Archive for December, 2010

What We Carry in a Name

Posted in Poland with tags , , , , on December 27, 2010 by Louise Steinman

What does one carry in a name? The custom, among Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews, to name a child after a deceased family member is meant to keep the name and the memory of that person alive. It is supposed to forge a bond between the soul of the named and the soul of the namesake. It’s also a way of reminding us that we come from an inhabited past.

My brother Larry, my cousins Louis and Linda and I are all named after my mother’s father, Layzor (Louis) Weiskopf.  Louis was a carpenter by trade (his hometown NowoRadomsk was known for fine furniture, the Thonet-Mundus Factory made bentwood chairs for export). In evoking the memory the town, landsmen often recall the piney scent of lumber mills, and carpenters’ shops.

Louis Weiskopf, the son of a rebbe, was a devout, good-humored Jew who davened (prayed) every morning in the traditional tefillin. Uncle Al told me that Louis’ reputation with his landsmen was based on his being ashtarker, a “strong man.” Louis volunteered to wrestle with the strong man when the circus came to Nowo Radomsk. I imagined my grandfather stepping into the ring to face his opponent—perhaps even the famous Ironman —  in a crowded canvas tent while his friends cheered.

provincial circus, Poland, 1920's?

In New York, Louis sold newspapers under the El and occasionally ran numbers for the gangsters “who schmeered him” according to my Uncle Al Weiskopf (who is one hundred and two years old and remembers a helluva lot.)

Louis, his wife Sure (Sarah) Konarska Weiskopf, and her widowed sister Ruchla (Rose) and Rose’s young daughter Rivke emigrated to the United States in 1906 aboard the Furnessia, a Scottish freighter.  They were young and hopeful.  Here is a photo of them with their firstborn.

Louis and Sarah Weiskopf with their firstborn, Simon, NYC c.1908

Not until I was in my late twenties did my mother confess there was second, unofficial source for my naming. I was then living in New York City,  in search of the next chapter to my life.  My mother– a combustible package of energy and passion and feeling and warmth– came to visit, to offer support and to fill my bare larder with provisions that chill winter.  One afternoon we went together to the Metropolitan Museum. As we strolled the galleries, she told me that—growing up in the tenements—she liked to think of the Met as her own private palace. She confided that she also named me for a sculpture of a young girl she admired on those long-ago visits to the museum.

There was no such sculpture on display, but a museum curator was able to find in the museum’s archives a  photo of this mystery girl, the work of a late 19th century American woman sculptor named Evelyn Beatrice Longman. (Later known for sculpting Lincoln’s hands for the Lincoln memorial and the “Genius of Electricity” nude for the AT&T headquarters in Manhattan.)

I was delighted to be the namesake of this unblemished marble, this white—no doubt Gentile– American girl with her half-smile, snub nose, and upswept hair. It was easier to relate to her than the Polish Jewish grandfather I’d never met, the man whose weary, knobby face I’d seen in a few black-and-white photos. New world innocence was so much more appealing than Old World weariness. Here is the young marble sculpture Louise who caught my mother’s eye so many years before I was born.

"Louise" by Evelyn Beatrice Longman


It would take many  more years until I visited the town of my grandfather’s birth, walked the banks of the little Radomka River where the circus set up its canvas tents when it came to town. It would take more years until I gained an appreciation for Louis’ sacrifices, his devotion to family, his willingness to take risks (a watermelon farm in Bay Minette, Alabama!) even if they didn’t pan out.

Louis died on my mother’s birthday in 1945, while my father was away at war in the Philippines. She wrote to him about her father’s death: Oh! He was a stubborn man! He even died a stubborn death. He was a simple man—he asked and received very little in life. How he loved children. How he adored his grandchildren. Until the very last, he prayed for your homecoming. He did so want to see you again.  I’ll always remember the relationship between my father and mother. Theirs was a love of years—a love of toil and constant struggle…”

Here are my grandparents, Louis and Sarah Weiskopf, not long before my grandfather Louis died. I raise a toast to them as 2010 draws to a close. Thank you Louis and Sarah, for crossing the Atlantic on the Furnessia, for your love of toil and constant struggle, and for my gifted mother Anne whom we all miss terribly.

