Sunday, August 14, 2011

"You ARE a Pig"

Question: Why should I care about Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype?

Answer: You should care because it distorts Holocaust and World War II history.

You should care because the Holocaust and WW II are such massive, and essential, narratives, that they are used as case studies in ethics and atrocity, and our human responsibility in relation to these.

You should care because the Brute Polak stereotype twists our brains, our hearts, our ethics and our politics. All of us. Not just Poles, not just Jews.

Remember: Willard Gaylin, a psychiatrist and bioethicist, recently published a book about hate. All hate. Not Polish hate. And whom did he select as his prototypical haters with which to open his book? Polish, Catholic, peasants. To understand any hate anywhere, this author insisted, one must understand Polish, Catholic, peasants. They are the archetypal haters in journalistic, academic, religious, and political discourse in America today.

Remember: when President Clinton gave a speech justifying NATO bombing, he used the Bieganski stereotype. Historians condemned his speech as false, but Clinton had a bigger microphone than the historians protesting his speech.

***

Question: Can you provide examples?

Answer: Sure. "Bieganski" is full of examples. Two more, below. One concerns Art Spiegelman's book "Maus"; the other, Pier 21's revisionist Holocaust film, "Oceans of Hope." Let's look at both examples.

Art Spiegelman's comic book "Maus" is used to teach students about the Holocaust. It is required reading in high schools and colleges. At least one college used "Maus" to teach the English language to visiting Japanese tourists.

"Maus" depicts Poles as pigs.

When Spiegelman was asked about this by a reporter, he said that Poles had not suffered under the Nazis, and, because they had not suffered, they did not understand his work. In any case, Spiegelman dismissed Poles' "squealing." "Squeal," of course, is the sound pigs make. For "Bieganski," I asked Spiegelman for a comment on this material, and, through his agent, he sent a message saying that he declined to comment. Of course he is free to offer explanatory commentary at any time.

A recent, brief, Amazon review of "Maus," and Amazon reader replies to this review, offer a glimpse into how "Bieganski" works.

On April 21, 2011, an Amazon reviewer, John MacArthur, posted a brief, quiet, respectful review of "Maus." He said, inter alia, "I know many Poles are offended by the depiction of Poles as pigs." All quotes here are unedited cut-and-paste from the August 14, 2011 Amazon page.

One would think that that was not a very complicated or controversial statement. "I know many Poles are offended by the depiction of Poles as pigs."

Place any other ethnicity in there. "I know many Jews are offended by the depiction of Jews as pigs."

"I know many Blacks are offended by the depiction of Blacks as pigs."

Would controversy result?

Ah, but these are Poles. And Poles' job is to agree, "We are pigs." If Poles don't agree, well, then, they are pigs.

Readers responded to MacArthur's review. One, writing under the code name "noelbeast," wrote,

"We also don't want to hide the past." Okay. So if Poles object to being depicted as pigs, that means they are hiding from the past.

I disagree. Poles have never been pigs, not even in the past.

This commenter also wrote, "There were anti-Semitic Poles during WWII … Maus is recalling, however, an incredibly offensive time, and one that must always be portrayed as honestly and vividly as possibly to avoid a repeat of history. Thus if some Poles were quite wrong with their actions during WWII, it is our duty to remember that, and preserve history, not sweep it under the rug."

No responsible person denies that. In fact, caring, responsible Poles are now, and have always, addressed anti-Semitism in Poland, often at the risk of their own lives and liberty.

Noelbeast's insistence that an acknowledgement of anti-Semitism in Poland must also entail an equation of all Poles with pigs is the rule, though. If you don't agree that you are a pig, well, that's because you are a pig.

Noelbeast's insistence that depicting Poles as pigs means being true to our duty to "preserve history" and to avoid a repeat of the past is profoundly disturbing. Our duty to preserve history demands exactly that we NOT turn all Poles into pigs. Rather, it demands that we understand Poles as human beings – just like us. It demands that we NOT do what the Nazis did, that we not demonize an entire nation. It demands that we differentiate between Poles who were anti-Semites and Poles who were not and Poles who were actual heroes. It demands that we understand Polish anti-Semitism in a rational, scholarly, way, rather than through dehumanizing stereotypes. It demands that we do all this because if we do not, we are utterly distorting the history it is our sacred duty to preserve and pass on, and we are thinking and acting in a manner analogous to dehumanizing Nazi thought.

Noelbeast totally misses any of this. He misses all this because "Maus" has become a sacred text, one one must not criticize. Poles are pigs. Period. If you disagree, it is because you are a pig.

Interestingly, in a subsequent post, Noelbeast becomes an apologist for Nazi Germany: "There is documented evidence of Germans disagreeing with the persecution of the ethnic enemies of the Nazi party." This embrace of Germany and denunciation of ALL Poles as pigs is consistent, as "Bieganski" shows, with those who disseminate the Brute Polak stereotype. Germany is exculpated while all Poles and all Poland are forever guilty.

