I was contacted by Polish journalist, Aleksandra Rybinska. Her questions and my
full answers are below. You can read the interview in Polish, here.
Polish-American. I was born in the US of immigrant family. My parents were from
peasant families. My dad was Polish. My mom was Slovak. My dad mined coal as a
child. This was a typical job for Polish immigrants. My mom cleaned houses.
This is also a typical immigrant job.
went to graduate school and earned a PhD, which is not a typical thing for a
Polish-American of my generation to do. I was supposed to become a house
cleaner or factory worker.
grad school, I was often treated with hostility and contempt. This surprised
me. Professors insulted me openly in class, or one-on-one in private meetings.
Not all professors, but plenty.
insults' theme was that Poles are ignorant, bigoted, primitive, anti-Semites.
that book, I talk about how American, Western European, and Israeli culture
cultivate and disseminate an image of Poles and other Eastern Europeans as
brutes. We are supposed to be stupid, brutal, hateful, dirty, and anti-Semitic.
This image is found in films, in novels, in TV shows, in poetry, in memoirs, in
news accounts, and in academic writing.
and if Polish-Americans resist this image, they are told that they are
resisting exactly *because* they are brutes. They are in denial about their own
document this extensively in the book. I cite film after film, novel after
novel. Readers are often shocked by the sheer amount of data. It is undeniable
that Americans, Western Europeans, and many Israelis have an unconscious bias
your readers hear nothing else from me, they need to hear this. If they care at
all about addressing stereotypes of Poles, they must read "Bieganski,"
either the English language version or the Polish language version available
from Wysoki Zamek publishing. They should also read my Bieganski blog.
people have not addressed this stereotype in a strategic way, and many of their
efforts are self-sabotaging.
brings me to your first question.
relationship between Israel and Poland soured after the Polish parliament
adopted the so-called Holocaust law. The reaction of many Israeli politicians
and members of the Jewish diaspora surprised the Polish government and many
average Poles, who thought that all the historical facts were known and agreed
upon. Were they naive to think so? Are we still settling our accounts?"
the Polish government made a huge mistake. Because the Polish government is
me for repeating myself, but I must. Poles MUST read "Bieganski."
They must inform themselves about the Brute Polak stereotype. It is pervasive.
A good part of the time, the Brute Polak stereotype, not objective reality,
fashions how people think about Poles and Polish-Jewish relations.
have said to me, "Oh, your book is not necessary, because Poles are no
longer peasant immigrants. Now they are computer programmers and
human mind doesn't work that way. Stereotypes follow the dictates of what the
mind needs to be true.
Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, what is often referred to as the
Polish Holocaust Speech Law, is a public relations disaster. It is a disaster
that never needed to have happened, if only anyone in power in Poland had read
repeat. The Brute Polak stereotype is widespread. People who aren't even aware
that they harbor prejudices against Poles often reveal, upon questioning, that
they DO harbor prejudices against Poles. My informants would often say to me,
"I have no prejudices against Poles. I would never tell a dumb Polak
joke." But then, upon further questioning, they would say things like,
"I can never forgive the Poles for the Holocaust." Or, "I knew
he was Polish so I just assumed he was anti-Semitic."
people who harbor the Brute Polak stereotype hear that Poland has instituted a
law criminalizing some speech about the Holocaust, these people automatically
conclude that Poland is ashamed of having carried out the Holocaust, and, out
of its shame, Poland is living up to the brute image and suppressing free
this law, Poland shot itself in the foot. Poland sabotaged itself. Poland
played right into the hands of those who despise Poles.
your next question.
politicians in Poland accuse each other of not having done enough to rectify
lies or half-truths told about the role of Poles in WWII and to not have
promoted the Polish historical narrative enough. Do we indeed have ourselves to
from the US, but I have visited Poland five times, first in 1978. Each visit
was long. In 1988-89 I lived in Poland for the year. In addition to having
lived in Poland, I've also lived and worked in Africa and Asia. Both times I
lived and worked in countries classified as among the poorest on earth.