Louis Weiskopf and Sarah Konarska Weiskopf Brooklyn, 1944


The house on Rolna

Posted in Poland with tags , , , on December 19, 2010 by Louise Steinman

Back in Los Angeles in the wake of my return from Poland, I discover a strategy for jetlag. Late at night, sleep elusive, I fly to Radomsko via Google Earth, sipping tea as the glowing globe rotates on its axis and the image on my screen zooms in on the little town between Czestochowa and Lodz.

With a click of the mouse I am standing in front of the abandoned Thonet-Mundus factory, the forlorn train station, the Zamaszek Hotel where I listened to a rescuer tell me his story. Another click and I am standing in front of the house on Rolna Street, the last known address in the Radomsko ghetto for my great-aunt, Fayga Konarska Wilhelm, and her husband.

It took several visits to Radomsko over the years until I finally found someone—an old woman– at home on Rolna Street. It was in the spring of 2008. She was weeding in her garden behind the house. There was a dilapidated greenhouse and an old appletree in her yard. When my friends gently questioned her in Polish, she gestured with her weeding claw, like a bewildered bird. Her grandfather built the house, during the war it was requisitioned by the Germans, her family forced to move. Several Jewish families were billeted here. She didn’t know their names.

I glanced inside an open side door to the house. Slanted light struck the small kitchen table covered with a plastic plaid tablecloth and mottled the bare wood floor. A sink stacked with dishes was in shadow.

Rain falling in Los Angeles,  soaking our garden, the apple and orange trees behind our house in Silver Lake.  I fall asleep in the winter dark afternoon, dreaming of Poland.

The house on Rolna Street

Leaving Warsaw, Arriving Warsaw

Posted in Poland with tags , , , , , on December 17, 2010 by Louise Steinman

The sun is shining my last morning in Warsaw, a brisk 9 degrees F. outside. My bag is packed (I think my dear husband, the “master of space and snacks” would be proud of my packing job) and I even have a little time to attempt a last blog post before leaving for the airport, flight to California.

Yesterday’s meeting in the flat of a journalist friend, is what first comes to mind. Climbing the old wooden stairs, the heavy door opening to Kostek’s smile, his Buddha cat, the book lined shelves of his study. High ceilings, folk art, kilims on the floor, kettle on the stove, a shot of welcoming vodka to warm up.

Kostek is a great storyteller and I am happy to sit with my tea, to listen. He grabs a volume of poetry off the shelf, a poet named Wladyslaw Szlengel, who died in the Warsaw ghetto uprising… he reads to me, first in Polish (so i can hear the rhythm of the language), then his own translation. I close my eyes to listen to Kostek’s sonorous voice. It is a poem about the enforced move to the ghetto, the compression of life, the clattering of the wagon laden with possessions which one by one fall away. The objects animate, follow their owner, the table, the chairs, the dishes all are roaming the streets of Warsaw.

Szlengel’s poems were discovered after the war, they’d been secreted inside a table and when the owner of that table started to chop it up for firewood, he found paper, these poems, this testimony.