Amazon poster Mrs. Sharon K. Klein cuts to the point. Her posts are brief and pithy. She calls those protesting the depiction of Poles as pigs "stupid children." "You are a pig yourself," she writes.

Mrs. Klein's response is especially interesting for this reason. Novelist Danuta Reah, who herself has published material confronting anti-Semitic atrocities committed by Poles and Belorussians, posted informative, rational, and ethical posts. In her Amazon posts, Reah acknowledges anti-Semitic Poles. She acknowledges the positive qualities of Spiegelman's book. This is an ethical and intelligent author who has published on this material.

Reah's ethics, her intelligence, her courtesy, mean nothing. She is still "a pig yourself." A post subsequent to Reah's post accused her and others of "pretending they [Polish anti-Semites] never existed."

This exchange highlights why Polonia is incorrect when it argues that the Bieganski stereotype can be defeated through the strategies tried so far.

One strategy is to talk about noble Poles in a hagiographic manner – Alex Storozynski's biography of Kosciuszko, for example.

Another strategy is to talk about how much Poles have suffered. A Polish American scholar who attended my talk in Lublin insisted that Tim Snyder's book "Bloodlands" would end stereotyping of Poles because it talked about how much Poles suffered.

Storozynski's biography of Kosciuszko and Tim Snyder's "Bloodlands" are both are good books.

These books are not the answer to the Brute Polak stereotype. Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype must be taken on head-on. Polonia must do this. No one else will do it.

This isn't important because it's one thread on Amazon. This is important because this is how Bieganski works all the time, everyday. I can't say how many times I've said, "There were anti-Semitic Poles and they need to be found out and punished," and my interlocutor – a potential publisher, someone interviewing me for inclusion in a conference or for a job – responds by saying, "You can't keep denying the existence of anti-Semitic Poles."

Before my trip to Poland, when I was arranging speaking engagements, I received a very angry email from a Polish-Jewish leader, a man with historical import. This man told me that because I criticize "Maus" for its depiction of Poles as pigs, he would have nothing to do with me.

Marisa Taddia source 
Another example: Canada's immigration museum, Pier 21, shows a film, "Oceans of Hope," that distorts the persons and history of Eastern European, peasant, Christian immigrants. It then equates Polish, Christian rescuers of Jews with Nazis.

According to documents posted on the internet, in July, 2008, Dr. Jan Czekajewski wrote to Pier 21 to protest this. Dr. Czekajewski's letter specifically cites educating young people about immigration, World War II, and the Holocaust as his motivation for writing, "Young people who should learn about history of their emigrant grand parents are already from the third generation after the war. They know nothing or very little about War, Germans, Holocaust and especially Poland's role in this terrible war. To this generation you have obligation to be truthful and not biased. You should do it for your own good and conscience."

Dr. Czekajewski's English is not perfect. He is from Poland. As he himself put it, "I have seen Holocaust with my own eyes." He knows that not all Poles were anti-Semites. "I have a close friend, now a Professor at Michigan Technological University, who lived through this period with 'adopted' Jewish 'cousin girl' saved by his mother."

Dr. Czekajewski's friend is Karol Pelc. Pelc's story is told here. Pelc's father was murdered by the Soviets. The Nazis began their genocide of Polish Catholics as soon as they invaded, as the Pelc story, found on the website linked above, reports:

"Poles were subhuman, fit only for manual labor in service to the master race… the Nazis planned to send all the Poles to the same death camps that were even then swallowing up the Jews."

Even under such monstrous conditions, Pelc's family rescued a Jewish girl. They did this because of their Christian beliefs.

"To help assure her safety, Kamilla Pelc asked a priest to forge Irene's birth certificate. 'He risked his life to do this,' he said. 'Anyone who helped the Jews was punished by the death penalty--Poland is the only country in Europe where the Germans had such a law.

'So my mother was risking her life, my life, and the neighbors',' he said. 'We lived in a courtyard, with twenty families all looking at each other. They all could have been held responsible for not reporting Irene. Forty people risked their lives.'

… Pelc's wife, Ryszarda, began pressing him to have his mother declared 'Righteous among the Nations' … At first, he was reticent.

'My mother didn't do it for an award,' he notes. 'She did it because of her religious faith, that she should help people and love your neighbor as yourself.'"

Pelc's story meant nothing to Pier 21.

Steven Schwinghamer, Pier 21's research coordinator, wrote back. His letter is very long: 1,110 words. Most business letters are one page – about 250 words.

Schwinghamer promises, "I will address your concerns."

