A Day in Radomsko

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Family History, history, Life and What about It, Literature, reconciliation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2022 by Louise Steinman

[photo: on the street in Radomsko. LS2021]

Preface

IN THE SPRING of 2021, KARTA Center in Warsaw brought out a Polish translation of my book, The Crooked Mirror, nine years after its publication in the United States. The book chronicles my decades-long immersion in the discomforting, sometimes surreal, and ultimately healing process of Polish-Jewish reconciliation.

I first visited Poland in 2000 and was privileged to observe, in that more hopeful time, the nation’s new openness to historical inquiry about its past after forty years of Communist rule, when it was taboo to discuss Polish collaborators, pogroms, or the killings of returning Jews after the war. I met brilliant artist-activists who were finding ways to commemorate the Jewish absence in their midst and to educate their communities about a history in danger of being lost or obscenely distorted. I also saw fresh stirrings of Jewish life in Poland, and a touching inquisitiveness among the young about Jewish identities kept hidden after the war.

In democratic Poland, it became possible for historians to examine the country’s wounds and losses under two regimes of tyranny. An important piece of the past was uncovered by Polish-born sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross, now professor emeritus at Princeton University. In 2001, he published Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, a book that set off what Polish journalist Anna Bikont called “a huge national psychotherapy session.” The debate was raw and very public.

Gross’s book laid out the bone-chilling details of the July 1941 massacre of almost the entire Jewish population of Jedwabne, a village in the northeast. Also in 2001, on the 60th anniversary of the crime, then-president Aleksander Kwaśniewski startled the nation by admitting for the first time that Polish civilians, not Nazi forces, were responsible for the killings. He offered an unflinching apology, carried live on Polish national television.

In recent years, however, the public conversation on controversial topics, Jedwabne among them, has radically devolved. In 2018, Poland’s government passed a law creating grounds for prosecution if anyone were to falsely lay blame on the Polish nation for crimes committed by Nazi or Soviet forces. This sparked concerns beyond Poland’s borders (and particularly among historians) as to how such a concept might be interpreted. When I wrote to Kostek Gebert, a journalist friend in Warsaw, to say I was coming in October 2021 to give two book talks — one in Radomsko, the other in Warsaw — he emailed me right away: “Expect to find a much nastier Poland.”

That’s what was on my mind the night before the scheduled book event for The Crooked Mirror at the Regional Museum in Radomsko, the town where my maternal grandparents were born, where my great-grandmother is buried, and where I found the house that was the last known address of my great-aunt Fayga Konarska Wilhelm before she and her family were deported to Treblinka. This would be my first return to Radomsko since my book was published in Polish. I couldn’t sleep. But at least I would be traveling with three trusted friends.

— Louise Steinman

¤
Our Day Begins

LAURIE WINER: Later I felt bad about brushing off Louise’s fears, telling her there was no reason to worry. I was spending a year abroad and decided to join her in Warsaw, where she was going to give a talk to some high schoolers — what could go wrong? We were driving from Warsaw to Radomsko, the town where Louise’s mother’s family had lived before World War II.

Radomsko’s wartime history was both shocking and not at all unusual: of its 10,000 Jews, only a couple of hundred survived. In her book, The Crooked Mirror, Louise explores the way that people and localities struggle all these decades later to cope with so profound a trauma. The Crooked Mirror is subtitled A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation, and Louise begins it by admitting she inherited a specific prejudice from a mother who, though she never lived there, was so traumatized by her family’s history that she could barely say the words “Polish” or “Poland.” At the instigation of her Zen rabbi (this is a story, after all, that begins in Los Angeles), Louise attended a week-long Bearing Witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2000 and then traveled to her grandparents’ birthplace to find out more about the fate of her ancestors. She returned to Poland a dozen times over two decades, inevitably grappling with the mystery of mysteries: why groups of humans are sometimes stirred to kill other groups of humans, and with a savagery so astonishing that no one — victim, perpetrator, bystander — is left whole. In Radomsko, we soon found out, the wounds were still raw.

Louise had just heard through her editor that there was a Radomsker gentleman, an innkeeper, who was unhappy with her depiction of him in her book. And a few weeks earlier, she’d received an email from another man who said she’d gotten some things wrong about his family.

I was not worried. As a theater critic for many years, I had received numerous letters from people who actively wished for my physical demise because I disliked a show. I developed a hard shell about such grievances. Also, this talk was taking place in public, at an institution that had invited Louise, and she would be traveling with three friends — her translator Dorota, her editor Hanna, and me — all of whom, I’d like to think, could handle any situation that might arise.

