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Chocolate Under Communism

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This is the story of what happens to chocolate when a country goes communist. It is also a story about my family -- or at least the left wing of my family: my somewhat distant relatives who had a fling with communism. It is about idealism and disillusionment. It's about what happens when you try to separate production from distribution. It is a timely story and a cautionary tale.

This is also the story of Irena Penzik, known affectionately in family circles as Renusha, and about her favorite uncle, Julek, -- known to the whole world as Juliusz Katz-Suchy. The things I will tell you about happened long, long ago, and far, far away in a country known as Poland in the middle of the last century. I was not there. I had not even been born when the events happened. My main source of Information, besides some family gossip, is Irena's own book, ASHES TO THE TASTE.

The Katz children-- 1915

From left to right: Tonka, Judek (Julek in Polish) and Benzion

From left to right: Tonka, Judek (Julek in Polish) and Benzion

Irena and her father

This photo was taken in 1939

This photo was taken in 1939

In the top picture are seated, from left to right, my great aunt Tonka, my great Uncle Juliusz, and my grandfather, Benzion Katz. Standing behind them, according to my grandfather's notation on the back of the photo, is the maid. The photo was taken in Vienna, Austria in 1915.

The people in the photo were Polish Jews who had taken refuge in Austria during World War I, and who returned to Poland as soon as it was over. My great grandfather was a merchant. He had three children. Tonka, the eldest, was fifteen years older than my grandfather Benzion (1907-1968). My grandfather was five years older than my great uncle. Shortly after Juliusz (1912-1971) was born, their mother died. Tonka took on the role of a mother to her two brothers. In consequence of this, when they grew up and got married, their wives resented her. She was like a mother-in-law to them.

Tonka was unlucky in her marriage, and her only daughter, Irena, sided with her father. So it was that in 1939, when World War II broke out in Poland, Irena, Tonka's daughter was vacationing in America with her father, while Tonka was stuck in Poland when the German's invaded on one side and the Russians on the other. But that's a different story. This story is about Irena.

Visiting the New York's World Fair with her father in 1939, Irena was not able to return home. She did not see Poland for another twelve years. In the interim, her father died, she graduated from Columbia University, married a young American communist, had a son, and went to work for her Uncle Juliusz at the U.N. Her Uncle Juliusz was at this point the Polish representative to the United Nations.

Irena served her Uncle Juliusz as his personal secretary and was privy to the daily workings and intrigues of the diplomatic life. Eventually, hearing that Poland was thriving under communism, Irena decided that she wanted to see her homeland once again, and Juliusz granted her wish and arranged for to her have a home leave. Irena's six weeks in Poland, in 1951, were to change the course of her life and that of he uncle.



Polish Nationalism

A Copper Plate found in my Zionist grandmother's Tel Aviv apartment reads: "Tysiac Lat Panstwa Polskiego" -- A Thousand years of Polish Sovereignty

A Copper Plate found in my Zionist grandmother's Tel Aviv apartment reads: "Tysiac Lat Panstwa Polskiego" -- A Thousand years of Polish Sovereignty

My Grandfather Benzion Katz -- Irena's Zionist Uncle

Benzion as a young man

Benzion as a young man

The Pull of Poland

To understand why Irena, who was now a legal resident of the United States and married to an American citizen, would want to return to Poland, you have to understand the deep feelings of homesickness that every Pole experiences at being separated from his homeland.

Poland is a country with a long history, rich in culture and tradition, and beloved of all who have grown up in its atmosphere. Did you know that Poland is unique in having had an elected king? Back when Poland was a monarchy, its kings were elected, rather than born to office. I know this, because my grandparents never stopped talking about Poland, even years after they had helped to establish the State of Israel.

Poland was also a country where ethnic identity determined social status, and where anti-semitism was rampant. My grandfather and his younger brother were both conscious of this, and each decided to resolve the problem in a different way. My grandfather became a Zionist, and his solution was to create a place where he need never be the outsider, by reviving the ancient language and culture of the Land of Israel. In making this dream a reality, it helped that he was a philologist and spoke Hebrew fluently. My great uncle Juliusz believed that under communism all the racial prejudice would be eradicated, and he chose to remain a Pole. He believed that by destroying the established order, he would bring about a Poland that treated everyone alike.

In some ways, Poland exerted an influence, both for good and for ill, on those who left it, as well as those who stayed. When my grandmother Klara, Benzion's wife, died decades after her husband, a shiny copper plate in leather case lined with velvet was found in her Tel Aviv apartment. It featured the seal of Poland and the words: "A thousand years of Polish rule."

My grandparents left Poland in 1939, with only the clothes on their backs. The few photographs and mementos they took had to be smuggled in their clothes. There could not have been room for such an item. How did they acquire it? And why did my grandmother, who hated clutter and was notorious for throwing valuable objects away, hold onto this?

Clearly, pro-Polish sentiment never died.

