Sunday, January 30, 2011

Et Papa tacet: The Genocide of Polish Catholics. By Michael Phayer.

Nazi shooting Father Piotr Sosnowski

'Et Papa tacet': The Genocide of Polish Catholics
Commonweal April 8, 2005

Much has been written about Pope Pius XII and the Jews. His unwillingness to speak out explicitly against the murder of Jews in occupied Poland during World War II is well known. Less well known is that before the killing of Jews in death camps began, Pius had to deal with the genocide of Polish Catholics. Until recently, no one understood how the destiny of these two people intersected in the middle of World War II, an intersection that led tragically to the genocide of Jews and to a respite for Catholics.

To Polish Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, it didn't appear that the Germans intended a genocide of ethnic Poles. For one thing, Jews were rounded up by Germans, while the ordinary people of Poland were not. But this fact leads to a mistaken conclusion. The Germans did intend genocide for ethnic Poles. This plan was two-tiered: first, the Nazis would take out the intelligentsia and church leaders; second, after the common people's labor potential had been used up, they'd be eliminated. It is generally known that the Nazis murdered between 5 and 6 million Jews during the war, mostly in gas chambers in occupied Poland. It is less widely understood that if Germany had won, Polish Catholics would have been slowly (or not so slowly) used as slave labor and then murdered.

As far as the Nazis were concerned, Poland itself was to be eliminated. "We shall push the borders of our German race," SS leader Heinrich Himmler said, "five hundred kilometers to the east. All Poles will disappear from the world." In the fall of 1939--soon after the war began--the western, German-occupied half of Poland was divided in two. The northwest area was annexed to Germany, and the rest, called the General Government, was used as a dumping ground for dispossessed Poles from the northwest and as a ghetto for Jews. Hitler then ordered the killing of the Catholic intelligentsia. Later, others, called "primitive Poles," were used as a migrant work force and starved to death.

The Vatican knew of German atrocities against the Poles practically from the war's start. Pope Pius XII reacted swiftly. In December 1939, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano decried both the closing of many Polish schools and churches, and the fact that many priests and nuns were being sent to concentration camps or into exile. In January 1940, Vatican Radio reported that Jews and Poles were "being herded into separate ghettos, hermetically sealed, where they face starvation while Polish grain is shipped to Germany." Vatican Radio's accusations were remarkable. Germans were not singled out as the perpetrators, but this was hardly necessary. (Who else could have committed the atrocities in western Poland?) The broadcast went so far as to identify victims by name--Jews and Poles alike. The reference to genocide by starvation was made powerfully clear.

This statement by Vatican Radio turned out to be the strongest, most specific one that the papacy would make about wartime atrocities. Soon after, the Vatican plunged into silence. No more pointed broadcasts. No more damning coverage in L'Osservatore Romano.

Polish Catholics and their church were left to suffer in isolation, and their suffering intensified until 1942. The Germans, knowing Catholicism to be a sacramental and hierarchical religion, attacked the church at these levels. Thirty-nine of western Poland's forty-six bishops were deported, imprisoned, or otherwise put down. Priests were jailed or sent to concentration camps--2,800 to Dachau alone, of whom all but 816 died. In one diocese, 291 of 646 priests were killed. By mid-1942, only 10 priests remained in the diocese of Gnesen to administer the sacraments to 359,000 Catholics. A staggering 20 percent of Poland's clergy failed to survive the war.

Because he believed the war effort required internal unity, Hitler did not allow high-ranking subordinates such as Himmler and Martin Bormann to persecute the church to this extent in Germany. But no such restriction inhibited them in Poland, where the hierarchy were suppressed through deportation and arrest, and where religious communities were suppressed. The Nazis closed innumerable churches and used many as barracks, garages, or warehouses. They shut down seminaries, forbade ordinations, and banned Catholic organizations. Administering the sacraments was strictly limited, especially Sunday Eucharist and confession. Or, if confession was allowed, the penitent was not allowed to receive Communion (at the time, the two sacraments were usually taken together). Thus did the Nazis attempt to disrupt religious life entirely in occupied Poland.

Killing was widespread as well. Gauleiter Arthur Greiser, the Nazi administrator of the Wartheland, killed thousands of Catholics in northwestern Poland. Throughout the war, hundreds of thousands of Poles were shipped to Germany as forced laborers. The bodies of those who died in transit were thrown into roadside ditches. The Germans also sterilized young Polish men and women by using x-rays on their reproductive organs. And as they had done earlier in Germany, they killed patients in Polish mental hospitals. At a facility in Chelm, 428 children were given morphine, then shot. Many patients in medical hospitals were simply thrown out. Initially, most of those imprisoned or murdered by the Nazis were Catholic leaders in the business, political, academic, and religious realms. Until 1942, for example, there were more Catholic prisoners in Auschwitz than Jews.

The persecution of the Polish church during the first years of the war ranks among the bloodiest persecutions in Catholic history. In their despair, church leaders turned to Pope Pius, begging him to condemn the atrocities. He refused. In 1942, Bishop Adam Sapieha of Cracow wrote to the pope saying that the situation was "tragic in the extreme. We are robbed of all human rights. We are exposed to atrocities at the hands of people who lack any notion of human feeling. We live in constant, terrible fear." Sapieha warned the pope that the faithful were losing confidence and respect for Pius because he hadn't condemned the horrors. Another Polish church leader wrote to Pius that some of the faithful were now asking "whether there was a God," and whether the pope "had completely forgotten about the Poles." Hardly a month passed without the pope's receiving an appeal to speak out. Some Poles thought the pope's silence meant he was in league with Hitler. Apostolic Administrator Hilarius Breitinger of Wartheland told the pope that Poles were asking "if the pope could not help and why he keeps silent." Pius responded that he was afraid that if he condemned the atrocities, they would only worsen. Polish church leaders answered that matters could not get any worse. Pius in turn replied that it was Poland's lot to suffer for the greater glory of God.

Pius XII's severest critic was Bishop Karol Radonski (exiled from his diocese of Wloclawek). In September 1942, Radonski wrote two letters to the pope that the editors of the Vatican's World War II documents have described as "violent." After running through a laundry list of atrocities and deprivations, Radonski pointed an accusatory finger at Pope Pius, "et Papa tacet" (and the pope keeps silent). From these documents, we see that the first accusations of Pius's silence during World War II came not from outside the church, or in reference to Jews, but from inside the church, in reference to Catholics.

The highly critical letters of Bishop Radonski were the last criticism the Vatican received from Polish clergy. Beginning in late 1942, the tone of correspondence from Poland to Rome shifted dramatically. Bishop Adamski of Katowice wrote that Catholics were remaining faithful. Apostolic Administrator Breitinger wrote that Poles now understood that the pope's silence had been a "heroic silence." Sensing the mood swing, Pius responded with a letter praising the Poles for their "heroic silence." Of course they had not been silent at all, but the pope's letter was a great success. Bishop Sapieha wrote that his countrymen would never forget the pope's noble and saintly words.

