Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bohunk Names in a New Jersey Graveyard

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During a recent visit to Rockaway, New Jersey, I was wandering around town and I came across a graveyard. This graveyard was chock full of Bohunk names. I tried to find out how these Bohunks made their way to Rockaway.

This isn't easy to confess: I find the lure of cemeteries impossible to resist.

No, I don't wear black fingernail polish, and I don't perform misguided rituals that exploit innocent and unsuspecting cats.

I love graveyards at least partly because I love names. Rows of tombstones are treasure troves of names: Salvatore Pagnano, Casimir Budzinski, Clementine Butternut. These names encapsulate discreet worlds. Salvatore and Casimir were both Catholic but I bet they never said more than a few words to each other. John Guzlowski, who married an Italian, said that Italians are wine; Poles are vodka. And Clementine? How did she get in there?

The birth and death dates – did he witness World War One? What's it like to die at five years old? Why did they give an infant who lived only a few days a name? Did the name change how they mourned her? The chosen identifications: mother, daughter, soldier, believer.

With inspiration on every tombstone, how can you resist animating deftly-plotted stories, peopling richly populated histories?

There is a Paterson, New Jersey graveyard that is the final resting place of Jews whose ancestors came from Lodz, Poland. Five tombstones in a row there proceed from the surname "Arnowitz" to "Arnold." That nominal journey is a saga in itself, pregnant with nuance, drama, economics, religion, maybe even some tears.

I also love the trees, the birds, the hush to be encountered in graveyards, even in the midst of bustling cities.

But I really love graveyards for this reason: their tenants have done it all. No matter what else you say about their lives, you must grant them this: they succeeded. They ran the course from birth to death. They know more than we can know, till we stop being who we are, and join them. Why not pause to shoot the breeze with such an experienced crew?

So, during a recent visit to Rockaway, I could not resist this graveyard, tucked away on a small, wooded hill. The avenue in front of the graveyard was quite busy, but no one walked among the tombstones just a few feet from the road.

Rockaway is a perfect little town. It is cute and attractive and neat. There's money. I think it might be called a "bedroom community."

Rockaway. source

Rockaway is very different from where I live. I live in one of New Jersey's notorious slums.

Because New Jersey is so small and so densely populated, our slums can be steps away from wealth. Recently someone was shot to death right outside my front door. On my daily commute I pass people who, year after year, spend all day on the street, people who haven't so much given up as never even had a clue as to how to try, and I walk, in just a few steps, over a town border and past a ritzy restaurant that is featured on the reality TV show "The Real Housewives of New Jersey."

In a few steps, I proceed from sidewalks where everyone I pass is black, to sidewalks where I pass no one, because all the white people here have cars, and they do not walk, and they do not spend their days inhabiting streets, porches, and sidewalks.

Whenever I visit perfect little New Jersey towns like Rockaway, the thought occurs to me: when will the have-nots rise up like a tsunami and invade, smashing and taking and evening the score?

As part of my work, I visit elementary schools. Little kids who attend the slum school less than a mile from my apartment walk past piles of garbage, abandoned buildings, and encampments of homeless men to get to class. Their school library is empty and locked. Their windows are scored with wire. The state comes in frequently and shakes things up; the students can't even relax into the slim comfort of routine.

When will these tots rise up in a Children's Crusade?

Some say Nature, Darwin, Evolution, rightly locates us losers in the slum, and the winners in the cute, neat, moneyed towns with so much stuff they choke on it.

But Nature also dictates homeostasis: where's there's more of something, it moves toward where there is less of something.

Mind: I'm not saying that that should happen. I really don't think that it should. I'm just wondering when it will happen, or, rather, why it does not happen. The glass walls of some of the finer homes make such a semi-permeable membrane.

Wait – I do have a point. I'm not just ranting about class.

I know exactly whom I will pass on the sidewalk, buy from, chat with, ask directions from, see on gravestones, here in my slum: African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, and Bohunks, in that order. I shop at a miraculous produce store, Corrado's. Corrado's is always crowded. You hear many different languages from the shoppers: first Spanish, then Arabic or Turkish, then Polish; shoppers buying yucca, plantains, halvah, tahini, halal, makowiec, and kiszka.

I know everybody's story. We all do. Everyone in New Jersey knows the significance of a last name, of a shade of skin, of an address.

Jews and Italians arrived over one hundred years ago and worked textiles: thus the Paterson cemetery for Jews from Lodz. Lodz was a textile manufacturing center in Poland; Paterson was a textile manufacturing center in the US. Italians and Jews made their money and left Paterson, but if you look high up on older buildings, you can still see their names carved into many an antique facade.

The mills closed. Blacks came up from the south and were assigned to government housing and government cheese and now constitute the bulk of the underclass, a bulk that expert engineers operating government-approved levers cannot budge. Hispanics and Muslims are still arriving and have created enclaves, often clashing ones. On one street in Paterson, there is one business named "Andalus." "Andalus" is a Muslim irredentist name for Spain. Another business on that same street is named "Matamoros," after St. James, who gained fame killing Muslims during the Reconquista in Spain. And on that same street there is an Hispanic, Christian Synagogue. Don't even ask – it's a long story!

Paterson's Bohunks are much smaller in number and don't call attention to themselves. The parents clean offices, do construction, work as guards and in what factories are left; the kids attend state schools and keep a low profile. I wasn't even aware of Paterson's Serbs until recently.

Everybody knows what ethnicities, what last names, to expect in cute and perfect little towns like Rockaway. One does not expect congregations of Bohunk names.

The New Jersey joke map located New Jersey's "Russians and Polacks" with "toxic fumes." With very good reason. When Bohunks, Eastern Europeans of Christian, peasant ancestry, arrived in this country in large numbers,c. 1880-1924, they were shunted by overwhelming forces into dirty, unsafe, industrial labor: coal, steel, petroleum, slaughterhouses. Thus you have "Out of this Furnace," Thomas Bell's book about Slovaks in steel, "The Jungle" about Lithuanians in slaughterhouses, and "The Deer Hunter" about Lemkos.

When I'm in towns like Rockaway, I feel the wall of separation between me and the town's residents. When they get sick, they go to a doctor. They take vacations. They do not need to strategize security considerations when walking out their front door; they do not triangulate speed, strength, trajectory, intention, eye contact, when passing a neighbor on the street. We occupy mutually exclusive universes.

So, stepping off the road of expensive cars and women in fluorescent spandex work-out gear power-walking with weights in their hands – they wouldn't last a minute in that gear on my street – and stepping into a cemetery full of Bohunk names knocked me for a loop.

I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote down the names:

Kulawiec, Klocek, Dudys, Novak, Ketcherick, Kocur, Ternosky, Hruska, Kapitulez, Bartek, Petonak, Hornyock, Hriszt…, Mak, Chipko, Knapik, Smehi, Sloskie, Grivalsky, Simuradik, Stefanak, Hritz, Moskal, Sopchak, Vrabel.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to encounter these names in a cemetery in, say, Bayonne, site of Bohunk settlement and petroleum refining. During the 1915-16 Bayonne refinery strikes, Standard Oil's manager announced, "I want to march up East 22nd street through the guts of Polaks."

But this enclave of Bohunk names seemed out of place in Rockaway.

I emailed the list to the Rockaway Township Public Library. Alex Tretiak, a librarian, wrote back.

He introduced me to this record, page six of which announces a meeting by the local Rockaway Slavic Society in November, 1933.

