Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger Remembrance of an Historic Night. Not What You'd Expect Me to Say

My parents were peasant immigrants from Eastern Europe. My mother cleaned houses and worked in factories. My dad mined coal as a child and did manual labor as an adult.

My mother was very bright. She was certainly one of the best writers I've ever read. There was no chance that she'd ever be anything but a cleaning woman. Her father, my grandfather, had contracted emphysema in the coal mine. My mom had to quit school and support her younger siblings. She cooked and clean and worked as a nanny for a Jewish family. She learned some Yiddish and introduced us to the Jewish foods she used to cook.

My dad also had to quit school young. His dad had had to fight to pay back his passage from Poland. The "Johnny Bulls" – Americans of English, Irish, Scotch and Welsh ancestry – thought that they could beat my grandfather as he was a small man, a "little Polak." But he beat them. They bushwhacked him one night. Eventually, he died, and my dad, speaking Polish as a first language and only eleven years old, hit the rails during the Depression, trying to find work to support the family. Underage, he joined the Army under false papers and served as "Stanley" though his name was Tony. When he came of age he re-enlisted under his real name. He fought in New Guinea and the Philippines.

I grew up knowing we were different but not sure how or why. My parents regarded our Bohunk identity as shameful, and as trouble. American culture communicated to us that we were the bad guys: people with names and accents like ours fought James Bond and even Rocky and Bullwinkle. Boris Badenov and Natasha were baby boomer's famous cartoon enemies.

As I moved beyond my working class hometown I discovered that many American elites were convinced that we were the world's worst anti-Semites.  

This confused me. One thing I knew for sure was that my mother embraced Jews as "us" not "them." One of her warmest friendships was with a traveling salesman named Dave. Dave and my mother would sit around the kitchen table and exchange stories from the Old Country. I would sit in on these sessions just to enjoy the warmth and sense of home I got from no other visitor to my mother's kitchen. She had other Jewish friends, and the one time she fixed me up with a blind date, it was with the son of another Jewish friend.

In any case, my exploration of why elites label Bohunks as the world's worst anti-Semites would become, one day, my prize-winning scholarly book "Bieganski."

So, we Bohunks were America's Cold War nemesis. We were stigmatized as anti-Semites. Other than that, though, we had no identity. There were no books in the town library about Poles or Slovaks. I know because I looked, obsessively. My teachers could tell me nothing. Unlike Italians, with their Godfather movies, we did not appear in the popular culture. The only really noticeable Poles in popular culture were the "meathead" on "All in the Family" and Stanley Kowalski, a crude, foul rapist, in "Streetcar Named Desire."

We also appeared in America's humor. We were the funny ethnicity, the ethnicity with the word "joke" after it: "Polak joke." You could tell jokes about Polaks that you wouldn't tell about other ethnicities. Johnny Carson, America's favorite humorist, told these jokes.

"How can you tell if your house was robbed by a Polak? The dog is pregnant and the garbage can is empty" gives you the sense of these jokes.

Some thirty years ago an amazing thing happened. The very people who used to despise Bohunks like my parents and me began to show admiration for people like my parents and me. Why? One word: Solidarnosc. The labor union in Poland inspired the world. Us – manual laborers, Catholics, Jews, people with difficult-to-spell names – we were inspiring the world.

I was living in New York City when Jaruzelski cracked down on Solidarity. I hit the streets with my comrades. I was a fellow traveler in those days. Steve Rabinowitz, my boyfriend was a true believer. And Jewish, by the way. Town Hall, a legendary meeting space, hosted an event expressing American Solidarity with Polish Solidarnosc members.

I was more thrilled than I can say. For once in my life it would be cool to be a Bohunk. For once in my life the people around me cared about what I cared about.

I had traveled to my mother's natal village in Slovakia and to Poland and I had seen the horrors of the Soviet Empire with my own eyes. Finally the Americans around me CARED. I felt like electricity was running through me. I felt the world expand in a profound and beautiful way.

Now, thirty years later, that night of support for Solidarnosc at Town Hall is a chapter in history books. Then I was just a kid, with wide, dewy eyes. I knew the people on the stage were celebrities; I could tell from audience reaction to them. I really didn't know who they were, though.

Susan Sontag was there. I had probably not heard of her before that night. She said something I've never forgotten, because I thought it was such a brilliant way for her to get her point across. She said, if one person read nothing but Reader's Digest, and another person read nothing but – and she named some leftie publication with which I was totally unfamiliar – I've since forgotten the name – which person would know more about the failings of the Soviet system?

She was making a point. Mainstream America was telling the truth about how bad Communism was, while American leftists were not.

I was, of course, at the time, an American leftist. Some decades would pass before I would put two together with two and realize that the left was not for me.

I'm learning just now, through Google, that Sontag's comments that Solidarnosc night at Town Hall were reported in the New York Times, TIME, The Washington Post, the New York Post, The LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, the Nation, and the New Republic. Of course I didn't know that at the time. I just thought that that one lady said something neat.

Pete Seeger took the stage. My image of him was positive. He was a kindly folksinger. He was way more of a celebrity than Susan Sontag. I was thrilled and moved that he was on our team. He was a real, live Americans – no hyphen, no last name ending in a vowel, no grandparents who couldn't speak English, no parents who did the work no one else wanted to do, no relatives in the Old Country who lived under the boot. Pete Seeger was one of the real, live Americans who suddenly was not only seeing us, the Bohunks, but respecting us. Joining in our cause! Helping us to come out from under the boot!

