Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Are We Guilty of Gross Prejudice Towards Poland? by David Jacobson


The commentary, below, is reprinted with permission.

Commentary: Are We Guilty of Gross Prejudice Towards Poland?

by David Jacobson
August 16, 2012

In the ashes of Auschwitz we lost more than Jewish lives – we lost an integral part of our historical memory. If we truly want to ensure Jewish continuity for tomorrow’s Jews, then we have to reclaim the positive history of Polish Jewry today.

Mention Poland to most Jews and their immediate association is with Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and the brutal murder of some 6 million Jews. I have recently returned from two weeks in Poland attending the 24th International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship with a group of 40 young Jews from around the globe and I witnessed personally the deep psychological wounds that are still alive today in today’s generation of Jews. Even though these Jews are two or three generations removed from the horror of the Holocaust, members of the group broke down at various stages during the week-long conference, weighed down by the living, haunting memory of their families’ stories. Whenever something went wrong, if a computer crashed or a meal was late, the standing response was: “It’s Poland.” And behind this jocular response lies a real pathology. Poland has assumed a uniquely nefarious status in the collective Jewish psyche – Poland represents death, destruction, hate and unbridled, brutal antisemitism. It is seen as Jewish black hole.

And until my recent visit, that was indeed the image I held in my mind and heart. Although I fully understand its genesis and there is a sane substantiation for it, everything I saw and heard convinced me that Poland has been unfairly portrayed by the global Jewish establishment. This has created dangerous prejudices and stereotypes (generalisations of an entire people); ironically these stereotypes are of the very same ilk that was the thought-generators of the rampant racism that laid the foundation for the genocide that took place during the Shoah. We brand the Polish people as ‘brutes’ and ‘eternal antisemites’ and we send tour after tour of young Jews to the death camps and they march defiantly through Poland, blinkered to the multitude of memorials to Jewish history and Jewish life and legacy that literally litter the streets of Warsaw and Krakow. By doing this, we are not only perpetuating a cruel bigotry, but we are also cheating these young Jews of a remarkable opportunity for Jewish growth and regeneration.

During my two weeks in Poland, I learned about and witnessed another side to this much maligned country – a side that should shine light on the shadow of the valley of death that is the perpetual Jungian mirror for most of us. I heard from Professor Moshe Rosman, an internationally distinguished Professor of Polish Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University, about the great Jewish civilisation in Poland and its legacy that was eradicated in the Holocaust and that has largely been forgotten, even by the descendants of Polish Jews who emigrated before World War II to the United States and Israel. Indeed, the children and grandchildren of those immigrants in the United States know more about the Native Americans than about their Jewish antecedents in Poland. I heard about 1000 years of uninterrupted Jewish history that is arguably unparalleled in the annals of our people – a history that produced the Lublin Yeshivot and Jewish greats like Rabbi Moshe Isserles and Rabbi Yosef Schneersohn, not to mention contemporary Jewish giants like David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin.

I also heard from Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Programme Director at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is being erected in Warsaw, who described with great passion the different historical periods of Polish Jewry and their rich cultural achievements. The historical scope and reach of Polish Jewry was gargantuan and cast an imposing shadow over the rest of the Jewish world.

But the reach of Polish Jewry is not only a matter of history. I had occasion to spend time with Magda Koralewska, the 29 year old co-founder and president of Beit Krakow – a newly created Reform community in a city that once had 64 000 Jews, but was reduced to 3000 in 1945. Her and other young Jews like her are doing remarkable work in recreating Jewish life out of the ashes of the Holocaust and the death-grip of communism. Magda is a “Jew by choice” – a voluntary convert to Judaism.

“Discovering Judaism made me feel Polish for the first time,” Magda explained.” I finally had something to be proud of as a Pole – the contribution of Polish Jews to the history of Poland and the world.” And Magda does not stand alone. There are a slew of young Jewish Poles who are reinventing their community, redefining their Jewishness and reinvigorating the proud legacy of Polish Jewry.

I also witnessed a remarkable attraction and affinity to Jewish culture in Poland. We forget that pre-WWII, one in every three Warsaw residents was Jewish. Thus in many ways, Jewish culture and Polish culture are inextricably linked. At the Krakow Jewish Festival, a festival now in its 22nd year, thousands of non-Jewish Poles stream to listen to Klezmer music and Chazonis, or to attend lectures on Jewish topics or to view art with a Jewish theme. Haunting reverberations of Yiddish songs fill the streets and restaurants.

I visited Kazimierz Dolny during the annual Klezmer festival, and was treated to a burst of Jewish culture unlike anything I have ever encountered in the streets of Cape Town or Johannesburg. The audience was filled with not Jews but ordinary Poles – Poles of all ages and all sizes, drawn to this Jewish culture that they feel is as much theirs as it is ours.

