The Brute Polak Stereotype Strikes Again

Our shared heroes and martyrs deserve, and demand, better of us.

The article below is the continuation of a dialogue/debate Frontpage is hosting on the question of Polish Culpability in the Holocaust? -- the title of Joseph Puder's Frontpage article that sparked this conversation. We have also run a previous piece by Danusha Goska on this issue titled, Poland's New Law Criminalizing Speech about the Holocaust. The most recent contribution, published before this article below, is John Radzilowski's counter to Joseph Puder's critique of his viewpoint. Frontpage continues to welcome contributions to this dialogue and debate. 

A spectacular view splayed itself out before us like a brazen artist's model. High in the hills, the carefully cultivated backyard, with its quaint apple tree, was the last horizontal earth before a dizzying drop hundreds of feet to the flatlands. A carpet of lights twinkling in the darkness gave way to the lustrous waters of the San Francisco Bay. In the distance rose the power and poetry of the Golden Gate Bridge; beyond stretched the Pacific and no land till Japan. This evening's hostess, an heiress and descendant of minor European nobility, was so Politically Correct she had converted to Islam. And Quakerism. And Buddhism. And Neo-Paganism. I was dazzled. I had left my working class, New Jersey town with its domestic violence and cancer-causing toxic waste. I was among the elite.

Another guest, Neil, arrived. After learning my name, Neil told a series of off-color Polak jokes. For me, Neil's jokes were the sound of a needle's harsh scratch suddenly interrupting a recording of Mozart. How could he tell such ugly jokes at such an elegant gathering?

"Oh, come on," Neil snapped. "Polaks were never lynched." Neil elaborated. He was Jewish. He knew Polaks were the world's worst anti-Semites.

There were other events during my grad student career. Sometimes the bigot was a professor, and his bigotry slowed my advance. Such encounters informed my book, Bieganski, The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.

The Brute Polak stereotype matters to you, including those of you who are not Polish or Jewish. Evidence of the Brute's necessity is his ubiquity. Stereotypes of Poles and other "Bohunks" – that is, Eastern European, Christian, peasant-descent populations – as brutes, as primitive, violent, ignorant and hateful, are found throughout Western cultures. They're in movies, television shows, comedy routines, fiction and non-fiction, scholarly and popular books, including books used to teach young people about the Holocaust, school curricula and museum exhibits. Even elites who would stop their fellows in mid-sentence if they ever uttered the n-word eagerly host anti-Polish material. Hundreds of examples of stereotypical depictions of Bohunk brutes can be found in my book and on my blog. If the Brute Polak didn't matter, he would not be everywhere.

The Bohunk is essentially a brute. By "essentially" I mean that brutishness is his inescapable essence. Perhaps the most pithy encapsulation of this stereotype is a phrase that first gained international fame when spoken by the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1989. "Poles suckle anti-Semitism with their mother's milk." This phrase gained attention again recently when it was repeated by current Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz. I have met several Jews, in Poland, the US, and Israel, who have insisted to me that I can't possibly be the child of a Slovak mother and Polish father who were both Catholic. Maybe I was adopted. Maybe my parents disguised their Jewish identity. Indeed, I have had close Jewish friends for decades who have said this to me, repeatedly. "You can't possibly be a Polish Catholic. You read. You write. You have a PhD. You don't hate Jews. Your ancestors must have been Polish Jews." These folks have actually insisted that I submit my DNA for analysis in order to prove their belief that I'm not a Polish Catholic. Their conclusion is not that their prejudiced concept of Polish identity is erroneous. Rather, their conclusion is that because I do not match their stereotypical image of a Polak, I could not possibly be of Polish Catholic descent.

The existence of the Brute Polak Stereotype does not mean that Poles have not committed horrible crimes. Poles have. In discussions of Polish-Jewish relations, two atrocities come up repeatedly: the Jedwabne massacre and the Kielce Pogrom. Both are especially nauseating and heart-rending. In one, Poles burned Jews alive. In another, Poles stoned Jews to death. Both of these crimes were committed during the World War II era, one during, and one after, the war. Neither is unique. Poles committed many such crimes against Jews. Further, anti-Semitism is part of Polish culture, just as it is part of world culture. Nor has it been defeated. In 2015, for example, protestors burned an effigy of a Jew in Wroclaw, Poland. Such spectacles disgust and dismay decent people. How could there be anti-Semites in Poland, the land of Auschwitz? If Poles do these disgusting things, why bother talking about stereotypes?

