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New Book Examines Jewish Anti-Polonism

December 24, 2007

The Polish people have been forced to endure many years of anti-Polish prejudice and bigotry.

So much, in fact, that the term "anti-Polonisim" has become a common expression in the Polish American community in referring to this prejudice. Some have even coined the phrase "reverse anti-Semitism" when Jews are responsible for it.
 
Since Poland often welcomed the Jews when the other European countries were expelling them, most Western Jews can trace their ancestry to the old Polish Commonwealth.  Maybe it's true that "familiarity breeds contempt."
 
Robert Cherry, a Jewish professor at Brooklyn College, and Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, a Polish American professor at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, have undertaken the formidable task of editing a new book examining this problem: "Rethinking Poles and Jews: Troubled Past, Brighter Future". The contributors discuss not only anti-Polish stereotypes but also positive developments in today's Poland. They see the future through the prism of optimism and encouragement.
 
The book has been reviewed by Charles Chotkowski, Director of Research, Holocaust Documentation Committee of the Polish American Congress.
 
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"Rethinking Poles and Jews: Troubled Past, Brighter Future"
Edited by Robert Cherry and Annamaria Orla-Bukowska
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
230 pp. $75.00 Cloth, $27.95 paper.         
 
Those of us active in Polish-Jewish relations have been doubly fortunate this year with the appearance of two recent collective works in our field. The first was Volume 19 of "Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry," which was dedicated to Polish-Jewish Relations in North America.
 
Now comes "Rethinking Poles and Jews," in which editors Cherry and Orla-Bukowska have assembled a forward, a preface, four introductions, and thirteen articles, all of which address forthrightly the contentious issues that always seem to crop up in discussions between Jews and Poles.
 
As a longtime participant in these discussions, I can attest that the contributors to "Rethinking Poles and Jews" are knowledgeable persons, experienced in Polish-Jewish dialogue, whose individual efforts over the years have helped to bring about the "brighter future" foreseen in the subtitle.
 
The book is divided into three parts. The first deals with anti-Polish stereotypes, the second with contextual understanding and dialogue, and the third with contemporary Poland.
 
The first part unflinchingly addresses stereotypes of the kind Polish Americans have had to deal with. In his introduction to this part, Thaddeus Radzilowski writes of "anti-Polonism," a term avoided by others as a neologism, although the prejudice it denotes is nonetheless very real.
 
Two articles deal with the depiction of Poland and the Poles in the cinema. Mieczyslaw B. Biskupski reviews the negative presentations found in Hollywood productions, which avoid the realities of life in Poland, especially in wartime, and are fundamentally dishonest. Lawrence Baron discusses the rejection of positive depictions in Wajda's "Korczak" and Polanski's "The Pianist" by critics
who prefer condemnation of the Poles over the nuanced truth.
 
Shana Penn's review of American press coverage notes the positive changes in reports on commemorations of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2005 as  contrasted to 1995, as well as noting the success of Polish diplomats in correcting references to "Polish death camps."
 
The signal contribution of Robert Cherry has been the measurement of anti-Polish biases in this country. While there have been extensive surveys of anti-Semitism abroad, including in Poland, few similar studies of anti-Polonism have been made here. His article surveys anti-Polish biases among Holocaust teachers, finding greater bias among non-historians than among specialists in the field.
 
In "Polish-Jewish relations in America," Guy Billauer's introduction to the second part, he notes "a steady but very slow improvement in the way Jews view Poles and Poles view Jews ... [but] the two communities still see each other largely in negative terms."
 
Much of the negativity derives from conflicting memories of the Holocaust. Surprisingly, Havi Ben-Sasson finds that during the Holocaust years in Poland, Jewish attitudes toward Poles were initially positive, and only later turned negative, as expectations of Polish rescue were disappointed. But the rift was inevitable, given the different fates the Germans imposed on the persecuted Poles and exterminated Jews. As Jerzy Andrzejewski wrote in his novel "Holy Week," "Affairs great and small divide people, yet none so sharply as the inequality of fate."
 
Helene Sinnreich describes how "powerful national mythologies" affect historiography, with Poles emphasizing Polish victims and Jews emphasizing Jewish victims. She finds that some historians, both Polish and Jewish, now write "more balanced, contextualized histories."
 
Father John Pawlikowski shares his manifold experiences as a leading member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and the National Polish American - Jewish American Council; both groups have had arguments over the precise definition of "Holocaust." Regrettably, Father Pawlikowski criticizes the attitudes of some Polish participants without providing the background information needed to understand their disputes.
 
This part concludes with Antony Polonski's reflections on his participation in Polish-Jewish relations since the conference on "Polish-Jewish Relations in Modern History" at Oxford in 1984; he foresees a "normalization" in relations.
 
None other than Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, wrote the introduction to the third part on contemporary Poland, describing how Poles of Jewish origin recovered their heritage after the fall of Communism. On the Poles he writes "To view Poles today as being mostly antisemitic is false and unfair."
 
One can see how things have changed for the better in articles by Stanislaw Krajewski on "a new atmosphere" in Catholic-Jewish relations in Poland since 1989, thanks to major contributions by Pope John Paul II, and by Joanna B. Michlic on anti-Semitism in contemporary Poland. She finds that opposition to anti-Semitism "has succeeded in gaining influence in mainstream politics and culture, especially in the last decade."
 
The publication of Neighbors by Jan T. Gross, on the Jedwabne massacre, became a turning point in Polish-Jewish relations. Natalia Aleksiun considers the impact of the book on Polish historians, producing a permanent change in the way they approach the Polish Jewish past.
 
Polish Americans, who have long been concerned about the negative stereotypes promoted by the March of the Living, will appreciate how Carolyn Slutsky confronts the problems with this organization, which brings Jewish teenagers to Holocaust sites in Poland. One outrageous example was the Jewish leader who showed his group the houses next to the Majdanek concentration camp and claimed, "these people were just sitting in their backyards barbecuing while this mass murder was taking place." Of course, the houses were built after the war, German food rationing did not allow for barbecuing, and Poles too were murdered at Majdanek.
 
And as Annamaria Orla-Bukowska notes in the final article, Jewish visitors to Poland will find that the people of Poland, mostly not Jewish -- and not Jews from abroad -- will produce the scholars and curators who will study the Jewish heritage of Poland, and protect its artifacts.
 
In their preface, the editors state their goal: "to make an intellectual contribution to a field that is often emotional." In this they have succeeded.
 
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Contact:  Frank Milewski
(718) 263-2700 - Ext. 105