This is not to suggest that there is no antisemitism in Poland. There is. Pop into almost any curio shop in in Krakow or Kazimierz and you will find the ubiquitous “Lucky Jew” in both figurine and poster. This is a caricature of a Hassidic Jew in full garb, with a prominent nose, holding onto a coin. Poles buy them as they believe it will bring them good fortune. It is a somewhat bitter reminder of the deep and dangerous prejudice that still exists within Polish society.

But this ugly stereotyping is hardly unique to Poland. So while we should not disregard it, we should also not dismiss our Polish heritage because of it. For Poland is so much more than merely a Jewish nightmare. Professor David Shneer, an expert in post-Soviet Eastern European Jewish communities, explained: “The most important thing we can do is stop seeing Poland simply as a graveyard of the Holocaust and to start seeing it as a potential new site of Jewish life.”

My intention is in no way to demean the memory of the Shoah or trivialize the real pain of people for whom Poland does signify horror and destruction. The seething distaste for Poland and the deep wounds that exist are part of a collective post-traumatic stress disorder that is a natural and inevitable response to the greatest genocide every committed. And we must continue to teach our youth both the horrific facts of the Holocaust and its universal and eternal lessons, lest we ever forget.

But at the same time, we must be careful not to create an unhealthy cult of death and decay. We need to constantly make the prophetic choice of choosing life.

And I saw Jewish life aplenty in Poland – life that has given me great hope for the regeneration of Jewish culture and Jewish continuity, not only in Europe, but right here in South Africa.

David Jacobson is the executive director of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies and is an advisor to the International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship that operates out of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture in New York. He is also an active member of The Jewish Diplomatic Corps and is passionate about Jewish continuity.

Find this commentary on the web at:

An Alleged Polish Crypto-Jew; Who Wants Peasant Ancestors? Guest Blog Post by Kasia

Peasants in a Russian Village. Who wants boring ancestors like this? Source.

Adrien Brody in "The Pianist." As Kasia observes,
"Both are narratives of victimhood and suffering,
but while one is degrading, the other is ennobling."

Are your ancestors boring? Were they just a bunch of lumpy grey peasants, sunup to sundown, rooting in the earth, slopping manure, snoring? Never learning to read, relieving themselves outside?

Wouldn't you like more glamorous and exotic ancestors than that? If not Cleopatra or Napoleon, at least a poet or two?

Who hasn't known this frustration?

Luckily, when I was a kid, my mother took me to Czechoslovakia, and I met my peasant ancestors. They were really cool people. I write about one of them, my Aunt Bora, in this essay. I am proud and happy to descend from peasants like my Aunt Bora.

But Eastern European peasants are negatively stereotyped, as described in the book "Bieganski." It's understandable that some would like to trade their Eastern European ancestry for a more glamorous one.


Recently Bieganski the Blog featured a post titled A Biological Take on Identity Politics. This blog post addressed some people, who have no evidence of Jewish ancestry, insisting that they are crypto-, or hidden, Jews. One New York Times essayist even went so far as to claim that her hidden Jewish ancestry was lurking in her DNA. Her genes contained memories of persecution and survival. She had been raised Catholic, but her genes' memories told her she was really Jewish.

A blog reader, Kasia, read that blog entry and responded with the fascinating story of a woman she came across on the web. This woman appears to be of strictly Polish, Lithuanian, Slovak, and Hungarian ancestry, but is insisting, without any evidence, that she is a crypto-Jew.

Here's Kasia's description of the woman:

I have come across this person on the internet who is absolutely convinced that she is Jewish. She seems to have researched her roots pretty well, to the extent that she knows most of the birthplaces and names of her relatives and ancestors within the last 100 years or so.

There is a problem though. All the names and places point to a Gentile Polish/Lithuanian and Slovak/Hungarian background. There is no evidence that any of her ancestors converted to Christianity, to the contrary, they all seem to have been dyed in the wool Roman Catholics.

Surprisingly, this absolute lack of evidence of any Jewish roots is to this person proof absolute that all her relatives had, in fact, been Jewish, then converted, and then lived in denial for the rest of their lives. Not some of them, which would have been realistic, but all of them.

The fact that some of them had their names misspelt / transcribed into English on Ellis Island and in subsequent census records is further evidence of their duplicity and eagerness to hide their true identity.

This would have remained, to me, a bizarre and mildly entertaining story found on the internet; but then I read Danusha's blog post on Crypto Jews, as well as the very interesting comments on this post, and I realised that the earnest, blind yearning for Jewish roots I described above might be dictated by something else, or something more, than mere confusion or wishful thinking.

To someone of her background, swapping the "narrative" (haven't liked the word since Literary Theory class at university, but there you are) of poor, uneducated peasant immigrants from Eastern Europe for a story shared by the Jewish diaspora worldwide is probably tempting. Both are narratives of victimhood and suffering, but while one is degrading, the other is ennobling. One condemns you to isolation and rejection, the other gives your individual existence meaning within a greater whole. I would probably never have understood this if I hadn't read Danusha's blog from end to end beforehand.

