Friday, November 4, 2011

Bieganski at Brandeis University


View of Boston from Brandeis campus. Source.

How many times can a writer use words like "wonderful," "delightful" and "lovely" before losing her audience? I face that challenge now because accepting Prof. Antony Polonsky's invitation and speaking about "Bieganski" at Brandeis University on Thursday, November 3 was a wonderful, lovely, and delightful experience.

My traveling companion, Robin Richman Schaffer, took time off from work – sort of. She brought along her blackberry, which is actually white, and hammered away on its tiny keyboard as I drove, and even sometimes while she was driving.

We were blessed with sunny and cool weather. There was none of the apocalyptic special effects that Mother Nature has been generously distributing throughout the northeast in recent months. No floods, no freak snowstorms, no locusts. We did see evidence of the damage done by the October 29th snowstorm, an unseasonable, heavy, wet snow that fell on trees that kept their leaves unseasonably late into a very mild fall. Those leaves, which stayed on too late, trapped snow, which arrived too early, and broken branches and split trees were visible everywhere from New Jersey to Boston.

I became an admirer of Prof. Polonsky's work long before I met him. Now, many years later, life experience has made me realize what a unique treasure he is.

Too many commentators on Polish-Jewish relations have exploited that relationship, and even the Holocaust itself, in order to reduce life to a zero-sum game of two mutually exclusive sides. One side must lose and the other side must win. This is a mistake. The proper lesson to draw from atrocity is this: we can't change the past. We can't rescue the dead. Living our lives in anger, in vengeance, or in mourning, for those who were slaughtered accomplishes nothing.

That doesn't mean that our ancestral loved ones' deaths need be meaningless. We can honor their loss by humbling ourselves, and resolving never to take even one step toward the hate and bigotry that inspired their martyrdom. We honor our ancestors' pain when we allow ourselves to be affected by it to the point where we reject continuing the cycle of pain, and by insisting on Biblical values like justice, faith, and love. Humanity can never be split into two exclusive teams. We are all in the same boat, and the hole you drill in my side of the boat will drown you.

For me, the one author on Polish-Jewish relations who best exemplifies this approach is Antony Polonsky. I came to "know" him through his writing. In those early days, decades ago, it never occurred to me that I might meet him, any more than it occurred to me that I might meet other authors I admired, including Charlotte Bronte. We did meet, though, and through God's great blessing, we have kept in touch. Writing about Polish-Jewish relations has introduced many challenges into my life. That I've been lucky enough to call Prof. Polonsky a friend is one true blessing.

I was a bit nervous, as one is when one is traveling, and when one is in the company of a hero. I wasn't sure if Robin would be bored. When we stepped into Prof. Polonsky's Greek revival, Boston-area home, I felt immediately comfortable, happy, and secure. I could smell cabbage cooking! There is nothing that warms the cockles of this Bohunk's heart like the smell of cooking cabbage. Arlene Polonsky served up the best golabkis I've ever tasted, and that's saying a lot, because I've eaten a lot of stuffed cabbage.

After dinner we sat around the table and talked about how our families came from Eastern Europe to America. Every one of the four of us there had roots in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. Our paths had taken us to Africa, Asia, and Israel. I wondered if our ancestors had ever crossed paths in the Old Country. I noticed, again, the physical resemblance between Prof. Polonsky and my late Polish father. It's a small world.

Brandeis University has a proud history. Its founding was part of an effort to resist anti-Semitism at other American institutions of higher education. I greatly admire this. Brandeis' founders did not respond to bigotry with empty hand-wringing, defeatism and hostility. Rather, they responded by creating a university that would accept and educate Jewish students and prepare them for high achievement. Their efforts have been very successful. Brandeis is highly ranked among US universities.

Though a young university, Brandeis can be proud of its highly accomplished faculty and alumni, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Abbie Hoffman, Deborah Messing and Thomas Freidman.

Prof. Polonsky's office is very near Boston Rock, the spot where Governor John Winthrop surveyed Boston back in 1631. Both the city and the university began with this sentiment: "We knew we were pilgrims." This spot affords a spectacular view.

My talk included a brief introduction to the Bieganski stereotype, and a concrete example of how it works. I emphasized that Poles, Polish-Americans, and Polonians must rouse themselves in order to address this stereotype through a national organization that effectively identifies Bieganski for what it is, and eliminates it through school syllabi, higher education hiring, strategic, nationally coordinated activism, and popular media, culture, and politics. I admitted that Polonia is not yet near reaching this level of activism. I will address this in a future post, tentatively titled, "Bieganski and the Crisis in Polonian Leadership – And What You Can Do About It." Watch this blog for that post.

During the question-and-answer period, I emphasized: "Please feel free to say anything you want. I've been working on this stuff for a long time, and I've heard everything. Speak your mind, and I'll respond as best as I can."

I said this because we must acknowledge the dark side of Polish-Jewish relations. We must acknowledge nightmarish events like Jedwabne and Kielce.

My audience was gracious and did not hit me with very tough questions. One audience member asked about Menachem Daum's "Hiding and Seeking," a documentary I liked a lot, with reservations. My Amazon review of it is here.

"The Deer Hunter" came up, a movie I talked about in "Bieganski." That chapter can be found here.