An analogy may help the reader to understand. In 2008, financier Bernard L. Madoff was arrested. He would eventually "plead guilty to 11 federal felonies, including securities fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, making false statements, perjury, theft from an employee benefit plan, and making false filings with the SEC." Madoff cheated investors, sometimes of their life savings. His victims include Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, filmmaker and philanthropist Steven Spielberg, and many Jewish schools, synagogues, and charities. Investigators say that Madoff had been cheating his clients for over thirty years. Prosecutors estimated Madoff's fraud at $65 billion dollars.

Anyone viewing the story through the lens of the age-old Shylock stereotype would simply say, "What do you expect? Jews are greedy, cheap, and criminal." Decent and responsible people do not talk about Madoff this way. They don't because they know that the Shylock stereotype has been deployed to facilitate expulsions and mass murder. Jews' status as moneylenders played a role in their expulsion from England in 1290. Nazi propaganda declared that "Money is the God of the Jews." Mindful of this hideous history, decent people speak carefully when speaking of Bernard Madoff. Our culture does everything it can to facilitate such caution. In 2010, The Atlantic ran an essay by Michael Kinsley entitled "How to Think About Jewish Bankers." The goal of the essay was to nudge readers away from thinking of financial crime as a Jewish monopoly, and away from thinking of Jews as essentially criminal and money-obsessed.

Here, rather, is a non-bigoted way to think about Madoff. For a variety of cultural and geopolitical reasons, going back millennia (discussed here), Jews are overrepresented in finance. This isn't because of any putative Jewish "essence," but, rather, because of the same kinds of historical forces that shape us all. Given that Jews are overrepresented in finance, Jews will be overrepresented in financial crime, but they will also be overrepresented in philanthropy. Scholar Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim has conclusively demonstrated that American Jews donate much more to charity than Protestants or Catholics.

In 2005, Dennis Kozlowski was convicted for stealing $100 million from Tyco. His penchant for accessories like a $6,000 shower curtain earned him the epithet "archetype of avarice." When researching my book, I compared accounts of Kozlowski's crimes with those of Jewish financial criminals. Commentators rarely mentioned that Kozlowski was a Polish-American Catholic. Writers almost always mentioned that Jewish financial criminals were Jewish. We process reality using our culturally mediated prejudices as filter. Because of the Shylock stereotype, so deeply ingrained in our culture, the Jewish identity of a financial criminal gets more attention than the Polish Catholic identity of a financial criminal. 

By the same token, authors in a variety of disciplines hold up Jedwabne as an archetypal atrocity, and the Poles who committed this crime as archetypal haters. In these tellings, no factors precipitate Polish atrocities; Poles murder even as they breathe. Poles, treated as universal exemplars of hatred and sadism, kill only "because they could," in the words of George Will.

Compare Will and other commentators' treatment of Poles and Jedwabne to another massacre, one, in its own way, every bit as horrific as Jedwabne. One late summer day in 1857, a group of men, according to a pre-arranged plan, and at a pre-arranged signal, turned to the person standing next to them and shot that person in cold blood. Some killers used Bowie knives. The victims were farm families from Arkansas, traveling to California in search of a better life. Men, women, and children were killed. The killers were Mormons, America's "nice" minority. Mormons long fought against accepting guilt for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, even though the mastermind was the adopted son of "Mormon Moses" Brigham Young. Though many killed, only one of the killers ever faced justice. When commentators discuss Mountain Meadows, they struggle to discern what would cause "nice" Mormons to commit such brutal murders. The Mormons had been persecuted and they were afraid, some argue. All too often, no such struggle to explain atrocity occurs when commentators describe crimes committed by Poles. Poles are essentially brutes. They kill "because they can." If a Pole doesn't hate Jews and doesn't kill, she must submit to DNA analysis to prove she is really Polish.

