Monday, October 29, 2012

Books! Free or Cheap! Come and Get 'Em!

Books Books Books! Come and Get 'Em!

Books on Polish topics. Books on Jewish topics. Books on Polish-Jewish topics.

Some are FREE! Some are CHEAP!

No offer will be turned away!

I need to de-cumulate a bit. Many of these are very good books. I am not giving them away because of their quality, but for other reasons.

Have a look!

If you see a book you want, please email me or post in the comments section. If the book is popular, brand new, and in good condition, I will ask for the standard used price from Amazon. If the book is older, with highlighting, I will probably send you the book just for whatever it costs for me to pack and post it.


ForYour Freedom and Ours. Olszer.

Mothers in the Fatherland. Claudia Koonz.

The Foreigners' Guide to Living in Slovakia. Hurn.

Third Winter of War, Language of Mules, and Lightning and Ashes. Guzlowski.

Perspectives in Polish History. Blejwas.

Polin Volume 1

Polin Volume 18

Polin Volume 19

Unheroic Conduct. Boyarin.

A Man for Others. Patrice Treece.

Trials of the Diaspora.

The Pope & I Jerzy Kluger

They Were Just People. Tammeus

Poland: A Jewish Matter.

Videocassette: Jerzy Hoffman's With Fire and Sword

White Field Black Sheep Markelis

Maps and Shadows. Jopek.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dialogue with Ben Matis about Stereotypes of Poles and Jews

A recent blog post addressed a conversation thread on facebook. A facebook friend mentioned that he had just arrived in Krakow. A series of joke posts followed. The jokes included a reference to a crack whore, which was meant to sound like "Krakow." That blog post is visible here.

My facebook friend on whose wall these jokes appeared wrote to me about this blog post. He was kind enough to send his thoughts on my blog post. I am eager to share his thoughts here, plus my reply. I'm also grateful that he gave me permission to share his thoughts.

You know, people talk a lot about "Polish-Jewish dialogue." All too often, that dialogue is limited to hard-core chauvinists on both sides. Neither Ben nor I is a hard-core chauvinist. I'm an average Jersey girl who happens to be the child of a Polish father. I gather from Ben's facebook posts that he lives close to me; we are both worried, today, about Hurricane Sandy. It is a very good thing that we have this opportunity for dialogue.

Ben Matis is a cantor, or hazzan. Here's Ben's message to me:

"I am sorry that the silly joking around about the name of a city was offensive. Krakow is a beautiful city and I loved it.

However, one can and one must sometimes choose to ignore stupid offensive things. For example, the little statues and pictures of stereotypical big nosed Hassidic looking Jews holding or counting money, for example, is really not nice. It's offensive. On the other hand, do I hold this stupidity as an example of what's wrong with Poland, or rather do I choose to visit Poland and see the incredible progress? Do I choose to see the progress of Poland's excellent relationship with Israel and the fact that I felt completely comfortable walking around Warsaw with a yarmulke on last Saturday, or should I consider this portrait of the Jew – and therefore me – as a sign of the everlasting anti-Semitism of the Polish people?

I don't think the Poles – in Poland – are any more anti-Semitic than any other nation in Europe. I'm sure, and you can be certain, that there is of course some anti-Semitism there, the same as there is plenty in the USA and Canada. The fact is that I choose to focus on the positive, and that I have come to love the country and the people I know there.

So, do you focus on the positive, Danusha, or do you choose to focus on the negative?"

In a follow-up post, Ben wrote:

"The important thing is that you print both the apology for the stupid comments as well as what I believe is the important message: that we sometimes have to overlook stupidity sometimes."

End of Ben's comments.

Carved wooden figurines of Jews. Source
Gosh. I would really like to respond to Ben's comments for a couple of hours, but I can't, because I have to devote some time to Hurricane Sandy preparedness. As another facebook friend wrote, "I have to run around the house, waving my arms, screaming, 'We're all gonna die!'"

Ben – anyone reading this – where do I start.

I start here. Please read my book, "Bieganski."

People become angry at me when I say that. "Oh! So you just want to sell a book!"

Yes, yes, that's it. I realized what a fortune was to be made on sales of scholarly books about Polish-Jewish relations.

Okay, sarcasm off. But, since I'm Polish, the sarcasm is never off for long. (I think sarcastic humor is something Poles, Jews, and New York City area residents have in common.)

Again. Where to start.

Here. I am not an historian. I don't talk about Jedwabne or Katyn or the Statute of Kalisz. I am a words person. I am a stories person. How people use language; how people create narratives: That's what I study.

This is a key point in my argument: The Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype is pervasive in Western culture. It is NOT limited to any one ethnic group. I have said on this blog over and over and over, Stop blaming the Jews.

I say there here.

I say it here.

And I say it again and again in posts that talk about African Americans, and Catholics, and Germans, and Irish Americans who deploy the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype.

Here is a quote from my recent talk at University of Wisconsin, Madison:

"Where do you find the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype?

It is pervasive in American folk, popular, and elite culture.

It exists in jokes, of course.

In American elite journalistic and academic prose that purports to educate the public about serious world events like the Rwandan genocide, in museums, in elite websites that purport to educate the public about refined arts like poetry, in university classrooms, in academic prose devoted to Polish history, Bieganski is pervasive.

Bieganski is not just pervasive.

He is inescapable.

He is required.

If you mention Polish identity in any number of venues: a college classroom, a party, a political speech, a film, a discussion of poetry – if it is a lower strata venue, you make a Polak joke. If it is a higher strata venue, you invoke Bieganski. In American culture any mention of Polish identity is followed by Bieganski. It is obligatory

This book, and the blog devoted to the book adduce example after example after example after example.

This book cites articles in the New York Times, scholarly texts, blockbuster Hollywood films, paperback bestsellers, museums, including a museum in Poland, (the Museum of the History of Polish Jews) websites, peer reviewed, university press books, that all convey that Poles are Bieganski, dirty, low, essential troublemakers."

That's the first thing I want to communicate to people. That the Bieganski, brute Polak stereotype exists, and is part of the heritage of anyone who is part of Western Civilization.

The next step in the talk is to communicate to people why this stereotype matters to them. Why the Brute Polak stereotype matters to everyone.

Invite me to talk, and I'll try to convince you.

That's what those face book posts about Krakow = crack whore were to me. They were data. They were yet more evidence of what the book, and this blog, demonstrate.

How should we respond? I think Polonia should change this stereotype. I think it is our responsibility. I don't think we should write mean letters. I don't think we should hurt anyone. I don't think we should blame others. I make all that clear in the three-part series of blog posts entitled "The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision."

As for the statuettes of Hasidic Jews to which Ben refers.

I have not studied these statues, or their purchase or application, and I am, therefore, not qualified to talk about what they mean to their carvers, purchasers, or owners. I've been to Poland five or so times (I lose count) and I lived there 1988-89, and I have not encountered many of the statues, and I've never stayed in a home where they were on display. I went with the KF summer sessions three times, and never saw one of those statues in a dorm room full of souvenirs.

