Saturday, October 29, 2011

"The Horror, The Horror": Hollywood Films or the Human Heart: Which is Scarier?

From "Triumph of the Will," one of the scariest films ever made.
"The Haunting" 1963. It's even scarier when you realize it's not really about ghosts.

I love Halloween. I'll be wearing a costume while teaching class on Monday, and I've encouraged my students to wear costumes, as well.

I love movies.

I hate horror movies.

I try to watch them because I study popular culture, and because films, to me, are a pathway to understanding the human heart.

"The Haunting," 1963, starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, is widely considered the scariest movie ever made, including by Martin Scorcese. It's based on a novel by the brilliant Shirley Jackson, who also gave us "The Lottery."

"The Haunting" is, on one level, a ghost story. It is also a very profound exploration of The Dark Side in all its manifestations.

I walked out of "The Exorcist."

"Blair Witch Project" did not scare me, nor did "Psycho." The alleged scariest scene in "The Shining" seems, to me, to be a scene about how sissy girls are. I mean, come on, Shelley Duval.

1944's "The Uninvited," starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, is a perfect film.

I find the original "Manchurian Candidate" and the first Bela Lugosi "Dracula" too scary to watch all the way through.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
Back in 1999, I was a graduate student at Indiana University. Evil had entered my life: I was attacked by an IU professor. I was then asked to testify against that professor, and I did so, for the end of my first semester at IU and the entirety of my second semester at IU. Probably from the stress, my inner ear burst. I was very sick, and intermittently paralyzed. I was poor, so I could not get health care. I struggled for SSDI, and a truly evil man, a judge, denied my claim. I was penniless and without any hope or friends or money or future. I was doomed.

At the same time, I was writing a dissertation that addressed the Holocaust.

I was reading and writing about great evil.

I was confronting real evil in my day to day life.

A friend asked what I think of horror films. The response I wrote to him back in 1999 is below.


The other day I was reading an article about the Kielce pogrom.

On July 4, 1946, citizens of Kielce stoned, bayoneted, and shot to death more than forty Jews living in their midst. I was reading a scholarly article about this event, an article meant to be cool-headed, and yet many sentences in it read like horror literature.

"They made rumor sound like truth and fanned the crowd's emotions ... when the crowd had swelled to about one hundred, people began gathering stones."

And more than forty Jews, who had survived the Holocaust, were murdered. Why? Someone spread the Blood Libel. Shirely Jackson's "The Lottery" comes to mind. As does "The horror, the horror," from Heart of Darkness.

When I experience horror while reading stuff like this, I think, why go to a horror movie? Why inject more of this feeling into my life?

I recently had a hearing in front of a judge.

The judge, in spite of my inches-thick file of medical records, and inches-thick file of medical journal articles, and corroborating testimony from a civil rights attorney and a nun, for heaven's sake, wrote, in his decision, that I was "faking bad" (sic).

I've been on the phone to lots of local lawyers who have appeared before this particular judge. I've been told by folks who interact with this guy professionally that he is an "evil" man who enjoys denying benefits, especially to women, and, most especially, to articulate women – and that he has been suspended from the bench for the unfairness of his decisions, and that he just recently returned from this suspension, and asked, specifically, to be assigned to this particular work – hearing SSDI cases, although it is notoriously low prestige and low pay.

In my confrontations with this man, and with the illness in general and with the experience of being poor and sick, I feel fear and horror all the time.

I really dislike feeling both fear and horror.

I much prefer the feelings I get from even a bad romantic comedy, and, most preferably, from a great romantic comedy like "It Happened One Night."

In trying to understand why some like horror, I've thought – who is the most likely audience for a really scary horror movie?

Certainly other cultures have had works of art that produce fear and horror, but often these couldn't best be compared to American horror movies. Usually, folk tales or dramas that incorporate fear and horror also contain humor, uplift, long, boring, exposition that emphasize the importance of tribal values. The concentration of fear and horror in American horror films is a diagnostic characteristic of the genre.

Who are the biggest audiences of such movies?

American teenagers, no? Why would this sheltered, protected audience choose to plunge into fear and horror? Is it a hunger for emotions that don't occur in sheltered, protected lives?

I think the stock answers are that teens are losing control of their bodies in ways that gross them out or intimidate them. Hair growths, wet dreams, bleeding, voices changing, etc. The lack of control over the material body, and the trajectory of one's life, is mirrored in the lack of control of the victims on the screen. And, the scare factor breaks down barriers to sex. The guy you are dating may seem most appealing when you can squeal and jump into his arms during a scary scene. And you may be most feminine at that moment.