DOROTA GOLEBIEWSKA: My first response to the invitation to go with Louise to Radomsko was sheer enthusiasm. Hooray! I could finally see all the places I had heard and read about — places that, sorry to say, although Polish myself, I had never visited. There was to be a public meeting at the Regional Museum. Would I translate? Sure I would. I reassured Hanna everything would go well — after all, Louise and the townspeople had become friends, hadn’t they?

HANNA ANTOS: The day before our trip I had a rather difficult phone conversation with a man mentioned briefly in The Crooked Mirror. Someone underlined for him a few phrases describing his posture and behavior, which he found unfair. I tried to assure him that there was nothing offensive in the description, that it was definitely not the author’s intention to offend him (or anybody else from Radomsko), and that she was grateful for his care of the Jewish cemetery. I asked him to read the whole book, not only the underlined sentences, and hoped that he would understand that Louise reveals her own initial prejudices and her efforts to overcome them. She reaches out to Poles who do the same, so that both parties could find some common understanding of the past — leading to a true, if not ideal, reconciliation. That’s the core of The Crooked Mirror, not the details describing how she saw and remembered a particular person from 20 years ago.

Heading to Radomsko, I was only slightly worried about the expected attendance — about how many people would show up apart from the high school class.

Continue reading in Los Angeles Review of Books

Greenwriting on the Skarpa

Posted in Art and Culture, FRIENDS, history, Life and What about It, Literature, Poetry, Poland with tags , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2022 by Louise Steinman

My Afterword to Katy Bentall’s Greenwriting, published by (and available for purchase from) the estimable Bored Wolves Press, Krakow.

drawing by Katy Bentall

It’s dark when we arrive at Katy’s house in the Polish countryside, early fall, 2019.  My friend and I, both road-weary, climb a flight of wooden stairs to retire. My friend installs herself in the bedroom of Katy’s daughter, Magda, now a young doctor in London. I bed down in the room that belongs to Katy’s son, Sammy,  a classics major at the University of Warsaw. Everywhere there are stacks of book, fascinating books. Philosophy. History. Poetry. Books in Polish. Books in English. I want to look at all of them, but I’m so sleepy. Before I crash, I peek into Katy’s room/studio, noting piles of notebooks, vibrant watercolors.  A chorus of frogs serenades me through the open window as I fall asleep.

in the hammock at Katy’s house in Dobre

I met Katy Bentall in Warsaw a few years earlier, through a mutual friend. We bonded over a shared love of drawing, spending afternoons sketching, observing, and talking in cafes, on park benches. In the years following, I continued to find sustenance and inspiration from Katy’s artwork and writing, admiring them from my home in Los Angeles, often via Instagram. Her drawings and watercolors were a portal, for me, into a world so different from my own urban environment, and so fascinating:  the stout mushroom seller forever keeping vigil over precious fungi; the fortune teller, the pear man with his cargo of smoked fruit; the russet-red fox who feasts on fallen plums

Upon waking, light streaming through the windows, I am delighted, ecstatic, when it sinks in that I am actually here. I’m in Dobre, in this airy wooden house nestled into the Skarpa, the upland of the Vistula River, famous for its loess valleys and fields of wheat and hops, apple and pear orchards. From the front porch, there is the thrum of bees, the overwhelming scent of wildflowers, mint. (Later I will meet the neighbor who makes lip-smacking elixirs out of them.)  In the dining room, I recognize the chairs, the bowls, the blue and white checkered tablecloth, the brown teapot from Katy’s drawings. I know as well those beautiful yellow pears on a plate on the table (not available yet, to be made into pear cake, because they are going to be drawn. Please don’t eat the still life!)

This house and little studio hut on its grounds is the “pracownia,” the laboratory, that the visionary Polish art critic and philosopher Mariusz Tchorek built for his British wife, artist Katy Bentall.  Tchorek designed the house in collaboration with the noted Polish architect Rudolf Buchalik and constructed it with the assistance of local builders (son Sammy, then two, carrying two bricks at a time in his little plastic wheel barrow up the hill imitating the builders). Mariusz Tchorek passed away in 2004; his spirit is a benediction in this house, on this land.

Over the years, when their children attended schools in Warsaw, the Tchorek-Bentall family used the house as a summer and holiday retreat. Now, her children grown, Bentall has installed herself in Dobre full-time. It’s where she carries on her experiments in “greenwriting”— the exquisite drawings, paintings, collages, and texts—evidence of her determination to “live lightly” on the land, to bear intimate witness to the community in whose midst she lives.

