Recently I was contacted by Polish journalist, Aleksandra Rybinska. Her questions and my full answers are below. You can read the interview in Polish, here.
I'm a 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.
I 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.
In 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.
The insults' theme was that Poles are ignorant, bigoted, primitive, anti-Semites.
The prejudice I faced in grad school inspired my dissertation and book, "Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture."
In 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.
When 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 nature.
I 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 against Poles.
If 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.
Polish people have not addressed this stereotype in a strategic way, and many of their efforts are self-sabotaging.
This brings me to your first question.
"The 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?"
Aleksandra, the Polish government made a huge mistake. Because the Polish government is clueless.
Forgive 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.
Poles have said to me, "Oh, your book is not necessary, because Poles are no longer peasant immigrants. Now they are computer programmers and entrepreneurs."
The human mind doesn't work that way. Stereotypes follow the dictates of what the mind needs to be true.
The 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 my work.
To 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."
When 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 speech.
With this law, Poland shot itself in the foot. Poland sabotaged itself. Poland played right into the hands of those who despise Poles.
What can and should Poles and Polonians be doing? I offer a plan of action at the following blog post, entitled, "There's Hope! What You Can Do about The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization and Vision." Here's the link: http://bieganski-the-blog.blogspot.com/2011/11/theres-hope-what-you-can-do-about.html
Aleksandra, your next question.
"Today 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 blame?"
I'm 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.
As 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.
Poland 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.
The long lines. The malaise. The Kafkaesque challenges of daily life, like acquiring feminine sanitary supplies.
During 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 simultaneously.
As an 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.
People need stories. Poles needed stories to get through the Soviet era. So they told heroic stories. It's not my place to judge this.
Let's 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.
The 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.
Japanese 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.
Courageous 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.
And 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!
And 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.
My 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.
No. 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.*
We 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?
Here's 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 Poles.
"You wrote in your February 19, 2018, Haaretz article, "How Poles Are More Vilified as 'Bestial' Brute Jew Killers Than German Nazis Themselves" that 'Poles are more vilified as brute Jew killers than the Nazis themselves.' Why is that so? It was the Germans that perpetrated the Holocaust. Not the Poles."
Aleksandra, 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 of Bieganski."
"There 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 out entirely?"
Many 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.
First 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 Judeo-Christian tradition.
Second 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.
The 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 Christianity" here.
Many 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.
There 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.
Rather, 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.
Also, 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.
You 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?
Seven 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.
Why are heroic rescuers buried, or their histories distorted? Because of, as I mentioned above, "The Necessity of Bieganski." Read the book.
"Some 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 you?"
I 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.
Thus, 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.
"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?"
I hear you asking what will make things better. For me the answer to that is up above, in this previously mentioned link: http://bieganski-the-blog.blogspot.com/2011/11/theres-hope-what-you-can-do-about.html
"The 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."
Yes, 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.
And I'm aware of anti-Semitism among modern-day Poles, for example Piotr Rybak burning a Jew in effigy in Wroclaw. That event occurred before the debate about the Holocaust speech law. It troubled me greatly. I wanted to respond but did not know how. I posted ten posts that saluted Polish Jews. You can see those posts here, "Ten Posts Dedicated to Polish Jews: A Response to the Anti-Semitic Buffoon in Wroclaw."
If 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?
One 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.
What 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.
"What role does language play in all this? It seems as if there is a difficulty on both sides to communicate on this sensitive matter."
I 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 book.
"What lessons should we all draw form the Holocaust, Jews or Poles alike?"
For 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.
Not just Germans do bad things. Poles do bad things. Anyone can do bad things.
And anyone can be a victim of bad things.
No 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 wider world.