Roman Polanski is a Holocaust survivor. He made a couple of highly praised, scary and horrible movies: "Knife in the Water" and "Rosemary's Baby."

My illness and encounters with individuals like this judge has hammered home to me at every turn, since I got sick, anyway, what I suspect people feel, and choose to feel, while watching horror movies: that the human body is not integral, that our convictions of our own autonomy are delusions – no, I've never quite turned into Linda Blair as a possessed kid, but, I can't, single handedly, hold back disease and keep my body from changing in ways I don't like.

I am constantly reminded that apparently innocent scenes and people can, without warning, erupt into terror and threat.

There is a mindlessly destructive, death-hungry, pain-hungry urge in the human make up, and that urge occasionally has its way, while rationality and compassion are made impotent and thrust to the sidelines.

If you're not a sheltered American teenager, and you feel you have quite enough fear and horror in your life, thank you, does a movie like "The Blair Witch Project" have something to offer? The movie advertises itself by announcing that all the protagonists are dead, or at least missing. There's no triumph of the human, the rational, the compassionate, over fear and horror. Fear and horror win. Why is there an attraction to that?

Or, is there a sense of triumph because the viewer assumes he'll be alive when the movie is over? Could it serve as does the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or even initiation rituals – this is how bad it gets. Let go of your attachment to the goodies of life. After you've completely let go, go back into life, acknowledging that all you love and rely on is an illusion, or, maybe, a choice, a product of your moment to moment choice making? And that very choice making makes you heroic and triumphant?

Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby." She sees something horrible -- literal or metaphorical?
What I'm trying to understand is this: after my encounters with the judge from hell, after reading about the Kielce pogrom, I don't understand why I would pay money to plunge into more horror.

And it is exactly the encounter with that particular judge, perhaps one of the most evil persons I will ever encounter in my mundane life, that has made this something I think about a lot.

Do horror movies, as an art form designating themselves as the art form that does the work of dealing with horror, offer me any tools in my interaction with this judge that other art forms, that do not address horror in such a head on fashion, do not offer me?

Or is there no connection at all between the horror on the screen and the horrors of real life?

I can say that Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" offers me tools to deal with the Kielce Pogrom.

A friend said that she liked horror movies because they desensitized her to the real horror in real life. I exactly don't want to become desensitized.


A choice scene from 1963's "The Haunting" may be viewed here.

Anyway, Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 24, 2011

"The Way" Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, The Camino de Santiago de Campostella. See It.

"The Way" has just about nothing to do, directly, with Polish-Jewish relations.

It's a good movie. My review is below:

My eyes were wet and I laughed out loud in the first fifteen minutes of "The Way," and I continued laughing and crying throughout. I left the theater feeling the generous glow that a good movie inspires. I'll now be telling everyone I know to see this film, on a big screen, and I'm already looking forward to seeing it again.

I was a bit anxious about "The Way." I anticipated so many ways a movie that features backpacking, pilgrimages, and religion could go wrong. Would it be excessively pious and maudlin? New Age-y and Christophobic? Simply a bad movie? There is a reason so many films focus on graphic, intimate scenes and explosions: those are easy to shoot and they arouse viewer interest. "The Way" rapidly calmed my anxiety. It's a honey of a movie.

Tom (Martin Sheen) is a sixty-something ophthalmologist. His son Dan (Emilio Estevez) dies in an accident. Tom travels to France to retrieve his son's body. Learning of his son's attempt to walk the camino, Tom decides to cremate his son's remains and carry them as he fulfills his son's plan.

Tom walks through picturesque, mountainous countryside and through the plazas of old towns. As happens when one is traveling, Tom encounters an assortment of eclectic characters. Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) is a corpulent, talkative, pot smoking Dutchman who is walking the trail to lose weight. Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is a sharp tongued, very angry Canadian blonde. Jack (James Nesbitt) is an Irish travel writer with the gift of gab – he didn't just kiss the Blarney Stone, he went steady with it. There is a priest with a brain tumor who distributes rosaries, and pilgrims debating the roles of the French, the Spanish and the Basque in ancient battles against invading Moors. Waiters take very strong stands on tapas. Gypsies defend their honor.

The pilgrims sleep in spare hostel dormitories with snoring, coughing, shooshing roommates. They visit churches and enact rituals.