During the discussion period, I stopped myself while using the standard terms, "Poles" and "Jews." I pointed out that Prof. Polonsky would be identified, in this nomenclature, as a "Jew," and I would be identified as a "Pole," but Prof. Polonsky speaks Polish fluently, while I do not, and I am half Slovak and actually best identified for what I am – American.

I reminisced about a common event in my childhood. My mother's friend, Dave, would visit, and she and Dave would sit around the kitchen table telling stories about life in the Old Country. I remember Dave's stories in detail. These are very fond, warm, vivid memories. When I sat around that brightly lit table in our small, dark house, I felt what one feels when one feels connected and at home, one with a larger, loving, inclusive, community. During these evenings, I knew that my mother, Dave, and I were part of a group that was "us." The world outside, the world that didn't know about cabbage and poppy seed, villages and thatch roofs, chicken thieves and muddy roads, was "them." Dave was Jewish and my mother was Catholic.

My point was this: there is an authentic, Eastern European peasant, Catholic identity that is not at war with Judaism or Jewishness. I mentioned the scholarship of Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, who has documented this theme.

Robin told me an interesting story. In our recent apocalyptic weather events, Route 46 had become flooded. Robin was stopped dead. Her car, with hundreds of others, could not progress.

With nothing else to do, drivers got out of their cars and socialized with each other. They became comfortable and friendly.

After some time, maybe hours, the flooding receded enough so that police allowed vehicles through.

Robin reported that when people from "her" "group" – the people who had bonded by socializing – were finally allowed to move, they were courteous and helpful with each other. When "outsiders" who had not participated in the spontaneous bonding began to break into the stream of traffic, Robin felt violated and resentful – "Hey! You're cutting off my friend!"

Robin observed that this event taught her much about how the human mind creates communities of "us" and "them."

After the talk we had a long, enjoyable conversation with Miriam, a writer, Josh, interested in community work, and Drew, working on a fan of Celine. Prof. Polonsky talked about words one cannot translate from Polish into English, including "Zydek." The word could be translated as "Jew boy," he said, but that doesn't begin to cover the complexities of the word in Polish.

My only regret is that we didn't have more time.

While enjoying Brandeis' warm hospitality, I thought again of the truly remarkable experience I had in the relatively small and remote Polish town of Markowa.

The people I met in Markowa were profound, gracious, and insightful. Markowa is far away, though. It would be so wonderful if a Polish or Polish American leader with resources and expertise would arrange for a dialogue between the citizens of Markowa and, for example, students at Brandeis.

As I mentioned above, there are voices out there who want to exploit Polish-Jewish relations to prove that people can't get along, that Poles can't get along with Jews, to prove that Christians and Jews can't get along, to prove that the world is a horrible place.

My real life experiences utterly defy this dark view. Most people want to get along with their neighbors. Most people don't want to exploit differences. Most people choose peace over war. I say that not just about Poles and Jews, but about all my neighbors here in multi-culti New Jersey: rich and poor, black, white, Hispanic, Muslim.

Too often, those who insist on hostility have control of the microphone. Why not bring average, everyday Poles and Jews to the microphone, and let them have the spotlight?

Please, someone with resources, connections, and the technical expertise to make it happen, think about a videoconference between the citizens of Markowa and students at Brandeis.

7 comments:

  1. Forgot to mention this! One audience member brought up the play "Irena's Vow," about Irena Gut Opdyke and her heroic sacrifice. You can learn more about the play here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irena's_Vow

    I dropped the ball and went off on an unrelated rant about Irena Sendler.

    In any case, I'm very glad this person got to see "Irena's Vow," which, unfortunately, did not play very long on Broadway.

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  2. She had lots of courage to serve you stuffed cabbage... Courage, arrogance, humility, confidence, pride, generosity, or all four...There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count. And those who can't. This Bohunk has difficulty with all five.

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  3. Math illiteracy affects eight out of five people.

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  4. You might find the movie "Defiance" about the Bielski partisans, and then a visit to Wikipedia --> Bielski parisans, of interest.

    Nemo

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  5. My review of "Defiance" can be found at www.imdb.com

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  6. Herbert Lewis, professor emeritus of anthropology at UW Madison, has been very helpful to me in understanding Franz Boas, a highly influential scholar. "Bieganski" talks about Boas and his students and their influence on understandings of America's various ethnic groups.

    Prof. Lewis read the above blog entry and sent me the paragraph, below, which I asked for permission to share.

    I hear so many of these stories. I wish I could record them all.

    I'll be talking to someone and he or she will begin to tell stories of their ancestors in Eastern Europe. And sometimes they will tell stories of everyday heroism. I find these stories very moving and valuable.

    Here is Prof. Lewis' story:

    "I don't know if I ever old you that my mother's parents were born in towns near Wloclawek, not far from Warsaw. Although they had left there as infants, ca. 1875, about 15 years ago I was contacted by a distant cousin who was born in Wloclawek. He was a year younger than I, and he survived the war in Warsaw hidden in the apartment of his Polish Catholic family maid. That cousin and I never met but he wrote me about a few things related to "Genia." I don't know if he ever got back to visit her, but I believe his son went to see her before she died."

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  7. Thanks for posting this and telling about your trip and your presentation. It sounds like a great trip--May you have many more.

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