"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
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
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
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;
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
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.
"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
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
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.
Your review is uplifting, Ms. Watchtel. Thank you for writing it.ReplyDelete
I appreciate your even-handed analysis of Polish-Jewish relations, as well as the candid realization that prejudices went both ways. History is never black and white, and no nationality has a monopoly on either vice or virtue.
Your discussion of the Jew as middleman is quite relevant. I have reviewed a number of works on middleman minorities, and one of these reviews can be found by clicking on my name in this specific posting.
Thank you for this comment, Mr. Peczkis. I will read your review about middleman minorities. I very much appreciated reading your review on Amazon about Bieganski as well! ...And I enjoy reading your comments here on Danusha's blog.ReplyDelete