|Polish peasant by Paul Schutzer. Source|
Below is an essay I wrote almost twenty years ago, now, in response to the PBS Frontline broadcast of Marian Marzynski's film "Shtetl."
The documentary stereotypes and scapegoats Polish peasants in a way that distorts history.
Of course it's true that there was anti-Semitism in Poland, and that Poles did sometimes commit atrocities against Jews. One example would be the infamous Kielce pogrom.
It's completely false and misleading, though, to attribute the Holocaust to Polish peasants. The Holocaust was every bit a product of German Nazis. Nazism victimized Poles as well as Jews, though not in the same degree. To try to rewrite that history is a huge, huge factual and ethical error.
On April 17, 1996, PBS aired Marian Marzynski's documentary of Jewish life in Poland, "Shtetl." Letters to the PBS web page revealed that Poles, Jews, and non-Polish or Jewish Americans reacted to the film very differently. Typical letters included one from a Jewish viewer who said: "This film clearly illustrates the basis for my prejudice toward the Polish People (sic). For many years, I harbored feelings of guilt concerning my opinions of the Polish People. Upon viewing the film, I feel completely absolved … "
An American viewer, neither Polish nor Jewish, wrote: "if the Poles really want to be free … they must learn to admit their terrible contribution to the Holocaust."
A Polish letter-writer voiced fear of "a lynch mob … The world vs Poland." Similar expressions of Polish pain were taken as evidence of an "ingrained" Polish anti-Semitism; that Poles "LIED" (sic).
Marzynski claimed that "a running camera never changes the truth." "The Eternal Jew," an anti-Jewish propaganda film, was also created with a running camera. Can a running camera lie?
Polish Peasants as Other
Marzynski enters homes and farmyards, pointing his camera at peasants who may have never seen such a contraption before. His exhibits have not been prepped for their fifteen minutes of fame. They have lived their lives outside of any free international conversation of academia and commerce. For most of their lives, contact with that conversation would have resulted in severe punishment, even death.
A few telling scenes brought home differences between the observer and the observed. For example: a Jewish American enters a house, unannounced. The inhabitant, a Polish peasant, rises, embraces the man, kisses him, and then asks, "I beg you, sir, who are you?"
Americans, media drenched, formally educated, and multi-cultural, intuitively know when and how to alter their speech. An American will vary, in tone, style, and vocabulary, what he says to a police officer after being read Miranda rights, or to a joke told in a locker room. Whether listening to a politician in campaign season or a fisherman talking about the one that got away, Americans know to factor in context when deciding the truth or appropriateness of discourse produced in their own culture.
Without adequate contextualization, Americans could never know one driving force that informs peasant discourse: a religious resignation to powerlessness and lack of personal consequence. These peasants' words have never been attended to; their very body language of hunched shoulders reminds the attentive viewer that they have never had powers regarded by Americans as basic. The viewer is not introduced to the adaptive quality of peasant resignation; Marzynski and his viewers are not there to learn. These "people with no education" "must be taught," he has said. First, they must be made spectacles before an international audience.
Marzynski recorded alien peasants reciting formulaic responses to questions about Jews. Jews were good with money; Jews have distinctive noses; Jews talk a lot. These scenes precede Holocaust survivor accounts. A cause and effect relationship is created. The Polish peasant is placed on a narrative trajectory whose telos we know to be the Holocaust. Letters to PBS reveal that viewers were shocked – shocked! – by these formulaic expressions of ethnic stereotypes, and concluded that Polish peasants were responsible for the Holocaust.
As a folklorist who has lived and worked among peasants in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, I was not shocked. However modern Americans may feel about it, old people who have mastered the jokes and proverbs that reinforce ethnic stereotypes are the peasant community's version of an anthropology Ph.D. Had Marzynski run his camera in any traditional village in the world, he could have recorded similar and even more outlandish stereotypes, expressed in equally ready formulas. In Nepal I was told by a Chhetri woman that Gurungs "have no noses, keep large dogs, and will eat you for dinner after boiling you in a big pot!"
Had Marzynski kept his camera running in Poland, he could have gathered many, to us, outlandish and formulaic expressions about non-Jews. Jews are smarter than Poles, a Polish proverb runs, but Armenians are smarter than Jews, and Greeks are smarter than Armenians. Too, Polish Catholics tell many bitter and painful jokes about Polish Catholics – jokes in which Poles are stupid, Poles betray each other, and Poles lose.
