Friday, August 26, 2011

Hollywood's War with Poland: 1939-1945

The following essay was written for Writing the Polish Diaspora by Dr. Danusha Goska, author of the award-winning Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.

MBB Biskupski's Hollywood's War with Poland: 1939-1945 is a must-buy, must-read and must-keep book for several audiences. Twenty-first century American citizens seeking insight into ethnic jockeying for power will want to read this book. Conspiracy theorists fascinated by the ability of popular culture to twist human minds will find support for their most Orwellian nightmares. Polish Americans who care about the abysmal position of Polonia in the arts, politics, journalism and academia will buy, read, and reread it. Biskupski's style is straightforward, without academic or aesthetic flourishes. The average reader will have no problem.

HWWP is an essential resource that proves, beyond any question, that powerful people, prompted by geopolitical competition and deep hostility worked hard to sully the image of Poles, Polish-Americans, and Poland. They did this during World War II, when Poland was playing a key historical role. World War II began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Nazis located notorious death camps like Auschwitz in Poland; Poland is an essential site of the Holocaust. As part of its treaty with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union invaded as well, and Poland would be central to the Cold War. In short, when Poland was being crucified by two of the most murderous regimes in world history, Hollywood, with US government supervision and approval, did everything it could to convince its audiences that Poles were unworthy of support or even concern – in fact, Hollywood told its audiences that the Poles were deeply flawed people who probably deserved everything they got. This is the Big Lie writ with lightning – not by Goebbels, but by Washington and Hollywood.

HWWP provides another important service for anyone who studies ethnicity in America. Powerful forces in academia, politics, journalism and popular culture have insisted that the American ethnic landscape is literally black-and-white: poor and oppressed blacks struggle against privileged and powerful whites for their piece of the American pie. Perhaps the most notorious and resented example of this worldview are those check-off boxes that ask scholarship applicants and academic job candidates to identify as several different varieties of "persons of color" while offering only one choice for "white" people. In fact the black-white myth has never reflected reality, and American whites have come in varieties of rich and poor, powerful and disempowered. HWWP depicts Polish-Americans as the utterly disempowered, fecklessly looking on while their ancestral homeland was ruined and their ethnicity was degraded.

Film fans may scoff at the very title of Hollywood's War with Poland: 1939-1945. Hollywood simply did not make many memorable films that feature Polish or Polish-American characters in leading roles. 1939 is known as Hollywood's annus mirabilis. "Gone with the Wind," "Wizard of Oz," "Stagecoach," "Ninotchka," and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" were all in theaters that year, and a Pole is only mentioned in passing in one of these films: as screen goddess' Greta Garbo's lover in "Ninotchka." Perhaps the most famous Hollywood production that was made, and takes place, during World War II is "Casablanca," and there are no Poles in that. The most celebrated film about post-war America is 1946's "The Best Years of Our Lives." In that film, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) a veteran suffering from PTSD, has a nightmarish flashback of combat. In a panic, he speaks of trying to save Gadorsky, a fellow soldier. In another scene, a poor and uneducated, but stalwart and worthy, war veteran and Slavic American, Novak, applies for, and receives, a bank loan to make a new start for himself. The film teaches audiences to like inarticulate working men like Novak.

HWWP acknowledges that Hollywood made few memorable films with identifiable Polish characters. The book focuses instead on movies little seen or discussed today. Biskupski argues that moviegoers of sixty years ago attended many films, not just major productions, but B movies, serials, and government propaganda films as well. These include two forgotten romance films: 1935's "The Wedding Night," and 1944's "In Our Time," and two more overtly propagandistic films: 1943's "Mission to Moscow" and "The Nazis Strike." As Biskupski shows, in these films and many others, negative Polish characters abound. These characters are not negative in a random way; rather, their distastefulness fits a pattern, one Biskupski outlines again and again and again. Through reference to changing versions of pre-production scripts and inter-office memos, often between representatives of Washington and Hollywood, Biskupski demonstrates that distasteful Poles are the products of careful planning. Polish aristocrats are ineffectual, selfish, fascists. Polish peasants and working people are thuggish, sexually coarse, stupid. In short, this is the Bieganski stereotype.

This negative stereotype, Biskupski argues, didn't come about purely by chance. Two factors developed and honed it. The United States was at war with Nazi Germany and wanted the Soviets to keep fighting on the Eastern Front lest a separate peace would allow Nazis to devote all their power to fighting Americans on an eventual Western Front. Of all nations, Poland presented the politician, the historian, the filmmaker and the ethicist with a quandary. Poland was invaded by both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia in September 1939. To this day, the debate continues: who was worse, Hitler or Stalin? No one has the definitive answer. To Roosevelt, though, the answer was clear; America needed to ally with Stalin. Problem: Communist Russia was held in low regard by Americans. The Red Scare of 1919-1920, when America expressed hate and fear of communists and communism, had not occurred all that long before 1939, when World War II began. Americans, who had learned to hate and fear Russians and communism during the Red Scare, needed to be manipulated into embracing their new Soviet ally. Washington directed Hollywood to bring about this dramatic transformation of American hearts and minds. Washington demanded, and got, films celebrating the Soviet Union.

Hollywood enthusiastically embraced Washington's commission. A good percentage of Hollywood's screenwriters, actors, and other movers and shakers were leftists, if not card-carrying members of the Communist Party. To convince Americans that defeating Hitler was worth American blood and treasure, and that the Soviets were a worthy ally, Americans needed to be educated about Hitler's evil, and the Soviets' benignity. This narrative would be a tough sell: the Soviets had been the Nazis' ally just a few short years before the US entered the war, and had signed the August, 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. The Nazis invaded Poland, a bad thing, but the Soviets had invaded as well, and they also had invaded Finland. Nazis mass-murdered and exiled Poles; Soviets mass-murdered and exiled Poles. Nazis demanded other countries' territory; Soviets demanded Polish and Finnish territory. With alacrity, and with adherence to the concept that truth is of value only in so far as it advances the revolution, Hollywood screenwriters did the work of Soviet propagandists. There was no depth to which they would not sink in their insistence on exculpating Mother Russia. Hollywood devised films that depicted the tragic victims of Stalin's purges and show trials as guilty and worthy of the death penalty. Hollywood worked to justify the Hitler-Stalin pact. Hollywood assured its audiences that the Soviet invasion of Poland was a good thing. Are you reaching for your Orwell yet? And your Dramamine?

