Archive for August, 2011

Sunday in the park in Warsaw

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Poland on August 30, 2011 by Louise Steinman

A balmy late August Sunday in Warsaw and it feels like the entire city is out walking, bicycling through leafy green parks, along the river banks, through the city streets. Or strolling hand in hand while licking ice cream cones. My friend Joanna walked me back to the hotel through the park, after a lively morning poking around the flea market (I ended up with a blue-rimmed porcelain saucer, a bakelite cake knife, some Bavarian sheet music that looks like a Mondrian drawing, a rotary dial without the phone… Joanna found a 1920’s projector and a 50’s coffee mill) savoring cold borscht in her flat and admiring the strange and beautiful mid-century objects she and her husband Wojtek gleaned from those little stalls at the market.

What could be better than sitting in one’s friends’ kitchen in a faraway land, sipping a drink and watching the camaraderie of cooking? After our meal, four of us walked down the road to the pastry shop for tea and talked about the state of the world, economics, the riots in London and the upcoming American election.

I’d read descriptions of the late August golden light in fiction describing the beginning of the war… how much like a regular summer day it was. People ate ice cream and fresh cherries. There were plums in the market like the ones I bought yesterday.

I was dozing off on the last leg of the journey from LAX to Frankfurt to Warsaw, woke up when the pilot said, “We just crossed the border between Germany and Poland.” I looked out the window but of course, there is no visible dividing line between these two countries. It was a casual comment and was not intended as any commentary on Sept 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland at the start of WW II. How marvelous when crossing a border can be so commonplace, so unremarkable.

In Ujazdowski Park, we came across these two fine ladies sitting in their little green kiosk which at first I thought was a religious shrine. It turns out they sit there with their old scales… like guardians of justice from another era.

Friends in Warsaw, Late Summer 2011

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Literature, Poland with tags , , , , on August 26, 2011 by Louise Steinman

It is such a pleasure to visit friends in a foreign city, though Warsaw sometimes feels as familiar as New York. I like to touch into my friends’ current preoccupations, catch glimpses of their lives.

Today a visit to Staszek and Monika, took the tram at the stop across from the two mighty atlases at Pod Gigantami (“under the giants”) holding up the balcony of a surviving pre-war tenement on Aleje Ujazdowski.

Staszek and his son Daniel meet me at the door of their building. Daniel, a most charming young man with Downs syndrome has a budding career as an actor. His drama group recently performed a version of Alice in Wonderland, with an autistic girl as Alice. Daniel played the role of the “judge” who interrogated Alice as to why she lived in such a dream world. Staszek said it was powerful beyond belief.

Staszek teaches philosophy at the university and one feels like you can talk to him about anything. He relishes digging into the meaning of things. And Monika, beautiful Monika, arrives a few minutes after I do, wearing a bright red skirt and carrying ice cream from the market. Their flat is full of her art work, delicate paper cuts embodying traditional Jewish themes, storks, fish, outlines of books. She collects bells and dragons and takes exquisite photographs of the engraved stones in Poland’s Jewish cemeteries.

Their older son, G, lives in a squat, off Warsaw’s official grid, in a slower but arguably more dangerous world. They worry about him. Staszek and Monika were rebels in their youth, dissidents against a repressive regime. Their son is rebelling against materialism, against living life by the clock or the wallet.

Strolled back to the hotel through the leafy green Lazienski Gardens. The city is enjoying the last days of summer with ice cream cones and sunbathing, families fanning themselves on the benches near the former emperor’s Orangerie.

The other day I walked in Lazienski with Kostek, a well-respected Warsaw journalist. As we passed the romantic marble statue of Chopin, Kostek admitted he was “Chopin’d out.” I mentioned this friend Wojtek, a conceptual artist, who commented as to how he’d love to perform a double homage to John Cage and Chopin by hosting a silent Chopin concert. Kostek applauds the idea.

And yesterday Gosia, a playwright, took me to see the astonishing gardens on the roof of Warsaw University LIbrary. There are paths named for poets, bridges and arbors, views across the Vistula and above the rooftops of this historic city. She told me about an assignment she once had, creating a film for a Warsaw TV station about a visiting Dutch author– Matthijs Van Boxsel– who calls hmself a morosopher. Morosophy (fool-osophy): means foolish wisdom or wise foolishness.