Just so it's clear - I wish my internet acquaintance all the luck in finding her Jewish relatives. She probably has a few, like many other Eastern Europeans. I just don't think finding them automatically makes her Jewish. The past is a muddle of ethnicities which it would be impossible to untangle today.
Regular readers of this blog know what I'm going to say. It is up to us to tell our own story. I cover this ground in the three part blog post on the Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision

You can start by buying, reading, reviewing, and recommending a book by and about Polish peasants and their working class descendants, and getting that book on the syllabi in schools. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bieganski on Steroids: Israel Friedlaender's "The Jews of Russia and Poland"

Israel Friedlaender. Source.

My book "Bieganski" argues that it is acceptable in scholarly, popular, and journalistic discourse to disseminate a negative stereotype of Poles and Polish-Americans as stupid, violent, brutes. In this image, Poles are the world's worst anti-Semites. I didn't know about Israel Friedlaender's "The Jews of Russia and Poland" when I was writing "Bieganski," but had I, I would have quoted Friedlaender extensively.

"The Jews of Russia and Poland" is perhaps the most thoroughly anti-Polish legitimate book I've ever read. By "legitimate" book I mean a book that was not published by a hate organization. The anti-Polish stereotyping in this book is all the more remarkable given that the author, Israel Friedlaender, was probably a genuinely heroic and intelligent man. Page after page of this book stunned me because the racism in it was being expressed by someone I'd probably like as a human being. (He would almost certainly not like me, given my parentage.)

"The Jews of Russia and Poland" was published in 1915. Why should anyone care about it today? The book epitomizes the brute Polak stereotype. It was published by GP Putnam's Sons, New York and London, a major, respected, and still existent publishing house. Israel Friedlaender, the book's author, was a "world famous" scholar and activist deeply rooted in Jewish institutions and movements. This was not a lone wolf spouting random gripes. The anti-Polish hate, based on stereotypes, that shouts from every page of the book was canonical, accepted reality for Friedlaender's milieu.

"The Jews of Russia and Poland" is a mere 214 pages long. It attempts to tell the entire history of Polish Jews in its pages. It tells that history for three very important reasons. Friedlaender, a good and dedicated member of his community, wants to improve conditions for his fellow Jews. He is focused on three epoch-making historical events. In 1915, Poland was about to be reborn. After WW I and the Versailles Treaty, Americans, the audience for Friedlaender's book, will have an impact on the constitution of reborn Poland. Second, Jews were returning to Palestine. Friedlaender wants to boost that return. Finally, Jews were flocking to the US as immigrants. Friedlaender wanted the US – including upper class, American Jews of German descent – to embrace its new Ostjuden, or Eastern European, Jewish immigrants.

To fulfill all his goals, Friedlaender makes non-Jewish Poles out to be irredeemably, indeed, racially, bad people. Friedlaender wants the US and the West to exercise a great deal of influence in newly reborn Poland, because, Friedlaender warns, the Poles cannot be trusted to treat their Jewish citizens fairly. Yes, Jewish immigrants to the US are unappealing – even he does not like them (x, 25, 72). But they are unappealing, Friedlaender insists, because they come from Poland, where they have been treated very badly. In America they will improve. And Jews are really noble people, and the Zionist experiment will turn out magnificently.

Following are just some examples of Friedlaender's pronouncements on Poles: Poland was a land of "impenetrable medieval Jew hatred" Poles "deserve no credit" for providing a homeland for Jews expelled from other countries. Slavs torture Jews "at the beginning of the twentieth century" with "all the agonies of the Middle Ages." Poland was typified not by rule but by "misrule." In Poland Jews experienced "uninterrupted and unparalleled persecution." Poles also "hate everything German."

Polish nobles, or szlachta, were "morbid" "hostile" "degenerate" "contemptuous" "indolent" "extravagant" "prodigal" "inconstant" "instable" "obstinate, combative, quarrelsome," "fond of show and externalities," "prefer shadow to substance," "aimless" "reckless" "a seething cauldron of strife and dissension" "a farce" "miserable" "a canker of lawlessness," "lazy," "helpless," "incapable" "their sole ambition in life was pleasure and amusement," "intemperate (i.e. drunk)" "the lack of executive ability" among Poles.

Germans were "made so superior to Poles." Poles had none of the Jews' "ability or energy." Poles "did not hesitate to throttle a Jew by a method cruel and deadly." Polish nobles "would do anything to torture Jewish subjects." The Radziwill family especially committed "unspeakable outrages" and tortured innocent Jewish children and women. "These examples illustrate not only the cruelty of the Polish nobles, but also the aimlessness of their cruelty. It was sheer madness, madness without a particle of method in it, and the Jew had no means whatsoever to guard himself against it…the only way to appease the noble was to crouch and cringe and accept all indignities with a smile." "Polish culture was of little significance."

