Bieganski is available for purchase on Amazon here. The introduction is below.
Also, you can see a video presentation on Bieganski
Also, you can see a video presentation on Bieganski
This work addresses Bieganski, one stereotype of Poles. Other Eastern European, Christian, peasant-based populations are conflated under this stereotype, while Poles, given the size of their population and the location of Nazi death camps in Poland, remain the primary target. Evidence that non-Poles are conflated with Poles is ample. In 1903, Dr. Allan J. McLaughlin, a public health administrator, attempted to explain all Slavic immigrants to America in terms of Poles. In 1976, scholar Michael Novak wrote that "Dumb Polak" jokes were directed against Slovak-Americans like him. "No one can tell us apart." In 1999, on television's "The Sopranos," an Italian-American said to a character from the Czech Republic, "Czechoslovakian? What's that? That's a type of Polak, right?" Borat, the most talked about film of 2006, conflated all Eastern European, Christian peasants into a character whose catchphrase, "Dzien dobry. Jak sie masz?" is Polish.
In a 2008 London Times column, Giles Coren said that "Polack" immigrants, who "amuse themselves at Easter" by "locking Jews in the synagogue and setting fire to it," should "clear off out of" England. Coren cited accused war criminal Radovan Karadzic. Karadzic, as Times readers protested, was a Serb. In 2008-2009, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was accused of corruption. Though his name is obviously Serbian, Blagojevich was discussed, on various internet sites, using the following terms: "Polak politician," "Pollock," "THICK HEADED Polack," "a wop in polack clothing," "dumb Polack ass," "a Polack who thinks he's Huey Long," "Illinois sonofabitch Governor O'Polack," "Polack swine," and "Blago the POLACK."
Eastern European, peasant, Christian populations do share significant cultural, historic, political, and geological features. The word "Slav" does not cover the territory; Lithuanians, Romanians, and Hungarians are not Slavs. When speaking of Eastern European, Christian, peasants or peasant-descent populations, this author will use, sparingly, the term "Bohunk." This American coinage derives from a combination of "Bohemian" and "Hungarian." It is the only available term that refers to the group it designates.
In the stereotype in question, Poles are brutes. They possess the qualities of animals. They are physically strong, stupid, violent, fecund, anarchic, dirty, and especially hateful in a way that more evolved human beings are not. They are thuggishly, primitively nationalistic. The special hatefulness of Bieganski is epitomized by his Polish anti-Semitism. This stereotype relies on images of Eastern Europeans that have existed for centuries (Wolff), and has been produced, significantly, by Poles themselves, Jews, Germans, and Americans. Regardless of the actual status of the stereotyper, the stereotype reflects the perspective of someone relatively empowered, literate, urban, mobile, and mercantile observing relatively disempowered, oral, rural, poor, Eastern European Christian peasants.
This stereotype relies for its power on a modern person's disgust and contempt for actual or imaginary qualities associated with peasantry: dirt, primitive dwellings, contact with animal dung, odiferousness, rootedness, powerlessness, sexual savagery, coarse social manners, and a lack of formal education or contact with the wider world and a concomitant lack of sophistication. Members of all social classes might display these qualities. In Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Golem, Count Bratislawski, though a nobleman, is a thug. He screams, spits in a man's face, and resorts to violence.
Bieganski is related to an American stereotype of rural and working class WASPs, variously identified as trailer trash, rednecks, white trash or hillbillies. Former WASP farm boy Edwin Markham's 1899 poem "The Man with a Hoe" economically conveys the terror and disgust that rural laborers arouse in their betters. Markham refers to the peasant depicted in Jean Francois Millet's controversial 1862 painting "The Man with a Hoe" as "stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox … a monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched … this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world." There has been some conflation of the white trash and Bieganski stereotypes. Oklahoma-born poet Lloyd Van Brunt referred to all of America's poor whites as the "the Polish-joke class." The films "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Monster's Ball" made their thuggish, working class, Southern characters Poles, though in reality there are relatively few Poles in the American South; most white Southern working people are WASPs.
In 2008, during a closed fundraising event on Millionaire's Row in San Francisco, presidential candidate Barack Obama made comments widely interpreted to mean that Pennsylvania's and the Midwest's rural and working-class whites are particularly religious, unintelligent, racist, and dangerous. One blogger paraphrased Obama's comment as directed against: "Corncob-Smokin', Banjo-Strokin', Chicken-Chokin', Cousin-Pokin', Inbred, Hillbilly, Racist, Morons" (Ace). This list of attributes corresponds with the white trash, WASP stereotype. A frequently-cited essay understood Obama's comments as directed against Bohunks, a large percentage of Pennsylvania's and the Midwest's working class: "You're talking about white people who have neither the family connections nor the racial credentials to gain entrance to the world that you inhabit. Many of the people you're talking about are those whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe who came to these places to work in steel mills, coal mines, and factories" (Grabar).
"Bieganski" is the name of an anti-Semitic Polish character in American novelist William Styron's critically and popularly successful 1979 novel Sophie's Choice. The term is used here as one would use "Sambo" or "Shylock." Using the name of a grotesquely stereotyped fictional character helps to communicate that these are not images of real people, or even snapshots of representatives of real peoples, but, rather, the distorted brainchildren of their creators. Stereotypes of Poles and Jews interdigitate; their qualities are complementary opposites. Where Bieganski is poor, stupid and physically expressive, moneyed Shylock is excessively intelligent and inadequate in his meager physicality.
Bieganski is responsible for anti-Semitism; his vanquishing is a boon to humanity. Influential American comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) anachronistically defined anti-Semitism as "two thousand years of Polack kids whacking the shit out of us coming home from school" (John Cohen 30). Bruce imagined a world where all ethnicities could unite in brotherhood. Multicultural humanity would then turn on the real enemy: Poles. "It won't matter, it won't matter any more even if you are colored and I'm Jewish, and even if Fritz is Japanese, and Wong is Greek, because then…we're all gonna stick together – and beat up the Polacks!" (Bruce). Bieganski's peasant status explains his anti-Semitism. Bob, 59, an informant for this work, reported that "What I know [about Poland] is a history of anti-Semitism. I've read a fair amount about the Holocaust. The Painted Bird seemed to me to be about a very primitive folklife in Eastern Europe. I kind of used it as a way of understanding how people could be the way they were." Jerzy Kosinski's 1965 The Painted Bird was initially presented as a Holocaust memoir of bestial, violent, sexually perverse peasants tormenting a Jewish child. It was later revealed that the book was fiction.
