Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dialogue with Ben Matis about Stereotypes of Poles and Jews

A recent blog post addressed a conversation thread on facebook. A facebook friend mentioned that he had just arrived in Krakow. A series of joke posts followed. The jokes included a reference to a crack whore, which was meant to sound like "Krakow." That blog post is visible here.

My facebook friend on whose wall these jokes appeared wrote to me about this blog post. He was kind enough to send his thoughts on my blog post. I am eager to share his thoughts here, plus my reply. I'm also grateful that he gave me permission to share his thoughts.

You know, people talk a lot about "Polish-Jewish dialogue." All too often, that dialogue is limited to hard-core chauvinists on both sides. Neither Ben nor I is a hard-core chauvinist. I'm an average Jersey girl who happens to be the child of a Polish father. I gather from Ben's facebook posts that he lives close to me; we are both worried, today, about Hurricane Sandy. It is a very good thing that we have this opportunity for dialogue.

Ben Matis is a cantor, or hazzan. Here's Ben's message to me:

"I am sorry that the silly joking around about the name of a city was offensive. Krakow is a beautiful city and I loved it.

However, one can and one must sometimes choose to ignore stupid offensive things. For example, the little statues and pictures of stereotypical big nosed Hassidic looking Jews holding or counting money, for example, is really not nice. It's offensive. On the other hand, do I hold this stupidity as an example of what's wrong with Poland, or rather do I choose to visit Poland and see the incredible progress? Do I choose to see the progress of Poland's excellent relationship with Israel and the fact that I felt completely comfortable walking around Warsaw with a yarmulke on last Saturday, or should I consider this portrait of the Jew – and therefore me – as a sign of the everlasting anti-Semitism of the Polish people?

I don't think the Poles – in Poland – are any more anti-Semitic than any other nation in Europe. I'm sure, and you can be certain, that there is of course some anti-Semitism there, the same as there is plenty in the USA and Canada. The fact is that I choose to focus on the positive, and that I have come to love the country and the people I know there.

So, do you focus on the positive, Danusha, or do you choose to focus on the negative?"

In a follow-up post, Ben wrote:

"The important thing is that you print both the apology for the stupid comments as well as what I believe is the important message: that we sometimes have to overlook stupidity sometimes."

End of Ben's comments.

Carved wooden figurines of Jews. Source
Gosh. I would really like to respond to Ben's comments for a couple of hours, but I can't, because I have to devote some time to Hurricane Sandy preparedness. As another facebook friend wrote, "I have to run around the house, waving my arms, screaming, 'We're all gonna die!'"

Ben – anyone reading this – where do I start.

I start here. Please read my book, "Bieganski."

People become angry at me when I say that. "Oh! So you just want to sell a book!"

Yes, yes, that's it. I realized what a fortune was to be made on sales of scholarly books about Polish-Jewish relations.

Okay, sarcasm off. But, since I'm Polish, the sarcasm is never off for long. (I think sarcastic humor is something Poles, Jews, and New York City area residents have in common.)

Again. Where to start.

Here. I am not an historian. I don't talk about Jedwabne or Katyn or the Statute of Kalisz. I am a words person. I am a stories person. How people use language; how people create narratives: That's what I study.

This is a key point in my argument: The Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype is pervasive in Western culture. It is NOT limited to any one ethnic group. I have said on this blog over and over and over, Stop blaming the Jews.

I say there here.

I say it here.

And I say it again and again in posts that talk about African Americans, and Catholics, and Germans, and Irish Americans who deploy the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype.

Here is a quote from my recent talk at University of Wisconsin, Madison:

"Where do you find the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype?

It is pervasive in American folk, popular, and elite culture.

It exists in jokes, of course.

In American elite journalistic and academic prose that purports to educate the public about serious world events like the Rwandan genocide, in museums, in elite websites that purport to educate the public about refined arts like poetry, in university classrooms, in academic prose devoted to Polish history, Bieganski is pervasive.

Bieganski is not just pervasive.

He is inescapable.

He is required.

If you mention Polish identity in any number of venues: a college classroom, a party, a political speech, a film, a discussion of poetry – if it is a lower strata venue, you make a Polak joke. If it is a higher strata venue, you invoke Bieganski. In American culture any mention of Polish identity is followed by Bieganski. It is obligatory

This book, and the blog devoted to the book adduce example after example after example after example.