Katz-Suchy as a young man

Katz-Suchy as a young man

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Uncle Julek the Idealist

Irena remembered her uncle from her childhood as a man she looked up to and admired. Juliusz as a young man was lean and handsome, idealistic and generous. He joined the Polish communists as a teenager, when doing so subjected him to being arrested and even imprisoned. Despite his middle class background, he identified with the poor and downtrodden, and he was willing to sacrifice everything to make the dream of "social equality" come true.

"Julek was always the kind of boy who would 'give you the shirt off his back.' He liked our house better than his own, and when I was little he spent much of his time with me. It was he who brought me my first dog, and Kiza, the cat, and I came to associate him with funny stories, lovely songs and wonderful times. ... His first political arrest came just before graduation from the gymnasium, but the affair was somehow hushed up and he went to Cracow University to study law. His second arrest came soon afterward, then came the trial and conviction -- five years imprisonment for Communist activity at the university." (ASHES TO THE TASTE, p.17) . After two and a half years in prison, Julek was released when amnesty for politcal prisoners was declared. He came home "still holding firmly to his convictions, but ill with tuberculosis." But the release was short-lived, and soon the police came and took him back again, this time to the newly created concentration camp of Bereza Kartuska, in a muddy area of eastern Poland.

Irena writes: "We thought we might never see him again. But in the evening of a February day, twenty-three months later, the doorbell rang and I opened the door to a tall familiar figure in a long trench coat... Julek had come back. ...No university would accept a boy with hisp ast and no one would give him a job....He could talk only of the tortures, the blood and the murder of the camp, and of the men who had stayed behind." (ASHES TO THE TASTE, P.18).The family sent him to recuperate in the Tatra Mountains, but when his father died, and Julek came down to attend the funeral, he was again arrested.

Irena describes what happened next: "At the police station, my father extracted the information from the captain that Julek was again being sent away -- to the concentration camp. That night, convinced that he would never return from the camp, he managed to escape from the police station in the midst of a raging storm. The good people of a neighboring village sheltered him, and later a friend drove him to a border town... From there a guide took him across the "green border" into free Chekoslovakia..."

Katz-Suchy with his daughters, Erika & Barbara   New York, 1951

Katz-Suchy with his daughters, Erika & Barbara New York, 1951

Uncle Julek once in Power

The last time Irena saw Julek before the war, she was a young girl not yet fully grown, and he was a member of the communist underground, bloodied but unbroken. When she saw him again, the communists were in power, and he was a successful politician. He had changed considerably. Irena barely recognized him.

"It had been nine years since I last saw my Uncle Julek. When notified of his arrival, my husband and I rushed to see him. The man who opened the door of his hotel room ... looked like a total stranger. He seemed older than his years, stout, sloppy and not particularly attractive. There was nothing to remind me of the tender hero of my childhood, and I wondered for a moment if I hadn't made a mistake. (ASHES TO THE TASTE, p. 50.)


(To be sung to the tune of Disney's Beauty and the Beast)

Since the dawn of time,

It has seemed unfair

That some folks are poor,

Some have so much more,

Can't we all just share?

Listen to this tale,

Those who long for change,

Tale of West and East,

Julek and his niece,

Who became estranged.

"Uncle Julek's changed...

"Can this be his face?!"

"Shall I tell my niece,

Not to go back East?

--No! I'll be disgraced."

Prematurely aged,

Hero of her youth,

Doesn't dare to tell

All has gone to hell,

Doesn't share the truth.

When you spread the wealth

All will go to waste,

Nothing left to eat,

Even Wedel's sweets

Ashes to the taste.

Nothing left to eat,

Even Wedel's sweets,

Ashes to the taste.

(c) 2008 Aya Katz

  • Whose Delicatessen? - TIME
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Wedel Chocolates under Communism

The Polish diplomats abroad never ceased to talk about how well things were going at home. They complained that they couldn't stand the degenerate life of the West. All the while, they were stuffing their suticases with luxury goods from the West, things like condensed milk, canned fruits and vegetables, sardine tins, Swiss chocolates, over the counter drugs and cosmetics, electrical appliances, underwear, soap and toilet paper. Irena, who accompanied her uncle on a world tour prior to her home leave, saw all of this, but she didn't quite understand what she was seeing. Her uncle did not enlighten her. It was only when they were in the Geneva airport, and she was bound for Warsaw, that he turned to her and said: "Don't worry about anything. Don't take things to heart. Everything will turn out all right." Irena was dismayed at this sudden solicitude. Up until this point, she had not known that there was anything to worry about.

Irena boarded the plane without her uncle, who would be returning to Poland later. For the beginning of her visit, she would be staying with her uncle's family, who had preceded him to Warsaw from New York.The apartment where Julek's wife, Lilka, and their two children, Erika and Barbara, lived was considered a luxurious one by Polish standards, although it only consisted of two bedrooms, a living room, one bathroom and a kitchen. "In contrast with the mild climate of Geneva, which I had left only a few days before, Warsaw seemed quite cold. Neverheless, the apartment was completely unheated. In fact, despite the growing cold, there was not to be any heat in that or any other Warsaw apartment for the six weeks I remained in Poland. There was no hot water available in this choice block of houses, except for several hours on Saturday afternoons, when people took their weekly baths." (ASHES TO THE TASTE p.33). The Katz-Suchys had a brand new refrigerator they had had shipped from the states. The refrigerator was empty. There was no food.

