semitism in Poland must also entail an equation of all Poles with pigs is the rule, though. If you don't agree that you are a pig, well, that's because you are a pig.

Noelbeast's insistence that depicting Poles as pigs means being true to our duty to "preserve history" and to avoid a repeat of the past is profoundly disturbing. Our duty to preserve history demands exactly that we NOT turn all Poles into pigs. Rather, it demands that we understand Poles as human beings – just like us. It demands that we NOT do what the Nazis did, that we not demonize an entire nation. It demands that we differentiate between Poles who were anti-Semites and Poles who were not and Poles who were actual heroes. It demands that we understand Polish anti-Semitism in a rational, scholarly, way, rather than through dehumanizing stereotypes. It demands that we do all this because if we do not, we are utterly distorting the history it is our sacred duty to preserve and pass on, and we are thinking and acting in a manner analogous to dehumanizing Nazi thought.

Noelbeast totally misses any of this. He misses all this because "Maus" has become a sacred text, one one must not criticize. Poles are pigs. Period. If you disagree, it is because you are a pig.

Interestingly, in a subsequent post, Noelbeast becomes an apologist for Nazi Germany: "There is documented evidence of Germans disagreeing with the persecution of the ethnic enemies of the Nazi party." This embrace of Germany and denunciation of ALL Poles as pigs is consistent, as "Bieganski" shows, with those who disseminate the Brute Polak stereotype. Germany is exculpated while all Poles and all Poland are forever guilty.

Amazon poster Mrs. Sharon K. Klein cuts to the point. Her posts are brief and pithy. She calls those protesting the depiction of Poles as pigs "stupid children." "You are a pig yourself," she writes.

Mrs. Klein's response is especially interesting for this reason. Novelist Danuta Reah, who herself has published material confronting anti-Semitic atrocities committed by Poles and Belorussians, posted informative, rational, and ethical posts. In her Amazon posts, Reah acknowledges anti-Semitic Poles. She acknowledges the positive qualities of Spiegelman's book. This is an ethical and intelligent author who has published on this material.

Reah's ethics, her intelligence, her courtesy, mean nothing. She is still "a pig yourself." A post subsequent to Reah's post accused her and others of "pretending they [Polish anti-Semites] never existed."

This exchange highlights why Polonia is incorrect when it argues that the Bieganski stereotype can be defeated through the strategies tried so far.

One strategy is to talk about noble Poles in a hagiographic manner – Alex Storozynski's biography of Kosciuszko, for example.

Another strategy is to talk about how much Poles have suffered. A Polish American scholar who attended my talk in Lublin insisted that Tim Snyder's book "Bloodlands" would end stereotyping of Poles because it talked about how much Poles suffered.

Storozynski's biography of Kosciuszko and Tim Snyder's "Bloodlands" are both are good books.

These books are not the answer to the Brute Polak stereotype. Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype must be taken on head-on. Polonia must do this. No one else will do it.

This isn't important because it's one thread on Amazon. This is important because this is how Bieganski works all the time, everyday. I can't say how many times I've said, "There were anti-Semitic Poles and they need to be found out and punished," and my interlocutor – a potential publisher, someone interviewing me for inclusion in a conference or for a job – responds by saying, "You can't keep denying the existence of anti-Semitic Poles."

Before my trip to Poland, when I was arranging speaking engagements, I received a very angry email from a Polish-Jewish leader, a man with historical import. This man told me that because I criticize "Maus" for its depiction of Poles as pigs, he would have nothing to do with me.

Marisa Taddia source 
Another example: Canada's immigration museum, Pier 21, shows a film, "Oceans of Hope," that distorts the persons and history of Eastern European, peasant, Christian immigrants. It then equates Polish, Christian rescuers of Jews with Nazis.

According to documents posted on the internet, in July, 2008, Dr. Jan Czekajewski wrote to Pier 21 to protest this. Dr. Czekajewski's letter specifically cites educating young people about immigration, World War II, and the Holocaust as his motivation for writing, "Young people who should learn about history of their emigrant grand parents are already from the third generation after the war. They know nothing or very little about War, Germans, Holocaust and especially Poland's role in this terrible war. To this generation you have obligation to be truthful and not biased. You should do it for your own good and conscience."

Dr. Czekajewski's English is not perfect. He is from Poland. As he himself put it, "I have seen Holocaust with my own eyes." He knows that not all Poles were anti-Semites. "I have a close friend, now a Professor at Michigan Technological University, who lived through this period with 'adopted' Jewish 'cousin girl' saved by his mother."