Pete Seeger took the stage.

Now, see, what I am about to type is so horrible, so much not what you want to hear about this kindly folksinger, I want to stop my narrative right here. I want to fast forward to the present day and tell you that I just listened to a slew of encomiums for Pete Seeger on NPR, his natural habitat.

Prof. Alan Chartock, a friend of Pete Seeger's, was just on NPR talking about what a great guy Seeger was. Chartock says that Burl Ives testified against Pete Seeger to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger eventually forgave Ives for this. I greatly admire forgiveness and it touches me no end that Seeger forgave Burl Ives. Chartock also talked about Seeger's environmental activism and I admire that, too. I'm also an environmentalist. It's the cause I donate money to the most regularly.

I know it. Pete Seeger. Great guy.

I hate Pete Seeger. Mere mention of his name makes me angry and sad.

Let's go back to that night at Town Hall, where the idealistic daughter of a Bohunk coal miner and house cleaner, there with her date Steve Rabinowitz, is thrilled finally to feel part of a group in the country she was born in.

Pete Seeger took the stage.

And he trashed us all. He dumped the sticky, ugly substance of hate on us. He did it because he hated us. And his hate was okay.

Seeger, instead of voicing support for Solidarity, delivered a self-righteous lecture about how Poles oppress Jews.

If you haven't read "Bieganski," I can't begin to explain to you here how wrong this was. Because you don't really think about us – Bohunks – in any serious way. We are the joke ethnicity. We are the bete noir. We are the prototype of the brutish hater.

Solidarity thrilled and inspired the world, and your image of us began to raise its head up above the mud.

Seeger's speech, on that night, at that moment, pushed us back down into the mud again.

Since Bohunks aren't taken seriously, let me try this.

Suppose, on the night that Barak Obama was inaugurated, Pete Seeger stood up at a celebration in a legendary public space and said, "Let us never forget that black people beat and torture white people. Remember Reginald Denny?"

That's how bad what Seeger did that night was.

Great guy. Great guy.

He's gone now, so I can't wait for him to ask me for my forgiveness.


There's a short film, Marcel Lozinski's 80 MM Od Europy. Eleven minutes. A salute to Bohunks. Watch it here


  1. Unfortunately, Pete Seeger has a lot of company.

    What did Pete Seeger specifically say when he bad-mouthed Poland?

    1. Jan, I can't report specifically what Seeger said. This occurred in 1982. I was a girl, not yet formally studying Polish Jewish matters. I did not keep a transcript.

      I can say that Seeger's attitude was self righteous and censorious. He was there to educate benighted Poles.

      He conveyed that Jews had lived in Poland for a long time. They had a right to live in Poland but Poles denied them that right. I don't remember Seeger spelling out the last point, but rather implying it. Seeger iirc sang a song in Yiddish, saying something like, "Yiddish has as much of a right in Poland as any other language."

      Seeger's comments had NOTHING to do with the point of the evening. The point of the evening was, "We, the American left, are here to offer moral support to Solidarnosc in the time of its crucifixion." Mind, this is during martial law.

      Andrew Golebiowski was kind enough to share with me an obit of Seeger written by Paul Berman. Berman points out that Seeger had been a Stalinist in his youth. That explains so much.

    2. If you want to read about Poles, read up on how they broke the German ENIGMA encryption device. They took that to France and later to England where it became ULTRA. Germany had helped the Japanese with encryption, and the Polish progress helped the US with MAGIC decryption of Japanese codes. That was world historical stuff back then. And yes, many of the Polish who helped break those encryption schemes were Jewish too, but Polish Jews.

  2. First. Thanks for the reference to that movie clip. I d loved it.

    I'll start by saying that I love Folk music and Pete's music was some of my favorite. The world is a sadder place now that he's gone.

    Having read your piece I'll add this; Heroes are human too.

    I can't say I knew about Pete's lack of understanding about the Poles and anti-semitism, but as we see so much everyday, a lot of good people take that road of good intention and stop questioning. It becomes a parrot-like rout after a while. The Big Lie becomes even easier to sell when the salesman has a good tune and a friendly face. I wish he hadn't gone through the un-justice he went through and I wish he didn't assume the cloak of the almighty, all-knowing and pass on any injustice of his own.

    You know I love the music of Phil Ochs - loved the music and didn't always agree with the political message. I went through my Hemingway phase as many men do- loved the writing but the man was a train wreck and nothing to admire. I had to separate the good bits from the junk.

    So I sat around last night and hummed some of Pete's songs and the old days and thought " I wish he had be able to read Bieganski...oh well the next Pete Seeger to come along will and he'll know better".

    Thanks for keeping up the good fight Di!
    It's an evolution, not a revolution, and to paraphrase Woody, "This Blog Kills Fasicists! ... of all kinds, both Left and Right!"
    ...and I bet you Pete Seeger would have change if only he'd known better.


    ps: I made no reference to Tom Waits music since I knew you would not hit "publish" if I did :>}

    1. Otto thank you so much for your beautiful and profound comment. Really lovely.

  3. Note also that Pete Seeger was a white protestant - assuming he was not a patsy, he was emblematic of the "christian" left.

  4. Did people applaud that filth?

    People still applaud it today...


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.
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