In the afternoon, we drive the short distance from Dobre to Kazimierz Dolny, the ancient town on the Vistula, which has been, since the early 1900’s, a haven, a summer colony, for Polish artists. Katy’s weekly trips to the outdoor market and the bakery here are source for some of the Balzacian cast of  people, their gestures, their exchanges, that inhabit her drawings. The old woman with the bright blue beret is not in the bakery this afternoon; but there’s the table where she usually sits. Over the months, years, Bentall has observed them carefully, lovingly.

“Where does the impulse to draw something begin?” asks the late writer/artist John Berger. For Katy Bentall, the impulse might arise when she looks out the window and glimpses Basia, the neighbor’s wife, “skinny and strong, she could snap me in half,” ferrying a wheelbarrow full of logs. Basia who comes three times a week, who keeps the boiler going in the cellar. Pivoting from sight to paper and pen, the artist melds observation with imagination.  Fifty years from now, perhaps a hundred, when someone looks at the lively lines of this drawing, they’ll see Basia, skinny and strong and her wheelbarrow— a moment reclaimed from time’s oblivion.

drawings by Katy Bentall

That lag between seeing and drawing, what Bentall terms the “memory glance,”  is why, she explains, “if you look carefully, my drawings usually look All Wrong.” It’s what gives them, in her words, “the weirdness.” That’s what I love about them. Arms too long end in fingers which turn into bundles of sticks. We’re not talking realism; we’re talking penetrating essence.

The pandemic winter of 2020 in Dobre was, Bentall reported,  “so cold it hurt to swallow.”  The artist invites us to take a night walk with her on a snowy eve, painting the scene with words. Feeling safe in the velvety dark—suddenly she’s face to face with a wild boar. She stands frozen in place, waiting for the beast to cross the ridge, then watches in astonishment as seven more boars follow, like “shadowy giant mice scampering over a mountainous iced Christmas cake.” The wonder of this winter vision negates any fear. In the morning, she searches out the boars’ footprints in the snow, marvels at the differences of various creatures’ modes of movement: the hare’s “a high-speed train leaving a whooshing sound in its wake,” to “the little ruffled feet flecks of the partridge as they fluttered by at dawn.”  Exhale.

Later that spring, during the pandemic, Katy wrote me: “All I have felt able to do is allow the garden to be as wild and self-seeding as possible and watch the wildlife thrive! There are plenty of hidden human interventions required but at least I don’t dominate. I suppose this is the point of the drawings—they are meant to not dominate—still art continues to try to dominate—I am struggling with this thought. What matters? Why make art? What does it mean to live lightly? To affirm those around us.”  

drawing by Katy Bentall

How do we affirm those around us when the world is in turmoil, when the world is in pain? The artist plants sunflowers. It’s a gesture that makes perfect sense, and yields one of my favorites of Bentall’s drawings: the figure in red bending under the sunflower’s extravagant gaze, its shower of knowledge, human fusing with the thrust of nature. 

John Berger, himself both artist and writer, chose to live in a remote village (his in the French Alps). Like Katy Bentall, Berger valued the rhythms of rural life, the wisdom of those who worked and lived close to the land, and to animals. When he drew, he wrote:

I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells. I’m aware of a distant, silent company. Almost as distant as the stars. Company nevertheless. Not because we are in the same universe, but because we are involved—each according to his own mode—in a comparable manner of searching. Drawing is a form of probing. The first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things, and to place oneself.”

Greenwriting is a record of Katy Bentall’s searching and probing.  Her drawings are the way she places herself— an artist, a British woman living in a foreign land—in this house, in this village, in this miraculous and troubled world.  

 How these drawings delight me! 

 I trust they will delight you as well.

-Louise Steinman, Los Angeles

Sept 17, 2021

The Verb To Inquire

Posted in Education, Pandemic, Poetry, social justice with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2022 by Louise Steinman
collage/LS and LBR2022

Every Friday afternoon, I have been tutoring a fourth grader named Delilah, whom I view through a screen on Zoom. During the pandemic, Delilah’s school is the bedroom she shares with her two brothers. Her desk is her bunk bed.  The family rarely goes out. Her mother quit her job to monitor the three kids’ schooling. Last December, they all got Covid. Her little brother bounces on the bed behind her, desperate for attention. Her older brother is playing a video game, with volume on high. After our first meeting, I cried. Delilah had no books. Everything was on the screen. She told me her eyes hurt after so many school hours on Zoom. 