He also informed me of Stuart M. Lefkowitz's "Mining in Northwest New Jersey: An Oral History."Apparently there had been a small mine in Rockaway, one no longer in use. Workers arrived from Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other countries to work the mine. Lefkowitz interviewed descendents of mine workers. 

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Lefkowitz focused on the Kovach family, from Czechoslovakia. They lived in a house without electricity or running water. They had an outhouse and the father ran a pipe from a stream into the home. They kept animals; the children sometimes slept in haystacks.

The work was dangerous, of course. The Kovach home was destroyed in an explosion and the family patriarch, Frank Kovach, was killed in a mine accident. Other miners contracted silicosis, or white lung, from particles of silicon in the granite rock.

Overall, though, Lefkowitz's informants reported good relations between mine owners and workers, and a positive environment in town.

"The mine for many years represented an enclosed community of employees and their families who were born, lived, and sometimes died, while a part of this aboveground or underground world…There was reportedly a great deal of camaraderie among the mining community and the community was a very tight-knit one even though the community consisted of many distinct cultures and languages."

In 1944, the International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers unionized the mine. Informants report that John L. Lewis had more interest in his own welfare than in the welfare of the miners.

Eventually, the mine closed.

Lefkowitz's study is online here.

I'm grateful to Stuart M. Lefkowitz for recording the history of the Rockaway miners for me to read, and to librarian Alex Tretiak for introducing me to Lefkowitz's work.


Friday, December 30, 2011

Jewish Renewal in Poland: Rabbi Beliak's New Website

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I met Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak at the Georgetown / Lazarski University conference. He gave a very impressive talk at the conference, summarized at this blog post.
Rabbi Beliak now has a webpage that celebrates Jewish renewal in Poland. That webpage is http://www.jewishrenewalinpoland.org/

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

John McWhorter Uses the Term "Bohunk" in a Derogatory Way. Should We Care?

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I received an email from Alison Dvorak expressing concern that Manhattan Institute public intellectual and African American John McWhorter used the term "Bohunk" in a derogatory way in a Forbes article published December 30, 2008.

McWhorter was assessing whether or not Barack Obama's election meant that white supremacy was dead in America. Some low class whites are still white supremacists, McWhorter acknowledged. These low class whites hang nooses and use the n-word. He called these "backward" people "bohunks." He didn't bother to capitalize the word.

McWhorter is in good company. Elites have, since the Civil Rights Movement, attributed white supremacy to low class, ethically incorrect people – Bohunks – Americans of Eastern European, Christian, peasant ancestry. Apparently it was we who built and manned the slave ships, ran plantations, invented and maintained Jim Crow.

Chapter four of "Bieganski" talks about this revisionist process in detail.

Obama himself participated in this, in his infamous statement about bitter working class people in Pennsylvania – a big Bohunk state – clinging to white supremacy, guns, and bibles.

In going through my emails, I wondered if I should devote a blog entry to McWhorter's use of "Bohunk." It's not such a big deal, and his article is three years old. I'm mentioning it, though, for the same reason I mentioned the New Jersey joke map that talks about Polacks and toxic fumes in New Jersey. Bieganski is everywhere. He is in popular culture, like the joke map; he is in elite culture, like John McWhorter's high-rent musings.

Bieganski is an unavoidable aspect of American culture. Those concerned about this issue would do well to prepare themselves to confront this reality by buying, reading, and reviewing "Bieganski" and by reading this series of blog posts
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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Vaclav Havel 1936-2011

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Here's a short account of the demonstrations in Krakow, Poland, 1988-89. These demonstrations and others like them throughout the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe signaled the end of communism. The full account is here.

"Wednesday I was sitting in a tram, basking in Stalinist glee – I'd actually found a seat – and during rush hour! Around four. But the tram stopped and refused to start up again. Suddenly a voice called out, 'Everybody off! Demonstration!'

I got off and could barely find the demo. It turned out to be maybe ten kids from 9 to 14, one holding a Czechoslovak flag, another two holding a sign that said, 'Free Vaclav Havel.' Kids. Skinny, small girls in net stockings and sneakers and hennaed hair and khaki jackets. Some boys: fat, horribly skinny and dorky, pimply, fresh-faced with that skin that looks like it has never been touched. Moving the way kids move – loping, giggling, punching each other, self conscious of their bodies. We marched to the square, where the crowd grew thicker. We marched to a lovely old house on the Maly Rynek where we chanted against General Fatty. We marched to perhaps a police headquarters? Where suddenly everyone ran."

Vaclav Havel had been arrested in January, 1989, for attempting to lay flowers in Prague's Wenceslas Square. He went to the site where, twenty years before, Czech student Jan Palach had set himself on fire to protest the Soviet Bloc crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring.

I love those Polish kids from 1989 who understood, and who acted.

Those Polish kids understood – this isn't just about Poland, or Poles. We are part of a bigger story. When the police arrest the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, that is a skirmish in our struggle; that is something we must respond to.

Those Polish kids understood – we must take action. We must be the ones to make the change. We can't sit back whining and complaining and waiting for someone else to act.

Those Polish kids understood – we aren't just about celebrating famous dead generals. We must champion intellectuals – writers – playwrights! And people who aren't yet celebrities on the world stage. (Back then, most people didn't know who Vaclav Havel was. NPR broadcasters regularly mispronounced his name.)

Those Polish kids, with their dedication to a Czech playwright who wasn't particularly famous, and others liked them, brought down a system – Soviet Communism – that many thought unconquerable.

***

I mention Vaclav Havel in the essay, "The Illusion of Protection: Two Travelers Speak of Home." In this essay, I use the work of two Czech writers, Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera, to understand my life as a traveler.

"In 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,' Milan Kundera talks about 'poetic memory.' It's a precious commodity. Poetic memory is made up of the memories that touch us—and—here's the essence of it, its gift, its challenge—these memories must be shared. My home is built of poetic memory; physically homeless, I am hostage to its fate. I'm more careful, certainly more anxious, about with whom I build up stores of poetic memory than with whom I share bodily fluids. You can get the divorce, take the Twelve Steps, never call again, throw away the reject's letters, but no matter how thorough the split, the closure, the final decree, if you are human, someday you'll find yourself laughing over a joke that only he would understand, or crying over something that she once shared with you. No lawyer nor daytime talk show shrink can rescue you from poetic memory.

The other day I was reading Vaclav Havel's letters from prison. There was a line that compelled me, after years of awkward silence, to call Eric, who had once been my closest American neighbor in Peace Corps Nepal. The village where I taught English and the one where he taught math were, on sunny days, visible to each other; we were only a day's walk, and about ten thousand feet, apart.

Eric and I had inhabited an exquisitely endangered ecosystem: a tiny bubble in the Himalaya, which we created because we were the only speakers of English. Not only was he not in his culture and I not in mine, we weren't of each other's. Puget Sound Eric was Nordic, majestic, blonde, a high school and college swim team star. I'd come from a coast much closer to Ellis Island, and had worked my way through school as a nurse's aid.

Quarantined by shared affliction, besieged by language, Eric and I frantically invented a new culture for our nation of two. We became zealots at using poetic memory with each other, to bind, to wound, to raise a laugh, to drive home a point; he could deploy it as other men, jealous, resort to physical strength. If a man were flirting with me, all Eric had to do was sidle behind and recite an excerpt from our canon of poetic memory and I was his, irrevocably; the flirt before me transformed into an interloper. Dinners, proposals, even another man's love poems, could not survive one strategic reference from Eric. 'Goska, remember that time that you and...'