This book cites articles in the New York Times, scholarly texts, blockbuster Hollywood films, paperback bestsellers, museums, including a museum in Poland, (the Museum of the History of Polish Jews) websites, peer reviewed, university press books, that all convey that Poles are Bieganski, dirty, low, essential troublemakers."

That's the first thing I want to communicate to people. That the Bieganski, brute Polak stereotype exists, and is part of the heritage of anyone who is part of Western Civilization.

The next step in the talk is to communicate to people why this stereotype matters to them. Why the Brute Polak stereotype matters to everyone.

Invite me to talk, and I'll try to convince you.

That's what those face book posts about Krakow = crack whore were to me. They were data. They were yet more evidence of what the book, and this blog, demonstrate.

How should we respond? I think Polonia should change this stereotype. I think it is our responsibility. I don't think we should write mean letters. I don't think we should hurt anyone. I don't think we should blame others. I make all that clear in the three-part series of blog posts entitled "The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision."

As for the statuettes of Hasidic Jews to which Ben refers.

I have not studied these statues, or their purchase or application, and I am, therefore, not qualified to talk about what they mean to their carvers, purchasers, or owners. I've been to Poland five or so times (I lose count) and I lived there 1988-89, and I have not encountered many of the statues, and I've never stayed in a home where they were on display. I went with the KF summer sessions three times, and never saw one of those statues in a dorm room full of souvenirs.

I can say this much. They offend you. Since they offend you, I care, and I wish I could change the situation. I can't. I am open to hearing about any initiatives to change the situation. I would contribute what meager participation I could.

One more note. Ben, you talk about "progress." Do me a favor. Read what "Bieganski" says about the model of universal human progress, and how it has distorted discussion, and understanding, of the Holocaust, of Polish-Jewish relations, and of ethical questions.

Just a few facts for now. Poland was not a significant world site of anti-Semitism during the allegedly benighted Middle Ages. Poland was a significant world site of anti-Semitism during the allegedly advanced Enlightenment Era. Makes you think, no? Another fact. "Primitive" Catholic peasants like the Ulma family saved Jews. "Advanced" scientists like Josef Mengele destroyed Jews. How old are the words, "He who saves one life, saves the world entire;" how old are the words, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and how true are these words? We don't need "progress." We need the Judeo-Christian ethical system, which is ancient, and which is righteous.


  1. Danusha I hope that you and Ben (and all of you out there) are going to get through Hurricane Sandy OK. I assume it makes - landfall? - in the next few hours. It sounds rather scary.

    Re the dolls, I have never heard of them or seen them. But if they are hurtful, then I wouldn't personally make or sell them - on the basis of the Golden Rule.

    And, yes, the obligatory and routine sneer that has been carefully attached to all things Polish... I don't even know where to start with that...

    And now the Official History of WW2 seems to being revised with the Axis Powers becoming Poland, Poland and Poland.

    What will the next train out of Platform Thoughtcrime be?! I suppose we will find out soon enough.

    At any rate, and on the plus side, it does confirm my belief in the wisdom of staying neutral - and being "no part" of the world. And also in being careful about believing all we are told.

    I only wish that Poland's politicians had taken the lesson and not supported the Shocking and Aweing of the exhausted, sanctioned country that was Iraq.

    Poland could have stayed out of that - and surely it should have?

  2. For example, the little statues and pictures of stereotypical big nosed Hassidic looking Jews holding or counting money, for example, is really not nice.
    Well, every statue which is carved in this style (from Southern Poland),wether it is depicting a rabbi or not, has a bigger nose. ;-)I own several of them (my mother has bought them some time ago) and to me, it’s the same thing like the picture of a Jewish person counting coins-its not offensive,not at all,rather a link to a great Polish past.I swear, I did not even know that this statues were “anti-Semitic”. Are they “anti-Semitic” because they are invoking the “Jewish people are good with money” stereotype? (personally,I think being good with money is a gift-I wished I had it -so to me, it’s a positive connotation).I know of other people who own such a picture-and all of them have a positive outlook towards Judaism.People who hate Jews would never hang like that on their walls,actually. Likewise, I did not know that the word “Gypsy” is considered,by some,to be offensive-My parents always used the Polish word “Cyganie”,but never in a bad way. Some people also think its offensive that fans of certain Polish football clubs are called (for positive historical reasons) “Zydzi” (Jews)-not realizing how these fans are embracing the fact that their clubs also have a partly Jewish history like Cracovia. To make things short-Things are becoming worse each day,mainly because political correctness (or, as I call it “the sacred right never ever to be offended for whatever reason”) is poisoning everything and dividing people.