someone who has lived internationally, I can say that I found daily life in
Poland to be very hard. In fact, in some ways, life in Poland under Communism
was harder than daily life in the Central African Republic. Yes, in Africa I had
to confront the unpredictable violence of a failed state, pervasive parasites
and disease, and equatorial heat that sucked the life out of you. No
electricity, no running water. But in Africa there was hope. This isn't just my
subjective opinion. Polls show that Africans are exceptionally hopeful. See,
for example, the 2013 Pew Poll of Global Attitudes, here.
had been through hell. Hell, Aleksandra. Hell. When I visited for the first
time, in 1978, I was walking past people who had seen the Nazi invasion, the
Blitzkrieg, concentration camps, resistance, the Soviet invasion, betrayal at
Yalta, and one uprising after another crushed.
lines. The malaise. The Kafkaesque challenges of daily life, like acquiring
feminine sanitary supplies.
those same years, I, as an American, never had to face hunger or poverty or the
aftereffects of my country having been invaded by the Nazis and the Soviets
American, I did not live under an oppressive regime that lied about me and my
people. I did not lack for food, and I did not lack for psychological
sustenance, either. I could turn on the TV, pick up a novel, go to school, and hear
about heroic Americans, and indeed heroic women from New Jersey, my home state,
like Molly Pitcher and Tempe Wicke who aided the American Revolution.
need stories. Poles needed stories to get through the Soviet era. So they told
heroic stories. It's not my place to judge this.
compare how Poles tell their own story to how the Japanese tell their own
story. I once taught a class with students who were born in Japan and other
students who were born in China. A Japanese student gave a presentation in
which she insisted that Japanese people are very peaceful and could teach the
world about peace.
Chinese students, who were normally quite stoic, looked as if they were going
to rise up and do damage to this student. The Chinese were too shy to speak up
publicly, but they sent me lengthy notes afterward saying that no Japanese
person had a right to talk about peace.
prime ministers have worshipped at Yasukuni, a shrine interring war criminals.
Comfort Women and their representatives are not satisfied with Japan's post-war
handling of their victimization. When we think of WW II atrocities, we think of
Nazi Germany, not Imperial Japan, even though Japan committed atrocities every
bit as horrific as those of Japan.
historian Iris Chang, author of the 1997 "The Rape of Nanking," struggled
to bring to light the suffering the Japanese visited on the Chinese. Her work,
and attacks by Japanese nationalists, were so overwhelming that they
contributed to her 2004 suicide. Japan has whitewashed its history, and the
world has cooperated.
don't get me started on how history is suppressed in the Muslim world. Orhan
Pamuk won a Nobel Prize. He *mentioned* the Armenian genocide. And
"modern, liberal" Turkey arrested him!
how about the US? Many of my students have never heard of the My Lai Massacre.
I guarantee you that none of them have heard of the Lattimer Massacre or the
Ludlow Massacre or the Homestead Massacre, all massacres of workers, often
immigrants, during the period of Polish and other Eastern and Southern European
immigration to the US.
students don't know that approximately 1,300 white people were lynched, and a
fair number of them were immigrants. They don't know about the lynching of Leo
Frank or the Scientific Racism that was almost universally accepted in early
twentieth-century America and that inspired Nazism.
I'm not excusing Poles for not having perfectly balanced history books in schools
or perfectly balanced coverage of WW II in the press or in museums or
monuments. I am, rather, rejecting a standard that applies *only to Poles.*
all know that history is contested and open to debate. We in the US are still
debating the Civil War. In 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, Heather Heyer, a
protester, was killed by another American in a fight over a Civil War statue. Western
Europe is still debating how best to tell the history of the Crusades and the
Witch Craze of hundreds of years ago. Israelis have not reached agreement on
the balanced history of the founding of their state. Why is Poland expected to
live up to a standard that other nations have never reached?