I can say this much. They offend you. Since they offend you, I care, and I wish I could change the situation. I can't. I am open to hearing about any initiatives to change the situation. I would contribute what meager participation I could.

One more note. Ben, you talk about "progress." Do me a favor. Read what "Bieganski" says about the model of universal human progress, and how it has distorted discussion, and understanding, of the Holocaust, of Polish-Jewish relations, and of ethical questions.

Just a few facts for now. Poland was not a significant world site of anti-Semitism during the allegedly benighted Middle Ages. Poland was a significant world site of anti-Semitism during the allegedly advanced Enlightenment Era. Makes you think, no? Another fact. "Primitive" Catholic peasants like the Ulma family saved Jews. "Advanced" scientists like Josef Mengele destroyed Jews. How old are the words, "He who saves one life, saves the world entire;" how old are the words, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and how true are these words? We don't need "progress." We need the Judeo-Christian ethical system, which is ancient, and which is righteous.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Dennis Miller: Lech Walesa Spends His Time "Screwing in Light Bulbs"

I am listening to the Dennis Miller radio show. I am a big fan of Dennis Miller. He is brilliant. No one can summon a metaphor like Miller can. He turns speech into an Olympic event.

Miller read the text for an advertisement. Apparently former Polish President Lech Walesa will be making an appearance in America soon. The text listed all of Walesa's achievements. Walesa, Miller said defeated communism, won the Nobel Prize, was elected Poland's president ... something like that. I don't remember the exact text.

After listing Walesa's many achievements, Miller closed this way, "And now Walesa devotes his time to screwing in light bulbs."

Miller's allusion is to two forms familiar to Americans: the Polak joke, and the light bulb joke. These jokes communicate how crude Polaks are. How many Polaks does it take to screw in a light bulb? Ten: one to hold the light bulb and nine to rotate his ladder.

Here is an excerpt from the talk I recently gave in Wisconsin:

Bieganski is not just pervasive. He is inescapable. He is required. If you mention Polish identity in any number of venues: a college classroom, a party, a political speech, a film, a discussion of poetry – if it is a lower strata venue, you make a Polak joke. If it is a higher strata venue, you invoke Bieganski. In American culture any mention of Polish identity is followed by Bieganski. It is obligatory.

Dennis Miller, a talented man I great admire, just demonstrated this axiom from my talk.

My facebook friend's friends did the same.

If you mention Polish identity in America, you must then make a joke. If that doesn't fly, you bring up Poles' responsibility for hate and atrocity. There are examples of this pattern in the book. 

BTW, Dennis Miller is a right-wing Catholic. I don't agree with those who argue that the Bieganski stereotype is limited to left-wingers and Jews. It is found across ethnicities and political positions. It is standard. It is a formulaic speech pattern.

It is up to Polonia to change this. Start with the three part blog post on the Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Facebook: Krakow. Crack Whore. Funny? Prejudiced? Or does the Polak just need to relax?

Krakow, Poland. A city I love as if it were a living thing. Source.
Believe it or not,
this is one of the less disturbing images that turn up when you do a Google image search of  "crack whore." I don't advise that you repeat this search. The images are grotesque and offensive.  

A facebook friend is a cantor or hazzan. He is visiting Poland. I've been enjoying his trip vicariously. He posted photos of tombstones in Warsaw's Jewish cemetery and I "shared" them to my facebook page. I was educated and delighted. 

Last night, he posted a one-word update: "Krakow." 

The very first comment was a joke. Emeril, a TV chef, says "Krakow" when he cooks. The next comment was enthusiastic. The poster posted a one sentence comment about how she appreciates Krakow. 

The next comment was a joke. Back to the Emeril comment. The next comment was a joke. The poster posted this url:

The next comment was a joke. "Krakow" is the sound Batman makes when he punches someone. (In English, comic book authors often use the word "kapow" to indicate the sound the impact of a punch makes. 

The next comment was a joke. A reference to crack whores. 

And that's it. Those were all the comments. One person saying something enthusiastic. The rest, jokes. 

I posted the following: 

"Krakow is a cultural center in Poland. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was the capital of Poland for hundreds of years. There are sites in Krakow directly connected to Kosciuszko, Pilsudski, Mickiewicz, Wyspianski, Wojtyla. Wawel castle is in Krakow. It is especially beloved of Polish Americans because when Polish Americans visit Poland they often visit Krakow. The KF hosts summer schools there.

Krakow is also a site of horrendous suffering. The Nazis worked very hard to destroy Krakow, while still enjoying what they left of it. There is a museum in Krakow that talks about this occupation. I'll include a link.

After the Nazis, the Stalinists did their part, locating Nowa Huta near Krakow. The steel mill fumes damaged the city's ancient stones.

Evoking "crack whores" or batman's "kapow" -- and nothing else -- with Krakow suggests an underlying disrespect and denigration.

We all enjoy freedom of speech, and if this is what people choose to do, that's legal and acceptable. It is also legal and acceptable for me to point it out."

Two of the facebook folks who posted "jokes" about Krakow responded. They both said that I should "relax."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Do Germans Deserve Free Speech? Can They Handle Free Speech? Twitter Censorship

Norman Rockwell
As an American, I enjoy, and strongly support, freedom of speech. I love this counterintuitive quote from Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in the style of Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Previously on this blog, I talked about NPR's firing, and demonization, of commentator Juan Williams, after Williams admitted that he gets nervous when he sees passengers in Muslim garb on airplanes. In that blog entry, I argued that even those criticized benefit from the freedom of speech that makes criticism possible. That blog entry is here.

I was shocked when I first learned that many countries in Western Europe don't enjoy freedom of speech. That gave me a bad feeling. Was Germany still so prone to Nazism that it couldn't allow what I guessed was a small minority to express their Nazism?

I find it really weird and sad that England, where human rights took so many historic, celebrated giant steps, like the thirteenth-century Magna Carta, bars Michael Savage from entry – on the basis of Savage's criticism of Islam.

From Wikipedia

Of the banning of Michael Savage from entry into England, "the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, wrote: 'America still has a constitutional protection of free speech, and I have been amazed... to see how few people in England are willing to stick up for that elementary principle... a country once famous for free speech is now hysterically and expensively sensitive to anything that could be taken as a slight.' In The Guardian, Catherine Bennett wrote: 'The ban on Savage is so far from being a comprehensible act, so staggeringly capricious and stupid, as to defy evaluation.' While Sam Leith wrote: 'Barring this shock-jock from Britain risks turning a rabid blabbermouth into a beacon for free speech.'"

Oh, England. How sad for you that you have come to this.

And how about Germany, and Germans? Are they ready for free speech? Can they handle it? If not now, when?

The fear of those who institute bans on free speech seems to be that if bad ideas are allowed to be discussed openly, they will be so attractive that they will overpower good ideas.

