Thinking about Katyn and onwards to Poland

All over Poland there are memorials to  Katyn. For decades under Communism, all mention of this 1940 NKVD massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers in a remote forest in western Russia was taboo, punishable by prison or worse. Poland’s wartime underground heroes were considered traitors to the Communist cause. (In Moczarski’s “Conversations with an Executioner,” the former Home Army officer was imprisoned in the same cell (!)  as SS General Jurgen Stroop, the liquidator of the Warsaw Ghetto, a man whom Moczarski had once tried to kill… it’s one of the strangest and most profound jailtime interviews you’ll ever read.)  Poland’s Communist rulers kept in tune with the Soviet hierarchy in claiming that the massacres were the work of the Nazis. But they were lying. And the Poles knew better. As historian Norman Davies writes, “For once, Goebbels could have been telling the truth.” And yesterday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev  announced the resolution of the Russian Parliament to make what the Poles have long known official:  Stalin ordered the Katyn massacres. It’s a big step forward in Polish-Russian relations. For a visceral understanding of this tragedy and its central place in Polish political and cultural history since 1940, don’t miss Andrzej Wajda’s gut-wrenching film from 2007, KATYN.

I’m heading to Poland later this week, and it will be interesting to see the reverberations of this decision among friends in Krakow and Warsaw. I’ve started this blog THE CROOKED MIRROR primarily to blog on this trip. My friend Anne asked about the blog title, a good question. It (mirrors) the title of the book I’ve been working on for some time–  THE CROOKED MIRROR: A Conversation with Poland. The phrase comes from the title of a satirical Yiddish paper — Der Krumer Spigel (the crooked mirror) once published in the little Polish town of Radomsko, where my family lived for hundreds of years.   I loved that phrase and later read an essay by the Polish priest Josef Tischner in which he talks about how– when we look at our neighbor through a crooked mirror– what we see is distorted, unrecognizable. That’s how Poles and Jews have largely regarded each other since the traumas of the last war.  For the last eight years, I’ve been exploring the problematic, surreal and sometimes surprisingly exhilarating territory of Jewish-Polish dialogue in Poland, a journey into The Crooked Mirror.

8 Responses to “Thinking about Katyn and onwards to Poland”

  1. anne kalik Says:

    that is all new to me and fascinating.
    i await the next entry!

    thank you for answering my question about the crooked mirror.

    it’s a wonderful title of an intricate story that i look forward to reading about in your book.

    sending love and wishes for a safe wondrous journey.


  2. Bravo my dear, brilliant writing, and fascinating stuff about Katyn, something that’s been on my mind since the airplane crash in April that killed Poland’s president and cabinet leaders; irony upon ironies that the plane crashed near the site of the Katyn Woods massacre….where they were headed to commemorate the dead.


  3. I have welcomed the knwledge you gave me about Poland of which I had no prior knowledge because in my familty the Rubins came from Vilnus, Lithuania and the Beloffs from Poltava, Ukraine. Strangly enough although located many miles apart they were all ruled by the Czar’s government. I loved the stoies I heard from my grandfathers about their lives in Europe and the trials they undertook to emigrate to America. My mother was 9 yaers old when they made the jouney in 1905 and has vivid memories of how her fether got his money out of Russia – in sable pelts he had sewn in the linings of their overcoats. Their courage gave me the opportunity to be born in Philadelphia and i paid them back by helping defeat the Nazis in WW2 by my many years in the US Army, retiring as a Regular Army Colonel. During the 9 years I spent in Europe I was not able to visit Poland because I was not allowed to go East of the Iron Curtain, to my dismay.


    • What a fascinating history… money sewn into a sable pelt, your service in WW2. I wonder if you might be interested in my book, THE SOUVENIR: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War, which is about my father’s service in the Pacific War. I thank you for your service and for your response.


  4. Martha A. Penzer Says:

    Dear Louise Steinman: As I prepare for my own return to my Polish Jewish survivor parents’ homeland in early November 2011, I came across your blog. I, too, am keenly interested in Polish-Jewish dialogue. Quite fortuitously, through the medium of www, I found a schoolmate of my mother’s whose parents were close friends of my grandparents. What contacts have you made in Poland? Could my work be useful to you? I welcome our conversation.


    • I’ve made many contacts over the last decade. You will probably want to go more than once. Good luck on your journeys! Sounds like you are off to a good start.


      • Martha A. Penzer Says:

        Yes, this is now a fifth visit, the first in 1994, accompanied by my mother for the first week. The impetus came from the Japanese Buddhist Order Nipponzan Myohoji that convened an international convocation at Auschwitz KL for 50th anniversary commemorations of the end of WWII– “Pilgrimage for Peace & Life,” as it was called. While teaching in Slovenia during the later 1990’s, I made other occasions to return, the last time in August 1999 with a German friend to the site of the 1942 Aktion where my maternal grandparents perished.

        What weighs on me in this first decade of the 2lst century is the responsibility to act in solidarity with victims of war in my own time.


  5. Martha, I applaud your investigations and your sense of solidarity with victims of war in our time. You might also want to check out my book, “The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War,” which led to my own work with returning veterans.


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