Marzynski could have provided a vital bit of context by turning his camera the other way. A Jewish UC Berkeley anthropologist once assured me that I could not possibly be a Polish Catholic because I can read. My advisor, a world famous professor and a Polish-American Jew, told a Polak joke to a class of three hundred applauding undergraduates. During a funding interview a professor suggested that since I was Polish I was probably anti-Semitic and therefore, perhaps, not to be funded. Recently, a lovely young Jewish woman told me, completely unselfconsciously, that she teaches her Sabbath school students about Polish people by telling them Polak jokes.
Recording incidents like these on film and interweaving them in any discussion of Jewish-Polish relations would serve a key need. Seeing modern, obviously "good" and highly educated Americans utilizing currently acceptable stereotypes might bring the viewer to a more immediate and intimate understanding of the vexed human condition he or she shares with those very foreign Polish peasants. Instead, stereotyping was located in the bodies of old men and women who speak an alien tongue and have caked dirt under cracked fingernails – shown in lingering close-up.
We need a careful analysis of the role stereotypes played in the Holocaust. This film is not that study. Instead, "Shtetl" is the deployment of another stereotype: that of the ignorant, morally retarded, brutal Pole. The qualities of peasant life the camera lingers over in "Shtetl": earth – underfoot, on faces and clothing; livestock; roughly hewn speech; can be embraced by a film maker who wishes to help the modern viewer penetrate this alien world and gain intimacy in discoveries of shared humanity. Sometimes, as in an Aer Lingus commercial, a glossy post card from Nepal, or the illustration on a box of Celestial Seasonings tea, these very aspects of peasantry are marketed to represent mystical virtues sadly lacking in modern society. In "Shtetl," the viewers' visit to a Polish peasant village is, as Marzynski put it, "a trip into the darkness of the human soul." Polish peasantry is a receptacle of primitive evil – something wholly other from the viewer, that must be accused, in the name of a virtue which the evolved viewer represents and which the primitive and alien peasant lacks.
This stereotype is an old one. U.S. immigration law was based on it. In the 1920's, detailed ethnographic descriptions of Eastern European peasants were read into the Congressional record. Proof of their racially inferior status was provided by the dirt on their bodies, their lack of shoes and teeth, their simple abodes, their flaxen and woolen clothing. Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, deputized a team to measure heads in Galicia. These measurements would clarify the otherwise inexplicable inferiority of the Polish immigrant. Like Marzynski, Boas was applying currently acceptable theory and method. Boas did not factor in to his calculations the mass starvation in Galicia, or that his subjects had been freed from serfdom only sixty years before.
The view of Eastern European peasants as evolutionary primitives who must be geographically quarantined cut short immigration, and informed U.S. policy towards Eastern Europe when it was under attack by both Fascism and Communism. It is, of course, the root of the Polak joke. Reflection on this history of exploitation of stereotypes, not by peasants, but by highly educated and very powerful people, might help the Jewish viewer to understand the pain Polish gentiles feel when watching "Shtetl."
In academic and journalistic circles, the words "Pole" and "Anti-Semite" have become synonymous. In a headline, The New York Times characterized "Shtetl" as a film about "Polish Anti-Semites" in spite of its inclusion of Poles who rescued Jews. In that same issue, the Times wrote of the popularity of swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti in our nation's capital without using the words: "American Anti-Semites."
When Poles express pain at this stereotype, as they have in reaction to "Shtetl," their pain is taken as further incrimination. Some Polish letter writers to PBS apparently felt pressure to denounce fellow Poles in order to gain respect and credibility; many protested that the "child-like" "stupid" "disheveled" peasants of "Shtetl" were not appropriate representatives of Poland.
