Danusha Goska

Danusha V. Goska, PhD, is a writer and scholar at William Paterson University. She has won the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Grant, the Halecki Award, and the Eva Kagan Kans award. She is an author of many books including Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype. 

This work addresses Bieganski, one stereotype of Poles. Other Eastern European, Christian, peasant-based populations are conflated under this stereotype, while Poles, given the size of their population and the location of Nazi death camps in Poland, remain the primary target - writes prof. Danusha V. Goska

Evidence that non-Poles are conflated with Poles is ample. In 1903, Dr. Allan J. McLaughlin, a public health administrator, attempted to explain all Slavic immigrants to America in terms of Poles. In 1976, scholar Michael Novak wrote that "Dumb Polak" jokes were directed against Slovak-Americans like him. "No one can tell us apart." In 1999, on television's "The Sopranos," an Italian-American said to a character from the Czech Republic, "Czechoslovakian? What's that? That's a type of Polak, right?" Borat, the most talked about film of 2006, conflated all Eastern European, Christian peasants into a character whose catchphrase, "Dzien dobry. Jak sie masz?" is Polish. 

In a 2008 London Times column, Giles Coren said that "Polack" immigrants, who "amuse themselves at Easter" by "locking Jews in the synagogue and setting fire to it," should "clear off out of" England. Coren cited accused war criminal Radovan Karadzic. Karadzic, as Times readers protested, was a Serb. In 2008-2009, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was accused of corruption. Though his name is obviously Serbian, Blagojevich was discussed, on various internet sites, using the following terms: "Polak politician," "Pollock," "THICK HEADED Polack," "a wop in polack clothing," "dumb Polack ass," "a Polack who thinks he's Huey Long," "Illinois sonofabitch Governor O'Polack," "Polack swine," and "Blago the POLACK."

Eastern European, peasant, Christian populations do share significant cultural, historic, political, and geological features. The word "Slav" does not cover the territory; Lithuanians, Romanians, and Hungarians are not Slavs. When speaking of Eastern European, Christian, peasants or peasant-descent populations, this author will use, sparingly, the term "Bohunk." This American coinage derives from a combination of "Bohemian" and "Hungarian." It is the only available term that refers to the group it designates.

In the stereotype in question, Poles are brutes. They possess the qualities of animals. They are physically strong, stupid, violent, fecund, anarchic, dirty, and especially hateful in a way that more evolved human beings are not. They are thuggishly, primitively nationalistic. The special hatefulness of Bieganski is epitomized by his Polish anti-Semitism. This stereotype relies on images of Eastern Europeans that have existed for centuries (Wolff), and has been produced, significantly, by Poles themselves, Jews, Germans, and Americans. Regardless of the actual status of the stereotyper, the stereotype reflects the perspective of someone relatively empowered, literate, urban, mobile, and mercantile observing relatively disempowered, oral, rural, poor, Eastern European Christian peasants. 

This stereotype relies for its power on a modern person's disgust and contempt for actual or imaginary qualities associated with peasantry: dirt, primitive dwellings, contact with animal dung, odiferousness, rootedness, powerlessness, sexual savagery, coarse social manners, and a lack of formal education or contact with the wider world and a concomitant lack of sophistication. Members of all social classes might display these qualities. In Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Golem, Count Bratislawski, though a nobleman, is a thug. He screams, spits in a man's face, and resorts to violence.

Bieganski is related to an American stereotype of rural and working class WASPs, variously identified as trailer trash, rednecks, white trash or hillbillies. Former WASP farm boy Edwin Markham's 1899 poem "The Man with a Hoe" economically conveys the terror and disgust that rural laborers arouse in their betters. Markham refers to the peasant depicted in Jean Francois Millet's controversial 1862 painting "The Man with a Hoe" as "stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox … a monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched … this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world." There has been some conflation of the white trash and Bieganski stereotypes. Oklahoma-born poet Lloyd Van Brunt referred to all of America's poor whites as the "the Polish-joke class." The films "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Monster's Ball" made their thuggish, working class, Southern characters Poles, though in reality there are relatively few Poles in the American South; most white Southern working people are WASPs. 

In 2008, during a closed fundraising event on Millionaire's Row in San Francisco, presidential candidate Barack Obama made comments widely interpreted to mean that Pennsylvania's and the Midwest's rural and working-class whites are particularly religious, unintelligent, racist, and dangerous. One blogger paraphrased Obama's comment as directed against: "Corncob-Smokin', Banjo-Strokin', Chicken-Chokin', Cousin-Pokin', Inbred, Hillbilly, Racist, Morons" (Ace). This list of attributes corresponds with the white trash, WASP stereotype. A frequently-cited essay understood Obama's comments as directed against Bohunks, a large percentage of Pennsylvania's and the Midwest's working class: "You're talking about white people who have neither the family connections nor the racial credentials to gain entrance to the world that you inhabit. Many of the people you're talking about are those whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe who came to these places to work in steel mills, coal mines, and factories" (Grabar).