(as he writes in an interview: “Morosophs operate at the crossroads of science, religion, art and madness. Is the earth flat? Was Dutch spoken in paradise? Are atoms spaceships? Is Delft Delphi? Can the floor plan of the pyramid of Cheops be found in the street plan of ‘s-Hertogenbosch? Is the world entering the Lilac phase? Did abstract thought commence when the clitoris evolved from the inside to the outside?” (attribution to follow)

As we walked paths named for Petrarch and other poets, Gosia told me how she interviewed von Boxell on this very rooftop garden, following him down one path and another as he talked about his attempt– which took many years– to figure out the theory that could explain everything. Then he said, he returned to “the initial page of his theory… and the same intelligence that had got me so far, turned against me and I dived into a deep depression.” He had to take a break from writing and learn to enjoy life again, live in his body and not his mind. Then he could return to stupidity.

This week, as hurricanes brew and insurrections continue and demagogues rail at home in the States, I am walking and feeling my body, enjoying life and dear friends in the late summer sunshine of the fine old city of Warsaw.

Still a Cold Case, 20 Years Later

Posted in Family History with tags , , , , , , , on August 9, 2011 by Louise Steinman

It’s hard to believe today is the twentieth anniversary of my cousin Grisha Steinman’s murder. August 9, 1991. It’s been five years since I last checked in with the Van Nuys homicide desk, back when I wrote an article about the murder for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. “No new developments,” Detective Bub (!) said on the phone last week. It’s still a cold case.

I’ll light a yarzheit candle for Grisha tonight at sundown. And, to mark that second decade of not knowing, here’s my article that I wrote to honor his memory and the place he’ll always have in my heart.


A shooting in a Van Nuys parking lot took the life of a Russian immigrant 15 years ago. There were no suspects, no apparent motive. As the case has grown colder, the hurt of not knowing has never gone away.
August 06, 2006

On the 10th anniversary of Grisha’s murder, I drive across Hollywood–past Paramount Studios, west on Melrose, north on Gower, hard right onto the grounds of Beth Olam cemetery.
Yan and Rita, part of my family’s Russian contingent, are waiting for me inside the quiet vault. We stand facing a wall of crypts, peering up at where my cousin Grisha and his wife, Maya, are entombed.

The crime merited a brief note in the Metro section of the L.A. Times on Friday, Aug. 9, 1991: Los Angeles police detectives said they had no leads in the killing of an Encino man, Gregory “Grisha” Steinman, 57, who was shot in the head about 9:15 a.m. as he walked to his car in the parking lot of the Auto Club of Southern California on Kester Avenue in Van Nuys. He died five hours later.

Shot in the head. A phrase often coupled with “execution style.” It was easy to make that leap. Had there been an assassin stalking my cousin? Did he have some secret life none of us knew about? The Times piece quoted Det. Steve Hooks: “There was no one who would have benefited from his death or would have wanted him dead.” Then why?

The day of Grisha’s funeral was stifling hot. Smog obscured the Hollywood sign. Cemetery workers used a special crane to raise the coffin into place. It malfunctioned. Excruciating sounds: gears gnashing, wood scraping on marble, assembled family and friends sobbing.

Now, on the anniversary, Yan, Rita and I murmur the kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning that praises God, celebrates the gift of life and peace and never mentions the word “death.” We exchange no other words, just occasional, unavoidable sighs.

Russians like roses. Rita has brought a generous bouquet of robust yellow buds. We arrange half of them in the copper vases attached to the seventh-story crypt, proceed down the hallway to leave some at eye-level for my grandparents, Herschel (Harry) and Rebecca (Becky) Steinman. Next we climb stairs to the second floor where my parents–Anne and Norman Steinman–are immured. You have to kneel to read their plaque.

Rita feels faint, convinced that gasses are escaping the crypts. Outside, we gulp what passes for fresh air. Though none of us is an observant Jew, we wash our hands at a spigot before leaving the cemetery. It’s a vestigial gesture.

A lot of Steinmans are resting here. Age and illness took all of them except Grisha.


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