In the racist expression of the Bieganski stereotype, no narrative arch is possible. When a Pole exhibits what appears to be positive or neutral attitudes or behaviors toward Jews, that must be understood as a temporary failure of his anti-Semitic essence fully to express itself. In 1997, Eva Hoffman, a Polish-born daughter of Holocaust survivors, wrote a "daring and generous" book (Lipton), Shtetl, that rejected stereotypes of Poles. Thomas Laqueur, Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor of History at U. C. Berkeley, not a historian of Polish-Jewish history but rather of masturbation, disparaged Hoffman's conciliatory work. Hoffman insisted that Polish anti-Semitism must be understood in the context of a complex history that included significant philo-Semitism. Laqueur was contemptuous. "Anti-semitism is not like a limp that affects every step. Even the most rabid anti-semites have moments of weakness … one cannot count on them" (Laqueur). Hoffman rejected Laqueur's essentializing – and corrected his historical errors (Hoffman letter).
In the evolutionary expression of the Bieganski stereotype, the worldview of universal human progress is applied. In this treatment, Bieganski is "medieval." He must "evolve" into a "modern" form. Universal human progress is the conviction that an unseen hand inexorably improves the world. It is associated with Auguste Comte, who theorized that humanity moved through three phases of progress with religion at the bottom and science at the top; with Karl Marx, who taught that history would inevitably create the worker's paradise; with Charles Darwin and evolution; and with E. B. Tylor, "The Father of Anthropology," who placed human beings on an evolutionary ladder, with religious peasants near the bottom, and who argued that all humans were evolving along the same unilineal ladder that would, eventually, mean their reaching the pinnacle of being something like himself, the fully evolved human, a secular, scientific, Victorian gentleman. As Bieganski has greater contact with the modern world, and evolves beyond his primitive, medieval identity, including his peasant status and his faith, he will abandon his anti-Semitism.
Examples of this understanding are legion. In a recent scholarly book, Joanna Michlic diagnoses a "backward looking, traditional, conservative, and 'folkish' type of religiosity" as having "retarded the development of Polish society" and prescribes a "forward-looking" "modern" approach typical of "Western liberal democracy" as antidote (268; 278-280). A Princeton University Press book depicts Eastern Europeans as mired in "myth," tending to "hearken back to old doctrines and visions," impatient with the "rational," and in need of Western, liberal "truth" (Powers 1080). As a reviewer of this "dark and unsettling" book put it, "Tismaneanu concludes that some Eastern European countries will evolve into some version of liberal democracy, while others may not" (Green emphasis added). Alina Cala reports that in a search for the roots of anti-Semitism, "In Polish folk culture the trail leads to Catholicism in its specific, plebian form" (17).
In 2009, British actor Stephen Fry said, "there's been a history of rightwing Catholicism which has been deeply disturbing for those of us who know a little history and remember which side of the border Auschwitz was on." Historian Timothy Garton-Ash cited Fry because "the automatic equation of Poland with Catholicism, nationalism and antisemitism – and thence a slide to guilt by association with the Holocaust – is widespread" (Garton-Ash). Communism was on its deathbed, but still breathing, in 1989, when Walter Isaacson wrote in Time magazine that "there are no signs so far that Poland or Hungary will evolve toward a Western-style, genteel" political model (Isaacson emphasis added). In a review of Jan Tomasz Gross' Fear, Ira Rifkin, writing in Baltimore's Jewish Times weekly, approvingly quoted Gross' formulation of Poles as afflicted with a "'medieval prejudice' born of vile Christian fantasies about Jews." Dennis L. Harris, self-identified as an "Aware Jew," wrote in an Amazon review of Fear,
While today, [Poland's] younger generation is seemingly tolerant of jews and readily embrace the cultural trappings of Judaism, i.e the Klezmer festival held each year in Krakow and the 'jewish' style restaurants, stores etc. run by non-jews, one gets the feeling that not far below the surface could be a very strong return to anti-semitism and the accompaning violence. This book should be read by anyone who thinks that the Holacaust could never, ever happen again. Once one travels away from the major cities, local life has remaines much as it was 50, 60, 70 years ago. (Harris)
In Harris' view, the location of peasant villages in the past indicates that they are likely sites of anti-Semitism, which, in this worldview, is of the past. Descriptions of Poland as "medieval" are not limited to post-Holocaust discourse. In the 1930s, organized American Jews petitioned the American government to intervene in Poland, which, they said, exhibited "the barbarism of the Middle Ages." The Federation of Polish Jews in America used "medieval" in a discussion of Polish-Jewish relations (Kapiszewski 160, 220).
The reflective reader will recognize several things wrong with the model that locates anti-Semitism in the past and that associates passing time and exposure to, or imitation of, the West with inevitable improvement. The medieval, 1264 Statute of Kalisz, issued by Polish Duke Boleslaus the Pious, encoding Jewish rights, showed "an awareness of the vulnerabilities and the needs felt by a small subject group which is sophisticated even by contemporary standards." Eva Hoffman described it as "a set of laws that could serve as an exemplary statement of minority rights today" (Hoffman Shtetl 30-1). In 1414, the Catholic Pole Pawel Wlodkowic argued for the rights of Pagan tribes in Christian lands. The 1573 Warsaw Confederation declared religious freedom. Poland was not a significant site of blood libels during the Middle Ages. Blood libel trials reached Poland from the West and increased during, and decreased after, the Enlightenment (Tazbir 236, 239). Nazism first took root, not in a Polish peasant village, but in Germany's Weimar Republic, a Western, liberal, modern democracy. Nazism was facilitated by modern technology, from the pesticide Zyklon B to IBM's punch card system. Clearly, the evolutionary model is inadequate to describe, or to provide solutions for, the problem at hand.
Discussion of the Bieganski stereotype will raise alarms. In 2001, Jan Tomasz Gross published Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland; in 2006, he published Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz. Gross' works gained new attention for shocking crimes committed by Poles against Jews during the World-War-Two era. This author concurs with Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, Polish journalist and diplomat. "Neighbors is a book which had to be written … If I want to have a moral right to justified pride in [Polish] rescuers, then I must admit to a sense of shame over [Polish] killers."
Magdziak-Miszewska goes on to state, "It is all too human to seek justification and symmetry for our own guilt." This work is not an attempt to create the impression of a symmetry of suffering, or an attempt to justify Polish crimes. Poles, as a group, suffered horribly during World War Two; Jews, as a group, suffered worse. There is no symmetry. There is no justification. This work stands in accord with the statement by the late Polish leader, Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, who wrote of Polish crimes,
nothing can justify the killing of people by stoning, by butchering with knives, the decapitations, the stabbing with sharpened stakes, the wholesale murder of women and men, of the old and the young, driven to the Jewish cemetery, the burying alive of still breathing victims, the drowning of women with their children in the pond, and at the end the driving of the remaining victims to the barn and burning them alive (Nowak-Jezioranski).
The two phenomena – Polish guilt for Polish crimes, and stereotyping of Poles – are both real. The reality of one does not negate the reality of the other.
"Why must we use the word 'stereotype'?" a reader might ask. "Are we not discussing objective reality? Aren't Jews – disproportionately represented among doctors, lawyers, financiers and Nobel Prize winners – simply smarter? Aren't Poles, once peasants in their own country and often manual laborers in America, simply stupider? Poles did victimize Jews! Talk of stereotyping is a ruse to avoid responsibility!"
