Thursday, April 17, 2014

Polish Stereotypes: Stupid, Drunks, Anti-Semites, Humorless, Religious Zealots, Communists

Available at Amazon here
Brett sent in a link to a webpage by "Snarky Nomad" entitled "Six Big Polish Stereotypes that are Kinda Silly." The six stereotypes are that Poles are stupid, drunks, religious zealots, humorless, communists, and anti-Semites. You can read Snarky Nomad's blog post on Polish Stereotypes here.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Brandeis, Bieganski, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and CAIR

Theo Van Gogh, Martyr
On November 3, 2011, I spoke about Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype at Brandeis University. I reported on that experience in this blog post. Given Brandeis' noble history, its resistance to American quotas on Jewish students in higher education and its establishment so soon after the Holocaust, I was proud and honored to speak at Brandeis.

Recently Brandeis was about to offer an honorary degree to one of my heroes, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. You can read my Amazon review of her book "Infidel" here.

CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, complained. CAIR's Ibrahim Hooper compared Ayaan Hirsi Ali to the Nazis.

Brandeis University caved. They rescinded their offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

It goes without saying that Brandeis University's cowardly capitulation is disgraceful and even frightening. One can't help but think of that sliding scale of appeasement so aptly encapsulated by Martin Niemoller: "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me."

Ayaan Hirsi Ali lives her life surrounded by armed guards. She lives under constant threat of death because she has spoken plainly about Islamic gender apartheid. Ten years ago she made a short film, "Submission," with Theo Van Gogh about Islamic gender apartheid. A Muslim assassin named Mohammed shot Van Gogh, stabbed him, cut his throat, and, using a knife, pinned a note to his chest threatening to murder anyone else who spoke out against Islamic gender apartheid.

That is the thuggery that once noble Brandeis caved in to.


What does any of this have to do with Polonia and Bieganski?

I've been involved with Polish-Jewish issues for a quarter of a century. I cannot count the number of times I have heard Polonians complain about being stereotyped as brutes, about the distortion of WW II and Holocaust history, and about how the Polonian story is not told.

I have watched Polonians writhe in agony as wave after wave of stereotyping crashes over them: in the wake of "Neighbors," in the wake of "Fear," in the wake of films like "Schindler's List."

I have yet to see Polonians support each other, unite, organize, and act strategically to change things on a national scale.

Muslims have not been in the United States for a long time. Their presence here is largely a post-1965 phenomenon. According to Wikipedia, Muslims are less than one percent of the US population. Obviously, not all Muslims agree with CAIR.

Consider: in spite of a relatively brief presence in the US, in spite of their small population, in spite of not all Muslims being in agreement, CAIR is able to manipulate and demand the surrender of a large, prestigious, Jewish university.

Polonia can't even register its agonized outrage when heroes like Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and Maximilian Kolbe are maligned as anti-Semites, and when heroes like Witold Pilecki go unmentioned and unknown.

Polonia, please organize. Please read and act upon the blog post entitled: "The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision, which you can read at this link.

You can tell Brandeis University what you think of their cowardice on their facebook page, linked here.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"A Woman's Role" by Carol Moessinger. Book Review

"A Woman's Role" by Carol Moessinger is a heartfelt memoir of a place, a people, and a time too little treated in the American literary canon, or in films, academia, or the wider popular culture. "A Woman's Role" introduces the reader to "Bohunk" immigrants and their descendants working Pennsylvania's coal mines in the 1950s. These people were Polish, Hungarian, Slovak, Lithuanian, and other peasants from Eastern Europe. I want every Polish American to buy and read this book, but I also want those curious about a slice of America that they haven't learned about from school, films or other novels to read "A Woman's Role."

"A Woman's Role" follows the life of young Celina Pasniewska. Celina is the granddaughter of a Polish peasant immigrant woman. Her father and her brother are coal miners. Her mother is a workhorse who cooks on a coal stove, cans produce and keeps chickens and pigs.

Celina dreams of a life beyond her coal town. Her dreams have no easy or obvious route to realization. Her parents insist that she work at home as well as at her place of paid employment, Duxbury's Department store. Tomas, Celina's father, orders her about like a maid: make coffee; bring me ham. Her mother relies on her to be her helper. Her mother insists that Celina must not move away. Local men find Celina attractive, and if she marries them, she will never leave her hometown.