In the past, Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union fought over territory. Today ethnic groups fight over another commodity: the right to speak of one's own victimization, both in terms of actual body counts and in terms of the cultural victimization that results from negative stereotyping. Poles and Polish Americans are mocked and trivialized when they attempt to speak of their victimization. This happens in staff meetings on university campuses, in the press, and in seminal books. Just one example: James Carroll's very important 2001 book "Constantine's Sword," about Catholic anti-Semitism, describes Poles as being "particularly inclined to define" themselves as victims, in contrast to Jews, who actually do suffer. Art Speigelman justified depicting Poles as pigs in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning comic book "Maus," by saying that "the afflicted" – those who have suffered – understand his work. Poles have not suffered, in this view, and so their opinions don't count. In 2003, Bozenna Urbanowicz Gilbride, who had been in two Nazi camps, and whose mother had also been in two Nazi camps, was told she could no longer refer to herself as a Holocaust survivor because she is not Jewish. These and other dismissals of Polish suffering are strategic. At a meeting at Indiana University, an African American university official told me that he works against public acknowledgement of women's and homosexual's status as victimized groups. Why, I asked, stunned. Because if we acknowledge women and homosexuals as victims, he said, money will flow from programs for African Americans toward programs for women and homosexuals. Status as victim equals justified recipient of commodities, from cash to respect to scholarly attention and placement in curricula. Thus, it is important to belittle any discussion of Poles as victims of stereotyping. Acknowledgement of Polish suffering would require rearrangements of thought patterns, of attention, and of resources. Thus the importance of Biskupski's book.

HWWP is not perfect. Again and again, Biskupski insists that America just did not care about Poland or Poles. As "Bieganski" shows, America was obsessed with Poles and Poland, and America violated its own best traditions in passing the Quota Acts while citing the danger of immigration of people like the Poles. Congressional testimony, articles in the popular press, including the Saturday Evening Post, the New York Times and Atlantic Monthly, and foundational anthropological publications cite the Poles as the very reason America needed to shut its borders. The SAT test, a rite-of-passage for American youth, was first promoted as a test that proved the intellectual inferiority of Poles. This obsession with Poles gave rise to that American cultural icon, the Polak joke. Biskupski never situates his discussion of the brute Polak in American films in relation to America's primary ethnic conflict, that between blacks and whites. Doing so would have offered insight. Poles are the prototypical poor white ethnic. They are the wretched of the earth it is okay for elites to hate, even while embracing African Americans, and using that embrace as a badge of liberalism.

Biskupski insists on the distinction between, for example, a Polish American and a Slovak American in an American movie. Biskupski bristles at the word "Bohunk," suggesting that it arises only from American ignorance about and hostility to Eastern Europeans. In fact, the word "Bohunk," and the concept it describes, makes perfect sense in the American context. Poles, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Hungarians, and Yugoslavs shared similar cultural traits in the old country, and occupied similar socioeconomic niches in this country. Two immigration classics: "The Jungle," about a Lithuanian meat packer in Chicago, and "Out of this Furnace," about a Slovak steel worker near Pittsburgh, could just as easily have been written about Poles. Biskupski argues that Victor Laszlo in "Casablanca" had to have been Czech because Czechoslovakia had no territorial grievances with the Soviet Union, while Poland did. Question: Did American audiences make this distinction? Did they care? As Christopher in the television series "The Sopranos" put it, "Czechoslovakian? That's a type of Polak, right?" Scholar Michael Novak, a Slovak American, complains that people tell him Polak jokes; they see those jokes as being about him. This blurring of boundaries does not occur strictly on this side of the Atlantic; poet Adam Mickiewicz began "Pan Tadeusz," Poland's national epic, with lines praising Lithuania, and the Polish folk hero, Janosik, was actually Slovak; Queen Jadwiga grew up in Hungary. Just so, in American films, characters slide between Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, and other Bohunk identities. This book would be of interest to scholars of a variety of Bohunk ethnicities, not just Poles.

The American concept of the Bohunk is significant to American stereotypes of Poles and other Eastern Europeans and the use of films to disseminate and reinforce these stereotypes. In fact an iconic Hollywood production did introduce American audiences to indelible images of Eastern Europe, and that film, more influential than perhaps any Biskupski discusses save "Casablanca," is the 1931 Bela Lugosi film "Dracula." This film opens to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and peasants repeatedly blessing themselves and invoking the Virgin; there is a roadside cross; a peasant woman gives a British man a crucifix as protection. A British tourist comments that the setting is a relic of "a bygone age." Peasants in authentic costumes, including embroidery, vests, shawls, caps and headscarves are shown in a typical, Eastern European cottage, complete with straw roof. You may as well be in a Skansen. "Dracula," and Maria Ouspenskaya's heavily accented presence in subsequent Wolfman films, communicate loud and clear to American audiences: if you're looking for the scary dark side, the vaguely demonic, the dangerous, the primitive, the irrational, the creepily religious, the superstitious, the sexually perverse, the grotesque, the medieval, Eastern Europe is your go-to location. To this day, every Halloween, Americans wishing to communicate these qualities imitate a vaguely Eastern European accent.