Is that right? Isn't Nazism such a very bad idea that if it competes in the free marketplace of ideas, it will lose?

Or not? And, if not, why not?

Also, doesn't banning open discussion of some ideas make them immediately more attractive to some? Doesn't banning open discussion of some ideas protect those ideas from serious scrutiny? If you can't talk about an idea, you can't talk about how bad it is.

By the way, when I was in a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, recently, I attempted to access this blog. Initially, I could not. I received a message saying, "Access Denied. This page uses the word 'Sieg Heil.'" Those words do appear on the blog, but not in a laudatory way. I do not recommend that people greet each other using the words "Sieg Heil." The hotel computer's blocking of this blog demonstrates the clumsiness of internet censorship.

I did, though, find a way to get around that firewall. I posted the update from Madison from that very hotel computer that at first wanted to deny me access to my own blog.

A recent controversy over Twitter was covered in the New York Times. Below, excerpts from the Times article.

October 18, 2012
Twitter Blocks Germans' Access to Neo-Nazi Group

BERLIN — Twitter waded into potentially perilous territory on Thursday when it blocked users in Germany from access to the account of a neo-Nazi group that is banned by the government here.

The move was the first time that Twitter acted on a policy known as "country-withheld content," announced in January, in which it will block an account at the request of a government. But the company cracked open the gates to a complex new era in which it will increasingly have to referee legal challenges to the deluge of posts that has made the site so popular.

The company said the goal was to balance freedom of expression with compliance with local laws. "Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently," Alexander Macgillivray, the company's chief lawyer, wrote on Twitter.

A German spokesman for the company confirmed in an e-mail that it was the first time the policy had been used, although Twitter does not as a matter of policy announce government requests to block an account. In a "transparency report" issued earlier this year, the company said it had received six such requests but had not, for reasons it did not specify, acted upon them.

Uwe Schünemann, the interior minister for the state of Lower Saxony, where the neo-Nazi group is based, applauded the decision to block the Twitter feed, calling it in a statement "an important step."

Twitter neither shut down the group's account nor deleted the group's posts. It blocked them for users only in Germany, who see a message that reads "Blocked" and "This account has been withheld in Germany," along with a link to more information about the policy.

The decision to block the German feed was a relatively easy one, given that the group is banned and that the use of Nazi symbols and slogans can be criminally prosecuted. The more difficult question is how broadly and under what rules the policy will be applied by a company with users around the world.

Twitter employees are not combing through the hundreds of millions of messages posted each day searching for offensive material, but are responding only to government requests, beholden to free-expression laws in the countries in which it operates. That makes the company potentially subject to manipulation by authoritarian governments, rights advocates say.

"Where it really will be dangerous is in repressive regimes where Twitter is a very important means of communication between political dissenters, and where laws are interpreted by people who would interpret them in a politically biased fashion," said Svetlana Mintcheva, the director of programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship in New York. "What, for instance, if the president of Belarus decides to suppress the tweets of a theater company which is critical of him?"

Authoritarian governments may wish to stifle the voices of dissidents just as ardently as German officials hope to silence the extreme right. In some countries, religious leaders may seek to prohibit messages they deem to be blasphemous…

Full text of the article is here.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bieganski at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

On Thursday, October 18, 2012, I had the honor of presenting a talk about “Bieganski” at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I was a guest of the Mosse-Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies. There was a lively and heartfelt discussion after the talk. I enjoyed this trip tremendously, and this post will include a bit about Polish-Jewish relations, and a bit of the personal, as well.

I flew not long after surgery. I was a bit worried – would I measure up?

So far, everything has gone off without a hitch. I thank the many good people who sent prayers my way. I have felt no fatigue, neither while traveling nor while delivering the talk.

Prof. James P. Leary was key in inviting me to Madison. Prof. Leary is an Irish-American scholar who is a great friend to Polonia. After he became aware of my work several years ago, Prof. Leary contacted me and has been a stalwart supporter and warmhearted friend ever since. Unfortunately he is currently in Iceland, so we were unable to meet.

I was met at the airport by
Prof. Herbert S. Lewis, a scholar I greatly admire. Prof. Lewis is the author of “The Passion of Franz Boas.” I first contacted Prof. Lewis several years ago to ask him a question about Franz Boas, a scholar mentioned in “Bieganski.” We stopped for a delicious lunch of humus and couscous, and we talked about roots and identity. Prof. Lewis, like me, is from New Jersey, and he has some ancestry from Poland, and also England.

I mentioned that I tear up when I mention the Polish national anthem. Herb said the Hatikvah moves him to tears. I said it moves me to tears, as well, and of course we mentioned that it comes from a tune used by Bedrich Smetana, from my mother’s birthplace of Czechoslovakia.

The Jewish Studies Center’s very charming Kesha Weber shepherded me from the hotel to the speaking venue. I was introduced by
Rachel Brenner, who was born in Poland. She is the author of “Writing as Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust.”

I’ve spoken enough about Polish-Jewish relations to know that I needed to tell the audience that I was not going to say what they might have expected me to say.

The speaker on Polish-Jewish relations faces two challenges:

1.) Most people have never heard of Polish-Jewish relations, don’t care about the topic, and don’t realize that it has any significance to them whatsoever.

2.) Those who have heard about Polish-Jewish relations are, all too often, rabid partisans of one side or another.

I see my job as doing two things:

1.) I must address those in the audience who may not realize that the Polish-Jewish interface has universal significance. Not just because Auschwitz is in Poland. But because it is part of our job here as humans to figure out how to get along with each other, including those we define as “other.” The Polish-Jewish interface offers lessons on that, and this story is all too often distorted and abused, rather than used in the best way it could be.

2.) I must let those in the audience who are familiar with Polish-Jewish relations know that I am not going to say the predictable things that they may want me to say.

What predictable things do people expect?

One side will want me to say that Jews have suffered more than any other people on earth, and that Poles are the world’s worst anti-Semites.

I don’t say that.

The other side will want me to say that Poles are the most gloriously heroic people on earth, that they have suffered more than anyone, and that Polish anti-Semitism is no big deal. Oh, and: Kosciuszko! Pilsudski! Chopin!

I don’t say that.

If you’ve read, and understood, the book, and if you read this blog, you know exactly what I said. And you know that parts of it are hard to hear. Hard for Poles to hear. Hard for Jews to hear. Hard for anyone to hear.

I very much liked the reaction I received from the audience. From reading facial expressions, I had a sense that they hadn’t heard all this before, but they were following me, with open, intelligent minds, and with interest.

I asked how many people identified as Jewish, and how many identified as Polish. About a third of the audience raised their hands to the first question, and about a third to the second, leaving about a third identifying as neither.

That was very heartening to me. I was saying the same, hard things to Polonians, to Jews, and to members of neither group, and all were ready to listen, understand, care, and engage.

Given that reaction, I can’t help but think that the time is ripe and the opportunity is there for us – all of us who care about this – to seize this moment and CHANGE things. To name the Bieganski stereotype for what it is, understand it, and get past it. I can only hope that Polonia will consider doing this.

