Saturday, April 13, 2013

Giving Polish Books Away


This Saturday morning, I am packing up Polish books to give them away.

I remember buying these books when I was a grad student, struggling with a chronic illness, making no money, collecting socks on the street and food at food banks.

The books are all about Poland, about folk art in Poland, women in Poland, Jewish poets in Poland – not exactly bestsellers. These books are the kind of hardcover, obscure university press books that cost an arm and a leg.

I would spend as much on one of these books as I would spend on food for two weeks.

I prized these books. I coddled these books. When I had to move from one temporary grad student squat to another, these books were my first and my last thought.

These books were the future. The future for which I was sacrificing everything.

Someday I'd be a PhD. Someday I'd teach classes about my loves in Polish culture. Someday I'd share the contents of these books with my students.

I worked for that moment. I got straight A's, of course, even though my working class, Polish Catholic, immigrant perspectives often irritated my professors. I published in the right peer-reviewed journals. I presented papers. I was invited to speak. I published my dissertation and it won an award.

But someday never came. I teach college, part time. My identity, and my dissertation on Polish matters, is not attractive to any academic employers seeking fulltime employees. I love what I teach. I'm happy and honored to teach creative writing, women in film, Greek mythology, Caribbean literature, African American history, the New England transcendentalists… I'm happy to teach all those and more.


I've never had, and I now must admit I never will have, a chance to teach a class in anything Polish. The institutions for which I teach are not much interested in anything having anything to do with Poland. Why should they be? No one in Polonia has ever made the case to them that study of anything Polish, from Polish American immigrant literature like the poetry of coal miner poet Anton Piotrowski, to the Polish experience of WW II, to what wisdom Polish-Jewish relations has to offer a world that is "hot, flat, and crowded" – no one in Polonia is making the case to the wider world, including academic employers, that this matters. I propose courses, and they go nowhere.

I wrote to a well-placed Polish American academic. I've tried just about everything, I said. I would give my eye teeth to teach what I gave my life to. Polish matters.

The response I received: What do you think I am, an employment agency? Don't bother me.

So, I'm packing up these books I bought when I was a grad student.

I'm sending them to a beautiful human being I met in Poland in 2011. This person is young and hopeful, utterly unconstrained by the "mind-forged manacles" that haunt so much of Polonia. If change comes, if Polonia's story becomes standard in education, as it should be, people like this will make that happen.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Is Bieganski the Brute Polak Tantamount to Holocaust Denial?

Art by Jan Komski, Polish Auschwitz prisoner and artist. Please visit his website here

Polish-American poet John Guzlowski posted an essay about his father's liberation from the Buchenwald concentration camp. John posted this at the Open Salon website. An excerpt:

"My father was a prisoner in this camp for four years.  He was just a Polish farm boy, and he was captured when he went into his village to buy a piece of rope one Saturday.  The Germans had surrounded the village and were rounding up men and boys to go to Buchenwald and work in the factories there.

A lot of times when we think of Concentration Camps we imagine the death camps the Germans built in Poland where the primary business was killing large numbers of civilians.  Buchenwald wasn’t a death camp.  Millions did not die there, burned in the ovens, their ashes scattered in ponds where the water is still gray 70 years later.  But they did die there.  About one out four people died each year.

What did they die of in Buchenwald?

Mainly starvation.  Fifty years later, my dad could still remember the hunger he felt.  He did hard labor 6 and even 7 days a week, 12 and 14 hour days, on a handful of food a day.  I’ve read accounts of what the men ate.  It came to about 600 calories a day. How much is that?  A Big Mac with Cheese is about 700 calories.  A Big Mac without cheese is 600.  But what my dad ate wasn’t a Big Mac."

A member of Open Salon, going by the internet handle "Koshersalaami," wrote in response to John's essay. Koshersalaami said,

"On Sunday night I was asked by my rabbi to play Hatikvah on piano for our area's Yom Hashoah (Holocaust rememberance day) service. (The service was Sunday night; he asked me a week earlier.)A survivor was our guest speaker. He was, like a member of our congregation who is now on something called the March of the Living, where Jewish teenagers go to Auschwitz-Birkenau for Yom Hashoah and then to Israel for Israeli Independence Day, someone who as a young teenager was transfered around a lot and saw the inside of a lot of camps. What he described was utterly horrific, and I say that as someone who has heard many of these stories before.

