Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Stereotypes are Tools: Interview with Dziennik Zwiazkowy

Bieganski is available at Amazon
Dziennik Zwiazkowy recently interviewed me about my book, "Bieganski." You can read excerpts from the interview in Polish here.

You can read the interview, below, in English.

How, in the West, did this stereotype come to be associated with Poles?

In my book I talk about Bieganski, the brute Polak stereotype. Bieganski is the name of an anti-Semitic character in the highly successful book and film, "Sophie's Choice." This brute Polak is a very specific version of stereotypes of Poles. He is stupid, violent, chauvinistic, dirty, and crude.

There are other stereotypes of Poles, for example, the stereotype of Poles as romantic noblemen, but that stereotype is not the one I address in my book.

The Brute Polak does not exist in isolation. He is related to other stereotypes of largely rural, agricultural, religious people. In America, we stereotype such people with terms like redneck, white trash, trailer trash, and hillbilly. The American redneck, who is typically a WASP – that is, a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant – is related to Bieganski. The stereotypes are similar.

In my book I quote an American poet, Lloyd van Brunt. As you can see from his last name, van Brunt is not Polish, and he grew up in Oklahoma, not a state with many Poles. But van Brunt sees the connection between the Brute Polak stereotype and the white trash stereotype. Van Brunt writes,

"Unlike blacks and other racial minorities, poor and mostly rural whites have few defenders, no articulated cause ... And they have been made to feel deeply ashamed of themselves -- as I was. This shame, this feeling of worthlessness, is one of the vilest and most self-destructive emotions to be endured. To be poor in a country that places a premium on wealth is in itself shameful. To be white and poor is unforgivable ... That's why I call them the Polish-joke class, the one group everybody feels free to belittle, knowing that no politically correct boundaries will be violated ... trying to hide some shameful secret, some deep and unreachable sense of worthlessness ... is the legacy of America's poor whites."

The Brute Polak stereotype is based on the fear and contempt that many urban, formally educated, cosmopolitan, secular, professional people feel for rural, rooted, religious, manual laborers who lack formal education.

Various brute stereotypes go back millennia and are found in many cultures. In the book, I talk about hostility that some Jews felt for other Jews who were illiterate peasants, the so-called ammei ha-aretz.

If you want to get a taste of this stereotype, please read Edwin Markham's excellent poem, "The Man with a Hoe." The poem was inspired by Jean Francois Millet's controversial 1860 painting, "Man with a Hoe." Millet depicted a peasant leaning on a hoe in a ploughed field. This frank painting of a working man disgusted and frightened Paris' urban bourgeoisie.

Markham's 1898 poem is deeply disturbing. It gives the reader a profound sense of injustice and mounting terror. The laboring peasant of Millet's painting, in Markham's poem, becomes an historical time bomb. Markham acknowledges that the peasant has been treated unjustly by his betters. His soul and mind, Markham says, have been erased. And this peasant is ready to rise up and exact revenge. Markham writes,

"There is no shape more terrible than this —

More tongued with censure of the world's blind greed —

More filled with signs and portents for the soul —

More fraught with menace to the universe."

So, the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype has roots that stretch back millennia. His cousins are found anywhere that urban elites feel contempt for rural people. 

Between c. 1880 and 1924, millions of East Asian and Eastern and Southern European peasants entered the US to fill industrial jobs. Americans at that point were used to literacy, voting, paved streets, and a high level of modernity. These peasants immigrants were coming from primitive, rural conditions and near-serf status. Many ethnic groups entered the US at this time. America could not keep track of them all. Various Eastern Europeans were subsumed under catch-all terms like "Bohunk" and "Polak." A Slovak, Ukrainian, or Lithuanian might be called a "Bohunk" or "Polak."

This immigration sparked a complete moral and intellectual panic in this country, as I describe in my book. America's most influential publications, its best universities, and its most powerful politicians decided that these peasant immigrants were racially inferior to Americans. Astoundingly racist things were published in scholarly journals and in influential publications like The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Atlantic Monthly. I beg you to read my book and read the excerpts you'll find there. You would not believe it until you read it. You will read America's best and brightest declaring that peasant immigrants like the Poles could never achieve fully human status on a par with "Nordic" Americans.

