Friday, March 30, 2018

One Polish American's Remarkable Story: Gene Sokolowski, Son of a Concentration Camp Survivor, Grandson of a Nazi Officer

For my immigration visa, issued under the Displaced Persons Act.
Female Hitler Youth 
 My father’s membership record in the Polish Association of Concentration Camp Prisoners. The two stamps show the prisoner badge he had to wear, which is a red triangle pointed downward with the letter P for Pole. The record also shows that he was first sent to the Radom prison before being sent to the concentration camps.

My father, Jan, was from Horodyszcze, a village about 25 miles south of Biała Podlaska. He was captured by the Germans in 1943 and survived four concentration camps: Gross-Rosen, called “The Bone Mill” by the Germans; Dachau; Natzweiler Struthof in occupied France; and Neuengamme. As a child, I remember him telling me that every day, he didn’t know if he would live or die.

My mother, Lieselotte, was the daughter of a Nazi Party political officer in Dresden. Her father wanted her to marry an SS officer. She wanted to be a nurse, which her father opposed. He relented after Hitler announced the need for more Brauneschwester, which was the nursing corps established for the SS.

Candidates had to meet rigorous SS screening requirements, which included family records through seven generations confirming Aryan racial purity and excellent physical and mental health. She qualified and told me that, when the examiners stamped “Good Racial Material” on her application, her father was very proud.

In early April 1945, as the British approached Neuengamme, the Germans evacuated the camp and forced the prisoners to march to Lübeck, about 80 miles away. The SS guards had strict orders to kill prisoners who could no longer walk and thousands were shot. In late April 1945, the Germans loaded about 9,300 surviving prisoners onto the ships Cap Arcona, Thielbek, and Athen. Jan was on the Athen. The prisoners were confined in the ships’ holds for several days without food or water.

On 3 May 1945, RAF squadrons attacked the ships in the Bay of Lübeck. The RAF said it believed they carried SS troops escaping to Norway. The RAF also said that intelligence confirming that the ships instead carried prisoners didn’t reach the RAF squadrons in time to halt the attack. The Cap Arcona and Thielbek were sunk, the RAF strafed the prisoners in the water, and only a handful survived.

The Athen was some miles away near Neustadt and, although strafed by the RAF, it was not sunk and the 2,000 prisoners survived. The British then established a Displaced Persons camp in Neustadt for the Neuengamme survivors and this is where Jan lived. My mother told me that my father told her that RAF pilots definitely saw the prisoners in their prison garb on the Athen's deck but continued strafing. That same year, the British government sealed its report on what took place for the next 100 years.

For my mother’s first year of training, she spent six months in Germany followed by six months on the Russian Front. For her second year, she was in Dresden’s hospital treating the wounded that had fought the advancing Russians. In mid-February 1945, the British and Americans firebombed Dresden. Her hospital was destroyed and, although many of her nurse colleagues were killed, she survived through sheer luck and it was a French medical guest worker that pulled her from the rubble.

On 8 May 1945, Germany surrendered and, as Dresden was in the Soviet-occupied sector of the country, Soviet troops did pretty much what they wanted. Rape was common and my mother remembered one poor girl she treated who had been torn from front to back. She avoided rape by following the advice of the wife of a Russian officer. She was told to wear her nursing uniform whenever she went out on the street. The Russians had an especially strong respect for medical personnel and this worked for her.

In early 1946, there were rumors that the Soviets would close the border between eastern Germany and western Germany. They began closing the border in June. Not wanting to be trapped in the Soviet sector, Lieselotte left. Her nurse friend in Hamburg said there might be work there, so she put some potatoes in her pockets and slipped onto a freight train headed for Hamburg. As it turned out, there was no work in Hamburg but her friend told her to try Neustadt, so she went there. Still without work and hungry, she went to a movie theater. It was standing room only and, weak from hunger, she reeled backward into Jan, who caught her.

I was born in a DP camp in Germany (Neustadt in Holstein) in 1947. Life in the DP camp was austere. Germany was an occupied country and Allied policy was that no help should be given in rebuilding it except for the minimum necessary to mitigate starvation. Jan and his Polish buddies made schnapps to exchange for meat with local Germans. Because of the scarcity of meat, they sometimes had to pilfer piglets from local farmers. When she could, Lieselotte worked on local farms and brought home vegetables. She also made schnapps deliveries by hiding the bottles under me in the baby carriage.

The trauma of the concentration camps left my father emotionally distraught. My mother told me he was becoming increasingly controlling and she believed he was fearful of losing her. Meanwhile, she had to withstand venomous denigration from local Germans, who called her a Polish whore and spit on me in the baby carriage. Her father in Dresden was incensed that his racially pure daughter married a Pole and gave birth to a Polish baby. When she sent him a letter with a photo of me in it, he returned it unanswered. When she wanted to take me to Dresden, her father refused to have me in his house.