  3. Hello dr Goska,
    I understand that Jewish visitor may feel offended by those paitings and statues. But offending Jews is not the goal of artists who made them. It's more about Polish feelings actually.
    We have little contact with the real Jews. By real I mean living ones. All what we have are stories of our grandparents, some old pictures of visibly Jewish men. Women and non-orthodox men are not visible so they get no paintings or statues (they look too Polish, sorry). The Jews have become our elves, our faeries, our leprechauns. Part of our modern mythology. In shops those little statues of Jews are standing next to statutes of unicorns.
    In Southern Poland we have something called "Projekt Atlantyda" ("The Atlantis Project"). It's purpose is to clean forgotten Jewish cemeteries. I think that the name tells it all.

  4. I hope you are all surviving the storm - the pictures make it look a bit like that disaster movie - The Day Before Yesterday (or some such thing?). Devastating. And managing without electricity is no joke in cities these days.

    Hanna, the world is set on dividing us up and setting us at each other's throats. And how well it is doing, given that we have actually started a new millennium by re-starting The Crusades!

    All we can do, on an individual basis, is refuse to let it. We have to try to do good to all, to tell all who will listen the truth about the incoming Kingdom of God, and not let "the world" shape us in its image. I know that Jehovah is going to remove all the wicked and the violent from the earth, and am content to leave that to Him.

    Hello Lukasz, as I said, I wouldn't make or sell things that hurt other people, but would also like to note that I am hurt and offended by "Maus", by "Borat", and by much of the product of Hollywood.

  5. That is a really excellent point by Łukasz, its clear, but I never heard it before, if its been around. I think Ben might even come to be a little proud of those semi-magical images over time, especially considering his positive experiences in Poland recently. I assume Ben is from the US, so while he guesses at anti-semitism existing, it would be next to impossible to actually see something like the Polish statues in public. Ben, I believe, has been over-sensitized by life in the US where political correctness rules in public. He seems to have been moved by the real, human side of Poland on the other hand. Maintaining American style political correctness may be easy after you get used to it but its a bit emotionless too.

  6. Jews are not leprechauns, we're human beings. These little carved Jews are available in every tourist shop in every major city I've visited in Poland, Warsaw, Krakow, and Wroclaw. They are offensive to me, and just as Poles are outraged at the name of a Polish city being made fun of, a Jew finds these caricatures to be insulting and demeaning.
    While I see nothing particularly wrong with making fun of a city's name, I understand that it insulted Danusha here and so I apologized. If Poland and Poles wish to continue their renewed relationship with the Jewish people, it might be a good idea not to insult us so.

    1. Dear Ben,
      Those statues are not a result of Polish anti-semitism. It's an reaction to Jewish absence. There is a saying that "absence makes the heart grow fonder".
      I'm sorry, that those statues have hurt Your feelings. You really don't expect that we could predict that You will find those figurines insulting? We started to make them decades ago. Long before Your visit.
      And if Jews want to change that, well I've got a sugestion. Most of us never met a Jew. We are a tabula rasa. A blank slate. Sure we have stereotypes about Jews. Mostly not from personal experience. And You made first step in fighting those stereotypes. You came to Poland. Your image will have stronger impression on encountered Poles then some pieces of wood.
      My grandmother told me about Jews when I was a little child. She told me about elegant ladies, good vet doctor and kind shop-keeper. In school I've seen pictures of skinny, bald people in spripped rags. Teacher told me that those were Jews. I was curious. Did grandma told me a made up stories? So, I started to ask questions. Years later I started to look for informations myself. Few years ago I've met several turists from Israel. And I've made my own opinion about Jews. Nice people, very open-minded, but they have their own stereotypes about Poles. I only hope that visit in Poland changed our image.

    2. Lukasz, thank you. FWIW, I understood what you meant, and I think if Ben were to read your post again, he would understand you as well. I know you mean well and I think your comment was insightful.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
These themes include the false and damaging stereotype of Poles as brutes who are uniquely hateful and responsible for atrocity, and this stereotype's use in distorting WW II history and all accounts of atrocity.
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