The Katz-Suchys, as important party members, had a housekeeper. Her chief job was to stand in line for hours on end in the empty stores and try to find some food. People who were not fortunate enough to have a housekeeper had to stand in line for non-existent food themselves, after a full day of work.

There was no way to properly clean clothes, and no new clothes to buy, so people wore the same outfits over and over again, worn and covered with stains. Supposedly there had been a "cultural revival" under communism, but attending a play or going to the movies was unbearable, not only because of the trite communist propaganda, but because of the stench of all the unwashed bodies gathered at close quarters in the same unventilated hall.

An edict requiring the "discipline of labor" was in force, which meant that a system was put in place to try to ensure that all worked long hours and remained productive. People were expected to meet daily quotas, and it was all very stressful, but despite this, ( or maybe because of it!), the local goods were of substandard quality, and the economy was in shambles.

Staple foods like meat, eggs, milk and butter were completely unavailable. There was enough bread to be had, however, and there were sugary cakes, because Poland had a surplus of beet sugar left over from before the war.

No wonder Uncle Julek had gained weight -- he had been on a high carb diet. All of Poland was on a high carb diet! People who had once had sleek, lean bodies began to look like sacks of potatoes on this dietary regimen. In Poland in 1951, no one needed to hear about the Atkins diet in order to realize what an absence of dietary fat does to the body.

Julek's wife Lilka was a medical doctor, but she could not find a job, despite a shortage of doctors, because of party wrangling. She finally managed to get a job at a creche (a day care center), taking care of children. Her charges were malnourished, sickly and had sores all over their bodies.

This was life in the workers' paradise. People whispered, because they dared not say it out loud, that things had been better under Nazi occupation.

When Julek returned from Switzerland, he brought home some treats. The children pounced on the bananas and chocolates. The remaining chocolate, after the first day, was placed in a cabinet under lock and key, to be doled out to the family by Julek on a daily basis.

"Once or twice my uncle brought home a box of Wedel chocolates, a renouned name in prewar Poland. A state-owned factory now produced confectionary products under the same brand name. I nostalgically remembered the wonderful taste I associated with it. You can imagine my disappointment at seeing the chalky-looking candy and at the abonimable taste of this poor imitation of chocolate. I saw no reason for the bad quality of this product, except that there no longer seemed to be any pride involved in its making." (ASHES TO THE TASTE, p.80.)

Ashes to the Taste -- The Music Video

Irena's Defection

After experiencing all this first hand, Irena underwent a painful period of internal turmoil -- of questioning herself and her faith in communism. She became completely disillusioned, and she wanted out. Her husband and her two year old son were waiting for her in America, but the way home was a difficult one. By accepting a Polish passport, Irena had given up her status as a legal resident in the U.S. It was only by being an employee of the Polish delegation to the U.N. that she had any right to return to the U.S. But she no longer believed in her employers, and eventually she took a leave of absence and began to seek legal help to remain in the U.S. without Polish protection.

It was not easy. She had been a member of the communist party, as was her American husband, and this was the McCarthy era. All Irena's friends in the U.S. were communists, and when she defected, they turned their back on her. For years her husband Mark, who was a teacher by training, could not find work because he was black-balled by his ex-comrades.

There are two kinds of communists: those who believe in equality at every cost, even starvation, and those who believe that redistribution of wealth will relieve the suffering of the common man. Irena had belonged to the latter group. When she left the party, she found out that many of her friends had belonged to the former. When she told them about conditions in Poland, some said: "You're telling me nothing that I didn't already know."

Irena and Julek became estranged. Her defection hurt him badly. In a world where a fall from grace was sometimes accompanied by an execution, Katz-Suchy was deeply threatened by what his naïve niece had done. At one point, upon being recalled home in disfavor, he had a serious car accident that some believed was an attempted suicide. (See the link to the Time article entitled "The Unhappy Shakespearean.")

In family circles, some said that while Irena was right about communism, she shouldn't have spoken up, because it damaged Julek. These people, staunchly anti-communist even in the old days, would never turn Julek in when the police were looking for him, because politics is politics, but family is family,

The falling out between Irena and Julek was an inevitable result of Irena's naïve belief in the communist propaganda. She really did think redistribution would lead to a better life for all. When she found out it was quite the opposite, she felt it her duty to speak up.

Separating Distribution from Production

The story of Irena and her Uncle Julek, of Poland and communism and Wedel chocolates is as timely today as it was half a century ago.

There are still people today who, just like Juliusz Katz-Suchy in his youth, want to help others by making sure that they, too, can have their "fair share" of everything. To these people, the wealth of a nation is like a pie at a family picnic. It seems that the right way to slice the pie is to see how many people are gathered round the table, and to cut the pie into as many equal pieces as there are people. Anything else, in a family, would be unfair.