Poland is far away and its actual realities are of little interest to most Americans. For seventy years of the twentieth century, Poland was controlled by totalitarian powers eager to misrepresent it to the world. Too often, democracies played along, as when Roosevelt and Churchill lied about the Katyn massacre. Even Christopher Hitchens, celebrated as a courageous truth teller, got into the act. It's easy to misrepresent Poles and Poland to service the Brute Polak stereotype. Mind-searing, horrific events like the Jedwabne and Kielce atrocities are invoked. Just when the audience is prostrate with tears and horror, the voice-of-God narrator intrudes. "These are Poles. This is what Poles do. This is an expression of their essence. We must condemn Poles qua Poles in order to signal to everyone around us that we are utterly apart from them. We don't do things like this. This atrocity exists on a different plane than that we inhabit."

Key facts disappear. I have read numerous accounts of the Jedwabne massacre that erase the following. The surrounding area had been invaded and occupied by a genocidal Soviet Russian presence previous to the subsequent genocidal German Nazi presence, under whose auspices the massacre took place. The Russians and Germans did not innovate their genocidal intentions against Poles in 1939. Rather, Russians and Germans had participated in wiping Poland off the map in three partitions, 1772-95. Under these partitions, Poles were, at times, forbidden to build permanent structures on their own land, forbidden to speak their own language in school, and hanged and driven into exile en masse. Bismarck famously wrote of the Poles, "Personally, I sympathize with their position, but if we want to exist, we cannot do other than extirpate them. A wolf is not to blame that God made him as he is; which does not mean that we shouldn't shoot him to death whenever possible." Russians rounded Poles up without warning, packed them into cattle cars, and sent them to Siberia, many never to return. No one knows how many; estimates range between hundreds of thousands and a million. Areas where Poles had lived for hundreds of years are today free of Poles and outside of Poland's Stalin-imposed postwar borders. German Nazi Einsatzgruppen shot Polish professors, teachers, and priests.

Most prisoners in Auschwitz were, initially, Poles. Germans and Russians both played the age old game of "divide et impera." Those pushing the Brute Polak stereotype never mention that not only were Catholics set against Jews and vice versa, but Polish nobility were set against Polish peasants. Long before Jedwabne, there was the Szela jacquerie, in which Austrian colonizers paid Polish peasants in salt for the decapitated heads of Polish nobility. Historians acknowledge that many Jews did respond differently to the Soviet invasion than did Polish non-Jews, and that some Jews did participate in Soviet mistreatment of non-Jewish Poles. In addition to these immediate factors, centuries of history made Polish-Jewish relations in Poland unique and not easily understood by outsiders. Jews in Poland often occupied a middleman minority status. Though they were a minority, Jewish arendators had, at times, the power of life and death over Polish peasants. Jews, at times, and in some places, had a monopoly on the sale of liquor. And there were Jews who expressed a desire to remain significantly apart from Polish peasantry. Again, I have read accounts of the Jedwabne massacre that make it sound as if Poles, enjoying lives comparable to that of modern American suburbanites, just for the heck of it, decided one fine day to round up and incinerate their Jewish neighbors. Real understanding demands that we recognize that if we were in the shoes of the Poles, some of our number, too, would become the kind of monsters who commit atrocities. Just as, in the US, at one time, even "nice" Mormons did.

Political strategist's Karl Rove's famous tactic: to defeat your opponent, attack his strengths, not his weaknesses. Purveyors of the Brute Polak stereotype work hard to discredit some of the most heroic human beings who ever walked this earth: Polish non-Jews who rescued Jews during World War II. Rove's strategy was on display in a recent article, "Anti-Semitism and Poland’s Two Faces: What A Dedicated, Nationwide Educational Campaign May Possibly Cure." The title is instructive. Poland exists only in relation to Jews. Poles are mostly anti-Semitic, but some Poles are good. The rest are diseased and need a "cure," administered by the author. The author describes a good Pole: Jan Karski. What makes Karski good? He doesn't identify with his Polishness; rather, "'I myself became a Jew' … he was awarded honorary citizenship of Israel … 'This is the proudest and most meaningful day in my life … [I have] become an Israeli.'"

