Friday, December 31, 2010

Read This Book: The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt

Rulka Langer's "The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt" is a rip-roaring page-turner, easy to read, spine-tingling, and entertaining. It is also deeply profound. I'm going to buttonhole friends, insisting that they read it; I'll buy copies to give as gifts. "The Mermaid" is not just as delicious to read as a mass market bestseller. It is also essential reading on vital questions of what it means to be a human being, what war is like on a day-to-day basis, and how the Holocaust happened.

Rulka Langer, the heroine and author of "Mermaid," is very much like Katharine Hepburn, the Golden-Age, Hollywood film star. Langer is beautiful, brisk, no-nonsense, and a born heroine. Her very likable presence accompanies the reader through what would otherwise be unbearable scenes. "Mermaid" is so vivid, so cinematic in its details, that I kept seeing it as a Hollywood film.

Langer is a young wife, mother and Vassar grad living in Poland in 1939. Her grandfather was a landed nobleman. Her focus in life is her proud and loving family, parties, fashion, thoroughbred horses, and her fun job for an American advertising firm. In many ways, Langer is very much like a potential American reader for this book – someone who has no idea that within days of a pleasant summer picnic she will confront the greatest evil the world has ever known in her own home – and that the only weapon she will wield in that confrontation is her own sense of honor. World War Two began in Poland, when, on September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded. The Holocaust would take place largely in Poland.

The book opens with sprightly, appealing scenes of Langer's family. You get to like Langer, her brother, her mother, and her children, the characters who will be with you throughout the book. Langer's quick yet detailed style shines in a delightful description of the pleasures of traveling by a horse-drawn carriage through the Polish countryside. You feel as if you are next to Langer as she observes a peasant woman in a red kerchief, and a little black dog, as she calls out, "God's blessings," and field laborers answer back, "May the Lord give it." You wonder, though – is this author a frivolous woman? Will she really be able to write about the German carpet bombing of Polish civilians? Never fear, reader. She will. She will.

In that late Polish summer, straws appear in the wind: rumors of invasion by Nazi Germany. At first, Langer's greatest concern is that Hitler's plans will interfere with her summer vacation. One of the truly stunning strengths of "Mermaid" is its style. Langer's writing is vivid, immediate and frank. It's as if you are her best friend and it's 1939 and you are reading telegraphic updates. Though Langer wrote this book after she'd found safety in America, she doesn't exploit the luxury of hindsight to manage her image, or to make herself out to have been a prescient student of world history fully prepared for blitzkrieg.

"Mermaid" offers a time capsule of world historical events as those events were happening. World War Two and the Holocaust are so vast and so evil that their narrative management is a full time obsession. Today, vocabulary guardians debate whether or not Polish Catholic concentration camp inmates can be said to have been victims of "The Holocaust." Langer wrote her book while World War Two was still occurring, before its immensity had been grasped. She offers a raw, eyewitness view of history's minute-by-minute unfolding, before the narrative managers arrived on the scene.

She tells us that September 1, 1939 (like one September 11, decades later), was a frustratingly beautiful late summer day. Langer devotes the same brisk, vivid sentences to descriptions of starving people butchering horses on Warsaw streets that she had previously devoted to describing her handsome husband.

Langer's style does not change even after, in search of provisions to feed her starving children, she traverses bombed streets flooded with the human blood of her fellow Varsovians, even after Nazis literally walk into her home as she is undressing. You realize that her previous descriptions of leisurely family life were not the fruit of her trivial nature or her sheltered existence. Rather, you realize that Langer's ability to pen a loving, detailed description of the pleasures of carriage rides in the country is the product of supreme self-discipline. This author has been to hell and back. Her aristocratic pose is her heroic resistance to the enemies of civilization.

Langer's descriptions of the madness of war are unforgettable. A seal escapes from the zoo … a man takes over an apartment complex and demands that all pet dogs be shot … beautiful young heroes and heroines materialize from the blood, smoke, and chaos, bond, and are snuffed out … mothers silently resent going without food in order that children be fed.

The Nazis' genocidal plans twist Poles' lives. Evil rumors turn Pole against Pole. Every time resisters kill a German, dozens of Poles are killed in retaliation. A girl is executed for defacing a Nazi propaganda poster.