The question and answer period was lively and rewarding to me. People asked key questions.

A young lady with a slight Polish accent reported shock at what young Americans learn about Poland – that the Poles were more or less a minor version of the Nazis, that they never fought or suffered, that they murdered Jews just as the Nazis did.

A man wearing a yarmulke said that when he goes to baseball games in Chicago Polish fans throw popcorn at him and the police do nothing to intervene.

Mrs. Lewis chided me for making a sarcastic comment about my reaction to Germans. In my answer to her, I said that a post on this blog, Otto Gross’ “Ripples of Sin,” helped to change, not so much my mind, but my heart, about Germans.

Mrs. Lewis also mentioned that, just as we should not stereotype by ethnicity, we should not stereotype by socioeconomic class. I agreed strongly and mentioned the Ulma family, peasants, who sacrificed their lives and the lives of their children for saving Jews.

Two people asked similar questions Their gist: if more people encounter decent, white-collar Poles in real life, will that weaken the stereotype?

I said that when I was younger, like many people, I invested in the notion of human progress – that, as time goes on, people get better and better, and nasty things like stereotypes are defeated. Now that I’m older, I see that that is not the case. There is genocidal anti-Semitism loose in the world again today. One need only listen to the statements by the leader of Iran. Too, one of my informants told me clearly that the Poles she knows in real life are white collar professionals, but when she hears the world “Pole” she thinks of a working class person in rumpled clothing, dirt under the fingernails, no education.

After the lecture, I enjoyed Ethiopian food at Buraka with John Cash, an old friend from my days at IUB. John and I had not seen each other in seven years, and yet eating a meal with him felt completely natural. I thought about my essay “Never Be An Immigrant,” and reuniting with old friends in Poland in 2011 whom I had not seen in over twenty years. Those reunions, too, felt … natural. I guess the heart does not possess a stop watch.

The photo, above, is of an unexpected, surprising delight on this trip. I had a layover in Detroit. The photo is of a tunnel in the Detroit airport. The tunnel is lined with a curved screen on which amorphous, floating shapes in blues, pinks, purples, and occasional flashes of yellow flicker and dance. New Age music accompanies the visual display. It takes about five minutes to walk through this tunnel.

I applaud the airport for including this brief foray into a trance, dreamlike state for its travelers. I liked the tunnel so much I went back and walked through it a couple of more times, and I felt de-stressed and revived each time.

Human decisions and human will make up the human world. Polonia can decide to play its cards differently regarding the Bieganski stereotype. The audience in Madison showed the readiness of many Poles, Jews, and others for civil dialogue and a rejection of the Bieganski stereotype and a confrontational, enemy-approach. Those who would like to take action on this matter might want to read the three-part blog post on the Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Polaks and Papists in America by Richard Journey

All Photos Courtesy Richard Journey 

Polaks and Papists in America
Richard Journey

God was displeased with his favorites, the WASPS, or White Anglo Saxon Protestants. As punishment he sent poor Eastern and Southern Europeans to the shining city on the hill. As an upside these aliens were to do the dirty work in the mines, the steel mills, the factories and foundries.

My parents, as children, came to America in the early 1900s from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Poland did not exist as a nation during that time. In the late eighteenth century, it had been carved up by three major powers: Russia, Austria, and Prussia.

My father had a few years of Polish grade school in a Pennsylvania mining company town. As an adolescent he worked in the mines, unable to get further schooling or the vocational training that he wanted. He described how he and his father had to walk through the woods, avoiding the stone throwing by the Wasps, White Anglo Saxon Protestants. My father saw burning crosses, intimidation for the foreigners, for the Catholics.

His family eventually moved to Ohio, with his father and the other males working in factories. The family bought a lot in the country. There they were able to keep a cow, chickens, and have a garden in an area shared by other immigrants. Life had gotten better through their work in factories and foundries. Most of them moved to different parts of the country.

For years I thought that the immigration officials changed the family name. But I later found out that my father changed the name around 1942. We could be Polish without sounding too Polish. When we were young my parents did speak a secret language, Polish, not to let us know what they were saying. When very young I spoke with my Polish-speaking grandmother, and we seemed to understand each other. Now I regret that my parents did not speak Polish with us. I heard little Polish anywhere after those early years.

As a boy I thought that the Yalta agreement in which President FDR and Churchill gave Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe to Russian control showed the devaluing of the Slavic peoples. Stalinist Russia continued the same Nazi killing and enslavement of Poles and other Eastern Europeans. All contacts with our relatives in Poland were cut off with the iron curtain. I had heard that the Stalinist deportations had moved our relatives to Siberia. Recently my sister found relatives who had survived in the mountains of southern Poland.

In the US prejudice was shown in different ways including the countless Polish jokes. At least mobs were not burning down convents as they had years earlier. Our Protestant town did not have Asians or blacks or Hispanics. So the more recent immigrant groups like the Polish were at the bottom of the pecking order.

With our continuing integration into American life there remained more obviously the problem of a Catholic identification. I was Catholic, and prejudice against Catholics continued through the years, in attacks by Paul Blanshard in his 1953 book American Freedom and Catholic Power, by the POAU, Protestants and other Americans United for separation of church and state. Later even the Catholic presidential candidate JFK had to face an Inquisition, a board of Protestant ministers to find out if he could be trusted as a Catholic with the presidency. It was never clear what Protestants feared from Catholics. Did they think that the pope would send foreign Roman legions to conquer America? But Protestants have been fiercely oppositional to differences, to the Other. Protestants fiercely drove out the Mormons from state to state.

There seemed to be little reason for such a great fear of Catholics. I criticize Catholics for blending too well with the dominant culture, and not furnishing a critique of the problems in the culture. However there were the fathers Berrigan demonstrating against American wars, currently the Nuns on the Bus pushing for social justice, and the old Catholic worker movement with Dorothy Day, to mention a prophetic few. Today the church makes its own problems of abuse, authoritarianism, male supremacy, derogation of women, all helping form a cafeteria Catholicism, or leaving the church.

When I walked on the Rue Maitre Albert in Paris I realized that this referred to Albert the great, a Catholic in the 13th century's thriving intellectual life of the University of Paris. Greek and Roman philosophy and literature along with Arab and Jewish thought were, at that time, all coming into the great mix of Paris for the first time. Abelard mixed it up in his dialectical method. Aquinas tried for the great synthesis. My studies of Greek and Roman classics, along with classical and medieval philosophy were coming back to me on this street of the Latin Quarter.

Most Catholics adjusted, grew more professional, but were not adventuresome in the intellectual life. There were grounds to believe that Catholics were somewhat different. For instance, my studies in Husserl's phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre's philosophy helped in pursuing an alternative vision of psychology, a human science psychology. Most of this was not American in style, but continental European.