Industrialists wanted the Poles and other desperate peasants to continue to enter the country. Poles and other Bohunks like Slovaks, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians, were selected for the heaviest labor. Typically they worked in coal and steel. Their working conditions were abysmal, comparable to slave labor. They had no safety protections. Their employers, people like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, had them shot if they organized or went on strike. They lost limbs; they died young. Good accounts of this history can be found in a classic American muckraking novel, The Jungle, and also in the poetry of a little-known Polish-American coal miner and poet, Anton Piotrowski. It is a shame to Polonia that Piotrowski is not better known.

But most Americans wanted this immigration to stop, and a series of laws, including in 1924 and 1929, stopped this immigration. During WW II, when Eastern Europeans, Jews and non-Jews, were desperate to escape Nazism and enter the US, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long made sure that the quota acts were upheld. He stated unequivocally that Eastern Europeans, Jews and non-Jews, were unfit to enter the US.

These 1924 and 1929 racist immigration laws were not overturned until 1965.

Thus, the genesis of the Brute Polak Stereotype, in highly abbreviated form.

Some say, "Well, Poles are no longer majority peasants."

That's an uninformed comment. Stereotypes don't work that way. When is the last time you saw a Frenchman wearing a black beret and a striped shirt? I've been to France a few times and I've never seen a Frenchman wearing a black beret or a striped shirt. But, if you wanted to go to a Halloween party dressed as a Frenchman, that would be your costume.

Hillbillies now live on flat land and drive cars, but we still use the word "hillbilly."

One of my informants for Bieganski said, "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." I quote her in the book. In real life, she knew urban-dwelling, slender, intelligent Poles. But in her head, Poles are big, fat, and stupid peasants.

In the book, I argue that the image of Poles as ignorant peasants is necessary for a popular understanding of the Holocaust. That image is not going to die out without intelligent activism from Poles. Generations of students are going to be exposed to Claud Lanzmann's Shoah, Marian Marzynski's Shtetl, and other similar documentaries, and films and books like Sophie's Choice and The Painted Bird.

In popular American culture and media Poles are portrait as uneducated rednecks, religious fanatics, drunks and violent aggressors. What is the purpose of use of those stereotypes?

My former teacher Alan Dundes said it very well in 1971, just after the Civil Rights Movement and during the heyday of the Polak joke. "Lower-class whites are not militant. With the Polak joke cycle, it is the lower class, not Negroes, which provides the outlet for aggression and means of feeling superior."

It had become unseemly to make nasty jokes about black people. So people switched to making jokes about Polaks. Sometimes the same joke was used.

Stereotypes are tools. They are every bit as important as material tools. People value them and use them strategically, just as they use other tools. The Polak joke, back in the day when it was popular, was a way to feel superior.

Nowadays, these jokes are not as popular. And yet the stereotype lingers. The Brute Polak stereotype still exists to provide a sense of superiority. Now, the stereotype provides a sense of moral superiority.

Someone must be guilty of the Holocaust. In many media and in many classrooms, the Pole is the guilty party. Making disparaging comments about Poles is now seen, not as socially acceptable ridicule, but as a badge of moral superiority. Again and again my book, I quote people who say, paraphrase, at least group X is not as bad as the Poles. The Poles are the worst. Polish anti-semitism is the world's gold standard of hatred. In an era when diversity, multiculturalism and tolerance are badges of honor, the primitive, backward, intolerant Polak – or the redneck – is the villain against whom we can all feel superior.

We identify as white and hold many privilege associated with being white. However, having Polish last name is a disadvantage, not to mention having Polish accent. This oppression is more subtle, but I think well and alive. In your opinion – are Poles in US an oppressed, targeted group?

"We identify as white and hold many privilege associated with being white."