At our posts in Nepal, the only pens available to us had been Chinese ballpoint pens. Halfway through each of our letters to each other there was always a big blob of ink, or a disappearing line, an apology, and a curse. 'Damn these Chinese pens!'

The other day, I was reading imprisoned Vaclav Havel pleading with his wife Olga to send him more Chinese ballpoint pens, so much better than the Soviet ones. I laughed out loud. No one in the room understood. Who would understand but Eric, terribly distant in space and class, terribly intimate in my poetic memory?"


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Bieganski Lives. In New Jersey. With Toxic Fumes.

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The above joke map of New Jersey identifies one portion of north-eastern New Jersey as the abode of "Russians, Polacks, and Toxic Fumes."
The joke map targets other ethnic groups as well, including, significantly, Jews and African Americans. Slurs associated with Jews and African Americans are not used, however; there are no "Kikes" nor "Niggers" on this joke map.
It is okay, though, to insult Polish-Americans and poor whites with slurs. Thus, the map features "Polacks" and "Rednecks."
Do something about your status as a joke in America, Polonia. Start here

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ripples of Sin


Ripples of Sin

by Otto 

There's a part of me that died as a child. I look at old photos of myself and see a hard look that's still there every morning staring back at me as I shave. I grew up poor and life was hard, but the story of where that edge came from has taken a lifetime to uncover.

My parents are of German decent, though the wide array of countries, some long gone, filter into the various documents I've come across trying to chronicle "who" I am. The foundation of my family's story is turmoil. While German has been the most convenient definition, I find that my family has been defined as German, Russian, Polish, Prussian, and Wolhynien. I may have some French and other nationalities in there somewhere, but I'm not sure how I'll ever untangle it all.

Lots of countries come and go. My family is originally German and one of the founding families that formed the Germanic states. Through genealogy, I've made connections back to the late ninth century. Our history is a long and proud one. Over the years we migrated places, building and developing.

In the tug-of-war we call history, people evolve for good and ill. To say you're fill-in-the-blank is a little odd. Irish? Maybe a little Viking DNA. Spanish? Maybe some Arab Moorish blood. Polish? The list is a little long. It gets to the point where I wonder if anyone really understands their real background.

Genetics aside, this confusion of national identity qualifies our family as typical of the American melting pot. I have cousins who list themselves as Polish, others as German. These days, if asked, I align myself as German in both culture and genetics.

My mother's lineage is less well known, but seems to have started in Germany also, though she always told us that we were half German, half Polish. I find that our "Polish" side is more the effect of land grabs that happened throughout European history.

My parents' stories are similar. They grew up in what is now Poland. My father's family was wealthy, while my mother's were subsistence farmers. Both sides were uprooted in post-WW1 land grabs. Both families were put in Russian refugee camps because of their German, Lutheran ancestry. They were told that their property and homes were forfeit. They were forced to march to a displaced persons camp in Siberia. All they could bring was what they could carry. Neither finished much schooling.

"German Refugees Stranded in Eastern Europe." Wikipedia

My mother turned 90 this year and still talks about having the officials and neighbors taking away what little they were attempting to save as they were marched out of town. The look in her eyes when she talks about this shows that she's been transported back to her childhood and that painful time. What nationality were these neighbors? Polish definitely. Jewish likely; but my parents attributed things against stereotypes, and not necessarily facts. My dad was cheated at one point, and that became The Story of the Jew that Cheated Me. Cheated – a fact, but nothing to indicate the guy was or was not Jewish. Money was involved, ipso facto, Jewish.

My father's stories of displacement and dispossession were similar to my mother's. His adjustment was a bit rougher as he'd come from a very wealthy family. He had farther to fall. Both attributed their troubles to Poles, Jews, and Russians. It's hard to filter through rage and find the truth at this point, though.

I lost three of my four grandparents in the Russian camps to typhoid. My paternal grandfather finally decided to leave. He simply walked out of the gate. He assumed that the guards wouldn't bother wasting a bullet on him since he was old and he'd never survive a walk across Siberia. They didn't shoot him, and he made it back to Germany some months later.

I've only seen my father cry twice. Once was when we visited my grandfather's grave in a small rural town in West Germany. My father was a hard man, not given to moments of emotion, but I still have a vivid memory of the look in his eyes and the stories that must have been replaying in his mind. This moment wasn't about the tears. I'd heard many of the family stories from my earliest years. It was about the suffering and pain that was behind it all, still fresh after all those years. Above all, you could see the hate stirred up.

My father was on his own at sixteen after leaving the camps, wandering and surviving. He found refuge, food, and purpose in the SA, or Sturmabteilung, better known as the Brown Shirts. I'm not sure of the timing but he survived the Depression with what, under the circumstances, would be a benevolent organization if you were alone and starving. Not so much, if you were a victim of Kristallnacht or the subsequent acts of violence leading up to the Final Solution. It's easy for me to see that his past made the latter possible.

SA stormtroopers, Nuremberg, 1928. Source.

I'm not sure whether he believed in Hitler because of brainwashing or because of his past, but he was, for all purposes, a Nazi. He ended up in the Wehrmacht after spending five years in prison for beating up two soldiers.

He spent the war as a corporal in the Afrika Korps, eventually getting shot six times in battles in Libya between Rommel and Montgomery. He was taken to an aide station. His doctor told him that he would have to have his arm cut off because the bullet damage was so bad. He knocked the doctor out, who quickly agreed the arm could stay. He was sent to Italy either to live or die. He survived. He went to the Russian Front during the end of the war.

German soldier in Afrika Korps. Source.

He was captured by the Russians and put in a prisoner-of-war camp where he was beaten and starved by his old nemesis, the Russians. He spoke Polish and Russian, so they put him with a group of Russians who interrogated prisoners. My father was his captors' translator.

One of the few funny stories my Dad would tell about his war years: The group of three men who abused and starved him where Russian peasants. They didn't share what little food they had with my father and they beat him up regularly. They moved into a town and were searching for food. The residents of the town had fled as the Russians approached. The townspeople feared rape and murder. The Russians found some potatoes in an abandoned home. There they also saw a flush toilet – something they'd never seen before. They asked my father what it was. He replied, "Potato washer."

Gulag for German prisoners. From "I Did Nothing Wrong."

My mother's war story starts on September 1, 1939. The woman she was working for sent her to Warsaw to pick something up. That very day, the Germans invaded Poland. When the Poles realized she was of German decent they beat her up badly. It would take her three weeks to get back home. She misdirected Polish soldiers she encountered, and helped German soldiers along the way to find the enemy Poles. To this day she describes having to wander among corpses while trying to stay low to the ground, avoiding being shot. She survived but the story of those years will die with her.

Polish girl mourning her sister, September, 1939. 

After the war ended, my father and my mother wandered and ended up close to where they were born.

They met at a dance and married three weeks later. They had two children in Germany, but struggling to survive, they decided to come to America. The US Army had a program that let Germans work their way across the ocean to earn passage and become farm laborers in America. Many former American farmers had died as soldiers or didn't want to go back to rural living after seeing the world. My father signed up, and was investigated by the US Army. Passing the background check, they came to America, my father working in the ship's engine room shoveling coal and as a machinist.