In recent years, there has been a scholarly and media effort to shift blame for the Holocaust from German Nazis to Poles. Poles, it is said, did not do enough to help Jews during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Gunnar S. Paulsson's "Secret City" is an antidote to such talk, but so is "Mermaid." Langer, a survivor, makes excruciatingly clear how the Nazis terrorized all Poles, paving the way for Nazism's heinous crimes against Jews.

Part of what makes this book bearable is its "happy ending." The reader knows that Langer will get out of Nazi-occupied Warsaw and write and publish this book. Langer's escape is similar to that of Maria von Trapp of "Sound of Music" fame; in fact, von Trapp and Langer became friends. Others of Langer's family and friends were not so fortunate. For example, Langer's husband's father, her children's grandfather, was Jew. He was beaten to death.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Stop Blaming the Jews

I want to compose a longer post on this topic when I have more time. For now, below is an edited cut-and-paste of a comment on an Amazon review.

It is a mistake to frame popular understanding of World War Two as a zero-sum competition between Poles and Jews: Either people know about the Jews who suffered under the Nazis, or people know about the Poles. If people learn about the Jews, the Jews win and the Poles lose. If people learn about the Poles, the Poles win and the Jews lose.

In the real world, it doesn't work that way. People can, and should, know and care about both. They should also know about the handicapped people, and the homosexuals, and the Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Gypsies, aka Romani, and the Soviet POWs, all of whom suffered horribly under the Nazis.

Poles and Polonians have not done their part to make Polish suffering known. Jews have not always and only been the opponents of Poles trying to make their story known. In fact, many Jews have supported Poles in their efforts to make the Polish story known.

It's not the Jews who are primarily responsible for focus on Jews' suffering. It's the Nazis. It was the Nazis who targeted Jews with a genocidal scheme. The genocide of the Jews under the Nazis is of a different order than what happened to the Poles.

Yes, Poles were abducted, transported, enslaved, tortured, and murdered, by both Nazis and Soviets, and then betrayed by the Allies, primarily America and England, but Poland did not lose a comparable percentage of its population as did the Jews, and we can't pretend that that is not true.

Place responsibility where responsibility belongs: Poles and Polonians in America, England, Australia and elsewhere can and must tell their own story. There is no excuse for Polonia's failure to do so. Poles and Polonians must enter graduate programs, research and write books, fund scholarship, and buy, read, and review books. And Poles and Polonians must learn to abandon their all too often resorted to postures of spite, sarcasm, undercutting, and a lack of respect for each other. Poles must learn, once and for all, to unite with and support other Poles.

There's no excuse for Polonia's failure to do these things. None whatsoever. The money is certainly there: Martha Stewart is unimaginably wealthy and is of Polish descent. There is the Kosciuszko Foundation and the Polish American Congress. There are political leaders like Barbara Mikulski. Where is their list of accomplishments in this matter?

Polonia has, indeed, failed. Blaming the Jews for Polonia's failures is a moral and strategic dead-end.

Poland, Love, Communism, and Spring

Poland, love, communism, and spring. A poem.

There are lapwings in the poem. Lapwings are birds. In Polish, they are czajka. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Israeli Education and Poland: What Does Israel Teach Its Schoolchildren about Poland?

Recently, in the comments section of the blog, the question arose: How does Israel educate its schoolchildren about Poland?

I sent the letter, below, to the Israeli Consulate in New York, to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and to Gideon Sa'ar, the Minister of Education.

I also wrote to four scholars and one friend, all of whom have been to Israel and are familiar, to a greater or lesser extent, with Israel.

Of course, these are all busy people, and they will no doubt have limited time to devote to this question, but I will happily post whatever answers I receive.

Below please find the note I sent to the official bodies mentioned above:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Hello, I write about Polish-Jewish relations and several recent posts on the blog devoted to my book "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture" caused me to question how Poland is taught in Israeli schools.