I can't concur.

Greg, about fifteen years ago, when I was still at Indiana University, I participated in a round table discussion with George Taliafero, an African American campus leader. He said, quite frankly, that when federal or private funds were available to help underprivileged groups at the university, he worked to get the funds to black students, and not women or homosexuals. He argued that blacks have it worse and deserve the money.

I don't find that kind of suffering Olympics helpful, and I don't see much value in the term "white privilege." In fact I think "white privilege" is a hegemonic term invented by liberals expressly to silence poor whites, the one group liberals despise the most. I think that that dynamic helped get Trump elected.

Did you know that there were lynchings of immigrants in this country? Did you know that the largest mass lynching in this country was of eleven Italians? There was a lynching in my family, almost one hundred years ago. It affected someone who had a big impact on my life. I felt that pain, even though the event occurred decades before I was born.

My mother was one of the smartest and most talented and dynamic people I have ever known and she spent her life cleaning houses and working in factories. Her age peers, with a fraction of her intelligence and drive, had high-paying, white collar jobs.

Poet John Guzlowski's parents were slaves for the Nazis. His mother's family was subject to rape, torture and murder by the Nazis and their Ukrainian allies. She was then a slave laborer throughout the war. His father was in Buchenwald concentration camp for five years. John arrived in this country as a displaced person who thought that DP meant "Dumb Polak." Where is the Guzlowski family's "white privilege"?

Me? Again and again I was told in academia that I was the "wrong minority" to receive a scholarship or a job. Yes, told that to my face. Prof. Dundes sat me down and told me that he could not give me what he could give "minority" students, though I was poor and my parents didn't even have high school diplomas. I was the "wrong minority." As a job seeker I've been told that employers needed to hire "minority" candidates.

I'm not alone. Because I'm willing to talk about this stuff publicly, people send me their stories privately. People send me heartbreaking stories of their families never quite fitting in in America and repressed shame, rage, and despair that contributed to substance abuse, domestic violence, early deaths and suicides.

Greg, think about the Polish workers who worked on Trump Tower.

Two hundred Polish men in the "Polish brigade." They worked twelve hour shifts, seven days a week, for four to five dollars an hour. No overtime. They removed asbestos with no protective gear. Some were never paid.

Here are two paragraphs from the New York Times about these men.

"The demolition began in January 1980. It was hard, dirty work, breaking up concrete floors, ripping out electrical wiring and cutting pipes while laboring in a cloud of dust and asbestos.

A smaller group of union demolition workers, who were paid much higher wages and, unlike the Poles, overtime, often made fun of their Polish co-workers, according to the testimony of Adam Mrowiec, one of the Polish laborers. 'They told me and my friends that we are stupid Poles and we are working for such low money,' he said."

Did these Polish workers enjoy "white privilege"? Please.

In my experience, Poles and Polonians don't want to talk about any of this publicly.

John Guzlowski is an important Polish American poet and writer. Polish people should be celebrating John's work. And many do. But he gets negative feedback.

John's parents were directly victimized by the Nazis, in brutal ways. John grew up in the US. He writes about this experience in his essay, "Growing up Polak." That essay has just been nominated for a prestigious Pushcart Prize. 

When John announced this nomination on Facebook, one Polish American writer attacked John. "My parents were educated," this person said. You shouldn't write about poor Poles, about Poles without formal education, about Poles who did manual labor, got drunk, beat their kids.

In other words, don't say anything that doesn't make us look like model citizens.

There are Poles who don't want to talk about the truth of Polish lives. There are fortunate Poles who don't want to sully themselves with association with losers.

They don't want to celebrate peasant and working class Poles for a couple of reasons. One is communism. Communism promoted the Stakhanovite. Poles don't want to follow that communist model. And Poles want to present a clean, attractive face to the world. But some Poles are willing to tell true, gritty stories. John Guzlowski is one such writer and we must celebrate him. On Facebook, I stumbled across Lech Iwinski's work. He photographs Polish peasants. Bravo for him. There's a Romanian doing similar work, Kalmar Zoltan. These two photographers are not afraid to celebrate common people.

