Saturday, March 22, 2014

"A Woman's Role" by Carol Moessinger. Book Review

"A Woman's Role" by Carol Moessinger is a heartfelt memoir of a place, a people, and a time too little treated in the American literary canon, or in films, academia, or the wider popular culture. "A Woman's Role" introduces the reader to "Bohunk" immigrants and their descendants working Pennsylvania's coal mines in the 1950s. These people were Polish, Hungarian, Slovak, Lithuanian, and other peasants from Eastern Europe. I want every Polish American to buy and read this book, but I also want those curious about a slice of America that they haven't learned about from school, films or other novels to read "A Woman's Role."

"A Woman's Role" follows the life of young Celina Pasniewska. Celina is the granddaughter of a Polish peasant immigrant woman. Her father and her brother are coal miners. Her mother is a workhorse who cooks on a coal stove, cans produce and keeps chickens and pigs.

Celina dreams of a life beyond her coal town. Her dreams have no easy or obvious route to realization. Her parents insist that she work at home as well as at her place of paid employment, Duxbury's Department store. Tomas, Celina's father, orders her about like a maid: make coffee; bring me ham. Her mother relies on her to be her helper. Her mother insists that Celina must not move away. Local men find Celina attractive, and if she marries them, she will never leave her hometown.

Celina is a Bohunk, and, as such, she is not a "Johnny Bull," someone descended from the British Isles. Some look down on her for that. Too, Celina is a woman in the 1950s, when America was retiring Rosie the Riveter and women were expected to be domestic goddesses. Celina must navigate her desire for love and romance, her thirst for an intellectual life, her craving to be free and independent, her traditional Polish Catholic immigrant family and their demands, and her heartache over a lost love. Celina's boyfriend died while serving in the US military in Korea.

"A Woman's Role"'s cover calls the book "a 1950s romance." I think some will read it, and enjoy it, that way. I see the book differently, though. To me it read like a memoir of a small town Polish girl. Romance is part of the book, but it isn't the largest part. And men will enjoy this book every bit as much as women. Celina is the main character, but her father is a believable coal mining man. His struggle for dignity and satisfaction in life is as important as Celina's.

"A Woman's Role" has the episodic structure of a memoir. Events are strung out like beads; each event teaches the reader something about what life was like for an ambitious Polish American woman in the 1950s. Celina has that conversation with her mother about her hopes for the future versus her mother's hopes – they are irreconcilable, and one woman's hopes must give way so that the other's may be realized. Will it be the younger, or the older? Celina experiences workplace harassment, and workplace diminishment because she is a woman, and because she is a Bohunk. There is a Polish wedding – the community's greatest joy; there is a mine accident – its greatest dread.

"A Woman's Role" is written in a straightforward, highly accessible style. I would recommend this book not only to adults, but also to young adult readers. It does not exercise high literary ambitions. This is a book that wants to connect with the reader and make its message plain on a first read.

Moessinger's great gift is vivid description, for example this passage, "The faint scent of incense and milted bees wax candles clung to the church's cool, dimply lit sanctuary. The cavernous, echoing sacredness of the place encouraged the parishioners to speak in hushed whispers. Celina genuflected and slid into the pew beside her parents as dappled beams of colored light streamed through the figures of angels and saints frozen in the stained glass."

The ethnographic details of the book made certain scenes most memorable to me. Moessinger brings to life a 1950s era Bohunk kitchen. There is the coal stove, the damper, the process of taking a season's harvest of apples and reducing them to apple sauce. Three generations of Polish women, and a family friend, sit around the table peeling and coring apples. The son takes the cores and peels out to the family pig.

Moessinger's characters refer to Americans whose ancestors came from the British Isles – their coal town's more privileged citizens – as "John Bulls." My father was a Polish American coal miner when he was a child. He didn't mine for long – he hated it. Children like my dad were used because mine bosses want to exploit the shortest tunnels possible, tunnels into which only children could fit. My father called Americans of British descent "Johnny Bulls."

There is a scene that touched me especially deeply. Celina's mother orders and begs her daughter not to move away from their coal town. She talks about the loneliness of having grown up with no grandparents, no aunts nor uncles. Her parents had left Poland, alone, and started new lives in America. Her father had lost one brother who, upon emigrating from Poland with his brother, went to South America. That brother was never heard from again. This passage touched me deeply, as I, too, grew up without real grandparents. My surviving grandparents never learned English, and I had little contact with them. I also had Old Country relatives I heard tales about, but never met.

For me this book, given its episodic structure, lacked a strong plot drive. I'm not sure the novel is Moessinger's strongest genre. Given her obvious ethnography knowledge, and her urge to educate – there are brief but strongly didactic passages – I think Moessinger's next literary project should be a straightforward ethnography. 

Buy "A Woman's Role" at Amazon, here.

Reshat Ametov In Memorium

Read more about Reshat Ametov here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" Bieganski is Not a Resident!

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is remarkable; it's a recent American film that salutes Mitteleuropa. Surprisingly, there are no Bieganskis at this hotel. There are no stereotypically evil Eastern European characters. Review below.

My Aunt Tetka lived most of her 101 years in Bayonne, New Jersey but she never learned to speak English well at all. Who needed The New York Times, Kennedy's inauguration speech, or William Shakespeare? Aunt Tetka could sing all one hundred verses of Slovak folksongs.

Visiting Aunt Tetka was a trip to another world, a world she took with her when she (finally!) died. There were many curtains. The air was inside her home was as thick as soup. It smelled sweet, like Uncle Strecko's pipe smoke, and pungent, of cabbage, onions, and ham. There were sepia photographs of grim faced men with serious mustaches and women in embroidered babushkas, oil paintings of peasant huts and high mountains, figurines of goose girls, brass ornaments incised with pagan sun symbols and a graphic crucified Christ. Aunt Tetka consumed only pastries, sprinkled with powdered sugar, served on handmade doilies. Five minutes into Wes Anderson 2014 film "The Grand Budapest Hotel," I was weeping. Anderson took me back to Aunt Tetka.