"Bieganski" is the name of an anti-Semitic Polish character in American novelist William Styron's critically and popularly successful 1979 novel Sophie's Choice. The term is used here as one would use "Sambo" or "Shylock." Using the name of a grotesquely stereotyped fictional character helps to communicate that these are not images of real people, or even snapshots of representatives of real peoples, but, rather, the distorted brainchildren of their creators. Stereotypes of Poles and Jews interdigitate; their qualities are complementary opposites. Where Bieganski is poor, stupid and physically expressive, moneyed Shylock is excessively intelligent and inadequate in his meager physicality.

Bieganski is responsible for anti-Semitism; his vanquishing is a boon to humanity. Influential American comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) anachronistically defined anti-Semitism as "two thousand years of Polack kids whacking the shit out of us coming home from school" (John Cohen 30). Bruce imagined a world where all ethnicities could unite in brotherhood. Multicultural humanity would then turn on the real enemy: Poles. "It won't matter, it won't matter any more even if you are colored and I'm Jewish, and even if Fritz is Japanese, and Wong is Greek, because then…we're all gonna stick together – and beat up the Polacks!" (Bruce). Bieganski's peasant status explains his anti-Semitism. Bob, 59, an informant for this work, reported that "What I know [about Poland] is a history of anti-Semitism. I've read a fair amount about the Holocaust. The Painted Bird seemed to me to be about a very primitive folklife in Eastern Europe. I kind of used it as a way of understanding how people could be the way they were." Jerzy Kosinski's 1965 The Painted Bird was initially presented as a Holocaust memoir of bestial, violent, sexually perverse peasants tormenting a Jewish child. It was later revealed that the book was fiction.

In the racist expression of the Bieganski stereotype, no narrative arch is possible. When a Pole exhibits what appears to be positive or neutral attitudes or behaviors toward Jews, that must be understood as a temporary failure of his anti-Semitic essence fully to express itself. In 1997, Eva Hoffman, a Polish-born daughter of Holocaust survivors, wrote a "daring and generous" book (Lipton), Shtetl, that rejected stereotypes of Poles. Thomas Laqueur, Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor of History at U. C. Berkeley, not a historian of Polish-Jewish history but rather of masturbation, disparaged Hoffman's conciliatory work. Hoffman insisted that Polish anti-Semitism must be understood in the context of a complex history that included significant philo-Semitism. Laqueur was contemptuous. "Anti-semitism is not like a limp that affects every step. Even the most rabid anti-semites have moments of weakness … one cannot count on them" (Laqueur). Hoffman rejected Laqueur's essentializing – and corrected his historical errors (Hoffman letter).

In the evolutionary expression of the Bieganski stereotype, the worldview of universal human progress is applied. In this treatment, Bieganski is "medieval." He must "evolve" into a "modern" form. Universal human progress is the conviction that an unseen hand inexorably improves the world. It is associated with Auguste Comte, who theorized that humanity moved through three phases of progress with religion at the bottom and science at the top; with Karl Marx, who taught that history would inevitably create the worker's paradise; with Charles Darwin and evolution; and with E. B. Tylor, "The Father of Anthropology," who placed human beings on an evolutionary ladder, with religious peasants near the bottom, and who argued that all humans were evolving along the same unilineal ladder that would, eventually, mean their reaching the pinnacle of being something like himself, the fully evolved human, a secular, scientific, Victorian gentleman. As Bieganski has greater contact with the modern world, and evolves beyond his primitive, medieval identity, including his peasant status and his faith, he will abandon his anti-Semitism.

Examples of this understanding are legion. In a recent scholarly book, Joanna Michlic diagnoses a "backward looking, traditional, conservative, and 'folkish' type of religiosity" as having "retarded the development of Polish society" and prescribes a "forward-looking" "modern" approach typical of "Western liberal democracy" as antidote (268; 278-280). A Princeton University Press book depicts Eastern Europeans as mired in "myth," tending to "hearken back to old doctrines and visions," impatient with the "rational," and in need of Western, liberal "truth" (Powers 1080). As a reviewer of this "dark and unsettling" book put it, "Tismaneanu concludes that some Eastern European countries will evolve into some version of liberal democracy, while others may not" (Green emphasis added). Alina Cala reports that in a search for the roots of anti-Semitism, "In Polish folk culture the trail leads to Catholicism in its specific, plebian form" (17). 

