Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Markowa Project. Proposal.

Wiktoria Ulma photographed by her husband, Jozef. Source



Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman famously called today's world "hot, flat, and crowded." Globalization and technology have brought humans of diverse cultures into contact with each other. We need to learn how to co-exist.

Poland is an example of the gifts, challenges, and curses of multiculturalism. We can learn much from Poland, if its wisdom is spoken clearly to the world.

The Markowa Project would bring together Poles living in Poland and Jews living in the United States for dialogue. Dialogue would be conducted with respect for both sides. Moderators would be proven experts in civil speech and conflict resolution committed to win-win paradigms. Chauvinists who exploit Poland's tragic history in order to score points in zero-sum, ethnic identity games would play no role. The final project would be a documentary distilling the wisdom of people committed to respectful, peaceful coexistence. The wisdom of Poland's Jews and Catholics, its citizens and those whose ancestors lived in Poland, would be available to the world.


Terminology: "Poles" is generally used to refer to people living in Poland or their descendants who were not Jewish. "Jews" refers to people living in Poland who are Jewish, or who were Jewish, or their descendants. Everyone in the field uses these terms, as rough and as inaccurate as they may be.

Polish-Jewish relations matter to the wider world for the following reasons. Both Poles and Jews suffered and died under the most notorious regime in history: Nazi Germany. Poles and Jews are responsible for maintenance of Auschwitz, a world heritage site.

There's more to it than that. Poland, as Ewa Hoffman has put it, is an example of multiculturalism avant le lettre – that is, Poland was multicultural before the term "multicultural" was invented.

Poland offers inspiration, and cautionary tales, to anyone invested in multiculturalism and coexistence.

In the Middle Ages, Poland warred with the Germanic Teutonic Knights. In that struggle, Catholic Poles united politically and militarily with Lithuanians, when Lithuanians were still significantly Pagan. King Casimir the Great invited Jews into Poland. According to legend, Casimir had a Jewish mistress, Esterka, by whom he fathered several children. The boys were raised as Catholics, the girls as Jews. Muslim Tatars settled in Poland; their descendants live in Poland to this day. What is today Unitarianism got its start in Poland.

These historical forces, all rooted in the Middle Ages, produced a Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth that celebrated what Polish aristocrats called their "golden freedom." People living in Poland might be Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Pagan, or Jewish – following Judaism in all its permutations, with thriving, significant communities from Orthodox to Karaite, from Reformed to Hasidic. Poland was known throughout Europe as the "paradise of the Jews." After Martin Luther's historic break with the Catholic Church, Poland became known as a "state without stakes" because Poles were, theoretically, allowed to follow any religion they wanted to, at a time when other European countries were burning dissidents.

The 1573 Warsaw Confederation declared, "We swear to each other, on behalf of ourselves and our descendants, in perpetuity, under oath and pledging our faith, honor and consciences, that we who differ in matters of religion will keep the peace among ourselves, and neither shed blood on account of differences of faith, or kinds of church, nor punish one another by confiscation of goods, deprivation of honor, imprisonment or exile."

Fast forward. History intervened. History's most notorious genocide took place, largely, in Poland. The Nazi death camps were, for the most part, located in Poland: Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Majdanek, etc.

It isn't just World War Two and the German Nazis, though, that introduced anti-Semitism to Poland. Interwar Poland, between the end of World War I in 1918 and the start of World War II in 1939, saw an upsurge of anti-Semitism. One prominent anti-Semite was the Darwin-inspired Roman Dmowski, leader of the National Democrats. Chauvinists wanted the Polish "race" to win and the Jewish "race" to depart.

What happened? People who study Polish-Jewish relations try to understand how a country that was a model of multiculturalism became less tolerant.

Citing the scholarly work of Edna Bonacich and Amy Chua, "Bieganski" offers an answer to the "what happened?" question that is not unique to Polish-Jewish relations. In fact, this pattern, of multicultural societies adopting chauvinist stances, has occurred again and again, for predictable reasons, and it is occurring today. Humanity can benefit from the historical and ethical lessons Polish-Jewish relations, properly understood, offer.


Unfortunately, the two groups who tend to hog the microphone when Polish-Jewish relations are discussed in academia and in the media are not interested in advancing the human, universal search for understanding, healing, and co-existence. Rather, all too often, those who speak publicly about these matters are narrow chauvinists attempting to corner the market on national dignity and score points in a zero-sum game.

Chauvinist Poles voice a conspiracy-theory, us-against-them approach. On internet discussion boards, it is not uncommon to encounter Poles who voice the opinion that "They," "organized, wealthy Jews" control discourse. Poles, in this view, are helpless victims who can do nothing to tell their own story.

When confronted with evidence of Polish anti-Semitism, chauvinist Poles respond with three tired excuses: Poles suffered a lot during World War II, Poles produced heroes like Jan Karski, and Americans were anti-Semitic, too.