In case the import of these words is lost on the reader, imagine an article alleging that all Jews are guilty – or sick – but one Jew is good – the one who announces "I have become an Episcopalian, and this is the proudest day of my life." To attribute Jewish identity to the author's one good Pole is to repeat the fallacy of my friends who insist that I take a DNA test to prove my "Jewish" ancestry. Those who are good cannot be Polish.

To make stereotypes believable, one must eliminate key details. Left out of this account of Jan Karski: he narrowly escaped being bound, shot in the back of the head, and dumped into a mass grave in the Soviet Russian action at Katyn forest. After this escape, Karski joined the active Polish anti-Nazi resistance. He was captured and tortured so savagely he attempted suicide by slitting his wrists. Karski escaped from the Germans as he had previously escaped from the Russians. He continued his underground work. When he traveled to the West to bring news of the Holocaust to Roosevelt and Churchill, he had teeth pulled so that his mouth would swell and he'd have an excuse not to talk to Germans en route. He was afraid his Polish accent would seal his doom. He also had to be careful to disguise the scars on his wrist that might identify him as a wanted man. Why did the author eliminate these details from his mention of Jan Karski? Perhaps because to report them would bring home to the reader: heroic Poles who rescued Jews did so with the barrel of a Nazi gun pressed against their temples.

The author implies that Karski was sui generis, that is unlike any other Pole, and that Karski did what he did because he identified as Jewish rather than Polish. In fact Karski was a devout Catholic, one of many Polish Catholics who rescued Jews not in spite of their Polishness and Catholicism, but because of both.

Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma were devout Catholic and Polish farmers. In Jozef's Bible, he underlined the words, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." "A Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion when he saw him: He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He then lifted him onto his own mount and took him to an inn and looked after him."

The Nazis made clear that any Poles who offered any aid to any Jew, even in so small a gesture as a glass of water, incurred the death penalty for themselves and their family. The Ulmas, perhaps inspired by the above-mentioned underlined passages, took in eight Jews. For this, Nazis murdered the Ulmas and their six children. Wiktoria was nine months pregnant when Nazis shot her to death.

Purveyors of the Brute Polak stereotype hate one statistic. Yad Vashem honors non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Poles are the largest group of so honored rescuers. Poles rescued Jews while living under the harshest occupation in Europe. They rescued Jews in spite of the toughest conditions. While Jews in other countries were more likely to be assimilated, and, thus, easier to hide, many Polish Jews were native Yiddish speakers. Poles were allowed only starvation rations. Rescuers had to hide, feed, and discard the waste of their charges, all while under the surveillance of Nazis who called them "Polish swine."

Many cite interwar anti-Semitism in Poland. This anti-Semitism is not best understood as a Polish or a Catholic phenomenon; rather, it is best understood as a predictable, universal, human phenomenon, a toxic outgrowth of a virtual caste system. Scholars like Edna Bonacich, Thomas Sowell, and Amy Chua have shown that when colonized, indigenous people are released from colonization, they undergo a period of intense nationalism that often involves violence against middleman minority populations. Such violence has been unleashed against Chinese by Muslim Malaysians and Indonesians, and against Indians in East Africa. America itself saw such violence during the L.A. Riots, when African Americans targeted Korean shopkeepers.

A previous piece selectively mentions the quotas in interwar Poland that limited university places for Jews. What the author does not mention is that the vast majority of Polish non-Jews were peasants, often illiterate and just emerging from semi-feudal status. Jews, on the other hand, were vastly overrepresented among urban doctors, lawyers, business owners, and other white-collar professionals. An excellent account of every day life for the average Polish peasant during this era can be found in Jan Slomka's From Serfdom to Self-Government: Memoirs of a Polish Village Mayor. Reading this poignant memoir is like reading about African Americans emerging from Jim Crow. In fact Booker T. Washington, a former slave, made that very comparison in his 1912 book, The Man Farthest Down. Washington wrote of Poland, "there was much the same life that I had known and lived among the Negro farmers in Alabama ... I should have liked to have gone farther ... and looked deeper into the life and learned more of the remarkable struggle which the Polish people ... are making to preserve the Polish nationality and improve the conditions of the Polish people ... I am convinced that anyone who studies the movements and progress of the Negroes in America will find much that is interesting by way of comparison in the present situation of the Polish people and that of the American Negroes."