Yesterday I walked the perimeter of the handsome new building that will house the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, right on the site of the former Warsaw ghetto. It is scheduled to open in 2012 and it will animate the history of a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland. I had dinner last night with the core exhibition team leader, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who has spent the last three years in Warsaw researching, overseeing this incredible creation. Specific stories will anchor the narrative, drawn from diaries, testimonies, much else. What about the medieval Jewish traveler whose carriage breaks down on the Sabbath, what kind of choices did he face? Her passion for this work (check out her marvelous intro to MY NAME IS MAYER JULY, book of paintings by her father of his hometown of Opotow, Poland) is contagious. Barbara and I ate dinner at the marvelous U Kucharzy restaurant, which occupies the kitchen (the size of a cruise ship) in what was once one of Warsaw’s most beautiful hotels. (The SS liked it so much they didn’t blow it up.) Beautiful Polish food– duck and apples, cabbage and mushrooms and potatoes. I am well fortified for the journey home. I took a last late night walk down Nowy Swiat, avoiding the black ice, enjoying the holiday lights, the lit-up shops, the murmuring hand-holding couples, the accordion player. Finished the night reading a few chapters of Jacob Glatstein’s 1934 chronicle. I fell asleep just after Glatstein arrives in Warsaw after an absence of twenty years in America. On the last hour of his train ride, he is fevered by an extraordinary dream: “Thanks to my dream, I was returning home after twenty years not only with a strong sense of home, but also with its sad tonality. I now felt as if my pockets were stuffed with the homey goods of my dream which I had preserved through twenty years of estrangement… I have not forsaken you, O Jewish Poland, with your terrors and sad celebrations. Do not forsake my right hand as I have not forsaken you. Early morning Warsaw hadn’t welcomed me yet, the city still slept.”

The Overcoat

Posted in Poland with tags on December 14, 2010 by Louise Steinman

I was in Warsaw in the winter of 2002, with my dear friend Cheryl who is the daughter of survivors from the town of Kolomyja, which was in Poland and is now in Ukraine. We rented an apartment in the Old Town and got a taste of Warsaw cultural life. Before we left on that trip, however, Cheryl’s anxieties about traveling in Poland (about which she had deeply conflicted feelings) amped up, took form in her dreams. An officer from an invading army demanded that Cheryl make uniforms for his bedraggled soldiers. Cheryl commandeered some itchy cloth and made uniforms that would keep the soldiers distracted, scratching, uncomfortable. A brilliant dream strategy.

My grandmother used to tell me about the beautiful coats the women wore in Warsaw. My grandfather Harry used to travel to Warsaw from Zhitomir to buy cloth for womens coats, for the Steinman family store. On the streets of Warsaw in years past, I noticed women wearing pleated cinched woolen coats of soft pastels. Now everyone is mainly bundled up in long dark down coats that are lighter and perhaps even warmer. In my Warsaw dream, I wandered some Polish city by a river, searching for an overcoat. In a department store, I found one I liked. Not a coat of many colors, like Joseph’s coat, but grey wool felt, soft to the touch. I tried it on in a mirror. I liked what I saw. The seams lined up. The weight and cut suited me. My delight at finding the right overcoat persisted upon waking. The overcoat Cheryl had commissioned—in her dream– for good reason was made from stiff itchy fabric. It was a strategy to discomfort the menacing invaders. My Polish overcoat was forgiving, pliant.
(“And after all,” one theater critic reminded me, “We all come from Gogol’s overcoat.”)

The Polish Dream Coat

Neither Black nor Gray

Posted in Poland with tags , , on December 14, 2010 by Louise Steinman

Many journeys yesterday, first the train from Krakow to Warsaw past hundreds of kilometers of white fields and forests. I shivered waiting on the platform in Krakow and was glad to see the train puff into the station. Several gallant Polish gentleman helped me onto the train with luggage and I had a window seat for the view, Jacob Glatstein’s novel for company. I read his description of traveling as a young boy with his grandfather by train from Lublin to Warsaw: “En route, he would untie his kerchief and take his refreshment– a hard-boiled egg, a hunk of bread, a purple plum, and a golden pear that dripped juice down his beard, all the while conducting a conversation with me.” The gentleman around me did not drip pear juice down their beards, rather they spoke briskly into their cell phones or listened to their ipods but I was traveling in my mind in another time.

Dear Gosia met me at the platform at Warsaw Centralny and later that evening hosted a little soiree for me at her flat in Kubaty– herring and pates, salads and cheeses, dark bread and Spanish wine and vodka. I ventured out to her place by Metro, another transportation adventure (but there’s only one line in Warsaw, which makes it easy) and she met me at the station with a bounding Akita at her heels. Her dog savors the snow, of course, inquisitively reading canine narratives in the snowdrifts, and we walked in the chilly night around the new city out to the edge where the forest begins.