But to run a country on the model of a nuclear family is to make a terrible mistake, If you try to slice the pie equally, you destroy the pie. Then everybody is equal, but there's nothing to eat.

Barack Obama is an idealist just like Irena's Uncle Juliusz. He wants to "spread the wealth." He has been heard to remark that a free economy is very good at producing valuable commodities, but not so good at seeing that they are distributed evenly. He wants to keep the production going and is planning to intervene only in regard to distribution. But the lesson from the communist experiment, a lesson Obama may never have been taught at Harvard, is that distribution and production are inseparable in a free economy, They create a feedback loop that ensures quality control. Disengage distribution from production and your product disintegrates.

It's all very well and good to remark that Wedel chocolates are delicious and that it's a shame the rich get to eat more of them than the poor. The moment you balance the inequalities to make sure the chocolates are equally available to all is the moment the chocolate loses its flavor.

(c) 2008 Aya Katz

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Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 06, 2012:

I disagree.

Competition among people in a free market is good. People who don't wish to compete in the marketplace can go for subsistence farming or hunting and gathering.

The government shouldn't produce anything. It should not be involved in the marketplace. It should not redistribute the property of citizens.

Taxes, since they are destructive, may be imposed on the enemy in a war situation. Make them pay danegeld. But even that should be done only as a last resort to pay off war debts, and not as a way of subsisting.

hugh on November 06, 2012:

kinda funny how in communism they try separate distribution from production, but in capitalism it's all about supply and demand :)

which really is the polar opposite, due too the two being integral parts of each other.(at least ideally)

I think the real problem the government(in both canada and the usa) should address while keeping an open market is the availability of basic needs like medical and education being met, while directly developing High Grade technology to not only sell to the common man but too further contractors and country's alike.

in this way it would be their soul job to be the gold standard in research and development, that way independent corporations and company's can compete against them.

if anything it should be the governments job to produce capital by making generic good's, they don't even have to be very good good's if there is a proper privet sector in place and an open market for good's of higher quality.

the main problem we see in all modern economies is the fact that people are pitted against other people in order to acquire the good's and services they need to survive.

you see this in all of them be it Fascism, or capitalism, communism, anarchy, Left/Right.

it's all the same problem!

if the governments were to maybe take "some" land and build vast facility's ment for the production of cheap staple good's and basic care(it's actually quite a racket), while-st allowing for a vast privet sector mainly pitted against the government it's self for public funding(aka people buying/spending their cash too buy nice stuff from them).

another major job of the government should be, that they are supposed too not only develop technology but pretty much get a peek on what everybody else is making to further enhance their own.

everything they develop for personal and commercial use, would be available for production in the privet sector too, patents and technological developments would reach the public faster.

that way everybody else has to develop even better good's and services just too get ahead and stay on top.

aside from that it's all good :) but governments need to remove the role of pitting people against each other and start making them compete against one unified body.

Justin W Price from Juneau, Alaska on March 06, 2012:

you're welcome!

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on February 14, 2012:

Thanks, PDXKaraokeGuy!

Justin W Price from Juneau, Alaska on February 14, 2012:

terrific hub, aya. Very very interesting and interesting perspective on communism

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on March 07, 2009:

Wendy, no doubt ingredients had something to do with the change in Wedel chocolates. The problem was that the Polish people didn't have any choice in the matter. They couldn't decide that because it tasted bad, they would buy some other brand of chocolate.

The profit motive alone is not enough -- there has to be competition and free choice. Communism doesn't allow for choice.

If there is some ingredient in American chocolates today that you don't like, you don't have to buy it. There are imports. There's competition. You can even make your own chocolate. There are hubs that will show you how to do it.

If today's ingredients are not nearly as healthy as we would like, that is a problem with reduced vigilance on the part of buyers. But you don't hear people complain about how the product tastes.

The difference between a communist economy and one under free enterprise is choice.

Wendy on March 07, 2009:

Nice story. However, it is missing details. A reader needs to ask if there were missing ingredients that affected the taste of the chocolate. Often when a regime change occurs there are problems with imports/exports. Also, the rush for ever-increasing profit is what causes food manufactures to cut corners. Can you even pronounce the ingredients in most of the candy sold in the US? Have you ever wondered why the basis for food coloring in the US is coal tar rather than actual food (just Google FD& C yellow #5 or any of the lake colors)? That’s right, coal tar is more profitable. Remember the non-food protein added to infant formula in China (a case of state-sponsored capitalism)? Well, it happened here in the US too with infant formula made by Nestle and sold in the US. You can’t have an economy based on profit alone.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on February 22, 2009:

Vladimir Uhri, thanks!

Yes, I am concerned that the U.S. may already be socialist, and is headed toward communism. That's why I felt Irena's story was so timely.

Vladimir Uhri from HubPages, FB on February 22, 2009:

Hej. Nice history. I enjoy it.

Question: Are not concern the communism is coming to US?