Dr. Czekajewski's friend is Karol Pelc. Pelc's story is told here. Pelc's father was murdered by the Soviets. The Nazis began their genocide of Polish Catholics as soon as they invaded, as the Pelc story, found on the website linked above, reports:

"Poles were subhuman, fit only for manual labor in service to the master race… the Nazis planned to send all the Poles to the same death camps that were even then swallowing up the Jews."

Even under such monstrous conditions, Pelc's family rescued a Jewish girl. They did this because of their Christian beliefs.

"To help assure her safety, Kamilla Pelc asked a priest to forge Irene's birth certificate. 'He risked his life to do this,' he said. 'Anyone who helped the Jews was punished by the death penalty--Poland is the only country in Europe where the Germans had such a law.

'So my mother was risking her life, my life, and the neighbors',' he said. 'We lived in a courtyard, with twenty families all looking at each other. They all could have been held responsible for not reporting Irene. Forty people risked their lives.'

… Pelc's wife, Ryszarda, began pressing him to have his mother declared 'Righteous among the Nations' … At first, he was reticent.

'My mother didn't do it for an award,' he notes. 'She did it because of her religious faith, that she should help people and love your neighbor as yourself.'"

Pelc's story meant nothing to Pier 21.

Steven Schwinghamer, Pier 21's research coordinator, wrote back. His letter is very long: 1,110 words. Most business letters are one page – about 250 words.

Schwinghamer promises, "I will address your concerns."

Schwinghamer goes on to write a very long letter that addresses none of an honest person's concerns when watching a film that systematically lies about Eastern European, Christian, peasant immigrants, and then equates Polish, Christian rescuers of Jews with Nazis.

Schwinghamer writes:

"The story of a young Jewish girl from Poland, orphaned by the violence of the Nazis, is difficult to hear…Dealing with that era is hard for any of us who have empathy for the past… Pier 21 is a museum of living history. We operate by gathering and sharing the stories of our immigrants. We feel a responsibility to gather all kinds of stories - not just those that celebrate success in Canada, but also those that look honestly at every manner of difficulty faced by immigrants, from discrimination in Canada to the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe, from famine and poverty abroad to the barriers of language and culture when they finally arrive. To do anything less would be a profound disservice to the immigrants whose heritage we are privileged to share. It would be dishonest to our histories."

And on and on and on.

Nowhere does Schwinghamer address Pier 21's turning Eastern European, peasant, Christian immigrants into fat clowns who left their homeland just because they like to travel – not because they were starving, literally, in the millions; not because doors of economic opportunity were systematically closed to them by the economic caste system in place, not because they were disempowered by their status as serfs. The real conditions, and real persons, of Eastern European, Christian, peasant immigrants is unimportant to Pier 21, Canada's immigration museum. Nowhere does Schwinghamer address Pier 21's equating Polish, Christian rescuers of Jews with Nazis.

The letter is shameful. It exploits the reality of Jewish suffering under the Nazis in an attempt to avoid responsibility for Pier 21's distortion of immigration and WW II, two key features of twentieth century history.

One has to state, here, facts that are repeated again, and again, and again, by those who oppose the Brute Polak stereotype.

Of course there were and are anti-Semites in Poland. Of course they were and are wrong. Of course they must be addressed.

None of that, though, justifies depicting Poles as pigs. None of that justifies equating Polish, Christian rescuers of Jews with Nazis. None of that justifies distorting the history of Eastern European, Christian peasants in order to make the Bieganski stereotype go down easier.


Responsible Poles now, and have always, acknowledged and protested Polish anti-Semitism. That is not heard.

Responsible Poles now, and have always, pleaded for an accurate accounting of Eastern European, immigrant, Holocaust, and WW II history. And that is not heard.

Given the pervasiveness of the Bieganski stereotype, what is heard?

To quote Art Spiegelman, "Squealing."

Amanda Lebus source

Bieganski on Facebook

On Friday, August 12, at 5:59 p.m., in a facebook post, my friend P. reported that she was back from a trip to Poland, and that the trip was great.

At 7:33 p.m., her facebook friend, Ron, posted. This is a cut-and-paste of his entire post, "You travel all over Poland and come back with 'great trip' , not a single Pollack joke! What did you learn when you were there???" Another facebook poster, Brian, clicked the "like" icon under this comment.

Ron identifies himself on his facebook page as a "sharing, caring, instructor who loves to share his knowledge."