There was a moment in this movie in which I, a traveler and backpacker, was one hundred percent engaged. In superhero movies, I don't really care if the superhero gets the dilithium crystals to the giant spider. In this movie, a backpacker drops his pack into a rushing river that rapidly sweeps it toward the sea. THAT scene commanded my full engagement. The backpacker's pack contains his entire world, his heart, his safety, his entertainment, his identity, his survival. I was on the edge of my seat.

What happens in the movie is what happens when you travel, and when you pray. The demands of travel bring forth bonding rituals – I'll listen to your rant; you'll bail me out of jail – that create intimacy with unexpected, and all too temporary, companions. There are sudden and heart-wrenching confessions that make two strangers more intimate than family members. There are little triumphs that make it all worthwhile – finding orange trees laden with fruit after a night of sleeping on cold ground, one night in a five-star hotel after punishing weeks of self-denial.

Martin Sheen is so convincing as Tom I really lost the sense of watching a movie. Tom is a man of few words or gestures, and Sheen's every subdued facial expression carries weight and feeling. I had the sense of those who interacted with Tom that I would appreciate a mere word from him more than a paragraph from someone less grounded and sincere.

I really disliked Joost at first, and, come to think of it, many of the other characters, as well, but the film, without any visible effort, brought me to appreciate them the way you can come to appreciate someone you've shared the road with. When Joost is asked why he is walking the trail and he finally tells why, it is a very poignant, precious moment, so utterly believable it could have been in a well-made documentary. Van Wageningen will receive many love letters from women who cannot separate him from Joost, a fictional character so believable he makes you want to hug him. James Nesbitt could be extemporizing his lines, they feel so lived-in. Deborah Kara Unger gives new life to an ancient prayer.

I wish the movie had done a couple of things it did not. I just did not believe that Tom could immediately begin walking the camino in anything but a halting fashion. Many non-hiker friends have called me the day after a hike with me to tell me that their feet are so covered with blisters they can't put on shoes, and their muscles are so sore they can't move (the big babies.) I would have liked to have seen Tom breaking his body in to the demands of the trail. I also would have liked to have seen even just a brief scene where he purchased footwear. Very few ophthalmologists cross the Atlantic with the proper footwear for a walk hundreds of kilometers long, and footwear is a big deal for a walker. I would like to have seen the walkers interact with their packs, something that all hikers do – a tightening of the belt strap here, a loosening of the shoulder strap there. They become a part of your body.

I wish the direction and cinematography had done something more with the countryside and the historic plazas and churches, which are always shown in a way that is pretty, but not innovative. I wish we learned a bit about the keepers of the refugios, the hostels where pilgrims spend the night. To the pilgrims, the towns change every day. To the towns, the pilgrims change every day. How do these dovetailing experiences illuminate each other? And I wish more had been said about religion, although what little is said is intriguing and implies worlds of meaning. I wish more had been said about the alleged sacredness of some places.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Hitler's Mountain Home in Homes and Gardens, November, 1938

The Bieganski stereotype rests on concepts of peasants as inferior and ideas of educated, rich, elites as superior. In the pre-war era, American Scientific Racism inspired Nazism. In the post-war era, film gave us Sexy Nazis.

And Hitler certainly had very impressive decor.

Issue of Homes and Gardens, November, 1938 (the time of Kristallnacht) 

You can see this article celebrating Hitler's Mountain Home in greater detail here

Interior of Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht, November, 1938, when the above article was published. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Yue Yue

Yue Yue's last moments 

Disney's It's a Small World After All
Yue Yue. Yue Yue.

I don't know her real name. On the internet, they are calling her "Yue Yue."

I just watched the video. I won't post a link because youtube keeps locking access to the video. If I post a link, youtube may block it and you won't be able to see it, anyway.

Here's what you see, if you watch the video: a market. A two year old girl wandering aimlessly. An oncoming truck.

The truck runs over the little girl. First his front wheels, then, with effort, his back wheels.

She lies there, bleeding, no doubt screaming.

Passersby approach. And – do nothing.

Another truck runs over the little girl again.

More passersby.

They say the person who finally took notice of the mangled, bleeding, dying child was a poor, old, scavenger – a nice word for someone who goes through trash and perhaps gets a few cents on recycled cans, or gets to eat someone's unfinished sandwich. A dumpster diver. Full disclosure: I've done that. Not a lot, but I've done it.

The scavenger is called a "Good Samaritan." News coverage says that China may pass "Good Samaritan" laws. I don't know if "Good Samaritan" is really the phrase used in China. Cause, of course, the teacher who gave us that phrase was a first century Jew. I don't know if the story is known in China.