Celina is a Bohunk, and, as such, she is not a "Johnny Bull," someone descended from the British Isles. Some look down on her for that. Too, Celina is a woman in the 1950s, when America was retiring Rosie the Riveter and women were expected to be domestic goddesses. Celina must navigate her desire for love and romance, her thirst for an intellectual life, her craving to be free and independent, her traditional Polish Catholic immigrant family and their demands, and her heartache over a lost love. Celina's boyfriend died while serving in the US military in Korea.

"A Woman's Role"'s cover calls the book "a 1950s romance." I think some will read it, and enjoy it, that way. I see the book differently, though. To me it read like a memoir of a small town Polish girl. Romance is part of the book, but it isn't the largest part. And men will enjoy this book every bit as much as women. Celina is the main character, but her father is a believable coal mining man. His struggle for dignity and satisfaction in life is as important as Celina's.

"A Woman's Role" has the episodic structure of a memoir. Events are strung out like beads; each event teaches the reader something about what life was like for an ambitious Polish American woman in the 1950s. Celina has that conversation with her mother about her hopes for the future versus her mother's hopes – they are irreconcilable, and one woman's hopes must give way so that the other's may be realized. Will it be the younger, or the older? Celina experiences workplace harassment, and workplace diminishment because she is a woman, and because she is a Bohunk. There is a Polish wedding – the community's greatest joy; there is a mine accident – its greatest dread.

"A Woman's Role" is written in a straightforward, highly accessible style. I would recommend this book not only to adults, but also to young adult readers. It does not exercise high literary ambitions. This is a book that wants to connect with the reader and make its message plain on a first read.

Moessinger's great gift is vivid description, for example this passage, "The faint scent of incense and milted bees wax candles clung to the church's cool, dimply lit sanctuary. The cavernous, echoing sacredness of the place encouraged the parishioners to speak in hushed whispers. Celina genuflected and slid into the pew beside her parents as dappled beams of colored light streamed through the figures of angels and saints frozen in the stained glass."

The ethnographic details of the book made certain scenes most memorable to me. Moessinger brings to life a 1950s era Bohunk kitchen. There is the coal stove, the damper, the process of taking a season's harvest of apples and reducing them to apple sauce. Three generations of Polish women, and a family friend, sit around the table peeling and coring apples. The son takes the cores and peels out to the family pig.

Moessinger's characters refer to Americans whose ancestors came from the British Isles – their coal town's more privileged citizens – as "John Bulls." My father was a Polish American coal miner when he was a child. He didn't mine for long – he hated it. Children like my dad were used because mine bosses want to exploit the shortest tunnels possible, tunnels into which only children could fit. My father called Americans of British descent "Johnny Bulls."

There is a scene that touched me especially deeply. Celina's mother orders and begs her daughter not to move away from their coal town. She talks about the loneliness of having grown up with no grandparents, no aunts nor uncles. Her parents had left Poland, alone, and started new lives in America. Her father had lost one brother who, upon emigrating from Poland with his brother, went to South America. That brother was never heard from again. This passage touched me deeply, as I, too, grew up without real grandparents. My surviving grandparents never learned English, and I had little contact with them. I also had Old Country relatives I heard tales about, but never met.

For me this book, given its episodic structure, lacked a strong plot drive. I'm not sure the novel is Moessinger's strongest genre. Given her obvious ethnography knowledge, and her urge to educate – there are brief but strongly didactic passages – I think Moessinger's next literary project should be a straightforward ethnography. 

Buy "A Woman's Role" at Amazon, here.

Reshat Ametov In Memorium

Read more about Reshat Ametov here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" Bieganski is Not a Resident!

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is remarkable; it's a recent American film that salutes Mitteleuropa. Surprisingly, there are no Bieganskis at this hotel. There are no stereotypically evil Eastern European characters. Review below.

My Aunt Tetka lived most of her 101 years in Bayonne, New Jersey but she never learned to speak English well at all. Who needed The New York Times, Kennedy's inauguration speech, or William Shakespeare? Aunt Tetka could sing all one hundred verses of Slovak folksongs.

Visiting Aunt Tetka was a trip to another world, a world she took with her when she (finally!) died. There were many curtains. The air was inside her home was as thick as soup. It smelled sweet, like Uncle Strecko's pipe smoke, and pungent, of cabbage, onions, and ham. There were sepia photographs of grim faced men with serious mustaches and women in embroidered babushkas, oil paintings of peasant huts and high mountains, figurines of goose girls, brass ornaments incised with pagan sun symbols and a graphic crucified Christ. Aunt Tetka consumed only pastries, sprinkled with powdered sugar, served on handmade doilies. Five minutes into Wes Anderson 2014 film "The Grand Budapest Hotel," I was weeping. Anderson took me back to Aunt Tetka.