I don't know why being a Catholic was so important for me. Perhaps part of it was the prevailing hostility to Catholicism helping perpetuate a fortress mentality. The nuns walking through our Protestant downtown with medieval veils fluttering in the breeze were a testimony to the faith for me. Years later I felt pride in a Polish pope and the Solidarity movement working to bring down a communist dictatorship in Poland. Happy for that, I was yet disappointed that he unraveled some of the reforms of Vatican Council II. Sadly he suppressed another liberation movement, the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America.

These are my memories of times past; memories that crowded back when I visited the Polish Museum and Library on the Ile Saint Louis in Paris. There, we talked with a young beautiful Polish guide who has to return to the city of Krakow to continue her university training. Krakow is beautiful, but it is not Paris. We tried to console her. Her being in Paris made it plainer to me that Poland has entered the wider community of Europe. Gone are the days of the Bloodlands or borderlands when Nazis and Communists systematically oppressed and killed Polish and other Eastern European peoples.

The Polish Library, founded in 1838, is one of the biggest institutions in the whole world devoted to Polish culture. In it are the œuvres, remnants, and remembrances of notable Poles. Chopin's piano, for instance; the manuscripts and correspondence of famous Polish novelist, Adam Mickiewicz, a symbol of Polish national and cultural unity and the works of Boleslaw Biegas, a Polish sculptor, painter, and dramatist. It also has records of Polish migration.

In the Polish Museum, I was captivated by the works of Andrew Kreütz-Majewski, operatic and theatrical scenery designer, and professor of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. This man, born in the mid-1930s, had thrived in the most difficult circumstances of World War II and Communist Poland. I had never heard of him before and, curious, I googled his name and found this, a fitting description as unsettling and haunting as the effects of Majewski's works on me:

"Much like his painted works, his designs convey a strong sense of solitude and impermanence, an existential fear of death, and a sense of external threat that the artist projects by creating harsh theatrical, visual imagery that seems to issue from a singular sensitivity.

"Wartime experiences, images from childhood and youth contained in enduring fears and dreams, an oppressive claustrophobic obsession, all processed creatively, are reflected in enclosed spaces: walls, parks, walls without doors or windows, planes suspended overhead," wrote Agnieszka Koecher-Hensel.

All this conveys a sense of seclusion. Yet this is no safe asylum that protects one from the world outside. Rather, it is imprisonment without possibility of escape even though enclosures in Majewski's sets are always penetrated by a ray of light or possess an outlet'" (Source).

I believe I know, in my own way, how Majewski might have felt. Would knowing help me finally let go of it? Self-conscious about my past vulnerability to prejudice as alien Polak and papist, I realize that other groups face and have faced prejudice. Sadly, we will always have replacements for Polaks and papists. No problems there.

Richard Journey

Film Shines Light on Neo-Nazi Music Scene

Film Shines Light on Neo-Nazi Music Scene 
From The Local: Germany's News in English 


For much of this year, the German media has been awash with news of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi terrorist group thought to have murdered at least ten people over a decade. The NSU's existence only became public when two of their members committed suicide after police cornered them following a botched bank robbery.

Many media outlets treated the revelation as surprising new evidence of an armed far-right underground network, but one undercover journalist has been investigating the scene for years, filming footage from neo-Nazi concerts that showed a flourishing music scene and a growing readiness for violence.

Along with Ohlendorf, Thomas Kuban (an alias) made the footage into a documentary, which, other than being screened at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, is yet to receive widespread attention. The title of the film, “Blood Must Flow,” is taken from a track repeatedly played at concerts.

Kuban spent six years dressing as what he called a “typical fascist pig” and wangling invites to secret concerts, where he secretly caught images of braying crowds and hundreds of arms raised in the Sieg Heil salute. He risked his life every time, Ohlendorf told The Local.

Seeing hall after hall of self-declared “Aryan warriors” chanting along with lyrics like “we shit on the freedom of this Jewish republic,” – Kuban and Ohlendorf hoped to help open Germany's eyes to homegrown extremism and the role music plays in recruiting young people to the far-right.

In fact, the film shows a thriving neo-Nazi music industry. Over 100 records are released each year from around 30 specialist record labels and there are countless online shops where merchandise is sold along with the music…

Full text is here.
Thanks to John Cash for sending this in. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Polish Spy on To Tell the Truth

A Polish Spy appeared on the TV game show "To Tell the Truth" in 1963. You can watch the entire episode here

Many Polonians will especially appreciate what Tom Poston says at four minutes forty seconds into the video. 

Thank you to Chris Jaworski for sending this in. "Looking Down a Mineshaft," Chris' post about his Polish-American father, can be read here.

Chris is a hardcore marathoner, recently running one hundred hours straight through the mountains of Vermont. One of Chris' articles about his impressive running career can be found here

When Will Alan Dershowitz Change the Name of the Ford Foundation?

Ford Foundation Headquarters. Source.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A faked book used to facilitate the murder of Jews.
Half a million copies were funded and distributed by Henry Ford. 

I sent the following comments to Mike Kelly of

Three separate and important points must be made about the Chester Grabowski controversy.

First, Chester Grabowski is by no means representational of Polish-Americans or Polish-American culture. Those who support him insist that he is representational. They do this to align him with all Polonia, to speak as if he spoke for all Polonia. Some who criticize him would also like him to be representational of all Polonia. "See," they will want to say. "These Polaks are nothing but primitive anti-Semites."

This is not the case. Grabowski's fame and influence are limited to his immediate neighborhood and to his readers.

Most Polonians do not refer to Jews as Christ killers. Most Polonians do not find the KKK acceptable.

If you want to find Polonians typical of those engaged in Polish-Jewish dialogue today, look to people like Terese Pencak Schwartz, Polish by birth, Jewish by conversion, who publishes about non-Jews who suffered under the Nazis. There is a world of difference between her approach and that of Mr. Grabowski. Her work has reached more people.

In fact, the Polonians who do support Grabowski probably support him because of his help and his enthusiasm for Polish culture, not because of his anti-Semitic comments.

Second, as a Polish-American, I hope that the park is not named after Mr. Grabowski. I do not see him as a fit representative of Polonia.

There is a final point, though. Clifton is not a center of world power. Mr Grabowski was not a man who wielded a great deal of power. Most people ten miles from the park in question will never have heard of it. Alan Dershowitz vowed to drag the issue of the renaming of the park before the entire world. The renaming of a park in Clifton, NJ after a man who made anti-Semitic comments is not an event of world historical import.

Why, then, is Alan Dershowitz paying so much attention to this matter?

Polonians are troubled by what appears to them to be a double standard. To understand this double standard, please consider: Why isn't Alan Dershowitz attempting to change the name of the Ford Foundation? This foundation is named for Henry Ford, one of the most influential anti-Semites in American history.

