Archive for the Poland Category

“For we were strangers in the land of Egypt…”: Passover, Radical Empathy, and Reconciliation

Posted in Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Life and What about It, Poland, reconciliation, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War with tags , , , , on April 18, 2014 by Louise Steinman

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I first heard of the idea of “Polish-Jewish” reconciliation from my Zen rabbi, who often evoked the most radical commandment in Judaism in his Friday night talks: “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were once a stranger in Egypt, and you know the heart of the stranger.”

This week of Passover, we commemorate the liberation from slavery in Egypt with the ritual meal, the seder. It’s a brilliant construction: symbolic foods that must be eaten and gestures that must be enacted before we move on to the next part of the chronicle. It’s a ritual meal that demands questions, song, commentary, even argument—all in the service of keeping a story alive through the generations, through the millennia.

The image of the Passover seder plays a central role in both my memoirs—The Souvenir and The Crooked Mirror. The Souvenir is based on my discovery, after my father passed away, of hundreds of letters my father wrote to my mother during the Pacific War, as well as my discovery in those letters of a war souvenir—a bloodied Japanese flag– which bore the name of a Japanese soldier named Yoshio Shimizu.

 

In March of 1945, my father, Private Norman Steinman wrote of leaving the battlefield during combat, for a Passover seder at Clark Field. In a chapter titled “Speculation,” I imagined my father’s encounter with Yoshio Shimizu—a ragged young soldier waving a white flag– on that road to the seder. This is not what happened. But mentally seating my father’s “enemy” at the table, was a healing image for this veteran’s daughter to contemplate, some fifty years later, when venturing into the bitter legacy of that conflict. And I didn’t know when I began “The Souvenir,” that years later, I’d be seated, on Passover, at the table of the Shimizu family in the tiny town of Suibara, in Japan’s snow country. My husband and I, the American strangers, were welcomed with love.

Over the years of writing The Crooked Mirror, a book about Polish-Jewish reconciliation, I was fortunate to celebrate two Passovers in Poland.

In the eastern Polish town of Lublin, in 2009, I participated in the first seder in sixty years at the restored Chachmei Yeshiva (Yeshiva of the Wise Men).

READ MORE on the BEACON BROADSIDE

Personae in “The Crooked Mirror”

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Family History, Poland, reconciliation with tags , , , , , , on December 15, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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As promised, here are some of the “characters” who people my memoir, The Crooked Mirror. First, here is my beloved Zen rabbi, Don Singer, at the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau sponsored by the Zen Peacemakers. Photo: Peter Cunningham.

Cheryl in Kolomay
Cheryl H., my companion and muse, a poet and gifted dreamer, in Ukraine in front of what we thought was the Grand Hotel– which had been in her family. We later did find the right building. Cheryl often asked difficult questions, like “Do They Miss Us?”

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Tomasz (Tomek) Cebulski, my intrepid Polish guide over the years of writing the book. We’ve driven through pea-soup fog together, visited LeninWorld in Lithuania, attended seders in Warsaw and Lublin, and searched for (and found) my great-grandmother’s grave in Radomsko, Poland.

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Maciej Ziembinski, one of the “saviors of Atlantis,” an intrepid journalist in Radomsko, Poland. Maciej had the Radomsk Yizkor translated into Polish, and published it as a serial in his independent newspaper.

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The Radomsk Yizkor (Memorial Book of the Community of Radomsk), which plays a big role in The Crooked Mirror

Berek and family
Berek Ofman, a retired tailor and son of a dynasty of kosher butchers in Radomsko. Berek survived with his friend (and later his wife) Regina and her parents and one of her cousins in a bunker built into a house in Radomsko. This photo taken after the war, showing Berek and Regina and their two children Leo and Tova.

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Janka and Marian Bereska, Berek’s rescuers.

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Marian Bereska, standing next to Tomek and his grandson Szymon, showing the site of the house with the bunker in Radomsko, winter 2010.