why. Because it plays into the Brute Polak stereotype endlessly to repeat that
Poles are such uniquely primitive, hateful people that they can't tell their
own history correctly. This charge is a way to demonize and condescend to
yes. Poles are often more vilified than German Nazis themselves. Why? Please
forgive me for repeating myself, but you must read my book. Seriously. And,
after you have read it, let's do another interview. In any case, the answer is
provided in detail in the book. A key chapter is entitled "The Necessity
was indeed anti-Semitism in Poland before the war. Some scholars claim that it
stemmed from a deep-rooted Catholicism. But it was Poland where over the
centuries many Jews found shelter, who were persecuted elsewhere. The Polish-Jewish
history is long and many Poles risked their lives to save Jews. But this
doesn’t seem to matter today. Did the events of WII wipe that common history
would argue that the interwar era, that is 1918-1939, is the period of the most
anti-Semitism in Polish history. As you say, many attribute this anti-Semitism
to Catholicism. That is one, but not the only, reason that Bieganski exists.
Much of the push to redefine the Holocaust as a product of primitive, Polish
Catholic peasants, is a three-pronged push.
prong: demonize Catholicism. This prong serves the Marxist left. Marxism has
always been at war with Western Civilization's Judeo-Christian roots. Don't get
me wrong. I support realistic and necessary criticism of Catholicism. I support
coverage of the sex abuse crisis, for example. But the Christophobic left's
hatred of the Judeo-Christian tradition is every bit as scary and deadly as
anti-Semitism. To these Christophobic, leftist ideologues, the Holocaust is
merely a commodity that exists to be exploited in their war against the
prong: those who want to exploit the Holocaust for their agenda want to place
hatred in the past. This is nonsense. The Nazis were the most modern people in
the world. They justified their crimes with the newest ideas. They were close
to developing a nuclear weapon. The left wants to argue that if we re-educate
people in new ideas they won't hate. This is a fallacy. Hatred is not of the
past. It is with us now and always will be. It is eternal, and there will never
be a "brave, new" human who has been cleansed of hate.
third prong of the above argument is related to the second prong. Leftists want
to rewrite the foundations of Nazi thought. Nazis were inspired by romantic
nationalism, scientific racism, social Darwinism, and neo-Paganism. You can
read about these roots in my essay "Against Identifying Nazism with
don't want Nazism's real roots to be discussed. Richard Weikart has documented
Nazism finding inspiration in Social Darwinism and he is regularly attacked for
this. Many on the left want to insist that Catholicism caused Nazism, at least
partly because that insistence protects Nazism's real inspirations from critique.
are reasons that Poland was such fertile ground for anti-Semitism in the
interwar period, and those reasons have little to do with Catholicism. Roman
Dmowski, the most prominent anti-Semite of the interwar period, was influenced
by Social Darwinism.
we need to look to theories of why any nation, not just Poland and not just a
Catholic nation, would become so intolerant of a minority. In my book, I cite
Edna Bonacich and Amy Chua's work on how various factors inflame intolerance.
Again, I hope you will read the book.
we must remember that interwar anti-Semitism was not a perfect predictor of
wartime behavior. There are examples of pre-war self-identified Polish
anti-Semites aiding Jews and indeed losing their lives to aid Jews. They said
that Nazism's genocidal anti-Semitism bore no relation to their largely
economic anti-Semitism. I talk about this phenomenon in the "Bieganski,
the Brute Polak" which you can view here.
mention the rescuers and how they have been tossed down the memory hole. We're
talking about incomparably heroic people whose names should be inscribed in
immortal lettering. Witold Pilecki, Jan Karski, Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma and
their seven children, Irena Sendler, too many others to mention. Why have these
names been erased? Why would so many like to erase them? Why, if they are
mentioned, are they used to support the Brute Polak stereotype?
years ago, I wrote to Yad Vashem about their page on the Ulma family. The page
was composed in such a way that the main impression it would leave on the
reader was not that the Ulma family were heroic Catholic Poles, inspired by the
words of Jesus Christ, to rescue Jews, but, rather, that Poles were a bunch of
anti-Semitic scum who did just about nothing to rescue Jews. I wrote to Yad
Vashem about this. You can see the letter here.
are heroic rescuers buried, or their histories distorted? Because of, as I
mentioned above, "The Necessity of Bieganski." Read the book.
argue that Germany bought Israel's forgiveness with money. Poland on the other
hand did not have the means to pay restitution for Jewish property lost during
or after the war so it is vilified today. Is that a plausible argument to
talk about this in the book. Yes, economic factors did play a role in the embrace
of Germany after WW II. The reparation Germany paid Israel is not the only
economic factor. Germany is a very important cog in the world economic machine.
