Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"What We Sign Up For" Poems by Lisa L. Siedlarz

Buy at Amazon.

I strongly encourage readers to buy and read "What We Sign Up For," Poems by Lisa L. Siedlarz. These poems are moving and pertinent. Siedlarz's brother served with the US military in Afghanistan. Her sisterly love for him inspires these poems that bring home to the reader the average soldier's, and the military family's, experience.

Siedlarz's style is accessible. People who don't normally read poetry will respond to these poems, and find much of worth in them. Siedlarz uses everyday language to talk about war experiences, experiences from which most of us are sheltered.

Siedlarz's concrete, everyday vocabulary does not equate a disinterest in creating art. Her hard-hitting, merciless style serves her subject matter. In an Amazon review, Michelle B. Buhr wrote, "The rhythm of the poems is uneven and staccato – almost like gunfire – and you're never quite sure what is going to happen next." That's exactly right.

While reading the poems, I felt as if I were overhearing bits of passing conversations in a public place, like a supermarket, where most of the shoppers were sisters and mothers and fathers and brothers of American active-duty military personnel. These discontinuous bits of conversation offer a warm-blooded, politically incorrect, grittily realistic take on war.

You can't help but think, while reading this book, how sheltered we Americans are to the realities and consequences of America's military adventures in the age of the drone assassination and the volunteer military. I live most of my life never giving a thought to the soldiers fighting and dying in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Without the draft, we all know that neither we nor our loved ones will be sent by force to Iraq or Afghanistan. So, we can just ignore the whole thing. We can ignore the vets coming home with brain trauma from improvised explosive devices. We can ignore the mourning families. I'm personally grateful to Lisa Siedlarz for doing her part to put these realities in front of readers' eyes.

Siedlarz's brief poems, in a short book, span the military experience: a sister learns that her brother has enlisted; he is in a training camp with cockroaches so large one is a "pet," in derelict buildings that had been slated for demolition but recruited back into service for soldiers; soldiers have intimate encounters with host country nationals, some of whom provide the warmest hospitality they can under Third World conditions, including cleaning a drinking glass with spit, and begging the Americans to stay; dead and dying bodies; casualty notification officers, military personnel whose job it is to inform families of their loved one's deaths.

In the first poem, "Song of War," Siedlarz's brother, a GI plumber, "looks up from a clogged toilet during live feed of a second plane." She's referring to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, but does not say so explicitly. Subsequent poems follow this style. World historical events are seen through the details of average people's day to day experiences.

Siedlarz's details are the details that would only be found only in a book by someone intimate with the military experience, including vivid details about wounds, slang, and camels. "Soldiers write home for queen-sized pantyhose to stave off sand fleas and sores." "Moisture-wick clothes melt to skin from the heat transfer of bullets." Of a hospitalized bombing victim, Siedlarz writes, "Where's his foot? … Still in the traffic circle." Exposed human flesh can resemble tenderloin. "Anti-Taliban forces are the most macho fighters we know, and the gayest … women are for children, men for love." Newspaper headlines take on a new, ridiculous tone to someone whose brother is in uniform: "Marines trade gunfire with Taliban." Is this like trading baseball cards? The most beautiful line in the book: "Bury me in the sand and I will envy how clouds move on like breath."
Lisa Siedlarz. Source.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Bieganski and NPR's "This American Life."

Ira Glass, host of "This American Life." Source.
Erin Einhorn. Source.

The National Public Radio Show "This American Life" has been hugely successful. Here's their self-description, from their webpage:

"This American Life is a weekly public radio show broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 1.8 million listeners. It … has won all of the major broadcasting awards. It is also often the most popular podcast in the country, with around 700,000 people downloading each week. [A televised version] won three Emmys … a half dozen stories from the radio show are being developed into films."

In September, 2002, in the episode, "Fake ID: Pole Vault," "This American Life" broadcast the Bieganski stereotype.

New York Daily News reporter Erin Einhorn traveled to Krakow, Poland's Festival of Jewish Culture.

This American Life's host, Ira Glass (cousin of prize-winning composer Philip Glass) and Einhorn told their audience the following:

Jews were wiped out in Poland. By using the passive voice and never mentioning the Nazis or the Germans (a rhetorical tactic similar to that used in Pier 21's Holocaust revisionist film "Oceans of Hope"), and through false analogies equating Poles to European settlers and Jews to Native Americans, and Poles to slaveholders and Jews to slaves, Ira Glass and Erin Einhorn communicate that Poles committed a genocide against Poland's Jews.

An example of the use of passive voice: Poland is "where the Jewish population had been exterminated." If we change this sentence to active voice, we get, "where Nazis exterminated Jews." That's not what "This American Life" says, though – again, they never mention either Nazis or Germans, as a search of their transcript reveals.

An example of a false analogy: Poles listening to Jewish music is comparable to white Americans listening to African American music. Poles = white Americans; Jews = slaves. Not so. Jews were not slaves in Poland; Polish Christians were enserfed, and at times Jewish arendars had the power of life and death over Polish, Christian serfs.