A wider focus on the history of anti-Semitism provides other interpretations of Polish pain. Poles ask, for example, why it is that the Inquisition and the continued existence of crypto-Jews throughout the Spanish speaking world, why the embrace in Latin America of men like Mengele, has not given us the stereotype of the anti-Semitic Spaniard. Blood libel was an English invention, canonized in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; Shakespeare gave us Shylock. Disraeli, though a Christian, never stopped being "the Jew." During the relatively benign German occupation of the Channel Islands, Britons, both civilians and government authorities, cooperated extensively with the Nazis, and exported British Jews to their death in Auschwitz. Still, we cling to our Mrs. Miniver stereotype, and see no headlines about "anti-Semitic Britons." The Simon Wiesenthal Center has repeatedly protested Japanese claims of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Japan, a country with no significant history of Jewish settlement. There is no formula: "anti-Semitic Japanese."
Stereotypes are created through strategically narrow focus and lack of context. Anyone combing pages of Polish history searching for incidents of Polish-Jewish violence will find them. They may find more incidences of anti-Semitism in Poland because, before World War II, the largest Jewish community in the world lived in the territory of the old Polish Commonwealth. Poles read the existence of this large and vibrant community as proof of relative tolerance.
Widen the focus, attempt a deductive study of Poles as human beings rather an inductive gathering of evidence to support a pre-conceived stereotype, and you will find violent struggle to be a staple of life in Poland. Poles have fought vicious ethnic battles with Ukrainians, Germans, and Russians. In this country, street gangs of immigrant Poles fought the hated "Johnny Bulls," Americans of British ancestry. In The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, the authors report that any policeman who entered a Polish immigrant saloon risked being killed. Poles have not only fought with other ethnic groups, but among themselves. In the Massacre of 1846, Austrian colonizers exploited class tensions and offered Polish peasants ten florins for the heads of Polish noblemen. So many were brought that the bounty was reduced to two florins. In 1970's America, a Polish-American anthropologist who wanted to study a Polish community in Detroit found it difficult to get housing, because he was seen as an outsider.
An analysis of whom Poles have fought and why might deconstruct the apparently needful stereotype of the anti-Semitic Pole and introduce us to the embattled Pole who fights everywhere, and feels safe nowhere. It should not surprise us to discover that a poor and disempowered people have often lashed out at whomever was nearest and whomever was seen as threatening whatever scratch of earth they had temporarily secured.
Recently a professor at my campus, who was neither Polish nor Jewish, made passing comments about "Polish anti-Semites." I objected to her typification and suggested she might want to learn more about the region. She was dismissive. "Poland? Czech Republic? Ukraine? They weren't even countries! I don't know about them because I don't care about them." The anti-Semitic Pole stereotype is regarded as a pertinent nugget of wisdom – rather than a potentially damaging stereotype that needs deconstruction – by academics who know nothing else about Eastern Europe.
In "Shtetl," Romaniuk, an historian interested in Jewish issues, complains that villagers have scratched the word "Jew" on his office wall. I knew how Americans and Jews would read that scene. The filmmaker never introduced viewers to the reading that sprang to my mind, given my familiarity with the wider cultural context.
In Poland I attended a party for a boy named Witek. He was going to Germany. The party was a kind of wake. To acquire his visa, Witek had to sign a piece of paper denouncing any Polish identity. Everyone at the party was sad and conflicted. They had to express regret that Witek had denounced his Polishness. In their heart of hearts, though, I knew many were envious. Witek would have a superior material existence in Germany, and, given the pollution of his native Slask, he would probably enjoy a longer life.
Having a despised and embattled identity, and knowing that one must disavow that identity to grasp a decent life, does wound Poles. When a Pole says, "Are you one of them now?" and the "them" in question can be Germans or Americans or Jews – the question may mean, "Have you abandoned the communal work we do of protecting and maintaining an identity that has caused us so much pain, but brought us the only real pride we can lay claim to?" "Are you one of them now?" As an aspiring academic, I have heard this very question from my own parents. Without context, no American listening would understand.
Information about Poles as Poles, especially Polish peasants, is not readily available. As Marzynski says: "Nobody could follow a story of an obscure little town in Poland." Most Poles were peasants, many illiterate, right up to the end of World War II. Most Polish immigrants in this country have been of peasant stock, and have been shunted into work in heavy industry. These are poor people, just getting by, only now completing B.A. and Ph.D. programs. They find relatively little money for or interest in study of Eastern European peasantry. The material Polish-Americans or anyone else encounters about Polish peasants is likely to be like "Shtetl:" a treatment in which Eastern European peasants appear only long enough to provide the target for a pointing finger. Unlike the Spanish, British, Germans, French – all nations whose histories are stained with anti-Semitism – the view of Polish peasants as anti-Semitic goons is not countered by the fame of a Mozart or a Shakespeare or a Napoleon. These peasants have their moments of transcendence, too, of art and wisdom, compassion and beauty, but foreign cameramen do not arrive to record and market those.