Gosia (Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk) is a playwright and her home is overflowing with books which made me feel right at home. Joanna Klass, my dear host from Adam Mickiewicz Institute joined us, and Andreas, Gosia’s German translator. We laughed and told stories and argued about plays and art until nearly midnight, drank good vodka, and thus missed the last Metro and– following Joanna’s lead–jumped onto a wayward bus that wended its way through the streets of Warsaw, picking up other frozen souls along the way. Back to the hotel an hour later in fine spirits. Shades of Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth.”

(Glatstein, after he arrived in Warsaw: “I could scarcely fall asleep, filled as I was with the excitement of the trian ride and of finding myself in a strange city, far from home.”) I am also filled with my grandmother’s tales of passing through Warsaw en route to the U.S. from Ukraine, waiting at the Belgian Legation for her visa, hiding the family valuables in a little pouch secured to my aunt Ruth’s pinafore with a diaper pin. (that’s the term she used, always loved that..)

I ventured out for a walk this morning. These Warsavians are very hearty because it is REALLY cold and they stride briskly about their business. To warm myself I bought a Polish wool hat and when i carried it to the daylight by the shop window to ascertain just what color it was, the saleswoman said, “It is not black it is not gray” which is so apropos to thinking about Polish history and memory.

I feel very Polish wearing my new hat.

A Rescuer

Posted in Poland with tags , , on December 12, 2010 by Louise Steinman

He carefully sketches out the dimensions of the bunker in my little black notebook: the trapdoor in the kitchen, the second door to the potato cellar. Five Jewish souls hidden under their roof, under their floor.

I let the tape recorder run and jot down phrases as they are translated. He is a forceful storyteller, using his strong hands to demonstrate, occasionally using a cup or a spoon on the table to demonstrate where something happened, how close he came to disaster.

He was nine years old when the SS came to arrest his father in the middle of the night. They took him away in his pajamas. “Thus ended the big partisan action in our little town, and then we were orphans.” He became the man of the house, entrusted with procuring enough food for seven on rations for three. A small boy with a large sack of potatoes could arouse suspicion. He tells me about certain bakers who gave him loaves of bread containing messages from the Home Army. Memories of bullets whizzing by his head, hitting trees as he ran through the woods.

I listen to his story, which he has never told in one sitting. His grandson also listens. For two decades, he’s been coaxing this story out of his grandfather, his teacher. The grandson is the one who’s convinced his grandfather to finally tell the tale he’s been carrying for so many years.

All my attempts to question the ‘why’ of the risk he and his mother assumed are ignored, do not register. Someone needed their help; they responded. The walls of the hotel dining room are painted bright pink; the color warms our faces on this freezing day. Heavy snow falls outside the windows, blanketing the streets of Radomsko, my grandparents’ town.

Ginsberg in Nowa Huta

Posted in Poland with tags , , , on December 10, 2010 by Louise Steinman

last night’s performance (by Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards) based on Ginsberg’s long poem “America” was the perfect conclusion to the Boska Komedia festival for me. An international cast of actors sang, danced, pounded, intoned, laughed, sobbed… “I’m going to pray all night with the water up to my knees,” eliding Ginsberg’s scathing text with powerful slave chants and Appalachian Balkan fusions. how did they do it? their appropriate of American critique was very timely very beautiful as it was also infused with insane hope and transcendence. To hear young Poles proclaim:

America you don’t really want to go to war.
America it’s them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages.

and to see the Polish translation appear on the screen, and to hear this in a theater in Nowa Huta, the workers utopian utilitarian uber-urban landscape designed and built for Krakow’s resentful working classes by Stalin’s minions after the war, the perfect planned city wide boulevards and workers bath houses, eerie ironies… and the bacchanal ended with all of us chanting OMMMMMM. Hey Allen, the Poles are singing your songs in snowy Krakow on the last night of Chanukah, and I”m gonna pray all night with the water up to my knees.


