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.