They were sent to a farm in Minnesota with another family. They had nothing and were barely getting enough to eat. They lived in a one room, dirt-floored shed with a wood stove. My parents were indentured, supposed to stay for two years, but the farmer was angry, cruel, and went out of his way to get even with the Germans. He unfortunately decided to dictate that my father was not allowed to smoke – period. That's right; my father knocked him out.

My mother borrowed money from a relative living in New Jersey so they could leave Minnesota. They weren't educated and didn't know what would happen if they broke the agreement. They were willing to be deported rather than put up with slow starvation and abuse.

Paterson, NJ. Source.

They came to New Jersey where my brother and I were born. They didn't know about public assistance and we quietly starved until my father found a job working with asbestos. Even after he found a job as an iron worker and was working steadily, my family's dynamic was to act as though the world would collapse again at any moment. They both worked and scrimped and saved, but when I was young we were malnourished. I grew up in poverty and was hospitalized for malnutrition and pneumonia at age seven. We didn't spend a dollar we didn't need to. We would buy day-old bread because it was cheaper; meals might consist of milk and bread. Later on it got better in quantity, but my parents never left the time in their lives when they went without. We continued to starve, live in poverty, and live a brutal existence even after circumstances were better.

Socially, Germans weren't popular. When kids played soldiers, we automatically became the Nazis. Goethe, Gutenberg, Charlemagne and other German contributions are gone. Suddenly our identity is only about Hitler. I'm not saying it wasn't horrible, but I had nothing to do with any of it, so I never knew what I was supposed to apologize for. The Italian kids didn't get it, or the pro-German French, Danes, Japanese, etc.

Those were my formative years and I got it from both sides.

Years later as my father lay in a hospital dying of cancer, we talked about things.

My story starts in a cold apartment in Paterson, NJ. So cold I can remember frozen water inside the house as a very young child. I recall that we had to wear winter cloths and hats inside the house. Food was a luxury, good food rare. Needless to say there were no luxuries like entertainment. Anything other than necessities would not be allowed since they were a waste of money. We were also expected to be independent from a very early age. As the youngest of four, I wore only well-worn hand-me-downs that had clothed at least two previous siblings.

We all had to eat whatever was put on our plates. We had to do chores. That's not a bad thing, but playtime was frowned upon. Christmas was usually nonexistent. I remember lying about what presents I had received to the other kids. Even before me and my siblings worked for money, we worked to provide for ourselves, knowing that our parents wouldn't help or would get mad at us for being frivolous. You could never tell where that would end.

Discipline meant getting beat. For clarity of terms, I mean beat and not spanked. Spanking did occur but it usually crossed the line.

Buckle reads "Gott Mit Uns."
There are entire discussion forums on the web devoted to Nazi belts and buckles. Source.

My father had hands that were as hard as the labor he did. He was the hardest-working guy I ever met, and well-muscled. They hit us with an old army belt my father had kept. Fists, brooms, anything convenient. Getting hit by my father was of course worse than getting hit by my mother. Verbal abuse and denigration were always present. All their pain, suffering and frustration were in every blow. All the things that my parents had gone through became the fabric of family life.

My father finished the eighth grade and my mother finished far less than that. They could offer us no help in school. Notes sent from a teacher would be one of the worst things that could ever happen. I was left-handed when I started go to school and a teacher sent a note home discouraging that. She didn't know I would get an incredible beating for that. I quickly became a righty.

Another world-class beating came from a note from a teacher saying I was having a problem with arithmetic. I was confused by a couple of things in the times table. I got hit so hard, the belt marks were still visible a few days later when I had to return the signed note and the teacher asked if my parents understood I needed help and I lifted my shirt a little.

I grew up knowing that I was on my own and that I had to take care of myself. I cannot remember not working. Paper routes, snow shoveling, running errands, baby sitting, collecting bottles for spare change. I started working for a paycheck a few weeks after it was legal. I would get into trouble for working more hours than I was supposed to by law. I also worked with my father.

I grew up hearing how lazy and stupid I was. It took me years to realize that that soundtrack drove me incessantly. I am a workaholic and still feel like I don't achieve enough. "If I'm breathing, I'm working." I have worked more than eighty hours a week at my primary job and used my spare time on other projects. For example, I have worked four days straight, gotten on a plane to Seoul, and worked the next four days straight there, only sleeping on the flight. I have driven myself to near death in order to gain approval that will never come, self-worth that's always countermanded by echoes of being called stupid and lazy. "Good enough," is not good enough and neither am I.

Being a family of immigrants, extremely poor, and Germans to boot, we never fit in. Strangers in strange land. For me it was always being the skinny kid, dressed funny, not able to fit in. My social skills never developed properly. I grew up feeling rejected by others and maybe more importantly by my family. I now know that they were frustrated and desperate to overcome poverty by working hard and gaining the American Dream. Failure was not an option, so if it meant a kick in the pants, figuratively and physically, well it was supposed to be for our own good. I could take a punch. Practice makes perfect.

I grew up expressing myself through rage and fighting. By the time I was sixteen I'd been stabbed, broken my nose four times, broken all of my fingers at least once, both wrists, dislocated my shoulders and hips, broke some ribs, and an assortment of other injuries too numerous to recall. The roots of this violence were to be found in events that preceded my birth.

The point of this is not a lesson in comparative misery. It's about observations and lessons learned.

How does it all stop?

At a young age I realized that the baggage was there. I also realized that there were some good lessons to learn. It took a long time to figure out how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some things were better forgotten and some things important to hold on to. I think people believe I should have some inherent guilt about what happened during World War Two. They try and use it as leverage during discussions on the topic, as though winning an argument is more important than facts and finding the truth. (Truths.) It's a complex topic, but the short answer is, I pick through my history and see what is good and what is harmful. I drop the baggage by understanding how it occurred.

My view of history is that it's not as simple as A is true, or A leads to B. I think it's an intersection of Chaos Theory and historical facts, rather than just taking a slice of dates and facts that suits one's purpose. Life is complicated, and if we're to really prevent future events we need to be able to look at the wider picture, openly and honestly, if the aim is an evolution in human thinking rather than the gratification that comes from scoring points in a debate. If we're to "never forget", it will be based on real understanding so we don't repeat the same mistakes of the past.

For me it's about enduring things and being a better person for it. For example, my great-grandfather was a sheriff killed in "Poland," defending his property from a thief. I could be an idiot and say something stupid about how Poles are thieves, or I could focus on my great-grandfather as a man of character, honest and strong, and he helped people.

When it's cold and dark, when I'm scared and things are going wrong, I think about the life-threatening hard times my ancestors lived through so that I could be born in Paterson, NJ. Kind of a Jersey equivalent to " What doesn't kill us, makes us...eeeehhh...stronger, ya know."
 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bieganski at Georgetown University

Georgetown Above the Potomac. Source: Wikipedia.
On Wednesday, December 7, 2011, I participated in the "Polish-Jewish Dialogue: A New Opening" Conference at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Lazarski University of Warsaw, Georgetown's BMW Center for German and European Studies, and The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland were our gracious and generous hosts.

The conference was an inspiration. Participants included dynamic, intelligent, charming and passionate contributors to productive Polish-Jewish cooperation on the economic, cultural, scholarly and military fronts. The positive energy I encountered at this conference was an antidote to Polonia's crisis in leadership, organization, and vision. It was also an antidote to the Bieganski image in media, scholarship, and folk culture.

