PAJ: You note that Jews of Polish ancestry were prominent in 1940s Hollywood, e.g., the Warner Brothers, but that they
had ambivalent attitudes about the “old country.” Can you develop this theme?
MBB: It has been noted in other contexts that the Jewish immigrants to the United States at the turn of the century did not wish to return to the country
of their former residence. Many Catholic Poles, by comparison, did not intend to stay in the United States, but regarded it as a temporary sojourn. The Catholic Poles overwhelmingly brought with them powerful
attachments to their ancestral homeland. For the Jews of Eastern Europe the situation was far more complex. For some warm feelings for Poland remained with them — one may mention for example the publisher
Jakub Vorzimmer or the entrepreneur Ludwik Hemmerling – but for most their former homeland was associated with bad memories — at the very least alienation, for many actual discrimination. That this
was the often the product of the Partitioning powers did not change the memories. Virulent nationalism was on the rise at the turn of the century and the Poles shared in this unfortunate phenomenon. To many
nationalist Poles, Jews were either unassimilated or inassimilable. It is striking how many of the Hollywood Jews never spoke about their ancestral homelands and regarded those generations there as a closed
chapter. This alone caused a division between Polish Catholics and Polish Jews in the United States. The Jews assimilated into a resident Jewish community and abandoned their former countrymen. For the Catholic
Poles this was tantamount to betrayal. The seeds of animosity were planted as soon as the immigrants arrived.
PAJ: You indicate that Jews in Hollywood had some interest in presenting the issue of the extermination of European Jewry in film,
but that the Roosevelt Administration fought those efforts. Can you expound on this a bit?
MBB: Hollywood Jews were very chary about presenting Jewish issues in wartime films. They were aware that polling evidence indicated that large segments of
the American population harbored feelings of suspicion and dislike for the Jews. To even suggest that the War was over Jewish issues, i.e. the Holocaust was worrisome to the Jews who feared a public backlash.
Similarly, the Administration did not want Jewish issues focused upon in order to maintain public unity: the war as moral crusade not the rescue of persecuted Jews. Both Washington and Hollywood saw Jewish
issues as dangerous to confront. This explains the lack of films about the Holocaust. “None Shall Escape,” a film set in Poland, is a notable exception. There are minor Jewish sub-plots in two other
films (“To Be or Not to Be,” “Once Upon a Honeymoon”) largely set in Poland.
PAJ: You make the striking comment that, for Poles, raising the Polish flag over Monte Cassino was as sacred and symbolic as raising
the American flag over Iwo Jima. Can you tell us how Hollywood recounted that event?
MBB: The film, “The Story of GI Joe,” is focused on the allied assault on the Gustav Line, the well-prepared German defensive position
stretching across Italy. A focal point in this line was the famous monastery of Monte Cassino. There were repeated attempts by Allied troops — including Americans — to take the position. All failed.
But, the Poles were victorious in May 1944 and raised the Polish flag over the heights. Polish casualties in this action were enormous and the victory allowed the Italian campaign to resume after months of being
stalled. This was a major Polish contribution to the war made at huge costs. For the film to omit the Poles and suggest that it was an American victory is simply outrageous. The film incidentally was written by
members of the Communist Party. In the film, it is the American flag that is raised over Monte Cassino—a fantasy, not an historical fact.
PAJ: You insist that there was no “conspiracy” to slur Poland in World War II Hollywood, but that various independent
factors dovetailed to produce what happened. Poland, you say, had few friends and many enemies in Tinsel Town. Could events have been different and, if so, how? Is the Polish situation in Hollywood any different
MBB: There was no effective Polish “lobby” in the United States. There was no significant Polish presence in Hollywood. The Polish
government-in-exile was virtually penniless and a very minor voice in the West. Hence, there was no strong voice for Poland. Even the Catholic Church, seemingly an ally of Roman Catholic Poland, did little for
the Poles. After all, the American Catholic Church was dominated by the Irish and Polish influence in the Church hierarchy was almost invisible. The factors were in place to make it impossible for the Poles to
receive sympathetic treatment by Hollywood.
PAJ: What inspired you to write this book? How long did it take, and what was your most memorable anecdote associated with its
MBB: I began my research for the book several years ago and travelled about gathering information: from studio records, private papers, and government
documents—including FBI reports—as well as many memoirs of actors, directors and studio executives. I started writing the book a few years ago, but was interrupted several times which delayed the
process. In all I should say the project took more than five years. I remember watching World War II era films with my family when I was a boy. My mother was a great student of Hollywood and had a fantastic
memory for films and their players. In addition to her enthusiasm, I remember very well the frustration and sadness of my family at the neglect of Poland in these films. We all knew what Poland had suffered
during the war: they deserved more than this indifference. I should think my most striking experience — of which there was more than one occasion—was when I would discover that Hollywood
screenwriters would simply invent whole episodes which were utterly without foundation to present the Poles in a foul light. Some of these creations are utterly fantastic and were fabrications which the writer
certainly realized at the time he was preparing the script. A good example is the supposedly accurate rendition of the memoirs of Joseph E. Davies, “Mission to Moscow,” by screenwriter Howard Koch.
There are scenes in the film critical of the Poles which do not appear in the book despite Koch’s claims to the contrary.
PAJ: What kind of reception has the book received to date?
MBB: When I was in Poland briefly in March, there was considerable interest in the book—after all it touches a sensitive spot for Poles: why their
suffering and achievements were ignored. It would be enormously satisfying to me were a Polish-language edition to be published. I have given a few lectures on the book here in the United States and have drawn
large audiences. I have no idea what the sales figures are. Reviews are only beginning to appear so I cannot make a response. I anticipate that the political Left, of which I am very critical in the book, will
be dismayed by the book and react accordingly.
PAJ: Do you intend to follow up on the themes Poland/Hollywood raised in this book? What else are you currently working on?
MBB: I think one book on films for a historian whose work is devoted to political and intellectual history is more than enough. I am finishing a very long
work on the role of the United States in Poland’s resurrection as a free country during World War I. It is a theme which has interested me for many years. I have almost finished another volume on why
November 11th is Polish Independence Day and the myths and symbols surrounding it which have helped create the modern Polish political mentality. Finally, I just published a book a few weeks ago which is a
collections of essays on the idea of democracy in modern Polish thought. In this effort, I worked with colleagues from Purdue and the University of Toronto.
PAJ: Thank you, Dr. Biskupski. We hope your book finds its way to every Polish American’s bookshelf!