TheBieganski, Brute Polak stereotype rests on a very provincial view of the world, a view I've never had. My mother was born in Czechoslovakia, a hard country to spell. In school, I was assessed as a kid with a funny name (by kids with names like "Palatucci" and "Gramegna"!)

I've always known that I am in the world, not just in NJ or the USA -- the world. My favorite thing, as a kid, was, "It's a Small World After All." It still is one of my favorite things.

I've always known that the provincialism that makes Bieganski make sense is without intellectual merit or truth, and that the only way to understand, say, the Polish szmalcownicy who betrayed Jews to Nazis, or those citizens of Warsaw – however many there were – who responded callously to the Nazi destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto – the only way to understand alleged Polish indifference in the face of the Holocaust – was also to understand Kitty Genovese and Milgrim and Zimbardo and Tuol Sleng and the Interahamwe and Polish Jews – however many there were – who greeted invading Soviets with bread, salt, and flowers.

These unspeakable things – these are things WE do. And we won't understand them as long as we insist, "Well, Polish culture … " or "Urban culture…" or "Jewish culture … " We have to understand human beings. We can't be satisfied with demonizing one ethnic group, any ethnic group, not even the Germans.
Psychology Today published an article that talks about those who passed by Yue Yue as she was bleeding to death. It tries to explain their behavior in light of Chinese culture. Maybe that's right. But even if the indifferent find justification for their indifference in Chinese ideas, we have seen this kind of indifference elsewhere. Yes, even among members of our own ethnic groups.

The best thing I read about Yue Yue was an internet poster who wrote, after news broke of her death, "Yue Yue, you are now in a better place. Where people care."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Protester Patricia McAllister: Zionist Jews Need to be Run Out of This Country

The internet video of Occupy Wall Street protester Patricia McAllister, who freely gives her first and last name, and reports that she works for LA's public schools, is shocking and disturbing. She says that Zionist Jews should be run out of this country -- the US. 

I don't know what to make of this. Are we entering a scary, new era in the US during which anti-Semitism will again become acceptable? Or is this just one person, not a straw in the wind? 

How does this person maintain employment in public schools? 

The introduction of "Bieganski" argues against any stereotyping, not just stereotyping of Bohunks. I hope that at some point some readers and online reviewers will remark on that. I hope that those who hope to combat prejudice make use of the book. 

Last night I was listening to radio talk show host Michael Savage. I know -- Savage is an extremist. But I consume much media. I'm a current events junkie. Savage was ranting against anti-Semitism. A caller phoned in. The caller claimed to be Jewish. He said that he was troubled by the over-representation of Jews in banking. 

Savage tried to debate the caller, but his arguments were weak. I wish Savage -- and anyone wishing to combat prejudice -- would read the introduction of "Bieganski." 

The video referred to above can be seen here

Thursday, October 13, 2011

American Newspaper Story: Polish Soldiers Gassing Jews in 1939; Jews Rescued from Poles by Germans

A reader of this blog sent in a news story that reports that in 1939, Polish soldiers were rounding up Jews with plans to gas them, and that advancing Germans rescued Jews from that fate.

It's a news story from an American newspaper, the Sun Gazette. Headline: "Surviving Horror as a Five-Year-Old. 'I Can't Get It Out of My Mind." Byline: Kristen Nuss. Date: October 3, 2011.

Key passage:

"'I remember a knock on the door at 4 in the morning,' Patz said. 'Two Polish soldiers ordered my dad to leave.' Patz said the Polish Army rounded up 70 men in the community with plans to gas them, but as the German Army advanced, they decided to let them go. His father reunited with the family a few weeks later."

This is the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype. It is the casting of Poles in the historical niche properly occupied by German Nazis, often accompanied by the exculpation of Nazis.

This is allowed to occur, not just in this news article, but in museums, on websites, in classrooms, in the press, etc, because Poles and Polonians are not doing what they should and could do to correct it. Those concerned about the Brute Polak stereotype will unite, support each other, organize, and act strategically.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Film Fan's Flithiest Confession: Loving Jud Suss, The "Most Hateful" Film Ever Made

Perhaps the most disturbing experience I've had in twenty years of reading, writing, interviewing, and publishing about the Holocaust occurred in Autumn, 2009. I fell in love with a Nazi propaganda film, a film personally overseen by one of the most despicable entities ever to draw breath, Joseph Goebbels. A film used to facilitate genocide.

It's been two years and I have still not completely assessed, or assimilated, this experience. I still question if my loving – not just liking but really loving – this film is immoral.