Washington noted the status of Jews as middleman minority. "Whenever in Poland money changes hands, a Jew is always there to take charge of it." As mentioned above, there are complex historical reasons why Washington would conclude this; the curious can see my comments here. Purveyors of the Bieganski stereotype selectively mention interwar university quotas and want you to imagine all-powerful Poles stepping on powerless Jews. The real situation was closer to the dilemma Americans confront when contemplating contemporary American university admissions quotas, that systematically turn away many qualified Asian American applicants, in favor of African Americans and Hispanics. The point is not that either system is just; rather, the point is that both systems are expressions of flawed human attempts to wrestle with historic inequities.

I cannot assess the extent to which the outbreak of anti-Semitism in the interwar period affected the number of Poles who collaborated with the Nazis. There is an historical trend, though, that must be factored in to any such discussion. Jan Mosdorf was an interwar Polish anti-Semite. Nevertheless, he rejected Nazism. In Auschwitz, where Mosdorf was imprisoned, he was killed for helping Jews. Cardinal August Hlond is notorious for an interwar pastoral letter criticizing Jews. The Cahiers du Témoignage Chrétien was a French Catholic underground publication that urged people to aid Jews and resist Germans. It relied on Hlond for eyewitness Holocaust accounts. Hlond condemned the Vatican for its "silence" on what the Nazis were doing to Poland. SS Chief Heinrich Himmler ordered Hlond's arrest. The Gestapo offered him a chance for power and freedom, if only he would urge Poles to unite with Germans in their fight against their common enemy, the Soviet Union. Hlond declined to cooperate.

I could name other examples of persons who either self-identified as anti-Semites in the interwar period, or whom others identify as Polish anti-Semites, who resisted the Nazis and aided Jews. One cannot draw a straight line between Polish interwar anti-Semitism, as blameworthy as it was, and the Holocaust.

Neither can one draw a straight line, as too many attempt to do, between Polish folkloric material and the Holocaust. Polish culture includes many jokes, songs, and tales that depict Jews as greedy and cliquish. If one argues that these cultural products, as distasteful as they are, prompted genocide, what is one to do with the equal and opposite stereotyping among Jews? Polish Jewish culture is replete with jokes, songs, and tales that depict Polish non-Jews as stupid, unclean, idol-worshipping drunks. Thus the Yiddish folk song, "Shikker iz der Goy," "The non-Jew [usually a Polish peasant] is a drunk." Thus the phrase "poylishe kop," or "Polish head," for a stupid person. Misguided troublemakers do try to draw a straight line between contemptuous Jewish stereotypes and communist murder and torture of Poles, murder and torture that was often carried out by Jewish communists. Decent people denounce such attempts. Decent people should step up and do the same when Polish folk culture is conflated with Nazism. All people stereotype their neighbors. People rarely commit genocide. We need to understand what drives people to genocide.

The previously-cited article that despairs that Poles can ever be cured of anti-Semitism insists that Poles must be educated about what brutes they are, and taught not to be brutes. This recommendation dishonors heroes whose heroism we will never be called on to match. Poland was an unimaginably grim place in 1946. The Nazi occupation was over, but the Soviets had arrived, and would not leave till 1989. Warsaw was in ruins. Polish priests, teachers, doctors – anyone with an education – had been purged. Heroic Poles who resisted the Nazis were rounded up by Soviets, smeared as "spittle-flecked dwarves," tortured, killed, and buried in unmarked graves. And, in that Boschian landscape of hell on earth, Poles, many Catholic, founded The All-Polish Anti-Racist League. Haven't heard of it? You are not alone. Wladylsaw Bartoszewski, one of the founders, wrote,