Schwinghamer goes on to write a very long letter that addresses none of an honest person's concerns when watching a film that systematically lies about Eastern European, Christian, peasant immigrants, and then equates Polish, Christian rescuers of Jews with Nazis.

Schwinghamer writes:

"The story of a young Jewish girl from Poland, orphaned by the violence of the Nazis, is difficult to hear…Dealing with that era is hard for any of us who have empathy for the past… Pier 21 is a museum of living history. We operate by gathering and sharing the stories of our immigrants. We feel a responsibility to gather all kinds of stories - not just those that celebrate success in Canada, but also those that look honestly at every manner of difficulty faced by immigrants, from discrimination in Canada to the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe, from famine and poverty abroad to the barriers of language and culture when they finally arrive. To do anything less would be a profound disservice to the immigrants whose heritage we are privileged to share. It would be dishonest to our histories."

And on and on and on.

Nowhere does Schwinghamer address Pier 21's turning Eastern European, peasant, Christian immigrants into fat clowns who left their homeland just because they like to travel – not because they were starving, literally, in the millions; not because doors of economic opportunity were systematically closed to them by the economic caste system in place, not because they were disempowered by their status as serfs. The real conditions, and real persons, of Eastern European, Christian, peasant immigrants is unimportant to Pier 21, Canada's immigration museum. Nowhere does Schwinghamer address Pier 21's equating Polish, Christian rescuers of Jews with Nazis.

The letter is shameful. It exploits the reality of Jewish suffering under the Nazis in an attempt to avoid responsibility for Pier 21's distortion of immigration and WW II, two key features of twentieth century history.

One has to state, here, facts that are repeated again, and again, and again, by those who oppose the Brute Polak stereotype.

Of course there were and are anti-Semites in Poland. Of course they were and are wrong. Of course they must be addressed.

None of that, though, justifies depicting Poles as pigs. None of that justifies equating Polish, Christian rescuers of Jews with Nazis. None of that justifies distorting the history of Eastern European, Christian peasants in order to make the Bieganski stereotype go down easier.

***

Responsible Poles now, and have always, acknowledged and protested Polish anti-Semitism. That is not heard.

Responsible Poles now, and have always, pleaded for an accurate accounting of Eastern European, immigrant, Holocaust, and WW II history. And that is not heard.

Given the pervasiveness of the Bieganski stereotype, what is heard?

To quote Art Spiegelman, "Squealing."

Amanda Lebus source




9 comments:

  1. I've just read through most of the comments that you refer to in relation to Maus. It was hard going because some of them were so illogical that it made me cringe. "noelbeast's" idea that because some Poles did in WW11 was wrong we must remember it, in order for it not to happen again, is one of those refrains that is seductive because it sounds so right. who could disagree with that? Except that what he really means is that the wrong doings of Poles should be constantly remembered and mentioned publicly and, if you mention anything good you are trying to hide the bad. As if the two cannot co-exist side by side, as if we proceed like that in any sphere of life. The most pathetic part was that he bridled against the general condemnation of Germans because, as you say. some Germans opposed the war. What a fantasy world he lives in, what moral confusion.

    These kinds of internalised guilt (?) driven attitudes can't be, as you rightly point out, overcome by the publication of books on heroic subjects. In the case of "Bloodlands", which has received considerable flak for its general approach it will be doubly true because it tackles its subject not as a story, but as a historical problem. The public wants simple stories and most academic books, by their nature, don't provide that.

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  2. One strategy is to talk about noble Poles in a hagiographic manner – Alex Storozynski's biography of Kosciuszko, for example.

    --the hagiography is the do it yourselfer's method for what the culture and the media shits will never do for us, only for others. You can't tell them they have to do it themselves, and then complain that they do it themselves.

    Another strategy is to talk about how much Poles have suffered. A Polish American scholar who attended my talk in Lublin insisted that Tim Snyder's book "Bloodlands" would end stereotyping of Poles because it talked about how much Poles suffered.

    Rebalancing requires such books, since THEY will never tell that story. That's why that old man had to tell you about Katyn.

    The best work will probably ask the question "Whom does this serve?", and "How does/has it serve/d them?" - - - and will provide the answers. Take the offensive.

    The ubiquity of the Admetus Complex speaks volumes of the arrogance underlying it.

    Nemo

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  3. Here in Korea (South, of course) the US armed forces have a TV and radio network called AFN, or Armed Forces Network, which shows US govt made info-mercials. A new one is very popular on social media sites for its "humor" . It is a commercial promoting volunteerism and public service. Its called the Lewis and Lebowski Expedition and depicts a hopelessly deceitful and lazy "Lebowski" begging off Lewis. The rest, as they " hilariously" note, is history. And this is a freshly made US Govt commercial. One more example of what needs to be countered.
    Michael Bobkowski

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  4. Michael, thank you very much.

    I agree that this needs to be countered.

