Archive for Polish-Jewish reconciliation

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

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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

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.

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?”

Poland Radomsko 2006 143
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.

Radomsk yizkor book cover
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

Thinking about Katyn and onwards to Poland

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

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.

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