Unfortunately, there is some evidence that Israeli schools have presented a skewed and negative image of Poland. For example, in his book "The Seventh Million," Israeli historian Tom Segev depicts Israeli schoolchildren as blaming Poland and Poles for the Holocaust "because someone has to be guilty of the Holocaust. We have to hate someone, and we've already made up with the Germans." Segev also mentions a museum that depicts all Jews in Poland as poor and with bent backs, but fails to mention that some Jews in Poland were successful and happy – because that image, Segev says, does not fit Israel's image of Jews in Poland. Segev quotes a schoolteacher telling children, "Jew hatred is as natural to Poland as blue is to the sky."

Marion Marzynski's film "Shtetl" includes a disturbing scene depicting Israeli schoolchildren at Ramat Aviv high school attacking Zbigniew Romaniuk, a Polish historian who had worked diligently to restore his town's Jewish history, and who was undeserving of the rude and hostile treatment these schoolchildren showed him. The schoolchildren state the following falsehoods as if there were true: that the Poles could have defeated the Nazis if they wanted to, that Poles are responsible for the Holocaust, that anti-Semitism is an essential and inextricable part of Polish identity, that there was no difference between the Polish underground and the Nazis, etc. The full transcript.

That negative depictions of Poles and Poland are not accidental to Israel or Israeli identity is suggested by a provocative and telling 2007 statement by Israeli politician Zevulun Orlev. Orlev argued that teaching Israeli schoolchildren that Poland is a "cursed" land, Poland is "the valley of death," and that Poland is the modern analog to the Egypt of the book of Exodus, is central to building a sense of Jewish and Israeli identity.

As has frequently been pointed out, Poland was the most significant site of Diaspora for Jews for hundreds of years, with estimates of seventy-five or even eighty percent of the world's Jews living in Poland before the twentieth century. Most of American Jews trace their ancestry to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Most of Israel's leaders do, as well. Many of the cultural features one thinks of as Jewish, from potato pancakes to Hasidic dress to a sarcastic sense of humor, are rooted in Poland rather than in the Torah. Tragically, given the location of Nazi death camps like Auschwitz in occupied Poland, the Holocaust took place, largely, in Poland. Given this, it is a matter of some import how Israeli schools educate, or fail to educate, their students about Poland.

I am eager to learn about how Poland is taught in Israeli schools. Are the pictures that Segev, Marzynski, and Orlev paint accurate? Or has Israel improved its teaching of Poland in Israeli schools?

I look forward to receiving as much information from you as you care to share. I would be very, very grateful for any statement that you might allow me to post on my blog. Links to online curriculum materials would be especially welcome.

Thank you.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

March of the Living Responds

The November 16, 2010 post, "March of the Living: A Rabbinical Student's Sermon," was critical of March of the Living, a yearly pilgrimage of Jewish students to concentration camps in Poland.

Too, "Bieganski" includes transcripts of interviews with MOL participants who expressed a conviction that Poles are inveterate anti-Semites. These MOL participants evidenced a complete lack of awareness that Poles were interned in concentration camps like Auschwitz and Majdanek, or that Poles had resisted the Nazis and helped Jews. One MOL participant, a self-identified educator, boasted a "comprehensive" knowledge of the Holocaust, but had never heard of Jan Karski.

"Bieganski" is not alone. For example, in the 2007 scholarly book, "Rethinking Poles and Jews: Troubled Past, Brighter Future," Carolyn Slutsky offers tough criticism of MOL.

MOL has changed, though, Jeremy Simons, author of the above-linked sermon, insisted to me. MOL has, he says, in recent years, improved relations with Poles.

After posting Jeremy's sermon, I wrote to March of the Living and asked for comment, and for permission to post that comment.

I've now received both. Please find March of the Living's full and unedited response to me, below.


The following items demonstrate our strong, positive involvement with the Polish community:

• We work very closely with numerous Ministries in Poland as we implement our annual program.

• Last year we happened to be in Poland during the very tragic plane crash which killed the President and other key members of the Polish government. We observed a moment of silence during the March of the Living a few days later, and tied black ribbons to our flags. Some of the students also went to visit the memorial sights that were set up at the Presidential palace in Warsaw and in Krakow.

• Every year a senior member of the Polish Government participates in our program.

• Many of our groups meet annually with their high school counterparts in Poland.