What accounts for this abrupt turnaround in Vatican-Polish relations in early 1943? The answer can be found not in papal dealings with the Polish church, but in the events of the war and Hitler's evil designs. The German army's blitzkrieg into Russia in 1941 foundered with its soldiers in sight of Moscow and Leningrad. Ill prepared for winter, the army was forced to fall back. All efforts then turned to preparing for a second assault in 1942. From the beginning of the war until mid-1942, ghettoized Jews had been forced into labor on starvation diets. The Nazis called it death through attrition, and, it worked. But in contemplating a renewed confrontation with Soviet forces, the army realized that it badly needed the warm clothing and military gear the Jews were producing. At that point, the German military command wanted less attrition and more production.

But that wasn't Hitler's agenda. In July 1942, he gave Himmler the order to kill all ghettoized Jews. By then, there were six death camps in occupied Poland (excluding the later facilities at Auschwitz-Birkenau). In the second half of 1942, nearly a half-million Jews from the Warsaw ghetto were mercilessly liquidated, a process that befell all other ghettos. As eminent Holocaust scholar Christopher Browning has said, death through labor gave way to death of labor. The only work force that could now replace the Jews were Poland's Catholics, and in September 1942, the army high command ordered "that Jewish workers were now to be replaced with Poles." By the end of the year, the substitution of Catholic for Jewish workers had been completed. At the same time, criticism of the pope by Polish churchmen ended.

Carrying out the Holocaust after 1942 meant a temporary suspension of the genocidal agenda intended against Polish Catholics--their labor was too valuable. This is how the destinies of Polish Jews and Polish Catholics crossed paths. When the Germans lost at Stalingrad in the spring of 1943 and Hitler was forced to retreat, the planned genocide of Polish Catholics never resumed in earnest.

Pius XII remained unmoved by the pleas of the Polish hierarchy before 1943 to denounce German atrocities in Poland. But the bishops themselves did no better when it came to the murder of Poland's Jews. It was not until 1995, fifty years after their deafening silence, that the Polish Catholic hierarchy apologized. Pius XII never did.

Michael Phayer is professor of history emeritus at Marquette University.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Commonweal Foundation
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

Monday, January 24, 2011

An Open Letter to Jan Tomasz Gross

Because I write about Polish-Jewish relations and the brute Polak stereotype, I'm often asked about Jan Tomasz Gross. I respond to those question here. My Amazon review of "Fear" is here.

Long story short: I defend Jan Tomasz Gross.

I've recently received a series of provocative e-mails from a poster I know only as Malgorzata. An excerpt from Malgorzata's most recent e-mail is below. The gracious reader will realize that English is not Malgorzata's first language, and will be tolerant of any minor errors this multilingual poster makes as she expresses herself, quite powerfully.

"It is one thing to make us, Poles, review our knowledge about history, but it's another thing to blame all Poles in front of the world, to others that do not know much about our history. His [Gross'] books give the strong impression that Poland generally supported Holocaust, Poles are Anti-Semites and you cannot expect anything good from Poles.

I do not say we should keep truth hidden in Poland, but let’s think who reads his books in America and Poland. I would estimate that max 10 % of readers are historians, and other highly educated people interested in the topic. These people will resist the hatred towards Polish as their overall knowledge about Polish history is good enough.

Another part of readers will be those that already have a negative opinion about Poles, so they will read the books to support their view. They will follow the overall impressions created in the books; they will never read any articles that disclose some discrepancies or clarify the possible reasons of these acts (but not justify). There are plenty of tensions between Jews and Poles. We have to work it through, not bring new ones.

In my opinion his books enhance the stereotype of Pole as Anti-Semites. When I read or hear statements that Poles have to finally confront their deep Anti-Semitism, I know the author of this comment has never been to Poland and probably does not even know any Poles. I have no idea where they currently see Anti-Semitism in Poland. But I can assume they drew the conclusions from Mr. Gross’s books. This is why I think they bring more harm than good. Especially, when we are trying to work out our relations with the world again."

I think Malgorzata has a valid point. This young lady has inspired me to send the e-mail, below:

Dear Prof. Gross,

Hello, I write about stereotypes of Poles and have a blog devoted to the topic. I receive many e-mails about you. I have responded to these e-mails via a blog post about you, linked below.

In short, I defend you.

Recently, though, I received a series of thoughtful e-mails from a poster known to me only as Malgorzata. As you can see from comments on the blog post, linked below, Malgorzata makes the case that your work, regardless of your intention, is used to slander Poland and exacerbate tensions between Poles and Jews and between Poles and the rest of the world.

Again, I have always defended you. I believe in truth and scholarship.

But there is merit in what Malgorzata writes.

Because of the merit of Malgorzata's posts, I would like to invite you to do something concrete to rectify the damage – no doubt unintentional – that reception of your work has done. Please know that I say that "reception of your work" has done damage. I think you are a responsible scholar and a patriotic Pole-by-birth (though you are American now.) I am confident that you mean well. You can't deny, on the other hand, that your work has been exploited for negative ends.

I want to invite you to read the one book that addresses negative stereotypes of Poles and how those stereotypes are used to distort history, and to do what you can to raise the profile of that book. You are a scholar of world import. "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype" will never receive much attention; it addresses the concerns of a marginalized group.

You have manifested your courage, your dedication to truth, and your commitment to Poland. I hope that all these will convince you to consider my offer, and to "step up to the plate," to use an American metaphor, and do the right thing. Buy "Bieganski." Read it. Recommend it. Acknowledge that while atrocities committed by Poles are very real and must be confronted, there is another reality at work, stereotyping and distortion. These must also be called out, confronted and defeated.


Original blog post that prompted this idea here.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Way Back: A Masterpiece.

"The Way Back" is a masterpiece, a must-see film for thinking people and for lovers of cinema as a serious art form. I was on the edge of my seat through the entire film, and was stifling tears. I could not resist applauding at the end. I couldn't wait to discuss it with friends. Several hours after I left the theater, I kept seeing everything – a meaty sandwich, clean water flowing from the tap – through the prism of "The Way Back." I'm a long-time fan of director Peter Weir, who gave us classics like "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "Witness" and "The Year of Living Dangerously." Weir has outdone himself.

"The Way Back" depicts a long walk that Gulag escapees took from Siberia to India. I've been lucky enough, under luckier circumstances, to travel some of the world the film references, from Poland to the Himalaya. The film's authenticity in language, costume, even hairstyles, swept me up into its world.

Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia attacked Poland in September, 1939, thus beginning World War Two. At first, the Communists killed and deported more people even than the genocidal Nazis. Over a million Poles were deported in cattle cars. Many died; many never returned. No one knows exact numbers. Many struggled to return home, traveling on foot through Eurasia, making shorter treks comparable to that depicted in "The Way Back;" I've met such people.

Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is a young Pole falsely accused by Soviets. His wife is tortured to force a confession. Without ceremony, he is shipped to hellish Siberian concentration camps and mines. Janusz determines to escape, with a ragtag, multilingual crew of followers.

Janusz is not particularly handsome, or muscular, or super intelligent. He doesn't have a commanding voice or swagger. His potentially fatal flaw, in this environment, is kindness. Jim Sturgess' Janusz is one of the best aspects of the film. In real life, true leaders usually are not like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Janusz grew up in the woods, and knows how to jerry-rig a compass to point his group south, and a mask to survive blizzards. In the world of Gulag escapees, that's enough to make him the big man. Indeed, Valka, (Colin Farrell), a very tough gangster, declares, or diagnoses, that Janusz is the leader, the man whom the other escapees must obey, both for their own individual benefit and the benefit of group survival.