"The Polish people begrudged the slightest favor shown to the Jews." Poland was "an enemy's land" where the Polish nation conducted "a systematic and organized warfare against Jews. This warfare may be said to constitute the sum and substance of the external history of the Jews in Poland, history not made by Jews, but against them." For the peasants, "Jews serve as the lightning rod of their hatred" they conduct "a slow and grinding struggle in the subterranean regions of economic life. It is essentially a siege war."

The Catholic Church in Poland was a monstrosity. "Orgies of Roman fanaticism," "monstrous forms of intolerance," "kept Poland in darkness," exercised "power over the minds of individuals," with "enormous wealth" the church was "indefatigable in her efforts to destroy Jews and Judaism." "This gospel of hatred" was "the inviolable rule of conduct throughout the whole extent of Polish history." This hatred "breaks out like pus." Priests acted "very much like the gangsters of today." "Consistent hatred typical of the church."

Because of this lousy leadership, Poland is "destitute," where "the only seeds of civilization were planted and cultivated by Germans and Jews." Poland's leaders produce only "lawlessness and misgovernment."

What has this history to do with the rebirth of Poland in the early twentieth century? "No amount of political pledges and diplomatic allurements will save the Poles unless they will bury their past."

In comparison, Jews possess an "extraordinary executive ability and sense of discipline," and "true Jewish sagacity." "The Jews exhibited a remarkable loyalty to Poland." Jewish culture in Poland was "perfect;" again, it reached "perfection;" It was "remarkably advanced." It is characteristic of "Jewish genius," of "the triumph of the few over the many, the weak over the strong, the spirit over the flesh." Jewish culture in Poland "lifted the earth a little nearer to heaven." Jews "displayed their intellectual acumen in their commercial transactions with non-Jews." "Noble living and high thinking characterized the Jews of Poland, and in this ideal atmosphere even their commercialism was robbed of its sordidness. They consecrated their life to God and they were anxious to serve him with all their hearts, their souls, and with all their might." Jewish culture "blossoms forth in its pristine beauty." Polish Jews "were harmonious. They lived and acted in harmony."


I thank Otto Gross who purchased this book for me after coming across it in a used bookstore.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Polish Near Death Experience

Artist's illustration of near death experience. 
Mariusz Zimny Polish Countryside source

Near Death Experiences are experiences reported by a minority of people who have clinically died, or come close to clinical death, and been revived. These experiences typically involve a sense of the spirit leaving the body, the experiencer observing his own body, seeing a radiant and loving light, being drawn toward that light, often through a tunnel, being greeted by deceased relatives, reaching a barrier of some kind, and deciding to return to the physical body.

Dr. Raymond A. Moody, Jr coined the term "near death experience" and he's probably the most famous author to address the topic.

There are many books and websites devoted to near death experiences. Just a few:

Near Death Experience Research Foundation

Betty Jean Eadie's Website


I've read dozens of these accounts. They all contain some similar features. I read one recently that was quite different from any others I'd ever read. The experiencer didn't see a light, was not greeted by relatives, and did not reach a barrier. Rather, the experiencer's experience was all about … Poland!

Excerpts from this near death experience, below, with a link to the full experience.


Mira G.

The NDE happened when I was on the operating table at St. Vincent's Hospital in Lower Manhattan. I remember being put under and asked to count backwards from 100. I know that I counted down to 96 and that the world for me went black. The next thing that I remember is being very happy and very safe. I was in a place that I loved with all of my heart.

I was in my spirit in the Polish countryside and I could almost see the fields during the summer just waiting to be harvested. It was a warm summer day, not hot and humid the way that NYC can be, but warm, sunny and dry. I was above the fields and I admired them but could not focus my eyes completely on them. I wanted to see what kind of crops were growing, but again my eyes could not focus that well. I saw a little mound of brown earth and then behind it I saw a field of wheat. I saw green individual plants in another field, but I could not make out what kind of plant it was, but I did notice that the earth was very rich and could give birth to many good crops. The little green plants seemed to be happy growing in the rich earth and being warmed in the sun.

There was a kind of sunshine that one finds in Northern Europe during the summer. The light is less direct because it is in the north, and it is more at an angle then the sunshine in NYC during the summer. The sun therefore is less harsh and much more warming, then heating. I imagined that I was one of the little green plants and that I was also planted in the earth of my country and warmed in its northern sunshine. I tried to see down the fields if there were houses, but all I saw was a shack that was falling down.

There were no modern houses, so I decided to sit in the shade of the shack for a few minutes. Then I rose above the shack and saw the golden light from the wheat being reflected back to sun. This time, I could see the individual wheat plants in detail and at a distance of three feet. I could not believe that such wonderful colors could be found in a wheat plant and to have that golden yellow reflect the sun was just beautiful to see. I was above the shack and I looked at the wheat field all golden in the sun. One could see for kilometers and all there was blue sky of a summer day. At a distance I saw the blue cloudless sky with birds flying around and chasing each other, I was jealous that the birds could stay home in Poland and enjoy flying around in the sunshine.