Biskupski devotes no time to an ethnography of audience reception – how did pro-Soviet, anti-Polish films go down with American audiences? With brief references to opinion polls, Biskupski says that these films went down exactly as the filmmakers intended. Todd Bennet, in his article, "Culture, Power, and Mission to Moscow: Film and Soviet American Relations During World War II" argues otherwise. Bennet reports that Americans were often unconvinced, if not outright offended, by pro-Soviet material in American films. There was even a backlash. Significantly, one letter-writer to Warner Brothers studios insulted Harry Warner for being foreign born, and, thus, in league with the Russians. Warner was born in Poland. The American letter-writer apparently could not distinguish between Poles and Russians.

Biskupski's narrow focus on the influence of Hollywood's pro-Soviet Communist Party does not allow for a discussion as to why the Brute Polak image was popular before World War II, after World War II, in print, for example in Nelson Algren's books, or in European films. Andrzej Wajda's "Promised Land" features a Polish aristocrat worse than any to appear in a Hollywood film, and coarse peasants as well. The 1999 Polish film, "With Fire and Sword," features peasants who are drunken, violent torturers and thieves. There are hopelessly stupid and crude peasants in the Czech films "Zelary" and "The Cow," a lengthy scene of cat torture in the critically acclaimed 1994 film "Satantango" set in a Hungarian village, and comically stupid, sexually debased, criminal, violent, and lusty Yugoslav immigrants in the 1981 Swedish film, "Montenegro." In short, Biskupski is correct, and he proves himself correct; communism did inspire Hollywood screenwriters to craft negative Polish characters in World War II era films. But there's more to it than that, and that's why I hope readers will read HWWP and "Bieganski" together. "Bieganski" talks in greater detail about the narratological reasons why storytellers, both on the page and on the screen, often choose to depict Bohunks as brutes.

HWWP's cut-and-dried approach allows little attention to the magic or artistry of film. Biskupski identifies Hedy Lamarr, not Greta Garbo, as the eponymous star of "Ninotchka" (244). No classic film fan would ever make this gaffe; it's like confusing Joe DiMaggio with Vince Lombardi. This is more than a surface complaint. Biskupski rightly argues against a Czech being the leader of the resistance in "Casablanca." At the same time, "Casablanca" is such an overt Hollywood confection that one wonders if anyone has ever viewed it and come away with a sense that the Poles were not doing their part to fight the Nazis, while the Czechs were. Aesthetics affects reception. I've watched "Casablanca" numerous times. I am as much of a nationalist Polish viewer as that film has never had. Yet I've never watched "Casablanca" and had a problem with Laszlo being Czech and not Polish. My attention is focused on the lighting on Ingrid Bergman's lovely face, whether Captain Renault (Claude Rains) is a good guy or a bad guy – or gay or straight – and the film's witty repartee. Biskupski makes clear that filmmakers intended to create ugly Polish characters. Whether or not filmmakers are always successful in their goals is a very different question. Bennett argues that "Mission to Moscow," intended to boost the Soviet Union in the eyes of Americans, actually boosted the US in the eyes of Soviet citizens. When the film was shown there, Russians were given a taste of what life is like in America, and they realized that capitalism was much better than their communist homeland. In any case, as a Polish historian, Biskupski makes up for his lack of film-fan sensitivity with the meticulous attention he pays to pertinent historical facts, attention that probably no film scholar would ever devote to this topic. For example, Biskupski points out the disconnect between the depiction of Polish airmen in American films and the performance of real Polish airmen in the actual Battle of Britain (280).

There is an unavoidable, controversial aspect to HWWP. Jews were overwhelmingly represented among those slandering Poles, Polish Americans, and Poland during Poland's darkest hour. Just one example: Anatole Litvak participated in creating "Why We Fight," which Biskupski excoriates as anti-Polish. Later, Litvak would make "Decision Before Dawn," a film that helped America re-embrace Germany. It's painful to contemplate a Ukrainian-born Jewish American filmmaker who helped America to see Poland in a negative light, but then helped America to exculpate Germany.

World War II was not the first time American Jews contributed to a negative American assessment of Poland. Andrzej Kapiszewski's "Conflicts Across the Atlantic: Essays on Polish-Jewish Relations in the United States During World War I and in the Interwar Years" reports that American Jews often undermined Polish efforts for its own rebirth in 1918 after over one hundred years of colonial status under Prussia, Russia, and Austria. In a typical incident, in 1914, American Jewish newspapers published an open letter alleging that "barbaric" Poland did not deserve independence. To mention this reality risks opprobrium, and, indeed, stating this risks appearing to offer support for the very sorts of hate-mongers who created World War II. When, in 1989, Cardinal Glemp mentioned that Jews had sullied Poland's reputation in the press, he was sued by Alan Dershowitz and widely denounced as a wild-eyed anti-Semite.

Silence does us no good either, though. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in any silence around Polish-Jewish relations, those with the worst intentions become the most loud. So let us state this plainly: American Jews played a significant role in contributing to highly negative images of Poland at two of Poland's most vulnerable historical moments. Now that we've said that openly, we can say the next necessary thing: it was not an essential Jewish identity that brought this about. Not all those insulting Poland were Jewish. Frank Capra, maker of "Why We Fight," was Sicilian-born and Catholic. Roosevelt was no Jew. Not all Jews were anti-Polish. In 1937, MGM, under Louis B. Mayer, released "Conquest," a film that romanticizes Poland and depicts bestial Russians hoards ravaging an elegant Polish estate; heroic Poles respond in a civilized and courageous manner. Too, Jews played a significant role in creating a positive image of Poland during the face-off between Solidarity and communism. The New York Times, under significantly Jewish leadership, published Pulitzer-prize winning, highly sympathetic coverage by journalist John Darnton. Biskupski emphasizes that filmmakers were influenced by communism, not their Jewish identity.