As terrifically convincing as such othering – the process of declaring, "we are quality x, they are quality not-x" – is – folkloric research exposes it as a fallacy. John Lindow has shown that Scandinavians lived in an ethnically homogenous environment. Like Poles and Jews, Scandinavians were convinced that their ethnicity was best defined through contrast with a neighboring people who were the exact opposite of Scandinavians. While Scandinavians were clean, sexually well ordered, and hard working, their neighbors, their ethnic other of choice, were dirty, sexually profligate, and lazy. Who were these neighboring people? Trolls, and other supernatural beings, who were understood to be quite real. "Supernatural beings enjoyed an empirical existence and were probably ... more real to many people than, say ... the King of England ... What mattered, apparently, was the primary distinction between one's own group and everything outside of that group" (21).
Bieganski is as real as a troll. Lauren, a Jewish-American graduate student in her twenties, and an informant for this work, showed an awareness of the importance of images over reality.
Jews do seem to consider themselves smarter than gentiles, both in the "intellectual" sense and in basic common sense. A "goyisha kup" ("gentile head") implies that someone is not too smart ... I would have characterized Poles as big, beefy people, not overly educated ... my image of Poles throughout my life could be characterized as an urban version of well-to-do peasants (always working class, very blue-collar), but my actual experience of Poles from Poland as a college instructor showed them to be quite sophisticated and highly educated.
There is a group of people who, significantly, consider Poles as "backward outsiders," undesirable and unimportant. Members of this group, in significant numbers, consider Poles to have victimized them during and after World War Two, and demand that Poles confess, apologize, and make amends for this mistreatment before closer relationships can be established. Members of this group look with disapproval on Poles' religiosity because "Catholicism is an obstacle to modernization." Members of this group condemn Poles as being disrespectful of minorities. The group in question? Germans (Falkowski). The nation that colonized Poland for over a hundred years, and then all but destroyed Poland during World War Two, is a significant source of the Bieganski stereotype. Stereotypes do not scrupulously follow the laws of logic.
It might be helpful to discuss the goal of this document in terms of one of the most world-famous incidences of stereotyping, that of African Americans. One thinks of the 1995 O. J. Simpson verdict. Most white Americans concluded that Simpson was guilty of murdering his wife, and most feared that Simpson would "play the race card" and exploit an image of himself, an African American, as a victim of white supremacy to avoid facing consequences for his crimes. That a member of a race that has been stereotyped can, at the same time that he is a victim, also be a victimizer, was aptly summed up in a phrase many used to express their dismay over the handling of the O. J. case: the L. A. police "framed a guilty man" (PBS Frontline O.J.).
Statistics show that African Americans commit more violent crimes than white Americans. Some choose to interpret that statistic as indicative of a violent African American racial essence. That understanding is incorrect, and makes the problem at hand – high crime rates among African Americans – worse rather than better. Quantifiable differences between ethnic groups aren't best attributed to any fixed or exclusive national character. Rather, these differences are the differences between expressions of universally human behaviors as fashioned by changing and changeable human choices that, in turn, are fashioned by circumstance. The most illuminating approach understands high African American crime rates in the context of a history of exploitation. Any group that was similarly exploited might produce an unusually high crime rate. This approach echoes the proverb, "Walk a mile in my shoes," and asks, "What might I do in similar circumstances?" In this understanding, addressing exploitation, not inventing a posited flawed racial essence, is one key to addressing the problem.
The solution to black crime is not to state, "African Americans were slaves a century and a half ago; therefore, nothing can be done about current crime statistics." Pathological responses to victimization are often imbedded in culture. Songs, costumes, language and rituals arise that celebrate anti-social behavior. Culture becomes a circumstance that abets a given behavior. Those hoping to lessen black crime rates must not focus exclusively on past exploitation, but also on present cultural prods to anti-social behavior.
At the same time, black criminality must be understood as a particular expression of a universal human tendency that, while, as statistics indicate, is expressed differently in non-black populations, is, nonetheless, expressed. While blacks do commit more violent crime than whites, powerful white men have also committed "white collar" crimes. The impetus to behave in an anti-social manner is not limited to any given population.
The stereotyping of Poles is analogous to the stereotyping of African Americans in this respect: yes, Poles have done very bad things. The focus of this document is Bieganski – the understanding of evil acts by Poles in terms of a stereotype, a stereotype that insists that Polish crimes are expressions of a debased Polish racial or cultural essence. This work's acknowledgement that there is a stereotype of Poles is not part of any effort to deny Polish culpability. At the same time that this work suggests that the reader "walk a mile in the Poles' shoes," and consider, for example, the devastating impact of one circumstance – the Nazi and Soviet invasions – this work also insists that Poles must work to extirpate another circumstance – pathological anti-Semitism that has become imbedded in Polish culture, in, for example, the blood libel.
Having rejected the Bieganski model, one must identify other understandings of Polish-Jewish relations. One scholarly attempt to understand Polish behavior in the light of Polish circumstances is Edna Bonacich's work on middleman minorities. Similar economic models have been developed and elaborated, apparently independently, by Davies, Hertz, Shahak, Zienkowska, and Zuk. Most recently, Amy Chua's work on market dominant minorities has echoed all. This author's acceptance of the middleman minority theory has this impact on this work: focus on the economic features that are often airbrushed out of discussions of outbreaks of anti-Semitism among Poles.
This work is also inspired by George Lakoff. In 1987, Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at U. C. Berkeley, published Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Lakoff challenged the classical view that the mind is merely a computer that places objects in categories based on necessary and sufficient qualities. Lakoff was influenced by Eleanor Rosch, a U. C. Berkeley professor of psychology. She had discovered that, if asked to give an example of "bird," most Americans might say, "robin," rather than "penguin," although both are birds. When asked for an example of fruit, most might say "apple," rather than "pumpkin," although both are fruit. When thinking about a given category, people focus on properties they associate with concrete, prototypical representatives of that category, rather than focusing on necessary and sufficient abstract qualities all members of a category share. When forming categories, people focus on examples that highlight differences between the prototypical example and surrounding categories. People choose a sweet fruit as a prototypical example of fruit because a sweet fruit differentiates fruit with greater contrast from vegetables than a non-sweet fruit like pumpkins or tomatoes. Prototype effects, or errors, result when one quality of a member of a group – that birds lay eggs, for example – is taken as necessary and sufficient to classify an item in the group – egg-laying reptiles are not birds.
Lakoff popularized Rosch's ideas. One reviewer, Owen Flanagan, compared Lakoff to French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Foucault had coined the term "heterotopia." Flanagan defined a "heterotopia" as "a place where incongruous elements come together, where our scheme of classification can no longer track reality, and where our common names lose their trusted powers." "We all exist in heterotopias," wrote Flanagan, "at least as perceived by outsiders ... what seems like a neat, clear, rational, and world-guided conceptual scheme from the inside may hardly seem so from the outside" (Flanagan 344). To support his assertion that we all live in heterotopias as perceived by others who do not categorize as we do, Flanagan offered the title of Lakoff's book. In the classification system central to the Dyirbal people of Australia, women, fire, and dangerous things are inseparably connected. Outsiders do not see the connection.