Poles did suffer a lot during World War II, Poles did produce heroes like Jan Karski, and Americans were largely anti-Semitic decades ago, but these rationales for Polish anti-Semitism are intellectually shallow and ethically bankrupt. They are not the best response to the challenge of Polish-Jewish relations. When chauvinists are the only ones representing the Polish side in public discourse, Poles inevitably come across as being a nation of chauvinists. Their effort to "protect Poland's good name" is inevitably self-defeating.

On the other hand, there are people who never question their own conviction that Poles are the world's worst anti-Semites, and that anyone who disagrees with that is just a typical Polish anti-Semite who is in denial. While anti-Semitic Polish conspiracy theorists may exist on discussion boards, those who think that all Poles are anti-Semitic brutes are given free access to college classrooms, peer-reviewed publications, and mainstream media.

When accusations of Polish anti-Semitism arise in the press, all too often they are followed by the public spectacle of the worst extremists from the above two camps screaming past each other.

One yearns for a better developed public conversation on Polish-Jewish relations. One yearns to take the microphone away from chauvinists and hand it to people who have deeper, richer more universal and timeless things to say.

Markowa skansen, or open-air museum.

Markowa. Source


Markowa is an agricultural village in the Sub-Carpathian Region of Southeastern Poland. Population four thousand; it was founded in the fourteenth century. The nearest city is Lancut, five miles away, with a population of 18,000. Markowa marks the border between plains and the Carpathian Mountains. It is a scenic spot. The region is largely agricultural and thirty-five percent wooded. A national park, home to bison and wolves, takes up much of the Sub-Carpathian region of which Markowa is a part.

During World War II, in Markowa, Nazis shot to death the entire Ulma family for helping Jews. Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma were devout Catholic peasants. Jozef was a prominent citizen. He adopted advanced agricultural methods, and he also was a photographer. Many beautiful photos exist of Wiktoria, the children, and the Ulma farm.

Poland was the only country in Nazi-occupied Europe where any help to a Jew meant death for an entire family, for generations. Thus, the Nazis killed not only Jozef and Wiktoria for helping Jews, but also the Ulmas' seven children. The parents were killed first in front of their screaming children. The children were then killed.

The citizens of Markowa today are quite aware of this history, and are working very hard to commemorate the Ulmas, and their larger lesson of love in action, to the point of giving up one's life. Markowa features a villager-created-and-maintained skansen, an open-air museum that preserves traditional, pre-industrial, peasant life. There are a windmill, looms, and other pre-industrial peasant technology and products.

I've spoken about my book, "Bieganski," at a synagogue, a few universities, including Brandeis and Georgetown, libraries, and churches. I've never had an audience better than the audience I had in Markowa. The citizens of Markowa, contrary to a sophisticated, urban person's expectations of agriculturalists in an out-of-the-way village, revealed a truly special combination of commitment without chauvinism, compassion and love without self-righteousness, and intellectual inquiry without bitterness or arrogance.
See source for higher resolution of Conflict Resolution Skills Ladder


Below is a very brief sketch of the project.

Through technology, the Markowa Project would bring Markowa's residents together with American Jews.

Through friends and ads on outlets like facebook, it would locate American Jews who would like to have a dialogue with the Polish, Catholic Peasants about which they have heard so much.

The Markowa Project would recruit citizens of Markowa who would like to have contact with modern American Jews.

Members of both groups would be interviewed. They would be asked their story, what they think of members of the other group. Why they care. Their worst fears. Their greatest hopes. No interruptions, no corrections. Just record these interviews, on camera. Interview questions would be similar to those questions used in the ethnographic interviews recorded in "Bieganski."

Interviews would be commented on, not by experts in Polish-Jewish relations, who, all too often, have an identity-politics ax to grind, but by experts in civic communication, conflict resolution, win-win paradigms and the universal, human search for understanding, peace, and human dignity.

Next, through technology, bring members of both groups together. Conduct, if not face-to-face conversations, screen-to-screen conversations. Record this meeting as it is happening.

Finally, after this meeting takes place, do follow-up interviews. Again, ask participants, How was it for you? Did you change your mind about anything?

Relate everything that has been said to the larger, humanity-wide problem of multiculturalism and diversity.


The follow-up to this blog post is here



  1. It is my observation that Polish-dialogue in the past has consisted of Jews talking with Poles within the context of Judeocentric lines of thinking. This, in effect, makes it a monologue.

    How will this be different?

    Will Poles again be saddled with 100% of the blame for the past negative aspects of Polish-Jewish relations?

    Will Poles again be placed in the customary meritocracy of Nazi German genocide in which Poles come out second?

  2. Jan:

    "Will Poles again be placed in the customary meritocracy of Nazi German genocide in which Poles come out second?"