Shortly after I watched the film, TheScreamOnline published my tormented essay, "A Film Fan's Filthiest Confession: Loving "Jud Süss," the 'Most Hateful' Movie Ever Made." You can read that essay here.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"Synagogues, Jewish Schoolhouses, and Jewish Homes: All Laid to Waste and Looted by Nazis and Poles": Bieganski in a Popular, Inspirational Book

Typical Polish, Catholic Peasant in his Traditional Costume -- No, wait ... ???
Small Miracles of the Holocaust by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal
A Genuinely Well-Meaning Book

Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype, is now found in a very well-reviewed inspirational book about the Holocaust, a book written and published by an influential author whose work has been featured on hundreds of television and radio programs and taught in universities. Details below.


First, a brief introduction: What is the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype?

In the use of the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype described below, Poles, especially Polish Catholic peasants, including Polish, Catholic, peasant rescuers of Jews, are located in the historical niche properly occupied by German Nazis.

Many are shocked by this assertion and insist that it is so absurd it is not even worth considering. They write it off as some deluded Polish chauvinist's fantasy.

Others say, well, aren't Poles the world's worst anti-Semites, and weren't they the Nazis' favorite allies?

A minority of people express concern and stick around to see the evidence.

The evidence is everywhere.

"Bieganski" contains much evidence. This blog contains even more.

Bieganski, the Brute Polak is found in films, museums, popular, paperback novels, college curricula, and peer-reviewed books. Those who bring the stereotype to public attention meet sanction and condemnation.

This isn't just a concern for Poles or the other Eastern Europeans like Lithuanians similarly disparaged and ultimately demonized. This is a concern for all ethical human beings.

Holocaust and World War Two history could not be more important. We need to teach them correctly.

Experience has shown that random, one-off letters of protest to this or that institution or person who is disseminating the Bieganski stereotype accomplish nothing.

There needs to be a focused effort to eliminate this stereotype.


THE SMALL MIRACLES SERIES OF BOOKS are inspirational and beautiful. That is why I read them. Here are some of the titles in the series:

Small miracles : extraordinary coincidences from everyday life (1997)
Small miracles II : heartwarming gifts of extraordinary coincidences (1998)
Small miracles of love & friendship : remarkable coincidences of warmth and devotion (1999)
Small miracles for women : extraordinary coincidences of heart and spirit (2000)
Small miracles for the Jewish heart : extraordinary coincidences from yesterday and today (2002)
Small miracles for families : extraordinary coincidences that reaffirm our deepest ties (2003)
Changing course : women's inspiring stories of menopause, midlife, and moving forward (2004)

I very much admire Yitta Halberstam, one of the co-authors of the series of books. I've read a few of the "Small Miracles" books now, and it is obvious that Ms. Halberstam treats these books as her ministry, as her mitzvah.

Halberstam's father, a Holocaust survivor, encouraged this: "My father was thrilled to find that I was a writer, too, and he encouraged me to utilize my skills for the common good." They both wanted to make the world a better place. There could be no better response to the Holocaust. We can't save those who died in the past, but we can work to make the world we inhabit now a better, more ethical one.

That earnest, humanitarian drive shines from every page of every "Small Miracle" book I've read. It's especially remarkable given Halberstam's personal history as the child of a Holocaust survivor. She could have become bitter and hateful and exploitative. She didn't. She has dedicated her writing life to making the world a more loving, faithful, hopeful place. According to, Yitta Halberstam is one of the fifty most influential Jews in America. She has taught the Holocaust at Baruch College. Her work has been featured on hundreds of radio and television programs.


I was reading "Small Miracles of Love and Friendship" when I came across Halberstam's father's story. He was a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland. That story is here.

I am now reading "Small Miracles of the Holocaust": Extraordinary Coincidences of Faith, Hope, and Survival.

The book was well-reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Newsday, People, Belle, the Toronto Star, and a senior minister of Marble Collegiate Church.

The most helpful Amazon costumer review is headlined, "Masterpiece! One of the greatest books ever written on the Holocaust!" and reports, "For those who are educators who want to educate students about the Holocaust, this book is the best book to begin with."

The New York Daily News covered the book in its September 22, 2008 article, "New Book Highlights Holocaust Miracles," here.

The Small Miracles books treat synchronicity, beyond-chance moments when it feels like the hand of God, or a Guardian Angel, or fate, or Providence, or whatever you want to call it, reaches into a human life and alters destiny for the better.