Context v. Revision
I approached a Jewish friend. I wanted to discuss "Shtetl" with her. Her responses were clipped and tinged with atypical hostility. She mentioned the low rate of Nazi collaboration among the Danes. I asked her to remember that unique laws obtained in Poland; that in Poland alone, anyone who helped a Jew in even the smallest way would be killed, as would their whole family for three generations. My friend looked shocked. Apparently she did not know this. And she teaches Holocaust studies.
In "Shtetl," a Polish peasant regales Jack Rubin, a Holocaust survivor, with an account of being cheated by his father. Rubin cannot listen. He turns away. "Do not speak ill of the dead," our culture commands. How much more unseemly to speak ill of Europe's Jews, who died tragically while the world only watched. In any popular narrative of the Holocaust, Jews cannot play bad or even ambiguous characters.
As historian Romaniuk pointed out, Marzynski downplayed the danger posed by Nazis. With the Nazis removed from the stage, a narrative vacuum drafts as villain the only other character present. When we mention Polish collaborators, we fill our narrative demand for a villain. If we mention that there were Jewish collaborators in every ghetto, we blaspheme. The historian must jump in immediately to provide insight into the pressures that drove some Jews to collaborate. Any analysis of pressures and tensions faced by Christian Poles would be an act of perversion. A Polish writer to PBS claimed that during the 1939-1941 Soviet occupation, one million Poles were arrested, deported, and/or killed, without organized aid from Jews. To include this in the narrative would defame the hallowed dead. The Pole must emerge as an unmotivated ethnic Iago.
Poles have abundant historical bases for regarding World War II as their unparalleled national tragedy. Poland suffered more than any other country during the war. Nazism was not only an expression of a long standing anti-Semitism, but a German Drang nach Osten that preceded Christianity. Poles honor the immeasurably tragic, and immeasurably heroic sacrifices of this era with the same kind of rhetorical reverence Jack Rubin, and most Americans, observe when discussing the Holocaust. Haranguing Poles with accounts of collaborators violates sacred narrative ground, and cannot lead to dialogue.
When American students are provided with the "Anti-Semitic Pole" stereotype as an academically respectable historic axiom, they tend to fill in their own cultural and historical ignorance by applying models with which they are familiar. One young American assured me that life in Poland was like life in the ante-bellum south, with Poles playing the role of the masters, and Jews the African Americans. In this scenario, Poles were required to acknowledge their power, privilege, and guilt. That they had not yet done so was proof of their continued moral retardation. The solution, in my friend's assessment, was for concerned outsiders to harangue Poles until they confessed.
Again, Jewish and Polish historians know that most Poles were serfs through most of the nineteenth century. Jews who worked for the serfs' masters had rights and privileges that many Poles did not have, including, at one point, the right of life or death over the master's peasants. When Poles attempt to speak of the fears they felt of, for example, perceived Jewish dominance in the professions, or the relation Jews had with Poland's occupying powers, their words are not met as efforts to understand a complex historical relationship. Instead, those who lack cultural or historical context automatically label Polish fears as the paranoid or fascist ravings of "ingrained" anti-Semites.
Here's a scene I would like to see in the next "Shtetl," the next "Shoah." The crusading cameraman asks a Polish peasant: "What is the first invasion, famine, plague, exile, slavery, that you remember?" The peasant might refer to the famines of early in this century that starved tens of thousands every year, and prompted an exodus "for bread." Or World War One, in which Poland was a colonized battleground between warring powers, and the plagues that followed. He might know some history and, then, he could recount an endless cycle of one invasion or uprising per generation, followed by mass arrests, public executions, watching thousands of his fellow Poles driven to exile.