    Where does it say that, above? Or come anywhere close to implying it?

    1. I did not say that it did. I was referring to previous acts of Polish-Jewish dialogue, all of which explicitly or tacitly accepted the standard premise that there is a meritocracy of genocides--one in which that of the Jews stands out from all others, and for which reason the Jews are in a position of moral high ground over the Poles. For more on all this, please click on my name in this specific posting.

    2. No. As stated, above, it is the goal of this project to honor all participants.

  3. I don't know what to say about this - except that keeping "the experts in Polish-Jewish relations" at a safe distance might make an actual dialogue possible.

  4. Hello,
    I just want to add something about less known people from Markowa.
    Józef and Julia Bar gave shelter to Reisenbach family (5 people). Antoni and Dorota Szylar hid Weltz family (7 people). Jan and Weronika Przybyła hid Jakub Einhorn. Michał and Maria Bar hid Lorbenfeld family (3 people). Jan and Janina Cwynar hid Abraham Segal. Their reward? Accusation of a mass murder.
    From Vad Vashem site:
    "The Polish family – eight souls, including the pregnant wife – was killed with the hiding Jews. As a result, there was enormous panic among the Polish peasants who were hiding Jews. The morning after 24 corpses of Jews were discovered in the fields. They had been murdered by the peasants themselves, who had hidden them for twenty months."
    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought that Yad Vashem's mission is to HONOR such people like citizens of Markowa. Not to slander them in "painted bird" style.
    With all due respect to dr Goska, previous blog post completely omits that. Yad Vashem's account of the Ulmas starts with smear but ends with something much more serious.
    I also think that sending American Jews to Markowa is not a good idea. They read such things. And they repeat them. Now imagine that they confront face to face relatives of Ulma, Bar and Szylar families and start sharing their "wisdom". Result? A complete disaster.

    1. The purpose of Yad Vashem is to ensure that it is clear how few people were helping the Jews. That's all. If there were 10,000 righteous then the difference between that and the non-Jewish denizens is, by implication, murderers and passive observers.

      Consequently, if there were people who saved Jews and those people were actually documented as or conceivably could be labeled as having then be murdered for harboring Jews, the narrative of non-Jews being observers at best does not get derailed, it only gets strengthened.

      So yes, you are wrong.

  5. Lukasz's post, above, is misleading.

    Lukasz claims that Bieganski the blog does not mention Yad Vashem's site on the Ulma family.

    In fact, I and this blog worked hard in an effort to expose and change Yad Vashem's website. In that effort, we received virtually no support from Polonia.

    Here is the record:

    Lukasz's post is misleading in another way. The Markowa Project makes no mention of "sending American Jews to Markowa."

    It's clear Lukasz did not even read the post he has taken time to denounce.

    Lukasz's negativity toward a project he has not taken the time to attempt to understand is all too representational of a defeatist and negative spirit that has not done Polonia any good.

    Lukasz, please consider changing your approach to a more positive and constructive one. Thank you.

    1. Dr Goska,
      About Your letter to Yad Vashem. I did read that. I even wrote post. I think it's my first on Your blog. And while You wrote about beginning of Yad Vashem's "Markowa story" (Jedwabne, hostility and indiffirence of Poles), but not about the ending. I mean that unproven accusation that peasants from Markowa killed 24 Jews. Same Jews that those peasants were previously hidding. That story is false. But it's so convenient. Makes Markowa look just like another Jedwabne.
      About "Markowa Project". When I read that post first time I did it cursorily. I don't deny that. But I undertood the main idea. And that gave me the creeps.

  6. Lukasz wrote:

    "sending American Jews to Markowa is not a good idea. They read such things. And they repeat them. Now imagine that they confront face to face relatives of Ulma, Bar and Szylar families and start sharing their "wisdom". Result? A complete disaster"

    This statement is deeply troubling.

    Lukasz, please tell me, why are you afraid of a conversation with American Jews? Why do you believe that a conversation between American Jews and Poles must result in "disaster"?

    Lukasz, have you ever met a Jew? Have you ever met an American Jew? This is a real question. I ask because I get the impression from your post that you fear contact between Poles and Jews. I wonder why.

    I have had such contact and it did not cause me harm. It did not result in "disaster."

    Lukasz please have a look at the reviews of Bieganski on Amazon. at least two are by American Jews -- Arno Lowi's (Canadian, but has lived in the US) and Robin Schaffer's.

    Please have a look at the blurbs on the book's cover. At least one of the blurbs was written by a Jew -- Rabbi Michael Herzbrun.

    Poles. Jews. In contact. No disaster. Beneficial to me.

  7. Why disaster?
    I've read many posts. Including those were my country is called Sodom and Gomorrah. And Home Army is slandered. Even You, dr Goska, were helpless in that case.
    Other Poles will hardly react in a polite manner to such things.
    In the end there will be even more anger and resentment on both sides.