Lakoff argued that humans classify according to "idealized cognitive models" that provide "organizing principles that affect our categorization of objects and give rise to prototypicality judgments." One type of idealized cognitive model, the metonymic model, can be defined as a model that is used when one part of a category stands in for the whole. Value judgments result. Given that the word "mother" is associated with the metonymic model of "housewife," a working mother may be judged as a lesser mother (Gibbs 272). Lakoff insisted that knowledge is embodied. An understanding of the body that processes any given bit of knowledge is central to an understanding of that knowledge. To understand stereotypes of Poles as Bieganski, one must factor in not just data about Poles, but also data about the "embodiment," in Lakoff's terms, of the person reporting the stereotype.
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 Jew did not see the exuberance, generosity, and creativity that the peasant displayed with his peers.
Another problem arises when the value system – one kind of perspective – of one lifestyle is applied to another. To a doctor, a lawyer, or a journalist, a peasant can never be intelligent – in the way that a doctor, a lawyer, or a journalist is. The urban, formally-educated observer who applies his own set of values to an illiterate peasant will conclude that the peasant is stupid. Any comparable application of the peasant's store of knowledge to the urbanite renders the urbanite stupid. Tekla Hanczarek, a Pole taken to Germany for slave labor during World War Two, understood that the elite's measures of intelligence are not the only measures. Of her, poet John Guzlowski wrote:
She learned that if you are stupid
with your hands you will not survive
the winter even if you survive the fall (Guzlowski 11).
Peasants turn dirt into food. They turn fragile flowers, flax, and weeds, hemp, into suits of clothes. They survive humiliation, exploitation, and the genocidal impulses of invaders from the Tatars to the Nazis. Oral, as opposed to literate peoples pass on, from memory, sustaining myths. Peasants devise strategies that ensure their survival under consistently harsh conditions. One of those strategies is the feigning of stupidity. Tekla told her son how she survived slave labor under the Germans.
She says sometimes she pretended
she was deaf, stupid, crippled,
or diseased with typhus or cholera,
even with what the children called
the French disease, anything to avoid
the slap, the whip across her back
the leather fist in her face above her eye (Guzlowski 70).
Similarly, in Polish stereotypes, Jews lack strength and patriotism, and do not or cannot fight for Poland. Poland never had a more valuable soldier, eager to fight for her freedom and her good name, than Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). His work was supported, at a key moment in his career, by the Jewish banking family, the Rothschilds. Leopold Kronenberg (1812-1878), of Jewish ancestry, "provided substantial funding for the 1863 Uprising" (Wiez 343). The New York Times has a history of significant Jewish ownership and production. The Times' exhaustive and sympathetic Solidarity coverage won Times' reporter John Darnton a Pulitzer Prize; it and coverage like it helped to deconstruct the "Dumb Polak" image in American eyes, and turn Polish workers into the heroes Americans were willing materially and politically to support. When asked, "Who should get the credit?" for bringing down communism, Lech Walesa said, "The journalists, especially the Western ones. If they hadn't publicized our struggle all over the world, we wouldn't have had a chance" (Walesa).
Poles, as well as non-Poles, often define a Pole as either a stupid person, a negative quality, or as a person who does not bother with the silliness of academic pursuits, a positive evaluation of the same quality. Ewa Morawska described Eastern European peasants assessing themselves as constitutionally "stupid," unsuited to formal education, and incompetent with money (Morawska Bread). On the other hand, "Polish aristocratic circles resented Fryderyk Skarbek for 'lowering himself' to be a professor ... Stanislaw Tarnowski's scholarly career was viewed simply as the whim of a great lord" (Hertz 105). And this was the treatment for noble intellectuals. Most Poles were peasants. "Intellectuals of common origin met with unfriendly treatment, mockery, and mistrust" (Hertz 116). Poles who assessed Poles as inept with money might also assess skill with money as a negative quality. In Poland, "economic activity was considered base and contemptible" (Hertz 201). Poles might attribute to Poles qualities of simplicity. When Poles did this, they were evaluating that quality positively. Polish simplicity made Poles an open-hearted, welcoming people whose lack of self interest made their territory a haven for oppressed minorities elsewhere (Golczewski 92).
Polish peasants, as well as others, might assess Poles as physically large. Peasants might give this assessment a positive valuation. In his memoir, former serf Jan Slomka wrote,
Some men, some women, too, were known for their huge build of body – of the kind one rarely meets today. With this often went extraordinary strength ... Such a fellow ... carried neither a club nor a knife ... it was enough for him to shake his fist at anyone. Such folk were ordinarily the best of mortals, and mighty good friends (Slomka 126-7).
Jewish assessments of Poles as workers, peasants, or even as simpler creatures did not always carry a negative valuation. Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote with fondness of simple Polish females whom he depicted as being capable of a generous, selfless love in a way that his Jewish characters are not. Anna Maria Orla Bukowska reported a Catholic woman's pre-World-War-Two reminiscences of embroidering for Jews. The woman embroidered a tablecloth and six napkins. Josef Syskind, the father of the Jewish household for whom the Polish girl worked, commented that no matter how much the Polish girl were paid, "it will always be too little, because she has left her eyes there. She had to sew a lot in order to embroider it like that."
Lauren revealed a similar appreciation of Poles, though she admitted that her image of Poles was of "urban peasants ... not well educated."
By the time I was in high school ... the Solidarity movement had taken off in Poland and Poles were accorded a kind of respect. The image was that of a working class man (salt of the earth) putting everything on the line in order to fight the Evil Communist Empire. There was a certain glamour to it. It's easy to be a revolutionary when you are young and a university student; that's romantic. But being a revolutionary when you are a working husband and the father of children; that's serious commitment.
Pulitzer-prize winning, Jewish-American journalist Meg Greenfield was described by her literary executor, the presidential historian Michael Beschloss, as "one of the most powerful women in Washington and one of the most powerful women in American journalism ... she was almost the embodiment of the Eastern establishment." After she died Beschloss revealed "how much of a daily struggle" it had been for her to cope with that identity. "Every morning she looked in the mirror and said, 'Have I become one of them yet?'" The "them" Greenfield dreaded becoming were "a city full of successful people all pitted against one another ... everyone wanting to be popular ... everyone wanting to sort of get ahead of everyone else." Worldly power and ambition meant "you have to live such a controlled life ... the guy you once knew and liked suddenly when you talked to him in the grocery store he talks to you as if he's orating at the United Nations." Whom did Greenfield figure as the opposite of, the antidote to, this life? Whom, in her tired moments, did she, who had so much, wish she could be? "At the end of her life," Beschloss reported, "she wondered if she should have done this a little differently. ... 'I began to admire [super Polak] Stanley Kowalski,'" she told Beschloss. "You know, that character in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' And I thought, here's this woman who is so known for being so official and controlled, reasoned, deliberate, saying maybe she thought that the guy who acted out of his passions had something after all" (PBS NewsHour).