And there's more. Let's talk about white privilege when it comes to narrative, to the histories taught in school classrooms, media products, and museums.

As I demonstrate in my book and on my blog, classroom histories, media products, church leaders, politicians, and museums all lie about Poles and Polonians. We are depicted as worse than Nazis. That we were victimized by Nazis, the millions who were tortured, displaced, experimented on, murdered – that entire history is erased. If we talk about that history, we are denounced as chauvinists, nationalists, and fascists.

America has devoted a huge amount of energy and resources, since the Civil Rights Movement, to presenting to Americans African Americans' history of victimization, and their heroism and accomplishment in spite of that suffering.

Poor whites are not allowed to tell our story. If WASP Americans mention that most whites never owned slaves, or that white Union soldiers fought and died to end slavery, they are denounced as white supremacists.

If a Polish American mentions the hardships and racism that immigrants faced, if we mention the Lattimer Massacre or the real conditions in the coal mines or how miners were trapped by all-powerful corporations, we are dismissed as delusional kooks.

If we mention Katyn or the deportations to Siberia or that Auschwitz was first built and used to imprison and murder Polish leaders, if we mention that the Einsatzgruppen shot leading Poles, we are denounced as Holocaust deniers.

When it comes to the truth of our own history, we are silenced and erased. We are ordered to play the role of the privileged white, whose history, going back hundreds of years, was a history of empowerment, of being a colonizer and slave owner, of riding on the backs of the Third World. And that is just not our history.

Please tell me how we are "privileged" to be so silenced and erased while other luckier groups are allowed to tell their story publicly, are encouraged and funded to tell about the suffering they survived, to celebrate the strength, tenacity and resourcefulness of their heroes, while we are forced to stand back and look on silently.

So, back to your question. Yes, some whites do enjoy privilege. That's because they are rich, connected, and cultured in a way that aids them in society. The same could be said of some blacks. They have money, connections, and cultural awareness they can parlay to their advantage. I know not a few blacks who have told me that they have never experienced white supremacy; that, rather, whites worked to help them because helping black people is a noble thing to do. There are college deans and employers and politicians and lawyers and foundations and think tanks and media who devote their time, training, messaging and money to elevating black people in America. Is there any comparable push for poor whites? Not that I'm aware of. Rather, poor whites are blamed for their own poverty. Barack Obama is nothing if not a privileged man.

I do address this question of how Polaks and blacks compare in an entire chapter of Bieganski. I hope you will read that chapter.  

Instead of desiring to be “fully white” and accepted by dominant group, should Poles become allies of disadvantaged groups? What benefits such alliances could bring to Polish diaspora?

Before Poles start thinking about forming alliances with other disadvantaged groups, Poles need to start thinking about being allies of each other.

If I had money and time, I would start workshops, online or in person, where Poles learn to address each other with respect, and work together toward a goal.

This was how the Civil Rights movement got its start. Rosa Parks didn't just, on a whim, refuse to sit in the back of the bus. She was a trained organizer who had attended workshops.

I have *never* seen organized work toward a goal among Poles in the US. I saw it in Poland. I was there in 1988-89 and I saw Poles unite in "solidarity" and achieve a goal.

Poles argue with each other, insult each other, form little camps. It's tragic, self-defeating, and pathetic.

Should we react, as a group, to each case of anti-Polish stereotype? How should we do this – on individual, institutional or political level?

I've given a lot of thought to what Poles and Polonians should do. I address this question in a series of blog posts entitled "The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision." You can read them here

Is portraying Poles in negative light (like in recent movie “Widows”.) conscious and intentional? Or maybe anti-Polish stereotypes are so deeply rooted in American culture that they become normalized, and thus invisible?

Greg, when I was working on my book Bieganski, I couldn't just walk up to people and ask them if there were prejudiced against Polish people. Of course they would say no. So I devised questions designed to get at their inner thoughts. One question:

You need brain surgery. You have a choice between two surgeons. On paper, their credentials are identical. One is named Dr. Smith. One is named Dr. Kowalski. Which one do you choose?