I saw some trees that must have the border of the property. The trees were tall and they were full of dark green leaves. Each of them formed a kind of leafy egg shaped green on top of a stem and some were closer to each other, but I noticed the one tree that was away from the others in particular. It was a mature tree, with large green leaves. I looked at that tree and I said to myself how lucky this tree really is, because it got to stay home and never was forced to leave Poland. The tree was never uprooted, and I wondered what it like to be a human being that was never uprooted. I rose further up above the field and saw that the trees were going away from me. I knew that it was time and that something had to stop this experience, I just panicked because I had to go back to where I really was.

After being back in my body I heard the doctors screaming "she has stopped breathing" and something like "we are losing her." There was general panic in the operating room and could feel the stress of the nurses and doctors. They were shaking me and calling my name to wake me up. I did come back fully then and I was back on the operating table in my body at St. Vincent's Hospital in NYC. I was devastated because when I was outside of my body and in the Polish countryside, I was perfectly centered and I knew who I was and what I was capable of doing in life. Nothing could have stopped me from being the kind of human being that I was meant to be, because I was that human being already within myself flying over the July fields of Poland. 

Important note: I have now lived for the past six years on the edge of a Polish village, 45 km west of Warsaw and I get to see the countryside during all the seasons. But during the summer it is the most beautiful. I walk on a dirt road along the fields with my dogs and I sometimes stop to admire the views of the crops that run from end to end of each field.

The full text of Mira's account can be found here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

From Lars: Poles Need to Shape Up

Just received a post from a blog reader named Lars. It's provocative. I welcome civil responses: 

Off topic or maybe not.. I have been travelling all over Central Europe on bike. 5 month/9000 Km. Also mountaineering/climbing/skiing/ice climbing. Lived and worked as craftsman in East Germany. My impression is there are huge differences between Central Europeans. The most kindly people was in Slovenia and Czech Republic. The most brutal in everydaylife situations was Croatian and then people in Poland. (like it or not..) In my home country Denmark we have a lot of workers from Poland. They have no good reputation. I have the impression they like to see them self as some sort of innocent victims and being as aggressive as many second generation immigrants from the Middle East. On a Mountain Chalet in Slovak Tatra i was hit very hard in my back. (I've trained boxing & martial art, making me familiar with sudden pain..) I turned around very upset and ready for anything, until I realised the one hitting me so stupidly was a man with whom I had spoken friendly and openminded up in the mountains! Now smiling and showing how satisfying it was to meet up again! -Guess which nationality..?! He's teenager daughter looked quite embarrassed. Another situation in a Polish chalet; a schoolteacher simply kicked his student in the back while being unsatisfied with a minor issue.

You have personal and on a larger scale issues to deal with in Poland. Start working with your own responsibility and stop blaming others for your hard time and tough history.

I still do travel a lot (sailor) and to be honest I still don't find much in Polish everyday character to be impressed of.

You should talk about and accept these issues from WWII. Lots of Jews were killed while they weren't accepted and had a great( sense of making business. (Greed and envy are strong feelings..) An honest shipsofficer and an established merchant (both from Poland) separately told me about this topic.

Czech people have an admirable attitude with lots of humour. Generally stoic and relaxed working their way through hard times. I wish Poland could learn of them ..

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Biological Take on Identity Politics

From The Association of Crypto-Jews

One summer when I was a grad student at Indiana University, Bloomington, I sent an email out over the folklore listserve: would anyone like to watch the annual, August, Perseid meteor shower with me?

I proposed a trip to Morning Glory Farm on Bethel Lane, owned by my friend Charley. The farm was off the beaten track, away from city lights, and I hoped we'd see many Perseids there.

A fellow folklore student responded to my email. Her name was Judith Neulander. We met, drove out to Charley's farm, and sat on a hillside, watching Perseids streak earthward.

Later I mentioned this outing to friends.

"YOU went stargazing with JUDITH NEULANDER!!!???"

"Um … yeah … "

"MY GOD! She's even more hated than you!"

At the time I was working on my dissertation, which became the book, "Bieganski." Thus the hate I was confronting.

What about Judith? A petite, charming, mature woman. She seemed pretty harmless. I was so naïve!

Why was Judith hated? Her work was fascinating, essential, brilliant, honest, and unique.

Long story short: In the 1980s, New Mexico State Historian Stanley Hordes claimed that he had discovered cypto-, or hidden, Jews in New Mexico. These crypto-Jews had been raised religiously Catholic and culturally Spanish, aka Hispanic or Latino. These apparently Hispanic Catholics approached Stanley Hordes and confessed to him that they were really Jewish. They had been hiding their Jewishness all their lives. They had been hiding because their ancestors were Jews who had been persecuted in the Inquisition, and in New Mexico they had been burned at the stake for being Jewish.

