[lit-ideas] Re: Poles

  • From: David Ritchie <ritchierd@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 09 Dec 2004 21:20:48 -0800

In my history of humor class yesterday, a guy with Polish ancestry did a
presentation on Polish humor.  He explained that there is a genre of
American humor, the Polack joke, which he never understands.  So, he said,
he looked for a book on Polish humor.  But he couldn't find one.  So he
wasn't sure he'd have much to say.  In a book of Jewish jokes, he found one
or two hints about how Poles coped with the Second World War--Hitler to
Mussolini on the final scaffold, "I told you the war would end in the
air"--but well... all in all he couldn't say why Poles are supposed to be
uncomprehending and...  This was the climax of a good many weeks of
research.

My Department chair is a Pole.  I found her in the faculty garret during a
break and asked if she would like to come and give us ten minutes on Polish
humor.  She was delighted, telling three jokes in Polish and then
translating them.  The one I recall was about a seminary.  One guy shins up
a tree and calls in a deep voice to his dim comrade,
"John, John..."
"Who is it?"
"It is the Lord and I have instructions for you."
He instructs John to take all his clothes off and to go over to the Master's
house and take a pee in the bushes.  Then everyone rushes out and finds him.

Who-ee, those Poles.

Another student, also of Polish descent, said that her father regularly
tells Polack jokes.  She remembered this one:

Three guys are in a car that breaks down in the desert.  The American takes
water from the trunk and sets off.  The Frenchman takes food from the trunk
and follows in his footsteps.  The Pole delays long enough to get a door off
the car and then sets off, carrying the door.  The others turn and ask what
the heck he thinks he's doing.  "Well," he says, "when it gets hot, I can
wind the window down."

All of which is a long introduction to a question: why do you suppose that
Polish immigrants to America were the butt of such jokes?  They arrived at
about the same time as Germans.  Like Germans, they have a magnificent
history of achievement in Mathematics, Music, Poetry...  Where are the Kraut
jokes?

I asked my department chair and her answer was this.  In Polish drama, the
stupid grandmother is a stock character.  When the recruiting sergeant or
the taxman or some other government official comes to the door, the only
person home is the deaf and daft grandmother who, of course, is neither deaf
nor daft.  Her thought was that for Polish immigrants, playing dumb was an
almost instinctive folk strategy.  What think you of the theory?

David Ritchie
Portland, Oregon

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