So I have a question for you:

For Jews, Holocaust denial is a very big deal, such as when guys like Ahmedinejad of Iran host Holocaust denial conferences. Your history with the Holocaust is from a somewhat different direction - forced labor while being starved and abused as opposed to mass extermination up front. (Jews actually dealt with both, depending on who was lucky enough to be routed to forced labor as opposed to the wrong kind of showers - I learned the other night that some facilities had both kinds of showers and those taking them didn't always know which kind they'd been herded into.)

My question is: Do you feel targeted by Holocaust denial? I realize it's a strange question, but I don't know, because many deniers these days do so in a peculiar attempt to delegitimize Israel, and I just don't know how that translates to other victimized populations."

I responded to Koshersalaami's post:

I felt a strong urge to respond to koshersalaami who wrote, "For Jews, Holocaust denial is a very big deal…My question is: Do you feel targeted by Holocaust denial?"

I was very touched by this as it shows a great deal of thought and compassion on the poster's part.

My book "Bieganski" includes brief biographical statements by John Guzlowski. In introducing John in the book, I wrote, "John Guzlowski's Polish Catholic grandmother, aunt, and cousin were murdered by Nazis and Ukrainians. They raped John's Aunt Sophie and broke her teeth; they stomped his cousin to death. With his bayonet, a Nazi sexually mutilated John's Aunt Genia. John's parents were Nazi slave laborers; his father was in Buchenwald. John was born in a displaced persons camp after World War II."

This introduction haunted me. It haunted me not because of the horror. It haunted me because I felt NO horror while writing it. I wrote that intro with as little passion as I might write, "pick up milk, eggs, and bread" in a note to myself.

In writing "Bieganski," I was steeped in the agony of the Polish people under German Nazis. By the time I arrived at handling John's contribution to the book, toward the end of the book and the writing process, I was numbed by horror.

Is denial of Poland's WW II agony immoral? Is it tantamount to Holocaust denial? Does denial of Poland's agony distort world history and important ethical questions? Does distortion of Poland's WW II history cause us to fail in our duty to understand Nazism?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

That's not the least of it. Not only is Poland's martyrdom all but unknown. Something even worse is happening. Poles have been scapegoated. In many television shows, films, and peer reviewed scholarly publications, Polish Catholic peasants have been inserted where German Nazis belong. This substitution is occurring for complex narratological reasons, all explained in my book.

When I was working on "Bieganski," I really thought that there was someone out there who was doing this to us. Someone, or someones, some empowered entities, were distorting our history. After years of work on these issues, I realized that some external enemy is not the problem.

Rather, Polonia – Poles and their descendants now living throughout the world – is not doing the work of telling this story. We need to unite, organize, and support each other. We need to tell our story to new audiences, and in new ways.

We are not doing that. Why? Again, the reasons are complex. One hundred years ago, most Poles were peasants. The majority were illiterate. My grandmother never learned to read or write. While most Poles today are not illiterate peasants, we don't have a tradition of sophisticated engagement with books, media, authors, and scholarships. Rather, we have a tradition of fearing and being suspicious of them.

I once met a man who expressed outrage to me at how Poles are misrepresented and how Polish history remains unknown. I immediately advised him to read buy and read John Guzlowski's books. The man practically spat. "I've decided that buying and reading books doesn't do any good. I want to do something that has impact."

That anti-book, anti-author attitude does not help Polonia. Too, Poles have been invaded by others who used "divide and conquer," and all too often, Poles have found it easier to attack each other than to unite to each any goal.

In response to my blog, Polonians sent me outraged emails about university press books that distort Polish WW II history, museums that distort Polish WW II history. Newspaper articles and television shows. The outrage is high. On almost none of these matters did I witness any progress. The organization and effectiveness is low.

This matters, as koshersalaami intuited. The distortion of World War II in Poland, what I call the Bieganski the Brute Polak stereotype, matters to everyone. The stereotype of Poles is used to misrepresent WW II history. People really don't understand Nazism, or the genocide of the Jews, and they should.

I hope and pray for the day when Polonia unites, supports its own writers and scholars, and tells its story to the world, as John Guzlowski so effectively, and movingly, does.

Link to John Guzlowski's essay at Open Salon is here