Synchronicity: You find yourself thinking of an old friend, someone you hadn't thought of in years, and, within hours, that friend phones.

World War Two and the Holocaust are so nightmarish that one might conclude that their overwhelming, diabolical evil would obliterate any beam of light.

But if you meet enough survivors and hear their stories, or read them in print, you soon realize that synchronicity occurs even in hell-on-earth.

My own father experienced it. My dad was one of those American GIs who really did save the world. He saw heavy combat in the Pacific Theater. He had a dream that his brother, half a world away, had died. In fact, his brother had unexpectedly died.

My favorite account of Holocaust synchronicity is that of Stefanie Podgorska. Podgorska was a poor, Polish Catholic teenage villager. Her mother and brother had been taken to Nazi Germany for slave labor. Under the impossible conditions of Nazi-occupied Poland, she was taking care of a six year old sister. And she rescued thirteen Jews. At a key point, a disembodied voice told her what to do to foil Nazi plans. You can't scoff at the story of a teenage girl who singlehandedly managed to defy the Nazis. She tells you a disembodied voice told her what to do, you believe her.

"Small Miracles of the Holocaust" contains many such stories. Beyond chance events that, even in hell, seem to evidence a God, a meaning, a something beyond that which we can understand. Jewish families are reunited. Jewish men, women, and children survive. Jewish artifacts are rescued.

For that reason, I have to admire this book.

What's not to like?


"Small Miracles of the Holocaust", while recounting the most uplifting of stories, stories that everyone might benefit from reading, disseminates the Bieganski stereotype. It contributes to a revision of Holocaust and World War Two history.

In "Small Miracles" Poles and German Nazis become virtually indistinguishable. Example: "synagogues, Jewish schoolhouses and Jewish homes had all been laid waste and looted by the Nazis and the Poles" (132).

A Jewish survivor tells his story. Before the war started, this Jewish survivor, Rabbi Shapira, had encounters with a rabidly anti-Semitic Polish Catholic peasant, who later saves him. The story, below, as copied from the book:

"Rabbi Shapira often encountered a Polish peasant named Herr Mueller, a rabid anti-Semite. Whenever he would chance upon Herr Mueller tilling the soil or planting new crops, he would sing out, 'Good morning, Herr Mueller!' Stony face and grim, Herr Mueller never answered. He would turn his back on the rabbi, pretending he hadn't heard the greeting.

Rabbi Shapira was undaunted by Herr Mueller's hostile behavior. He continued to greet him effusively, every time he passed him on the road. The Nazis' rise to power sparked and inflamed the simmering hatred of other Polish peasants much like Herr Mueller…the Nazis capitalized on this hatred, counted on it, manipulating it toward their own evil ends. In Eastern Europe, the Jews of Poland were the first group to be rounded up and deported" (135).

Rabbi Shapira is rounded up. He disembarks from a cattle car. He witnesses a selection: a uniformed Nazi officer flicking a baton to the right, to the left, to determine which Jew will live and which will die."Who is this man who could so easily and dispassionately send a human being to his death for no other reason than the fact that he was Jewish?" Rabbi Shapira wonders.

"He watched as the people at the beginning of the line approached the man for inspection. Some of them averted their gaze, avoiding eye contact with the Nazi … Rabbi Shapira determined to look boldly into the Nazi's eyes, pin him with his stare, and try to make him see the human being standing before him. The line moved forward. It seemed to take only a second to condemn a man to the chimneys.

The rabbi's turn came. He started into the officer's eyes… 'Good morning, Herr Mueller,' said the Rabbi. A muscle twitched on the Nazi's face, the only hint that he had heard the rabbi speak. He paused for a heartbeat before responding, 'Good Morning Herr Rabbiner!'"

The uniformed Nazi officer, a "rabidly anti-semitic Polish peasant" named Herr Mueller, sent Rabbi Shapira to the line of those saved to do slave labor (135-6).

How even to begin to detail everything wrong with the above account?

How about with the above sentence: "In Eastern Europe, the Jews of Poland were the first group to be rounded up and deported."

Jews were not the first rounded up. The first – and last – victims of Nazi mass murder were handicapped people. "First, they came for the Jews"? No, first they came for the halt and the lame. And they were still mass killing them after they retreated from other final solutions: "The Euthanasia Program continued until the last days of World War II, expanding to include an ever wider range of victims, including geriatric patients, bombing victims, and foreign forced laborers," as the USHMM museum records on its website, linked above.