In another false analogy, Poles = European settlers and Jews = Native Americans. Poles listening to Jewish music is comparable to Americans listening to Native American music "after we've driven them off the land." There is so much wrong with this analogy I don't know where to start.

Another: Poles reported to Einhorn that their grandparents remembered Jewish friends. This is denounced; Glass and Einhorn decide that this is comparable to Americans saying, "some of my best friends are Jewish," a clich├ęd American phrase meant to indicate prejudice.

In short, no matter what Poles do or say, in the privacy of their radio studio, with no Poles present, Einhorn and Glass present Poles' words and actions in the worst possible light, with the worst possible spin, to an American audience who will have no idea of the historical inaccuracies.

Poles, out of psychotic guilt and a desire to appropriate the Jewish essence, now carry out Krakow's Festival of Jewish Culture, which is really "creepy and disturbing," because, after all, it was Poles who committed the Holocaust.

There is "actually," "This American Life" reports, a Polish woman who reads Isaac Bashevis Singer. How dare she!

Krakow's Festival of Jewish Culture is "kitschy and funny" because it is located so close to Auschwitz, where, "This American Life" implies, Poles killed Jews.

Here's a very interesting, ironic aspect of this broadcast.

Glass and Einhorn insist that it is a very bad thing that Poles play Jewish music, buy and read Jewish books, and study Jewish history. Poles are Jews' "enemy" and they "dress as" Jews "only for their own pleasure and amusement" and as part of an effort to erase Jews.

Here's the ironic part: Glass and Einhorn are the only ones allowed to define Polish people and Polish culture. Glass and Einhorn are the only ones allowed to inform the audience as to why Poles are interested in Jewish culture. Glass and Einhorn tell the audience what Krakow's Festival of Jewish Culture is all about.

Glass and Einhorn speak. Poles are silenced.

It is, in fact, Glass and Einhorn who are "dressed as Poles," "for their own pleasure and amusement."

That is what is known as appropriation.

Appropriation is exactly what Glass and Einhorn accuse Poles of doing – Glass and Einhorn insist that Poles are stealing Jewish culture, but it is Einhorn and Glass who are committing this crime of appropriation. And they show zero awareness of it.

This is bigotry, and irony, par excellence.

Key quotes from the show's transcript, which, again, never mentions either Nazis or Germans, but purports to tell the truth of the Holocaust in Poland:

"Erin went to live in Poland … She was Jewish, and she was scared of anti-Semitism. Now, many Poles will tell you that this prejudice is completely unfair. But Erin lost Polish family members in the Holocaust. And Poland's where some of the most infamous concentration camps operated, Auschwitz and Birkenau and Treblinka."

Einhorn: "I'd only heard one thing about Poland my entire life, from my mother, from my grandparents, that they [Poles] had always hated Jews. And they had always wanted to see Jews killed. And then, when the Holocaust started to happen, they were happy to see it happen, and they were collaborators. Even though my mother was saved by a Pole, that was always told to me as, well, she only did it for the money."

The cherry on the sundae: "This American Life" misspelled "Krakow" on their webpage. (They've since corrected their misspelling.)

"Krakow" is really not all that hard to spell. In English, it's "Cracow." In Polish, it's "Krakow." Glass and Einhorn defined Poles and Poland for their listeners, and they could not even spell the name of the city about which they wrote.


Back in 2002 I wrote a letter to "This American Life" about "Fake ID: Pole Vault." Of course the letter did no good, any more than individual letters that unorganized Poles send today do any good. We need to change our tactics.

Here are some snips from my letter to "This American Life."

No, as the September 22 segment of "This American Life" suggested, the Holocaust was not invented nor perpetrated by Poles. The Holocaust was a Nazi project that victimized Poles. Millions of Poles, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were murdered by the Nazis, millions more were enslaved. Auschwitz was first built, and functioned, for almost the first two years of its existence, as a concentration camp for Poles incarcerated and murdered as Poles. The country also suffered tremendous material damage. Nazi teams were dispatched with instructions to destroy Polish museums, churches, and monuments.

The victimization of Polish Jews, a literal genocide, was greater than that of Polish non-Jews; that fact does not countenance "This American Life"'s ideology-driven erasure of the suffering of tortured, murdered, and enslaved Polish non-Jews.

By comparing Polish non-Jews' appreciation of Jewish cultural productions with American whites appropriation of Native American or African American forms, Einhorn and Glass all but stated, "The Polaks murdered all the Jews in the Holocaust, and then they stole the Jews' culture and started making money at it."

There are at least two things wrong with "This American Life's" logic here.

First, no, as Ira Glass and Erin Einhorn insisted, Poles are not stealing "Our" American, Jewish culture, when they sing Polish-Jewish songs, read authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer or eat at Jewish restaurants. Isaac Bashevis Singer, for example, did not write much about modern Americans like Ira Glass or Erin Einhorn. He wrote, mostly, about Poland, about a life and a culture and a cuisine that Poles and Jews created together and significantly shared.