"There are no accounts in histories of the All-Polish Anti-Racist League, founded in 1946 … it is a waste of time to search scholarly works for even a brief mention of the League, its origins and public activities, or the contents of the League's publication, Prawo Czlowieka (The Rights of Man.) The terrible experience of the war years and the dreadful crime committed against Polish Jews … have pushed actions and phenomena which were, in a sense, marginal to the whole picture, to one side…scholars have not been interested in its existence … Acts of repression, violence, and terror, mass arrests, deportations, bloody confrontations claiming thousands of dead and injured, were an everyday occurrence, particularly in the first year [of Soviet occupation]. Through ruthless political and police methods, a new political order and system was introduced, which was rejected by a significant part of society … the tragedy of the genocide of the Jews was, after all, a great psychological shock for many Poles … Both in the Polish press and on the radio at that time there was no lack of voices to oppose these tragic incidents, and the recent suffering and extermination of Jewish society in Poland were also mentioned. Articles, memoirs, and references to the subject can be found in the first post war dailies Robotnik, Dziennik Ludowy, Gazeta Ludowa, Kurier Codzienny, in the weeklies Nowa Epoka, Odrodzenie, and particularly in the Krakow Tygodnik Powszechny."

Bartoszewski, a co-founder of the league, was arrested by Soviets for his trouble. You can read more about the league here. Yes, decent Poles resist anti-Semitism. Yes, under the worst conditions, decent Poles helped, published, protested. There are other heroes, other initiatives, other publications, decade after decade. Before you succumb to the Brute Polak stereotype, educate yourself.

Otto Gross does not stand out in a crowd. He is different from other New Jersey men, though. All four of Otto's grandparents, Germans living outside of Germany, were interned in various Soviet Russian concentration camps. Three died. Otto's paternal grandfather simply walked away, gambling that the guards would not waste a bullet on him. He walked from Siberia to Germany. Otto's father, Gustav, joined the Nazi brown shirts in the 1930s. Gustav was a hungry teen. The Nazis fed him. Gustav served in the Afrika Korps and on the Eastern Front. He won two Iron Crosses, second class.

Otto has had to wrestle, all his life, with the legacy of being the son of a Nazi. You can read his essay, "Ripples of Sin," here. Otto expresses amazement to me that the guilt for the Holocaust is migrating from the Nazis, where it properly belongs, to the essential Brute Polak.

"I grew up with my parents' stories of the rise of Nazism and their acceptance of the hate and waste Nazism promoted. I heard firsthand accounts. I'm still confused how people came to think that Poland played any role in fascism and what happened to Jews, Poles, Gays, intellectuals and the other victims of Nazi Germany. Poland was danced all over. Incidents have no doubt happened, but there is no historical or rational evidence that Poland was anything more than the victim along with Jews and other groups."

I said, above, that the Brute Polak matters even to people who aren't Polish or Jewish. There are many reasons that people deploy the Brute Polak stereotype. I argue that one reason is that there has been a trend, in recent years, to conflate Nazism with Christianity. Mid-century Germany was famously a secular, modern society. Poland is associated with Catholicism. This issue is too complicated to address here, but I invite readers to visit "Against Identifying Nazism with Christianity," here. This rewriting of one of history's most notorious crimes matters to everyone.

It's not enough for me, a Catholic of Polish and Slovak descent, to condemn the Brute Polak stereotype. I must say more. Along with countless other Poles and persons of Polish descent living around the world, I have condemned Polish anti-Semitism repeatedly in my book and on my blog, e.g. here and here. I support Israel. I do not hold Jews qua Jews responsible for the Brute Polak stereotype. This stereotype has been spread by persons of every ethnicity, including Poles. I have repeatedly said that it is Poles' responsibility to tell their own story, in curricula, popular culture products, and mass media; see here. I acknowledge that anti-Semitism is a feature of Polish culture, and I have joined with other Poles who condemn Polish anti-Semites and Polish anti-Semitism. I've paid the price; Polish nationalists have denounced me as an anti-Polish conspirator. I invite persons of courage and conscience to join me and reject the Brute Polak stereotype. I invite Frontpage Magazine to review Bieganski, and Frontpage readers to read it. Interested persons can get an idea of the book from this video. From a dimension where ethnic identity ceases to matter, our shared heroes and martyrs are watching us. We cannot rescue them from the horrors they experienced in the past, horrors that can hurt them no more. We can never be as heroic as they. We can at least step up, and condemn all stereotyping. It's what they want us to do.

Share