They preserved their identity by naming their children "Adonai," by hiding stars of David in the design of their ostensibly Catholic churches and tombstones, and by saying prayers in Hebrew.

Some had less appealing ways of asserting their hidden Jewishness. "I know I am Jewish because most Hispanics are not very smart and my family members have always read books." "I know I am Jewish because we are good with money."

One man, Juan Sandoval, told a poignant tale of the persecution he faced as a crypto-Jew. His neighbors shot at him and he took financial losses. He devoted his artwork to his ancestry, traveling the country.

Judith, an eager grad student and researcher, traveled to New Mexico. Her mission? To become the "Queen of the Crypto-Jews."

What Judith discovered in New Mexico derailed this ambition. Hordes' work was rife with basic ethnographic errors. Stars of David are not unheard of in many artworks of many faiths, and are proof of nothing. One tombstone featuring a Star of David was selected by a visiting Irish priest. Jews do not give their children first names like "Adonai." Rather, this can be compared to the Hispanic custom of naming a child after Jesus. Records show that no one was burned at the stake in New Mexico. Juan Sandoval was a phony exposed by his own family members. As he traveled the country with his Jewish-themed art (a Rabbi chia pet), he conned money and other favors from naïve Jewish women.

In short, the crypto-Jews were not really Jewish at all. Why were they insisting that they were? Judith suggests it might be a way for Hispanics, often with Native American ancestry, to overcome prejudice they face among fellow Hispanics, for not having pure European ancestry, and among Anglos.

What's really interesting about this story is reaction to it. Jewish audiences ate it up. The NPR coverage of Stanley Hordes' claims became the most requested NPR story ever. His claims were covered on PBS and in mainstream media. University presses rushed to cover this story.


Some argue that the crypto-Jew story, in spite of its being thoroughly debunked by Judith Neulander's scholarly work, became so popular because it fed a desire among some Jews, obviously not all, to romanticize and emphasize identity as be-all and end-all. The crypto-Jew narrative reinforced many desired aspects of identity. It depicts Jews and non-Jews as essentially different, non-Jews as perpetually persecuting Jews, from the Inquisition to the burnings at the stake in New Mexico to the neighbors who shot at and robbed Juan Sandoval, and Jewish identity as so potent it can survive all this.

This is not a narrative that emphasizes an alternate take on Jewish identity, one in which faith in God and fealty to God's covenant are primary. It's often said by Jewish commentators (many of whom are quoted in "Bieganski") that religious Jews are less likely to engage in identity politics. I don't know if that is true, and I don't know if anyone has done the research to back it up.

But those Jews for whom Jewish observance is part of daily life, it is argued, require less identity politics to shore up their own identity. They know who they are: they are people in a Biblically-mandated relationship with God.

In this critique, increasing secularization has increased the need for identity politics. Eating pork, not keeping the Sabbath, etc, have vitiated a desired sense of Jewish identity. Other sources of identity are needed. Bieganski the Brute Polak is one source. The crypto-Jew narrative is another.


I thought of Judith's work today when I read an article in the New York Times. In the August 17th, 2012 New York Times, in the article "On the Trail of Inherited Memories," Doreen Carvajal identifies herself as a former crypto-Jew. She reports that her goal is "to take new stock of my identity by reclaiming ancestral memories, history and DNA." It's that last term, "DNA," that rouses my concern.

Here are some quotes from the article:

"The history of our ancestors is somehow a part of us, inherited in unexpected ways through a vast chemical network in our cells that controls genes, switching them on and off. At the heart of the field, known as epigenetics, is the notion that genes have memory and that the lives of our grandparents — what they breathed, saw and ate — can directly affect us decades later …

I’m intrigued by the notion that generations pass on particular survival skills and an unconscious sense of identity that stands the test of centuries…

The French psychologist Anne Ancelin Schützenberger, now in her 90s, has spent decades studying what she calls the ancestor syndrome – that we are links in a chain of generations, unconsciously affected by their suffering or unfinished business until we acknowledge the past…

In the 1990s Dina Wardi, a psychotherapist in Jerusalem, worked with the children of Holocaust survivors and developed the theory that survivor parents often designated certain children as memorial candles who took on the mission of serving as a link to preserve the past and connect the future. The children of survivors who actively struggled against the Nazis, she found, had a compulsive ambition to achieve…

My fantasy, of course, was that I could somehow tap these ancestral memories. I have recently made the acquaintance of another Carvajal in Spain, an actor who remembers that even though he was raised Catholic he always insisted to his mother that he was Jewish. He said he started making the claim when he was about 6 years old…

Reality is even stranger. Dr. Darold A. Treffert, a psychiatrist in Wisconsin, maintains a registry of about 300 savants who through a head injury or dementia acquire skills they never learned. Conceivably, he says, those skills, like music, mathematics, art and calendar calculating, were buried deep in their brains. He calls it genetic memory, or “factory-installed software,” a huge reservoir of dormant knowledge that can emerge when a damaged brain rewires itself to recover from injuries…

In the red leather folder where I keep my reporter’s notebook and business cards, I always keep a photograph of the old Inquisition jail in Arcos de la Frontera…I found out that Aunt Luz sometimes dreamed about Andalusia."