Prison escapees traveling thousands of miles of the Eurasian landmass with minimal gear face multiple dangers, from malnutrition-caused blindness to mosquitoes to snakes to dehydration. Some succumb, and die en route. You can't help but bet the same horrible game of chance that Valka proposes: who will die next? And will his meat be tender – that is, will we resort to cannibalism? A crew member falls. Surviving companions, in stunning testimony to their own humanity, take the time, burn the calories, devote the effort, to fashioning makeshift graves, and funerals. And then they march on.

What looks very beautiful on a calendar – an unspoiled mountain forest of snow-dusted evergreens – is actually all but an execution chamber for a hungry fugitive with no tools and only rags for shoes. The last thing a good man sees after making the simple mistake of walking too far with a limited light source will not be a breathtaking natural vista but a comforting, wrenching, hallucination of home.

Weir's best choice as a filmmaker here was simply to get out of the story's way. "The Way Back" does not want to be your best friend. Weir makes no attempt to cozy up to the viewer, to sweeten the story with phony warmth or touching crescendos. Weir makes no attempt to juice the action with cinematic steroids. For much of the film, the viewer is watching one grueling step after another.

Guess what? This is what it's like to suffer for a goal, this is what it's like to be crushed, this is what it's like, purely by chance – not because you are a better person or because God likes you more – to survive. You go on, hour after hour after seemingly pointless hour toward your questionable, impossible objective. This film is an endurance test. It will separate the men from the boys. Folks who think a movie about fantasy, sexy ballerinas is "great" filmmaking, and who think that temporarily losing their cell phone service is a human rights violation, will probably walk right out of "The Way Back."

Characterizations come slowly and are not forced. We discover, in a ruined monastery, that one character had been a priest. We discover that a girl can get taciturn men to talk. Characters speak of food, as hungry people do. "Add more salt!" to a fantasy meal, one begs. Valka makes a decision that caused this viewer to cry. I never thought the film could make me care about this murderous thug, but it did. There is inevitable, and surprising, laughter, also not forced, but integral to the circumstances.

There are moments of high drama. The men must fight wolves. Weir could have lavished lengthy close-ups on those sharp teeth, snarling snouts and prickly pelts. He doesn't. The wolves are onscreen only long enough to establish what they are and what they are up to. And then the next deadly and impossible challenge rolls down the shoot at the viewer, just as it did for those who took this long walk, and the millions of other humans like them, who have survived life and death challenges under impossible conditions. "The Way Back" is, like those poignant grave-markers the marchers make en route, testimony to those who have lived anonymous and agonizing lives in this pitiless world. If you don't think about the big questions while watching this film, and if you're not grateful to the film for that, you don't deserve it.


There's been controversy in the press about "The Way Back." Some links, below:

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bieganski Reviews in American Jewish History and Choice

"Bieganski" has received reviews.

One is by Anna D. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann, and it appeared in American Jewish History. Ms. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann's review accurately recapitulate's one of "Bieganski"'s main arguments.

The other review is by Romuald K. Byczkiewicz, and it appeared in the American Library Association's publication Choice. Choice's review is deeply troubling, because it factually misrepresents "Bieganski." It is regrettable when a publication uses its power to misrepresent a book whose author is not famous, and whose correction few will ever see. I ask Choice to print a retraction. More on that, below.


All authors share the frustration of not being heard. Several years ago, at Indiana University, Prof. James Shapiro delivered a masterful talk on passion plays in Oberammergau, Germany. I was thrilled and gratified. Prof. Shapiro, a prize-winning author, was everything an audience member could desire in a public speaker.

No sooner had the applause died down than a very loud man shot up. Prof. Shapiro, this loud man insisted, had screwed up on this point, and missed this other point, and fudged this third point. I stared at the loud man, aghast.

This incident was an education. It taught me that writing is one thing; being heard is another.


"Bieganski" addresses controversy: Polish-Jewish relations, and the deeply ugly stereotypes of Poles deployed to distort history.

There are traumatized people in both populations. People sometimes respond to their own pain by attempting to cause pain in others. Intense politics are at play. A career can be damaged with a charge of anti-Semitism.

I am placed in the "Polish Catholic" slot. In fact I'm an American of Polish and Slovak ancestry, quite proud of my Catholic upbringing but not an orthodox Catholic. Naïve people assume that my work has been criticized by Jews and championed by Polish Catholics.

My best supporters have disproportionately been Jews and people who are neither Polish nor Jewish. Stuart Vail has been selflessly supporting my writing for years. Stuart is neither Polish nor Jewish; further, we agree on almost no political issues. Stuart is merely an integral man who values good writing.

Rabbi Laurence Skopitz, Rabbi Michael Herzbrun, Prof. Antony Polonsky, Prof. Alan Dundes, Arno Lowi, Simon Stern, Robin and Mark Schaffer, are just a few of those to whom the identity politicians would assign "Jewish – not Polish" identity. Without them, I am nothing. They support me because their humanity transcends anything identity politicians can ever comprehend.

On the other hand, I have received scathing attacks from the "Polish Catholic" camp.

A few months back I received a lengthy e-mail from a complete stranger. The e-mail insisted that it was obvious that I hated Poles and Poland, that I hated peasants and had written a book that would depict Polish peasants in the worst possible light. The e-mail's author insisted that he would use all the power and position he had to do everything he could to undermine "Bieganski."

He based his reaction to the book on its cover, which he had seen on Amazon, before the book was even released. He had read none of its contents.

I have been denounced in at least two Polish publications, Sarmatian Review and Glaukopis. The Glaukopis article identified me as a participant in a conspiracy against Poles and Poland.

So, yes. Authors often go unheard. And those who react to what authors write often are reacting more to their own inner narratives or political gamesmanship than to anything that appears on the author's page. Everything is exaggerated when it comes to the fraught field of Polish-Jewish relations.

The Choice review is something else again. I am an unknown author. "Bieganski" is not a bestseller. More people may be exposed to Choice's inaccurate review than may ever be exposed to "Bieganski" itself. "Bieganski" is the only book on the market right now dedicated to addressing stereotypes of Poles and other Eastern Europeans and how these stereotypes are deployed to distort world history. It does not service truth, or scholarship, for Choice's inaccurate review to remain unaddressed.

In March, 2008, American Jewish History published a review by Anna D. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann of one published chapter of Bieganski, "The Necessity of Bieganski: A Shamed and Horrified World Seeks a Scapegoat." This is the most controversial chapter of the book. It appeared in Polin 19, winner of the Halecki Award.

In her review, Ms. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann writes that, "'The necessity of Bieganski,' Goska finally argues, lies also on an even higher platform: it gives illusion of absolving those who failed in their own test of humanity [during the Holocaust], by placing blame on easily identifiable others."

Ms. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann accurately identifies what my work said. In the American Jewish History review, "Bieganski" was heard.


Less happy news is found in the February, 2011 Choice, published by the American Library Association. This review is by Romuald Byczkiewicz.

There are three major problems with Choice's review of "Bieganski."

