A lyrical literary memoir that explores the exhilarating, discomforting, and ultimately healing process of Polish-Jewish reconciliation taking place in Poland today
"I'd grown up with the phrase 'Never forget' imprinted on my psyche. Its corollary was more elusive. Was it possible to remember-at least to recall-a world that existed before the calamity?"
In the winter of 2000, Louise Steinman set out to attend an international Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau at the invitation of her Zen rabbi, who felt the Poles had gotten a "bum rap."A bum rap? Her own mother could not bear to utter the word "Poland," a country, Steinman was taught, that allowed and perhaps abetted the genocide that decimated Europe's Jewish population, including members of her own extended family.
As Steinman learns more about her lost ancestors, though, she finds that the history of Polish-Jewish relations is far more complex. Although German-occupied Poland was the site of horrific Jewish persecution, Poland was for centuries the epicenter of European Jewish life. After the war, Polish-Jewish relations soured. For Poles under Communism, it was taboo to examine or discuss the country's Jewish past. Among Jews in the Diaspora, there was little acknowledgment of the Poles' immense suffering during its dual occupation.
Steinman's research leads her to her grandparents' town of Radomsko, whose eighteen thousand Jews were deported or shot during the Nazi occupation. As she delves deeper into the town's and her family's history, Steinman discovers a prewar past where a lively community of Jews and Catholics lived shoulder to shoulder, where a Polish Catholic painted the blue ceiling of the Radomsko synagogue, and a Jewish tinsmith roofed the spires of the Catholic church.She also uncovers untold stories of Poles who rescued their Jewish neighbors in Radomsko and helps bring these heroes to the light of day.
Returning time and again to Poland over the course of a decade, Steinman finds Poles who are seeking the truth about the past, however painful, and creating their own rituals to teach their towns about the history of their lost Jewish neighbors. This lyrical memoir chronicles her immersion in the exhilarating, discomforting, sometimes surreal, and ultimately healing process of Polish-Jewish reconciliation.
From the Hardcover edition.
Louise Steinman is curator of the award-winning ALOUD at Central Library literary series at the Los Angeles Public Library. Her work appears frequently in "The Los Angeles Times "and "L.A. Weekly, "and has appeared in syndication in "The New York Times "and other publications.
"Steinman's elegiac book is a powerful reminder of how ideologies can become 'crooked mirror[s]' that distort reality and destroy lives, cultures and nations." --Kirkus Reviews "Lyrical yet magesterial...heartfelt, poignant, redemptive, and brave." --Los Angeles Review of Books
"Readers can be grateful to Ms. Steinman for bearing witness to those seeds of understanding being planted in lands where so much blood flowed." --The Wall Street Journal
"[Steinman] achieves something close to peace with those struggling intensely to understand and rectify Poland's Jewish past." --Foreign Affairs
"Louise Steinman's story is heroic in all the old senses of the word: a journey of a literal sort; a journey into the terrible past; and a journey into her own soul. Unblinking, scrupulous and enduring." --Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
"An event like the Holocaust not only takes a toll of dead and traumatizes the survivors. It leaves its mark on later generations as well--the children and grandchildren of the families of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. This is the territory Louise Steinman explores, with great feeling and with hope, in The Crooked Mirror." --Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars
"Louise Steinman has written the most extraordinary travel book I have ever read--about a journey to nightmare, through unmarked mass graveyards and dark haunted Polish and Ukrainian streets. The miracle is that shattering light breaks repeatedly into this otherwise dark journey. Jews--religious and secular--will have many reasons to read this book. As a Christian, I urge other Christians to read every page of The Crooked Mirror, to face evil again, and to better understand redemption." --Richard Rodriguez, author of Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography
"The Crooked Mirror is both provocative and ultimately redemptive, a book that will appeal to a wide audience of readers who care about history, genealogy, and the possibility of peace between estranged peoples." --Jonathan Kirsch, author of The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan
"Steinman's elegiac book is a powerful reminder of how ideologies can become 'crooked mirror[s]' that distort reality and destroy lives, cultures and nations." -- Kirkus Reviews "Lyrical yet magesterial...heartfelt, poignant, redemptive, and brave." -- Los Angeles Review of Books "Readers can be grateful to Ms. Steinman for bearing witness to those seeds of understanding being planted in lands where so much blood flowed." -- The Wall Street Journal "Louise Steinman's story is heroic in all the old senses of the word: a journey of a literal sort; a journey into the terrible past; and a journey into her own soul. Unblinking, scrupulous and enduring." --Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight "An event like the Holocaust not only takes a toll of dead and traumatizes the survivors. It leaves its mark on later generations as well--the children and grandchildren of the families of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. This is the territory Louise Steinman explores, with great feeling and with hope, in The Crooked Mirror ."