• We have large groups of Polish students and Polish religious organizations on the March. In 2010, we had close to 1,500 Polish participants. We have developed a working relationship with the Polish Ministry of Education, the Shalom Ministry Association in Oswiecim (headed by Roman Gawel) and with the Olive Tree Foundation, an entity that provides educational instruction throughout Poland on the Holocaust and the State of Israel.

• Our groups have developed a warm relationship with the new generation of Polish guides and these guides, with their enhanced education, have played a meaningful/valuable role in the implementation of our mission in Poland.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Glaukopis Misspells G - O - S - K - A, or I am Denounced in Poland

It's been brought to my attention that Glaukopis, a Polish publication, has published an article that mentions me. The article is by John Radzilowski. Its title is "On Polish Historical Studies in the United States: The case of Professor Marek Jan Chodakiewicz."

I don't read Glaukopis, but a friend does, and forwarded the article to me.

The article's main point is that there is a conspiracy afoot to damage the career of Polish-American historian Marek Jan Chodakiewicz. Those working to damage Chodakiewicz have this motive: they want to protect Politically Correct, and anti-Polish, ideology in America.

The guilty parties who have damaged Chodakiewicz include the following: Antony Polonsky, Piotr Wrobel, Istvan Deak, Joanna Michlic, and … drumroll, please … I'm embarrassed to type my own name after such a list of luminaries … me.

I try to tell my students that you don't have to probe very far to deflate conspiracy theories; they are absurd on their face, and those who believe in them are not processing reality accurately.

The above list is not plausible as a list of people who would conspire to damage Chodakiewicz, to damage Poland, or to protect politically correct ideologies.

In fact, with the exception of my name, if you removed the scholarly contributions of this group of people to advancing understanding of Poland in the West, you'd be left with a very anemic scholarship.

I'm lucky enough to have been reading this list of scholars for a very long time. As a Polish American, I would be heartsick if I didn't have access to Wrobel, Polonsky, Deak. I must confess that I'm not a fan of Prof. Michlic's scholarship, but I respect her efforts.

See, I grew up during an era where there was nothing – and I mean nothing – available on the Polish or Polish American experience, or, for that matter, the Slovak experience, the Lithuanian experience, the Serb experience – I've written about this silence in an essay.

Reading Polonsky, Wrobel, Deak – it's a miraculous experience to me. These scholars and others like them gave my own history to me. I cherish these names.

And – Politically Correct? Again and again I've seen these scholars stand up in public and say what needed to be said about Eastern Europe, damn the inevitable criticism from those who want to demonize anyone living east of Germany.

That's point number one. If anyone in Poland is uninformed enough to believe that these scholars are worthy of being disrespected in the pages of a Polish publication, I sincerely hope that that person will learn more about the scholars.

Point number two: me? Are you serious?

Grouping me with the above scholars pays me an utterly unearned compliment. I'll tell you this – I probably bake better cookies than Istvan Deak, but that is the only arena in which I would compete with him.

To suggest that I have the clout to damage an academic's career is really, really, REALLY beyond belief. I barely have enough power to fail a student who doesn't hand in a final paper. And – I beg of you – don't let this information leak out to my students!

Merely the inclusion of my name on this list renders the main idea of the entire article not only absurd, but laughably so.

Further – no intelligent person who has read more than one line of writing by me would ever group me with the Politically Correct or the ideologically pure. My complete lack of Political Correctness or Ideological Purity is immediately evident to anyone who has an above one-digit IQ. I'll go further – my book, "Bieganski," is the single most Politically Incorrect book on Polish Jewish relations ever written.

I'm tempted, at this point, to confess. Yes, Yes! I want to shout. I am part of the conspiracy! I'm glad we've all been found out and can come out of hiding and shout our truth to the world! Black helicopters flew me to Area 51, where top Army brass, "Greys" – Greys are space aliens to you civilians – Art Bell, Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey greeted me. Sinatra and Harvey kept insisting that we play cards, but both became very agitated anytime they were dealt the queen of diamonds. Ultimately, though, my fearless leaders decided that I would never make a really great conspirator, because I am dyslexic. I kept forgetting if the pellet with the poison was in the flagon with the dragon or the vessel with the pestle.

All right, enough kidding around.