Henry Ford's anti-Semitic activity included publishing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and manufacturing war materiel for Nazi Germany. Nowadays, though, "The Ford Foundation" is an unimpeachable, benign institution. No doubt we have sites named after Joseph P. Kennedy and Charles Lindbergh, other notorious American anti-Semites or supporters of Nazism. Why isn't Dershowitz going after these? The answer is twofold. One is that a Clifton park is easy pickings; the Ford Foundation is a multibillion dollar endowment.

The second answer is a bit more disturbing. As my book, "Bieganski," demonstrates, the Brute Polak image has been used to epitomize the archetypal hater. When Polaks hate, that hate is far more dangerous than others' hate.

While I object to it, I cannot deny that naming an obscure park in a little-known city after an anti-Semitic man – and not naming it in honor of his anti-Semitism, but in honor of his good works – would probably not harm anyone. Alan Dershowitz would probably admit the same. The troubling feature for Dershowitz, I suspect, is not so much Grabowski's career as Grabowski's ethnicity. His hate is Polish hate, and Polish hate is understood to be worse, more toxic, more hateful than the hate of men far more powerful and influential – people like Henry Ford.

It is this double standard that so vexes Polonians. When they become hot and bothered about Dershowitz's protest, for the most part, it is not because they are anti-Semites. Most are not. It is, rather, because they are tired of being demonized as Poles. Tired of being turned into the boogeyman. Until people like Dershowitz go after institutions like the Ford Foundation, named for a vastly more influential anti-Semite than Chester Grabowski, all Polonians have ample reason to cringe, and to resist.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Chester Grabowski's Anti-Semitism was NOT a Secret, Reports reports that Chester Grabowski's anti-Semitism was not a secret; those asked to endorse naming a Clifton park after him should have known all along. 

Full story here

Thanks to Otto Gross for sending this in. 

Please see the previous blog post for my take on this story, and its significance to Bieganski the Brute Polak stereotype. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Controversy over Renaming of NJ Park after Chester Grabowski; Alan Dershowitz Objects; Congressman Bill Pascrell Withdraws

When I tell people that my book "Bieganski" addresses Polish-Jewish relations, and they give me a blank stare, I wonder, anew, at the gap between the constant feud between Poles and Jews, and the rest of the world, often spinning blissfully oblivious of this controversy.

The Polish-Jewish feud is now affecting Clifton, New Jersey. Congressman Bill Pascrell and prominent lawyer Alan Dershowitz are involved.

There was an initiative to rename a park after Chester Grabowski, publisher of a Polish-American newspaper. Alan Dershowtiz caught wind of the initiative and alleged that Grabowski was an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. Congressman Bill Pascrell withdrew his support for the renaming of the park.

The full text of the article addressing the controversy can be found here.


The article alleges the following about Chester Grabowski:

That he said that only two million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

That he published an advertisement from the Ku Klux Klan.

That he hosted an event for John Tyndall, "A British politician known for neo-Nazi ideals."

That he said that the six pointed star on a dollar bill was a sign that Jews wanted to push to destroy Christianity.

At first, Democratic Congressman Bill Pascrell said that he supported Grabowski. The article quotes Pascrell as saying, "The Chester Grabowski I remember was not only a dedicated leader in his community, but a proud advocate for all Polish-Americans, who helped raise a great family who I deeply admire."

Celebrity Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz stepped in. He said that he would "bring it to the attention of the world" if Clifton renamed the park for Grabowski. "If the people of this fine city want to be known for revering a bigot like him, the world will know," he said. "I will bring it to the attention of the world. We will have pickets and protests and leaflets."


My thoughts, for what they are worth:

One: I grew up and live in the area. I have struggled against stereotyping of Poles all my life. When I was a little kid, I pestered area librarians to stock books about Poles. I harangued my teachers to include lessons about Poles. While living in the area, I published a book about stereotyping of Poles, "Bieganski." Jacky Grindrod, who works in Congressman Pascrell's office, is herself of Polish descent. She advised me on my work, and informed me of local people I should contact. She never mentioned Chester Grabowski to me.

I've had zero contact with Grabowski or any of the other people mentioned in the article. They've never contacted me about "Bieganski" or invited me to speak. I am dubious about the claim that they are having any kind of impact with whatever it is they are doing to promote Polonia or to fight stereotypes. If their work is known only among themselves, it can't be very effective.

Again, if Poles want to be effective, they need to overcome the Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision, described in this series of blog posts.

Two: If the allegations in the article are true, Grabowski was, in my estimation, an anti-Semite. I'm not comfortable passing that judgment on a man I never met who is not here to defend himself. But, again, if the article is true, it will not benefit Clifton or Polonia to name a park after him.

Three: Let's talk about the identity politics here.

Chester Grabowski is a relatively obscure figure. The park is not known outside its immediate area. Clifton is rarely in the news.

Certainly other places are named after highly imperfect people. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner who had six children by his slave, Sally Hemings. Yet we have countless schools and libraries named after this deeply flawed man.

If Alan Dershowitz had not gotten involved, no one would ever have heard of Chester Grabowski or this park.

Why would Alan Dershowitz, a national celebrity, about whom a Hollywood film was made, want to bring this very small, obscure, local story to the attention of the world? It is Dershowitz's effort that typifies the Bieganski stereotype.

If Garbowski was a hater, he was a small potatoes hater. His hate is being treated, by Dershowitz, as if it were of international significance.

In the Bieganski stereotype, Polish people's hate is weightier than other people's.

Quoting a previous blog entry:

In Willard Gaylin's 2004 book "Hatred: The Psychological Descent Into Violence," Gaylin attempts to illustrate human hatred for his reader. Gaylin does not turn to Al Qaeda terrorists, who had attacked the US just a few short years before, committing one of the most visually spectacular displays of hatred humanity had ever seen, and inaugurating the War on Terror. He doesn't turn to German Nazis as the epitome of hate. Rather, to illustrate pure hatred for his reader, to, as Gaylin puts it, engage in the courageous task of "confronting evil head-on," Gaylin turns to Poles, specifically Polish, Catholic peasants. They hold the key to understanding evil.

Alan Dershowitz wants to bring to the world's attention the hate of an obscure, deceased man in a town few have ever heard of, and the naming a park no one knows existed – because Polish Catholics are involved, and their hate is bigger, badder, weightier than anyone else's hate.

Please see a previous blog entry, with material sent in by Otto Gross. V-1 and V-2 Rockets, Mittlebau-Dora, and Wernher von Braun. Wernher von Braun was a member of the Nazi party. He exploited slave labor. He was unperturbed by piles of human corpses. And in the above-cited blog post, you can see a snapshot of Wernher von Braun schmoozing with America's most romanticized president, John F. Kennedy.

Wernher von Braun's hate is no big deal. He can be made into an American hero in the race to reach the moon.

Polish Home Army, or Armia Krajowa soldiers managed to provide allied intelligence with a V-2 rocket stolen from the Nazis. Did they ever schmooze with John F. Kennedy?

No, in fact they have been demonized.