Long before the Holocaust, Poles, Jewish and non-Jewish, were sharing cultural productions, not to mention, given intermarriage, gene pools. In the classic Polish play, "The Wedding," a menorah decorates a Christian home. Scholar Anna Maria Orla Bukowska has described how the Polish Christians she studied knew, respected, and incorporated much of Jewish culture. Functioning for their neighbors as "Sabbath goys," or even merely as friends, they learned Yiddish words and Jewish customs and adopted those they admired. Influences flowed both ways. David Buxton has written of how Eastern European folk architecture influenced Jewish synagogues.

Polish-Jewish sociologists like Aleksander Hertz, authors like Eva Hoffman, and children of Polish Jews like Ralph Slovenko wrote of how Polish cultural features, such as disputativeness and humor, found their way into Jewish culture, and eventually came to be thought of as typically Jewish. Slovenko wrote that, as a Jew, he feels culturally at home with Eastern Europeans in a way that he does not with Israelis or American Jews.

Klezmer music didn't spring from Ira Glass' or Erin Einhorn's American world. It is not related to the music of American or Canadian Jews like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Neil Diamond. Klezmer sprang from the musical traditions of Eastern Europe. As even the most cursory of hearings would reveal, it is comparable to non-Jewish musical traditions among Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, Romanian, and Rom peasants.

Second, no, as the September 22 edition of "This American Life" insisted, Poles did not first begin to show appreciation for Jewish culture after the Holocaust. According to scholars of Polish-Jewish relations, including Jewish ones like Harold B. Segel, Poland has long been unique among European nations for its philo-semitism, expressed, for example, in Polish art literature. Polish authors like Eliza Orzeszkowa plunged into Jewish culture and life, learned Yiddish, and wrote of Jewish life with great intimacy, sympathy and detail. They did this long before the Nazi Holocaust was even imagined.

No, Poles did not sit idly by while Ira Glass and Erin Einhorn's grandmothers were being persecuted in the Holocaust. Poland produced Zegota, the only underground group devoted exclusively to the rescue of Jews, and the largest number of national rescuers honored at Yad Vashem. This in spite of their being, as historian Michael Steinlauf, himself the child of Holocaust survivors, wrote, after Jews and Gypsies, the third most persecuted national group in Hitler's Europe. Yes, there were Polish traitors and collaborators. Sadly, there were also Jewish ones. To hold these failures up as representatives of either group is a stance that neither group should accept.

My research has shown that as young American Jews know less and less about Poland, they adopt, more and more, bigoted anti-Polish attitudes. I have interviewed college-educated young adults who are completely unaware of the presence of any non-Jews at Auschwitz, completely unaware of Zegota, completely unaware of people like Jan Karski, and who insist that all Poles were Nazis.


As ever, I repeat: Don't blame the Jews. Polonia has many Jewish allies. We need, rather, to look to ourselves, to our own self-sabotage. We are responsible for the Bieganski stereotype, because we could work to change it, and we are not doing that work. We could start here.

In a subsequent post, I hope to write about a recent "This American Life" program that got Poland very right.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Rye Bread, Kielbasa, and Kraut. Healing and Heartbreak, Of Course.

Confession: I almost never eat what most Americans, including most Polish-Americans, think of as "Polish food": pierogies, kielbasa, "bigos" – hunter's stew, or "kotlet schabowy" – breaded, fried pork cutlet.

As I'll detail below, though, what most Polish-Americans think of as Polish food really wasn't authentic Polish food at all.

Another confession: I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal and I fell in love with my dream cuisine in the Himalayan Mountains of the Indian subcontinent. From the poorest peasant homes in the shadow of Mount Everest, to street stalls in Bombay, I never had bad food. Well, some of the food was tainted, yes, and I did get every intestinal parasite you can imagine, but that was a small price to pay to discover this cuisine. It's low-fat, satisfying, nutritious, and easy to digest (when it's not tainted).

Indian-Nepali meals are based on combinations of legumes and grains or other starches that produce complete protein. A meal is typically rice plus lentils, or wheat chapattis plus chickpeas, or chickpeas plus potatoes, or, if you are really lucky, some dairy product like raita – yogurt with some spices and maybe a bit of shredded cucumber. How we would yearn, up in the hills, how we would talk about it for days, if we hit the trifecta – rice AND lentils AND yogurt. Rounding out the meal are vegetables and hot, spicy, maddeningly flavorful achars. One of my favorite achars is made from unripe mangos, garlic, salt, hot pepper, spices like fenugreek, and mustard oil. Mouth-watering. My mouth, right now, is watering.