My role in the conspiracy: Six years ago, I wrote a review of one of Chodakiewicz's books for a small journal. I acknowledged the strengths of Chodakiewicz's work, and pointed out its weak points. That's what book reviewers do. It's not what powerful conspirators do. Here's the review in question.

I am unaware of anyone having any reaction to this review (except for the author of the Glaukopis article.) In short, my guess is that very few people ever read the review. In any case, I stand by the review.

Glaukopis fails to make the case that Marek Jan Chodakiewicz has been professionally damaged at all. Chodakiewicz held the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies at the University of Virginia. President Bush appointed him to a 5-year term to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He holds the Kosciuszko Chair in Polish Studies at Institute of World Politics. He has published several books and articles. His books are all on sale at Amazon, and have received good reviews.

Chodakiewicz has received several grants and awards, as listed on his Wikipedia page.

Glaukopis' Polish readers may not realize this, but America is in a recession right now. The official unemployment rate is close to ten percent; unofficial estimates are higher.

The recession is especially bad among PhDs. I know excellent teachers and scholars, with publications and strong letters of recommendation, who have been unable to find full-time jobs. These marginally-employed PhDs have no job security, no health insurance, and, given the job market, very little hope for any kind of a normal future in academia.

Given the Depression-like, not Recession-like, conditions on the American humanities academic job market, for anyone to attempt to depict a man who has published, won awards, and held endowed chairs as a victim is not just inaccurate, it's distasteful.

One last thing. I must protest Glaukopis' insistence on spelling my name incorrectly. This may seem like a small point – heck, it is a small point. But there's something bigger behind it.

When conspiracy theorists intentionally misspell your name, they are attempting to state that they know who you are better than you do. They are saying, "She's hiding behind this false name, but we know her real name." They are attempting to destroy your real identity and reconstruct a new one for you, one that fits their conspiracy.

For the record, I'd like to state that Glaukopis' implausible conspiracy theory got this fact wrong. I am not, and have never been, Danusia Gośka. I'm not Polish. I'm a Polish American. "Danusia" makes no sense over here. "Danusha" does.

Further, my family's name has not ever been "Gośka," on either side of the Atlantic. Glaukopis, your misspelling of my proud Polish father's perfectly good Polish-American name does not reflect well on your adherence to accuracy, your respect of your fellow Polonians, or your ability to serve your readers.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

No Mourning for Richard Holbrooke; Rather, Mourn His Victims

I actively opposed both US invasions of Iraq. I actively opposed US bombing of Serbia.

The two experiences were completely different.

My leftist and progressive friends applauded and supported my opposition to the US invasion of Iraq.

Serbia? "Nuke 'em" was too common an attitude.

In Bloomington, Indiana, a liberal university town, I went door to door, trying to build a coalition against the bombing. I was told to visit a prominent African American preacher who had a record of support for social justice issues. I'll never forget what he said to me, through the crack in the door – he would not let me enter.

"As an African American, I have a historical responsibility to stand with the oppressed people of color against their white oppressors."

He really thought that. He really though that Serbs were white oppressors and their opponents in the conflicts over the breakup of Yugoslavia were historically oppressed, dark-skinned people.

I am not making this up. I wish I were.

Where did America get the idea that Christian, Slavic Serbs were all evil, oppressive monsters and the former Yugoslavia's Muslims were all blameless and innocuous?

Largely from our Democratic leadership at the time. Bill Clinton delivered a profoundly dishonest speech from the Oval Office on primetime TV. Richard Holbrooke used racist terms to discuss Serbs.

My book, "Bieganski," talks about how elite media voices, including the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Newsweek, demonized Serbs in utterly racist fashion. "Bieganski" compares that coverage to coverage of the genocide in Rwanda. When it came to Rwanda, the same media sources, often the same authors, decried racist understandings. Two different languages were used to discuss atrocities committed by Slavic Serbs, and to discuss atrocities committed by black Africans.

NPR has been covering Holbrooke's death, playing clips of him saying things like, "You have to understand the Serbs. Serbs are tribal. They engage in mythological thinking. They are invested in an image of themselves as victims." I'm paraphrasing what I heard on NPR.