If Polish chauvinists are gratified by anything I've written above, I hope that this paragraph causes them to wipe the smug look off their faces. Biskupski's conclusion contains two sentences that should give every Polish American pause: By 1939, "the Poles in America had conspicuously abandoned the loyalty to the Polish cause that had distinguished their parents' generation…American Poles deserve considerable blame for their failure to defend their nationality's reputation more devotedly." And defend it they could have – Biskupski repeatedly mentions Irish Americans, who were abundantly successful in bringing about significant changes to American film, including the introduction of the Production Code, the inclusion of numerous positive Irish characters, and the plethora of positive depictions of Irish Catholic priests in American film. Biskupski mentions pressures to assimilate, poverty, and lack of education as reasons for Polish-American failures to affect the negative depictions of Poles in films. In fact, though, poor people lacking formal education have organized to make change; witness Satygraha, the Civil Rights Movement, The United Farm Workers, and, indeed, Polish American strikers who played a significant role in the 1936-37 Flint sit-down strike. Further, as my own book shows, the Bieganski image has not gotten better since World War II, but worse. Today's wealthy and comfortable Polish Americans have yet to take significant cultural, political, and academic action against this image, which, in museums, in peer-reviewed books, and in entertainment and documentary films, is used to rewrite World War II history and place Polish, Catholic peasants in the position rightfully occupied by German Nazis. Polish Americans need to act. Their first act after reading this review can be to purchase Hollywood's War with Poland: 1939-1945 and also Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.


Danusha V. Goska is the author of Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture winner of the 2010 Halecki Award. She is also the author of the novel "Save Send Delete" forthcoming from O Books in 2012. She received her MA from UC Berkely under Alan Dundes, and her PhD at Indiana University. She is currently an adjunct professor.

Dr. Goska blogs about the intersection of Poland and America at Bieganski the Blog.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ethnic American Literature and Poetry Writing Position

Dear Friends, I saw the following ad at CWROPPS and thought I should pass it on:

GRINNELL COLLEGE. Tenure-track position in the Department of English (Ethnic American Literature and Poetry Writing), starting Fall 2012. Assistant Professor (Ph.D.) preferred; Instructor (ABD) or Associate Professor possible. Grinnell College is a highly selective undergraduate liberal arts college whose English department offers courses in a broad range of literary traditions spanning the long history and present multiplicity of writing in English. The College's curriculum is founded on a strong advising system and close student-faculty interaction, with few college-wide requirements beyond the completion of a major. The teaching schedule of five courses over two semesters will include Literary Analysis, a survey and an advanced seminar in Ethnic American literature, and eventually introductory and advanced courses in poetry writing. Every few years one course will be Tutorial (a writing/critical thinking course for first-year students, oriented toward a special topic of the instructor's choice).

In letters of application, candidates should discuss their interest in developing as a teacher and scholar in an undergraduate liberal arts college that emphasizes close student-faculty interaction. They also should discuss what they can contribute to efforts to cultivate a wide diversity of people and perspectives, a core value of Grinnell College. To be assured of full consideration, all application materials should be received by November 11, 2011.

Please submit applications online by visiting our application website at Candidates will need to upload a letter of application, curriculum vita, transcripts (copies are acceptable), statement of teaching philosophy, a set of recent teaching evaluations, a writing sample, and also provide email addresses for three references. Questions about this search should be directed to the search chair, Professor Astrid Henry, at
(replace (at) with @ in sending e-mail> or 641-269-4655 .

Grinnell College is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer committed to attracting and retaining highly qualified individuals who collectively reflect the diversity of the nation. No applicant shall be discriminated against on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, marital status, religion, creed, or disability. For further information about Grinnell College, see our website at

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Call For Submissions: Polish-American Writers

One of the finest anthologies of Polish-American writing is John Minczeski's Concert at Chopin's House. Published by New Rivers Press in 1988, it introduced me to the world of Polish-American writers, a world I never knew existed. For me, it was a life-changing experience. I thought I was the only one, the only Polish-American writer. Minczeski's book taught me otherwise. It showed me that there was a community of writers who shared my background, concerns, and heritage.

I am honored to say that John Minczeski has invited me to help in editing his second collection of Polish-American writing.

Here's our call for submissions:

For an anthology of Polish/American authors, the editors (John Minczeski and John Guzlowski) seek quality poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction, not necessarily on a Polish theme, from writers with a Polish background. The anthology will update Concert at Chopin’s House, a Collection of Polish/American Writing, published by New Rivers Press in 1988. Payment, 1 copy. Please send 3-5 poems, or up to 10 pages of prose by Word or RTF attachment to: Polish.Anthology[at] Deadline: January 31, 2012.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Loaf of Bread: A Short Story

For years, my favorite ficiton writer has been Isaac Bashevis Singer, the author of Enemies, A Love Story and a couple hundred of the best short stories written in the 20th Century. What I love most about those stories is the fable-like mix of realism and magic, coal dust and fairy dust.

I've recently started reading Stephen Poleskie, a Polish-American short-story writer who brings some of that same magic to the page.

Stephen is a man with talent to burn. His drawings and paintings are included in the collections of NYC's Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art, The National Collection in DC, and the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Gallery in London. His fiction, essays, and art criticism have appeared in dozens of journals including Many Mountains Moving and Sulphur River Literary Review.

He's allowed me to post one of his stories, "A Loaf of Bread," about a Polish immigrant, here at Writing the Polish Diaspora. The story comes from Stephen's new collection Acorn's Card:

Here's the story:


A sinking orange sun was slowly giving way to a late-summer full moon, whose magical beams now rummaged about weakly in the courtyard below, drawing long shadows underneath the abandoned bicycles, trash cans and prowling stray cats. A tall, angular woman, wearing droll accessories that he could not make out, a pheasant costume perhaps assembled at a thrift shop, tap-danced down the hall, stomping her feet ecstatically, and twirling a lasso made of light. The sudden and rather discordant beeping of Jan Lesnachevski’s alarm clock pulled him from his sleep. It was nine o’clock—as they say here in America—in the evening not the morning. The sky was beginning to get dark, not bright.

Awake now, Jan dressed quickly and then followed an unctuous smell down the hallway to the kitchen, where his wife, clad only in a brassiere and half-slip due to the heat, was cooking him a breakfast of kielbasa and scrambled eggs. “Ahchoo!” Jan sneezed, announcing both his arrival and the fact that he had a late-summer cold.