"Pole, Poland, Polish Culture = anti-Semite = anti-Semitism" is an idealized cognitive model for many persons. It is a part of their folk worldview. It is not, in the language of the computer model metaphor, objective reality processed by a neutral computer that merely reflects, without adding to, subtracting from, or altering, the reality fed into it. This folk classification system leads to prototypicality judgments. For example, "Poland" is shorthand for "anti-Semitism" in international journalism. It is the gold standard against which all other anti-Semitisms are measured. Recent years have seen a booming anti-Semitic industry in Japan (Burress, Goodman, Haberman, Helm and Weisman). Ironically, even the most blatant anti-Semitic material, publications that could never receive mainstream acceptance in Poland as they do in Japan, are understood in comparison to Poland. Writing in the New York Times, author Michael Shapiro assured his readers that Japan's anti-Semitism was not too much of a worry because there was no comparison between it and the "Polish" sort of anti-Semitism. In 1996, Northwestern University Professor Lawrence Lipking was discussing anti-Semitism in England. "Some places are undoubtedly worse," Lipking wrote. "England never went in for pogroms." "Pogrom" is a Russian word often associated with Poland. Lipking is not alone in his confidence that England exhibits a more benign anti-Semitism than Eastern Europe.
Again and again in academic and journalistic accounts of anti-Semitism, one encounters variations on the following formula: "At least the anti-Semitism of group X was not as bad as the anti-Semitism of the Poles." In fact, though, the anti-Semitism in England is not milder than that found in Poland. Lipking could not see the English origin, in Chaucer (blood libel), Dickens (Fagin), and Shakespeare (Shylock) of anti-Semitic images, the tragic record of English anti-Semitism's impact during World War Two, British pogroms from the twelfth century to the twentieth, because the English are not Eastern Europeans, are not Lipking's idealized cognitive model of anti-Semites. After subtracting prototypicality judgments like Lipking's one is left, not with the category of "Pole = anti-Semite," rather, one is left with the category "anti-Semite." That category, "Anti-Semite," can exist – and be lethal – in England or Japan fully as well as in Poland.
Prototypicality judgments render one blind, mute, and morally and strategically hamstrung when confronted with persons like Jan Karski or Irena Sendler who possessed all the qualities meant to signal the identity of an anti-Semite – Polish ethnicity, Catholicism, and nationalism – but who endured torture and risked their lives to save Jews. More extreme in the challenge she offers the mind's category-making capacity is Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, a Polish Catholic nationalist and a self-identified anti-Semite. She co-founded Zegota, the only government-sponsored group in occupied Europe whose raison d'etre was rescuing Jews. Kossak-Szczucka published, in Nazi-occupied Poland, where such publication was a capital offense, clarion calls to save Jews. She was a Righteous Gentile – Jews owe their lives to her – and an Auschwitz prisoner. Jan Mosdorf was a Polish nationalist and an avowed, politically active anti-Semite. In Auschwitz, Mosdorf, before being killed by Germans, risked his life to help Jews. These personages and others like them challenge the category-making capacity of the human mind.
In autumn 2007, Richard Dawkins said that Jews "monopolize American foreign policy" (MacAskill). The statement is a trope of classic anti-Semitism. Dawkins held the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. He is the author of the bestselling atheist tract, The God Delusion. A Lexis search made two years later found no mainstream press articles devoted to remonstrating with Dawkins' 2007 statement. Those weblogs that took Dawkins to task were notable for the number of posts that agreed with him (Pollard). Stereotypes – prototypicality judgments – play a role here. Had a Polish cleric of similar international stature stated that Jews "monopolize American foreign policy," there would have been an uproar. Though Nazis repeatedly cited then current understandings of science and evolution as the justification for their genocide (Weikart), that a famed Darwin scholar made an anti-Semitic statement raised few hackles. In the logic of stereotyping, Dawkins, a leading scientist, an atheist activist, and an upper class Englishman, is the opposite number of the prototype anti-Semite – a Polish Catholic peasant. Dawkins' anti-Semitism is rendered invisible.
Deployments of the Bieganski stereotype blame Polish peasants, not for the real crime of anti-Semitism, which they exhibit to the same degree that other ethnicities under similar conditions exhibit, but, rather, for the crime of being peasants. Anti-Polonist accounts of anti-Semitic crimes committed by Poles focus, not on the modular, international trait of anti-Semitism, but on the specifics of Polish peasant culture. A typical account, part of a flood of articles about Gross' Neighbors, lingered, sensationally, over details: Polish peasants "stabbed [Jewish victims] with the full arsenal of sharp-nosed tools available to farmers … children were battered with wooden staves" (Boyes). It is a safe bet that neither the author of that quote, nor the London Times newspaper that ran it, has ever produced an article focusing on Polish peasants who used their distinctively Polish and peasant tools and skills, and acted on their Polish peasant worldview, to rescue Jews. Such stories are legion. As one Polish peasant rescuer of Jews reported,
In the barn, we boarded up the mow and covered it with lupine. We left one board loose so that we could get food to them. In the spring, when the lupine had to be threshed, we found a trench for the Feldmans ... [Later] we made two dugouts for them in the forest near us. We worked at night. It was worst in the winter, when we had to take food to them and then cover up our tracks (Fundacja 116).
Since Polish ethnicity is, alone, enough to signify anti-Semitism, when Poles do commit anti-Semitic acts, such as the massacre at Jedwabne, no analysis beyond identifying the ethnic identity of the perpetrators is necessary. In fact, any further analysis is all but forbidden and condemned as "polemics" and an attempt to "justify" atrocity. Conversely, when persons not of Polish ethnicity commit anti-Semitic acts, explanations are more than possible – they are necessary. Compare the many articles that appeared after the publication of Gross' books with the many articles that appeared after the publication of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. In the case of Goldhagen, reviewers struggled to cite extreme historical circumstances that played a role in the rise of Nazi Germany, and that conspired to situate otherwise civilized Germans in the commission of evil. In the case of Gross, reviewers insisted that there was no explanation for the horrible behavior of Poles – "Here there is no why," one reviewer asserted – except for Polish culture and the Poles themselves, virtually all of whom are "so brutish …as to have excluded themselves from civilization itself" (Mellen).
Given that the observer's disgust is focused on Polish ethnicity rather than exclusively on anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism practiced by persons who are not Poles is often rendered the comprehensible result of overwhelming historical forces that would act on the observer in the same way as they acted on the anti-Semites; in some cases it is rendered completely invisible. This approach is related to the cultural relativism advanced by superstar scholar Franz Boas in the early part of the twentieth century. An example of this approach: students of history are often exhorted to reflect that had they been in the anti-Semites' historical shoes, they might have done the same (bad) things. Just one of many examples of this: a September, 2007 "Yahoo Answers" questioner asked, "If you had lived in Nazi Germany, would you have 'supported the troops'?" The wording of the question, alluding to the American slogan, "Support the troops," implied a relationship between Nazi Germany and contemporary America, where American soldiers were fighting an unpopular war in Iraq; this wording alone indicated that the questioner saw some equivalence between "us" – Americans – and "them" – Germans in Nazi Germany. Respondents thoughtfully weighed the pressures on Germans; some admitted that they would have supported Germany's Nazi troops.