Here's the problem with Holbrooke's self-serving propaganda. The Serbs really were victims. They weren't imagining their victimization. And the Serbs confronted enemies who were certainly tribal and who certainly had them targeted, for a very long time, for genocide and enslavement.

Look at a map. Serbs are on the receiving end of the tip of the spear of jihad. Do a Google search of "Turkey massacres Balkans." Learn the word "devshirme." Another word: "sakaliba." Slavic slave boys castrated by Muslim owners. I mention this because the insistence that Serbs must be historical oppressors because they are "white" is ... not supported by history.

The single most unforgettable sentence written during the conflicts around the breakup of the former Yugoslavia appeared in the New York Times on April 17, 1994. General Ratko Mladic was trying to explain to a reporter his rationale for fighting non-Serbs. Excerpt, below, from the New York Times.


Successive United Nations commanders have tried to understand the general's relentless prosecution of the war against the Bosnian Muslims. In one exchange at Sarajevo, Lieut. Gen. Lars-Eric Walgren, who departed last year, asked General Mladic why he kept up his onslaught.

"General, do you remember your father?" General Mladic responded.

"Yes," General Walgren said.

"In my case," General Mladic said, "my son is the first in many generations to know his father. Because there have been so many attacks on the Serbian people, children do not know their fathers."

No. No one excuses, no one justifies, the slaughters the Serbs committed.

Rather, decent people condemn the blatant racism and open lies employed by the Clinton administration in their propaganda to the American people justifying America's bombing of Serbia.

That is why there is no mourning for Richard Holbrooke here. Rather I mourn the victims of the Clinton's administration's policies in the former Yugoslavia. Those victims include the truth.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Her Father's Eyes, Her Yearning

Christmas Eve in Auschwitz. Source

"Burning Questions: The Story of Catholic Poles in the Holocaust," a multiple-award-winning documentary, offers all the rewards of a home movie: it is stunningly intimate and heartfelt. The title and subtitle are unintentionally misleading. The documentary could better be titled "An American Daughter and a Polish Father Explore His Family's Suffering During WWII."

Mishael Porembski and her father, Jan. Source

"Burning Questions" tells a simple, easy-to-follow story: the relationship between a very beautiful, young, American girl, Mishael Porembski, and her mysterious, very handsome, foreign-born father, TV cameraman Jan Porembski. As Mishael puts it: "My father's eyes hid a world I'd never fully seen … Even as a child, I could sense that my father wasn't altogether happy. There was a somberness that would wash over him. This quiet sadness would create a yearning in me … One area of my father's life was off limits – his homeland, Poland … My father was interned in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I've always wondered. Was my [Polish, Catholic] father a survivor of the Holocaust?" One of Mishael's aunts was in Ravensbruck; the other was in Auschwitz.

The film follows Mishael's earnest attempt to understand both her father's hidden pain and American media's lies about Poland. The viewer gets a sense of what confronts Mishael five minutes into the movie. She is attempting to film her father. He glares at her. His face is utterly unforgiving and remote. This is a man who has seen the worst. One can only applaud Mishael's courage.

Viewers who are themselves of Polish descent, and whose family members remember WWII, will recognize their own loved ones in this film. I recognize the stoic, apparently emotionless faces and tightly compressed lips that greeted my attempts to understand that cataclysm. I recognize the casual way with which a former Auschwitz prisoner rolls up her arm and displays her tattooed number, as if it were of no import. On an undistinguished Warsaw side street, what might appear to be nothing but a brick wall is marked by a small cross. Jan reminisces about walking past this wall as a small boy, and seeing German Nazis executing Poles against it. Some Poles sang the National Anthem as they died. I recognized the previously tough, granite-like facial features melting into tears as victims, decades later, suddenly hit upon a new memory of their own victimization. I could only nod when Aunt Stefania forces Mishael to eat more than she wants, and when Mishael reports that her aunt walks in on her while she's in the bathroom. Privacy? What's that?

While watching close-ups of Aunt Maria's casual recounting of her days as a prisoner in Auschwitz, and her father's initial lack of on-camera emotion, I was reminded how more celebrated filmmakers, Claude Lanzmann in "Shoah" and Marian Marzynski in "Shtetl," used Poles' stoicism to indict them as without feeling for Nazi victims. In fact, Poles were victims of Nazis, too, and Polish stoicism is a coping mechanism, not a badge of Polish indifference.