The problems we face are real. The solutions are also very real, and those solutions were abundantly evident at the Georgetown Conference. The solutions are the indomitable faith, hope, and love in human hearts. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it," declares the New Testament. The Old Testament reports, "Compared to light, wisdom takes precedence; for that, indeed, night supplants, but wickedness prevails not over Wisdom."

The energetic, caring, involved participants in the Georgetown conference are proof that, in the end, the bad guys won't win. In the long run, good will triumph. That is as natural as water flowing downhill.

Conference Welcoming Remarks: Prof. Jeffrey Anderson, Graf Goltz Professor and Director of the BMW Center for German and European Studies, stressed the importance of educating the next generation of transatlantic leaders. As part of this, historical memory and reconciliation are key. I liked Prof. Anderson's comments, and I wish I had had more time to talk to him. I'm grateful that he understands that "historical memory" is a product that must be cultivated.

Formal statements were read by members of the diplomatic corps: Polish Ambassador to the US Robert Kupiecki, Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, and Wojciech Piekarski, former Polish ambassador to the US. Of course the Polish ambassador talked about Polish righteous among the nations, Jan Karski, and the Jewish cultural festival in Krakow. Of course the Israeli ambassador talked about the long history of Jews in Poland, anti-Semitism at Polish sporting events, and good things Poles have done to combat anti-Semitism. Someone talked about restitution of Jewish properties.

Georgetown Prof. Robert J. Lieber knew Jan Karski personally and offered a talk about their relationship.

Conference Panel One: Overcoming the Past with the Politics of Today: Is Strategic Partnership between Poland and Israel Possible? Reality or Political Fiction?

Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, of Beith Warsaw. "World War Two Ended in Poland in 1989:
Understanding the Implications of that Statement for the Last Twenty Years." I very much liked Rabbi Beliak's talk. As the title of his talk suggests, Rabbi Beliak went out of his way to acknowledge Polish feelings, perspectives, and priorities. I found his compassionate and selfless awareness of the Polish worldview, and his willingness to devote his limited time during this conference to expressing the Polish worldview, to be quite moving.

I often emphasize to readers of my book: Jews are among those working to decommission the Bieganski stereotype. Rabbi Beliak's talk was exemplary of this.

Rabbi Beliak stated, "History does not have inevitabilities." Readers of chapter seven of "Bieganski" will understand the profound importance of that statement.

Rabbi Beliak posited a though experiment: A Jewish Rip van Winkle falls asleep in September, 1939 and is awakened in 1945 and is told that most of the Jews of Europe have been murdered. His response: "The French are capable of anything!"

Rabbi Beliak also made it a point to mention the number of Polish, non-Jewish casualties during World War Two. He mentioned that there was every reason to believe that the Polish people would disappear. "Yet they survived." He sees a parallel between Poles and Jews. "There are echoes for me in many attempts to destroy Jewish culture" and Jewish survival in spite of those genocidal efforts. "It is difficult for people to see suffering from the other side," he said. Rabbi Beliak demonstrated that his soul is large enough to feel compassion for "the other side," and I was very moved by this.

Rabbi Beliak spoke of the roots of Judaism's major movements in Poland. "I end," he said, "more with a prayer than with an historical observation." Amen, I say.

Brigade Commander General Uri Agmon. Israeli liaison officer to the US army. "Poland and Israel as Strategic Allies." General Agmon began with an anecdote about sharing a cab with his Polish non-Jewish fellow conference attendees. The cab was driven by a Muslim. General Agmon wondered what each of the people sitting in that cab thought of the other. "Everything is possible" he said. "The past and future are combined…We can overcome the nightmare of the past." Israel and Poland can be and are allies, he said, at least partly because both share a Western orientation.

States have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests, he said, paraphrasing Lord Palmerston.

General Agmon closed with a poignant comment about how "Some Iranian, some worker or shopkeeper, who has never met me, hates me. People are funny."

I've met many Iranians, and I know they are thoroughly brainwashed by their government. I mentioned this to General Agmon, and he said "We are all brainwashed." Not to the extent that Iranians are, I would argue. There is no freedom of conscience in a country where, today, Yousef Nadarkhani faces the state-sanctioned death penalty for being a Christian.

Dr. Pawel Grzabka, CEO of CEE Property Group, Head of Supervisory Board of Sun and Snow Group. "Opportunities for Expanding Polish-Israeli Business Cooperation into Strategic Partnership in the Eyes of the World Economic Fluctuation and European Union Financial Troubles."

Dr. Grzabka's rather long talk title sums up his talk rather well. "The future is bright," he reported.

Maciej Jachimczyk: "The Last Thirty Years of Polish-Jewish Relations from the Perspective of a Muslim." I was an innocent little boy in Poland and my classmates said something mean about Jews, Jachimczyk began. Perhaps one is to conclude from his personal anecdote that Poles really are the world's worst anti-Semites, as is so often accepted as fact.

Jachimczyk went on to depict himself as a lone seeker of truth. This ascetic image was undermined by Jachimczyk's constantly mentioning how many famous people he knows: Father Jozef Tischner, Leszek Kolakowski, Timothy Garton Ash, Rafael Scharf, and the famous venues where he carried out his quest, including Tyniec Monastery, Jagiellonian University, and Oxford.

Jachimczyk's quest forced him to conclude that "Anti-Semitism is a Christian sickness which kills Jews," that anti-Semitism is a "product of Christianity," that "Jesus and his followers had no idea of starting a new religion;" that they were and remained faithful Jews, that Christianity is a big lie, that "There is no place for me in Christianity … Christianity is responsible for the death of six million Jews."

Further, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski is just another apologist for Polish Anti-Semitism. There were many rabbis at the Georgetown conference, but no priests. That was proof that priests are anti-Semitic, Jachimczyk charged. (The conference organizer admitted that he  had invited no priests.)

Jachimczyk converted to Islam. Islam is not anti-Semitic. The Koran's version of Jesus is historically accurate.

The war on terror is really a war on Islamism. The war on terror is really a state-sponsored distraction for the populace. Americans are confused about Muslims. In conclusion, Jachimczyk said, "Poland must purify itself from the ghosts of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism."

***

Jachimczyk's talk was not only the worst of the conference, it was the single worst conference talk I've ever heard. Jachimczyk made sweeping, bigoted, false, and unsupported generalizations in a rambling, unfocused, emotional and personal rant.

Scholarship uses accepted and proven facts to, through a rigorous process, reach new truths. Real scholarship requires fearless interrogation and dispassionate testing of each assertion. It moves slowly and carefully and tests every step, every assertion. This testing is slow and painful, but if you start out with faulty assertions, you will end not at the destination of truth, but at the destination of reaffirming your own solipsistic bigotry.

Hate is built on undisciplined personal anecdotes, and an over-investment in one's own feelings.

Jachimczyk recounted his own biography, his own life story. This is an interesting rhetorical ploy. "I lived this! You can't tell me that my own experience is wrong!" is an assertion one frequently encounters in the screeds of bigots. "A Jew cheated me! A Pole beat me up! I know that Jews are all Shylock from my own life experience! I know that Poles are all Bieganski from my own life experience! You can't take my biography away from me!"

Well, no one wants to take anyone's biography away from anyone. Rather, what scholarly conferences need is scholarship, and scholarship is not rambling, unedited and unexamined personal rant.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that school children around the world say bad things about Jews, Poles, women, Catholics, black people, fat people, retarded people, homosexuals, handicapped people and every other group on earth every day. That rather simple degree of scholarly interrogation had no place in Jachimczyk's talk.