The University of Missouri Press published a book, "They Were Just People," that states that the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army, was an anti-Semitic organization bent on killing Jews (206, 133). "The Polish underground in general and the AK in particular, displayed little interest in the Jews and certainly took no action to defend them … the AK was imbued with anti-Semitism" (206).

One author of that book, Bill Tammeus, is a liberal Protestant of German-American ethnicity. He is now a blogger at the National Catholic Reporter.

Why I mention this – too many Polonians blame the Jews for the Bieganski stereotype. In fact that stereotype is pervasive. Catholics and Protestants disseminate it.

And I mention this because we, Polonia, do nothing about it. "They Were Just People" is still available. Tammeus, who wrote this book, has been rewarded by a Catholic organization. And Polonia does nothing about it.

Other ethnic groups, who do organize, play the ethnicity politics game more expertly, and achieve different results.

Congressman Bill Pascrell said that he knew Grabowski and admired him. When confronted with the charge that Grabowski was an anti-Semite, Pascrell threw Grabowski under the bus.

Pascrell's district has one of the highest Muslim populations in the US. Has Pascrell similarly thrown Muslims under the bus? Even when their statements have been overtly anti-Semitic?

Please see articles here and here and here.

Full Disclosure: Bill Pascrell is my congressman, and I have voted for him. His office has been helpful to me and I admire him and his staff.

My point is simply this. Other ethnic groups are playing their cards differently than Polonians, and they are getting different results than Polonians do.

V-1 and V-2 Rockets, Wernher von Braun & Mittlebau-Dora

Otto quipped of this photo of former Nazi, subsequently NASA scientist, Wernher von Braun,
"You figure he'd know better than to hold his hand that way! How heil does it go?"
Source: Deutsche Welle
Von Braun and Kennedy. Wikipedia.

Otto Gross is interested in World War Two history and occasionally sends clippings to the blog.

Otto's previous blog entries, one about his father, a Nazi soldier, and another about Enigma, can be found here and here.

Otto sent along "The V-2: The First Space Rocket," from Deutsche Welle. From that article:

"Nazi propaganda named Pennemünde's rocket the wonder weapon. But instead of wonders, it brought death and destruction to many cities and countries. About 25,000 V-1 and V-2 missiles were fired on cities in Belgium, Britain and France. However, they couldn't change the course of war. During production, more than 20,000 people died - again, mostly laborers forced to work at the site. This means that production resulted in more victims than the bombing itself."

And Otto also sent along this webpage that addresses the forced labor at Pennemunde. From that page:

"A Polish slave-labour survivor of the Dora factory recalls how Wernher von Braun visited the works and seemed 'completely unperturbed' by the piles of corpses. Further evidence exposes the role played by Heinrich Lübke, the former West German federal president, as one of the organisers of Nazi slave labour at Peenemünde and at Dora. For decades, allegations by Communist East Germany that Lübke was a 'war criminal' were dismissed by West Germany as propaganda…

Polish intelligence officers who had been given the reports of tests of the V-1 and V-2 rockets from the Polish underground Home Army, notified the British that they knew where the experiments were conducted, and the British, confident that the Poles could do just about anything, asked if by any chance the Polish underground army could steal one of the V-2s and ship it to England. The Polish underground soldiers did exactly that: they stole the V-2 rocket, one of the most guarded secrets of the Third Reich. They had also stolen one of the earlier models of German rockets, the V-1, and sent it to England."

Here is the Wikipedia page on that Home Army or Armia Krajowa work on the V-2 rocket.

Von Braun was unperturbed by piles of corpses at Mittelbau-Dora. 
From Wikipedia: Supervised by American soldiers, German civilians from the town of Nordhausen bury the corpses of prisoners found at the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in mass graves. Rare colour photograph taken in 1945. 
Photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Friday, October 5, 2012

Protesting "Maus" by Dr. Linda Kornasky


"Maus" is a Pulitzer-Prize winning comic book about the Holocaust that depicts Poles as pigs. "Maus" is often used to teach students about the Holocaust.
Dr. Linda Kornasky responded to a previous blog entry about "Maus." That blog entry is here.
I asked Dr. Kornasky to allow me to post a guest blog entry about her experiences protesting "Maus." Her essay is below.

Protesting "Maus"
By Dr. Linda Kornasky

At Angelo State University (a university in Texas affiliated with Texas Tech University), I organized a protest against Art Spiegelman prior to and during his visit in February 2011, and I published this editorial article in my city’s newspaper: "Writer Spiegelman No Stranger to Controversy."

I was astounded by the outcome of this protest on many levels, but I was shocked most of all at the general indifference among those I spoke to about ethnic bigotry if it happens to be anti-Polish. Prior to Spiegelman’s visit, when I made my case for the protest to my colleagues, I compared the Polish pigs in Maus to the controversial chimpanzee depictions of black characters in the Memin Pinguin comic books popular in Mexico. Though my colleagues admitted immediately that depicting black people as apes is unethical, I faced a passive aggressive refusal to respond to the similarly unethical Polish pig depictions from many otherwise progressive people on my campus.

Some implied tentatively 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. (In 2001, Spiegelman himself offered this unpersuasive argument in “Pig Perplex,” published in Lingua Franca, July/August 2001, pp. 6-8, citing Warner Brothers’ Porky Pig.) However, Spiegelman's interview answers on my campus revealed that he did not intend his Polish pigs to be seen as cute or innocuous Porky-type pigs but rather as Nazi-collaborating, fascist pigs.

When Spiegelman was asked about the Polish pig controversy directly in a softball question from his interviewer, he initially said that the entire dispute was just a petty conflict that Harvey Pekar had started with him. He said that Pekar, a fellow graphic novelist of American Splendor fame, had objected to the depiction of Poles as pigs only because Pekar, who was of Polish Jewish heritage like Spiegelman, did not like that Spiegelman had taken over the position as the leading Jewish-American comic book writer. Ignoring all of the substantive criticisms that Pekar had made about the Polish pig depictions in his reviews of Maus in the The Comics Journal (see the December 1986 and April 1990 issues, pp. 54-57 and 27-34 respectively), Spiegelman clung to this ad hominem attack.

Next, during the interview Q & A when I asked him whether he thought it was possible that Poles and Polish Americans who were offended by his pig depictions might not necessarily be anti-Semitic, he angrily dismissed this idea, pronouncing it “silly.” Spiegelman told the audience that he had read a book that supposedly proved that the Poles in Nazi-occupied Poland 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, Spiegelman claimed, showed that most Poles resented not being able to carry out the Holocaust themselves.

Spiegelman then said he could not remember the author or the title of the book on which he based this slanderous claim, joking awkwardly that he has always accepted the fact that memory is imperfect. And he added that Polish objections to the pig depictions were, in his opinion, as stupid and politically suspect as a recent conservative Israeli cartoonist's objections to the Jewish mice depictions in Maus.

In response to his answer, I said that I personally could understand why his Israeli critics were offended by his using Hitler's rodent imagery in depicting Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Maus, as well as in some of his other graphic texts.

