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August 28, 2018 by

The Ultra-Nationalist Polish Trolls—and Me

twitter“Grab attention on social media,” authors are constantly advised – especially if, like me, they are relative unknowns whose books have been published by small presses and they are expected to do pretty much all the marketing themselves.

Become a go-to part of the conversation on specific topics related to your book.Get in the conversation. Say something provocative. Get reTweeted.

After my debut novel “The Heirs” was published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press this spring, I dutifully put aside writing my next Great American Novel in order to jump full-throttle into PR outreach. Because “The Heirs” is about two Polish-American families in New Jersey – one Jewish, one Catholic – coming to terms with their post-Holocaust relationship, I particularly tried to Tweet on topics involving Poland, Judaism, and World War Two.

Thus, when I went to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, to see an exhibit of photos from the Lodz ghetto in Poland, I Tweeted: … It’s like seeing what my great-grandmother saw when she was walled in there. (Oops is it now illegal in Poland to say that?) 

I did have some qualms about the snarky last sentence —which referred to Poland’s new law making it illegal to say that Poles collaborated with the Nazis— though I reassured myself that it was merely Twitter style.

Actually, it was the rest of the Tweet that turned out to be the main problem.           

Within days, dozens of people with Polish names— some with Polish-eagle logos, some writing in Polish— were replying to me, supporting each other with “likes” and “retweets” and all but denying the Holocaust. They claimed that “When Germans entered Poland their first victims were [Catholic] Poles, later Jews” and that “the ones who betrayed Anne Frank were most likely Jewish.” They accused me of “spitting at the sacrifice of milion [sic] Poles” and charged that “The problem occurred with their [Polish Jews] … open collaboration [with Poland’s historic conquerors] and lack of solidarity with Poles.”

At first, I tried to answer them all, squeezing in as many facts as I could in 280 characters. Here was my chance – not only to become part of the conversation, but also perhaps to change the conversation among Polish ultra-nationalists. I had done months of research for my novel. I could earn my critics’ trust by conceding their points where warranted, and prevail with the power of my knowledge where I was right.

Of course it was hopeless. There was no way I could keep up with the onslaught, and they had 12 or more years of schooling in Polish history at their fingertips, with obscure citations that could have been true or invented or trivial, for all I knew.

I began to doubt my own research. Was my novel inaccurate? Unfair? Anti-Polish? I had worked hard to include a wide community of Polish characters, to show many nuances of the historic Catholic-Jewish love-hate relationship. (More pleasantly, I’d also done a lot of taste-testing investigation into Polish cuisine, but that’s for another post, I guess.) 

Like bullies, they taunted me even when I stopped replying.

And then came a new challenge: Another controversial Polish law, this one concerning restitution for stolen Jewish property.

Was this a Twitter conversation I really needed to join? Didn’t my novel have enough “publicity” by now among this angry underworld? Clearly, I was never going to change their minds. All I was doing was feeding their hatred (and my own anxiety). Yet, was I going to cede all conversations about Poland and the Holocaust to these forces?

I couldn’t resist. So I waded into the fray, tweeting: #Poland‘s new law will make it both easier & harder for Jews to get restitution for seized property but in any case it’s the last country in Europe to pass a law. No, I don’t want repayment for Grandpa’s house.” 

Two days later, my Twitter account was hacked.  

Maybe the moral of this story goes beyond the simple rule that we should avoid being drawn into arguments on the internet— especially in an age of polarization, truth distortion, and revisionist history.

Beyond that: it proves the other advice we writers often hear: “Don’t get sucked into the bottomless pit of social media or you’ll never have time to write your books.

Until now, Fran Hawthorne spent three decades writing award-winning nonfiction, including eight books, mainly about consumer activism and business social responsibility. THE HEIRS (Stephen F. Austin University Press) is her debut novel. 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.