Mitteleuropa means "Central Europe" in German. Mitteleuropa has had many meanings, some of them frightening, geopolitical, and military. The friendlier Mitteleuropa references musics, languages, cuisines, colors and attitudes of Central Europe, an area stretching roughly from Germany to Ukraine, from the Baltics to the Balkans, a region sharing slivovice, zither and cimbalom, Gypsies, irony, pastry, sentiment, Catholicism, Judaism Orthodoxy, empire and cataclysm. Given recent news events, Mitteleuropa is much in the news: today we speak again of Cossacks, Crimea, and empire.

There aren't many American films that encapsulate the feel of Mitteleuropa. "The Third Man" comes to mind, with its famous zither score. There's the original Bela Lugosi "Dracula" and "Fiddler on the Roof." Most of these films emphasize the dark side of the region, and that's too bad. Mitteleuropa has a rich tradition of joy and humor. It's remarkable that Anderson, an all-American filmmaker produced "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

When watching this film, I really wondered how much of it the audience would understand. GBH so tenderly reflects the peculiar history and experience of Mitteleuropa. For example, the movie is told as a reminiscence by a writer remembering an encounter from his youth with another person who retells the life story of yet another person. Why this "as told to as told to" feature? Why not just present the narrative directly?

The "as told to as told to" feature adds to the feeling of a lost world, of the antique, of a word-of-mouth story that is not reflected accurately in official histories. If you read the official histories of Mitteleuropa in the 20th century, you read of battles and massacres. If you know the people from Mitteleuropa, you encounter warmth and humanity and fate and humor and hair's breadth escapes and moments of generosity and grace that never made it into official histories. If you hadn't gone to that one déclassé health spa in the Zubrowkian Alps, you never would have met that one person, and never learned the story of Monsieur Gustav, and the tiny nation of Zubrowka would always be a mystery to you.

The opening scenes, in rapid succession, show the Grand Budapest Hotel under communism, and then in its glory days, under something like the Hapsburg Empire. These very brief juxtapositions are brilliant. They really capture what those of us who traveled to Mitteleuropa saw under the Soviet system, even the creepy green paint.

Monsieur Gustav is a concierge and gigolo. While training a new lobby boy, Zero, Gustav becomes entangled in a family scandal, a heist, and a prison break. There is a war in the background. For all its silliness, the movie brings M Gustav to life. Ralph Fiennes MUST receive an Academy Award nomination, and he really ought to win. He plays his part completely straight. His deadpan delivery of funny lines and his commitment to M Gustav brings this parody character in a wacky film to complete life. You love Gustav. You admire him. He moves you. You care about his fate.

Tony Revolori is very good as Zero Mustafa, Gustav's protégée. His relationship with Gustav is adorable.

The movie moves at a surprisingly brisk pace. The film itself may be looking back with nostalgia, but it is an action film. There is a genuinely exciting chase scene on skis.

GBH doesn't attempt to honor the horrors that took place in Mitteleuropa in the 20th century. The Holocaust is just one of these horrors; there was also the Holodomor, the mass migration of starving peasants to the US, battle casualties, and too many other atrocities to mention. There are scenes where characters speak of being displaced and on the run, of families massacred. The viewer knows what Anderson is referencing. At one point the GBH is taken over by evil forces whose insignia, a design close to a swastika, appears on banners draped all over the hotel, in the same way that a swastika was draped over the von Trapp home in "Sound of Music."

Anderson's answer to this evil is M. Gustav: be kind, be a friend, and be quietly clever. Make connections with other humans. Do favors, and rely on favors. This focus on the ordinary gestures of good hearted people in the face of enormous evil is deeply touching.

I wish there had been more women in this film. Saoirse Ronan is the one female part of note, and she speaks in an Irish accent as sharp as a blade that totally took me out of the film. Her screen presence is cold and not fitting. I wish there had been more peasants, and more outside scenes. Mitteleuropa was built on peasantry and GBH needed at least one buxom earth goddess binding sheaves of wheat or milking a cow.

There's so much more to say about this film – Alexandre Desplat's fabulous score, the hints of German expressionism, the all-star cast, the use of painted backdrops, the funicular – but there's time for that. "Grand Budapest Hotel" is a film that people are going to be talking about for a long time. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Good German and the Heroic Brit on PBS, and Bieganski by Omission

Bieganski, the Brute Polak, works in predictable ways.

Bieganski can appear in a PBS documentary that never so much as mentions Poles.

"Bugging Hitler's Soldiers" is an excellent PBS documentary that introduces the viewer to a recently disclosed British program.

During World War II, the Brits imprisoned Nazi generals and soldiers. Britain, in one of the first acts of surveillance of this kind, bugged the soldiers and generals. Their conversations were recorded and transcribed. These conversations reveal how ordinary Germans signed on to, and committed, horrific atrocities, including the mass murder of Jews and other victims of the Nazis.

Their testimony is grotesque. One soldier brags about raping Russian women. Another confesses to sleeping with Jewish women before they are gunned down and buried in mass graves.

One soldier had been a prisoner in Buchenwald. He talks about uses made of the tanned human skin of concentration camp inmates.

One of the Nazi soldiers is named Horst Minnieur. The narrator pronounces his name as "horse manure." Never was there a better name for a Nazi.

Again, this documentary is excellent. It never mentions Poles and mentions Poland only once in passing. How does this documentary play into the Bieganski stereotype?

The Brits are the sole heroes fighting the Nazis. And the Brits are so very heroic.

The documentary mentions the, in the words of Helen Fry Sync, "very British, very clever" espionage. The program never mentions World War II's greatest espionage coup, the Polish work on Enigma. The documentary lauds "very British very clever" espionage revealing the existence of the Peenemunde V-1 and V-2 rockets, while never mentioning the Polish contribution to that aspect of the war. The documentary praises the Brits for figuring out that the Holocaust was actually taking place. The documentary never mentions the work of Polish Home Army soldiers like Jan Karski and Witold Pilecki in uncovering the horrors of the Holocaust and sending that news westward.