I also asked, "You are on a TV game show. You have just won a round trip, all expenses paid visit to Poland. Your reaction?"

People's reactions to these questions were very telling. One informant insisted that he had no prejudices against Poles. When I asked him the game show question, he went on and on about how, in his mind, he had to remind himself that Poland was not "brick to brick, nothing but concentration camps." This was a young man who knew people who had been to Poland. Many people said that they could only imagine Poland in black and white. One woman said she had been to Poland, and seen that it is a real place, in color, but in her mind it is still black and white.

The brain surgeon question? People who insisted that they had no prejudices had to acknowledge that they would not want a surgeon with a Polish name messing around with their heads.

Danusha Goska is the author of Bieganski and God through Binoculars.


  1. A comment has been submitted that uses the antisemitic term, "Holocaust supremacism." I will not post that comment.

    Antisemitism does not help in the fight against stereotyping of Poles. True enemies of stereotypes do not resort to, and disseminate, other stereotypes. True enemies of stereotypes reject stereotypes, period, no matter what group is being stereotyped.

  2. “If we mention Katyn or the deportations to Siberia or that Auschwitz was first built and used to imprison and murder Polish leaders, if we mention that the Einsatzgruppen shot leading Poles, we are denounced as Holocaust deniers.”

    I agree. Far too many are unaware that the people of Poland were the victims of the most cruel and merciless aggression in World War 2.

  3. Everyone knows that PiS is antisemitic or at least doesn't oppose antisemitism. The facts are: PiS has been created by Kaczynski brothers and doesn't allow any non-Kaczynskis' opinions. Lech Kaczynski visited Isarel in 2006 and prayed at the Western Wall. He called anti-Semitism “a sickness of the soul”. Lech died in 2010. Jaroslaw lack's frequently Lech's sensivity. The Times of Israel quotes however "Polish nationalist party head denounces anti-Semitism, praises Israel". Polish nationalists (endecja) don't support PiS, they cooperate with Kukiz or Mikke. Father Rydzyk has allowed sometimes antisemitic remarks in his media, but his lack of sypathy to Jews was partially caused by an atttack of Orthodox Jews in Israel. He wasn't attacked as a Catholic priest but as a Sabbath tresspasser . SInce 2017 Father Rydzyk cooperates with Israeli embassy in Poland. His televison has presented recently a documentary about Israeli tanks fighting Arab soldiers. The IPN law was coined by Ziobro, a leader of a small party Solidarna Polska.

    Jerzy Pankiewicz

    Jerzy Pankiewicz

  4. Dr. Goska wrote:

    "Someone must be guilty of the Holocaust. In many media and in many classrooms, the Pole is the guilty party. Making disparaging comments about Poles is now seen, not as socially acceptable ridicule, but as a badge of moral superiority. Again and again my book, I quote people who say, paraphrase, at least group X is not as bad as the Poles. The Poles are the worst. Polish anti-semitism is the world's gold standard of hatred. In an era when diversity, multiculturalism and tolerance are badges of honor, the primitive, backward, intolerant Polak – or the redneck – is the villain against whom we can all feel superior."

    That says it all.

  5. From Lukasz:

    Ɓukasz Klimek has left a new comment on your post "Stereotypes are Tools: Interview with Dziennik Zwi...":

    Hello Mr. Pankiewicz,

    With all due respect, I beg to differ.
    Number of antisemitic incidents has dropped since PiS came to power. There were 167 antisemitic incidents in Poland in 2015. In 2016 there were 101 such incidents. In 2017 that number was 73.

    Polish president (who has ties to PiS) has once again led a candle lighting ceremony for Hanukkah in the presidential pallace.
    Hanukkah candles were also lighted in the PiS-dominated Polish Parliment.

    I also want to inform You that argument like "everyone knows" is no argument at all.


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.
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