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on December 01, 2008:

Hi, Ken. Thanks for your comment.

Ken Goldsby on November 30, 2008:

Hello, All:

By way of introduction: I'm Aya's unofficial uncle, arrising from my close friendship with her late father, Amnon, the most brilliant intellect I ever met in this life, and her mom, Ora, now in Indianapolis.

There was mention of Hungary above. Perhaps some of you know or recall that in 1956, the Hungarians revolted against Soviet domination. They almost gained control of their country; then Moscow sent in the tanks. Many of the survivors fled to Germany. A German-born woman who later became my adoptisve sister was involved in getting these refugees settled. They brought horror stories of KGB atrocities enough to chill the blood.

At the time, I was a fighter pilot in a squadron based near Munich. We were the closest of all to the 'iron curtain,' a mere 50 miles from the Czeck border. Things got very terse. We were on a high state of alert, always with several pilots in the cockpits ready to 'scramble.' We expected to meet hordes of MiGs flown by well trained Czeck pilots, and many thought we wouldn't survive. As it turned out, the MiGs were not well maintained, the pilots didn't have much flying time, and the Czecks were short of fuel. So communist air power was about like communist chocolate.

I have some observations for Dorkage anent 'fair share:' Do you know that the lower 40% of US wage earners pay no income tax? My figures are not exact, but roughly 70% of taxes are paid by the upper 10 percent income bracket, and about 50% by the upper 5% of the income scale. Is this enough 'graduation' for you? Some years ago, a number of high-earning Americans renounced their citrizenship and decamped to a Caribbean Republic whose govt. is financed by tourism. We lost their incomes, their ingenuity, etc. I have joined a movement called the FairTax, which would abolish all the current forms of taxation in fovor of a national sales tax. If you want to know the advantages of this system, read FairTax: The Truth by Neal Bortz and Congressman John Linder.

In the matter of chocolate: Like many things we enjoy or take for granted nowadays - e.g. tomatoes, potatoes, corn - it originated in the New World. The Aztecs harvested chocolate before Cortez arrived. It was considered such a luxury that only their kings could enjoy it. Montezuma, the last Azteck king, drank chocolate several times daily. It is harvested as a powder from the seeds of the cocoa plant and must undergo considerable processing before it's consumed.

Doesn't this give you the urge run out and get a Hershey bar?

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 30, 2008:

Hot Dorkage, thanks! I think you're the only one who noticed the lyrics. I'm not sure why, but not too many people seem to have played the video, though there have been many comments about the article itself.

There could be no loopholes if the tax code were not so complicated. If we had a flat rate tax, say ten percent for everyone, then everyone would pay their share. That, however, is not the plan endorsed by anyone in power. Have you ever asked yourself why not?

hot dorkage from Oregon, USA on November 29, 2008:

Hey Aya Katz, You aren't bad as a lyricist! I disagree that Obama is espousing any communistic ideas of redistribution of wealth, the problem in this country is that the rich trick and own the legislature and they get through loopholes or deliberate special deals in the tax law so that the poor and mid classes end up bearing the brunt. I am a free market believer after studying communism and all its relatives and seeing what that does when mixed with human nature But all I ask is to make the rich pay their share, not to nationalize the free market. And free market in health care is a different ball of wax altogether.

Debra Allen from West Virginia on November 21, 2008:

Thanks and I left you a comment there too.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 21, 2008:

Lady Guinevere, I took a look. Interesting stuff.

Debra Allen from West Virginia on November 21, 2008:

I have my LEWIS geneology o hubpages if you would like to read it.

Debra Allen from West Virginia on November 21, 2008:


Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 21, 2008:

Livelonger, I agree, it's a balance. The best way to achieve that balance is to let people sort themselves out as to what career path suits them. There's nothing like freedom of choice.

Misha, thanks for your comment. I don't have any personal experience of communism, but over the years I've met many people who did live under one communist regime or another. They have very similar stories to tell.

Lady Guinevere, thanks for dropping by and sharing the story of your immigrant ancestors. The U.S. is a melting pot of different nationalities. Often people left harsh conditions for the opportunity to do better here, but found that they had to go through some really tough times in America before the dream of a better life could be realized. It's not the guarantee of success or prosperity that brings people to the US. It's just the chance to try.

When you guarantee people that they'll always have what they need to live, that's when everything goes wrong.

Debra Allen from West Virginia on November 20, 2008:

Wow what a history lesson! I enjoyed reading it. I didn't have any idea of what it was like over there. I live in the United States and my ancestors are from Germany (which I have very little on in the fact of living conditons and political affiliations) and Wales, (which I have lots on). All my welsh ancestors were involved in the mines over in Wales and the conditions got so bad that when they unionized most came over here and worked in the mines in Pennsylvania and Maryland---only the conditions weren't much different here.

Thanks for writing this hub. I always have a yearning tolearn aoubt other places and peoples--not sure why..