The first problem with Choice's review may seem arcane and picayune to a non-scholar. Choice writes that Bieganski is "well researched in the secondary literature." This comment fatally discredits Choice's review. Perhaps Choice's reviewer, Byczkiewicz, did not read the book. Perhaps Byczkiewicz did not understand the book. Perhaps Byczkiewicz is purposely misrepresenting the book. I know no other options.

Let's look at what "secondary" and "primary" mean to a scholar.

"Primary" means an original document that directly records an issue the scholar is researching. A "secondary" source is based on the material in the primary source.

Here's an example. Suppose you wanted to research the OJ Simpson trial. Primary sources include trial transcripts. Secondary sources include newspaper articles based on what was said in the courtroom.

Here's the problem with Choice's use of "secondary" to characterize "Bieganski." Other than "Bieganski," there is almost no scholarly literature on Jewish stereotypes of Poles and their deployment in Polish-Jewish relations. Further, "Bieganski" relies almost exclusively on primary sources.

"Bieganski" argues that the brute Polak stereotype is ubiquitous in academic, journalistic, and popular culture discourse. Examples:
* prominent poet Andrei Codrescu, when commenting on the breakup of Yugoslavia on NPR, denouncing Eastern European Christian peasants, with their "smoke-darkened icons" as possessed of "deep-seated and emotionally unassailable stupidity";
* prominent scholar Thomas Laqueur arguing in the London Review of Books that all Poles, even those who appear not to be anti-Semitic, are essentially anti-Semitic;
* the hit Harrison Ford film "The Fugitive" depicting Polish Americans as particularly dingy and sleazy.

Byczkiewicz misunderstands these and hundreds of other examples as "secondary" sources.

If "Bieganski" were concerned with Andrei Codrescu as an expert witness on the breakup of Yugoslavia, then, yes, he would be a secondary source. But "Bieganski" is very much not citing Codrescu as a reliable source on the breakup of Yugoslavia. Rather, Codrescu, Laqueur, "The Fugitive," are all cited as purveyors of the Bieganski stereotype. These are all primary sources, as is most of the book.

One may approve of "Bieganski's" methodology, or disapprove of it, but Choice's review completely fails to so much as recognize and accurately identify it. Any such disapproval as that Choice attempted, ineptly, to express would have to take issue not just with "Bieganski" but with the methodology of an entire corpus of scholarship on stereotypes of Jews, African Americans, homosexuals and women. Choice has placed itself in opposition to a significant body of scholarship.

Second, and tragically, Choice's review is defamatory. "Bieganski," Choice claims, "glosses over the reality of anti-Semitic attitudes held by some Poles." If Choice can effectively tar "Bieganski" as anti-Semitic, it effectively undermines the only book on the market right now that addresses racist stereotypes of Eastern Europeans, stereotypes that are used to distort history – including Holocaust history – as the American Jewish History review accurately noted.

Antony Polonsky edits the book series in which "Bieganski" appeared. I ask Choice: would the Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies give his imprimatur – or, if you must, his hechsher – to a book that "glossed over" Polish anti-Semitism?

Igor and Kira Nemirovsky, religiously observant Jews, published "Bieganski."

Father John T. Pawlikowski endorsed "Bieganski." I ask Choice: would the recipient of the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award for Distinguished Contributions to Religion and the Distinguished Service Award from the American Jewish Committee state, as Father Pawlikowski did, that "Bieganski" "offers no apologetic for genuine instances of Polish anti-Semitism" if that were not true?

What does the book itself say? An excerpt:

"Discussion of the Bieganski stereotype will raise alarms. In 2001, Jan Tomasz Gross published Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland; in 2006, he published Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz. Gross' works gained new attention for shocking crimes committed by Poles against Jews during the World-War-Two era. This author concurs with Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, Polish journalist and diplomat. "Neighbors is a book which had to be written … If I want to have a moral right to justified pride in [Polish] rescuers, then I must admit to a sense of shame over [Polish] killers."

Magdziak-Miszewska goes on to state, "It is all too human to seek justification and symmetry for our own guilt." This work is not an attempt to create the impression of a symmetry of suffering, or an attempt to justify Polish crimes. Poles, as a group, suffered horribly during World War Two; Jews, as a group, suffered worse. There is no symmetry. There is no justification. This work stands in accord with the statement by the late Polish leader, Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, who wrote of Polish crimes,

Nothing can justify the killing of people by stoning, by butchering with knives, the decapitations, the stabbing with sharpened stakes, the wholesale murder of women and men, of the old and the young, driven to the Jewish cemetery, the burying alive of still breathing victims, the drowning of women with their children in the pond, and at the end the driving of the remaining victims to the barn and burning them alive (Nowak-Jezioranski).

The two phenomena – Polish guilt for Polish crimes, and stereotyping of Poles – are both real. The reality of one does not negate the reality of the other."

Choice: please explain how the above statement and others like it, found throughout "Bieganski," "glosses over" Polish anti-Semitism.

If Choice cannot produce evidence supporting its charge that "Bieganski" "glosses over" Polish anti-Semitism, it is incumbent upon Choice to print a retraction.

Finally, a style note. Choice's reviewer found the book "dizzying." Too many facts, he protests. "Too many notes," a notorious line from the film "Amadeus," comes to mind.

Authors on stereotyping cull facts from many sources: popular culture, politics, journalism, scholarship. As a writer, and a teacher, I'm always aware of this. I always introduce my reader to any new name, providing the personage's historical era, their field of influence, and their impact. For example, before discussing Thomas Laqueur, mentioned above, "Bieganski" identifies him as the Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor of History at U. C. Berkeley, and a prominent historian of masturbation.

It is possible that Mr. Byczkiewicz found the array of facts in the book "dizzying." Will others find it so? Curious readers are courteously invited to sample one chapter of the book in the February, 2011 issue of TheScreamOnline. If dizziness ensues, I will provide Dramamine.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Jewish Identity and Reboot

One of "Bieganski's" contentions is that many contemporary American Jews feel uncertain about their Jewish identity. For some, use of the Bieganski stereotype serves to reinforce a sense of Jewish identity.

The New York Times publishes many articles on contemporary American Jews' struggles with identity. "You're Young and Jewish. Discuss" by Laura M. Holson appeared in the Times on January 14, 2011.

An organization called Reboot, the Times reports, has been working to establish a sense of Jewish identity among young, wealthy, and successful American Jews "disconnected from their heritage." "They want to make it hip and cool to be identified as a Jew." Reboot "since 2002 has conducted an annual conference for young, affluent Jews to discuss their ethnic and religious identity, in between spa treatments and walks among the ponderosa pines of the Wasatch Mountains."

Nicola Behrman, a playwright, said, "I do not think I regretted my Jewishness. But when I look at my life, I hadn't expressed my Judaism in any way."

Christians and Christianity help Rebooters to define themselves as Jews: "Guests explore topics of their choosing, like what Mel Gibson was thinking when he made Passion of the Christ."

The Holocaust also helps to define Jewish identity. "For so many years being a Jew was defined by the Holocaust on one side and Israel on the other."

Roger Bennett is a Reboot "founder who lives in New York and is senior vice president at the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, an initial contributor to Reboot that now has 18 donors and a yearly $1.8 million budget." Rebooters voiced the loss of tradition. "Mr. Bennett … talked of his great-grandfather, a Polish butcher who built one of the largest synagogues in Liverpool but whose present-day heirs inherited none of his devotion to prayer and ritual."