On the Road with “The Crooked Mirror”

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Literature, Poland, reconciliation with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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After so many years of sitting alone in a room writing, reflecting… it’s fascinating to be out in the world with The Crooked Mirror. Who are its readers? Who was drawn to hear me talk about the book in Queens,NY, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, Manhattan, Portland and Seattle? Some were old friends, appearing from various chapters of my life. Some were family– cousins with links to the story. Others saw an ad or heard a plug on the radio. Some came because they are intrigued, some because they were skeptical of the very premise: Polish-Jewish reconciliation.

At the Queens Jewish Library last month, there were many Jewish survivors of the camps in the crowded community room. One man rolled up his sleeve to show me the Auschwitz number tattooed on his arm, without comment. During my talk, these elders nodded their heads vigorously when I mentioned how, when Cheryl’s father came home after the war from the Soviet Union to his town of Kolomyja, where his neighbors shot at him. But they also listened attentively to stories of kindness, rescue, and the hard-won path towards reconciliation.

At USC, I gave a talk to students in the Masters in Professional Writing program. Two writing students– both working on memoirs about their African-American families– approached me afterwards, to say they’d taken inspiration from my tale. One of them owned to the dead-ends she’d encountered in the search for the history of her own family, from the time of slavery. “What do I do about all the gaps, the ragged edges?” she asked me sadly. Use them! I advised. Those holes in a family narrative are part of the story that has been obscured by time, emigration, and trauma.

At the NYU bookstore, I met Jack Malinowski, from Philadelphia, retired from 35 years with the American Friends Service Committee. Jack is the grandson of Poles– miners who emigrated from the Suwalki area of Poland in the late 1800’s. He grew up in a largely Polish Catholic community, near Shenandoah, Pa. “My parents were active in Polish American cultural activities,” he told me, “mostly on a Roman Catholic level. The synagogue in our town was near our house, but we mainly co-existed rather than mixed.” His father played a strong role helping DP’s after the war, and joined numerous Polish American voters leaving the Democratic party after Yalta (feeling betrayed by Roosevelt). In The Crooked Mirror, he said, “I found a rare and meaningful encounter.”

Tova Ofman is the daughter of Berek Ofman, a survivor from my family’s town of Radomsko, who is featured in the book. She flew in from Cleveland, bringing her two daughters so that they could hear a story that their grandfather had never told them. “I think he found it easier to tell his story to someone outside the family,” one of the lovely granddaughters thoughtfully observed.

I was delighted that my friend Sheku Mansaray could be in the audience at the New York Public Library. Sheku suffered through the atrocities of the civil war in Sierra Leone, losing both his parents and his arms to rebel soldiers. He sat beside storyteller Laura Simms, who wrote afterwards: “Sheku, like my son Ishmael, was a victim of a long civil war in Sierra Leone. Unlike Ishmael he did not become a soldier, but rather was scarred forever by a child soldier. A boy that he knew as a child from the next village. It was an amazing evening listening to tales of reconciliation after war, seated beside Sheku who is making some reconciliation within himself after the war.”

In many cities, people came up to me afterwards to tell me their family stories, to talk about their own searches to reconnect with history and lineage. In Portland, my friend Aron told me he was now going to search out the story of his grandmother Anne, who was one of the children on the Kindertransport. In San Francisco, I met Elizabeth Rynecki, who maintains a “virtual museum” and is producing a documentary film about her great-grandfather Moshe Rynecki, a renowned Warsaw painter (and a very fine one at that), who died in Majdanek. Moshe Rynecki’s son, George, Elizabeth’s grandfather, recovered over 100 of his father’s paintings, secreted away during the war. Elizabeth wrote this thoughtful response to The Crooked Mirror and posted it on her blog. I share it here.

Thanks to everyone who’s helped launch The Crooked Mirror out into the world. I also promise– in response to feedback– to post more pictures and a map in due time…

painting at top:
“Perla” by Moshe Rynecki, 1929.