In Poland, a Nazi genocide of Polish Catholics preceded the implementation of the final solution against Jews. Auschwitz was a concentration camp for Poles before it focused on Jews.

"Herr" is a German word, not Polish. The Polish word for "sir" or "mister" is "Pan." The two words aren't even close.

"Mueller" is a German name, not a Polish one.

Nazis didn't "count on" Polish peasants – Nazis mass murdered, tortured, and ruined Polish peasants.

SS officers carried out selections. I am unaware of any Polish peasant becoming an SS officer entrusted to carry out a selection after the Nazi invasion. If I am mistaken on this, I hope someone will inform me.

Finally, this passage's insistence on associating typical peasant activities – tilling and planting – with anti-Semitism and genocide is entirely consistent with the Bieganski worldview, and utterly disgusting in its complete moral bankruptcy. 

Nazis did not "count on" Polish peasants; Nazis enslaved and murdered Polish peasants.
They are doing so, here, for fun. See here.
German Nazis: Killing. Poles: Being killed. See? Different. Source
Many more photos of Nazis' treatment of Poles here.
The passage cited above is not alone in this 272-page, inspirational book. It is part of a pattern.

Not all the passages are so egregious. In all, though, the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype is pervasive.

One of the weirdest, saddest, most predictable (to anyone who has read "Bieganski") and most telling features of this book is its treatment of Polish rescuers of Jews.

There are more Polish rescuers of Jews honored at Yad Vashem than there are from any other national group. Yet Poles faced the most impossible conditions. They themselves were targeted for enslavement and eventual genocide, as Hitler plainly stated: "I have placed my death-head formation in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language."

Rescuing Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland put the rescuer's and the rescuer's entire family at risk. Rescuers needed to, daily, feed their Jews from their own starvation rations, and not arouse suspicion by doing so. They had to dispose of waste, cover tracks in snow in winter and odors in summer. Their job was impossible, and yet they did it.

Further, no Jew was saved by just one person. Jews were saved by one person after another, by casual encounters, by organized networks. Behind every saved Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland, behind every Polish rescuer at Yad Vashem, are untold numbers of heroic individuals who did the right thing, and did so with a gun to their heads. Excellent books that document this include "Samaritans," "Secret City," and "In the Lion's Den."

"Small Miracles" doesn't much care about Polish rescuers of Jews. For the most part, they have no names. They have no personalities. They don't do anything ingenious, heroic, or creative. They have no lives outside of, at a key moment in a Jewish survivor's narrative, serving as "a peasant" who – at the risk of his or her own life – gave food, shelter, documents, or information that allowed the Jewish survivor's narrative to continue. They are only mentioned at moments in the plot when they are needed to advance the narrative.

Helen Fein gave us the famous phrase, "universe of obligation." You can find the phrase on thousands of webpages designed to teach about ethics in a post-Holocaust world. Why didn't more people save Jews? Because, this argument goes, they did not see Jews as part of their "universe of obligation."

There is also a "universe of humanization": The people one decides are fully human, fully three dimensional, fully worthy of engagement.

Polish Catholic peasants are very much not a part of many Jewish Holocaust authors "universe of humanization." We are two dimensional to them. We have no names. We are "the peasant who gave Shlomo food at just that moment so that G-d's glory could be proven."

This is just so sad. One would think that one of the primary lessons of the Holocaust for ethical people – and I have no doubt that Yitta Halberstam is someone deeply committed to ethics – would be "people are people." People have names. People have life stories. People are individual – not cardboard cut-outs.

This disregard of Polish Catholic people's full humanity and complexity is especially evident in "Small Miracles of the Holocaust" because Halberstam devotes so much energy to developing her Jewish characters in full, even in very short anecdotes – the stories in the book average between two and three pages each. In these very brief stories, we learn Jewish characters' names, favorite pastimes, strengths, successes. Halberstam follows her characters far into their futures, closing stories with the names of their future spouses, children, and grandchildren. No such attention is lavished on Polish rescuers.

An example. A Polish Catholic stood ready to rescue an entire Jewish family that planned to escape from a Nazi labor camp. At a key moment, this Pole "stepped out of the dark" (8-9) in order to take the Jews.

And … that is it.


That is the entire story, reference to, mention of, characterization of, honoring of, this Pole.

No mention of his or her name … hometown … favorite color … wife or kids or husband or grandkids or … anything.

Universe of Humanization. The people to whom you give names. The people whose feelings matter to you. The people who are more than cardboard cutouts, outlines. The people with depth, with histories, with futures.