One hears something similar again and again from American Jews. One of "Bieganski's" informants said to me, "When my grandmother got on the boat in Germany, she was a Jew. When she got off the boat in Ellis Island, she was an Episcopalian." This informant is an atheist and has no connection to his own Jewish ancestry. I'd known him for years before I began working on the book and had no idea he had Jewish ancestry, till he volunteered to be interviewed.

Recently, my friend Mark mentioned to me that he regrets that his daughter has not inherited his Jewishness. For example, Mark expressed appreciation for the Sabbath, which provides an opportunity for reflection. But Mark is an atheist and does not observe Sabbath.

I shared with Mark this quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

"To the uninspired, the Shulhan Arukh is like the score of an oratorio to those who cannot read musical notations; to the pious Jew, it is full of choruses and arias. Jewish law to him is sacred music. The divine sings in noble deeds. Man's effort is but the counterpoint to the music of his will. There is a price to be paid by the Jew. He has to be exalted in order to be normal. In order to be a man, he has to be more than a man. To be a people, the Jews have to be more than a people."

I think that Heschel would tell Mark that you can't have the "secular" benefits of Sabbath that atheist Mark can appreciate without having God. I could be wrong. There may be atheists who fully appreciate and live the values of Jewish tradition without any attendant faith in God. If so, I'd love to hear about them.

Rebooters seemed to be having the same conversation. They discussed whether or not they could have Christmas trees, or Sabbath rest in a wired and hyperactive world. One man dressed in drag, and "said something about God being a black woman," and others operated a "pretend" mikvah. Yoga and snowshoeing provided breaks.

In the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, the Council of Four Lands enjoyed exceptional autonomy. Jews organized and held power over other Jews. There was pressure to be traditionally, religiously, Jewish. Abraham Joshua Heschel described Jewish life in Poland as a spiritual paradise; Israel Shahak and Anzia Yezierska describes this same community and its traditions as an oppressive theocracy. However one assesses it, as positive, negative, or neutral, in the territories of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, there were pressures and rewards for being traditionally, religiously, Jewish.

Once those Jews immigrated to the US, many dropped the outward signs of religiosity, and assimilated. The challenges of assimilation remain; one answer is Bieganski – using stereotyped images of Eastern European Christians to reinforce Jewish identity. Another answer is Reboot. It will be interesting to see what develops from Reboot.

You're Young and Jewish. Discuss.

Readers' comments about the Reboot article.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Oliver Hirschbiegel's 'Downfall': Humanizing Hitler?

Dictator docudramas are not my genre of choice. I prefer romantic comedies. Recently I was munching popcorn at Greenwich Village's Film Forum, happily anticipating Preston Sturges' frothy 1935 romp, "The Good Fairy." Behind me sat two middle-aged men who, I gathered from their expansive banter, were Jewish, gay, and in love. "Downfall" was mentioned. My ears pricked up. I turned around.

"Hi," I ventured. "As you know 'Downfall' is very controversial…" I cut to the chase. "Did it make you want to become a Nazi?"

"Hell, yes!" the man boomed.

I collapsed into laughter. He wasn't done yet, though. After an appropriate dramatic pause, he added, with brio, "All over again!"

"Downfall" isn't just innocent of the charges against it – that by "humanizing" Hitler it makes Nazism newly attractive – it is a great movie. It's in the same class with "Intolerance," "Gone with the Wind," "Lawrence of Arabia," and "Saving Private Ryan." As in those films, dialogue or mere gestures exchanged by fully inhabited characters dramatize achingly tender moments of genuine intimacy – the kind of intimacy that you and I experience in our day-to-day lives – as well as Atlas shrugging, the tectonic plates of history shifting, armies taking up or laying down arms, and the power millions obey, fear or thank changing for the next dispensation.

That "Downfall" is such a great epic film is remarkable given its self-discipline. There are no "must see" sunsets in "Downfall," no new takes on how water, lightening or wind appear on camera, or symbolize change; there are no self conscious "Citizen Kane," or, indeed, "Triumph of the Will" camera angles.

There are few moments when director Oliver Hirschbiegel stages a bit of "look-ma-I've-got-a-camera" sensation. The opening scene depicts action that occurred three years before, and is incidental to, the main narrative, that of Hitler's final days. Though there is no narrative reason for this scene to do so, it meshes stylistically with the remainder of the film. The shots are claustrophobic and dark. Five beautiful German girls are marched, single file, through full night; armed soldiers monitor, and smirk at, their every move. They have come to apply for the job of Hitler's secretary. They are seated in a row in a harshly lit anteroom. The door opens, and the girls, as one, lean forward, curiosity piquing their features. They want to know, "Who is this Hitler? What will he be like?" We do, too.

Perhaps the single most frequently commented on scene in "Downfall," both in professional reviews and internet posts, is the one in which Magda Goebbles (Corinna Harfouch) murders her own six children. Goebbels first administers a sedative. Then, after the tots have fallen asleep, she enters the room where they sleep in bunk-beds. Methodically, she proceeds from child to child, placing a cyanide capsule on the child's front teeth, forcing the child's jaw closed, waiting for the child to exhibit a gasp and then stiffness, and then pulling the child's blanket over its head. The viewer cannot help but reflect – this is so horrible exactly because it is executed by an elegant blond in sophisticated attire; this is so horrible exactly because it is so passionless.

And the viewer will then reflect, "Ah, yes, the Holocaust: the coolness, the efficiency, the apparent superior culture of the murderers." Once the camera has offered enough time for that to sink in, the camera moves outside the bedroom, where Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) is standing. Behind him, written on the wall, is the incomplete word "Gass-;" which is close enough to "gas" to convey the connection. During no other scene in the film is that sign visible.

Hirschbiegel admirably resists the urge to offer wink-wink-nudge-nudge hindsight, except in one scene, where secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) confesses, "I make so many mistakes," and Hitler (Bruno Ganz) replies, "You'll never make as many as I do."

Other than that, there aren't a lot of director's-bag-of-tricks moments in "Downfall." In this, "Downfall" is the stylistic opposite of "Triumph of the Will," an undeniably beautiful film in which Leni Reifenstahl uses everything short of a trip to heaven – her opening shots of sky, clouds, and Nuremberg from the air – to convey her subject matter's assumed portent.

And yet, the viewer is riveted. Like those innocent young secretaries in the opening shot, the viewer struggles desperately to figure out, "Who is this man and what is going on here?"

The film answers that question word by quotidian word, rather than gesture by grandiloquent gesture. You know that Hitler ate ravioli as one of his last meals; you don't hear any coherent, even if twisted, philosophy. You know that Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) giddily and girlishly invited Traudl Junge to smoke one more cigarette with her as one of her last acts, over which she confesses to secretly kicking Blondi, Hitler's Alsatian, but she never offers, "This is what it was like to share a bed with a genocidal murderer." Even bombed-out Berlin is shot street by street, rather than in any sweeping overview. Falling bombs are frightening and damaging, not the billowing smoke and orgiastic showers of sparks of other war – or even just Bruce Willis – movies.