Misha from DC Area on November 20, 2008:

Excellent hub Aya, and very interesting comments, thank you :)

Having first hand communism experience, I can relate on what you said :)

Jason Menayan from San Francisco on November 20, 2008:

Interesting. I believe China, with its Cultural Revolution, and similar "agricultural revivalist" movements with Cambodia's Khmer Rouge and in Vietnam, also turned out disastrous results by moving professionals out to the fields, where they were not suited. But in their case, at least, they had no choice in the matter!

I think it's all about balance. I'm not suggesting everyone should be a professional. I don't think, with the exception of lawyers and real estate agents (!), there are too many professionals in the U.S. And given how mechanized agriculture is these days, it would be hard to argue that it's starving for manpower. But at least here in California, there are a lot of illegal immigrants working in agriculture.

The situation in Israel might very well be different, although the reason kibbutzim are closing or consolidating has less to do with Israelis losing the penchant for farming, and more to do with the fact that other industries are more profitable.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 20, 2008:

Livelonger, I think we've probably come to the point of diminishing returns on our discussion of affirmative action. However, you keep coming back to the importance of the professions, and I do have something to contribute in regards to that.

The professions are highly overrated. One of the reasons that the Zionist ideal didn't quite pan out is because most of the people volunteering for agricultural work were essentially not agricultural material. Lots of individuals who had the sorts of attributes that would have had made them great professionals turned out to be lousy farmers. Even those who succeeded felt that they were sacrificing something rather big in their lives by becoming agricultural workers. In later generations, most Israelis moved away from agriculture as a way of life, because their talents so clearly ran in a different direction.

However, no country can exist without farmers, manual laborers and other productive members. If we insist that all aspire toward the professions, who will do the real work? Illegal immigrants?

Jason Menayan from San Francisco on November 20, 2008:

I agree that you can't change a person's mind by force. But I guess I'm thinking that affirmative action doesn't really affect the perceptions of those who have fossilized minds. It rather makes an impression on those who are still impressionable. And the goal is not to make people choose to be less prejudiced because it's in their best interest, but to make the logical processes of their mind arrive at that conclusion.

I agree that AA can cause resentment, and it does. I just don't think the alternative - pretending there's a level playing field when there isn't - does anything to tear down the deeply-ingrained, self-perpetuating lack of visibility of certain minorities in professional spots.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 20, 2008:

Livelonger, people under a free a market are free to act on their prejudices, but by doing so, they miss out on valuable opportunities that people who are not prejudiced will take advantage of. The less prejudiced will become more successful, and eventually their attitude will predominate. This is what happens if people are allowed free choice.

But if you use force to make people act as if they respect others -- when in fact they don't -- you achieve the opposite result. Government intervention in favor of one group (and against another) is bound to breed resentment and prejudice.

You can't make people like other people by pointing a gun at them and saying: change your mind or else. Government intervention, even when cloaked in kid gloves, is the use of force. "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still."

Jason Menayan from San Francisco on November 19, 2008:

Aya: Well, if more people had fair-minded attitudes like yours, I'm sure we wouldn't have a problem. Sadly, I think you're in the minority.

I don't think the free market is color blind; i.e. people will apply prejudices in their buying/hiring/renting/etc decisions. And the abilities of a person are shaped throughout their childhood and adolescence, before they become productive members of society. I agree that knowing people as individuals is the key to wiping out prejudice; I have seen that first-hand. But the vicious circle of only hiring, buying from, accepting and effectively seeing your own kind can be difficult to break.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 19, 2008:

Livelonger, I think that all superificial differences, even skin color, tend to fade away as a salient factor when you get to know someone as an individual. If we just give each individual the same rights, then the free market will select against those people who allow prejudice to blind them to merit. Will this completely eradicate bigotry? Maybe not. But bigotry doesn't pay, so in a free market bigots don't prosper.

AEvans, thanks for your enthusiastic comment!

Julianna from SomeWhere Out There on November 19, 2008:

An amazing story about the price others will pay for what they believe in. What a wonderful story to share with others and an enlightment to all. :)

Jason Menayan from San Francisco on November 19, 2008:

"The moment you stop seeing an ethnic identity is the moment it ceases to exist. It's all in the mind."

Agreed. But how exactly does that happen? When you are talking about an ethnic group that is visually distinct, how do you erase people's deeply-held perceptions about them?

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 19, 2008:

Livelonger, I appreciate that you are giving my words a fair hearing, but I guess we'll have to agree to disagree, because it's not just about the facts, it's also about which facts we value more.

I do agree with you, though, that perceptions change facts. The moment you stop seeing an ethnic identity is the moment it ceases to exist. It's all in the mind.

Take the Aztecs. You don't hear much about prejudice against people with Aztec ancestors in the U.S. This is not, however, because there are no people with Aztec ancestors who live in the U.S. It is because all the descendants of Aztecs were assimilated by the Spanish conquerors of the Americas. They are now called Hispanic along with many other people whose ancestors were not Aztec. The Aztecs were not wiped out. But they don't "exist", because nobody (including themselves) perceives that they exist.