Right now Germany is ranked as the fourth most important economy in the world. No
one could afford to write that off.
on the economic front, the Marshall Plan. And, on the cultural front, the
shifting of blame for the Holocaust to the east. Check out my blog post "Hollywood Exculpates Nazi Germany:
'Decision Before Dawn.'"
This blog post discusses in detail how one Hollywood movie was used to rewrite
history and allow Americans to embrace Germany.
also see a strange competition going on: Jews tell Poles to look at their
faults in the past and Poles ask Jews to do the same and look at their own
instances of collaboration. And make amends. Will this attitude get us anywhere
or will it just make matters worse?"
battle over the Polish Holocaust law has fueled genuine hatred on both sides of
the barricade. Antisemitism has flared up in Poland and we have seen some very
distressing instances of anti-Polonism on the Israeli side. Is it possible to
overcome this division? It often seems as if this dispute is just temporarily
frozen and can flare up again at any time."
I'm aware of flare-ups of anti-Semitism in Poland and anti-Polish prejudice
among Jews, not just in Israel, but in the US as well. I'm sure you've seen the
Ruderman Family Foundation Polish Holocaust video. If not, it's here.
It consists of Jews saying the words "Polish Holocaust." Clearly, in
their eyes, the Holocaust was planned and carried out by Poles.
one is to study Polish-Jewish relations, one is to come in contact with
peerless heroism. I mentioned some of the heroes, above. One will also come
into contact with undiluted evil. The Nazis and Soviets, of course, But also
Jedwabne, szmalcownicy who betrayed Jews to the Nazis, the destruction, under
Jakub Berman, of Home Army heroes, and more. This is all evil. How to respond?
must have a spiritual standpoint. Each person must choose his or her own
standpoint. I am Christian. My home is at the foot of the cross. Everything I
learned in Catholic elementary school helped me to deal with this overwhelming
material. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I
will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."
That's the 23rd Psalm. It's not for everyone, but everyone must have
that touchstone, or this material will incinerate them.
can we do? What Jesus tells us to do. Feed the hungry, comfort the sick, and
visit the prisoner. My essay "Political Paralysis" talks more about
what one can do in a world gone mad. You can read that essay here.
role does language play in all this? It seems as if there is a difficulty on
both sides to communicate on this sensitive matter."
think the biggest barrier to communication between Poles and Jews right now is
the Brute Polak stereotype and yes I am going to repeat, one must read the
lessons should we all draw form the Holocaust, Jews or Poles alike?"
me, the single most important interpretative sentence written about the
Holocaust is, "Ludzie ludziom zgotowali ten los." "People
prepared this fate for people." Too many exploit the Holocaust to use it
as a cudgel to damn this or that identity group. It was hard for me, but I had
to get over my hatred of Germans. An essay I posted on my blog, "Ripples of Sin," written by the son of a Nazi
soldier, helped me to get over my anti-German hatred.
just Germans do bad things. Poles do bad things. Anyone can do bad things.
anyone can be a victim of bad things.
identity separates us from the evildoers. No identity shields us from the pain
of the victims. We must replace the pronoun of the Holocaust. It's not a story
about "them." It's a story about us. We must all take upon ourselves
the duty to be good people, to resist evil, both within ourselves, and in the
"We also see a strange competition going on: Jews tell Poles to look at their faults in the past and Poles ask Jews to do the same and look at their own instances of collaboration. And make amends. Will this attitude get us anywhere or will it just make matters worse?"
But that is just the problem. It is trying to blame the Poles for everything. And, more and more, Poles refuse to go along with this standard narrative.