In a tiny, isolated, Himalayan settlement – can't really call it a village – an illiterate and barefoot woman with soot perpetually blackening her fingernails served me an achar made from "lapsi" – hog plum. I've never had this lapsi achar, or anything like it, anywhere else. The lapsi had a liquid, seductively elusive texture. Though surrounded by heat, it was cool. You'd catch it on your tongue and it would elude you – always tempting, never letting you feel secure of its taste or texture. As coy as a flirt at a dance. And this in a tiny mountain hamlet populated by subsistence farmers without electricity or running water who would never travel more than fifty miles in their entire lives. You've got to respect a cuisine that can produce moments like that.

I used to trek for weeks, up and down thousands of feet a day, saluting the sunrise under parrots winging overhead across sweltering river valleys and through fat rice paddies up to thigh-deep, snow-choked ten-thousand-foot passes, and do all that on a Nepali staple: roasted corn and soybeans. I felt strong and well fed. Never a hunger pang, never an upset stomach.

After my first Nepali meal of daal-bhaat-tarkari (lentils, rice, and vegetables) I never looked back. To this day, food to me is, primarily, rice and beans, lovingly handled fresh vegetables, and judiciously applied spices – always with something exotic and surprising in there to keep the tongue engaged, after yet another meal of rice and vegetables. But, alas, never anything as good as that long-ago lapsi achar.

Neither the Nazis nor Soviets ever reduced us to this. Source.

The harshest confession of all: Gastronomic Poles make me want to scream. Gastronomic Polonians are convinced that Polishness is something fatty and starchy that you put in your mouth. If you post a photo of a pierogi on your facebook page, that makes you REALLY Polish.

I wish the pierogi-brains would come to recognize, cherish, and respect Polish thought, Polish writing, Polish scholarship, the heroism of Polish minds and hearts, their fellow, living, Polonians. Someday, maybe. Someday. Meanwhile, I filter their facebook posts. Starch? Fat? The essence of Polishness? No. Please. No. Not the Nazis, nor the Soviets, ever reduced Polish identity to the triviality so beloved of gastronomic Polonians.


When I was living in Poland for a year, I bitterly wrote a Polish cookbook. Here it is, in its entirety: "Shoot it and fry it. Dig it up and boil it."

Admittedly, 1988-1989 was a bad year for Polish cuisine. Communism was dying and the comrades were really tightening the screws. I remember days spent just walking around Krakow, looking for something I might want to eat. If you saw people standing in line, you didn't ask. You just joined the queue, and bought whatever they were selling from the back of the truck, from oranges to carp.

After we, in an Orange Alternative protest, threw cartons of yogurt at a statue dedicated to the Soviet "liberation" of Poland, you couldn't buy yogurt in Krakow for love or money. Smalec – lard – seemed always to be available, and it amazed me that people actually wanted to eat it. In America eating lard would sound like a category of dementia. "Doctor, he's going mad. He insists on eating lard!" Or a form of slow-motion suicide. "He's trying to kill himself slowly. He keeps eating lard. Closing off one heart valve, and one taste bud, at a time."

Jacek, a Jagiellonian University student, was offered a scholarship to go to England. He sat me down and asked me to provide him with key sentences he'd need as soon as he got off the plane. His very first request: "How do you say, 'I want lard?'"

I gazed at Jacek with compassion. "Jacek, when you get to England, you won't have to eat lard." He could only look puzzled.

England was probably grateful to Soviet-era Poland for being one country that could, by comparison, make English cuisine appear appetizingly superior.

Communist Poland's dreadful food situation was encapsulated in jokes. Poland was the rebellious Soviet-bloc nation. After the crushing of the Prague Spring, the Czechs were seen as more obedient. Chronic food shortages were Poland's punishment for its refusal of the communist yoke. Czechoslovakia was rewarded with better consumer goods. Thus the joke:

Two dogs meet at the border between Poland and Czechoslovakia. The Czech dog says, incredulously, to the Polish dog, "Why on earth are you trying to enter Czechoslovakia?"

The Polish dog responds, "I want to taste your meat." He, in turn, incredulous, asks the Czech dog, "Why on earth are you trying to enter Poland?"

The Czech dog responds, "I want to bark."


I did achieve gastronomic nirvana in Communist-era Poland, though: in spring, when the berries come into season, and flood the farmer's markets. You could step into any ramshackle stall on any side street and buy enough blueberries, at cheap enough a price, to dye your tongue purple.

I also loved zurek, fermented rye soup. Thick, sour, and hot – on overcast days, the soul craves it. Salad made from finely shredded cabbage, carrots, vinegar, salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar: perfect. Zapiekanki: a split baguette, buttered mushrooms, mild, melted cheese. Nothing else. As yummy as anything you will eat anywhere, ever. And I love my kiszka, aka kaszanka, all the naysayers be damned. Buckwheat groats and blood stuffed into a pig's intestines: what's not to like? And headcheese.

I remember asking an ex-boyfriend, very American, if he wanted to meet my family. He said, "As long as they don't feed me anything made out of the head, intestines, or feet of a pig."