After taking his final leave from Hitler, architect Albert Speer, (Heino Firch), in his sleek black leather trench coat, poses between bruised marble columns, viewing unseen fires. Hirschbiegel could have exploited the flames for their voluptuousness, their evocation of
Gotterdammerung. That certainly would have met the demands, and the traditions, of epic cinema. But all we see of the flames are their reflection on the marble columns, Speer's remarkable coat, and his apparently grief-stricken, but ultimately unreadable, face. This is epic history as performed in human lives.

Without drawing attention to this feature, "Downfall" serves up mint fresh detail of 1945 Berlin. When "Jurassic Park" first came out, a paleontologist confessed that he wanted the camera to linger on one particular herd of dinosaurs so he could "observe their feeding behavior." Later, of course, he smacked himself for confusing computer-generated graphics with real dinosaurs.

There is a large subculture out there, mostly male, and, weirdly, on every side of every divide of WW II, devoted to reliving it through books, films, and all-night discussions. As internet posts show, men like that are eating this movie up; it is intoxicating them. Even one very brief scene featuring Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) in an underground parking garage (again; given that this scene takes place outside the bunker, there is no need for it to be shot underground, but it is) is so real in every detail – the cars, the insignia, Himmler's prissy manufactured masculinity – that I felt my distance from the action melt.

Much of the early drama, and the audience's involvement, centers on the question: how could apparently rational, normal people – people like you and me – give their lives to Hitler and Nazism? Bruno Ganz's Hitler is unfailingly courtly and avuncular with Traudl Junge, his eyes sparkle; his cheeks dimple. This Hitler is evidenced in archival film footage; not just Hirschbiegel's Hitler cries; Leni Reifenstahl's teared up, as well. With others, though, including Eva Braun, Hitler is a pig. Other characters, no matter how monstrous they may have been in life – Goebbels and Himmler, for example – are never shown losing their composure. Speer is a dapper, suave gentleman. Traudl Junge is a sweet, beautiful girl. Watching these normal characters in Hitler's orbit, the viewer asks, or wants to scream, "Why don't you resist him? Challenge him? Shoot him? Exit?"

The film makes only a couple of attempts to offer rational answers to that question. In two scenes, generals refer to November, 1918; that reference to the Allies humiliating and fleecing Germany at the end of WW I is one of the most rational things said in the movie. Junge admits that she is herself confused about what the heck she's doing. Soldiers refer to oaths and vows to serve Hitler unto death. Magda Goebbels says she doesn't want herself or her children to live in a world without National Socialism.

Even so, as Hitler rants about fantasy armies, the audience desperately wants to see someone break ranks in a significant way. These characters are so articulate, so well dressed, so adult-looking; why don't they
do something? In this, "Downfall" is reminiscent of Albert Camus' 1944 play "Caligula." "Caligula," of course, depicts the hold a sadistic Roman emperor has on his subjects.

"Downfall" also reminded me of the A& E reality television show, "Intervention," which has featured modern Americans trying to coerce their family members into going cold turkey off crystal meth. If Betty Jo and Bobby Sue can grab Uncle Bubba by the lapels and tell him some cold, hard truths, why can't Speer or Junge do the same? Needless to say, they never do. Even as Hitler and Braun's bodies burn, their followers, rather than cutting and running, keep ranks and offer a final
sieg heil.

In a parallel scene, Eva Braun's brother-in-law, SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann), is dragged naked and drugged from an orgy he had gone to to await the end. Before being shot to death for leaving Hitler's bunker, he manages to button one button of his uniform jacket and offer his final "
Heil Hitler."

The desire to see an intervention is almost unbearable in the scenes between Hitler and Speer. Hitler brags about "cleansing lands of Jewish poison;" Speer listens with the kind of polite restraint one might show an elderly relative misremembering a family event. Speer places his fisted hand to his lips and gives a little cough. How much death behind that little cough.

"Downfall" is not unrelievedly grim. As with all art that meticulously captures human behavior, there are several moments of unintended humor. Himmler muses, "When I meet Eisenhower, shall I give him the Nazi salute, or shake his hand?" Before a bureaucrat marries Hitler and Braun, he is forced, by Nazi law, to ask, "Are you of pure Aryan descent?" and "May I see your identification?" When the six, cutely Teutonic, Goebbels children arrive, they are garbed, posed, and perform as a sort of Satanic Trapp Family Singers.

Strangely enough, the controversies surrounding "Downfall" echo controversies surrounding another film released exactly one year before. In protesting "The Passion," Boston University religion professor Paula Frederickson promised that "When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to." "The Passion" has come and gone and violence has not broken out.

Will "Downfall," by "humanizing" Hitler – tell me, how does one "humanize" a human being? – recruit new Nazis? Increase anti-Semitism? I doubt it, but, who knows? Artists' intentions and the actual impact of actual works are often quite different. In the early 1900's, Upton Sinclair, a socialist, investigated the mistreatment of Eastern European immigrant workers in the Chicago stockyards. He wrote a novel,
The Jungle, that wrenchingly detailed the mistreatment of those immigrant workers. The Jungle became a hugely popular and powerful book – but not for the reasons Sinclair had hoped. Americans, outraged at the filthy conditions under which their meat was produced, agitated, successfully, for improvements in the cleanliness of meat-packing. Nothing improved for the Eastern European immigrant workers; in fact, America continued to hate and revile them, and laws were passed to prevent their entry into the US. As Sinclair said, "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident hit its stomach."

I grew up among Baby Boomer American teens who sometimes doodled swastikas in the margins of their high school notebooks. American popular culture had sold us, ignorant of the war, a Nazism sanitized not by its humanity, but by its inhumanity. Our pop culture Nazis, unlike Hirschbiegel's, or Riefenstahl's, skipped the messy, confusing business of being human. They were stylish, antiseptic, embodiments of pure power. Kids were attracted to them for the same reasons that they were attracted to the emotion-free space alien Mr. Spock on "Star Trek." Nazis never had to bend to maternal pressure to make their beds. They never cried because they couldn't find a date for the prom. When they walked into the room, everyone shook.

Hirschbiegel denies those lost teenagers their Hitler. When Speer, with apparent pity, tells Hitler that he, Speer, has been systematically disobeying Hitler's orders, tears run down a slumped and defeated fuehrer's face. With visible Parkinson's disease, before public appearances, Hitler tries, unsuccessfully, to control the flailing of his afflicted hand. He betrays his own value of race loyalty, denouncing the Germans the film depicts as courageously fighting for him as "scum, cowards, traitors without honor" who deserve to "drown in their own blood." This Hitler won't disarm any hard core anti-Semites, but it won't attract the kinds of teens I spoke of above.

On the other hand, Hirschbiegel's "ordinary Germans" are depicted in a friendly way I could not swallow. Outside the bunker, action follows Prof. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel) and Peter, a boy (Donevan Gunia). In a primal scene, Schenck and a comrade sit around a campfire in a ruined courtyard. They are surrounded by complete darkness, literal and metaphorical. Such settings are meant to communicate that characters confront their basic natures, without the shaping that civilization provides. "We need to go," he tells his companion, "to where we are needed." He spends the rest of the movie doing just that.