So, you have these really bad guys, Nazis, and you have these sole, heroic people fighting against them. The Brits.

But wait, there's more.

Yes, the Nazis are saying horrifying things. This documentary, repeating the transcribed words of German soldiers, reveals that ordinary Germans DID know what was going on and DID participate in atrocities.

Given how much these Germans are like us – modern, white, well-educated, Western – this information might be impossible to assimilate.

The documentary makes it all go down much easier by foregrounding, not evil Nazis, not doomed Jews, not the heroic transcribers, many of them German Jews, not even British people. No.

The heroes in the foreground are all wearing German army uniforms. They are two German generals who said critical things about Hitler. One is General Willheim Ritter von Thoma. The other is General Paul von Felbert.

Von Thoma dominates the screen throughout this documentary. The transcript, at the PBS website, reveals that von Thoma's name is mentioned FIFTY times. In a fifty minute documentary about Nazi horrors, and about the willingness, even the eagerness and gusto, that ordinary Germans exercised when participating in atrocities against Russians and Jews, the name of a HEROIC German general in Hitler's army is mentioned fifty times, and that handsome, fully uniformed general dominates the screen.

In that narrative vacuum, Bieganski provides an excellent villain.

The end of the documentary is hideous. The documentary states, "Not one of Trent Park’s prisoners was ever convicted of a single war crime on the basis of what they said while imprisoned." The excuse the Brits give for this miscarriage of justice? They wanted to preserve their espionage secrets.

Nonsense. They could have avoided admitting that they'd gathered this info via microphones. They could have said they merely eavesdropped at keyholes. They could have interrogated the generals and told them that their cellmates had turned on them and gotten fresh testimony. But the heroic, clever, wonderful Brits let these animals go.

You can watch "Bugging Hitler's Soldiers" here.

Oh, one more thing. These Nazi soldiers talked a lot about victimizing Poles. For example, one talked about the satisfaction he received, when bombing Poland, in targeting mothers pushing baby carriages. The victimization of Poles doesn't make it into this PBS episode. You can read more about it here.

New Documentary: "Forget Us Not" on the Five Million Non-Jewish Nazi Victims

This morning Terese Pencak Schwartz informed me of a new documentary film that Terese learned about through an email from Alexa Brinkschulte of Capital Ship Marketing.

The new documentary is entitled "Forget Us Not." The filmmaker is Heather Connell. The documentary addresses the five million non-Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. I watched the film's trailer on youtube and visited the film's website. I saw that interviewed survivors included a Roma or Gypsy, a Pole, and a physically handicapped Jehovah's Witness. The trailer I saw on youtube impressed me positively. I have not seen the full film so I cannot comment on it.

You can visit the webpage for "Forget Us Not" here. The "Forget Us Not" facebook page is here.

Therese Pencak Schwartz's "Forgotten Holocaust" page is here. Her book is available at Amazon here.

The trailer for "Forget Us Not" is below. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Understanding Bieganski: A Horrifying Account of Anti-Semitism at School

"Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype" describes a stereotype of Poles, and other Bohunks (Lithuanians, Slovaks, Ukrainians, etc) as essentially dirty, violent, brutal anti-Semites.

This stereotype is strengthened by a laser focus on anti-Semitic acts committed by Poles.

In fact anti-Semitism is an international problem. It must be addressed internationally.

The disturbing and disgusting excerpts from the below-quoted New York Times article show that anti-Semitism is a problem in the modern United States.

Anti-Semitism is evil and must be condemned wherever it appears.

Identifying Poles – or, lately, Ukrainians – as essential anti-Semites muddies this fight, rather than contributing to the success of the fight against anti-Semitism.

Swastikas, Slurs and Torment in Town's Schools
By Benjamin Weiser
November 7, 2013

The swastikas, the students recalled, seemed to be everywhere: on walls, desks, lockers, textbooks, computer screens, a playground slide — even on a student's face.

A picture of President Obama, with a swastika drawn on his forehead, remained on the wall of an eighth-grade social studies classroom for about a month after a student informed her teacher, the student said.

For some Jewish students in the Pine Bush Central School District in New York State, attending public school has been nothing short of a nightmare. They tell of hearing anti-Semitic epithets and nicknames, and horrific jokes about the Holocaust.

They have reported being pelted with coins, told to retrieve money thrown into garbage receptacles, shoved and even beaten. They say that on school buses in this rural part of the state, located about 90 minutes north of New York City and once home to a local Ku Klux Klan chapter president, students have chanted "white power" and made Nazi salutes with their arms.

The proliferation and cumulative effect of the slurs, drawings and bullying led three Jewish families last year to sue the district and its administrators in federal court; they seek damages and an end to what they call pervasive anti-Semitism and indifference by school officials.

The district — centered in Pine Bush, west of Newburgh, and serving 5,600 children from Orange, Sullivan and Ulster Counties — is vigorously contesting the suit. But a review of sworn depositions of current and former school officials shows that some have acknowledged there had been a problem, although they denied it was widespread and said they had responded appropriately with discipline and other measures.

"There are anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred that we need to address," John Boyle, Crispell Middle School's principal, said in a deposition in April.

In 2011, when one parent complained about continued harassment of her daughter and another Jewish girl, Pine Bush's superintendent from 2008 to 2013, Philip G. Steinberg, wrote in an email, "I have said I will meet with your daughters and I will, but your expectations for changing inbred prejudice may be a bit unrealistic."

Mr. Steinberg, who, along with two other administrators named as defendants, is Jewish, described the lawsuit in recent interviews as a "money grab." He contended that the plaintiffs had "embellished" some allegations…

Not long afterward, the mother said, one of the boys called T.E. "Jew" on the bus and made an offensive gesture toward her and her daughter.

Sherri E. withdrew her daughter from Crispell Middle School last year, and is now educating her at home….The swastikas, drawn or carved onto school property, or even constructed by students out of pipe cleaners, caused much of the anxiety. Sometimes they were accompanied by messages like "Die Jew," the children testified.