Mitteleuropa means "Central Europe" in German. Mitteleuropa has had many meanings, some of them frightening, geopolitical, and military. The friendlier Mitteleuropa references musics, languages, cuisines, colors and attitudes of Central Europe, an area stretching roughly from Germany to Ukraine, from the Baltics to the Balkans, a region sharing slivovice, zither and cimbalom, Gypsies, irony, pastry, sentiment, Catholicism, Judaism Orthodoxy, empire and cataclysm. Given recent news events, Mitteleuropa is much in the news: today we speak again of Cossacks, Crimea, and empire.

There aren't many American films that encapsulate the feel of Mitteleuropa. "The Third Man" comes to mind, with its famous zither score. There's the original Bela Lugosi "Dracula" and "Fiddler on the Roof." Most of these films emphasize the dark side of the region, and that's too bad. Mitteleuropa has a rich tradition of joy and humor. It's remarkable that Anderson, an all-American filmmaker produced "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

When watching this film, I really wondered how much of it the audience would understand. GBH so tenderly reflects the peculiar history and experience of Mitteleuropa. For example, the movie is told as a reminiscence by a writer remembering an encounter from his youth with another person who retells the life story of yet another person. Why this "as told to as told to" feature? Why not just present the narrative directly?

The "as told to as told to" feature adds to the feeling of a lost world, of the antique, of a word-of-mouth story that is not reflected accurately in official histories. If you read the official histories of Mitteleuropa in the 20th century, you read of battles and massacres. If you know the people from Mitteleuropa, you encounter warmth and humanity and fate and humor and hair's breadth escapes and moments of generosity and grace that never made it into official histories. If you hadn't gone to that one déclassé health spa in the Zubrowkian Alps, you never would have met that one person, and never learned the story of Monsieur Gustav, and the tiny nation of Zubrowka would always be a mystery to you.

The opening scenes, in rapid succession, show the Grand Budapest Hotel under communism, and then in its glory days, under something like the Hapsburg Empire. These very brief juxtapositions are brilliant. They really capture what those of us who traveled to Mitteleuropa saw under the Soviet system, even the creepy green paint.

Monsieur Gustav is a concierge and gigolo. While training a new lobby boy, Zero, Gustav becomes entangled in a family scandal, a heist, and a prison break. There is a war in the background. For all its silliness, the movie brings M Gustav to life. Ralph Fiennes MUST receive an Academy Award nomination, and he really ought to win. He plays his part completely straight. His deadpan delivery of funny lines and his commitment to M Gustav brings this parody character in a wacky film to complete life. You love Gustav. You admire him. He moves you. You care about his fate.

Tony Revolori is very good as Zero Mustafa, Gustav's protégée. His relationship with Gustav is adorable.

The movie moves at a surprisingly brisk pace. The film itself may be looking back with nostalgia, but it is an action film. There is a genuinely exciting chase scene on skis.

GBH doesn't attempt to honor the horrors that took place in Mitteleuropa in the 20th century. The Holocaust is just one of these horrors; there was also the Holodomor, the mass migration of starving peasants to the US, battle casualties, and too many other atrocities to mention. There are scenes where characters speak of being displaced and on the run, of families massacred. The viewer knows what Anderson is referencing. At one point the GBH is taken over by evil forces whose insignia, a design close to a swastika, appears on banners draped all over the hotel, in the same way that a swastika was draped over the von Trapp home in "Sound of Music."

Anderson's answer to this evil is M. Gustav: be kind, be a friend, and be quietly clever. Make connections with other humans. Do favors, and rely on favors. This focus on the ordinary gestures of good hearted people in the face of enormous evil is deeply touching.

I wish there had been more women in this film. Saoirse Ronan is the one female part of note, and she speaks in an Irish accent as sharp as a blade that totally took me out of the film. Her screen presence is cold and not fitting. I wish there had been more peasants, and more outside scenes. Mitteleuropa was built on peasantry and GBH needed at least one buxom earth goddess binding sheaves of wheat or milking a cow.

There's so much more to say about this film – Alexandre Desplat's fabulous score, the hints of German expressionism, the all-star cast, the use of painted backdrops, the funicular – but there's time for that. "Grand Budapest Hotel" is a film that people are going to be talking about for a long time. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Good German and the Heroic Brit on PBS, and Bieganski by Omission

Bieganski, the Brute Polak, works in predictable ways.

Bieganski can appear in a PBS documentary that never so much as mentions Poles.