After “Aftermath”

Posted in Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Human Rights, Literature, Poland, reconciliation with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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Going full out for the distressing double-header, I saw the Polish film “Aftermath” the same weekend as “Twelve Years a Slave.” Both films were an opportunity to view how a filmmaker handled a country’s national shame through the art of storytelling. “Aftermath,” is a fictional film inspired by Jan Gross’ book Neighbors, about the 1941 massacre of a Polish village’s Jewish population by their Catholic neighbors. It’s just been released in the U.S. “Twelve Years,” based on the diary of a free Black who was kidnapped and pressed into bondage in the American South, brings to Technicolor luridness the hideous cruelties of the slave trade.

Both films are deeply disturbing and both films necessitate a revising of a national self-image. For Poles, that involves admitting that Poles were not always the victims in WW II; on some occasions, they were perpetrators. Americans must countenance that our country’s literal foundations were built on the blasphemy of human bondage.

In Poland, when Neighbors was first published in Polish in 2000 , discussion of the Jedwabne case became a national obsession. Crucial to note was that the debate about Jedwabne was carried out in full public view. It involved Catholic prelates, former Solidarity leader Adam Michnik (himself of Jewish descent), Polish writers and academicians, and Jewish Poles.

When the stone commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne massacre was dedicated in the town in July 2001 by Poland’s then-President, Aleksander Kwásniewski, the president’s unflinching apology was carried live on Polish TV:

“We express our pain and shame. We express our determination in seeking to learn the truth, our courage in overcoming an evil past. We have an unbending will for understanding and harmony. Because of this crime we should beg the shades of the dead and their families for forgiveness. Therefore, today, as a citizen and as the President of the Polish Republic, I apologize. I apologize in the name of those Poles whose conscience is moved by that crime.”

I’ve never heard an American president apologize for the abomination of the slave trade. And, lest anyone forget, this past spring, The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, a key provision of the landmark civil rights law.

“Aftermath” has caused outrage in Poland among Polish nationalists who consider the film a slur. It also has passionate defenders, for whom looking squarely at the past is a prerequisite to building a tolerant civil society. As a film, I found Aftermath’s Gothic approach– spooky score, supernatural scares, a cast of Troglodyte villagers with raised pitchforks– a distraction and a disconnect from the sober story the film attempts to tell. “Twelve Years a Slave”— far more artful—so aroused my sense of outrage that I wanted to smash my fist through the screen.

In 2006, before Jan Gross’ next book (Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz) was published in Poland, I expressed my worry to a Polish friend about the possible harm the book might cause to the efforts towards Polish-Jewish reconciliation. This friend, an artist and civic activist who was also Gross’ Polish publisher, replied: “Yes, it will be very painful. But we have to take this relatively peaceful time to look at what is cruel and painful in the past. It is the only way we can build a democracy. We cannot lose this time. We must be honest.”

His response was so obvious; clarifying, and a deep relief. It still is. My friend was neither alarmed nor defensive at the prospect of controversy.

It’s never easy to admit to different points of view about history—look at the broiling controversy over the Smithsonian allowing Japanese responses to Hiroshima in the exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of World War II. (The Smithsonian backed down.) And when will an American filmmaker take on the genocide of the Native Americans? He or she could start with the bounties paid for the scalps and body parts of California Indians, legally sanctioned by our state legislature until 1900. There are plenty of uncomfortable national truths to contemplate; looking at them collectively doesn’t denigrate a nation’s history, nor the acts of bravery of its citizenry. (We must also remember that there are more Poles among the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem than from any other European country.)

This public confrontation with the truths of an uncomfortable past is a crucial aspect—a responsibility really– of living in a democracy, of taking advantage “of this relatively peaceful time.”