In 2009, British actor Stephen Fry said, "there's been a history of rightwing Catholicism which has been deeply disturbing for those of us who know a little history and remember which side of the border Auschwitz was on." Historian Timothy Garton-Ash cited Fry because "the automatic equation of Poland with Catholicism, nationalism and antisemitism – and thence a slide to guilt by association with the Holocaust – is widespread" (Garton-Ash). Communism was on its deathbed, but still breathing, in 1989, when Walter Isaacson wrote in Time magazine that "there are no signs so far that Poland or Hungary will evolve toward a Western-style, genteel" political model (Isaacson emphasis added). In a review of Jan Tomasz Gross' Fear, Ira Rifkin, writing in Baltimore's Jewish Times weekly, approvingly quoted Gross' formulation of Poles as afflicted with a "'medieval prejudice' born of vile Christian fantasies about Jews." Dennis L. Harris, self-identified as an "Aware Jew," wrote in an Amazon review of Fear,

While today, [Poland's] younger generation is seemingly tolerant of jews and readily embrace the cultural trappings of Judaism, i.e the Klezmer festival held each year in Krakow and the 'jewish' style restaurants, stores etc. run by non-jews, one gets the feeling that not far below the surface could be a very strong return to anti-semitism and the accompaning violence. This book should be read by anyone who thinks that the Holacaust could never, ever happen again. Once one travels away from the major cities, local life has remaines much as it was 50, 60, 70 years ago. (Harris)

In Harris' view, the location of peasant villages in the past indicates that they are likely sites of anti-Semitism, which, in this worldview, is of the past. Descriptions of Poland as "medieval" are not limited to post-Holocaust discourse. In the 1930s, organized American Jews petitioned the American government to intervene in Poland, which, they said, exhibited "the barbarism of the Middle Ages." The Federation of Polish Jews in America used "medieval" in a discussion of Polish-Jewish relations (Kapiszewski 160, 220).

The reflective reader will recognize several things wrong with the model that locates anti-Semitism in the past and that associates passing time and exposure to, or imitation of, the West with inevitable improvement. The medieval, 1264 Statute of Kalisz, issued by Polish Duke Boleslaus the Pious, encoding Jewish rights, showed "an awareness of the vulnerabilities and the needs felt by a small subject group which is sophisticated even by contemporary standards." Eva Hoffman described it as "a set of laws that could serve as an exemplary statement of minority rights today" (Hoffman Shtetl 30-1). In 1414, the Catholic Pole Pawel Wlodkowic argued for the rights of Pagan tribes in Christian lands. The 1573 Warsaw Confederation declared religious freedom. Poland was not a significant site of blood libels during the Middle Ages. Blood libel trials reached Poland from the West and increased during, and decreased after, the Enlightenment (Tazbir 236, 239). Nazism first took root, not in a Polish peasant village, but in Germany's Weimar Republic, a Western, liberal, modern democracy. Nazism was facilitated by modern technology, from the pesticide Zyklon B to IBM's punch card system. Clearly, the evolutionary model is inadequate to describe, or to provide solutions for, the problem at hand.

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.

"Why must we use the word 'stereotype'?" a reader might ask. "Are we not discussing objective reality? Aren't Jews – disproportionately represented among doctors, lawyers, financiers and Nobel Prize winners – simply smarter? Aren't Poles, once peasants in their own country and often manual laborers in America, simply stupider? Poles did victimize Jews! Talk of stereotyping is a ruse to avoid responsibility!"

As terrifically convincing as such othering – the process of declaring, "we are quality x, they are quality not-x" – is – folkloric research exposes it as a fallacy. John Lindow has shown that Scandinavians lived in an ethnically homogenous environment. Like Poles and Jews, Scandinavians were convinced that their ethnicity was best defined through contrast with a neighboring people who were the exact opposite of Scandinavians. While Scandinavians were clean, sexually well ordered, and hard working, their neighbors, their ethnic other of choice, were dirty, sexually profligate, and lazy. Who were these neighboring people? Trolls, and other supernatural beings, who were understood to be quite real. "Supernatural beings enjoyed an empirical existence and were probably ... more real to many people than, say ... the King of England ... What mattered, apparently, was the primary distinction between one's own group and everything outside of that group" (21).

Bieganski is as real as a troll. Lauren, a Jewish-American graduate student in her twenties, and an informant for this work, showed an awareness of the importance of images over reality.