These excerpts give me the creeps. I don't feel like I'm reading a poignant essay about rediscovered identity. I feel like I'm reading dystopic science fiction.

I think of three men who have had a big impact on this blog: John Guzlowski, Arno Lowi and Otto Gross, of Polish Catholic, Polish Jewish, and German Lutheran ancestry. Each one of these men suffered because of the deification and the biological concept of identity.

I want these three men, and me, and everyone else, to have tomorrow. To have a world where you can walk away from your identity if you choose to. Where you don't have to relive the Inquisition in order to feel alive.

Me? I'm proud to be Polish-Slovak-American. And I'm happy not to be Polish when it isn't called for. I lived in Nepal and spoke and Nepali and ate Nepali food and wore Nepali clothes. I don't have to be Polish 24-7. I don't have to keep reliving Katyn, Warsaw, the invasion of the Swedes, the Turks, the Kossaks, the Battle of Grunwald.

I do not believe that my grandfathers' suffering in the coal mines is in my genes. I do not believe that the Hungarian lash on my serf ancestors' backs is in my genes. As Jan Lechon said, "In the spring, let me see spring, not Poland."

I have to wonder what has brought Doreen Carvajal to the point where she wants to believe that her presumed ancestors' presumed suffering is inextricably located in her genes.

And why does it have to be her ancestors' suffering? Maybe one of her ancestors really, really enjoyed an ice cream cone once. Or a sunny day. Or a soft kitten. Could that not be in her genes? Heck, even that idea gives me the willies.

Essential ideas of identity are behind some of the worst atrocities humans have ever committed. I've read the intellectual, cultural, and moral foundations of Nazism, going back to Herder and the Grimms and up to Madison Grant. All these thinkers insisted on an inescapable, biological basis for identity. Can we at least just remember that if we are to proceed with this new attempt to locate identity in genes?


In other news:

I am more grateful than I can say for your prayers for me. I have meditated on your prayers again and again: during the tests (which can be terrifying), just before surgery, and during lonely moments when the dark forces seem insurmountable. Your prayers make a very positive difference in this world, and if you care to, I hope you will keep them coming. I will let you know when I am out of the woods, but, let's face it, when have I not been in the woods?

And much gratitude to Otto for helping with the blog when I was otherwise indisposed.

Friday, August 10, 2012

                                                               Polish Eagle

Hello everyone.
I wanted to post an update on Danusha.
She's out of surgery and in post-op recovery. She's awake and doing well.

Keep those thoughts and prayers coming! They mean so much to D.

I'll post comments and updates as I can.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Friday, August 3, 2012

"The Believer" 2001

The 2001 film "The Believer" is worth seeing for Ryan Gosling's riveting performance as Daniel Balint, a violent, mentally disturbed American, Jewish, neo-Nazi. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is not anywhere as good as Gosling's central performance. Gosling is onscreen throughout most of the film, though. I rarely watch movies at home in one sitting and I sat through this entire film, almost afraid to look away, Gosling was so intimidating and fascinating.

"The Believer" was inspired by Daniel Burros, (1937-1965) a Jewish man who became Grand Dragon of the NY Ku Klux Klan. After the New York Times revealed Burros' ancestry, he killed himself.

"The Believer" opens with Balint menacing a wimpy Jewish student on the New York City subway. The Jewish student cringes, cowers, and attempts to scurry away. Balint menaces him before he gets into the subway car, on the subway car itself, and on the street outside the subway, where he finally pounces, beating the student into a bloody, broken mess. It's a horrible scene to watch. The soundtrack expertly wrings the scene for all the tension and terror it is worth.

As brilliantly manipulative as this scene is, there's a problem with it. As much as you hate what you are seeing, you end up identifying with Balint. The Jewish student is weak and cowardly and refuses to defend himself. Balint at least has the integrity to act on his vile ideals. Even if you didn't know that Gosling is playing a self-hating Jewish character, you would be able to read that from his facial expressions. He sneers as if smelling something foul. He begs the student to defend himself. You know that he is beating the student because he hates the despised potential Jewish victim inside himself.

That theme – the theme of Jewish self-hatred as a reaction to the Holocaust – is one of the movie's big ideas, and it is not a worthy one. After committing one of many hate crimes, Balint is forced to undergo sensitivity training. He is lectured by three elderly Jewish Holocaust survivors. One describes the Nazis bayonetting his son, peeling the corpse of the son off the bayonet, and dropping the corpse on the ground at the man's feet. Balint turns the table and lectures these survivors. Why didn't you fight? He asks. At least then you would have had your dignity. You were going to die anyway.