Recent films have included appealing Nazi characters. There was the suave, handsome Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) in the groundbreaking, multiple Academy-Award winning, 1993 Schindler's List. The prestigious television series, Masterpiece Theater, featured sexy and aristocratic Baron von Rheingarten (Philip Glenister), in the 2004 miniseries, "Island at War." On the PBS website, viewers learn that "Von Rheingarten is …no pushover. He will not be made to look a fool and isn't afraid of making tough decisions, but he understands the frailties of human nature. He is also husband and a lover, away from home and in need of human companionship" (PBS Island). In 2006, The Good German featured Emil Brandt, a noble, handsome, SS man. Authentic Holocaust biographies might feature Jews in hiding. In 2006, it is the "Good German" who must hide; he cowers in a sewer and yearns to take a walk and breathe fresh air. His Jewish wife walks free and smuggles food to him. Brandt must hide because the dastardly Americans want to cover-up atrocities at a Nazi concentration camp. Brandt's wife asks him, "People are thinking of themselves. Why shouldn't you?" Because, Brandt replies, "The world must know the truth. What really happened."
Handsome German star Sebastian Koch played Ludwig Muntze, the Nazi lead in Paul Verhoeven's 2006 Black Book (Zwartboek). In addition to knowingly taking a Jewish lover, Muntze was so appealing that fans at the International Movie Database debated whether he was "too nice." Typical posts: "i think captain muntzen is really hot and i'd fall for him immediately" "Yes, he is a hot 40-something man, no wonder Carice van Houten fell for him instantly. I would too." "A soldier doing his job in a time of war. A pragmatist? A realist? He is VERY likeable." "yeah, he's too hot, and i've fallen 4 him... wow, he really loves her and accepts he as she is. wow...!!!!!! we can't find a kind of man like him, today, yeah." "Well, a lot of people have a very black and white view on World War Two, so the idea of a Nazi officer being sympathetic seems impossible. But it really wasn't that simple. I'm not even sure they all knew about the Holocaust" (imdb.com Zwartboek). The 2008 film Valkyrie featured box office champ Tom Cruise as the heroic Claus von Stauffenberg, who was awarded the Iron Cross for his contribution to the Nazi war effort. In 2008 Kate Winslet won the Academy Award and Golden Globe for her erotic, poignant portrayal of an SS guard who participated in the burning to death of three hundred Jewish concentration camp inmates. Winslet's scenes included full frontal nudity, graphic, tender lovemaking, and inspirational depictions of the SS guard overcoming illiteracy and teaching herself to read. The Reader was nominated for the best picture Academy Award.
Christoph Waltz, as charismatic Nazi Hans Landa in 2009's "Inglourious Basterds," inspired moist yearning. Fans gave themselves screen names including "MlleWaltz" and "AhhhhhhhhLanda." One, who self-identified as Jewish, wrote, "I work at a movie theatre … I can go inside the theatres in hopes of catching him onscreen. If he doesn't appear, I move on, disappointed. But if he IS on, I stay in there far longer than I really should. I must have watched the strudel scene twenty times, the Italian scene 15 times, and the ending … around fifty … By the time I emerge from the theatre, I'm as giddy as a schoolgirl and singing Judy Garland specifically, Dear Mr. Gable" (imdb.com Christoph Waltz).
If humans applied the classical method of categorization, in which necessary and sufficient qualities render all items in a category equal – in which any one anti-Semite were as repugnant as any other anti-Semite, and anti-Semitism alone, not ethnicity, religion, or social class, determined inclusion in the category – there would be no difference between the level of revulsion observers feel for one anti-Semite, of one ethnicity or social class, and another. That we do not apply that system is demonstrated by popular culture. Anyone who wagers that a top box office star like Liam Neeson, George Clooney or Tom Cruise would appear in a film focused on a sexy, appealing, heroic Polish peasant would certainly lose his bet.
Rather, in the Bieganski worldview, and other racist worldviews like it, anti-Semitism belongs to Poles and Poland. Similarly, greed, sexual ineptitude and/or intelligence are not universally human characteristics. Rather, in this racist view, they are either the exclusive property of Jews, or are qualities that can only achieve their pinnacle when expressed by Jews. In this racist view, further, dirt, lust, violence, and drunkenness are not universal human potentialities. Rather, in this racist view, dirt, lust, violence and drunkenness are either the exclusive property of Poles, or reach their Platonic ideal form only when expressed by Poles. The intelligence expressed by non-Jews is somehow a vitiated form of intelligence; the violence and stupidity expressed by non-Poles are lesser forms of violence and stupidity.
Racism homes in on high-profile individuals or events that seem to "prove" its logic. Not just bestial Poles haunted the pages of America's popular press in early 2001, when Neighbors was released. A major scandal of the outgoing Clinton administration was President Clinton's issuance of a pardon to financier and Jew Marc Rich. This pardon unleashed a flood of outrage notable even for a president who generated a great deal of scandal. Marc Rich was widely condemned as unworthy of the pardon. A profile of him in Vanity Fair described a man who, like the violent peasants of Gross' Neighbors, seemed to have stepped right out of the central casting office that hammers out ethnic stereotypes. A favored motif of anti-Semitic material is the international financier who manipulates world politics. Marc Rich was described as "defined by his money, the kind of wealth that moves governments and transcends borders." Rich's wealth, according to those who'd hoped to prosecute him, was significantly not the kind that builds, but, rather, that destroys. He was especially powerful in Eastern Europe.
"From Nigeria to Russia, everyone was on the payroll of Marc Rich ... he hijacked Jamaica's economy ... Rich became the sole provider of energy needs, grain, gas, oil, coal, at a higher than fair rate ... he controls the country ... [Rich] served as the teacher of a new breed of corrupt Russian traders, who looted the country's natural resources, which ruined the economy and bankrupted the government" (quotes in Orth 217).
In 2002, Dennis Kozlowski also gained fame as a corrupt businessman. A Google search shows that mentions of Marc Rich are much more likely to include his Jewish ethnicity than mentions of Dennis Kozlowski are to include his Polish-Catholic identity. There is no stereotype of Poles as corrupt, high-stakes wheeler-dealers. Similarly, in 2009, the Bernard Madoff scandal was eagerly embraced by anti-Semites, convinced that Madoff proved their every fantasy true.
Racism insists that an individual's expression of qualities not attributed to the stereotype of the ethnicity to which an individual has been assigned is pathological, sinful, unnatural, deviant, tragic, or merely inappropriate. A relatively benign version of this logic can be seen in a passage from Yehiel Yeshayahu Trunk's (1887-1961) memoir, Polin. This passage describes Simcha Geige, an earthy Jewish man, in terms of a Polish peasant.
