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Memory and Neighborhood: Poles and Poland in Jewish American Fiction after World War Two (Warsaw Studies in Jewish History and Memory)

jan peczkis|Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Author Aleksandrowich-Pedich is heavily indebted to Danusha Goska's seminal work, Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture (Jews of Poland), for content and inspiration. (p. 15).

4.0 out of 5 starsThe author agrees with Goska's characterization of Leon Uris as one who uses attacks on Poles as a cover for attacks on peasants. (pp. 32-33). The author also is implicitly supportive of Goska's comments on the inappropriateness of Spiegelman's MAUS in the classroom, at least insofar as it distorts history and perpetuates stereotypes. (pp. 94-95). The author endorses Danusha Goska's understanding of the Jewish concept of "cursed Poland" in creating Jewish identity. (p. 100). Finally, the author recognizes Goska's view about western Jews associating Poland with all kinds of negativism--a kind of snobbery that even extended to Poland's Jews (the OSTJUDEN) as targets. (p. 111).

On the other hand, Aleksandrowich-Pedich disagrees with Goska over what appear to be minutiae and technicalities relative to the archetypical Bieganski (p. 16, 65), as well as the fact that Jewish authors do not, or do not always, portray Poles solely in a negative fashion. (p. 15, 20). While all this is technically correct, it does not vitiate the reality of the Bieganski stereotype, and does not undermine, much less negate, the massively anti-Polish drift of Jewish writers in general.


The author identifies the following mostly-American Jewish writers who have, to varying degrees, written derisively about Poles and Poland: Saul Bellow (pp. 41-42, 46), Leon Uris (p. 31-on, 93, 107), Nelson Alaren (p. 19), Aharon Appelfeld (p. 21), Nava Semel (p. 21), Chaim Potok (p. 22, 106-107), Art Spiegelman (p. 23), Herman Wouk (pp. 25-26, 48, 108), Philip Roth (p. 27, 109), Tova Reich (p. 33, 39, 49), Bernard Malamud (p. 34), Leslie Epstein (p. 39), Jonathan Safran Foer (p. 39), Pearl Abraham (p. 41), Edna Ferber (p. 44), Steven Stern (p. 48), and Edward Lewis Wallant (pp. 49-50).

Not surprisingly, these authors focus largely (though not exclusively) on the negative, as opposed to the positive, aspects of the Polish-Jewish coexistence. Even less surprisingly, these authors are, as is almost always the case, in deep denial about all the wrongs that Jews had done to Poland in the past--wrongs which had played a major role in the generation of the endlessly-discussed Polish anti-Semitism.

Of course, the foregoing list does include anti-Polish Jewish authors of nonfiction. Moreover, it is limited to literary works. It does not even begin to touch the many Polonophobic Jews in media and academia. These, most of all, shape American public opinion about Poles and Poland.


Aleksandrowich-Pedich makes several rather transparent exculpatory statements for Jews writing derogatorily about Poland. I discuss three of them.

The author praises Bernard Malamud's character, Josip, "who, despite Polish, no anti-Semite". (p. 36). That is like someone saying that so-and-so "though a Jew, is not a crook."

The author appears to try to whitewash Art Spiegelman's MAUS, in its portrayal of Poles as giving the Hitler salute, even though she recognizes that no ethnic Pole would have done that. (p. 94). Spiegelman, we are told, is using historical errors to indicate Vladek's faulty memory, in that Vladek portrayed Poles as Nazis in order to illustrate the fact that Poles [supposedly] had a Nazi-like hatred of Jews. This is falsehood and bigotry. Using the same exculpatory logic, would it be all right to show Israeli Jews giving the Hitler salute in order to illustrate their (alleged) Nazi-like hatred of the Palestinians?

The author excuses Philip Roth, for his portrayal of Saint Pope John Paul II as anti-Jewish (even though the Pope had actually been very much a philo-Semite), because "one of the aims of OPERATION SHYLOCK is to provoke." (p. 97; See also p. 139). If it is all right for a Jewish author to be untruthful to be provocative, when discussing Poles, especially iconic Poles, then why is it not alright for a neo-Nazi to be untruthful in order to be provocative (read: hate speech) in reference to Jews?


Some defenders of Art Spiegelman excuse his portrayal of Poles as pigs by saying that he also uses other animal characters (mice for Jews, and cats for Germans). This silly exculpation is just that. The uniquely derogatory connotations of the pig are obvious to even a five year-old. If not, then tell someone "You cat!" or "You mouse!" Observe the reaction. Then tell them "You pig!" and observe THAT reaction. You better run!

Pigs have, in addition to pejorative connotations in everyday conversations, especially abominable connotations in Jewish tradition (in a way that cats and mice do not). Keeping this in mind, author Aleksandrowich-Pedich clarifies Spiegelman's motives, (quote) The very choice of Art Spiegelman to portray Poles as pigs indicates that they are, if not anti-Semitic, then decidedly alien to Jews. As James E. Young observes, "...while not a natural enemy of the Jews during the Holocaust, as pigs they come to symbolize what is TREIF or non-kosher. They may not be as anti-Jewish as the cats, but they are decidedly un-Jewish." (unquote). (p. 23). Case closed. To call any people an inherently unclean people is a form of racism. Clearly, Spiegelman's characterization of Poles, as an inherently unclean (TREYF, or TREIF) people, is, or is close to, a form of Jewish racism. The fact that MAUS is widely used in the classroom makes it all the more odious.

Author Aleksandrowich-Pedich also corrects another of Spiegelman's elementary distortions of basic facts. She comments, (quote) When Vladek travels by a streetcar in the German occupied Sosnowiec, he goes to the car for Germans (there were two, one for Germans, the other for Poles), claiming he is safer in the German one: "Germans paid no attention to me...in the Polish car they could smell if a Polish Jew came in." What the contemporary reader of Spiegelman's novel does not realize is that if Vladek the Jew had been caught in a German car, nothing would have happened to the Germans; if he had been caught in the Polish one, all the Polish passengers would have been held responsible for protecting him, facing all kinds of penalties, including being shot on the spot for assisting a Jew, even if they had no idea he was one. So a Pole recognizing a Jew would indeed have been likely to have reported him out of fear for his own safety, but not merely because of anti-Semitism which is implied by the way Vladek talks about it. (unquote). (p. 94).
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