Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Needing Ania: An Old Polish Woman, a Rabbi, and Bieganski

Photo of an old Hucul woman, found online 
Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype treats stereotypes of Poles and other Eastern Europeans as brutes and violent anti-Semites," "worse than the Nazis." The book invites readers to reconsider this stereotype.

Excerpt, below, from Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible: Ancient Role Models for Sacred Relationships by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin. This excerpt contains a bit of the stereotype, and an encounter with an old Polish woman who helped author Rabbi Salkin overcome the stereotype.

I grew up in a middle class community … in Long Island. The working class Polish, Italian and Irish families lived on one side of the Long Island railroad tracks; we lived on the other side … Catholic-school-influenced bullies would wander far and wide and they found me – a tall, lanky kid with a newspaper route. Their custom was to accost me as I delivered my newspapers, throw my bicycle into the woods and my newspapers down the sewer. These acts all accompanied by taunts of "Christ killer!"

At this point, author Rabbi Salkin loses me as a reader.

Rabbi Salkin acknowledges that he grew up in a different socioeconomic class, in a different neighborhood, and following a different religion than the boys he identifies as his tormentors.

How, then, does Rabbi Salkin know that it was "Catholic school" that caused these boys to torment him?

Rabbi Salkin was born in 1954. He is a baby boomer like myself. He grew up in NY; I grew up in NJ. I went to Catholic School. I am Polish.

Number of times I beat up a Jewish kid: Zero.

Number of times nuns urged me to beat up a Jewish kid: Zero.

Number of times nuns taught me that Jews killed Jesus: Zero.

Number of times that *anyone* in my childhood taught me that Jews killed Jesus: Zero.

How I had to respond when I first heard about deicide: I had to research it and learn about it from books.

Further, I knew Jews. They lived on my block. They visited my home. I liked them. They appeared to like me. No fisticuffs.

After I grew up and left home and went to grad school, there were hostile encounters between Jews and myself.

Number of times Jews cornered me at parties and pelted me with offensive Polish jokes: several.

Number of times Jews told me I can't really be Polish because I think and read: several.

Number of times I read books or articles by Jewish authors that misrepresented my ethnicity in a way to arouse contempt: several.

What if I wrote a book and said that the Talmud, or rabbis, or Jewish religious instruction, created a "custom" of Jews insulting non-Jews in an arrogant and prejudiced manner? I'd never find a decent publisher. I wouldn't deserve a decent publisher. And yet a book that casually, and without any support, alleges that Catholic school mandates a "custom" of Polish boys beating up on Jewish boys finds publication and positive reviews.

This is further evidence of how unquestioned the Bieganski stereotype is.

Also, I am dubious. It was a "custom" to assault this child, and steal his bicycle and newspapers? On Long Island? In the 1950s / 60s?


Meaning it happened regularly?

Was this the Wild West?

No parents? No police?

Just asking.

I'm sure it happened at least once. Maybe even twice. But after that, wouldn't he at least have altered his route?

Me? I did beat up kids, and I got beat up, too. I used ethnic slurs, and ethnic slurs were used on me -- often by my best friends. Because kids do bad things.

But Rabbi Salkin goes on. Ania, an old Polish woman, lived with one of his Jewish friends, Ira Handleman.

Ania didn't speak a word of English, and I assumed that she was my friend's grandmother. "No," he corrected me, "she's the lady who hid my mother in a closet during the war. My mother was so grateful to her that she brought her to the United States with her."

Right after Ira became bar mitzvah, the Handleman family made aliyah (move to Israel), and we lost touch. Ten years later, I went to Israel for the first time. Within days of my arrival, I called my old friend's family and we became reacquainted. Within the first few minutes of our conversation, I jumped to the topic that had been on my mind for years. "And the old Polish woman? Whatever became of her?" I asked.

"When we decided to make aliyah," Mrs. Handleman told me, "we offered to buy Ania a house in New York and to support her for the rest of her life." But she said to us, 'Where else could I live? Who else could I live with? You're my family.' And so we brought her with us to Tel Aviv."

Somehow, I knew the answer to the next question even before I asked it.

"Is she still alive? She was already so old … "

"No, she died just a few years ago."

Where did you bury her?" I asked.

"Here in Israel. Where else?" I could hear her weeping through the phone.

I realized at that moment that I had needed Ania all along. I had needed her because her life was a one-woman refutation of the myth that all Jewish history was unrelenting darkness, a dark pageant of those who sought to kill us and often succeeded. She was a one-woman response to the version of Eastern European Jewish history with which I grew up – the one that suggested that all Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians gleefully danced around the mass graves of Jewish victims.

Ania was the first, and only righteous gentile that I had ever met. Years later, I would realize that her words to the Handlemans were an almost verbatim repetition of what the biblical Ruth said to Naomi" Wherever you go I will go." Ania, and so many like her, was a spark in the darkness. There were not as many of them as we needed, but there were more of them than we had known.

By the way, Rabbi Salkin refers to Pani Ania as "Anya." I think the proper Polish spelling is "Ania" so I have corrected it in this post.

I like and recommend the rest of Rabbi Salkin's book, linked above.

Rabbi Salkin read the above blog post and wrote back. He kindly granted me permission to share his response here.

Many thanks…..and thanks for the shoutout, even if you didn’t like that part.

Yes, it was my experience. Yes, I experienced first hand anti-semitism from ethnic Catholics – of all sorts. Yes, this was only a few years after Vatican II.

Did the nuns and priests encourage this kind of behavior? I would probably agree with you that they didn’t.

Did the un-redeemed teachings of the church about the Jewish role in the Crucifixion have any influence on the bullies who accosted me?

You tell me. They taunted me with: You killed our God.

Are you saying that there is no Polish historical experience with anti-Semitism?

I went to Poland last summer, and it gave me a new sense of the many subtleties in this shared history. And as we can both testify to, the anti-Semitism of the past, in Polish life, seems to be disappearing. Though when I worked with ADL in New Jersey, I experienced it anew and afresh – but this time, it was opposed by other Polish-Americans who were ready to fight that painful history.

And yes – I grew up hearing Polish jokes. I despise them. When I hear them, I remind the teller about Copernicus.

So, yes – it is complicated. Thanks