Jews do seem to consider themselves smarter than gentiles, both in the "intellectual" sense and in basic common sense. A "goyisha kup" ("gentile head") implies that someone is not too smart ... I would have characterized Poles as big, beefy people, not overly educated ... my image of Poles throughout my life could be characterized as an urban version of well-to-do peasants (always working class, very blue-collar), but my actual experience of Poles from Poland as a college instructor showed them to be quite sophisticated and highly educated.

There is a group of people who, significantly, consider Poles as "backward outsiders," undesirable and unimportant. Members of this group, in significant numbers, consider Poles to have victimized them during and after World War Two, and demand that Poles confess, apologize, and make amends for this mistreatment before closer relationships can be established. Members of this group look with disapproval on Poles' religiosity because "Catholicism is an obstacle to modernization." Members of this group condemn Poles as being disrespectful of minorities. The group in question? Germans (Falkowski). The nation that colonized Poland for over a hundred years, and then all but destroyed Poland during World War Two, is a significant source of the Bieganski stereotype. Stereotypes do not scrupulously follow the laws of logic.

It might be helpful to discuss the goal of this document in terms of one of the most world-famous incidences of stereotyping, that of African Americans. One thinks of the 1995 O. J. Simpson verdict. Most white Americans concluded that Simpson was guilty of murdering his wife, and most feared that Simpson would "play the race card" and exploit an image of himself, an African American, as a victim of white supremacy to avoid facing consequences for his crimes. That a member of a race that has been stereotyped can, at the same time that he is a victim, also be a victimizer, was aptly summed up in a phrase many used to express their dismay over the handling of the O. J. case: the L. A. police "framed a guilty man" (PBS Frontline O.J.).

Statistics show that African Americans commit more violent crimes than white Americans. Some choose to interpret that statistic as indicative of a violent African American racial essence. That understanding is incorrect, and makes the problem at hand – high crime rates among African Americans – worse rather than better. Quantifiable differences between ethnic groups aren't best attributed to any fixed or exclusive national character. Rather, these differences are the differences between expressions of universally human behaviors as fashioned by changing and changeable human choices that, in turn, are fashioned by circumstance. The most illuminating approach understands high African American crime rates in the context of a history of exploitation. Any group that was similarly exploited might produce an unusually high crime rate. This approach echoes the proverb, "Walk a mile in my shoes," and asks, "What might I do in similar circumstances?" In this understanding, addressing exploitation, not inventing a posited flawed racial essence, is one key to addressing the problem.

The solution to black crime is not to state, "African Americans were slaves a century and a half ago; therefore, nothing can be done about current crime statistics." Pathological responses to victimization are often imbedded in culture. Songs, costumes, language and rituals arise that celebrate anti-social behavior. Culture becomes a circumstance that abets a given behavior. Those hoping to lessen black crime rates must not focus exclusively on past exploitation, but also on present cultural prods to anti-social behavior.

At the same time, black criminality must be understood as a particular expression of a universal human tendency that, while, as statistics indicate, is expressed differently in non-black populations, is, nonetheless, expressed. While blacks do commit more violent crime than whites, powerful white men have also committed "white collar" crimes. The impetus to behave in an anti-social manner is not limited to any given population.

The stereotyping of Poles is analogous to the stereotyping of African Americans in this respect: yes, Poles have done very bad things. The focus of this document is Bieganski – the understanding of evil acts by Poles in terms of a stereotype, a stereotype that insists that Polish crimes are expressions of a debased Polish racial or cultural essence. This work's acknowledgement that there is a stereotype of Poles is not part of any effort to deny Polish culpability. At the same time that this work suggests that the reader "walk a mile in the Poles' shoes," and consider, for example, the devastating impact of one circumstance – the Nazi and Soviet invasions – this work also insists that Poles must work to extirpate another circumstance – pathological anti-Semitism that has become imbedded in Polish culture, in, for example, the blood libel.

Having rejected the Bieganski model, one must identify other understandings of Polish-Jewish relations. One scholarly attempt to understand Polish behavior in the light of Polish circumstances is Edna Bonacich's work on middleman minorities. Similar economic models have been developed and elaborated, apparently independently, by Davies, Hertz, Shahak, Zienkowska, and Zuk. Most recently, Amy Chua's work on market dominant minorities has echoed all. This author's acceptance of the middleman minority theory has this impact on this work: focus on the economic features that are often airbrushed out of discussions of outbreaks of anti-Semitism among Poles.

See the rest of the text: http://bieganski-the-blog.blogspot.com/2018/02/bieganski-brute-polak-stereotype.html