Still, Delilah is patient. Slowly but surely she sounds out the words in a story about a girl named Esperanza. Today she’s added more emotion to her telling, and we’ve discussed what quotation marks mean. Delilah changes the quality of her voice now for the different characters. We take apart the words she doesn’t know, this week “crisis” and “opinion.” She has a lot of opinions. We laugh a lot.  Sometimes while we’re talking, Delilah transforms her image into an avatar of a pirate or, say, a panda bear. (This is a feature of Zoom that Delilah understands but I do not.)

“If you’re going to be a panda bear,” I say, “then write me a poem about what the panda bear dreams.”

PANDA’S DREAM

My dream is to eat many bamboo

And to find so many panda friends

And to have a party

One day

In the house of my Dad.

-Delilah

……..

My mother taught me the verb “to inquire.” No cream cheese on the shelf in the supermarket? “We must inquire.” It sounded so grown-up.  We threaded our way through the aisles until we found the  door to the stockroom where the store manager sat at his deck.  I picture this scene at Market Basket grocery in the Culver Center, the locus of several favorite haunts: Grant’s Department Store, where I could purchase Chanukah gifts for everyone in my family with a fiver, where, downstairs in the pet department, I spent hours watching the colony of turquoise, green, yellow parakeets, their wings clipped, their space equipped with miniature parakeet furniture. They gossiped with one another, clanged small bells, nibbled seed. There were also the small turtles with beautiful colorful roses painted on their carapaces, designs which I later learned meant sure slow death.

My sister Ruth, six years older, a polio survivor, patiently taught me how to write my name when I was three. We practiced every day for a week, at a little table in the garage, printing out L-o-u-i-s-e. She took me by the hand and we walked a few blocks to the branch library on Sawtelle Avenue where I demonstrated my clumsy calligraphic prowess and, as a reward, received my first library card. New power!

From my older brother Larry, I learned several crucial lessons. After I’d read a whole book on the subject without any idea of practicalities, he finally told me how babies were made. I had to inquire.

I recently unearthed my term paper, titled BEING BORN,  submitted during fourth grade MCL (“More Capable Learner”)  summer school.  I did not understand what quotation marks were for:  Eventually the time comes when these two reproductive cells must find each other if they are to carry out Nature’s plan for the future. “But how?”  “That is the question!” The egg cell, of course, must stay where it is, inside the mother, for that is the place where the baby is to grow. To the sperm falls the greater task of finding its mate. It must leave the body of the father, enter the mother, find the egg cell, and unite with it. Then there are no longer two cells. There is just one cell, and from it the baby grows…The sperm cell not only starts the growth of the egg cell but we “believe it does two others things.”

……..

I tried to teach my mother to ride a bicycle on our street, Harter Avenue, which was flat. (“At least it has a curve in it,” an architect friend said to console me once, when I brought him to see my childhood house.) My mother was unable to achieve balance on two wheels. She hadn’t learned as a child. “Your body follows your eyes!” I yelled, but she fell over time and again. I was dumbfounded. Convinced it was easy. Just like I was convinced, when I was eight, that Mr. Goldstein, the sixty-something housepainter who was touching up the moulding in our living room, could also paint pictures, if he would just try.  

My brother, age five, attempted to teach me square roots, in a hall closet. I was two. I was screaming. His pedagogical method was not successful. I have never liked math, am dyslexic with numbers. I must also credit him with being the one who blurted out, one night at the dinner table—as the body count in Viet Nam was ringing out on the TV— “I would lose my virginity!” in answer to my father’s question: “what would you do right away if you knew the atom bomb was going to drop? A new word.  What’s virginity? Look it up, my mother said, which I did, in the big Webster’s that commandeered its own wooden dictionary pedestal, always resting open in its cubby hole on the shelf below the World Book Encyclopedias. 

Sometimes we surprise ourselves at what we’ve learned, without knowing that we learned it.  Early memory:  a drive home—I was three?— from a cousin’s house, down Motor Avenue, past the 20th Century backlot, passing the large red neon sign with that grinning creature and the letters that spell F-O-X… FOX! I yelled from the backseat, shocking the adults and shocking myself as well. I was overwhelmed not with sense of pride but with a sense of loss. That I would never again be able NOT to read, that those squiggles would forever more correspond to sounds that would add up to meanings. No going back. Words would now have their way with me; I’d crossed over the border from pure sensation, stepped out of comfortable oblivion, those hours spent up into the branches of the Chinese elm in front of the Britton’s house, observing the world through the green leafiness, where stories came to us primarily through the ear.