I was astounded. It was early in the relationship; I had not yet revealed to Captain America my closeted passion for kiszka or headcheese. And this guy had grown up in Ridgewood, N.J., an exclusive suburb of assimilated achievers, not at all a center of Polish butchers. Where did he get this idea of Poles as eating pig heads, feet, and intestines? Anyway, we do. Glad when that relationship ended. I've forgotten his name.

My mother told me that her first memory was the sound of a pig being slaughtered. Later a Croatian-born friend, Bruno Zovich, would tell me the same thing. I've since heard the sound of a pig being slaughtered, and I now understand.

My Slovak mother used to make a Slovak specialty: cow lungs. Slovak peasants made use of animal parts that others might ignore, including cow lungs. In 1971, the U.S. Wholesale Meat Act declared lungs unfit for human consumption. How do I know this? I remember it. It was a black day in our kitchen.
My mother announced to the family, in the kitchen, with great sadness, frustration, and grief, that the butcher told her that the American government had passed some kind of law outlawing human consumption of cow lungs, and the butcher wouldn't let her have them anymore. To her it was just further proof, along with Yalta, coal mines and American passivity during the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, that America was a perfidious nation bent on making the lives of Bohunks miserable. As good a theory as any.

My mother used to rhapsodize about a childhood treat in Slovakia: cakes made from beets. My mother and I finally returned to Slovakia, and our gold-toothed, black-clad relatives there, as part of immediately and thoroughly satisfying my mother's every whim, whims stored in mothballs since her tearful, forced departure decades before, cooked up some of these legendary beet cakes, cakes whose unique deliciousness I had heard heralded in praise songs all my life.
I ate one of the moist, hot, gritty, dirt-flavored, barely sweet, very heavy cakes and instantly barfed. I can still taste it, going down and coming back up again. I felt a surge of compassion for my mother. *This* was your special treat? The highlight of your childhood? No wonder you are the way you are. Beet cake and the squeals of slaughtered pigs. And the slivovice. Don't get me started on the slivovice. Do a blind taste test of slivovice and kerosene; see if you can detect a difference.

Goat milk. My mother always insisted that she had been raised on goat milk, not cow milk, like Americans, and that's why Slovaks were superior to Americans in every way – that early infusion of goat milk, and avoidance of cow milk. As good a theory as any.


One of the many things that gastronomic Poles don't get is that their idea of Polish food is not their ancestors' idea of Polish food. Most of us Poles descend from peasants. As Wyspianski put it in "The Wedding":

"There are people who despise me
Just because I'm peasant born.
When they see a scythe, they scoff.
How it makes me sad at heart.
We're all in this Polish stable
and we've all got peasant blood."

Polish peasants did not eat a lot of breaded pork cutlets. Probably not even a lot of pierogi.

In his beautifully written and invaluable memoir, "
From Serfdom to Self-Government," Jan Slomka described the Polish peasant menu. It was painfully simple and there wasn't much meat. Food was potatoes, peas, beans, buckwheat, cabbage, bread, fish and eels, and maybe a pig a year. Wincenty Witos wrote, "There were months when we did not see a piece of bread." Sugar, citrus fruit, cucumbers, and tomatoes were inaccessible. "There would be every year with rare exceptions pre-harvest famine."

I experienced something like this menu when I went to visit my mother's village in Slovakia.

A big, immediate surprise: hunger. My Uncle John (Jan) did not even own a refrigerator. Why should he? If he wanted to eat something, he went into his field and harvested it, or to his stock animals and killed it. He went down to his cellar and sliced off some pig fat. He did purchase bread and yogurt at the store.

We visiting Americans were quickly hungry, and we really didn't know what to do about it. My mother, so aggressively Slovak in America, realized how American she was in Slovakia. These people were pulling out all the stops for us, but we weren't used to their ways. We weren't used to going hours without eating, and eating only what grew in the backyard.

Finally my mother pulled my Aunt Jolana aside and explained that I was hungry. My aunt immediately went into the backyard and killed a chicken.

I cried.

But I ate the damn chicken.

Chickens are often quite disgusting in their behavior. They like to eat luggies, something I saw too much of in Nepal. Some village guys, without other entertainments, would really get into feeding the chickens their spit. Also, chickens peck their fellows to death. This makes chickens easier to eat. Easier than, say, puppies. Well, you can dislike the chickens, but then you realize you are eating previously digested luggies and fellow chicken, and then you turn to the rice. At least until hunger and time cause you to forget the mental images of chickens eating spit and each other.

Slovakia was the first place I ate visible bugs in food. I'm something of a clean freak and had a real problem with bugs when I was a kid. My beloved Aunt Jolana served me chicken broth with bugs floating on top. I was so hungry, and I loved her so much, I spooned it all down. I wasn't so hungry, and I did not love her enough, to erase this memory of my self-sacrifice for my aunt. I can still see that bowl of chicken broth in front of me, the fat forming iridescent rings on the surface, and the little floating bugs I dare not even pick out with my fingertips while my aunt's back was turned.