Epic films often feature key scenes where sympathetic characters first become aware of the dire nature of a given moment; through identification with them, the audience is to be profoundly moved. Think of the famous crane shot in "Gone with the Wind" where Scarlett O'Hara steps gingerly through the bodies of dead and dying soldiers. The camera pulls back, and back; more bodies are shown, acres of bodies; then, a tattered Confederate flag, while poignant music plays. The audience learns, along with Scarlett, that the Civil War is lost – and the audience is moved with her.

Prof. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck is given just such a scene in "Downfall." He visits an air raid shelter; he sees operations performed without anesthesia. He is shocked, shocked. He witnesses all with eyes ancient with sorrow and compassion. He demands, "Who's going to feed the civilians and the soldiers?" Christian Berkel is as good as Gary Cooper in "High Noon" at performing quiet, outraged integrity and heroism. In both "Gone with the Wind" and "Downfall," cinematic technique hijacks the viewer's reaction, and no matter how the viewer feels about the slave-owning South, or the Third Reich, the viewer is positioned to feel some sorrow at the moment of their demise.

Narrative requirements insist that Hirschbiegel would have had to invent a character like the Schenck he has here. Drama demands conflict. Even a depiction of a world gone mad requires one set of sane eyes to highlight the insanity. This viewer had one small problem with Hirschbiegel's chosen mouthpiece here – the SS insignia on the Professor Doctor's shirt collar.

One British historian has claimed that the historical Schenck was involved in performing medical experiments on concentration camp internees. Hirschbiegel, sounding like a gangland attorney, responded that the allegation "was never proven." I loved Berkel's performance. I just wish it had been as a different character, in a different movie. "Downfall," as much as I admired it, did not bring me anywhere close to believing that the SS produced such a man.

In a similar vein, various generals, notably Wilhelm Mohnke (André Hennicke), are depicted as heroic. Their heroism is the heroism celebrated in Nazism or ancient Sparta: it is impervious to pain or danger, and blindly devoted to duty. One general reports when summoned by a frothing Hitler, announcing, with all the panache of a Sabatini hero, "I'm here to be shot." The viewer feels puny confronting such heroism.

In his own defense, Hirschbiegel has said to Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper, "There is no way the Germans can underplay the worst crime that ever happened in mankind ... but there was a certain aspect of heroism derived from the fighters ... There is some nobility in it, even" (April 5, 2005).

Peter, the other character outside the bunker, is a remarkably beautiful and heroic blond lad, straight off a propaganda poster. At first he is proud to fight for Hitler. In his scenes, Peter's father (Karl Kranzkowski), like Schenck, plays the one sane "voice crying in the wilderness." Peter's father is missing an arm; his incidental comments indicate that he lost it in World War I. At first Peter resists reason, and his father. With courage and focus, Peter fights on even as his commander is shot in the head. Hitler bestows the Iron Cross. Eventually, though, Peter sees enough dead bodies to finally run away; he returns home and enjoys a reunion embrace with his father.

Ordinary Germans' suffering is depicted in a very effective scene in which ragged Berliners in a bombed-out cityscape gather at a tap for water. A bomb falls; smoke clears; slowly, survivors regroup around the water tap, calling out names. One by one, they find the bodies of their loved ones, fall to the ground, and sob.

Ordinary Germans auto-atrocities are
also depicted. In particularly nightmarish scenes, the Volksturm, thick ropes for lynching draped over shoulders, beat old men who refuse to fight. That they commit these acts in a post-apocalyptic Berlin with the Red Army mere blocks away is especially disturbing. One such gang lynches Peter's father, an unambiguously heroic character. Weirdly, the man implicated in Peter's father's death is so stereotypically German in his appearance he could be an ethnic doll. He is rotund, florid, and wears a Tyrolean hat. He is the only German so garbed in the movie.

That ordinary Germans chose their own miserable fate when they chose Hitler – which tends to be my own uncharitable view – is voiced by a profoundly unsympathetic character, Joseph Goebbels. "Your
Volksturm are being mowed down!" Mohnke tells him. Goebbels replies, "I have no sympathy. They gave us the mandate; now their little throats are being cut. They chose their fate." Putting these words in Goebbels' mouth provides a clever defense against charges that the movie is excessively compassionate toward German suffering.

After Saddam Hussein was captured, film footage was shown to Iraqi reporters. Some jumped from their chairs and began screaming at the screen. At the time, I thought, how quaint. I never thought I'd be so primitive as to react that way to an image on a screen.

Like most people interested in history, I've seen archival film footage of Hitler's speeches. That film footage did not prepare me for "Downfall." There they are: Himmler, Goebbels, Speer, and Hitler himself, chatting, eating, planning, going about their day-to-day activities.

I have never been so unable to control my physical response to a movie. My legs bounced up and down. My fingers balled into fists. My head shook. If I had been alone in the theater, I would have screamed. I wanted to kill the characters on the screen, not just for their evil, but for their sheer stupidity, which violated my sense of human dignity. That was new for me.

During, and certainly after, the movie my mind raced. Without being at all preachy, this movie invites the viewer to autopsy the hero worship that surrounded Hitler. Why did a nation drop to its knees for this lunatic? Why, during Berlin's final hours, didn't more people read the writing on the wall? By extension, the film invites critique of any national psychosis and hero worship. Is there any comparison between the events on the screen and contemporary life? In a brief coda, the real Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary, attempts to acquit herself by saying, paraphrase, "Gosh, I was a young, pretty girl, what did I know or care about politics?" But then she interrogates that stance. "I could have informed myself. I could have learned something. Being young is no excuse." I left the theater thinking not just about fifty years ago, but about today.

that's a good movie.

Oliver Hirschbiegel

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Yes, There Will Be a Quiz: Polish Quiz

I cannot tell you how many times university professors and staff have, uninvited and aggressively, insisted to me that they know everything there is to know about Poles, Poland, and Polish-Americans, to whit:





I talk to these folks. I ask them questions. I discover that they know nothing about Poland. An example from the media: NPR's "This American Life" broadcast an episode peddling these images of Poland. They misspelled "Krakow." I mean, Krakow! Not really all that hard to spell. (Cracow is also fine. "This American Life" couldn't manage that, either.)

In other words, people who know nothing about Poles or Poland insist with demented virulence that they know everything about Poles and Poland, and that everything is that Poland is a gray wasteland, and that all Poles are nothing but thuggish anti-Semites.

What do you know about Poland?

Take the quiz and let me know how you scored.

On the left are icons from various cultures; most any educated American is familiar with them.  Your job is to match the cultural icon on the left with his, her, or its rough parallel from Polish culture in the list on the right.