Yitta, look at us Poles again, and invite yourself to see all these features of a full human being, that you describe so lovingly when you are talking about Jewish characters, when you look at Poles.

This dehumanization of non-Jewish characters turns up in words used for non-Jews. Gentile, the translation of the Hebrew word "goy," is, of course, a problematic term. Enough so that one website, for the Jewish Outreach Institute, includes this pledge:

"I do solemnly swear never to use the g word again - singular or plural [goy, goyim] - or any of its derivatives [goyishe] and to banish from my vocabulary shagetz and shiksa as well. Furthermore, I promise to stop and correct anyone who does so in my presence."

It's more than hypersensitivity about terms of exclusion that might cause one to object to how Halberstam uses "Christian" and "Gentile" in "Small Miracles of the Holocaust." Given how Halberstam uses these words, one would get the impression from this book that Nazism was a Christian phenomenon, and that all Gentiles were united in oppressing all Jews.

That's just not true.

Nazism was not Christian.

Non-Jews (like my father, who volunteered), who could have been innocent bystanders, gave up their comfortable lives to fight and die to defeat fascism.

Millions of non-Jews were murdered by the Nazis, including the handicapped people and Polish Catholics mentioned above. There were others, as well: Jehovah's Witnesses, Gypsies, aka Rom, Soviet POWs, etc.

When non-Jews do something bad, though, often, the word "Christian" or "Gentile" is not used. Rather, then the word "Pole" is often used.

But, it could be worse. Poles could be experience a fate worse than being ignored. In fact, in "Small Miracles of the Holocaust," they do experience a worse fate than being ignored. They become props, pawns.

"Small Miracles of the Holocaust" is probably the most popular telling of the story of Leopold Socha, an almost unbelievably heroic man. I'm not even going to attempt to summarize Socha's heroism – just read his story. Yad Vashem tells Socha's breathtaking story here.

In "Small Miracles," Polish Catholic Leopold Socha's superhuman heroism is reduced to a bombastic jerk's boast, to Socha's being a pawn in the decidedly Jewish God's hands, to a freak occurrence among the always and eternally anti-Semitic Poles.

Halberstam depicts Socha as a braggart who saved Jews only so he could brag about it (43). This is utterly implausible – no one is that desperate for praise. In any case, Socha is dead and can't refute what Halberstam felt it necessary to write about him in order to denigrate this Polish Catholic's heroism.

Halberstam devotes little ink to detailing how Polish Catholic rescuers kept Jews alive, but she devotes almost all of one page – a lot in a book of two- and three-page anecdotes – to putting words in Socha's mouth, using actual quotations marks to have Socha say, paraphrase, "I once robbed Jews, and I felt guilty about it, and I'm making up for it now, because the God of Israel is making me do so."

Agency is removed from the Polish Catholic who went above and beyond the call of the heroic in a way that you or I probably never will, and located agency in the God of Israel's grudge match with Polish Catholics. Just as God forced the Pharaoh to release the slaves, God forced Socha, against his own craven Polish, Jewish-victimizing nature – to rescue Jews.

Finally, the Socha account ends, not as with accounts of Jewish survivors, with an update on his child or grandchildren or any efforts to honor Socha, but with a Polish anti-Semite making an obnoxious comment at Socha's funeral. That Polish anti-Semite quite literally gets the last word. The moral is clear: Polish, Catholic Leopold Socha's heroism and love of Jewish victims of Nazism is not the main point here. The main point here is that Socha was a bad man who stole from Jews and our God made him make up for it, and they're all a bunch of stinking anti-Semites, as you can see from this one comment made at Socha's funeral. So much for inspiration. 

Leopold Socha: Polish Catholic sewer worker and heroic rescuer of Jews.
He deserves better than to be reduced to a guilty, boastful pawn in the hands of God. 
Poles are not the only ones depicted as virtually indistinguishable from Nazis here; Lithuanians, Hungarians and Ukrainians are similarly treated.

What can be done? This: concerned people can unite, support each other, organize, and act strategically. Yitta Halberstam can't be blamed. She's a good person, working to make the world a better place. She deploys the Brute Eastern European stereotype innocently. She thinks it's true. She thinks it's true because it is so all-pervasive.

We need to do what Saul Alinsky said to do: "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." The target is Bieganski, a stereotype of Brute Polish and other Eastern European Christian peasants as the world's worst people. When we decide to change it, it will change. It's up to us. Other ethnic groups – African Americans, Jews, Muslims – have organized against stereotypes of their ethnicities with great success.