This post also appears on Beacon Broadside, a project of Beacon Press, independent publisher of progressive ideas since 1854.

photo: Teatr NN, Misterium, “One World- Two Temples,” 2000

Being Heard

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Los Angeles, Poland, reconciliation, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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It’s been an emotional and gratifying week, giving my first book talk on The Crooked Mirror, being interviewed by the wonderful Jack Miles at ALOUD (video, podcast to be posted soon) and receiving two deeply thoughtful and beautifully written reviews– one by poet Piotr Florzck in the Los Angeles Review of Books (and thank God for LARB and the possibility of the existence, these days, of a long review) and the other by Rabbi Haim Beliak– a mover and shaker in the cause of Jewish renewal in Poland– in the Jewish Journal

So here are links to both reviews. Here’s giving thanks to those who’ve already attended a reading or a talk… I’ve been buoyed by the response, the sense of a community eager to hear and talk about this work. There is so much need for reconciliation in so many parts of this planet, so many parts of our lives. I remember when “The Souvenir” came out in 2001, after 9/11, and when a young film development person told my agent, “No one wants to hear stories about reconciliation — we’re at war.” Well, I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.

photo: Misterium: Poem of the Place, Lublin, TeatrNN

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.

Yizkor Bucher (The Glatstein Chronicles)

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Literature, Poetry, Poland with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2011 by Louise Steinman

[published in the Los Angeles Review of Books]

27th Jun 2011

Louise Steinman

Spring in Gościeradzu by Leon Wyczółkowski

Jacob Glatstein
The Glatstein Chronicles
Translated by Maier Deshell and Norbert Guterman
Edited by Ruth R. Wisse
Yale University Press, November 2010. 432 pp.

On my trip to Poland this past winter, I brought the perfect book as my traveling companion. The Glatstein Chronicles was written in 1934, after the author, celebrated American Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, was summoned home from New York to his dying mother’s bedside in Lublin, Poland. Recently retranslated, edited, and published in English by Yale University Press, the poet’s travel narrative is both first-rate reportage and a fever dream of Europe on the brink of disaster.

Glatstein (named “Yash” as the book’s narrator) travels back to the Old Country by trans-Atlantic steamer. “The ship seemed to be carrying me back to my childhood,” he writes, “as though we were sailing back in time.” His is a half-forgotten, mythical childhood, where, “in the center of the synagogue, the fearful shadow of a hanging lamp swayed back and forth, like a body dangling from a rope.” These sometimes ominous, sometimes joyous memories are both interruption and counterpoint to Yash’s encounters with an international cast of characters as he crosses the ocean and travels across Europe by train.

As I picked at bland fare on the Lufthansa flight from Los Angeles to Munich, I savored Glatstein’s Eastern European culinary metaphors: a man “chooses his words as if he were sorting chickpeas, and rejecting the inferior ones,” a head is propped on a man’s neck “like a cabbage,” and a pair of eyes are “cloudy like herring milt.”

One of the ship’s passengers lauds Yash for being such a great listener. “You have golden ears,” he says. “Your ears are worth a million dollars.” I resolved to follow his example. The pale young man with spiky dark hair next to me had asked me to wake him up when dinner was served. After nudging him awake at dinnertime, I listened to his tale and learned he was traveling to Sofia, Bulgaria, to the bedside of his sick mother. A journey of return. I was returning as well — if it’s possible to return to a place where one has never lived. I was returning to the little town of Radomsko, Poland, where my grandparents were born. After six visits, I’m practically an honorary citizen of this homely but heimish town in the hinterlands between Częstochowa and Łódź.

On the second or third morning of his ocean crossing, Yash learns of alarming news from the ship’s paper. Hitler has purged his paramilitary force and murdered its leader, Ernst Röhm, along with at least 60 of his associates. It is the Night of Long Knives. Yash’s buoyant mood is shattered. He goes in search of fellow Jews, certain they will understand what Hitler’s grab for power bodes for their brethren.

The first passenger he buttonholes “stops in his tracks like a stunned rooster.” It’s not the news, however, that alarms him: “‘How did you know I was Jewish?’ he asked, as if some misfortune had befallen him.” The stunned rooster then admits that he is indeed Jewish, but “not one of those common Polish Jews. I’m Dutch.” Yash also embarrasses the single Jew among four stalwart young Bolsheviks traveling home to the workers’ motherland, by blurting out the compliment “Yevreyskaya golova, a Jewish head!” As the others smile in discomfort, his new comrade apologizes for Yash’s use of an expression “that was a relic from tsarist days.”