I remember my Uncle John sitting down to his own meal, while I was served the guest's meal of chicken broth. He ate a slice of pig fat and a fistful of hot, raw chilis for lunch. "Strycko!" I protested. "Uncle! That pig fat is bad for your heart!"

"Your great grandfather Gregor Cerno ate this for lunch every day, and slivovice, too, and he lived to be 93!"

You can't argue with these people. How do you argue with people who are still vertical after being flattened by both Nazi and Soviet tanks?

Pig fat, bread: dense, heavy.

Whenever I return to America after a long time away, I go to a produce store, and a salad bar. I crave lightness, including light food: California lettuce, Florida oranges. And it's all there, and cheap. We Americans are so damn lucky, and we don't realize it.

But there were cherries in Slovakia. I remember walking under a tree and a boy hanging upside down by his knees and offering us his hat full of cherries. And the yogurt was so thick and so good, and it had a skin of cream on top.


What was I saying?

That I don't eat much Polish food.

But, really, this is what I was saying: It's been a tough few months.
After I got back from Poland, in August, 2011, my computer died.

And then, in September, 2011, we had the flood. See
here. That footage was taken a few hundred feet from my front door.

After the river entered our building, brusque and unsmiling authorities insisted that we leave, immediately, no questions asked.

I tried to explain that I am Polish, and we can handle any kind of an invasion, even one by water. The authorities evacuating us were scarier than the flood. I think someone told them, "You are evacuating Paterson. A tough town. Be as rough as possible." I left.

I was wearing a shirt, shorts, and sneakers. I threw my sleeping bag onto my back and headed out into the night, unsure if I'd see any of my stuff again.

Charlene Lovegrove is a saint; she put me up for the duration.

I came back, and I saw my stuff again. :-) I was much luckier than my neighbors who live lower down in the building. They learned the lessons that loss teaches.

I bought another computer from Office Depot. It arrived with a broken on/off switch. I bought another computer from Office Depot. It arrived with a broken DVD player. I tried to buy a computer from Dell. Kafka himself could not imagine the tortures to which Dell subjected me. Over the course of a week, by email, facebook, and telephone, Dell operatives in Pakistan approved, and then canceled, my order ten times. Why? They wouldn't tell me, but I do live in a low-income, high-minority neighborhood, which even Dell operatives in Pakistan may know. Still no computer.

But, really, the worst thing is this.

I spent every free second of fall, 2011, applying for full-time teaching jobs.

I really thought this might be my year.

I published "
Bieganski," a prize-winning, scholarly book. It has been praised by big names and it won an award. I've spoken about it at Brandeis and Georgetown and universities and museums in Poland.

I will publish a literary book soon, "
Save Send Delete," and it has received advance praise from bestselling authors like Robert Ellsberg and Larry Dossey.

My bosses and students continue to give me evaluations that warm my heart and make me blush.

And, after all those job applications this fall, nothing. Not even an interview. I can't overcome
the fate of too many of the ethnically incorrect working class in the Ivory Tower.

I'm sad about leaving teaching. What next? Any work I can get.

I wish there were something out there for me where I could make use of my passionate commitment to Polonia. I wish I did not have to go to waste. Polonia, I wish you cared. I wish you supported your scholars.

The New Year was not a time of popping champagne corks around the Goska household.


A friend showed up the other day with a brown paper grocery bag from
Schwind's Pork Store. Someone bringing me groceries? On what planet? No matter what is going on, I have always managed to stock my own pantry, and other people's, as well, by hook or by crook. Food is primary, baby. All Bohunks know that.

Harvesting rye. Source.

The contents of this brown paper grocery bag shocked and awed me: the biggest kielbasa I have ever seen. I measured it – two and a half feet. (Enough with the snickering! This was actual sausage, not a euphemism for some naughty something else.) A loaf of rye bread that I can only describe using terms usually reserved for heroic feats, historical eras, and tracts of geography: this rye bread was vast, this rye bread was imposing. This rye bread was monumental! And a tub of sauerkraut saturated with pork fat, studded with little bits of crackling.

I just did not know how to respond.

First of all, as a Bohunk American woman, of course I felt affronted, castrated even. (We are a pretty manly bunch.) How dare anyone bring food into MY kitchen! Bohunk food no less! I CAN ACQUIRE MY OWN FOOD THANK YOU VERY MUCH! I give YOU food, YOU do not give food TO ME! Thems the rules!

But this person was obviously trying to be nice. "In Poland there are no women, only ladies," as the saying goes. So, I accepted the bag graciously, with feigned gratitude, wondering how I'd dispose of its contents.

After this person left … I took a little bite, just a little bite, of the kielbasa.




Paging Grand Duke Witold, Wanda, Pilsudski, my late father! But that kielbasa tasted so good. So amazingly good. Beyond good. It was waking up areas in my limbic system that have not been so much as tickled for years. I wanted to give the maker of this kielbasa an NEH grant. This was an art form!

I went further. I approached the mountain range of rye bread. Really, I wish I could introduce you to this loaf of rye bread. If it were a human being, I would marry it. If it would only have me! It is so earnest, macho, unyielding. This is serious bread!