Since there were others in line waiting to ask their questions, I was not able to ask him the logical follow-up question: why would he need to rely on memory in making the claim about wartime Poles' alleged desire to carry out the Holocaust themselves? Anyone would presume that he would have had the citation written down in his lecture notes, given that he must have known there was a chance that he would want to refer to it in response to questions about the pig controversy.

Spiegelman made the audience uncomfortable when he was speaking about how stereotypical images function in graphic fiction and cartooning. On a big screen, 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 the Nazi image and the Jewish image. When the audience, made up mostly of students, gave the obvious answers—sexy and handsome–stereotypically Nazi and unattractive and scrawny–stereotypically Jewish—Spiegelman joked pointedly that he had figured there would be plenty of anti-Semites in Texas.

The students laughed nervously, and he apparently thought that he had thereby cleverly "deconstructed" these stereotypes, just as he has claimed that in Maus, he supposedly "deconstructs" Hitler's statements about Jewish "rodents" and Polish "swine." Somehow, according to his simplistic notion of deconstruction, simply being able to recognize ethnic and racial stereotyping constitutes racism.

Moreover, Spiegelman also revealed that he despises the civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton for being, he alleged, a "race baiter," and this ironic remark was met with an awkward murmur in the lecture hall since he had already been asked questions about the degree to which his book reinforces ethnic stereotypes of Poles. When an African American woman asked Spiegelman to elaborate about his disrespect for Rev. Sharpton, he quipped defensively, “It’s nothing personal.”

This quip was particularly telling. Spiegelman’s underlying message during his visit to my university seemed to be that taking slander against a race or ethnic group personally is ridiculously unsophisticated and dim-witted. Those who do so should be accused of being obsessed with maintaining a supposedly inane and outdated ideal once known as “the truth.” As he sees it, this ideal is one which truly intellectual deconstructionists, among whom he clearly believes himself to figure prominently, have given up long ago. A protest objecting to the pig depiction was merely, as it were, a case of “squealing” about an allegedly meaningless concern of 20th century history: assigning culpability for the Holocaust of nearly six million people.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

YES – See "In Darkness" – Even If You've Seen Other Holocaust Movies!


So many Holocaust movies: "Schindler's List," "The Reader," "Shoah," "Europa Europa."

I knew "In Darkness" would be frightening, depressing, and disturbing.

So, I didn't want to watch "In Darkness."

Big mistake. "In Darkness" is a masterpiece. It's better than "Schindler's List." Yes, it is disturbing to watch, but it is great art, and great art, even as it moves us to tears, rewards us. You already know about the horrors of the Holocaust. The gift of "In Darkness" is that it transports the viewer to a better realm, where the best of humanity shines in the worst darkness we humans have produced. That best of humanity is not just Socha, the rescuer, but the filmmakers who, through their art, tell the world Socha's story.

"In Darkness" has a verisimilitude, indeed a "darkness," that other Holocaust films do not. No one in this movie would look appropriate placed on a pedestal. Everyone here – Jews and rescuers – is a deeply flawed human being. The Jews hiding in the sewers look and act the way people hiding in sewers would look – filthy, hungry, and bedraggled; they are sometimes petty, jealous, and vengeful. The film is dark and claustrophobic. The Nazis are not sexy and thrilling. They are murderous scum. Not only do characters speak Polish, Yiddish, German, Ukrainian, and Russian, where appropriate, they also spoke Balak, a dialect typical of Poles living in Lwow. Krystyna Chiger, who survived the sewer, said she found the film so real it was hard to watch.

None of the actors are well known outside of Poland or Germany, so I was able to invest in them as the characters they were playing in a way that I could never invest in "Schindler's List," which, of course, featured big stars I'd seen in other films – Ralph Fiennes, the handsome lover from "The English Patient," was suddenly giving an Oscar-bait performance as a fat Nazi; Ben Kingsley was no longer Gandhi, but a Jew in a concentration camp.

Robert Wieckiewicz as Leopold Socha gives one of the very best, most absorbing, most believable film performances I have ever seen. Wieckiewicz is utterly believable as a petty thief who makes one right choice that leads him onto a path that awakens his soul. He starts out as a rough guy, an opportunist, who isn't ready to be as cruel as life invites him to be. The Nazis are paying bonuses to anyone who turns in Jews. Socha, already a petty criminal, who had initially helped Jews for money, could have made the choice to hand Jews over to the Nazis, for even more money. He didn't. He decided to do the next kind thing. And the next. And the next. And he becomes of the most moving, heroic people you will ever see onscreen. If Socha's entirely believable transformation doesn't make you cry … you are tougher than I am.

Benno Furmann is especially memorable as Mundek Margulies, one of the Jews who escapes to the sewers. Furmann has pale blue eyes that shine out intensely in the dark sewer scenes, communicating outrage, sorrow, panic, and caged macho. The tense dynamic between him and Socha electrifies their scenes. Theirs is a male-male relationship utterly beyond what any current Hollywood "buddy" movie could hope to portray.

Kinga Preis is quietly moving as Wanda Socha, Leopold's plump and freckled, earth-goddess wife. Maria Schrader as one of the Jewish women in hiding adds poignancy without doing anything showy. Michal Zurawski as Bortnik, a Ukrainian who does the dirty work for the Nazis, is very handsome sickening, and terrifying. You can see that Socha could have turned out like his old friend Bortnik. But, somehow, he didn't. Why? Because Bortnik was Ukrainian, not Polish – and thus treated differently by the Nazis? Because Bortnik was more handsome? We don't know. We just get the sense that before he made the one choice that set him on a path that would turn him into a beast, Bortnik was probably much like his old pal, Socha.

"In Darkness" is a feature film, not history lesson or a documentary, but for this viewer it dramatized aspects of the Holocaust, and of humanity, that other Holocaust films have failed to adequately address, or to address at all.

I've never seen a film that brought home to me so vividly the mass killings of Poles that Nazis carried out. Of course I know about these killings, but, as Joseph Stalin allegedly said, "One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." "In Darkness" depicts a mass hanging of randomly selected Polish civilians, killed in retaliation for the death of a German. This scene was orchestrated in such a way that it grabbed me as dry statistics on the page never have.

"In Darkness" defies revisionist histories of World War Two that insist that Poles did nothing to help Jews and that Poles were enjoying the high life during the Nazi occupation. "In Darkness" makes clear – Nazis treated Poles with special brutality. Dramatic tension is never lost, even as the viewer learns something he would never learn from something like "Schindler's List."

"In Darkness" focuses on a Pole who rescued Jews. This defies popular uses of the Brute Polak stereotype to rewrite World War Two history.

Never for one minute, though, does "In Darkness" stop being a big, involving, tense, movie-movie. You care about the characters. You are swept along by the action. You hold your breath during scenes of suspense. You root for success. You tear up when things go wrong. After all that has gone before, the final scene, as humble as it is, is overwhelming. This is just a great film. See it.