    1. Hello Lukasz (and Danusha and Jan), I understand what you are saying and feel that it points up the importance of the Christian preaching work, as something the God of Abraham will give us and teach us, IF we listen to Him, is self-control and mildness. They are two of the fruits of the God's spirit. And I notice that they are often missing on both sides of the Polish-Jewish thingummy. And I understand why. Both sides feel attacked and people tend to react aggressively, if left to themselves.

      The idea behind the Markowa Project seems to be to set up a space in which both sides can speak of their experience and feelings without being silenced by a loud chorus of "Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad". (Hence the importance of keeping the "experts" away!)

      Now i think Danusha, you set up such a space at the end of "Bieganski", and harrowing it was too.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. In my readings, I have come across instances in which Poles threatened to denounce fugitive Jews if they did not leave the area--all out of mortal fear of the Germans.

    It is also possible that sometimes Poles killed fugitive Jews, including those whom they had been helping. This, too, owed to the growing mortal fear of the Germans. In addition, turning Jews away was not a realistic option: If the previously-aided Jews later fell into German hands, they would try to save their lives by betraying their former Polish benefactors. The Germans encouraged such conduct by false offers of sparing the Jews' lives if they would identify their erstwhile Polish benefactors--all leading to the death of these Poles.

    The life-and-death issues surrounding the German occupation took center stage. Polish denunciation and sometimes killing of fugitive Jews went beyond the usual emphasis on "Polish anti-Semitism" and "Catholicism blaming Jews for the death of Christ", etc.

    1. Mr Peczkis,
      Problem is that in Markowa such things didin't happen. This accusation is based on a testimony of ONE guy who was hidding miles away. In other words, according to Yad Vashem Ulmas were the ONLY righteous people in that village. No survivors in Markowa. And no good people. Just another Jedwabne. Yad Vashem did sloppy work. No research, no investigation. They propably didin't even search for other survivors.

    2. Thanks for the clarification, Lukasz.

      In fact, many of the accusations against Poles, as often written down as fact by the likes of Jan T. Gross, turn out to be based on hearsay, community storytelling, or the word of only one person.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Please read an IPN historian's report on the Poles and Jews of Markowa. Unlike Yad Vashem's report that the Polish peasants killed 24 Jews they had been hiding, it says "It’s worthwhile to stress that at least twenty Jews survived hidden in the peasants houses in Markowa. Despite the tragic news of the Ulma family they could enjoy the hospitality of the local population until the end of the German occupation. For almost two years, Józef and Julia Bar together with their daughter Janina, were hiding a five-person Riesenbach family. The same did Antoni and Dorota Szylar living with their five children. Their barn gave refuge to the Weltz family escaping from the Germans. They begged the farmer to let them stay for few days. Subsequently, they didn’t move out but begged Antoni to let them stay longer. The whole family of seven members survived the war. Michał Bar gave shelter to the three-persons of the Lorbenfeld family. Jan and Weronika Przybylak rescued Jakub Einhorn and a three-person family of his friends. Young boy from Radymno, Abraham Segal, survived the war in hiding, staying with Helena and Jan Cwynar, pretending to be a cattleman. Today, he lives in the suburbs of Haifa in Israel, having three sons and a dozen grandchildren. He maintains relations with the citizens of Markowa and remains interested in the life of the village. Thanks to his engagement, numerous youth tours from Israel visit Markowa."

  11. See also (in Polish),34962,9382763,Sasiedzi_z_Markowej__Jak_mieszkancy_ratowali_Zydow.html
    "U Szylarów, Cwynarów i w kilku innych domach ukrywali się podczas wojny Żydzi. Ale nikogo po śmierciu Ulmów nie wydano Niemcom. Riesebachowie, Welztowie, Lorbenfeldowie, Abraham Segal i Jakub Eiborn pozostali w swoich kryjówkach aż do wyzwolenia. Markowianie uratowali 18 osób."


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.
This blog welcomes comments from readers that address those themes. Off-topic and anti-Semitic posts are likely to be deleted.
Your comment is more likely to be posted if:
Your comment includes a real first and last name.
Your comment uses Standard English spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
Your comment uses I-statements rather than You-statements.
Your comment states a position based on facts, rather than on ad hominem material.
Your comment includes readily verifiable factual material, rather than speculation that veers wildly away from established facts.
T'he full meaning of your comment is clear to the comment moderator the first time he or she glances over it.
You comment is less likely to be posted if:
You do not include a first and last name.
Your comment is not in Standard English, with enough errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar to make the comment's meaning difficult to discern.
Your comment includes ad hominem statements, or You-statements.
You have previously posted, or attempted to post, in an inappropriate manner.
You keep repeating the same things over and over and over again.