I did not respond immediately. I gave it some thought. Finally, I wrote what was simply true. "Ron, your post is an example of offensive bigotry."

My post was deleted. Ron's post remains. It is okay immediately to associate Poles and Poland with Polak jokes. It is not okay to protest that.

As I said in my talks this summer in Poland, if Polish identity is mentioned in America in a low or average status venue, the Polak joke is referenced. If Polish identity is mentioned in a high status venue, the Bieganski stereotype is referenced. That is not only socially acceptable, it is de rigueur. What is unacceptable, what is shocking, is protesting either the Polak joke or the Bieganski stereotype.

I don't mention this story because it is earth shattering or a big deal. It isn't earth shattering. It isn't a big deal. It's just business as usual; it's standard operating procedure. Ron is not a criminal; Ron's casual bigotry is not front-page news. Ron probably is the charing, sharing, teacher his facebook page identifies him as being. My friend is not exceptional in leaving Ron's Polak joke post up and deleting my protest against it. This is how Polish identity works in American culture.

Why this matters – Polak jokes are not just about Polak jokes. They are used to support a stereotype which, in turn, is used to distort world history. I don't blame Ron. I look to Polonia for effective, ethical, intelligent action. And I wait.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Krakow Tarot

Tarot is a deck of cards that attempts to limn the human experience in 78 images. There are an almost infinite number of Tarot decks, all evidence of human creativity. Most use the Rider-Waite-Smith deck as their foundation, and offer variations on that. My single favorite expression of the human creativity in Tarot decks is the Death card in the brilliantly witty Housewives Tarot. In this retro, 1950s suburban American deck, Death is an expired jar of mayonnaise surrounded by spoiled vegetables and houseflies.

Death in the Housewives Tarot
The Prague tarot celebrates that glorious city's splendors. 

From the Tarot of Prague
In Krakow this summer, in the Sukiennice Art Museum, I saw Jozef Chelmonski's painting "Czworka" and thought what a wonderful Chariot card it would make in a Krakow tarot deck. 

Some suggestions for an enterprising tarot deck designer.

Tarot decks begin with The Fool, a card of new beginnings. Jacek Malczewski's "Introduction" would make a great Fool.

The Magician performs amazing feats in the real world. Like Jan Matejko's take on Copernicus.

The Empress is mom, feminine power, fecundity. Tadeusz Ajduukiewicz's "Portrait of Helena Modrzejewska" conveys all these ideals with great beauty.

The Emperor is dad, masculine power, authority, rationality. Maurycy Gottlieb's "Ahasuerus" will serve.

The Hanged Man is a symbolically rich card that speaks, inter alia, of spiritual sacrifice and letting go. The traditional Polish folk motif of Chrystus Frasobliwy, or Worried Christ, makes a perfect Hanged Man for the Krakow tarot.

The Devil card references moments when we are enjoying a guilty pleasure too much for our own good. What better illustration than Wladyslaw Podkowinski's "Ecstasy"? You can see that she's having a good time, but it's also obvious that she'll regret it in the morning. 

My favorite painting in the Sukiennice, and one of my all time favorite paintings, is Jacek Malczewski's "Death of Ellenai." A very sad story, that of Polish Siberian exiles, is behind this painting. This will make a perfect Death card for the Krakow tarot.

The Temperance card bespeaks moments when all is balanced. I think of it as the resolution to Pachelbel's Canon. Anna-Bilinska Bohdanowiczowa communicates this balance beautifully in her "Self Portrait with a Palette"

The Tower is the one tarot card querents most fear. It communicates complete catastrophe. Jan Matejko's "Wernyhora" is as powerful as the original tarot image of the Tower to send this message.

The Moon, of course, is about darkness, both actual and metaphorical, and the spooky, romantic, deluding, deepening light that moonlight can shed. Stanislaw Malsowski's "Moonrise" echoes the placement of the moon in traditional tarot before water and between two columns.

The Hierophant is a teacher, of both secular and spiritual lessons. He teaches received traditions. Samuel Hirszenberg's "School of Talmudists" expresses the intellectualism, spirituality, and tradition of the Hierophant perfectly.

The queen of swords is an older, intelligent, sharp tongued woman, often single, a spinster, or a widow. Rafal Hadziewicz's "Portrait of Julia Hadziewicz, Mother of the Artist" brings the Queen of Swords to life.

 I'd love to see a work of art by Bruno Szulc worked into the Krakow tarot. And folk art and poster art and szopki … someone do something with this idea, please!