    Why is Polonia not taking necessary steps?

    Upon return from Poland, I've been writing around, offering to speak.

    Polish organizations have not been promising.

    One rejection stated: "There was no interest - with the subject being too heavy, too negative"

    "Bieganski" has been out for over a year. I've spoken at a great variety of venues, including in Poland. Not one Polish American organization has hosted a talk. when I contact them, they send back replies like the one quoted above.

    It's Polonia's job to address this stereotype, and Polonia is not doing what it could.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It's a known fact that consciousness raising, in the absence of concrete steps able to change things, actually is counterproductive, and creates depression, and an aversion to the original message.

    A study looked at gruesome anti-smoking ads, and measured smoker's smoking behavior before and after the ad. They thought smoking would decrease. It increased instead, since the smokers apparently derogated the credibility of the ad, and smoked all the more.
    A lot of Polonians are tired of writing letters, signing petitions, etc. Talks often fall into the same ballpark. That's what they mean by telling you "too heavy, too negative". Like, it's depressogenic.
    Try a little informational picketing outside the offending location, with a talk to follow for the interested. At least make THEM uncomfortable for a change. You'll feel better for having done so. Refer the interested to a website. I understand you marched and demonstrated in Poland once.

    Nemo

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  6. I organized a protest against Spiegelman when he visited my university in Texas in 2011, and I was shocked most of all at the general indifference to ethnic prejudice if it happens to be anti-Polish. Making my case for the protest, I compared Spiegelman's Polish pigs in Maus to the controversial Memin Pinguin comic books popular in Mexico, in which black characters are drawn to look like chimpanzees, but I faced a passive aggressive refusal to respond from many on my campus. Some implied that Spiegelman did not intend to critique the Poles as a group by depicting them as pigs because pigs in comic books and cartoons are often cute--selfish and stupid as well, but cute. However,Spiegelman's interview answers revealed the opposite to be true, and those who had suggested that I just didn't "get it," were silent again after Spiegelman had proven me right. In his interview, he also revealed that he despises Al Sharpton for being, he alleges, a "race baiter," and as you can imagine, this ironic remark was met with an awkward murmur in the lecture hall.

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  7. I should also mention that when Spiegelman was asked about the Polish pig controversy at my university, he initially said that the entire dispute was really just a petty conflict that Harvey Pekar had started. He said that Pekar, of American Splendor fame, had objected to the depiction of Poles as pigs only because Pekar, who was of Polish Jewish heritage as well, did not like that Spiegelman had taken over the position as the leading Jewish-American comic book writer. He of course ignored all of the substantive critique that Pekar had made about the Polish pig depictions, sticking to this silly ad hominem attack.

    Next, Spiegelman told the audience that he had read a book that supposedly proved that the Poles were in favor of the holocaust. He alleged that Poles objected only to having to sit back and watch while the Nazis carried out mass murder, referring to a diary written by a Polish man that he said showed that most Poles resented not being able to carry out genocide themselves. He then said he could not remember the author or the title of the book on which he based this slanderous claim. He joked awkwardly that memory is always imperfect. And he added that Polish objections to the pig depictions were as stupid, in his opinion, as a recent Israeli cartoonist's objections to the Jewish mice depictions in Maus.

    Wrapping up my question, I said that I personally could understand why Jewish critics did not approve of using Hitler's rodent imagery in depicting Jews. But since I had overstayed my time to ask questions and there were others in line, I was not able to ask him why he would need to rely on memory in making the claim about the Poles' alleged desire to carry out the holocaust themselves. Anyone would think that he would have had the source written down in his lecture notes, given that there was a good chance that he would want to cite it in response to questions about the pig controversy.

    Additionally, Spiegelman made the audience uncomfortable when he was speaking about how stereotypical images work in graphic fiction and cartooning. He projected an image of a strong, handsome, athletic man next to an image of an unattractive, bespectacled, scrawny man. He asked the audience to identify which one is the Nazi and which one is the jew. When the audience of students gave the obvious answers--sexy and handsome=stereotypically Nazi and unattractive and scrawny=stereotypically jewish--he joked pointedly that he had known there would be plenty of anti-Semites in Texas.

    I believe he thought that he had thereby "deconstructed" these stereotypes, just as he has claimed that in Maus, he supposedly "deconstructs" Hitler's statements about Jewish "rodents" and Polish "swine."

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    Replies
    1. Linda, not many people will see your posts here. Why not combine them, edit them as you see fit, and submit them as a guest blog entry? That way, at least a few more people will see them.

      Delete
  8. There is a new book out, METAMAUS, written by Art Spiegelman, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his MAUS. Obviously, Spiegelman has learned nothing in the last quarter century. To see my new review of METAMAUS, please click my link in this specific posting.

    ReplyDelete

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