"I actually started to hate myself for being Jewish," D.C., a Pine Bush High School graduate who now attends college, said in an interview. He recalled that around the time of the Jewish holidays, teachers would ask if there were Jewish students in the class. "I learned very, very quickly not to raise my hand," he said…

His sister, O.C., now 15, testified about a more direct message from a sixth grader who formed his hand into the shape of a gun and "said he was killing Jews."

In seventh grade, O.C. said, she saw a girl holding her hands up to hide a swastika on her face. The girl explained that a student had restrained her while another drew the insignia; the school said it had disciplined the two students.

…"How do you get a Jewish girl's number? Lift up her sleeve," went one. D.C. remembered a student telling him that his ancestors had died in the Holocaust. The student then blew on his flattened hand, and said, "You are just ashes."…

At that point, a pickup truck pulled up nearby, and a man emerged. The man, John Barker, 42, a mechanic, cautioned that "everybody watches out for everybody." When asked about the presence of Jewish families, he blurted out, "We don't want them in our town."

"They can't drive, for number one — and they already have Sullivan County. Who really wants them here? They don't belong here."…

A boy on the bus ride home asked if he was Jewish, and when D.R. answered yes, a group of students began taunting him with slurs, he testified. One boy then repeatedly punched him in the stomach "until I was ready to throw up," D.R. said in his account.…

"I was lied to, to my face, repeatedly, by the schools," Jerrold R. recalled in an interview. The assurances, he said, "kept us from doing something that would have protected our kids, taking a more aggressive stance."…

In a September court hearing in White Plains, the district's lawyer, Ms. Wong-Pan, told Judge Kenneth M. Karas that Pine Bush officials did not condone anti-Semitism. She accused the plaintiffs of distorting the facts.

"I mean, the way they describe it, it sounds like it's the Third Reich in those schools," she said…

Read the full article at the New York Times website here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"Harrowing" and "Necessary" Bieganski Review

Review of Bieganski by Kimberly Wachtel

I just finished reading Bieganski: The Brute Polack Stereotype, Its Role in Polish- Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture by Dr. Danusha Goska. The heart-wrenching, complex realities and stories captured my mind and heart. Goska's brave and honest writing pulled me in. The information revealed and the topics discussed about Poles and Jews are what most people, in polite conversation, do not want to talk about or bring up. "Don't go there. It is too touchy." Goska bravely goes there and brings to the forefront a history of the Polish people and Polish Jews that needs to be openly discussed and understood.

Stereotypes have defined these cultures in a negative light for far too long. It is time to understand and look at our assumptions and biases. I give Goska a standing ovation for collecting all this harrowing, at times horrific, yet important, information for her book. Goska's agenda is not to side with Poles or Jews. Her agenda is to uncover, reveal and discuss an elephant in the room: the misrepresentation and stereotyping of Poles in contemporary culture by some people and organizations. She has introduced me to a whole wide world. Goska writes:

"Stereotyping occurs when insupportable conclusions are drawn from demonstrable facts. These conclusions come from a limited perspective. To the Polish peasant who saw Jews only as tavern keepers or estate managers who lured Poles into excessive drink and then pressured ruined, drunken peasants to pay very high tavern tabs, or pressured desperate serfs to work to fill grain quotas, the Jew is a greedy drug pushing slave driver, no more, no less.

To the Jew whose most memorable encounter with a Polish peasant was the Pole who drank to excess and toiled like a mule in the fields, the Pole is a bestial drunk. The Pole did not factor into his assessment the tender Jewish parent, or the intimidated Jew pressured by the Polish magnate to wring the peasants for all they were worth. The Jews did not see the exuberance, generosity and creativity that the peasant displayed with his peers."

With all stereotyping we choose to see only one side of a story. The simplification of Jewish or Polish culture perpetuates misunderstandings, bigotry and hatred. When you bring into the mix horrific world events like the rise of the Nazis, the Holocaust and the power play Poland experienced at the hands of Russia and the Soviet Union, the stereotypes are compounded by the awfulness and the ugliness of these times and events.

I had not heard of this book and I didn't really think about Polish and/or Jewish stereotypes much before the spring of 2011. This all changed when I went on a quest to Poland to meet my relatives and to study art history and ethnography through a summer school program at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. I met Dr. Goska on this trip and that is how I learned about Bieganski.

A couple months before I embarked on my trip, I attended a Georgian singing workshop, in a New England town near where I live. I spoke with a man about my plans to travel. When I said I was going to spend a little over a month in Poland, a look of astonishment appeared on his face, followed by a question. "Why would you want to go to Poland?" he scoffed.

I was taken aback by the suspicious energy that was driving this inquiry. An awkward pause in our conversation followed. He then said, "The people of Poland are anti-semitic. My nephew was there this past year and he was horrified by what he saw and what he experienced. Poles hate Jews."

His demeanor and blanket definition of a whole race of people alarmed me. Aside from the "dumb-Polack" jokes I heard growing up, this was the first serious run in I've had with the stereotyping of Polish people. This "Bieganski" moment shook me awake. Interactions like this one, documented and undocumented, is why Bieganski is such an important book. Bieganski has been an instrumental book in helping me to understand Polish / Jewish relations.

Goska unveils how Poles are stereotyped in popular media by writing extensively of the portrayal of Poles in American cinema and in the press. She devotes early chapters in Bieganski to these fascinating topics. You have to read these chapters to believe it!

Chapter 6: The Peasant and Middleman Minority Theory was particularly eye-opening to read. I found this chapter helpful for understanding the core issues explaining the rise of Polish / Jewish stereotypes. Jews were the middleman minority in Poland for hundreds of years.

"Middleman minority populations are concentrated in urban, skilled and mercantile professions. Their Socioeconomic status falls between elites and peasants. To some extent, they operate under their own code, and are not limited by the surrounding culture's taboos that impede business progress for those rooted in their communities (Bonacich 584). Middleman minorities have at least a ritual tie to another territory, and if only in a mythic sense, experience themselves as 'sojourners.' The sojourner mindset encourages the choice for easily liquidated professions and the amassing of capital, while at the same time it erects barriers to the forming of bonds with members of what Bonacich calls the 'host' society. Bonds are formed with other members of the middleman group, even those geographically distant (585-86; 593)."