As infants, we extend our sense of self by literally reaching out with our hand. To grasp. Physical and mental development are inseparable.  Rudolf Laban uses the German word antrieb, which has the sense of a “drive onwards,” the urge of the organism to “make itself known.” Movement is assertion, and assertion is one of the primary acts of the mind. Our bodies educate themselves in the sensorial world. Don’t touch that pan, it’s hot. Startle when you hear a bear grunting.  Over time, we adapt to limitations, learn habits that may even create new limitations, the body responds with pain, the brain blurs.

……..

Reading with and for Delilah allows me to re-enter and re-admire reading in its inherent complexity, as a feat of translation, noting voice and thought. It’s humbling. Those marks on the page represent ideas, creatures, actions, emotions.  Yesterday we drew pictures on the shared Zoom whiteboard and made up stories about the creatures we drew: a cat, a lizard, a clown named Bobo. Two weeks ago, Delilah abruptly remarked, “I wish I could go back to the year 2017.”  Why 2017, I asked. “Before Covid,” she said somberly. 

Since her bed is her desk is her room is her school, I asked Delilah if she would write a poem about what was above her and what was above that and what was above that.

SKY

there’s an attic that’s been closed a long time.

there’s a roof that has little dots there’s a

blue sky that’s shining

there are clouds in the shape of pandas and

koalas and a lion and a puma

and above them planes pass by on their way to Hawaii

and above the planes there are

people floating with their arms

out

and as they pass by they say,

“Oh those midget people in

the bottom of the sky.”

-Delilah

……..

Today, Delilah showed me, with obvious delight, the bright orange back-to-school backpack that her mother purchased for her return to school next week. She unzipped the many compartments to show: this is where I keep my hand sanitizer! This is where I keep my masks! This is for my math homework! This is the pocket where I keep my erasers! She is so ready to be among her peers, even masked and at a distance. So ready to exit the small bedroom of her apartment, to re-enter this imperfect but vibrant world full of stories, a world where we must inquire.

[this essay first published in thursDAY morning, a chapbook published by Firehouse Press, San Francisco, 2022.

January 6, 2022

Posted in FILM, history, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Literature with tags , , , , , , , on January 6, 2022 by Louise Steinman

from “State Funeral,” Sergei Loznitza , (film release 2021; footage, 1953)

I’m walking the Silverlake staircases, listening to the audio version of Colm Toibin’s marvelous novel, The Magician, about Thomas Mann.   I’m struck to learn how slow Thomas Mann was to understand the dangers posed by the National Socialists in Germany. Mann held such a deep belief in the staying power of German culture, a world of cosmopolitanism, a culture that treasured Wagner and Mahler, Goethe and Rilke. He was convinced those Nazis would “go away.” Even as his eldest son and daughter Klaus and Erica became vocal anti-Nazis, Mann remained unperturbed. After the Nuremberg rally in 1933, his son Golo literally cut out articles from different German papers and laid them out on the dining room table. Look at these, he demanded of his father. “One article says 40,000 attended. Another says 100,000. They will not go away.”

For a break from reading about the rise of the Third Reich, I watched the unsettling and mesmerizing film, “State Funeral” by the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitza (viewable on http://www.mubi.com).  

The film begins: “In the Afternoon of March 5, at 21 hours, 50 minutes, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin died. “ Sergei Loznitza’s assemblage of color and black and white film shot in the Soviet Union in 1953, constitute  “official obsequies” for the death of the mass murderer Stalin, whose body lies in state, in a red-draped coffin surrounded by mounds of lush flowers, “like a Marxist-Leninist Ophelia.” (The Guardian). One doesn’t know how much is real, how much is staged, but the somber sorrowful stupefaction of everyone from schoolchildren to loggers, from Kazakh villagers to Muscovites, is unanimous. (We do not see the zeks in the labor camps however, doff their hats.) Busses halt. Conductors and ticket takers stand with hands on their hearts. Steam engines blast their whistles, factories ring their alarms, soldiers and civilians remove their hats in unison, a portrait of the Great Leader is swung into place via a ginormous crane, like a scene from Fellini.   The film is mesmerizing, hundreds of the best cameramen in the Soviet Union were the camera crew; no expense spared.

There’s a provocative conversation afterwards, between a wildly gesticulating Italian director, Pietro Marcello, and the bemused Loznitza, talking about the import of the work. As I watched the film on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Capitol insurrection, this quote from Loznitza especially struck me:

“The thought I wanted to express in this film is very simple- Stalin is allegorical of all these people, who have a little Stalin in them, who share all these outlooks, and who compose, like little bricks of this whole apparatus of totalitarian human destruction.