Jason Menayan from San Francisco on November 19, 2008:

Aya: I completely understand where you are coming from, and respect your opinion because it makes sense and is logically consistent. But I don't agree with it, because both in the US and in Israel, there's a complex picture.

First, setting aside affirmative action for a moment, people perceive and act on racial/ethnic differences differently, and it does depend on what ethnic group you're talking about. Some ethnic groups have more "historical baggage" and preconceptions that are hard to erase away, than others. In my experience, it is almost impossible for a person in the US to not have some sort of attitude towards black people, for instance (and, frankly, most of it tends to be negative in some shape or manner). But Mongolians? The mention of the ethnic group won't register as having a meaning for the vast majority of Americans. They have no idea or preconception about Mongolians' educational level, work ethic, attitude towards white people, etc.

As you state yourself, there were Jews in Europe that preferred to not have their ethnicity to be acknowledged, to blend in. That would have been absolutely perfect if non-Jewish Europeans were willing to comply! Stating a policy of “we will officially see everyone as Polish, no matter what their ethnic or religious background is” doesn’t make it so, when it comes to non-governmental jobs, private housing, etc. (The government can afford to be completely, strictly fair, and is under public scrutiny to be fair) People would continue to be prejudiced, either applying much higher standards, and/or finding excuses to deny applications, to shut people out.

The case of Jews is a bit different, because they were actually more prosperous than the ethnic majority, despite the anti-Semitism. That engenders some stereotypes of their own, positive ones, that tend to be self-fulfilling. Poles might have disliked Jews but might concede that Jews were supposed to be better lawyers, doctors, bankers, butchers, professors, etc. (A similar case exists in Malaysia among the ethnic Chinese) So the Jewish ethnicity was laden with stereotypes, but not wholly negative ones. And, positive stereotypes tend to be self-fulfilling prophesies, something called the “Pygmalion Effect.”

But how to you begin to deal with the fact that there is an ethnic group that carries a *only* negative baggage with it, and, as a whole, suffers from it in terms of access to jobs, education, etc? As far as I know, the only positive stereotypes that African Americans have have to do with athletic performance and music…not the sort of things that would help them get professional jobs. How do they dig themselves out of a hole (when the Pygmalion Effect is working against their favor)?

I understand what you mean by affirmative action but I don’t think it’s a matter of being “fashionable.” It gets down to whether you think fact changes perceptions, or perceptions change fact. I think the latter is far more true than most people realize.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 19, 2008:

Livelonger, I do appreciate your more recent perspective on the situation in Poland. I was not in any way trying to contradict you there, especially since I haven't got any first hand information on the subject.

The place where we might be at cross-purposes is in what we regard as prejudice in the first place. This is a particularly painful point, because when the State of Israel came into being, it modeled its ideas about ethnic rights on what had been in place in Eastern Europe between the wars. The idea prevalent there was that being fair to minorities is allowing them to continue to cultivate their identity as minorities, without putting pressure on them to become like everybody else.

The Polish State felt that it was enlightened, (and many Jews agreed), because no attempt was made to convert Jews to Christianity or to make them give up their separate identity as a group. In feeling this way, Poland was comparing itself to, say, Spain, under the Inquisition. Compared to that, of course, Poland was enlightened, and the Polish people were highly tolerant.

However, what many ethnic Jews longed for was to be allowed to blend in and forget all about their ethnic identity. This is what many Germans thought they had successfully accomplished, when Hitler came by and shattered that dream.

This was what the Dreyfus trial had been about, too, and this is what prompted that decision of many to become Zionists. Many people who happened to have been born to Jewish families found it impossible to assimilate. In Poland this was particularly difficult, because a person's ethnic status was a matter of public record.

In the United States, during the same period, while there may have been many individual bigots of various sorts, the country as a whole was tending toward a color blind acceptance of anyone who tried to blend in. (Yes, I know this was not true for blacks in the South, but that's a different story that was on its way to being corrected.) In the U.S., anyone willing to give up acting different had the opportunity to be the same as everyone else.

Things have changed considerably in the U.S., though, because it has become fashionable to stress ethnic differences and to include ethnic identity as a legitimate matter of inquiry on government forms and in programs that involve government funding. In recent years, with affirmative action programs springing up everywhere, it suddenly does matter what ethnic identity you belong to, and it can make a difference to your acceptance to a university or even a government sponsored job. It then becomes a question of which ethnic groups are recognized and which are not, for purposes of special treatment. (Whether there are specific clearly stated quotas is a minor issue.)

In Israel, following the Eastern European model is what led to the Entifada. Felahin, who would have been happy to assimilate, were told by the government that they were Non-Jews and second class Israelis. Naturally, that was not acceptable. The category of "Palestinian" did not exist until the Israelis invented it.

This explanation covers a lot of ground. Take the time to digest it. It's a lot to have to take in all at once.

Jason Menayan from San Francisco on November 19, 2008:

Aya - I understand you're conservative but I'm not sure where you get your perceptions. What liberals endorse quotas on minorities? (That is what you're talking about with respect to Jews in Poland and acceptance into universities)

I'd love to hear an explanation of your last statement, as well.