1.)  Rosa Parks
2.)  Robin Hood
3.)  Waterloo
4.)  Moses
5.)  The Alps
6.)  Faust
7.)  Zeus
8.)  Archbishop Oscar Romero
9.)  The Diaspora
10.)  Roots
11.)  Joan of Arc
12.)  Judas Iscariot
13.)  King Arthur
14.)  Wavy Gravy
15.)  The Brothers Grimm
16.)  Raoul Wallenberg
17.)  Sorry, there are no cross cultural parallels for this one – a 1264 Polish statute that guarantees full protection of life and property to Jews and shows “an awareness of the vulnerabilities and the needs felt by a small subject group which is sophisticated by contemporary standards.  [Its author, Boleslaw the Pious] made far-reaching attempts to address the actual prejudices and inequities from which Jews suffered, and discourage or counter them by force of law” (Hoffman, Eva, Shtetl.)
18.)  Auschwitz
19.)  Pearl Harbor
20.)  Cave paintings at Lascaux
a.)  Katyn
b)  Tatry
c.)  Kalisz
d.)  Auschwitz
e.)  Piast
f.)  Fydrych
g.)  Walentynowicz
h.)  Karski
i.)  Kolberg
j.)  Janosik
k.)  Grunwald
l.)  Twardowski
m.)  Wieliczka
n.)  Pan Tadeusz
o.)  Polonia
p.)  Wanda
q.)  Wallenrod
r.)  Yalta
s.)  Swiatowid
t.)  Popieluszko

If you can't identify this guy, you know nothing about Poland (or Slovakia.) 

Did you know that Poles have fought their various oppressors not just with brute force, but also with wit and style? 

Did you know that the famously and proudly German Brothers Grimm didn't do anything they said they did -- they didn't go out into the field, they didn't collect authentic tales, and they did adulterate their texts? Did you know that a Polish folklorist collected 12,000 folk songs, 670 fairy tales, 2700 proverbs, 350 riddles,  and more? Amassing one of the largest ethnographic collections? And he is virtually unknown? 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women during the Holocaust

The Writing the Holocaust blog includes a review by me of the book "Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust." The review can be found here.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Hating Christians, Killing Christians: Where Do You Stand?

A Coptic Christian with a cross made from the blood of Christian victims at his church in Egypt.
AP photo Ben Curtis 

Many, but not all, who study the Holocaust say something like the following: Christians had been saying bad things about Jews for two thousand years. Saying those bad things made the Holocaust inevitable / possible / easier.

Mind: This argument focuses on critical language. It cites critical language, specifically, as necessary and sufficient precursor to genocide.

Not all say this.

The argument is flawed for several reasons:

Genocides have happened without the frequently cited "two thousand years" preparation. The Rwandan genocide is said to have been the fastest genocide in history; there had been no previous two thousand years of verbal preparation. The Cambodian auto-genocide targeted anyone who had an education, anyone who wore glasses. There had been no previous two thousand years of verbal preparation. One could go on.

Too, Christian scripture and theology do not call for a genocide of Jews – rather they are unique in their emphasis on active, selfless love regardless of tribal affiliation. Nazism did explicitly called for a genocide of Jews, and Nazism defined itself as a repudiation of Christianity.

Finally, humans, along all ethnic, religious, class and gender divides say heinous things about one another, and they do so without committing genocides. Blacks say horrible things about whites. Men say horrible things about women. Jews say horrible things about Christians. Most don't commit genocides.

In short, the argument is not perfect.

On the other hand, hate speech – not critical speech as part of a fair exchange of ideas but, rather, hate speech in a no-win environment – has proven to be an essential feature of genocide. Joseph Goebbels was a novelist. Not a soldier. Not a financier. His weapons were words. He was Hitler's right hand man. Hitler gave power and status to a wordsmith that he never gave to a tank commander. Germans' minds had to be prepped, through language, to kill Jews. Goebbels saw to that.

In Rwanda, those planning genocide used the radio. Their hateful propaganda was so important that Rwandan radio broadcasters were later prosecuted on war crimes charges. They never wielded a machete. They just used words to prep others to do so.

What about the horrible things that Americans and others now say about Christians? What about the contempt, the crude jokes, the distortions, the scapegoating, the ugliness?

Do those who say ugly things about Christians make the persecution of Christians inevitable / possible / easier?

"What persecution of Christians?" you ask. "There's no persecution of Christians. I never see anything on the news about persecution of Christians. None of my friends talk about persecution of Christians."

That's really interesting. It's really interesting that so many "educated" people are unaware of persecution of Christians. It's really interesting that the press does not cover this persecution.

It's really interesting that American opinion leaders got their panties in a twist over a nobody who said he might, and then again he might not, burn a Koran.

But, unless I missed it, no American opinion leaders cared at all when, in recent years, Muslims began crucifying Christians in Iraq and Sudan.

That's right – human beings, crucified. And all those righteous people who cared so much about singed pieces of paper … cared not at all.

The bombing of a Christian church in Egypt. An Afghan man condemned to death for converting to Christianity. A Pakistani woman condemned to death for being Christian. An Indian man jailed and tortured in Saudi Arabia for mere possession of a Bible. The list of atrocities against Christians goes on and on.

Why don't the usual, professional, public righteous ones, who rant and rave about this aggrieved group and that aggrieved group, who weep and wail and get huffy and pontificate about burned Korans, the Jon Stewarts, the Barak Obamas, the Al Sharptons, organizations like NOW and the Southern Poverty Law Center – why don't they care?

Does pervasive hate speech against Christians create, or reflect, an atmosphere where crucifying Christians in Sudan and Iraq is okay? Not worthy of news coverage?

Pervasive hate speech against Christians: it's everywhere, in the media, in facebook posts, on college campuses. In my own life, I receive anti-Christian e-mails and read anti-Christian facebook posts and hear invidious distortions of Christianity in the media and confront Christophobia on campuses on a weekly basis. I know I've lost teaching jobs because I am a Christian. Just being Christian. Not talking about it in class. Just being Christian is enough to lose a job over, and no, no there is no recourse. There's been no recourse for my students, either. Students who paid for classes out of their own earnings have had to drop because of harassment. Tenured professors can mock students, on a daily basis, for being Christian, and experience no consequences.

One of my oldest friends hates Christians. He's got a PhD. He does sophisticated white collar work. He lives in an exclusive suburb. He's very Politically Correct, New Age, Buddhist-Taoist-groovy. He's known me for half my life. I value his intelligence and humor. We share important life events. On a regular basis, he sends me uninvited e-mails mocking Christianity. The most memorable one described his fantasies of raping Catholic nuns. He thought it was funny. I've asked him to stop sending these e-mails. He doesn't. Are his e-mails, which I'm sure he finds very funny and very brave, just part of the background noise that makes persecuting Christians okay?

I'm all for reasoned critiques of Christianity. I've delivered such critiques myself, as the writings on my webpage show. I'm not talking about reasoned critiques in a fair exchange of ideas. I'm talking about hate in an atmosphere where Christians are destined to lose, either jobs or their lives. Does anti-Christian hate speech make inevitable / possible / easier the crucifixion of Christians in Iraq?

I want to ask anyone who may be reading this: please think twice before you mock Christians or Christianity in an ugly way. Please think twice before you forward a message that claims that Christians burned the witches / murdered millions in the Inquisition / tortured Galileo / inspired Hitler / began the Crusades to convert Muslims / etc. All of these Christophobic lies have been investigated by serious historians and serious historians have shown them all to be more about hate than scholarship. Read Lyndal Roper on the truth of the witch trials, Henry Kamen on the Inquisition, Robert Spencer on the Crusades, Nancy Pearcey on the relationship between Christianity and Science, etc.

Think about the consequences of verbalizing hate.

Ahlam Fawzy Saber, a Coptic Christian woman, mourns the death of her two sisters and her niece in her church in Egypt.
AP Photo Ben Curtis