Jachimczyk is wrong about a more important matter. Nazism, not Christianity, is responsible for the death of six million Jews.

Six million Jews were not the only victims of the Nazis. The first and last group Nazis mass-murdered were handicapped people. Polish Catholics, Polish priests, Soviet prisoners of war, and others were victims of mass death. This is entirely consistent with Nazism's intellectual foundations, which were not only not Christian, they were genocidally anti-Christian. Nazism's utterly non-Christian foundations are outlined in a few previous blog posts, including this one and this one.

People with some power, like Jachimczyk, are allowed to distort history.

Jachimczyk's conversion to Islam, and his dawa – proselytizing – for Islam during his talk at a scholarly conference – renders Jachimczyk's talk hypocritical and ridiculous.

Blatant, unapologetic, genocidal, Anti-Semitism is epidemic in the Muslim world. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, mass murdered and enslaved Jews, significantly, the Banu Qurayza. Mohammed ordered the exile of Jews and Christians from what is now Saudi Arabia. The Koran describes Allah turning Christians and Jews into monkeys and pigs, and describes Jews as the worst enemies of Muslims. Mohammed declared that even rocks and trees will, on some blessed future day, tell Muslims to kill Jews.

Islam's treatment of Jews throughout the centuries and in various Muslim countries includes forcing Jews to wear a shoulder patch in the shape of monkey and other humiliations inherent in dhimmi status. There were massacres, such as the 1066 Grenada massacre.

Hitler's friend, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, stated, "According to the Muslim religion, the defense of your life is a duty which can only be fulfilled by annihilating the Jews." SS chief Himmler greeted the Mufti thus, "To the Grand Mufti: The National Socialist movement of Greater Germany has, since its inception, inscribed upon its flag the fight against the world Jewry. It has therefore followed with particular sympathy the struggle of freedom-loving Arabs, especially in Palestine, against Jewish interlopers. In the recognition of this enemy and of the common struggle against it lies the firm foundation of the natural alliance that exists between the National Socialist Greater Germany and the freedom-loving Muslims of the whole world."

One of many sources on Islam's problem with Jews: "The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History" by Andrew G. Bostom.

Jachimczyk's insistence that the Koran records the "real" Jesus is also ridiculous. The Jesus of the Gospels is the single best-attested personage from the Ancient Mediterranean world; this is a matter of fact, not opinion. We have better proof that Jesus existed than that Alexander the Great existed. The Gospels were written within decades of his life. Jesus' biographers came from his milieu and spoke his language. One does not have to be a Christian to acknowledge these facts; the historical consensus is that the Jesus of the Gospels was a real person.

The Koran was written at least six hundred and fifty years after Jesus' death, in Arabic, a language Jesus did not speak, by moon-and-star worshipping Arabs who were not part of the Judeo-Christian tradition and did not understand it. Mohammed received a garbled version of Jesus' life from Waraqa, the cousin of Mohammed's wife and employer. Mohammed thought that Moses was Jesus' uncle. Moahmmed included local children's fairytales about Jesus in the Koran, for example, Jesus turning clay birds into real ones. Mohammed uses Jesus to enhance his own status: Jesus did not die on the cross; rather, Allah sent a mannequin to be crucified in Jesus' place. Mohammed reports that Jesus will return someday to destroy all worship of Jesus, condemn Christians to hell, and help Islam triumph.

This is a tangent; I just want to emphasize how out of place Jachimczyk's talk was. He made one bizarre statement after another. His only support was "this is my real life" and "I know famous people." Polish-Jewish relations deserve a higher standard of proof than this.

No one challenged Jachimczyk. Of course no one challenged him. He was speaking in a protected environment, where his point of view is empowered, and the truth is imperiled. Christophobia is rampant on American university campuses. At the same time, the thought police are so thorough in their shielding of Islam from any criticism that when Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, showed a powerpoint to his fellow officers explaining why Muslims must kill infidels, no one did anything. Hasan went on to murder thirteen people at Fort Hood, Texas. Yes, this shielding of Islam from any criticism is the rule even on Catholic campuses like Georgetown.

Panel Two: Personal Impressions of Jews Living in Poland and Poles Living in Israel.

Rabbi Shalom Stambler
talked about being a rabbi in Warsaw. He said that he knew that Poland "didn't have such a good image" and he was worried about how he'd be received. He's since changed his mind. "I wish Jews were as interested in Yiddishkeit as Poles are!" The Jewish presence in Poland is not just about museums and cemeteries but living culture, he said, culture supported by Poles.

Alon Simhayoff, Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, former Cultural Attaché of Israel in Poland: "Three Years in Warsaw as an Israeli Diplomat: Personal Impressions."
Alon Simhayoff said that all doors were opened for him in Poland, and that there is much cooperation. There are at least six universities that offer Jewish studies. We have good friends within the church, in spite of anti-Semitic voices like Radio Maria. "I feel this openness in my everyday life," he said. He mentioned a Polish taxi driver telling him, with enthusiasm, that he had a CD by an Israeli singer. Who might this be, Mr. Simhayoff wondered. It turned out to be a CD by Barbara Streisand.

In the Jewish Festival in Cracow Poles cheered the Israeli ambassador - how many places in Europe would that happen? Mr. Simhayoff reported. People do still harbor old stereotypes, though, including the fallacy that "Jews control the media." People repeat this even while repeating that the media is unfair to Israel. There are positive people in every generation and every social class. I very much applaud Alon for saying this. It defies the fallacy of "universal human progress" that I condemn in "Bieganski."

Mr. Simhayoff mentioned the positive changes in the field of education for tolerance in Poland and commended the Polish authorities for that, but also mentioned that if it is not combined with enforcements efforts, then it is not enough, since the result is events such as the attack on the house of the Director of Teatr NN in Lublin, performed by Neo-Nazis, who were never caught. This is one example. Other cases of hate crimes are closed either by the police or by the prosecutor's office.


Jacek Olejnik: Perceptions of Polish-Jewish Relations from the Perspective of the Polish Diplomat Living in Israel."

Mr. Olejnik quoted Sheva Weiss, "Relations between Poland and Israel can be excellent or none." Right now these relations are excellent, he said. He said that there is a mirror phenomenon to anti-Semitism in Poland; anti-Polish feelings in Israel.

Eran Huppert: "Between Real and Surreal: The Voice of the Son of a Holocaust Survivor from Israel, Holding Dual Polish and Israeli Citizenship, Living Now in Poland." Mr. Huppert talked about how his grandfather, who had fought with Pilsudski in 1920, was forced to retire from the army because of his Jewish identity. He reported feeling victorious as a Jew living in Poland "five minutes walk from where my grandfather was executed" during the Holocaust. He reported seeing hundreds of anti-Semitic graffiti, and no anti-German or anti-Russian graffiti in Poland. In Wroclaw, he saw, in a very public place, in very large letters, "Juden Raus." He also sees a picture of an old Jewish man holding a gold coin. This racist image is hung in businesses and homes as a good luck charm. At the same time, Mr. Huppert says that his personal experiences living as a Jew in Poland have been good, and he has had almost no negative experiences. If he had to pick anywhere to live in Europe today, it would be Warsaw.

Rabbi Simcha Krakowski, President of the Chasidic Foundation in Tel Aviv: "History of the Chasidic Movement in Poland."