Chapter 6 provides a theory and one possible explanation of why relationships between Poles and Jews have not always been smooth, easy or easily understood.

Poles and Poland, as well as the Jews, were victims of the Nazis. Chapter 7 in Bieganski, The Necessity of Bieganski: A Shamed and Horrified World Seeks a Scapegoat, begins to explain the question that I have in all of this. Why are Poles sometimes blamed by Jews and others for the Holocaust? Why are Poles sometimes blamed for allowing the Holocaust to happen? It was Nazi Germany who brought all of this about. Nazi Germany caused the suffering and deaths of millions of Jews AND Polish people and others. The problem is as Goska writes here:

"If one does not single out Poles, whom can one blame? The answer is too terrifying to attract an audience. Given the worlds response to the Holocaust, and to events since, like the auto-genocide in Cambodia, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski wrote:

'Humanity has failed and continues to fail ... the only people who did not fail and who completely confirmed their humanity were those who responded to this test by making the ultimate choice and who died helping their neighbors. No one living can say that of himself. No on living can - whether for political or polemical reasons - demand it of others.'"

I've read comments about Bieganski, in book reviews and on the Bieganski blog, where others sometimes want to label Goska as an anti-semite and/or anti-Polish. Both criticisms are flawed and narrow. Bieganski is such an important book because Dr. Goska brings to light stories of Jews and Poles that help air out the the stink that builds up and perpetuates stereotypes.

It is time to move beyond the past, towards a more understanding, kind-hearted, compassionate view of the Polish-Jewish history. As long as there is an US and a THEM, there will be stereotypes. Our human selves are flawed yet the religions which represent the Jews and the Poles, Judaism and Christianity, teach kindness, compassion and understanding. Unfortunately, until we can rise higher than our human hurts and gain a level of compassion and forgiveness, there will be negative stereotypes.

Goska writes:

"It is time for people of good will to stop scapegoating, to stop insisting that one ethnic group is uniquely prone to stereotypical thinking. It is time for people of good will to join together to a way to address all stereotypical thinking, including that engaged in by stereotyped people themselves."

One of the many things I take away from this necessary book is to tread lightly and question assumptions: personal assumptions and assumptions made by others including the media, academia, and world and religious leaders. Bieganski deserves to be widely read and discussed , especially by Polish-Americans, Poles and Jews. It deserves to be included in academic courses about Jewish and Polish relations. The Bieganski issue is not black and white.

Goska does a fair and thorough job revealing the shades of gray found in the stories she shares and tells. Goska does not paint the picture that all Poles are good and all Jews are bad, nor vice versa. Instead she walks a fine line in her writing revealing the hurtful stories, both true and untrue, that are perpetuated about these two intertwined cultures and ethnicities.

You can see this review on Amazon here.

You can read more about Kimberly Wachtel's work on Polish, Hungarian, and Jewish art and life here.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine: "What Is Good for Ukraine Is Good for the Jews"

On Sunday, March 9, 2014, Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine -- but a proud Brooklyn boy by birth -- appeared on the WABC talk radio program "Religion on the Line." Rabbi Bleich stated clearly that "What is good for Ukraine is good for the Jews; what is bad for Ukraine is bad for the Jews."

Rabbi Bleich took a strong stand against the Bieganski-style stereotyping that has been going on on WABC of late, as mentioned in previous blog posts. For example last week on this program, Rabbi Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center depicted Ukrainians as typical Bieganskis.

Alas, during this program, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, host of the show, made a joke. "Hey! I have good news! I've been made Chief Rabbi! But I have bad news. I have been made Chief Rabbi in Ukraine!"

Rabbi Bleich would have none of this. He said without qualification, "I love Ukraine." 

Rabbi Bleich acknowledges that there have been anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine during the current unrest. He said that it is not yet known who committed these acts, and whether or not they are provocations by the state. Rabbi Bleich also struggled to introduce historical context into the conversation. He mentioned how oppressive powers, from the Czars to Putin, exploited minorities like the Jews to divide and conquer, to stir up hatred of one oppressed minority group against the other. 

We applaud Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich and we wish him, Ukraine's Jews, and Ukraine all the best at this anxious time. 

Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich asked listeners to consider donating to a fund for protection of Jews and others in Ukraine. The charity is named Kiev Relief dot org and we encourage concerned parties to donate here.

You can read more about Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich here.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Putin Says Ukraine's Revolutionaries are Anti-Semites. Is He Right? TIME

As previous posts have shown, WABC, a NY radio station, has featured rhetoric by Rabbi Cooper and Ron Kuby and others characterizing Ukrainians as essential pogromists. Christiane Amanpour challenged Prof. Stephen Cohen on this on CNN. TIME magazine has published an article entitled "Putin Says Ukraine's Revolutionaries are Anti-Semites. Is He Right?" You can read that article here

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bieganski in the New Age Hot Tub: "The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation" by Louise Steinman. Book Review.

Louise Steinman's "The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation" has been praised as "appealing to wide audiences," and "unblinking, scrupulous and enduring." Richard Rodriguez called "Crooked Mirror" "the most extraordinary travel book I have ever read" about a "nightmare" country, "dark, haunted" Poland, into which "miracle" working Steinman breaks "shattering light."

In fact "The Crooked Mirror" is the self-indulgent, impressionistic travel diary of a New Age, dilettante Holocaust tourist. The book consists of brief, unorganized anecdotes. In one, a Lakota healer burns sweet grass and waves an eagle feather over Auschwitz visitors. In another, an impoverished Polish peasant listens to Radio Maryja. These anecdotes are meant to give us enough ammo to conclude who our protagonists and antagonists are. With the sketchiest of information, we presume to gain the authority to elevate the healer as a good guy, and condemn the old woman.