I dug out my special bread-slicing knife. No wimpy serrated pseudo-steak knife or butter knife. This bread demanded a knife at least a foot long and designed to slice very serious bread.

Approaching this bread, I flashed on an otherwise long-forgotten memory.

My Aunt Jolana. My Uncle John's partner. The woman I lived with when we visited my mother's natal village in Slovakia so many years ago.

Aunt Jolana was the single most beautiful ugly woman you'd ever see. Jet black hair, pale, pale skin, bulbous nose, deep eyes, pools of kindness and ready sentiment and laughter and tears. Loose, abundant flesh and loose, flowing dresses. She was a human candle. She radiated love. Healing, warm, endless, generous love.

Jolana was a witch. Through an elaborate ritual involving muttered incantations and the measuring, pouring, and re-measuring of water she had poured onto my prostrate form, she removed an evil eye curse from me that one of the villagers had put on me in church. Of course I am grateful to her for that. On sturdy legs, Jolana rode her bicycle all over neighboring villages, ministering to those in need of beneficent witchcraft.

Uncle John and Aunt Jolana's union was not blessed by the church. My uncle had a "real" wife in the village. "I was tired of a skinny woman dressed all in black and I wanted a fat woman in colorful clothes who laughs." What could I say? It's hard to argue with an uncle who has killed a man. (Yes, he did. But it was justifiable! At least as he told it. I never heard the other guy's side.) My uncle condemned the priests as "blazons" – lunatics. My Aunt Pavlina, Uncle John's sister, bought the church an expensive golden monstrance. My family.

This is what I suddenly remembered the other day, after my friend brought the groceries, including the epic rye bread: Aunt Jolana would pick up a loaf of rye bread, one as imposing as this one my friend had brought over on Friday, and hold it against her bosom, and, long knife in other hand, she would saw through the bread, toward her breast. She never even looked at the bread, never so much as glanced at the knife rapidly approaching her breast. The whole time, she would be gazing at me, smiling, as if I were a miracle baby she had found in the field of rye out the window. And then she would hand me a slab of perfectly cut bread. And the knife never so much as nicked the loose cloth of her dress. That long ago slice that Jolana handed me in Slovakia tasted just like the bread my friend brought over the other day.

I couldn't get the same payoff from even the best Indian meal as I got from this kielbasa, rye bread, and sauerkraut.

Eating these foods, very well made kielbasa, and sauerkraut, and rye bread, I remembered the best times in my family. The old folks would get together. They would speak in their own languages: Polish or Slovak and sometimes Yiddish, depending on who was there.

These people were not perfect. But this can't be denied: they survived. They survived so much. And sometimes, sometimes, they laughed, and danced, and sang, and managed a humanity that taught me about how deep and complex and untameable life can be. I used to feel so good, as a kid, just being in the background, maybe washing dishes or drifting off to sleep, hearing all the stories, the stories about how much they survived.


The cabbage saturated with pork fat is almost gone. The kielbasa is still floating my boat out to sea. The bread now dominates my kitchen.

So, no, I don't eat a lot of Polish food. But this food that my friend brought over the other day did a lot for me, reminded me of a lot, knitted a few things together, present and past, dreams and reality, muscle and bone, memories of my family and me, gave me the strength to go on for another day, in a way that only Bohunk food could.

Below is an excerpt from the very excellent book, Jan Slomka's "From Serfdom to Self-Government." Slomka describes the cuisine of average Polish peasants.

As for articles of food, only salt and beverages were bought in the shops. Village folk lived mostly on what they themselves sowed and planted on their own land. Potatoes, peas, beans, buckwheat, cabbage, soup, and, of course, bread – these were the regular eatables at breakfast, dinner, and supper. Special breads or cakes were made for the yearly festivals from home flour, ground by hand or at the mill. People never bought flour at the village store. Beef was never eaten the year through, unless by the well-to-do, who would buy it for Christmas or Easter. It was used in case of sickness. Yet meat was cheap, only a few cents a pound.

Nor was it the habit to kill chickens or fry eggs for home use. Both were rarely done. Eggs were used almost exclusively at Easter time, or for sick folk. The housewife might fry some for a guest, e.g. the village priest, when he came for the Christmas offering. This was thought to e the highest mark of respect for him. The women preferred to turn these things into money to buy salt with.
The saying was that if you have salt in the house, you have everything. They begrudged both the expense and the time involved getting ready fancy foods, and the saying was: 'Am I to wrack my head, and make faces, and lose time!' The fact was that apart from the simplest things, they did not know how to make anything.

Fish was used a good deal, more than nowadays. They were caught in the ponds on the pasture and meadowland. Most common were carp and jackfish. They were eaten boiled.