This reeking and rat infested tenement flat was not exactly what John and his wife had expected when they emigrated from Poland. They had come secretly, via Vienna and London as asylum seekers, to avoid Jan’s being arrested for his part in organizing the Solidarity shipyard strikes. Jan thought to return now that he heard things were much improved in his homeland. But he had written so many letters back, telling everyone how well he and his family were doing—the townhouse in the city, the cottage on the lake, two cars, one a Cadillac, and his children in the best schools. The reality was that while Jan Lesnachevski did own the cheap camera that had taken the photos, the cars and the house in the background belonged to an anonymous someone else. And the shot of his daughter and son under the ivy-covered arch of a fine prep school had been taken on an open tour of the campus. The Lesnachevskis were truly living an American dream.

At the massive, sprawling shipyards in Gdansk, where Poland had once proudly built ships for the world, Jan had been a hydraulic engineer, who wrote poetry in the evenings. Some of his verses had even been published in Polish literary magazines, and he had a minor reputation there. Now, in America, his heart scraped as bare as the knuckles on his hands, he worked as a plumbing repairman, and wrote nothing.

His beautiful and intelligent wife Magdalena didn’t teach in a university anymore, as she had done in Gdansk, but cleaned houses for the rich who lived on River Walk Drive—people who thought they were being nice to her by giving her their castoff clothes, which she accepted and then gave away herself.

Although Jan and Magdalena had become citizens of their new country they felt that they were, nevertheless, without a place. America was still to them a foreign country, where it was not easy to remain yourself and keep your dignity. Although they were unquestionably friendly with their neighbors, and the members of the church group—Protestants nonetheless—who had sponsored their arrival in the United States, the Lesnachevskis had nobody that they could consider their true friends. And while they worked hard to improve their knowledge of their adopted country, its history and its culture, they were forever circling outside, making the rounds, jostled and shoved, polite novelties, in demand until Poland’s plight had faded from the headlines.

They tried hard to start conversations about things dear to them, like mushroom hunting. However, no one here was quite as interested in mushrooms in their natural habitat as Poles were. When you started a conversation about mushrooms you were immediately put in the same category as hippy stoners or American Indians. Those people who did eat mushrooms would never think of gathering them in the wild, but bought Portobellos in the gourmet deli section at their supermarket. Jan and Magdalena wondered if they needed to learn more than just the words to understand the language. Ripe with a great craving for knowledge they kept telling themselves: Soon we will understand and we will truly be Americans.

Through much diligent study in night classes Jan and Magdalena had both mastered English, and spoke with only a slight Polish accent. They were, however, dismayed by the fact that they could not comprehend most people, especially their children, who went to a public school and talked like rappers on MTV.

“Like it’s just funk, dude, totally. I mean don’t slam me, dude. Like ya gotta drop that old Polack shit right now and get with the program, if ya know what I mean. Like ya gotta chill out if ya wanna be into it nowadays.” Or something like that? Jan had been pleased that his son had gone back to calling him dad, rather than Jan, until Magdalena had explained that the word her son kept repeating wasn’t dad but dude.

“Son . . . I can’t understand you.” Jan would reply. “Isn’t it hard to talk with that little bolt poking through your tongue?”

Jan watched his teenaged children walk out the door, wondering why his boy liked to wear his clothing three sizes too big; pants so low that they dragged on the ground and his underwear showed out the top, his baseball hat on backwards. And his daughter; a skirt so short and tight that she dared not sit down or bend over, and boots that looked as if they were borrowed from a Nazi Storm Trooper. Jan could not recall when he last saw either one of them reading a book. Their cluttered rooms had the ever present rattle and glow of video games.

Whenever Jan talked about the possibility of going back to Poland—he didn’t say going home anymore as both he and Magdalena were no longer sure where home really was—all his children ever said was: “Poland! Like are you totally out of your mind, dude? No way!”

Jan and Magdalena had degrees, certificates, yellowed pieces of paper written in Polish, framed and hanging in their living room; however, these were useless here in America. But they would be valuable back in Poland. Jan felt that he was too young to be shunted into a sidetrack, and that his wife’s pedestrian life was unfair to her. Back there they could get good jobs again, not so much for the money, but jobs that they could take an interest in, jobs they could be proud of. Jan and Magdalena had never intended to do nothing with their lives. But people would wonder why they had returned, when they were doing so well. They were living the American Dream.

Although the sky had not yet fully darkened, the summer stars had already appeared, lurking like celestial muggers in their furtive cloud alleys. Outside Jan’s window the borne-down-by-the-heat wind hung immobile over the ragged tenement rooftops, now inhabited by refugees from the sweaty, jostling apartments below. Some people were sitting, some smoking the tips of their lit cigarettes hovering like urban fireflies. A young couple discreetly made love in a quiet corner behind a chimney. The sound of boom boxes, forever circling, each one competing to provide the unwanted melody of the moment, echoed up from the street below. It was time for Jan to go to work—he was on night call.

“Ahchoo!” Jan spurted out again, covering his mouth with his hand. Unlike their meals in Poland, which were always filled with conversation, Jan and Magdalena no longer talked to each other when they ate. They seemed to have nothing to say. When they first arrived, to help with their learning a new language, they had agreed to have their conversations only in English. Lately, when they had gone back to speaking Polish, it was as if they needed to learn their native tongue all over again.

“Would you pick up a loaf of bread on your way back, Jan?” Magdalena asked. “We are all out and the children will want some for their breakfast tomorrow.”

“Ahchoo! I am going on a repair call now, Magda, not out for shopping,” Jan protested. “I got a message. I must go to fix a hot water heater in a tenement over in the Snake Hill neighborhood. I hate going out there at night, much less stopping in a convenience store. They are always filled with weirdoes, junkies, and drug dealers.”