Why have we never heard of Jacob Glatstein, a modernist whose prose is as mordantly humorous as Philip Roth, as eerie as Kafka, as weighty as Bellow? The answer is obvious: Glatstein wrote in Yiddish, and as Ruth Wisse, the editor of this volume, reminds us, “to a writer, language is fate.” Though he published more than six hundred essays in the New York socialist-Zionist weekly Yiddisher Kempfer and won the most prestigious prize for Yiddish literature (for this very work), the fate of Glatstein’s oeuvre was inextricably bound to the dire fate of the speakers of his language.

Over the last several years of research for my own book about Poland’s Jewish past (and present), I’ve been increasingly impressed by the profound consequences of that severed link to the vital language of Glatstein’s poetry and prose, to the language in which my grandparents conversed, joked, and read. I grew up knowing nothing about the Polish town my mother’s family came from, imagining it as some kind of Dogpatch. Before my first trip there, I Googled its name and came up with a 600-page memory book, the Radomsk Yizkor. I was astonished.

The memorial books (yizkor bukher) were all written in the wake of the Shoah, and few of them were translated from the original Yiddish and Hebrew. This is one of the main reasons why descendants of Polish Jews — who, like me, aren’t versed in those languages — have been cut off from our ancestral past, our Polish-Jewish cultural patrimony. Translations from Yiddish to English now make it possible to reconnect with a lost history, both personal and literary. The Radomsk Yizkor offered tantalizing fragments of stories, which I have been fleshing out by using archival research and interviewing Jewish survivors and Polish rescuers.

Now I can at least imagine a prewar evening at the famous meeting hall of the Warsaw Literary Union at Tłomackie 13, where, on any given afternoon, I might have seen the aesthete Yosef Heftman eating marinated herring, the essayist J.M. Neuman drinking tea with challah, or the poet Y. Segalowitch sitting in a corner with a “literary supplement” (as the young women who attached themselves to the writers were called).

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LISTEN to Jacob Glatstein reading his poem, “Goodnight, World” (thank you Kostek Gebert for pointing me here…)

Traces

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Poland with tags , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2011 by Louise Steinman

It’s a big shift from the solitude of the page to a roomful of faces. I gave a talk at Pepperdine University in Malibu yesterday to celebrate the opening of an exhibition of photographs (titled TRACES OF MEMORY: A CONTEMPORARY LOOK AT THE JEWISH PAST IN POLAND) by the late photojournalist Christopher Schwartz, the permanent exhibition at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow. The photo exhibit is in the Payson Library, and sponsored by the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies at Pepperdine.

I first encountered Chris Schwartz’ photographs at the Galicia Museum in Krakow in 2004. Chris, a genial host, told me how he’d originally come to Poland in the early eighties to photograph the Solidarity movement. He was struck by the lack of documentation of former Jewish sites in Poland, how “an 800 year-old culture had been destroyed in six years.” In 1990, he set himself the challenge of “photographing absence.”

I remember looking at Chris’ impressive photographs in the museum’s main gallery. One photo in particular captured my attention and I’ve pondered its implications over the years I’ve been writing THE CROOKED MIRROR.

It’s a very simple image taken outside a small Polish village called Stary Dzikow: a large field with a stand of tall pines in the center of spiraling plowed furrows. To understand what you’re looking at you have to read the caption: “This clump of trees is the site of the Jewish cemetery here. It is unmarked. There is no boundary fence, nor are there any tombstones. But the local peasants remember that it is a Jewish cemetery and have left it as it is.” Think about that. The presence of the past is kept alive by the observance of absence in the plowed field.

[photo credit: Chris Schwartz, Galicia Museum]

I looked up the word traces, which goes back to the Latin tractus, to draw or drag. “any mark or slight indication of something past or present.”

There is nothing tangible at the center of the field in Stary Dzikow, in Christopher Schwartz’ photo… but the older Polish inhabitants remember what had been there. By literally tracing their furrows around that empty center, they honor Jewish memory in their own way.