As I remember him, Simcha Geige walked around all day, in the manner of peasants, in an undershirt and trousers. He would get up with the goyim and the chickens. An odor of the barn exuded from him. Simcha Geige was friendly with the peasants and use to curse them in accord with their custom. His language was authentically peasant-like and the company of peasants was more pleasant to him than the intimacy of the Rabbi of Strikev. Simcha Geige was never separated from the pistol in his pocket and use to have a wild pleasure when he was shooting a few rounds among the trees. The echo of the shots in the wood, the voice of the cuckoo all around, the lowing of the cattle, the calls of the chicken and the geese, the mysterious humming of the ancient and massive oaks in the forests of Laginsky, the song of wind and rain, aroused in the crude and primitive heart of Simcha Geige a sweeter echo than the delicate and fragile sighs of the study tables of the righteous to which grandpa Baruch used to drag him on occasion. (Boyarin 78)
Simcha Geige was not understood to be an outdoorsy Jew; rather, he was seen as a Polish peasant, as if the qualities of outdoorsy-ness and violence belonged to Polish peasants. Of course, in Simcha Geige's world, by human decisions, these qualities did belong to Polish peasants, but that possession was a matter of culture, not spiritual or biological destiny. Similarly, Isaac Bashevis Singer created a Pole who was understood to be a Jew. "He had all the qualities attributed to Jews. He shunned fighting, could not stand liquor ...read serious books, avoided athletic sports, visited museums and art shows" (Singer Moskat 296).
As in racist Jewish folk understandings of earthiness and violence as exclusively Polish, and never Jewish, property, there is a racist Polish folk understanding of cosmopolitanism and intellectuality as exclusively Jewish, and never Polish, property. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the former Polish prime minister, and alleged crypto-Jew, was a devout Roman Catholic. But he was also an urbanite, an intellectual, and a political leader with some prestige in the wider world. In the racist understanding that quality x is the sole property of ethnicity y, in this case that the qualities of intellectualism and worldliness are the exclusive property of Jews, Mazowiecki is no Pole because he is not a common laborer, because he wears suits, and because he thinks. He must be a Jew, regardless of the ethnicity of his birth parents, his native tongue, or his own self-identification.
Adam Michnik summarized this anti-Semitic thinking this way: "Kowalski is a scoundrel; therefore he is a Jew" (Engelberg). That is, to these anti-Semites, the very quality of scoundrel-ness is perceived as the exclusive property of Jews. Not just negatively evaluated qualities are understood to be the property or function of one ethnicity. In 1987, Marek Edelman, then the sole surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, was asked what constituted Jewish identity. He identified non-Jewish Polish Solidarity activists, then in hiding from authorities who wanted them dead, as Jewish, because, "A Jew always has a sense of community with the very weakest" (Across Frontiers 33).
This work contains excerpts from informant interviews. Except for John Guzlowski, who chose to use his real name, most informants are identified by pseudonyms chosen by them. Non-standard spelling, grammar, and punctuation have not been changed in transcripts of face-to-face interviews, informant e-mails, or in material taken from the internet. "Sic," indicating verbatim quotes in which language has not been standardized, is used minimally.
In these lengthy interview transcripts, there are no Bieganskis, and there are no Shylocks. Soundbites are short excerpts from much longer texts. They are calculated to advance an often invidious agenda. One need look no further than Alina Cala's The Image of the Jew in Polish Folk Culture. Cala does not name her peasant informants. They have no faces, no life stories, no joys, no sorrows, no homes, no families, no dignity, no logic, no humanity. They are not reduced to mere statistics; that would be less invasive. Cala reduces peasants to soundbites. A Cala informant says of Jews that they were "clean but also dirty." In real life, if someone made such a self-contradictory utterance, the natural thing to do would be to ask for an explanation. It is easy to regard these peasants as other, and to hate them. Cala's informants might experience only humiliation and pain reading her redaction of their words, and of their selves.
Transcripts reveal informants, Poles and Jews, to be full human beings. Exactly like the reader, these informants have families, homes, and lives, and tell stories. From these deeply textured stories, conclusions are drawn. Were these human beings reduced to statistics, this work would state that 100% of Poles came from families where drunkenness, a lack of formal education, and domestic violence were prevalent; 100% of Jews regarded Jews as arrogant, superior, separatist, or cheap. Those statistics would lie more than tell the truth. Transcripts reveal intelligent, sensitive Poles struggling with family members who lived punishing lives as coal miners, farmers, or survivors of Nazism, who drank and beat their loved ones, and yet who could, with effort, be understood. Transcripts of Jewish informants reveal people who treated me, a Polish American, as their equal and were generous with their time, who struggled with memories of family members who seemed to fit a stereotype – though their cheap Jewish relatives were no different from my – or your – cheap non-Jewish relatives.
Context molds identity and understandings of identity. No informant began an interview by announcing, "All the Poles I know are drunken fools; all the Jews I know are Shylocks." People arrived at Bieganski or Shylock as if they were laid-out costumes. Informants, given my prods, were reminded of stories that caused them to approach the costumes, and to back away from them. These journeys – toward and away from thinking in stereotypical terms – are recorded in transcripts. Wolf remembered a fight between his wife and sister; that caused him to comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given different prods from me, Wolf might never have addressed Israel. Humans structure their cognitive lives, including their understanding of their own ethnicity and that of others, around stories.
What people say at the beginning of their reply is often different from what they say at the end of their reply; their transcript serves as a map of the cognitive route they took to arrive at their new destination. Julius reported, "I'm not observant … I don't keep kosher. Most anything that I was told nice Jewish boys do, I don't do. I even play touch football." Julius struggles with the idea of God and felt he could be an atheist. He was dating a Lutheran. Would he raise his children Jewish? "I can't imagine no." By the end of Julius' interview, he admitted that he was still Jewish enough that, were he ever to marry his Christian girlfriend, he would allow neither a Christmas tree nor a cross in his house, nor would he allow his children to be raised Christian.
Jeff began by saying that he had no prejudices or grudges against Poles, that, rather, he blamed Cossacks and Germans for anti-Semitism, and that his mother never disassociated herself from her Polish roots. Later, when asked about possible travel to Poland, Jeff refused to go and identified Poles as "complicit in the Holocaust." Informants often began by insisting that they had no experience of anti-Semitism in America, but went on to recount harrowing experiences. Every time I asked verbally, Jacob insisted that he had never experienced anti-Semitism. I then asked, "Nothing ever happened that made you – " and I cringed. Observing my body language, Jacob told of his friend telling him an anti-Semitic joke, and concluded, "I haven't thought about it till now, when you asked about something that made you cringe. I totally understand the cringing feeling."