Every time I turn to that time in my mind, and see those picture, which magnetise me too… every time I’m struck by that paradox that unfolds before my eyes. Understanding the nightmare, people, just like these mice, follow the piper, the one who plays the pipe to their doom. “

“Understanding the nightmare, people, just like these mice, follow the piper, the one who plays the pipe to their doom. “

Sergei Loznitza, film director

January 6, 2022

Silent Witnesses (at the Noah Purifoy Foundation)

Posted in Art and Culture, Human Rights, Life and What about It with tags , , , , on April 10, 2021 by Louise Steinman

April 9, 2021. In Piper’s garden. Joshua Tree.  Yesterday a visitation from a woodpecker in the palo Verde. Doves cooing. Ebullition of Lady Banksia roses, tiny yellows cascading over a white wall. Fat black bees dipping into the fragrant drooping wisteria. Orange koi darting in the green brine under magenta lily pads, a paddle of cactus, seeking shade from the desert sun. I’m dancing in the garden to Michele Shocked, “Quality of Mercy,” from the film, Deadman Walking. Where is mercy? Where is its quality not strained?

I’ve been watching the Chauvin trial in “homeopathic” doses, as one friend calls it. Chauvin’s lawyer parsing whether Floyd died of asphyxia or if his heart condition or fentanyl contributed to his death, when we already know, we can see , the experts have confirmed: this man was murdered. Anyone would be dead after being shoved face down for 9 and a half minutes,  chest compressed, knee on the back of the neck. That Floyd struggled to raise himself with his knuckles, with his chin. Did they really dare insinuate that a man saying, “I can’t breathe” is a sign of resisting arrest?  did they really have the audacity to claim that? Yes they did. Indeed they did.

Yesterday morning, we drove over rutted dirt roads to get to the Noah Purifoy Foundation, on the other side of the highway. We parked the Prius by the stucco house with the plaster horse heads, walked past the backwards WELCOME sign painted on old tires entered into the ten acres of artist Noah Purifoy’s imaginative universe, a village of wonders and horrors built out of of the detritus of the built and ruined world (“Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” the late poet Adam Zagajewski wrote), beauty accruing to a pile of old TV sets and washing machines (remember when they were given to lucky housewives on Queen for a Day?; a circus railroad of vacuum cleaners; a lyrical roller coaster of metal cafeteria trays. Where to go first.

My feet make a beeline to the same tableau that has summoned me each time I make a pilgrimage here, never more so than this April morning, during the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. This morning a pulmonologist. Yesterday a paramedic who testified, “Mr. Floyd continued to be dead.” Never let go of the outrage. “I can’t breathe” does NOT mean someone is resisting arrest it means they want to LIVE.

Purifoy titled this piece, “From the Point of View of the Little People.” Ten men tied together with wire. They stand some eight feet off the ground, positioned side by side on their cast-off plank, their scaffold. The wind ruffles their ragged cuffs, their pants sag in deep creases, their feet lifeless. They sag. They’ve been standing there a long time. They are men only from waist-down, severed at the torso, no arms no shoulders no necks no heads. Their legs are sun-bleached, always exposed, About to be shot. About to be hung. Already dead. Money, Mississippi. Screbenica.  A pit at Babi Yar. San Juan Cotzal. Line them up. Drop the trap. Yank the rope. Aim the rifle. There they are. Always watching.  Purifoy made the sculpture five years into his self-exile in the desert. He created it out of cast-offs; spare planks; pants from Goodwill or the dump; sneakers missing shoelaces, bedroom slippers with holes. He said he didn’t care if these figures—or any of the works in his outdoor museum— stood the test of time. He wanted the wind, the sand, the insects, the sun to be partners in the work: fabric bleaching; wood rotting; old magazines disintegrating.

Do ten half-men = five full men?  They are still standing on their plank, watching without eyes, witnesses to the United States of America where a police office is on trial for squeezing the life out of George Floyd in front of Cup Foods in Minneapolis. They won’t let us forget. We must not forget. We must continue to be outraged.