“That grocery store on Jefferson Street is open. I have shopped there before . . . it’s not too bad. You can get a loaf on your way otherwise they may be already closed when you are coming back.”

“Ahchoo! But they will probably only have loaves of that pasty white bread.”

“It’ll be alright. I will make toast.”

“Okay. Goodbye. Ahchoo!”

“Goodbye, dear . . . and don’t forget to buy a loaf of bread.”

Out on the street Jan discovered that his truck’s license plate had been rolled up again. A crazy kid, strong as a gorilla, high on dope and steroids, went around the neighborhood rolling up license plates like they were toilet paper—apparently just for the fun of it. Jan had followed him home one day and then knocked on the door and told his father what he was doing and that if the kid didn’t stop he would report him to the police. “So tell me already,” the father had said rather sarcastically, pulling out his badge, “I’m a cop.”

The very next day, Jan had come down to find the kid rolling up a license plate on the car parked in front of his truck. The boy turned around and, with a big grin on his face, gave him the finger. If his father could not even keep his own son in line, Jan asked himself, how was he going to prevent other people’s kids from committing crimes? The damn police in this town were worse than the criminals, he though; at least with the secret police in Poland you knew where you stood. Could he do nothing here but give up all his ambitions and longings, and try to manage as well as possible in a world without grace and intellect—just put his head down and try his best to forget?

“Ahchoo! . . .” Jan drove along in his pickup truck, wondering why he hadn’t got one with an air conditioner, especially with his allergies. And you couldn’t ride around in this town with the windows open either for fear of being robbed. Jan was sad. His life had become nothing. He reminded himself that he did not want to go out as someone who had been called in to fix the Lord’s plumbing.

“Ahchoo! Damnit,” Jan swore. He had gotten off the highway at the wrong exit—it should have been the next one. What a maze, Jan thought peering through his windshield at the unfamiliar scene in front of him. The damn streets were a mess, all torn up, and it was rather creepy down here by the river at night. Nobody lived in this area but the homeless. Jan had read that they even had homeless people on the streets of Warsaw now—the price of progress the article’s author seemed to think.

“Damn! It sure is hot.” Jan said out loud to nobody but the loaf of bread
sitting in a bag next to him. He had bought it at the store on Jefferson Street, as his wife told him to, using the last of his money. Jan never brought any cash with him when he came to Snake Hill. Some of the other repairmen told him that this was unwise, that he could get killed if someone tried to rob him and he told them he had no money. You should always have a little something to give them, an amount that you could afford to lose, they said. But at present Jan could not afford to lose anything.

“Ahchoo! Shit! It sure is hot,” Jan complained again. Who would want hot water on a night like this anyway, he wondered. The call could have waited until tomorrow. “Ahchoo! Damnit!” Jan was really uncomfortable now, sweating profusely. He wished that he could open his window a crack—but he couldn’t risk it, especially not down here.

The long, wrinkled river, shallow and muddy, swung along lazily just outside Jan’s headlight beams, its sour smell blocked out now by a passing freight train. Jan Lesnachevski slid his seat forward, all the while talking to himself, bending to the windshield, trying to make some sense of where he was. Then he saw a sign reading: Morgan Street. Good, Jan thought, this would take him all the way to Snake Hill. He turned and started down Morgan with enthusiasm. But after one block it became a one-way street. “What the hell?” Jan cursed, realizing that if he turned here he would be basically heading back in the direction he had just come from.

“Ahchoo!” Jan feared that he had driven into some kind of labyrinth. Things looked different at night. There was a lonely, rather spooky bleakness all around, the skyline revealing nothing but the crouched roofs of abandoned warehouses and the tetched lights of the occasional topless bar. He had to get out of these emergency night calls, Jan told himself, even though the pay was time and a half. He wanted to move out of the city, to find a job in the country, some place where he could breathe fresh air. Jan imagined owning a house in a town where he could leave the door unlocked when he wasn’t home. He had heard about such places. Maybe he should take that job he had been offered at a high school in the suburbs. It would mean less money, but it would also mean tall trees and green lawns. Jan had only three more days left to decide. Perhaps he should take his whole family back to Poland—whether they wanted to go or not. He didn’t want his kids to grow up to be tattooed junkies like everyone else in their neighborhood.

After a quarter hour of driving up and down a series of streets that seemed to lead him nowhere, Jan Lesnachevski accepted the fact that he was lost. Finding himself back on Morgan Street, and not knowing what else to do, he decided, as there were few cars in this neighborhood at night, to just go down this one-way street the wrong way until he came to some place that he recognized. And he hadn’t seen any police cars. He guessed that they were probably too afraid to come down here by the river at this late hour.

“Ahchoo! Shit!” Jan swore out loud again. “Now what?” There was a car following him. It had appeared behind him at the last intersection. He had watched its lights lurking in the rearview mirror. Now it was catching up. There was no telling who it might be, doubtless somebody looking to rob him. Jan decided that he had better get the hell out of there. He pressed his foot down hard on the accelerator pedal.

The car behind was speeding up also, almost on his rear bumper. It began flashing red and blue lights. A siren blared once as the car closed the gap between them. “Police officers!” a voice squealed, and then bellowed through a loudspeaker. “Pull your truck over!”

John guided his pickup to the curb, avoiding as best as he could the intaglio of flattened beer cans and broken bottles that lined the gutter. Shutting off the engine, he rolled down the window. The night air, despite being quenched with a musty dampness and the acrid smell of urine, felt cool on his face. This made him sneeze: “Ahchoo!”

A dark presence unwound itself from the police car and slowly made its way up to Jan Lesnachevski—shinning his super-sized flashlight into his query’s eyes as he came. “Can I see your license and registration, sir?” the officer said. Spoken as a question the tone was clearly that of a command. He followed Jan’s hand with the beam of his light as he fished for his wallet.

“Here are my cards, officer, sir . . . what have I done something that is wrong?”