Most common were the eels, and especially in the forest areas, where there were marshlands. They could be caught during the whole year, but best in winter. One set a trap under the ice, a so-called 'funnel' woven of wild vetches, with a bait of pea-straw inside. Eels were caught in heaps. When caught they would be nailed alive to stakes or rods, and smoked in order to keep them from spoiling. In this condition the peasants would sell them at the fairs, carrying them in bundles or baskets. They cost a few cents a pound, and were used chiefly cut up in soup instead of bits of sausage. They tasted good and were nourishing. One could eat one's fill of this broth, just as of porridge.

People used to gather wild mushrooms more than they do nowadays. There were many kinds, and they were stewed with buckwheat meal. When dried they were used in soup during Lent. For frying things bacon or tallow tht had stood a while was used, since then there was a 'flavor' to it, and a little sufficed. Every farmer, poor as well as better placed, took care to have a pig to kill in time of need, since in this way he was sure of fat for home use. The well-to-do killed two or three times a year, others only once – mostly in winter-time. Aside from this, butter was used, and during Lent the practice was to use only oil – mostly linseed.

For seasoning the commonest means in use were: mint, dried and crushed into tiny pieces; caraway, which was sprinkled into sauerkraut, and into the dough before the loaves were made, or scattered on top of the loaves; sage cut up, used in summer together with beet leaves in soup or for sausages; parsley in potato soup or with mashed potatoes, and finally pepper, used in vodka, sausages, cottage cheese, as well as in bouillon or broth.

For breakfast, there was soup, and with it rye bread. If there were potatoes enough, then as a second course we had fried potatoes, or boiled ones with salt. When bread was scarce, potatoes were used instead with the soup. For dinner we had two courses: cabbage with buckwheat or other meal to thicken the sauerkraut, while the second was a sort of milk pudding. At times for a change we had dumplings, made like doughnuts of coarse wheat or rye meal, ground at home. They were either done with milk or in fat. Again we might have little patties with cottage cheese, but during Lent instead of curds linseed was used, from which the oil had been pressed out. Supper was just another breakfast.

The head of the house, the children and the servants ate from one dish. The dish stood on a talbe, or bench, or the stump of a tree in the middle of the room, and all sat about it, or, rather, the elders sat while the children stood. Where the family was large some would have to reach by the othrs to get their food. Before the meal there was a tussle to get the biggest spoon. Only the housewife could not eat with the rest, since she was constantly bringing more food. While the soup was being eaten either the father or the eldest hired man was in trouble, for he had to cut bread for the rest, and only then had he a chance to eat. He would cut it in large slices, so that they would last longer for others and he himself would have time to eat.

In those days, folk had pretty good appetites. When soup was prepared the housewife had to reckon at least on a quart for each two persons, while each week the baking used half a sack of rye flour. As for potatoes or sauerkraut, what one man ate then would do for five nowadays.

Coffee, tea, sugar, rice, raisins, almonds, oranges, lemons – things sold today in every store with other articles of food – were virtually unknown in the village. One could find them only in one of the shops in Tarnobrzeg. If coffee or tea were used it was only on great occasions, such as at Christmas or Easter. In case a few coffee beans were left over, they were wrapped up with care and kept till next time.

Poland Is the Most Anti-Semitic Country in the World


People constantly let me know that Poles are the world's worst anti-Semites. They let me know that anti-Semitism is not a problem, rather Polish identity is.

By extension, of course, all Bohunks are the world's worst anti-Semites: Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Slovaks, etc.

We started the Holocaust. We are the hotbed of anti-Semitism in the world today. We must be punished for being who we are. Our identity must be obliterated, and a superior identity installed.

I am told this by tenured faculty on university campuses, including Indiana University, where I was a graduate student, and the campus where I work now. I was told this the other day by a library employee in New Jersey.

I receive emails letting me know this, as well. Often the emails are obscene, so obscene I've consciously chosen not to share their contents except with a trusted few. The email, below, from an author identifying himself as Victor Lapides, is exceptional, in that he is polite and well-spoken and he identifies himself by name.

I googled him, using his email address. All I could find was a message about restoring antique furniture. He appears to be a nice, normal guy. I admire his correct use of the English language, and his aesthetic and conservative approach to good furniture. I'm sure if I met him in person, we'd get along well.

I don't think it's Mr. Lapides' fault that he is certain that Poles are the world's worst anti-Semites. After all, that is common knowledge.

Rather, I look to Polonia to begin to take effective action. If you are a Polonian and you want to take action on these matters, buy and read "Bieganski." Then go here.

Mr. Lapides' email:

"Wandered across this [this blog] by chance. Sure wish it were the whole truth and not just one side. Unfortunately, one scene in Shoah tells a very different story. All dressed up in their Sunday best and standing on the steps of the Catholic church in their town in Poland (I forget which), contemporaneous to the making of the movie (1970's, I think), a group of townspeople told Lanzmann (the filmmaker and interviewer) how fitting and necessary it was for all (or most) of the Jews of Europe to have been killed. A riveting scene, unforgettable. I have been told by East European Jews that Poland is one of most antisemitic countries in the world, possibly the most."