Rabbi Krakowski offered a history of Hasidism in Poland. He reported that there are many accounts of Polish non-Jews (in his speech he used the word "goyim") helped by Jewish Hasidic saints. Poles enjoy the jobs and income that come from Jewish tourism to Poland.

Hannah Rosenthal: Greetings from the Secretary of State

Mrs. Rosenthal's father is a Holocaust survivor. She monitors anti-Semitism in 193 countries. She chooses to focus on Poland. "There's a maturity in the reconciliation between the world Polish population and the world Jewish population." Young people may ask their grandparents, "What were you doing during the war? What guilt do I need to feel?" There are disgusting anti-Semitic events in sports. Tadeusz Pieronek, a Polish bishop, engaged in Holocaust denial. Rosenthal quoted the Talmud, "We are not required to finish the task, but neither are we allowed to desist from it."

Panel Three: The Nature of Change in the Perception of Polish-Jewish Relations in Recent Times.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich: "How Polish-Jewish Relations Practically Function in Today's Poland: An Analysis of Successes and Failures. What has Caused the Change in Polish-Jewish Relations in the Past Twenty Years."
Rabbi Schudrich and I were on the same panel. I asked him where in the states he is from. The Bronx. I once lived on Moshulu Parkway, and worked in the Bronx Zoo, I said. I've been a fan of Rabbi Schudrich's since seeing him in Mishael Porembski's film "Burning Questions." In that film he says that it is Poles' obligation to tell their own story. I could not agree more.

Rabbi Schudrich mentioned a previous, Jewish name for Poland, one that could be translated "here lives God." He said that Polish democracy is a "miracle."

Rabbi Schudrich asked the key question: "Which is the real Poland? The szmalcowniks or the righteous? Which is the real Poland? The many Jewish festivals or Radio Maria?" Of course I think he can find the answer in "Bieganski." His answer is "both." "Poland has good guys and bad guys. The good guys are growing in number."

Pope John Paul II contributed to the growth in the number of good guys. He fought Christian anti-Semitism more than anyone else in the past 2,000 years. The fall of Communism resulted in a tremendous release of energy. The discussion of the Jedwabne massacre was a watershed moment. The good guys on both sides found each other. This discussion deepened Rabbi Schudrich's affection and respect for Poland. "We need to feel each other's pain." Nowadays, perhaps, relations are too normal – we need to remain alert, and pay attention to fighting xenophobia.

Dr. Danusha Goska: Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype.

I spoke next, and, as the only invited female scholarly speaker, I focused on fashions and recipes.

I mean, seriously. I haven't been in such an androcentric environment since I was among the first to stand in line for the first local showing of "Jurassic Park." At times I was the only woman in the room.

There should have been more women at this conference. Too much of Polish-Jewish relations is, to use a technical term, a pissing contest, a testosterone-fueled, zero-sum competition whose goal is domination, even the domination of others' narratives, of others' ethical self-definition: "We suffered more than you! Your hate for us was worse than our hate for you!" Our conferences will be at their best when they reflect the real world, which is fifty percent female, and when they reflect women's ways of understanding diversity and coexistence.

Mr. Sebastian Rejak, Department of Africa and the Middle East, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Poland. "The Myth of Polish Death Camps v. the Myth of Polish Innocence."


Mr. Rejak was the first conference speaker to mention the involvement of Jews in the post-war Communist security apparatus. As he said, as Dr. Stanislaw Krajewski has pointed out in his book, that was and is part of the history of Polish Jews.

Mr. Rejak also mentioned the 1941 Jedwabne massacre of Jews by Poles and the 1946 Kielce pogrom of Jews by Poles. He also mentioned szmalcowniks, or Poles who betrayed Jews for money during the Nazi occupation.

Mr. Rejak reported that every year, hundreds of sources, all over the world, use the term "Polish concentration camps" or other terms like it. This term is a distortion. These concentration camps were Nazi institutions, not Polish. They were placed in Poland occupied by Nazis. "Poland has too many actual stains on its collective conscience for it to willingly accept responsibility for crimes committed for someone else."

Mr. Rejak also stressed the need for "partnership" in dialogue not in terms of "equality of suffering or victimhood or participation in atrocities" but in terms of approach. "There should be no 'inferior' and 'superior' parties in a dialogue."

Mr. Rejak also mentioned Dabru Emet. I really appreciated this placement of Polish-Jewish relations in the wider context of Christian-Jewish dialogue.

***

I'll add this comment for readers unfamiliar with this history. There was a disproportionate participation of Jews in the post-war Communist security apparatus, notorious for its torture and murder of Polish World War Two heroes like General Nil and Witold Pilecki, and for defaming these men in the press as "spit-flecked dwarves."


***

I sincerely thank those who contributed to bringing this conference about: Artur Wroblewski of Lararski University, and his sister, Joanna Wroblewska. Artur cited Eran Huppert as a co-planner, so I thank him, too. I thank Jeffrey Anderson of Georgetown University.

This conference was a terrifically impressive feat. It may have been the first time that representatives of all the branches of Judaism in Poland were present at one conference.

The speakers were dynamic people who are actively doing things to make the world a better place. Their best selves will triumph.

I would like to see a few differences between this conference and the next conference like it.

We had very few attendees. The conference was held at the wrong time. December 7, especially on college campuses, is part of Christmas crunch. Next time: Better timing!

There should have been more publicity, and it should have been more broadly based.

All too often, those involved in Polish-Jewish relations see the entire universe through that narrow pinhole. They don't understand that many other people love to hear our story.

I speak at libraries and churches to the general public. Irish and Italian and African American audiences become passionate about my talks. Polonia! Understand that you are part of the world, and your story is part of the world's story. For conferences like this, invite anyone interested in Christian-Jewish relations, multiculturalism, World War Two history, narrative, official and subaltern histories, racism, forgiveness and reconciliation – that's everybody, people!

And more women. Really.

Friday, November 25, 2011

There's Hope! What You Can Do about The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization and Vision

Green Jean. Source.

There's Hope! What You Can Do about The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization and Vision

This post is part of a three part series.

Part One: The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization and Vision.

Part Two: Possible Causes for The Crisis in PolonianLeadership, Organization and Vision.

Part Three: There's Hope! What You Can Do about The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization and Vision

This is what Polonia needs: an organization, networked internationally and with deep grassroots support, dedicated to eliminating the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype. It will disseminate the truth of Polonia. Not an exclusive, airbrushed, chauvinist version, but the entire, rich, complex and vibrant story.

This organization will be staffed by committed, professional, activists. They will be consistent, courteous, reliable, humble, and rational. They will treat each other and the wider world with professionalism and respect. They will establish their leadership not by making others feel small, excluded, and not good enough, but by making others feel big, included, and essential members of the team. They will show up day after day. They will keep their eyes on the prize: telling the Polish story and supporting Polonian authors and scholars.

This organization will not attack, blame, scapegoat, or demonize Jews, liberals, television, Hollywood, the New York Times, or anybody else. Its members will take responsibility for their own actions.

This group will not be confused or unfocused. They will not think that the problem is one scholar – not Jan Tomasz Gross – one phrase "Polish Concentration camps" – or one film – "Shoah." This group will do what Saul Alinsky instructed activists to do: pick a target, freeze it, and name it: Bieganski, the brute Polak stereotype, in all its manifestations.

This organization will ensure that the Polish-American story is told in elementary schools, high schools, on and university campuses. It will work to make that story known in popular and elite media.