The policeman gave the cards a cursory look and began his screed. “Do you realize, sir, that we have been following you for the last block, and that you have been going down a one-way street the wrong way?” The police officer’s shoulder radio hissed some static. “And may I ask you, sir, just what are you doing on this street at this late hour? Your truck doesn’t have a name on it. And everything down here is closed.”

“Ahchoo! I am lost. . . .”

“You say that you’re lost,” the officer said with an unbelieving tone, his eyes searching the interior of the cab. The beam of his flashlight circled from Jan’s face to the passenger seat. The circular glow fell on Jan’s toolbox—obviously containing burglar tools. Alarmed, the policeman backed away from the window and stood erect. His free hand moved to the handle of his pistol.

“Sir, I’ll have to ask you to get out of your truck . . . slowly . . . turn around . . . spread your legs . . . and put your hands on the hood.”

Blinded by the lights of the squad car, Jan futilely did as he was told. Jan Lesnachevski had a singular trait that revealed his character, one that placed him under eternal suspicion, perhaps something that had become ingrained in him while growing up under a totalitarian system—strangely enough he took pleasure in obeying orders. He moved slowly, considering any errors or stupidities that might compromise his situation. He wanted very much to sneeze but stifled the urge. Jan could hear the crackling of voices on the police radio, and the idling engine of the squad car. The night seemed hotter now. The air was heavier than it had been just a few moments earlier. The dull, gray sky had become veined with luminous moon-whitened contrails.

“I am a licensed plumber . . . a repairman on a night call,” Jan protested meekly as the policeman, using one arm, the other still on the handle of his gun, patted down Jan’s body searching for a concealed weapon. Jan wanted so badly to sneeze, to cough, to wipe his nose. But he swallowed hard, held his breath and did nothing.

Standing with his legs spread, Jan’s mind recalled a similar steamy night some years ago back in Gdansk. The fear that cloaked his body now was the same fear that he had felt then—a fear that he wasn’t supposed to have here in America.

For no apparent reason the tram had stopped; not at a regular stop, but in the middle of a block. The driver threw the door open and two men got on, apparently the ones who had signaled the operator. They didn’t pay a fare, and the tram did not start up again when the door closed. The two men walked slowly down the aisle, carefully studying the faces of the occupants as they moved between the rows. Jan pretended to be looking out of the window at the dark figurines in niches on the houses: gargoyles, Mary and Jesus, gaudy in painted plaster or enamel. What he really was observing was his own reflection. How much did he look like the photograph on the identification card that he was carrying, a card that had his face, but not his name? In the window’s reflection he saw the two men in leather trench coats, too warm for the season, but a mark of their trade, looming over his shoulder. They had stopped at his seat.

“You! Turn this way . . . and show us your papers.”

Jan pivoted in his seat, smiled, and produced his identity card.

“This is you? The taller of the two men, had asked, holding up the card to John’s face.

“Yes. . . .”

“And where are you going on this tram?” the second man added.

“Home. . . .”


“But this tram does not go in the direction of the address you have on this card. . . .”

John flushed, he needed a good story quickly; he smiled and then leered. “Of course not. I am stopping off at my girlfriend’s apartment first for a little relaxation. And then after home to the wife. . . .”

“And so we have caught you up to some monkey business,” the tall man said. Jan’s heart skipped a beat; sweat began to run down the back of his neck. Were they on to him? “But you are lucky. For tonight we are not looking for cheating husbands, but for strike organizers. We have a list of names of the people we want to bring in . . . and you, Stefan Podlewski, fortunately are not on it.”

“So now you can go ahead and get yourself a good fuck,” the shorter man said smirking at Jan as he handed him back his false identification card.

The two secret policemen turned and continued working their way to the rear of the car. The tram still had not moved, another tram had come up the tracks behind it and also stopped. Two other men in leather coats got out of a parked Lada and boarded the second tram. After a few moments in the back, the two men on Jan’s tram came forward; they had a third man with them. Jan recognized the man from protest meetings that he had attended, but the two were careful not to make any eye contact. At that moment Jan had felt very sorry for the man being taken away. Shortly thereafter he and Magdalena had fled from Poland.

Now, over the policeman’s shoulder, Jan observed a lone figure turn the corner and begin walking toward them. Then the man must have caught sight of the police car parked behind Jan’s truck. He turned his baseball hat around, and pulled his hood up over his head. Although the city was a bonfire the man wore a bulky coat over his black hooded-sweatshirt. Trying to look casual, the unknown man crossed over to the other side of the street. The walker was a black man—the officer checking out Jan was white. There was another officer in the squad car, but he had remained seated inside, only a dark silhouette.

Matching Jan’s Slavic face with the picture on his driver’s license and with the ones on his union card and plumber’s license seemed to satisfy the questioning officer. He returned Jan’s cards and told him he could get back into his truck.

Jan was elated, he had nothing to fear, proud that these really were his cards, relieved. The matter was closed. This was America. There was justice in this country. It was only a mistake, the police couldn’t be too careful. After all, they were here to protect him, looking out for his own good.

“I love America! I love America!” Jan shouted out the truck’s window, startling both the policeman and a very large rat that had just chanced to emerge from the sewer grate across the street.

Ignoring Jan’s enthusiasm the police officer continued: “However, there is still the matter of the traffic violation. . . .” He spoke softly, almost in a whisper, his head leaning into the open window, his words coming slow, groping.

“What infraction?” John asked. He turned his head, “Ahchoo!” but did not cover his mouth, not wanting to make any sudden moves with his hands.

“You were observed by two police officers driving in the wrong direction down a one-way street.”

“But I was lost,” Jan said hoping to explain away his crime. “I was so happy when I saw the flashing lights of your police car. I was quite nervous down here in this dark and unfamiliar area . . . nothing but warehouses and abandoned factories. Ahchoo! I had gotten off at the wrong exit. I was sure that the lights behind me were a car full of thugs planning to rob me.”