Posted in Poland with tags , , on December 8, 2010 by Louise Steinman

What I love about attending an international festival like Boska Komedia here in Krakow is the way one slip-slides into intense social encounters (slip-sliding is on my mind as I navigate the slick cobblestones in Old Town each morning) Last night i exited a Polish play that had no English translation and, at the coat check, met another Boska Komedia attendee who’d done the same. We decided on the spot to have dinner together and walked over to Klezmer Hois in Kazimierz for supper and thus I found myself in a faux-Jewish restaurant sharing fragrant ginger/orange chicken and kasha and a carafe of good red wine with Iulia, a delightful Rumanian theater critic from Bucharest wearing bright green boots. We were later joined by Alan, an insightful theater critic from Brooklyn (with an insatiable curiosity about Polish theater and Polish history) and Felix, an affable theater director from Dusseldorf who was very happy to be digging into some Hungarian goulash after several days of non-stop theater-viewing and not-enough calorie intake for this freezing weather. Julia from Bucharest told me about her intense fear of cold from her childhood days under Ceausescu when there was not enough heat and hardly any light. Her father helped jury-rig woodstoves for their block of apartments, procured illicitly from old flats that Ceausescu was demolishing in the city center.

This morning I had a guided tour of underground Krakow (the new archeological museum under the medieval Cloth Hall) from a young Israeli theater director of Yemeni descent who’s lived in Krakow for 10 years. Avishai (Awiszaj Hadari) fell in love with the work of theater artistTadeusz Kantor while at art school in Tel Aviv, and decamped for Poland. The great film director Andrzej Wajda (also the subject of a hilarious spoof called “There was once Andrzej Andrzej Andrzej and Andrzej” just performed here the other night) wrote a letter in support of Avishai’s application for Polish citizenship. (No one in the government was quite sure how to react to such a request… so an exception was made thanks to Avishai’s contributions to Polish culture.) Today was the day that Avishai actually received his Polish passport, so we decamped to Gulliver cafe to celebrate.

(a few years ago I’d considered applying for a Polish passport as two of my grandparents were Polish, but as it turns out– Poland didn’t exist when they emigrated in 1906, and there was no possibility or much sense in applying for a passport as a citizen of Czarist Russia…

and to confuse you, here is a photo of my grandmother Rebecca when she travelled with her two children from Zhitomir to the States in the early 20’s…)

Rebecca Steinman's passport (with son Norman and daughter Ruth), 1921

Avishai’s installation in the underground museum is a theatrical display (enhanced by extraordinary animatronics and robotics) that tells of the founding of Cracow. The narrator is a white crow, voiced by one of filmmaker Kieslowski’s most famous actors, Jerzy Trela. Unfortunately for us, the sound was not working this morning due to a computer glitch in the museum’s mega-computer, situated at an even deeper level beneath the stone fortifications and weighing scales of Cracow– new technology trumps the transmission of ancient history.

The Odyssey

Posted in Poland with tags , , on December 4, 2010 by Louise Steinman

I brought the perfect traveling companion with me to Krakow… “The Glatstein Chronicles” by Jacob Glatstein. Written when Glatstein (one of the foremost Yiddish poets of his day) was summoned home from New York to Lublin, Poland, to the bedside of his sick mother. He traveled on a trans-Atlantic steamer, writing “the ship seemed to be carrying me back to my childhood, as though we were sailing back in time.” It’s a journey in reverse, the immigrant returning to the Old Country.

My seat companion on Lufthansa from LA to Munich was a pale young man with dark hair who told me he was very tired, and would i wake him up when dinner was served? Later I learned he was traveling to Sofia, Bulgaria, to the bedside of his sick mother. A journey of return.