"Crooked Mirror"'s literary style is basic, its discipline absent, its arrogance depressing. Steinman's tic is putting two parts of speech at the end of sentences and separating them with a comma. The Jews she knew hated Poland more than Germany, "a fact I never questioned as odd, misplaced." Or, "why would you expect your neighbors to shoot you, take your house?" Or "she begged her father, her aunts." Or "he questioned her urgently, gently." Or "We baffled him with our reactions, our decisions." Or "my overcoat was forgiving, pliant." Steinman's tic is distracting, annoying. Where is the editor, the proofreader?

Steinman visits Treblinka and tries to say something of note about that piece of earthly Hell, but Treblinka receives fewer words than tedious descriptions of the dreams of Steinman's travel companion, Cheryl Holtzman.

During a layover in Paris, Steinman visits La Bibliotheque Polonaise – the Polish library. In this chapter she says a few things about Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet, and then a bit about the gingko trees in Krakow, Polish words for trees, and how fashionably dressed and made-up the library's chief curator is. At the end of this chapter I had to ask myself, "Why did I just read that?"

Steinman asks rhetorical questions, for example, "Why does one person reject" stereotypes, and why does another accept them? She responds to her own rhetorical question: "Breathe in why. Breathe out why. So simple. So difficult." The chapter, and the book's attempt to plumb the serious questions it raises, end right there.

Steinman purports to be addressing how the Holocaust could happen, and why Polish Catholics responded as they did. Scholars have addressed these questions. Michael C. Steinlauf provides historical context and psychological insight. Jan Tomasz Gross cites economic motivations. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz writes about real tensions caused by high-profile Jewish Communists who did torture and murder Home Army veterans. Edna Bonacich and Amy Chua advance universally-applicable theories that explain atrocity as far afield as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Africa – not just acts committed by Polish Catholics. It behooves any ethical author and publisher taking on this topic to engage previous scholarship. Steinman and Beacon Press do not.

Nature abhors a vacuum. In this empty space where scholarship should be, Steinman reveals her "answer" to the big questions in a series of anecdotes. For the most part, older, poorer more rural and more Catholic Poles are "provincial" "Neanderthals" who hate Jews. Younger, better educated, more sartorially elegant Poles who have devoted their lives to recreating Poland's lost Jewish culture through tours, publications and artwork are good Poles.

Steinman and Beacon Press hand a free pass to the reader. Do you, reader, need to know any serious facts about Poland before making up your mind about any of these issues? Nah, not really. Just interpret the dream you had last night.

Breathtaking in its arrogance and solipsism, "Crooked Mirror" reports that Steinman and her travel companion Cheryl "imagined convening some grand international conference" for Jews and Poles. Later she and Cheryl powwow with "four sincere Polish university students. It was a start." "It was a start"? There have been numerous international conferences dedicated to Polish-Jewish relations. Steinman's and Cheryl's chat was not "a start" at anything.

Steinman appears never to have learned even conversational Polish – but that's okay; she speaks hot-tub. Steinman encounters an elderly Polish woman. This woman wears "threadbare" and "frayed" clothing. Her hands are "stained" with dirt. Her greenhouse is "rotting." Her lawn furniture is "overturned." Her blanket is "rumpled." Her hand is a "claw." This Polish peasant crone is listening to the "infamous Radio Maryja," an "anti-Semitic station." Steinman concludes that the old woman is an anti-Semite and "xenophobic."

Those who know Poland know that Radio Maryja does broadcast anti-Semitic material, but the station also broadcasts genuinely loving material. I have met deeply good people who listen to Radio Maryja. Not all its listeners are anti-Semites, any more than all NPR listeners are effete, brie-eating anti-Zionists. I suspect that had this old woman been more elegantly dressed – perhaps in garments by Hugo Boss, the Nazis' couturier – Steinman would not have judged her so harshly. Indeed Steinman, while writing about Poland but never capturing its appearance except to describe it in clichéd ways as dreary or grim, never misses a chance to report who is wearing a leather jacket.

Cheryl dresses "beguilingly" with "great fashion sense." Cheryl is an American woman who lives in the South of France and enjoys the beach. She makes everyone around her indulge her whims to march, unannounced, almost into strangers' laps at their workplaces, withdraw into pouts, stop a car suddenly, run down a public road, and scream, or to detail yet another one of her dreams. Cheryl's carte blanche to be difficult: she inherited grief from her survivor father.

The reader is to be less indulgent of August Kowalczyk. Kowalczyk, a Pole, was captured by Nazis at age 19 when attempting to join the resistance. He was imprisoned in Auschwitz for eighteen months. He was tortured. Kowalczyk described an SS man casually reading the newspaper, his pet dog at his feet, during this torture. Kowalczyk escaped. In retribution for his escape, Nazis gassed three hundred Poles.

The only thing in Kowalczyk's talk that raised a reaction from his listeners – one was "stricken" – was his perhaps casual comment that "Jews were resigned." Listeners to Kowalczyk's talk protested – just that comment. That was perhaps all they heard of this Polish man's description of his own crucifixion in Auschwitz. One must question a value system that allows Cheryl her constant indulgence of her own pain, though she was born in the US and lives in the South of France, and denies to a man like August Kowalczyk his heroism and his pain because he is Polish.

Steinman reports anecdotes as unquestioned fact. Scholarship shows that this is a mistake. People alter first-person accounts. Anecdotes may or may not be representational. A responsible storyteller addressing the Holocaust will compare first-person accounts with accepted scholarship. Steinman's readers will take these stories as true and representational. That is unfortunate on so important a topic.

Steinman Orientalizes. Because she does not speak Polish or Ukrainian, or possess much knowledge of the cultures she visits, Poles and Ukrainians come across as wacky exotics. They paint murals, sing songs, love or hate Jews, and kiss hands. Poles exist exclusively as "Neanderthals" who hate Jews or good goys who love Jews and devote their lives to them. There are no Poles who live their lives without their relationship to Jews being their primary feature.