#noahpurifoyfoundation #blacklivesmatter #justiceforgeorgefloyd

Krzywe Lustro: all art is translation

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on July 12, 2021 by Louise Steinman

Join a Panel Discussion about the book, July 25th, 10 AM PDT, in English and Polish

[photo: Ludomir Franczak]

I’d almost given up on the idea of a Polish translation of my book, The Crooked Mirror (published by Beacon Press in 2013.) But I know some stubborn (read, perseverant, optimistic) people, like the gifted translator Dorota Golebiewska, who decided she’d get to work and translate the book on her own. Who was determined to find the right Polish publisher for the work. And she did. And Rabbi Haim Beliak, who was also determined that the book be translated as part of the work of his organization, Beit Polska, Jewish Renewal in Poland. Dorota connected with the estimable Polish publisher, KARTA, which was founded in Warsaw in 1982 as an underground publication focusing on political commentaries; and which, after a few months, was transformed into an “independent almanac” presenting human attitudes towards dictatorship. The team at KARTA were a delight to work with—editor, researcher, designer. They included in this edition thirty pages of photographs. I wrote a new foreword, Marek Jezowski of Beit Polska wrote a thoughtful afterword: “Fortunately, the Polish-Jewish conversation continues to take place, and as Louise Steinman’s book, among others, makes clear, the list of conditions precedent for it occurring is short. Essentially, all that is required is for someone on one side or the other to demonstrate their willingness to understand: to listen with genuine mindfulness and sincere interest.”

The book has been graced with an intriguingl new cover, with shiny black and white historical photos gleaming from within the windows of a house of shared memories. It has already received a good review in Gazeta Wyborcza. The poet Adam Zagajewski, dear friend, dear mentor, wrote a lovely blurb for the book and then sadly, a few months later passed away. A great soul, a great poet, a great loss. This edition of The Crooked Mirror is dedicated to Adam.

Well, the day has come, the book is on the shelves in Poland, in its “second life” as Marek wrote, and Polish readers’ responses start to trickle back to me in Los Angeles. Hopefully there are many people who wish to “demonstrate their willingness to understand, and to listen.”

You can join us for a panel discussion to celebrate the publication of Crooked Mirror on Sunday, July 25th, 10 AM PDT. Panelists include: Dr. Kathy Balgley, professor of literature; Dorota Golebiewska, translator of Polish version, and editor Hanna Antos, of Karta.. discussion in both English and Polish. I’ll join in for Q&A. Will post a link for registration soon!

The Collaborative Skein: A Conversation

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, history, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry, Poland, reconciliation, translation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2021 by Louise Steinman

The poet Piotr Florczyk just published a remarkable collections of poems, From the Annals of Krakow, based on testimonies from Jewish survivors from his home town, Krakow, in the Shoah Archive at USC, where he Piotr did a residency. This conversation between the two of us, about Piotr’s book, about the forthcoming Polish edition of  The Crooked Mirror, about memory and history and how we find common ground, was just published in The Los Angeles Review of Books

Kaziemerz Dolny, Jewish headstones.

Unclaimed, Unforgotten

Posted in homelessness, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Los Angeles, Peace and social justice, reconciliation, social justice with tags , , , , on December 4, 2019 by Louise Steinman

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Welcome the Stranger: An urban installation for social engagement [Lublin, Poland]

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, history, Lublin, Poland, refugee crisis, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2019 by Louise Steinman

It’s been an intense and magical week in Lublin, Poland. A Kabbalistic text appears over the archway of the Brama Grodzka; a flamingo is invited to perch in a storks nest high in a poplar tree; the words of Polish veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq are projected on the walls of the cultural center, reminding us of the hospitality that veterans need after the trauma of war. In the passageway of one the crooked streets of the Old Town, the voice of the local poet Jozef Czechowicz– killed in the German bombardment of September, 1939, fills the air… just near the vinyl record shop where they’re playing Talking Heads and Miles Davis. And at the Old Well in what is now the bus depot– and was once the Jewish quarter of Lublin– a voice sings forth on the hour with the words of asylum seekers, some from Guatemala, some from Eritrea, Iraq. “I don’t even know where this ship is taking me.” “I’m sorry cousin, I could not save you.” These art projects are all part of Open City Festival 2019, curated by Pawel Leszkowicz and Tomasz Kitlinski– dear souls, fiery social activists– who invited me and artist Dorit Cypis to create a piece for the festival they had set on the theme of “Hospitality” one of fourteen artist projects. Thus, “Welcome the Stranger,” an installation for social engagement… with a text inspired by Edmond Jabes that asks, “What is a foreigner?” “What does a foreigner help us understand?” After the installation, Dorit and I have loved /watching people in the busy bus depot– carrying their satchels and suitcases– arriving or leaving for other cities, countries– and the local cabbies– reading the text and listening to the Voice of the Well… which is a witness from the past, the only surviving well of the many that once served the city’s citizens, places where people came together to fill their buckets wth water, wells that were drawn from springs and river under the cities, connecting Lublin to places far away, to other continents… all connected. On opening night, we joined a procession of 200 plus people that began on the steps of Lublin Castle, then proceeded to the bus station and the Old Well, and on into the old city to visit all the art projects and listen to the artists speak about them, a beautiful night with a full moon, a city engaging with art, with history, with questions about hospitality and the lack thereof, in this world we all shar

“This happened centuries ago. This happened yesterday.”