Then the researcher might ask: "Tell me about the German occupation." Many old timers cannot speak about this time. They don't like to remember being starved and tortured and shot at random. If they do speak, you may see weathered faces assuming childlike expressions. It is the helplessness of childhood, not its innocence or joy. Seeing this expression on faces battered by time and harsh lives, in conjunction with narratives of irrational, agonized experience, can be profoundly terrifying and sickening.
Then the researcher must ask: "Were you a hero? Or did you succumb to terror? Were you scared when suddenly confronted with the technology of modern warfare in a newly post-colonial nation that sent cavalry against armored German cars? Tell me why you didn't save the Jews." The researcher might know that three million Polish gentiles died, also, if so, he could throw in: "Why didn't you save your mother, your son, your wife, your best friend?" Of course, this Pole himself was under occupation, slated for extinction, allowed only starvation rations. It would perhaps confuse things too much to ask why he didn't save himself.
Then the Polish peasant will have his opportunity to make his confession of moral failure to the American television viewers, who are sitting at home with their chips and dip, poised to give thumbs up or thumbs down. When the Pole does not confess to this camera which has suddenly appeared amidst his cows and pigs, Americans can write his intransigence off as further evidence of guilt.
"Shtetl": The Audience
Who are Americans, the presumed father confessors for the sinful Poles? Many Poles know that America closed the door to Polish immigrants, both Jew and Gentile, in 1924, on the basis of their presumed racial inferiority. These racist American laws were inspiring to and studied by Adolf Hitler. In 1942, shortly after the extermination of Europe's Jews was reported on page ten of the New York Times, (and not covered in other mainstream media) Americans identified Jews as the third greatest threat to national security, after the Germans and Japanese. When Jewish children sought refuge in America, Laura Franklin Delano, cousin of the president, said that these "twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow into twenty thousand ugly adults." The American government denied entry. Jan Karski, a Polish gentile, at great risk to his own life, made an eyewitness report of the Holocaust to the president. America, with this information and all its power – and under no foreign occupation – did nothing to directly stop the destruction of Poland or the genocide of the Jews.
Poles know of Yalta, though perhaps many letter writers to PBS do not. Polish soldiers made significant contributions to the allied cause in battles across Europe and Asia; the allies delivered their nation to Stalin. Stalin's human victims will eventually be forgotten. Stalinism's damage to Polish soil, water, and air, can never be. Lead, mercury, cadmium, aluminum; the percentage of oxygen in the air: words I heard from some young Polish women who told me they wanted to leave Poland before conceiving and giving birth.
Marzynski in "Shtetl", Lanzmann in "Shoah," and western television viewers, do not arrive in their clean clothes and well fed tummies to celebrate the peasant's endurance, to learn the secrets of undiscovered lives. They arrive to demand from the Polish peasant a confession of his cowardice, stupidity and defeat. Polish intellectuals must confess the diagnostically flawed nature of Polish culture and Polish history. It is unlikely that this ritual of shaming, this weird morality play worked with video cams and Polish peasants, will provide the American television audience with the satisfaction it demands.
Modern American discourse flows with the daytime talk show ethos of therapeutic public confession. Blessed with a security so abundant they needn't be aware of it, Americans can take their place on the assembly line, process their story publicly, and hear others' tales, in a warm and teary environment of embraces and forgiveness, something like a public bath. No such safe, multi-vocalic atmosphere has ever existed in Poland. There an ethos of epic and heroism still reigns. At a recent discussion of Polish-Jewish relations, a Polish professor began to cry. "I'm sorry," she began, in English, not quite the "I beg you, sir," of her native Polish. "But people in my family were slaves during World War II. Many Polish Catholics were enslaved." Not a long statement, and something that everyone knew, but it obviously pained her to say it. It wasn't just the remembered pain that hurt her, but the agony of announcing this publicly: We weren't all heroes; some Poles were slaves.
God, honor, country: values Poles are socialized to defend above all. Polish history has many proud moments of inviting Jews when, elsewhere, they were persecuted. Those are the moments Poles chose to speak of when they have their brief and awkward moments in the American public eye. That is the appropriate, heroic story. They choose these stories because anti-Semitism is a shame, a crime. When "they" – outsiders – paint Poles, Poland, and Polish culture as diagnostically anti-Semitic, the embattled motherland is defamed once again. And the appropriately socialized Pole feels constrained to rise to her defense.