Now, after one full day in Krakow, sliding across the Rynek on slick cobblestones, snow-flocked plane trees on the Planty, warm welcome from fellow Boska Komedia attendees from Warsaw, Moscow, Paris, Bogota, San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Dusseldorf and more. Tonight saw a fantastic production based on Homer’s “The Odyssey,” by a 27 year-old Krakovian theater star (Kryzysztof Garbazewski)_ which incorporated the best use of Jim Morrison’s epic song “The End” (Father, I want to KILLLLL YOU”) since I heard the Doors live at Beverly Hills High School in 1968. I was so moved, and so many of the themes of dread, journey, return, survival– that are on my mind– were given such a resonant treatment in this story of Telemachus, the son, whose father is the absent hero. (“let us speak of Odysseus’ absence.”) Telemachus was played by a wiry young actor who was the wild young son personified, horrified, vilified, and ultimately, vindicated. Penelope was played by three women of three different generations, and a beautiful silver-haired actress delivered the final monologue about her long vigil, her husband’s return. And in the final scene, Odysseus poses the basic question all storytellers must ask of those who journey out into the unknown, “Tell me, how was it?” We want to know what you endured, how you survived. That’s the question I asked Berek Ofman, who was hidden under the floorboards of a widow’s farmhouse in Radomsko, the question I asked Ester Wilhelm, who was three when the war started (her father’s mistress in Czestochowa pretended Ester was her own daughter). And Max Blitz, my friend’s father, survived because he stowed away on the back of a wagon headed towards the Russian border.

This play snapped me back from the brink of jet lag crash. But it’s finally happening, to bed to bed, to return to return.

Dread and light

Posted in Poland with tags , on December 2, 2010 by Louise Steinman

Write about dread. Dark of winter, beginning of the festival of lights and leaving for Poland tonight. All emails from friends in Krakow and Warsaw mention the terrible weather, heavy snow. And I’m leaving the comfort of Southern California, bright sun and clear bearable cold. I’ve been toggling between dread and excitement for the past week.

It’s been a decade since my first trip to Poland, one that began with an unusual invitation from my rabbi, Don Singer, who called me out of the blue to attend a week-long Bearing Witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau, sponsored by the Zen Peacemaker Order. I remember that phone call so well. I was lying on the couch in the living room, reading and drinking Earl Gray tea. I was not thinking about Poland.

Rabbi Singer told me there was a stipend for a writer to go to the Birkenau retreat. He suggested that I go, and that I take some time to travel in Eastern Europe.

Rabbi Singer had been the principal rabbi at the retreat for five years.  Sometimes, at Friday night services at the LA Zen Center, he spoke of the transformational nature of bearing  witness in that terrible place.  He also told us: “When I went to Poland for the first time and met some Polish people, I felt somehow we knew them, we understood them, that they’d received a bum rap.” “A bad rap” I fumed?  That did not jibe with impressions I’d received from my parents and others.  I accepted Rabbi Singer’s invitation with a sense of dread.

It was that first trip that set the path for The Crooked Mirror. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, where we meditated daily on the railroad tracks in the camp, met daily in Council with a remarkable international and interdenominational group of attendees, I discovered the encumbrance of my own unexamined prejudices about Poles and Poland.  Until that trip, I’d never met any Poles, and I knew next to nothing about Polish history. And like Rabbi Singer, I was startled to feel an unexpected affinity with Polish people.

So now it’s ten years and many trips to Poland later and I’m on the eve of departure for freezing Krakow, thanks to another unexpected  and very gracious invitation—this time from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. Who knew when I decided to go months ago that Poland would be in the grips of one of the worst winter storms in a decade?

What is dread but fear? Fear of the dark, fear of the cold, fear of the unknown. And what is the delight and the reward of travel? Moving into the unknown, testing yourself, and illuminating the unexpected. On an early trip to Radomsko years ago, I lit first-night Hanukah candles and drank cheap Bulgarian wine with Jewish and Polish friends in a hotel renovated from a nobleman’s castle.  It gave me sweet pleasure to light candles in the town where my grandparents once lived. This afternoon at sundown, I’ll light candles with my husband before leaving for LAX.

So I will try to let go of the dread and create light instead. Wishing Happy Chanukah to all who read this, may your fires burn brightly!  Next report from Krakow…


Lloyd with lights after I returned from Poland 5 years ago

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