Knowing that the Displaced Persons Act would expire in August 1952, Jan applied for emigration to the U.S. Lieselotte’s father insisted that I emigrate with him because, as a Pole, I would always be a second-class person in Germany while, as an American, I would not. It was an agonizing decision for her because she knew that she likely would never see me again.

In June 1951, Jan and I left Bremerhaven on the USS M. B. Stewart and arrived at Ellis Island on 27 June. Because he couldn’t care for me, he placed me in the Polish Roman Catholic orphanage in New Britain, CT. The nuns were very strict and discipline was harsh. When we were punished, we had to hold our hands out and have our palms hit with a belt.

My father then put me in the Swedish Christian Lutheran orphanage in Cromwell, CT. It was on a working farm with cows, pigs, chickens, and vegetable gardens. I was five years old and now had to learn English. My father visited me every few months and we always spoke Polish. When I was nine, I told him that I couldn’t speak Polish anymore. After that, we only spoke English.

At first, life was difficult for my father. His English was very limited and, as a cabinet maker, he only had occasional employment. After he joined a labor union, employment was more stable. In general, life in the orphanage was satisfactory. We worked hard on the farm and were never hungry. I was given piano lessons and sang in the choir. The Swedes who managed the orphanage also managed a Swedish college in Chicago (now North Park University). At 18, I left the orphanage and was on my own. I enrolled at North Park, which is where I met my wife, Ginny.

I have a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, an M.S. in Systems Management from the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, an M.A. in Science, Technology, and Public Policy from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, a B.A. in German from the University of Maryland, and a B.A. in Mathematics from North Park University in Chicago.

For my first life following graduation in 1969, I was a career Air Force Telecommunications Officer and my family and I spent 11 of our 20 years overseas. Following retirement from the Air Force, my second life was as a Systems Analyst with Northrop Grumman. For my third life, I was an IT Specialist with the Federal Government. With this as a background, one might think I’d be a tad nit-oriented (OK, I might be). I’m now in my fourth and last life, i.e., retirement. My wife and I enjoy being able to spend more time with our three adult children, their spouses, and our five grandchildren.

Fortunately, I was able to reunite with my mother in 1976. I was stationed in Kansas City, MO, and had to go to Germany on business. A fellow officer who had emigrated from Germany at the age of nine was going with me and because he spoke some German, he offered to find my mother. We were successful and it was a highly emotional experience. She had remarried and had two sons, Thomas and Matthias. Her husband Moritz accepted me as a third son and the boys accepted me as their older brother. My mother is now 92 and lives in Lübeck. I call her twice monthly. My father died in 1990.

I was able to find my relatives in Poland using a picture of my grandmother’s headstone that my father had. With the help of the Papal Nuncio in Warsaw, I wrote to the priest whose church served Horodyszcze. He relayed my letter to my relatives in Biała Podlaska and I met them in 2006. Anna, my first cousin, welcomed me with the traditional Slavic greeting of bread and salt.

I now have the one problem. Every time my Polish side puts me in a cheerful state celebrating life, my German side psychoanalyzes everything and messes up my day. It’s really annoying.

My mother and I in our room at the DP camp.
 My father while at the DP camp.
Despite the austerity,
he was able to assemble an outfit popular in pre-war Poland. 
My mother and I, circa 2000, on the Baltic shore.
Moritz took the photo and we were in Wismar, which is in the former East Germany.
My wife and I in front of Ford’s Theater in D.C.
under a banner featuring our daughter Jenna,
who starred in “The Glass Menagerie” two years ago. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Roseanne Barr and an Unspeakable Holocaust Joke

I just discovered, through Facebook, that back in the day Roseanne Barr, newly re-famous Trump supporter, made a Holocaust joke so grotesque I won't even describe it here. You can read about it here

NY Assemblyman Dov Hikind: Poland Murdered Jews. Poland is Responsible for the Holocaust

NY Assemblyman Dov Hikind has launched a website entitled Poland Murdered Jews. See it here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Support a Polish American Writer and Buy Save Send Delete at 60% Off!

Amazon has my book Save Send Delete on sale right now. 70% off; only six dollars. What have you got to lose? Support a Polish American writer. Reviewers call the book "profound," "surprising," and "funny." You can buy Save Send Delete at this huge sale price here

Friday, March 16, 2018

Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype on YouTube

Here is a video of me talking about Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype. 

Janusz Sujecki, Honoree for Preserving Jewish Heritage in Poland, Returns Award: Anti-Polish Attacks in Israel

Janusz Sujecki had been honored, in July, 1998,  for preserving Jewish heritage in Poland. He has returned his award. He cites anti-Polish attacks in Israel. 

Sujecki's letter is very powerful and it should be read in its entirety. One can read it here.

Thank you to Ane for this. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

US Ambassador Christopher R. Hill and Bieganski: "Revenge of the Peasants."

From Andrzej Wajda's film "The Wedding." 
Sometimes I think people think that I just made up Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype

And then someone comes along and makes a comment that is just so perfect in its ugly egregiousness that I can only laugh. 

A United States *ambassador to Poland* called the new Holocaust speech law "Revenge of the peasants." 

