Retrieving a family’s thread in Poland
By Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak
Louise Steinman’s The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish- Jewish Reconciliation, interrupts the two universes of meaning hanging on the phrase: “it’s history.”
For many, the words ” it’s history” connote something is unimportant, forgotten, and irrelevant. But for many Poles and Jews to assert “it’s history” means, something is of vital, existential importance — that the past commands attention and understanding. Polish and Jewish relations are complex. Even historical accounts differ. There are many issues, attitudes, distorted perceptions that demand careful study, hence the crooked mirror. The task of addressing and making ourselves aware of the distortions of history/memory is an arduous task.
The yawning chasm of distrust impedes conversation. Click here to read the full review.
“My own mother could barely utter the word Poland. Her grief at the loss of unnamed family in Poland during the Holocaust rendered painful even the sound of where it happened,” writes Louise Steinman. For Steinman and members of her generation, the very idea of Poland evoked feelings of anguish and betrayal. “It was a given,” Steinman writes, “that Poland was a country full of people who hated Jews, who allowed and perhaps even abetted an unspeakable genocide on their soil.”
In The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation, Steinman pushes back against many of the assumptions about Poland and Polish anti-Semitism—not an easy task since nearly all of the Jews living in Poland were wiped out in the Holocaust and an estimated eighty percent of American Jews are of Polish descent. Through the lens of her family’s experiences, and sharing stories of other Jews of Polish descent trying to reconnect with their families’ Polish roots, Steinman immerses readers in the difficult but healing process of Polish-Jewish reconciliation.
Describing her many trips to Poland (and territories once part of Poland) over the course of a decade, Steinman takes readers from shtetl towns to the noisy squares of major cities, from museums, cathedrals, and synagogues to grand old hotels and Soviet bloc apartment buildings. Ultimately she forges a deep connection to Radomsko, the small town where her family lived for generations—becoming a witness and a participant in the town’s poignant re-awakening to its Jewish past. Writing of the many young people who are embracing their country’s intertwined Polish-Jewish history, she observes that they are “finding ways to make the presence of an absence palpable.”
Traveling to Sejny, Steinman visits the White Synagogue, which during the German occupation was used as a stable and fertilizer warehouse, but has since been restored with vaulted ceilings and white stucco walls. Today, the Centre Borderland of Arts, Cultures, and Nations, the first nonprofit arts organization in post-Communist Poland, uses the space for workshop plays that celebrate the town’s Jewish history. In Krakow’s Kazimierz neighborhood, she visits the Center for Jewish Culture, which was built to attract both Jews and non-Jews “to educate, give facts, and change minds.”
Steinman reminds readers that Poland, the epicenter of European Jewish life for centuries, was an occupied country in World War II, and that, under the subsequent decades of Communism, it was taboo in Poland to discuss the fate of Poland’s Jews. She explains how that has now changed, while examining the ongoing debate, especially among Jews, over the causes and extent of Polish cooperation with the Nazis during the Holocaust. “People want to hang on to their prejudices,” she writes. “Since the war, Poles and Jews have a sense of competing victimhood and many Jews of my [Baby Boom] generation tend to forget that.”
Steinman introduces readers to important historical figures who played an essential role in Polish history, including the poet and revolutionary Adam Mickiewicz, who tried to organize a Polish-Jewish legion during the Crimean War; Szmul Zygielbojm, who in 1943 set himself on fire in front of the British Parliament pleading for the world to take action on behalf of the Jews, and Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish Underground who tried to convince the West of the atrocities committed by Germany against the Jews in Poland. While she still encounters some ingrained prejudices on her journey, Steinman befriends memorable people who help her further understand both Poland and her own family’s past, reinforcing the belief that a Jewish presence is what makes Poland whole. Some of these people include:
- Cheryl Holtzman, Steinman’s unfaltering traveling partner. Together the two women journey to the formerly Polish town of Kolomyja in Ukraine, a town that Holtzman says “unloved her,” where her great-grandfather was burned alive and her grandmother and aunt were both shot and buried in a mass grave.
- Maciej Ziembinski, a reporter in the town of Radomsko, who creates an alternative weekly newspaper to commemorate the Jewish history of the town and to memorialize the nearly 18,000 Radomsko Jews who were deported or killed by the end of 1943.
- Ewa Wroczyńska, a theater director, works tirelessly to bring the lost stories of Jewish life back into the everyday consciousness of residents of the city of Tykocin through the medium of community theater.
- Tomek Cebulski, a young Polish man who serves as translator for both Holtzman and Steinman on their journeys, grew up in a small town where he absorbed negative Jewish stereotypes; but now has dedicated himself professionally to the study of the history of Polish Jews.
- Berek Ofman, who survived the German occupation of Radomsko along with three other Jews hidden in a bunker in the home of a young Polish Catholic widow and her son. He is able to describe in great detail the harrowing story of life in the Radomsko ghetto and the risks inherent in hiding Jewish fugitives.
Steinman talks with her Polish friends about the uncomfortable truths that the country confronts on its path to becoming a more tolerant, democratic society. As her Polish friend Tomek says, “It’s so easy to talk about the crimes of the Germans…when I have to talk about our crimes, something sticks in my throat.” But this, they recognize, is the only path towards healing.
By the end of her journey, Steinman comes not only to understand “the Poland in her head,” she writes, but also to finally acknowledge “the Poland in her heart,” joining a new generation of Poles and Jews who are looking honestly at their entwined history since the rebirth of democratic Poland in 1989. As testament to the Polish commitment towards this effort, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened in April 2013 on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, and will introduce its Core Exhibition presenting the thousand-year history of Polish Jews in May 2014. In advance of this opening, The Crooked Mirror offers a vital discussion about this important new era of Polish-Jewish reconciliation.
About the Author
Louise Steinman is the author of the award-winning memoir The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War. For the past two decades, she has curated the ALOUD literary and performance series for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. She also codirects the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at the University of Southern California.