On my many trips to Poland over the past decade, I’ve discovered many poignant examples of ways in which Poles observe and honor the absence of their murdered Jewish neighbors– in villages, small towns, big cities. Today was the first time I’ve shared some of those stories with an audience, faces looking back at me, responding. It was energizing. And beyond the room, the Pacific shimmered. My dear rabbi Don Singer was in the audience. It was a phone call from Don eleven years ago inviting me to attend the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau that launched this project. Who knew? I never intended to write a book about Poland.

After the talk and the energetic Q&A, I had time to watch the last rays of the sun over the Pacific, sitting with Rabbi Singer and Ken LaZebnik (who organized the show at Pepperdine), to talk about our lives, to exchange hopes and worries about the protests in Egypt, to simply savor the moment of putting the work out into the world, the last traces of the day.

Evidence

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Poland with tags , , , , , , , on January 8, 2011 by Louise Steinman

Evidence.  Means ‘sign’ or ‘proof’. ‘Statements of witnesses.’

Last fall I heard a thought-provoking talk– sponsored by the Casden Institute at USC — by Daniel Mendelsohn, author of THE LOST: Searching for Six of Six Million.  Mendelsohn spoke about the “problem of the witness” and as well, “the problem of the historian.”    How are those who give testimony about traumatic events affected by their own conscious or unconscious agenda? The testimony in the Yizkor (memory) books, written after the war, are charged by the ragged emotions of the times. One would think the “historian” would be far more objective than the witness. But Mendelsohn revealed how the historian can be tainted by his or her own way of seeing the world.

Mendelsohn finally discovered where his great-uncle and his daughter had hidden in their family’s town during the war; he’d actually possessed the crucial clue for the five years of his search. However,  he’d misinterpreted a single word all that time. His grandfather spoke of their relatives hiding in a castle. But his grandfather had a Yiddish accent and the word he used was the Yiddish word kesle, a box. A hole in the ground. A bunker.  Mendelsohn believed some fairytale about the faraway family hiding in a castle. The truth was much grimmer.

I thought of this recently when studying the photo of the house on Rolna Street, the last known address of my relatives in Radomsko.  I found this address for my great-aunt Fayge Konardska Wilhelm and her husband Fayvel Wilhelm  on a 1939 registration list compiled by the Germans. When I first encountered the house several years ago, my companion noted her surprise at “how big and pretty” it was. I too was surprised; but I  liked the idea that my relatives lived in such a big and pretty house.

I saw what I wanted to see. I wanted to believe that the house on Rolna Street was where my lost relatives lived a “normal” life: waking up in the morning to go to work, putting the teakettle on the stove, thinking about a picnic on the banks of the river, or a trip across town to visit aged parents.

Then, on a writing retreat, I sat down to draw the house on Rolna Street from the photograph, feeling its contours  through my pencil. Those two big columns in the front were downright sepulchral. That’s what tipped me off. This was not the house they actually lived in.

House on Rolna, sketch

The Polish occupants of this house were forced to move out when the Germans established the Radomsko ghetto.  This house on Rolna was the terrifying limbo where  Fayvel and Fayge were incarcerated  with other families before deportation to hell.

There was another address in Radomsko for the Wilhelms, which my cousin Laura discovered in her mother’s 1935 day book. I’d misplaced it and since it was sent snail mail, it wasn’t in my computer.I took a copy of that handwritten address with me to Radomsko last month, but to my chagrin, nobody there could dicipher the address, even longtime residents.

……….

A few weeks ago, in Warsaw, I visited the Muzeum Tekniki at the Palace of Culture, the gargantuan gaudy Soviet high-rise that was Stalin’s unwanted“gift” to the people of Poland. There were rooms of old telephones, washing machines, old uniforms of miners– all untouched since the 70’s  What particularly intrigued me was the forensics exhibit.

My favorite tableau was this mysterious investigator in the space suit, examining the scene of the crime, frozen forever in the  act of collecting evidence.  Did what he thought he was going to find influence what he actually saw, and how he saw it?  Yes… beyond a reasonable doubt.

Forensics Display, Muzeum Tekniki, Warsaw

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