I cannot imagine Beacon Press publishing such an Orientalizing text about Jews and the Holocaust. Would they publish a book about a tourist who spent several weeks in Israel and never bothered to learn conversational Hebrew, or penetrate Israeli culture? No. Then by what set of rules is this book's paradigm acceptable? Poles remain objects in this text – things about which Steinman speaks. They do not speak, or live, for themselves.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen approves: Ukrainian Pro-Democracy Demonstrators are "Fascists and Anti-Semites" Bieganski at NYU

Source: Mediate
On Monday, March 3, 2014, on Wolf Blitzer's program "The Situation Room," CNN's Christiane Amanpour defied NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen's charge that Ukrainians are anti-Semites who don't deserve international support in their struggle for democracy.

Cohen alleged that "right-wing nationalists" and "quasi fascists" were "dictating terms" to a "not legitimate" "rump parliament" in Ukraine. Evidence of their "quasi fascist agenda" "They banned the use of Russian as an official language." "Hatred has been supported by Washington," Cohen alleged.

Wolf Blitzer quoted Russian diplomat Vitaly Churkin, who characterized Ukrainian pro-democracy demonstrators as "Fascists and anti-Semites."

When Blitzer quoted Churkin, Stephen F. Cohen smiled smugly and crossed his arms across his chest, as if his team had scored a goal against a hated opponent. Cohen's smug pleasure at seeing Ukrainian pro-democracy demonstrators demonized as "fascists and anti-Semites" – by a spokesperson for Russia, as it invaded Ukraine militarily – was telling.

You can read a previous blog post addressing WABC radio's demonization of Ukrainians as brutal anti-Semites here.

I thank Joy Zamoyski Koch for alerting me to this story.

Watch video here.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Poland Must Come to Terms with Its Nazi Past: Bieganski on Amazon

Poles fought the Nazis. Source: Wikipedia. 
Poles were victimized by Nazis. Source: USHMM
In the Bieganski stereotype, though, Poles ARE Nazis. 
The Bieganski stereotype conflates Poland and Nazism. In the Bieganski stereotype, Poles are the world's worst anti-Semites, and, therefore, they must be Nazis, and their country must be the home of Nazism.

Bieganski-style conflations of Poland with Nazis and Nazism are common in contemporary Western culture. One such conflation can be found in an Amazon review of the 2013 Beacon Press book "The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation" by Louise Steinman.

The reviewer quoted below is a member of Amazon Vine Voice, a select group of reviewers whose reviews are promoted by Amazon. Kayla Rigney further identifies herself as a Holocaust historian. In her review, Rigney writes,

"Poland's Nazi past IS connected to Poland's own cultural antisemitism -- and it will always be so connected. Just because small groups of Polish people are helping to rescue tombstones stolen from Jewish graves, repair empty synagogues, and are building museums/cultural centers to honor Poland's Jewish *past*, doesn't mean the entire country has come to terms with its Nazi past.

It will take many generations to heal the wounds of what was Jewish Poland, if it is possible to heal them at all. True reconciliation between hell and the human heart takes *time.* …My heart breaks for Poland, because *true* reconciliation is *emotionally and spiritually painful* in the country of Oświęcim. In real life, I'm a Holocaust historian."

So, there you have it. In this Amazon review, we see the conflation of Poland with Nazism. In fact, of course, Poland has no "Nazi past." Nazism was a German movement. Bieganski, though, in many minds, is more powerful than historical reality.

What can concerned persons do about this? For ideas please read this series of blog posts.

You can read the above quoted review here.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Brute, Anti-Semitic, Killer Slav on WABC's "Religion on the Line"

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack
In recent days, on three different occasions, WABC NY, one of the largest talk radio stations in the nation, and a division of Cumulus Media, played the Bieganski card. On the morning of Sunday, March 2, 2014, "Religion on the Line," advertised as the longest running show on WABC, featured Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Cooper characterized Ukrainians as violent, frightening anti-Semites, who had been killing Jews since the seventeenth century Chmielnicki Massacres. Rabbi Cooper was on the program in order to re-emphasize points he had made in a Huffington Post article from February 25, 2014, "Ukraine's Jews Caught between a Rock and a Hard Place…Again." In that article, Rabbi Cooper wrote,

"During the Cossack uprising of 1648-57, led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky 15-30,000 Ukrainian Jews out of a total population of 51,000 were murdered or taken captive. The organized violence against the helpless and impoverished Jews in the Ukraine in the 19th and early 20th century spawned a new word in the lexicon of hate -- pogrom. Many of our grandparents fled the Ukraine, arriving on American shores penniless…During the Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War, another estimated 30,000-100,000 Jews were killed…over 1 million Jews [were] shot by Einsatzgruppen killing squads and Ukrainian collaborators in Western Ukraine."

In March, 2014, Ukraine is on the brink of catastrophe, and it needs Western help. At this time of crisis, WABC talk show hosts have repeatedly characterized Ukrainians as nothing more than brutal, Jew-hating thugs who deserve no respect. WABC hosts who have hammered home this racist caricature include Ron Kuby, Michael Savage, and now "Religion on the Line"'s hosts Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack, although, to his credit, Deacon McCormack attempted to soften Rabbi Cooper's line. That attempt was not successful. Rabbi Cooper had already tarred all Slavs as essentially brutal pogromists who have been murdering Jews for hundreds of years.

I am reminded of 1981, when the Soviet Union brought its heel down on Solidarity. At that time, Poland needed international support. Sadly, many significant Jewish voices in the US insisted that Poland did not deserve support, because, they argued, Poland was a land of essential, guilty, anti-Semites. For example, Tikkun's Rabbi Michael Lerner lobbied President Bush to cut off funding to Poland.

It reminds me of Andrzej Kapiszewski's book "Conflicts across the Atlantic," which details how some American Jews made it a point to present as negative an image as possible in the American press at the time when Poles were struggling to regain their freedom during and after World War I. Now Ukraine is in crisis, and some American Jews are using this time to insist to the American public that Ukrainians are essential anti-Semites who can never change and who do not deserve support or respect.