"Bugging Hitler's Soldiers" is an excellent PBS documentary that introduces the viewer to a recently disclosed British program.

During World War II, the Brits imprisoned Nazi generals and soldiers. Britain, in one of the first acts of surveillance of this kind, bugged the soldiers and generals. Their conversations were recorded and transcribed. These conversations reveal how ordinary Germans signed on to, and committed, horrific atrocities, including the mass murder of Jews and other victims of the Nazis.

Their testimony is grotesque. One soldier brags about raping Russian women. Another confesses to sleeping with Jewish women before they are gunned down and buried in mass graves.

One soldier had been a prisoner in Buchenwald. He talks about uses made of the tanned human skin of concentration camp inmates.

One of the Nazi soldiers is named Horst Minnieur. The narrator pronounces his name as "horse manure." Never was there a better name for a Nazi.

Again, this documentary is excellent. It never mentions Poles and mentions Poland only once in passing. How does this documentary play into the Bieganski stereotype?

The Brits are the sole heroes fighting the Nazis. And the Brits are so very heroic.

The documentary mentions the, in the words of Helen Fry Sync, "very British, very clever" espionage. The program never mentions World War II's greatest espionage coup, the Polish work on Enigma. The documentary lauds "very British very clever" espionage revealing the existence of the Peenemunde V-1 and V-2 rockets, while never mentioning the Polish contribution to that aspect of the war. The documentary praises the Brits for figuring out that the Holocaust was actually taking place. The documentary never mentions the work of Polish Home Army soldiers like Jan Karski and Witold Pilecki in uncovering the horrors of the Holocaust and sending that news westward.

So, you have these really bad guys, Nazis, and you have these sole, heroic people fighting against them. The Brits.

But wait, there's more.

Yes, the Nazis are saying horrifying things. This documentary, repeating the transcribed words of German soldiers, reveals that ordinary Germans DID know what was going on and DID participate in atrocities.

Given how much these Germans are like us – modern, white, well-educated, Western – this information might be impossible to assimilate.

The documentary makes it all go down much easier by foregrounding, not evil Nazis, not doomed Jews, not the heroic transcribers, many of them German Jews, not even British people. No.

The heroes in the foreground are all wearing German army uniforms. They are two German generals who said critical things about Hitler. One is General Willheim Ritter von Thoma. The other is General Paul von Felbert.

Von Thoma dominates the screen throughout this documentary. The transcript, at the PBS website, reveals that von Thoma's name is mentioned FIFTY times. In a fifty minute documentary about Nazi horrors, and about the willingness, even the eagerness and gusto, that ordinary Germans exercised when participating in atrocities against Russians and Jews, the name of a HEROIC German general in Hitler's army is mentioned fifty times, and that handsome, fully uniformed general dominates the screen.

In that narrative vacuum, Bieganski provides an excellent villain.

The end of the documentary is hideous. The documentary states, "Not one of Trent Park’s prisoners was ever convicted of a single war crime on the basis of what they said while imprisoned." The excuse the Brits give for this miscarriage of justice? They wanted to preserve their espionage secrets.

Nonsense. They could have avoided admitting that they'd gathered this info via microphones. They could have said they merely eavesdropped at keyholes. They could have interrogated the generals and told them that their cellmates had turned on them and gotten fresh testimony. But the heroic, clever, wonderful Brits let these animals go.

You can watch "Bugging Hitler's Soldiers" here.

Oh, one more thing. These Nazi soldiers talked a lot about victimizing Poles. For example, one talked about the satisfaction he received, when bombing Poland, in targeting mothers pushing baby carriages. The victimization of Poles doesn't make it into this PBS episode. You can read more about it here.

New Documentary: "Forget Us Not" on the Five Million Non-Jewish Nazi Victims

This morning Terese Pencak Schwartz informed me of a new documentary film that Terese learned about through an email from Alexa Brinkschulte of Capital Ship Marketing.

The new documentary is entitled "Forget Us Not." The filmmaker is Heather Connell. The documentary addresses the five million non-Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. I watched the film's trailer on youtube and visited the film's website. I saw that interviewed survivors included a Roma or Gypsy, a Pole, and a physically handicapped Jehovah's Witness. The trailer I saw on youtube impressed me positively. I have not seen the full film so I cannot comment on it.

You can visit the webpage for "Forget Us Not" here. The "Forget Us Not" facebook page is here.

Therese Pencak Schwartz's "Forgotten Holocaust" page is here. Her book is available at Amazon here.

The trailer for "Forget Us Not" is below.