Classic Bohunk texts like "The Jungle" and "Out of this Furnace" and The Poetry of Anton Piotrowski will appear on syllabi. Newer authors like Christina Pacosz will appear on syllabi, as well.

Oskar Kolberg will finally be translated and his key scholarship will be rescued from oblivion.

Revisionist histories will be corrected. No, African Americans are not the only group to face racism. Yes, "white" people have faced murderous racism, as well. No, Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon. Yes, Polish Catholic priests were targeted, tortured, and murdered. No, the Holocaust was not the product of primitive peasants, but of modern people and the world's best science. No, we can't make evil go away by becoming more modern.

This organization will work for the hiring of Bohunk faculty and the funding of Bohunk students.

If a world-class scholar like Norman Davies is offered a job and then rejected, and it looks like his support for Polonia is playing a role in his rejection, this organization will coordinate grassroots, watchdog activity and legal supervision of the case.

This organization will embrace Polish cleaning women as well as Kosciuszko on a white horse. This organization will celebrate Polish coal miners as well as celebrities. This organization will unite with other Bohunks – Slovak-Americans, Ukrainian-Americans, Lithuanian-Americans – who tell part of our own story. This organization will embrace not just pianists and the authors who write about World War Two, but will also ask, what do figures like Andy Warhol, a Rusyn-American, and David Wojnarowicz, a Polish-American, say about our experience?

This organization will honor the past and focus on the present and the future. Young people will be a big chunk of its staff and membership.

The Activist members of this organization will think globally and act locally.

Think Globally and act locally: Polish activists have always done this; their slogan was "For your freedom and ours."

Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet, organized a Jewish legion, the Hussars of Israel.

Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish military hero, wanted to buy the freedom of African American slaves, and worked for full inclusion of Poland's peasants and Jews.

In Poland in 1989, I joined other Poles in protesting the arrest of Vaclav Havel. Vaclav Havel was not Polish, but Czech. He had been arrested for the crime of laying flowers in Wenceslas Square in the memory of Jan Palach. Poles who "think globally and act locally" noticed, cared about, and protested this arrest.

In 1989, in Krakow, while protesting Soviet domination, we also marched in support of Chinese in Tiananmen Square.

Polonia will benefit from remembering and reinvigorating its tradition of thinking globally and acting locally.

This organization will recognize that Jews are Polonians' "older brothers in faith" and among our best allies. The work we will do to eliminate the Bieganski stereotype, we will do together.

This organization will not be merely reactive. It will not wait for assault, insult and revision only to respond with random, disorganized flurries of letters, but, rather, with commitment, coordination, and discipline.

This organization will be proactive. It will create a powerful, synergistic, cooperative and strategic network of those disseminating art and writing and film and speakers about Poland and Polonia and its rich, loving, vibrant, full voice will not be overcome – because we are an essential part of the wider human story.

Getting Polonians to unite, support each other, and act in a committed, disciplined, coordinated fashion will be the A-1 priority of this organization. It will organize activist retreats and workshops, where average Polonians overcome their atomization and learn to work together.

Rosa Parks was a product of this kind of workshop for early Civil Rights activists. As Paul Loeb describes in "The Real Rosa Parks," Parks didn't just one day decide not to sit in the back of the bus. Parks trained for twelve long years to be an activist.

Similarly, KOR РKomitet Obrony Robotników or the Workers' Defense Committee Рorganized a Flying University that trained people on attitudes and techniques that helped to bring about the Solidarity Revolution.

Poles – including Polish Jews like Konstanty Gebert and Adam Michnik – were able to bring about these activist workshops even while living under Communism's constant surveillance and deadly threat. African Americans could do the same under Jim Crow. There is no reason for today's Polonians, living in comfort and ease in the West, to think that they cannot do the same.

Prominent and wealthy Polonians will be proud funders and sponsors of this organization. This organization will reach out to them and honor them.

The staff and membership of this organization will be diverse. Some will be Catholics, some atheists. Some Democrat, some Republican. Some gay, some straight. Some will support this or that war or invasion or candidate, others will oppose.

They won't talk about abortion or war or gay marriage or other issues, though, because bringing up what divides them will distract them from their goal. They will keep the group united and focused. They will keep their eyes on the prize. They will get things done.

This organization does not yet exist.

This organization does not yet exist because Polonia does not yet want it.

When Polonia wants it, this organization will come into existence. And it will be great.

Ann75. "Colours in the Snow." Source.

Meanwhile, what can you do?

If you want to change things for the better, you can.

How?

Make that decision. "I have decided to do this. I will not complain. I will not blame. I will not look back. I will not quit. With the higher power of my understanding as my rock, I will do this."

That's it, really.

The pyramids? The result of human will.

The Great Wall of China? The result of human will.

The Civil Rights Movement? The result of human will.

Solidarnosc? The result of human will.

People more articulate than I have made this point.

"For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith." - Mark, 11:23

"Give me where to stand and I will move the world." - Archimedes.

"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." - Henry David Thoreau

"What lies before us and what lies behind us are small matters compared to what lies within us." - Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness, concerning all acts of initiative and creation. The moment one definitely commits oneself, Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now." - Attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"Children, if you are tired, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going." - Attributed to Harriet Tubman.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others." - Marianne Williamson





Are you going to build a pyramid or move a mountain?

How much more important is a human being than a pile of stones?

If you can develop your own mind, body, and soul enough that you stop being a complainer and a blamer and start being an activist – hey. Moving a human soul and a human life is as impressive as moving a mountain.

The longest journey really does begin with a single step, and it really is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

"We can do no great things. Only small things with great love." - Attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

***

Where do you start?

Do the work that is right in front of you.

If you have to confess your ignorance on Polonian matters, start buying, reading, and reviewing books on Amazon.

Do read about the heroes on white horses: Kosciuszko, Curie, Karski, Copernicus. And learn about and honor your peasant ancestry, as well. And – if you are Polish – no matter how white your collar is now – you have peasant ancestry.

Read Jan Slomka's priceless depiction of the Polish peasant experience, "From Serfdom to Self Government."

Read Olga Narkiewicz's "Green Flag: Polish Populist Politics" about life for peasants in 20th century Poland.

If you really want to strip the wool from your eyes and get rid, once and for all, of any romantic notions you may have about what it was like to be a Polish peasant, read "Four Russian Serf Narratives" edited by John MacKay.

Read about Bohunks in the US: "The Jungle," of course, and "Out of this Furnace."

***

If you want to be an activist but you've never marched or petitioned or organized, inform yourself.

Google "how to be an activist" or "activism 101."

Read "Rules for Radicals" by Saul Alinsky.

Alinsky got his start organizing Poles, Slovaks, Lithuanians, and other Bohunks in the "Back of the Yards" neighborhood in Chicago. Their group was the "Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council." When Alinsky arrived, Polish-Americans had a higher infant mortality rate than African-Americans. Alinsky wanted to help Polish-American babies to survive. He eventually became the world's most famous organizer.

Read Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience."

Read my own "Political Paralysis."

Watch "Man of Marble," about an indomitable Polish woman, and "Man of Iron" about an indomitable Polish man. Watch this video clip.

Read and watch movies about Gandhi, one of the most brilliant and successful organizers in history, about Mother Teresa. Watch "Eyes on the Prize."

Pray.

And act.

Be the change you want to see.

Don't mourn. Organize.





The winter is yours. The spring is ours. Source.