Mishael's grandfather, Henryk Porebski, looks like a delightful, carefree man in the one photo we see of him. This handsome young dandy is wearing a straw hat and carrying a cane. He is imitating the American film comedian, Charlie Chaplin. Nazis took Henryk, and he was never heard from again.

Jan, Henryk's son, now an old man himself, stares at the camera coldly. "Someone will ask, 'Tell me about your father,'" Jan says. His face is not cold because he does not care. His face is cold because he has lived with this pain all his life, with no comfort, not even knowledge of the location of his father's remains. Later, Jan is shown reading the Polish national epic poem, "Pan Tadeusz." Jan reads but a few lines before he is choked by tears. "I thought I was over certain things but I guess I'm not," he confesses.

Mishael visits with Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland. Schudrich is compassionate and questioning. How do you explain this suffering, this pain, he asks? It is natural to want to lash out, he says. This is a great tragedy, he says, "because the anger is being misplaced." Hope can be found, Schudrich says, in "feeling someone else's suffering." Schudrich also says, "If people don't know about your suffering, it's your obligation to talk about it. It's nobody else's obligation." Poles, Schudrich alleges, have not made their suffering known to the world. Schudrich is right. Polish Americans are especially at fault in this regard.

Szymon Szurmiej, Vice President of the World Federation of Polish Jews, points out that Poland was the only country where Nazis mandated the death penalty, for the entire family, for the crime of aiding Jews. In spite of this, he points out, several thousand Poles, more than any other nationality, are honored at Yad Vashem for saving Jews.

"Burning Questions" is not a systematic, theoretically-based presentation of Polish suffering during WWII, and it is not a systematic refutation of the charge, frequently encountered in American media, that Poles are the equivalent of, or even worse than, German Nazis. Because of the sometimes less-than-Hollywood production values, and the lack of systematic, theoretical scaffolding, I might award this documentary four out of five stars. I award it five stars, though, for this reason – no one else has done what Mishael Porembski has with this film. The Polish story is untold in America. Yes, there are writers, and I am one of them, but we have not successfully brought our work before significant enough audiences. We Polish-Americans are unknown, as Porembski demonstrates, even to our own selves. She deserves the extra star not for technical excellence or deep background, but for having the courage, and determination, to tell a story that has, so far, been silenced and ignored – including by those who have lived it, and their American children and grandchildren.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hanukkah-Phobia at the New York Times

Czarek Sokolowski

The New York Times op-ed page has run a few pieces dissing Hanukkah. I read the first such piece in 1997 and it struck me as a one-off. In it the Times inveighs: We shouldn't assume that the "Disney" version of Hanukkah is correct; Hanukkah is "linked with nationalism and military prowess" of intolerant "traditionalist" Jews "scandalized" by "naked wrestling" that Hellenized Jews favored. Hanukkah's true story, one of tense conflict between nationalist Jews and Jewish fans of naked wrestling, is a joyless cautionary tale for modern Israelis, the piece insisted. This grim, Hanukkah-phobic op-ed was as far from yet another commentary on "Twas the Night Before Christmas" – the Times likes those – as one could get.

In 2005 the Times published "A Beginner's Guide to Hanukkah," a weird and ugly little op-ed piece by Jonathan Safran Foer, the overhyped writer of the moment. A joyless read.

Okay, I thought, Foer's is another NYT op-ed that disses Hanukkah, but by way of dissing Christmas, so maybe Times Hanukkah-phobia isn't really a trend.

But here comes another NYT op-ed piece putting the kibosh on Hanukkah spirit. "Hanukkah struggles to find a path to Jewish hearts," the author says. "It's so hard to get excited about" Hanukkah, says the Times.

What's the deal? Why all this hating on Hanukkah?

It's a holiday that involves lighting candles, eating chocolate, and playing with a top. Very good so far. Am I missing something?

The Times has annoyed me much over the years in its various screwball stances on big issues, but its Hanukkah-phobia is a bridge too far.