(And in my last comment, I was just offering a more recent view on Polish attitudes on Jews, to complement your story's historical perspective)

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 19, 2008:

Livelonger, thanks for your very informative comment. I'm glad to know that Wedel chocolates are going strong now, and that people in Poland recognize the importance of free trade.

The mention of prejudice against Jews in this article was not in any way related to what the Nazis did once they occupied Poland. I was referring to the situation between the wars, during which time Jews were officially recognized as "different but equal". People's ethnic status was a matter of official record in Poland, and the idea of equality meant things like quotas for Jews at the University. It's a complicated issue, because this attitude concerning how to treat minorities is one that many liberals today find quite admirable. It was, however, very different from the melting pot ideal that we have had in the United States until recently.

When we give minority groups "rights", we are in fact enforcing prejudice against individuals.

Jason Menayan from San Francisco on November 18, 2008:

Wow, what a story! I lived in Poland for 2 years (1999-2001) and know both the history of Jews in the country (I've always admired the Jewish people and have been fascinated by their history) and Polish chocolate!

When I was there, naturally, both high-quality imports (mostly from Germany) and equally high-quality domestic chocolate (from Wedel, Wawel, etc) were available, and both were relatively inexpensive - about 2.2 zloties or about 60 cents per bar. Even for the most modest Polish incomes, it was not priced out of reach.

The fact that imports were allowed in to compete with domestically-produced products was key to maintaining high quality. In fact, I remember a debate in my tiny town's newspaper, startlingly intelligent and well-reasoned, about the merits of free trade and how it raised the quality of, believe it or not, chocolate. All adult Poles remember the chalky stuff they were forced to endure during the communist era.

I do think your analogy to Obama's "spread the wealth" comment is flawed, although propping up a loss-making industry like the US car industry will only reinforce problems and poor quality, only because a failure would cause far too many dislocations at the same time. I certainly hope that the bailout will be forced to be repaid and won't be long term. There are no import blockades that would make American manufacturers complacent (well, any more than they are already).

Re: Jews in Poland. I was always curious to see what today's non-Jewish Poles thought of their past vis a vis Jews and the picture was unbelievably complex. What's clear is that not all people thought the same way. Opinions ranged from a clear defensiveness against Jewish claims that Polish people didn't do enough (I remember a political cartoon in a conservative paper where a young Jewish boy says to his father, "Dad, there's a Polish guy at our door that says that he saved a Jewish family during WW2" and the father responds, "Ask him why he didn't save 100 families!") to profound sorrow and embarrassment about the country's history, not for its anti-Semitism, necessarily, but that it was too weak at the time to protect its Jewish population from massacre. Regardless of their opinions, Polish people all seemed to recognize Polish Jews as their own. Nevertheless, I had a hard time getting Polish people to go to Auschwitz with me, and ended up visiting the memorial alone.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 14, 2008:

Lori, thanks for your comment. It is not too late, I think, for the message of the chocolate to come through. Quite possibly, once in office, the new administration will become more attuned to the realities of the free market.

PGrundy, thanks for stopping by and sharing the story of your daughter's grandfather. I've met many Hungarians over the years, and each of them has a unique story to tell. Your daughter is right. We are made out of other people and their histories. It's important to hand down these stories from one generation to the next.

Jerilee, thanks!

Jerilee Wei from United States on November 14, 2008:

Wow Aya! What a wonderful backstory to your family history and to history itself. The lessons from such family histories are ones we all should share because they absolutely apply to today.

pgrundy on November 13, 2008:

What a story. Thank you for sharing it.

My first husband was Hungarian. His father was imprisoned for running an anti-Communist newspaper. He was imprisoned not once, but twice and was starved and abused there. When he got word he was about to be arrested again he was smuggled out of the country by marrying a complete stranger--the daughter of a military officer--and they immigrated to the U.S. and had a family, my husband being the youngest.

Once when my oldest daughter was gravely ill my father-in-law came and sat in the hospital with me and confessed to me (for what reason I still don't know) that his last name was not the one he was born with--that he had changed it during the war and that that helped him get out of Hungary later. He told me what his real last name was. Then he never brought it up again.

None of that has anything to do with how you and I might view economics, but your story made me think of that incident, and also of all the stories my father-in-law used to tell about how it was over there. I have always wondered if he was Jewish and changed his name for that reason, but I would never ask him that--I mean, I feel like he would tell me if he wanted me to know. Or maybe he WAS telling me and I'm just a bit dense.

Anyway Aya, thank you for sharing this very moving and dramatic family history with Hub Pages. Once my daughter (the same one that was ill when my father-in-law told me that) said to me, "Mom, if you think about it, people are all made out of other people--we're all made out of our dead relatives."

It brought me up short, but she was right.

lori763 from SWFL on November 13, 2008:

Thank you for this story - I enjoyed it and your writing style. Unfortunately, in today's political climate,people do not want to hear the message of the chocolate. It is very compelling.

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