NO not all Jews are doing this. Some are.

YES horrific crimes were committed against Jews in Eastern Europe. No decent person has ever denied pogroms or the Holocaust. Rather, what we reject is the Bieganski stereotype. We must talk to each other about this in an informed way in order to lay down guidelines for fruitful conversation. It is not beneficial for one side to monopolize discourse with a monster stereotype at a time when Eastern Europeans are on the brink.

My Polish friends have been prominent in their support for Ukraine.

Please note: when Ukrainians did massacre Jews, they also massacred Polish Catholics.

What people following Ron Kuby and Rabbi Cooper's line won't tell you is this: the Chmielnicki massacres included significant numbers – thousands – exact figures are not available –of tortured and murdered Polish Catholic victims. During World War II, Ukrainians carried out a genocide against Polish Catholics. There were tens of thousands of victims – no one knows how many. The Polish Catholic cultural presence in many locations was erased.

Polish-American poet John Guzlowski is the son of a survivor of this genocide. As Ukraine struggles today, neither John Guzlowski nor any of my other Polish friends has said anything like, "The Ukrainians are killers; remember what they did to us under Chmielnicki in the seventeenth century; remember what they did to us during World War II."

Rather, we Poles and Polish-Americans are saying, "Let's focus on supporting democratic elements in Ukraine." We are not focused on settling old scores, on stereotypes, or on revenge.

I invite concerned persons to unite, organize, and communicate your concern to WABC and Cumulus.

I have just sent the following email to Deacon Kevin McCormack,

Dear Deacon McCormack,

I'm writing about your show today. I was very concerned by Rabbi Cooper's contribution.

I would like to appear on your show in order to offer another point of view.

I am the author of "Bieganski." It is the only scholarly book dedicated to stereotypes of Poles and other Eastern Europeans as brutal anti-Semites. Antony Polonsky, the world expert on Polish Jewry, was the editor of the series in which the book appeared.

"Bieganski" has been endorsed by Rabbi Michael Herzbrun, Polish-American poet and professor John Guzlowski, and Prof. James P. Leary. Father John T. Pawlikowki, chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council's Subcommittee on Church Relations called "Bieganski" "An important contribution to improved Polish-Jewish understanding." The Shofar Journal of Jewish Studies called it "Groundbreaking." American Jewish History said that Bieganski points out that the Brute Polak stereotype "gives the illusion of absolving those who failed in their own test of humanity" during the Holocaust. "Bieganski" won the PAHA Halecki Award. I have been an invited speaker on this topic at Brandeis, Georgetown, Indiana University Bloomington, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

I've been listening to "Religion on the Line" for ten years. I have repeatedly heard Rabbi Potasnik and other guests deploy the Bieganski stereotype. Deacon McCormack, I know you are not Eastern European, but as a Catholic you should care about this topic, too. The Bieganski stereotype is used to distort Christian-Jewish relations and the Holocaust.

I am sending to you the introduction to the book as an email attachment. I hope you will have a look.

Thank you.

"Horrifying" "Heartwarming" Bieganski Review by Dr. Rusty Walker

Dr. Rusty Walker just posted a review of Bieganski on Amazon. You can see his review here.

I just finished the book, "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture (Jews of Poland)," written by Dr. Danusha Goska. The author investigates the origin and inaccuracy of the stereotyping of Poles and Poland, and much more.

The book is an excellent read in presenting new revelations about this complex subject. The author examines the wide-spread stereotyping of Poles, as well as Poland, Polish Christians and Polish Jews that will be an expansion on what the reader might presume. It is extremely well-written and absorbing, while the facts revealed are sometimes horrifying.

The “Interview” chapters include narratives that afford the reader insights we cannot ignore if we care about inaccurate but accepted history of Poland, so often infused with biases derived from half-truths, myth and folklore. The theme, the Bieganski - the image of Pole as brute – is readily proven inaccurate and the origin of the label is explained. Dr. Goska, in her gifted writing style, and scholarly citing of sources, proves uncomfortable realities about both the Jews and the Polish before and after WWII in Poland that most writers have not had the courage to divulge. She, at once, concedes anti-Semitism of some Poles in Poland, while reminding us of many more heroic Poles who saved Jews. We are reminded that Poles were also sent to the ovens of Auschwitz, a fact that is resisted by many who wish to retain certain stereotypes.

Dr. Goska’s accounts of elite Poles antithetic to peasant Poles, and Israeli Jews mocking Holocaust survivors are shocking to read, but reveal her determination to root out the truth. Jews reached out to the Allies prior to the “Final Solution” and during it, to Israel, American Jews and the Jewish Councils who we find disbelieved it and eventually ignored it. Many knew, but separate themselves from Jews destined for extermination as this horrific event unfolded unimpeded. Indeed, we learn that FDR and the American government are not blameless in allowing the Holocaust. This is but a glimpse of what is difficult to acknowledge with regards to shared blame.

The book was not written to place blame. I find that it is more to acknowledge the unforeseen consequences of silence and inaction, and dangers of relying on myth and perceptions instead of insisting on factual accounts.

I recommend this book as one of the few that allows us to discover truthful pre-WWII and Post-WWII Polish, German, and Russian interaction and the resultant legacy. It is no wonder the book is controversial among Jews and Poles, but also Americans, including publishers. Non-biased truth is often hard to read, let alone accept.

There are the accounts of scapegoating, the need for shared victimization, dropped responsibilities among U.S government leaders, Americans, American Jews all of whom were aware of the Holocaust.

Both Jews and Poles are proven to be victims of the Nazis at Auschwitz, but we find through Dr. Goska’s research that this presented a diluting effect necessary for sustained victimhood resulting in the suppressing of the role of Poles in assisting Jews.

In light of copious adversarial revelations I have touched on above, it is heartwarming that the book ends well. There is a touching story where the reader surely agrees that, nevertheless, there remains an "ineluctable bond between Poles and Jews."

Dr. Rusty Walker- Collins College, Provost, retired.