Jan thought that he saw a look of pity come over the officer’s face. He felt a slight coolness as a gentle zephyr searched its way down the dark street. With a cautious gesture he wiped the back of his hand across his runny nose, but did not sneeze.

“Well . . . let me go back and talk to my partner about it,” the policeman said, giving Jan a disparaging look. “I’ll tell him that you didn’t know what the law was because you are a foreigner. . . .”

“No! Please. I’m not a foreigner,” Jan yelled after the officer. “I am now a citizen . . . I love America!”

Jan Lesnachevski waited patiently in a clammy silence, not exactly clear just what was going on, his palms and armpits damp. The officer had gone back to the police car and was sitting inside talking to his partner, who apparently was of a higher rank as he had remained in the air-conditioned vehicle while his junior had gotten out and done all the leg work. John watched them in his rear view mirror, wishing for the power of clairaudience so that he might know what they were saying. Nevertheless, his wait was brief. The first policeman returned shortly with a half-smile on his face.

“My partner thinks that we should let you go . . . but first ya gotta give us a Christmas present.”

“A what?” Jan asked incredulously, sneezing again, wondering that either his English, or his hearing, must be failing him. “A Christmas present? But this is the middle of summer. . . .”

“Yeah, a Christmas present . . . you know, a gift. Like how much money have you got on ya?”

“I haven’t got any money,” Jan said displaying his empty wallet. Then he pulled back, suddenly realizing that he could be arrested for vagrancy. He had almost forgotten that in America it was a crime to not have any money. “I mean, yes I do have plenty of money at home . . . but not with me. You see, when I go on calls in these rougher neighborhoods I never bring any money with me for fear I might get robbed.”

“A good idea,” the officer agreed. “We wouldn’t want you getting ripped off down here . . . would we now.”

Jan sniffed. He would have liked to have taken a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his nose clean, but he was wary of making any suspicious moves at the moment. For some reason unknown to him, Jan’s gaze fell on the officer’s chest.

The policeman caught Jan’s eyes trying to read the number on his badge. He shined his flashlight in his suspect’s face. Jan blinked and turned his head. The flashlight’s beam fell on the brown paper bag stuck in the space between the seats.

“So ya got no money . . . but my partner says ya gotta give us a gift if ya don’t wanna get a ticket . . . and he’s my superior. So what ya got in that there bag?”

“It’s only a loaf of bread . . . for my children’s breakfast.” Jan stifled another sneeze.

“Is it fresh?”

“Yes, I just got it back there in a store on Jefferson Street.”

“Let me go talk to my partner. . . .”

The officer turned and slowly walked back to the police car. Jan watched out the half-open window as a low flying airplane passed overhead, its strobe lights appearing like nascent diamonds in the hazy night sky.

“My partner says that we’ll take the bread,” the officer announced on returning.

“What do you mean?”

“Just give us the bread and we’ll let you go. . . .”

“You’ll let me go if I give you this loaf of bread?”

“You heard me. . . . That’s what my boss said.”

Slowly rolling his window down all the way, Jan handed over the brown paper bag.

Holding it rather nervously, the policeman shined his flashlight into the bag, warily verifying its contents. “You can’t be too careful these days, it might of contained a rattlesnake . . . or maybe even a bomb. You never can be too sure of these things. Like why do people hate us policemen so much? They’re always trying to kill cops. I can’t understand why? I mean, we’re only out trying to do our job.”
“I understand,” Jan volunteered cautiously, clearing his throat.

“Thanks,” the officer said smiling. “And if you turn right at the next corner, and then go three more blocks to Truman Avenue . . . that’ll take you back to the expressway. Have a nice night, buddy.”

“And you too, officer. . . .” Jan smiled his best smile.

Gingerly gripping his prize, the policeman raised his free hand to the peak of his cap in a smart salute. The officer looked rather comical standing there rigidly in the darkness, Jan thought, rather like the cutout life-sized man that served as a “welcome” sign at his neighborhood carwash.

“Ahchoo! Thank you, God. . . .” Jan said when, upon turning his key in the ignition switch, his truck, not known for its dependability, sprung back to life. It was apparently as glad to be leaving this dark place as he was. Peering through the windshield, Jan glimpsed a violent flash of energy from a building thundercloud, too far away to be heard. It looked like rain for later tonight.

As Jan pulled his truck from the curb a man, apparently homeless, scruffy but still perky, darted through the yellow circle of the street lamp in front of him. Jan applied his brakes rather firmly, causing his metal tool box to depart the seat for the floor, landing with a crash. As Jan drove away, the anonymous man quickly disappeared into the anxious shadows alongside the building.

Jan Lesnachevski’s family would have no bread tomorrow morning. His children wouldn’t care though—they rarely ate breakfast. And Magdalena didn’t like toast anyway. Jan would lie and tell them that he gave the bread to a homeless man. His wife was very generous and would understand. He didn’t want to reveal the perplexing story about the policemen, and what actually happened to his loaf of bread.

Jan wondered again if perhaps he should take that job at the high school, even if he would be nothing more than a glorified janitor. No one had pointed out any reason why he should or should not make this choice. He could work days, and be home at night. And the school superintendent had said that they would find a job for Magdalena too, if only as a school bus driver. She would earn less than she makes now cleaning houses, but still, with the two salaries they might be able to afford a small house of their own. They could have a yard, with grass and trees, and even a cat. And maybe then he could tell his wife the real story of what happened to the loaf of bread he bought that night—but never brought home.

Freed of the Stygian darkness, Jan urged his pickup truck onto the rushing asphalt beltway, newly paved, whether it needed it or not, by a company owned by a friend of the mayor. Jan’s headlights flashed on the posters lining the concrete abutments; posters for candidates who promised him less taxes, and more of everything, if only he would vote for them—no more lost jobs, no more hunger, no more war, no more graft and corruption.

In the sky above, Jan Lesnachevski saw the fickle moon wink from behind its horehound ring, aspen wisps of cloud hurrying past. He thought he caught the fresh scent of a new wind prowling around the roof tops.

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