The film allows that question to go unanswered, and that is not right. Jews *did* fight. Jews fought in the Polish Army when the Nazis first invaded Poland, and in the Anders Army at famous battlegrounds like Monte Cassino. Jews fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the first urban, civilian uprising in Nazi-occupied Europe. Jews fought in the forests with the Bielski Brothers. Jews fought in the Treblinka concentration camp uprising. Jews fought in non-martial ways, as well. There were poetry readings in the Warsaw Ghetto, and Sabbath commemorations in concentration camps. To remember your own culture in the face of death is also a revolt against death. It isn't the responsibility of "The Believer" to provide viewers with this detailed history lesson, but it lessens the value of the film to allow Daniel Balint, a Jewish neo-Nazi, to go unrefuted.

Other than Gosling's performance, there isn't much to recommend the film. There are shadowy scenes of fascist plotters meeting in New York City apartments, strategizing ways to take over America. Billy Zane is pretty much wasted in his few scenes as a fascist theorist. Summer Phoenix, River's little sister, has a gratuitous, exploitative, topless scene. She plays the part of a depressive, masochistic fascist sex toy. Through Balint, she becomes obsessed with Judaism, and begins to practice, lighting Sabbath candles and attending synagogue services. This is the movie's second big idea: if you look at it through the right kaleidoscope, being a member of a Jewish community is in some ways comparable to being a member of a hate group like the Nazis. This is just simple-minded, undercooked, grandiose thinking, and this is why, outside of Gosling's performance, I can't recommend this film.

There is some incoherent, implausible plotting: fascists meet in the woods and beat each other up; there is a bungled assassination attempt; there are a couple of synagogue bombings. None of this goes anywhere.

There's another problem with this film. It is very much in the cinematic tradition of Sexy Nazis like "Inglorious Bastard's" Colonel Hans Landa, "Black Book's" Ludwig Muntze, Oskar Werner, Maximilian Schell, and too many others to mention . Ryan Gosling is a very attractive man and in this film he is shown shirtless, lifting weights, and masterfully beating other men. In real life, Daniel Burros was not so omnipotent, not so sexy. In fact, journalist William Bryk said of Burros that he "was an inept paratrooper: overweight, poorly coordinated and slow. He wore thick-lensed glasses that made his eyes look larger than they were. The other guys in the barracks laughed at him. He had no friends. Finally, he made three phony suicide attempts: a few shallow razor cuts on the wrist; an overdose of aspirin; and again the razor … The Army discharged him 'by reasons of unsuitability, character, and behavior disorder.'"

In short, Burros was mentally ill, as is Daniel Balint in this film. Given that the film is about a man who is not processing reality accurately, it is unfortunate that the film provides no coherent counter voice to the flawed conclusions Balint lives by.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Thank you to "Polish friends"

I received a very touching note the other day and I am grateful for it. The full text of the note is below:

"To all friends and supporters,

On Sunday, September 16, 2012, at 11 am, in St. Dorothy Parish in Markowa, the Holy Mass will be celebrated for the intention of the recovery of prof. Danusha Goska, with a special prayer request to the Servants of God the Ulma family.

Please join our prayers – wherever you are.

Polish friends"

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

NPR, Romney's Poland Trip, and Bieganski

"Bieganski" shows that the Brute Polak image is pervasive in American culture. It is disseminated by elites like President Barack Obama; it is disseminated by average, everyday folks via social media like Facebook.

The Bieganski the Brute image is so pervasive and so accepted that it can be disseminated almost wordlessly.

Yesterday morning I was listening to NPR coverage of US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's visit to Poland. Renee Montagne and Eric Westervelt, two NPR stars, were chatting with each other about the visit. Montagne asked Westervelt why Romney visited Poland. Westervelt implied that he had no idea, that no one had any idea.

Nothing overt was said. Neither Westervelt nor Montagne told a Polak joke, or referred to "Polish concentration camps."

What happened? The tone was dismissive and baffled. The overt message was that there is no good reason why any serious, decent person would go to Poland.

Montagne referred to Solidarity leader, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa as "someone who might seem very important." Yes, she really said that.

Montagne asked, her voice strangling with feigned confusion, "Why [pause] was [pause] POLAND [pause] part of this three-country trip?"

Westervelt responded in a tone that implied that what Romney said was not valid. Romney, Westervelt said, praised Poland as "an important US ally and economic success story." But Westervelt quoted a Pole as saying that it was "Impossible" that "such an important person" would visit "such a small country." Westervelt cleverly placed his own contempt for Poland in the mouth of a Polish person.

Is this Bieganski? Yes. Again, nothing overt, just a dismissive, snarky undertone, which becomes overt only in isolated phrases that segue back into polite prose whose snarky tone is audible but not replicable in a written transcript.

Sometimes, of course, NPR's play of the Bieganski card is more overt, as mentioned here and here.

Breitbart reads NPR's treatment of Romney's trip to Poland as much more inflammatory. You can read Breitbart's coverage here.