A *diplomat*! 

You can't make this stuff up, people. You just can't.

Christopher R. Hill is a former US ambassador to Poland. He is now with the University of Denver -- government and academia, both purveyors of the Bieganski stereotype. 

Read more at the Washington Post here.

PS: I oppose the new speech law, and I broke it, and break it regularly, on this blog and in published writing. I also oppose stereotyping Poles as peasants, and stereotyping peasants as monsters. 

I plan to write to University of Denver Chancellor Chopp and ask her to invite me to her campus to educate Mr Hill and others about the Bieganski stereotype. If you'd like to contact her as well, please do. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Bieganski in Polityka

Article in Polityka that references my work on Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype. The author of this article interviewed me for a long time, and he seemed interested in what I had to say. The greater part of what I did say does not appear in the article, alas. In any case, I am very grateful that Polityka offered some coverage to my work. You can read the article here.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Bella, a Polish-Jewish Girl

From the book, "Rescuers," by Block and Drucker. 

In the book Rescuers, Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, authors Gay Block and Malka Drucker tell many stories, including that of Agnieszka Budna-Widerschal. 

Agnieszka, a Polish Catholic, saved six Jewish men in Nazi-occupied Poland. She hid them for three years. 

She married a Polish-Jewish man. 

They had a daughter, Bella. 

Agnieszka told Block and Drucker, "In 1954 there was a wave of anti-Semitism."

Some Polish children, a few years older than nine-year-old Bella, came to the house and invited Bella out for a walk. They walked near the train station. The train conductor witnessed the Polish children push Bella in front of the train. Bella died. 

Agnieszka and her husband Shimon emigrated to Israel. 

Bella did not deserve the die. There was anti-Semitism in Poland in the interwar and post-war periods. Denying this historical reality is not helpful. 

You can watch part of the interview with Agnieszka here.   

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Jerusalem Post: 1946 US Document Alleges that Poles Treated Jews as Badly as Germans Treated Jews

Read article here.

Allied 2016: Glamorous, Sexy, Admirable Nazi Spy

My book, Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype argues that stereotypical brutal, superstitious, primitive, Polish, Catholic peasants are often labeled as the most significant authors of the Holocaust, while stereotypically clean, rational, modern German Nazis are whitewashed. This process occurs in academia, in popular culture, in journalism, and on discussion boards.

Perhaps the most shocking redemption of German Nazis occurs in the film Decision before Dawn. You can read a blog post about that film here. The whitewashing of German Nazis can be found in more recent films, such as Black Book, The Reader and The Exception.

In the 2016 film Allied, Marion Cotillard plays a French woman spying for the Nazis. She marries Brad Pitt. Pitt's superiors discover that she is a Nazi spy. They order him to shoot her dead. In a final, noble, heart-wrenching gesture, after kissing her and Pitt's baby goodbye, Cotillard shoots herself dead, sparing Pitt the nasty deed. The scene takes place in an airport. It is meant to evoke the final scene of Casablanca. That final scene was all about noble self-sacrifice. The most noble person in this film is a Nazi spy.

At no point does the movie make any effort to explain why spying for the Nazis was a rotten thing to do. The only heartless killing in the film is carried out by Pitt, an Allied soldier, and Cotillard, when aiding Pitt. They murder nice Nazis with whom they had previously socialized. The nice Nazis are shown to look quite sad on camera before they die.

The only human suffering shown in the film is a British soldier, Guy Sangster, played by Matthew Goode. Goode wears gruesome face make-up to indicate the cost of war on soldiers. He cries alone in the hospital, and says he feels betrayed by Great Britain.

Forward: Polish Priest Says that Truth for Jews is Whatever is Beneficial to Jews

From the article: 

Father Henryk Zielinski, editor-in-chief of the Catholic weekly Idziemy, said that

"Jews have 'a completely different system of values, a different concept of truth,' Zielinski said. 'For us, the truth corresponds to facts. For the Jew, truth means something that conforms to his understanding of what’s beneficial. If a Jew is religious, then truth means something God wants.'

In non-religious Jews, 'the truth is subjective or whatever serves Israel’s interests,' he added."

Read the article here

Algemeiner: Antisemitic Images Are Flooding Polish Media

from Do Rzeczy

Alegemeiner reproduced this cartoon from a Polish publication, Najwyższy Czas

Algemeiner reports that antisemitic images are now "flooding" Polish media. Read more here

The comments section of the same Algemeiner piece reveals that Poles and Poland are also being stereotyped in equally ugly ways. Here is one comment: 

"Can anyone have any doubts that Poland was absolutely complicit in the murder of 3+ million Jews during the holocaust? It's not that Poles were subjugated during the war by the Germans, but rather they actively participated in identifying Jews to be rounded up and sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz and Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblink, etc death camps.

"Moreover, many of the population who in fact murdered Jews. This is historic fact and no amount of subterfuge by the current Polish government can ever erase this. When you step back and look at the full view, can there be any doubt that anti Semitism is very much alive and well in Poland?"