Stories are made of language, and these transcripts, recorded in the informants' own words, express deep truths that only poetry can. When informant John Guzlowski said of his childhood as a Polish American, "Nothing ever seemed to go right…Shirts – even brand new ones – would be stained or missing a button," I, a Polish-American who also grew up in economically strained, working class circumstances, understood perfectly. When Ruth insisted that a "tiny black cat" became, to her and her university chums, emblematic of Polish people's inferiority, I knew I'd heard a story that demonstrated, in a way that no summary could, how the human mind verifies stereotypes. Transcripts chart language's record of emotions and cognition. Sylvia's sudden switch from "they" to "we" when talking of the persecution of Jews, and her polysyndeton – "they've been kicked out and they've been persecuted and we've been purged and we've been murdered" – reveal much about Sylvia's understanding of her Jewish identity.
Sylvia followed up her passionate litany of her people's suffering with statements ending with a rising inflection, as if they were questions, "I think that there's some significant differences? In terms of other places that we've ever been? That make it safer?" That rising inflection poignantly underlines Sylvia's identification with the suffering of her people, and her own vulnerability; a summary could not capture this. Blue emphasized the association of Poles with stupidity in the way that speakers emphasize anything: by repeating his point over and over. In print, he might have written, "Unequivocally, Poles are associated with stupidity." While speaking, Blue drove this point home by repeating it eight times.
Finally, stories reflect life's ability to insist on a reality that we, ourselves, could never imagine, or, if imagined, would not dare to tell. The ironic conclusion to Aaron's saga of the search for the perfect Jewish wife is worthy of Isaac Bashevis Singer. This "surprise ending" reminds the reader that life refuses to conform to our best attempts to reduce it to a pattern, an idea one must constantly, and humbly, keep in mind when approaching Polish-Jewish relations.
A note on terminology: as per widely followed convention, a "Pole" is someone whose ancestors spoke Polish and were not Jewish; a "Jew" is someone whose ancestors were Jewish. Dr. Roman Solecki was born in Poland, speaks Polish as a first language, and fought in the Home Army. He is an atheist. In spite of all this, he is identified as a "Jew." There is prickly debate around all methods of identification of Poles and Jews. For example, if a Pole focuses on the distinctiveness of the Jewish people in Poland, he can stand accused of not recognizing Jews as an integral part of Poland (Nosowski 162). On the other hand, Poles, with pride, tend to understand Bruno Szulc as a national author. In defending Yad Vashem's appropriation of Bruno Szulc murals from a house in Ukraine, formerly Poland, Seth Wolitz, the Gale Jewish Studies Professor at U. T. Austin, declared that it was only right for Israelis to take work created by a Jew, because "Jews in Eastern Europe were always a distinct nationality. The Schulz paintings belong to the direct inheritor: Israel" (Wolitz). In short, "Pole" and "Jew" are terms of art and convention; there are no easily accepted alternative terms.
Subsequent chapters address how the Bieganski and Shylock stereotypes arrived in the United States, their prominence in mainstream culture and scholarship, Bieganski in American movies, Bieganski in discussion of the Holocaust, and excerpts from lengthy interview transcripts with modern American Jews and Poles talking about their own identities and the identities of other Jews and Poles.
"Danusha Goska's daring and far-reaching study examines the sources and prevalence of stereotyped images of Poles as brutal, subhuman creatures. Drawing on her extensive research in history, popular culture, and folklore, and also on interviews of Poles and Jews in America today, interviews of both stereotypers and victims of stereotyping, she teaches us all something profound about how the image of the Polak originated and why it continues to flourish."
John Guzlowski, author of "The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald" and "Lightening and Ashes"
"A powerful, provocative, ultimately profound work of scholarship regarding the stereotypification of Poles and its implications not only for Polish-Jewish relations in the Old World and the New, but also for anyone wishing to fathom the interworkings of class and ethnicity in an America that has all too often fallen short of its promise."
--James P. Leary, folklorist, University of Wisconsin
"In this most important work, Dr. Goska's style incorporates those necessary ingredients that justify writing as an art form: her grammar is impeccable, even while the pathways of her sentences can be unpredictable. Her imagery is robust, but yet it never gets in the way of the underlying premises of her arguments. Moreover, her thinking is crisp, and her knowledge of this very sensitive topic is thoroughly evident. Indeed, the reader cannot help but be persuaded by the logical unfolding of the positions she brings to this necessary work. Above all, she establishes that all-important trust in her readers: that while she may jostle their previously-held constructs, she will also protect them on a literary journey that could be harrowing and dangerous in lesser hands."
Dr. Michael Herzbrun, Rabbi Temple Emanu-El, Rochester, NY
"Stereotypes of Poles have been commonplace in Western society. Danusha V. Goska presents a comprehensive overview of such images in a balanced fashion. She offers no apologetic for genuine instance of Polish anti-Semitism. But she also exposes those rooted in outright prejudice with no foundation in fact. An important contribution to improved Polish-Jewish understanding."
John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, Ph.D
Catholic Theological Union
United States Holocaust Memorial Council
Council's Subcommittee on Church Relations
Committee on Conscience
''Bieganski is a truly important book because it challenges and demolishes the widely held belief that Poles are nothing more than ignorant and brutish anti-Semites who played a central role in causing the Holocaust. Goska does a first-rate job of describing how Jews and Poles really interacted with each other over their rich history together. Let's hope that this book is widely read and helps change the conventional wisdom about Polish-Jewish relations.''
John J. Mearsheimer
R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago
"Bieganski describes a stereotype of the Poles as 'a brute, a man existing only slightly above the level of an animal…Goska shows that negative Polish stereotypes, unlike negative stereotypes of other national, racial, and ethnic groups, continue to be acceptable…Goska does an admirable job showing negative Polish stereotypes.' 'Goska's book raises two troubling questions. Why, when the Germans planned and carried out the Holocaust, do so many people blame Poland and have a higher opinion of Germany than of Poland? Why, when both Poles and Jews were both victims of Hitler's racist theories, do some from both sides so despise each other?' The Bieganski stereotype... 'Can alleviate Nazi guilt.'"
Daniel T. Weaver, Upstream
"'Bieganski' in American culture: 'a prototypically anti-Semitic Polish character,' popularized by the novel Sophie's Choice. Goska's argument is complex and considers not only cultural but also political shifts that impacted the process of appropriation of Holocaust memory by the Jewish communities in both the United States and Israel. Ultimately, Goska maintains, admission of Polish victimhood in the Holocaust 'undermines a Jewish identity which stresses victimhood. At least it encourages an unedifying competition in victimhood--who suffered most becomes the feature of Polish-Jewish polemics'. 'The necessity of Bieganski,' Goska finally argues, lies also on an even higher platform: it gives illusion of absolving those who failed in their own test of humanity, by placing blame on easily identifiable others."
Anna D. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann Eastern Connecticut State University
"A groundbreaking study of Polish stereotypes in America"
Thaddeus C Radzilowski, The Shofar Journal of Jewish Studies
Goska’s book raises serious questions that deserve further objective study devoid of the emotional fog created by today’s political correctness and general acceptance of the very stereotypes that she identifies.
James Pula h-net
Post a Comment
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.