For “Welcome The Stranger: an urban project for civic engagement,” we thank our collaborators– Jimmy Harry (sound score composition); Magdalena Birczynska (vocals); Piotr Florcyzk (translation), Lloyd Hamrol (water station design)– and the wonderful Lublin artists Magda and Ludo Franczyck who added their support plus Ludo’s beautiful performance at the Well; the art historian Joanna Zetar, from Brama Grodzka, who offered a fascinating talk on the history of Lublin’s wells and waterways… and took us to see the mural of Jewish Lublin placed along the small river that runs near the well…another delight of “hidden Lublin,” all that exists below the ground and in memory, kept alive by those indefatigable guardians of memory at Teatr NN… friends Joanna Klass and Wojtek Sasznor; Katy Bentall for sustenance and hospitality in the beautiful village of Dobre, to the staff at Rozdroza Foundation and the great tech team, Marcin and our guy Krzysztof Spoz and our friends and supporters on Gofundme, thank you all thank you all and many more.

Water station designed by Lloyd Hamrol, in front of Lublin Castle

Artist Ludo Franczak giving a talk at the Well, his search for the key to the Well, and playing his recording of the sound of the Well taking a breath, taking our breaths away.

A woman reads the text on the Old Well at the bus depot. [photo: Katy Bentall]

Dorit Cypis in conversation with two Lublin cabdrivers at the Old Well, talking about the text they just around, about “foreignness.”

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Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

Posted in asylum, civil rights, history, Life and What about It, Peace and social justice, refugee crisis, refugees with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2019 by Louise Steinman

merlin_157452141_35556aff-1a2e-4fce-8149-44a0ca5e6ad1-superJumbophoto: Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

July 6, 2019

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home, a long way from home

Sometimes I feel like I’m almost done
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost done
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost done
And a long, long way from home, a long way from home

What does July 4 feel like to a child in a cage in Clint, TX? To a Salvadoran mother wearing an ankle monitoring device afraid of being deported? How can one celebrate the 4th of July in America?  The Statue of Liberty is weeping.  I’m gliding on the elliptical this morning at the Glendale Y, to a podcast of an interview with Tracy K. Smith, our last poet laureate, who took  poems on the road, reading to rural communities in America, testing her theory that poetry can break down the divide between us, a black poet from the east reading poems about the Civil War in South Dakota, at a womens prison in Maine. Why, she wonders, when reading aloud a powerful Joy Harjo poem at the Alaska Veterans and Pioneers home, in Palmer, Alaska, do more of the residents not respond? Ask questions as others have at other community centers, libraries across the country. She hears just a few quiet moans from the audience. Then learns later, that those attendees suffered from Alzheimers and dementia—they hadn’t spoken aloud or moved their bodies in some time. The poems did reach them, deeply, the staff informs her, they could tell.

Interview over, I switch to music, shuffle songs.  And I forget so much of what’s in that library of music, assembled over so many years, music acquired for different ALOUD events at the library.  And out of my earbuds into my soul comes a soaring voice, Marian Anderson, singing the spiritual, “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.”  I’m gliding on the elliptical and weeping, can my body keep moving while weeping? Gliding to a halt.  Unbearable, the weight and suffering in her voice, the images of children in ICE Detention, the truth of their pain brought to the heart through the agency of the human voice, a pain so strong you could feel it on Novocain, and hammered home by this New York Times expose on Clint, TX, shortly after I return home, sit at the kitchen table with my coffee, open the newspaper.  How can one celebrate the 4th of July?  As we learn of this secretive site where children endured outbreaks of scabies, shingles, and chickenpox while being held in cramped cells? Where “the stench of children’s dirty clothing was so strong it spread to the agents’ own clothing—people in town would scrunch their noses when they left work. The children cried constantly.”  Two brothers, both epileptics, separated from their guardian sister, deprived of their medication, desperate to contact their father. Trying to behave “like little adults.”  Young mothers with dried breast milk on their dirty clothes. How does July 4th feel to a child in a cage in Clint, Texas?

July 12th rally, Lights for Liberty rally, Metropolitan Detention Center, 535 Alameda, downtown Los Angeles, 7:00- 9:00 PM.

Marian Anderson sings “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”   listen and weep. listen and get yourself to a demonstration against the depredations and humiliations of ICE inflicted on our fellow human beings. Write your reps! Be outraged!

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