INTRODUCTION The Country in My Head Cinders drifted over the heads of family and friends--fi re season in Southern California. The rabbi sang so ecstatically from the Song of Songs, some of the wedding guests wondered if he was on acid. It was 1988, my second marriage, my husband''s third. In the past, neither of us had considered a religious ceremony. But all four of our parents were then alive, and we knew it would give them sweet pleasure to see us married under the chupa, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy. When we began planning, knowing our ambivalence about tradition, a friend directed us to Don Singer, "the Zen Rabbi of Malibu." Don met us at the door of his house with a parrot on his shoulder. He was white-haired, handsome; laugh lines radiated from bright blue eyes. We warmed immediately to his unorthodoxy, his innate joie de vivre. Don Singer really was a Zen rabbi. His understanding of Buddhism harmonized with his embrace of Hasidic wisdom. His congregation gathered for Shabbat and High Holy Day services in the garden behind the Los Angeles Zen Center, located in one of the city''s poorest neighborhoods. On Rosh Hashanah, blasts from the traditional ram''s horn (shofar) mingled with catchy tunes from an ice cream truck and the beat of salsa from boom boxes. In Rabbi Singer''s eclectic, roaming congregation, I found a contemplative home for my unaffiliated and long-estranged Judaism. Sometimes at his services, Don spoke about his experiences in Poland. Every winter for five years in a row, Rabbi Singer had served as the principal rabbi for the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau, an interfaith gathering organized by the Zen Peacemaker Order. When Don was a teenager in the fifties, his artist father took him to visit the death camp at Dachau. "It is the source of what I am today as a rabbi," he confided. His early experiences led him to explore "the authentic roots of Judaism" and what he considers its most radical commandment: "You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were a stranger in Egypt, and you know the heart of the stranger." In one of his Friday night talks, Rabbi Singer mentioned "Polish- Jewish reconciliation." He felt a responsibility to bring Poles and Jews together. I couldn''t imagine why. "When I went to Poland for the first time and met some Polish people, I felt a startling affinity," he said. He took pleasure in the thought that his grandmother came from there. "The Jews were part of Poland''s body and soul," he said. "I felt somehow we knew the Poles, that we understood them. I realized they received a bum rap." I fumed . . . a bum rap? Like so many others, I erroneously assumed the Nazis located their extermination camps in Poland because they expected the Poles would be willing collaborators. I''d heard that Poles murdered Jews even after the war ended. The infamous July 1946 pogrom in the town of Kielce, Poland, against Jews who''d returned from the camps, caused mass panic among those Polish Jews who''d survived the war. Forty Jews were murdered in Kielce, despite a large presence of police and army militia. The violence raged on for more than five hours. The Kielce pogrom convinced many of those Polish Jews who''d survived the war to flee the country. The incident loomed ominously over Diaspora Jews'' images of postwar Poland. When I first learned of the Kielce pogrom, in my teens, its logic eluded me. Why would people persecute--rather than protect--survivors who made it back to their homes? "Polish-Jewish reconciliation" had the ring of a bad joke, like the premise of Philip Roth''s novel Operation Shylock , in which Israeli Jews emigrate back to Poland in a reverse Diaspora. For my family--as for so many other American Jews of Polish descent--Poland was a black hole, a gnawing void. I took note that many, if not most, of my Jewish friends had family ties to Poland. An estimated 80 percent of American Jews are of Polish Jewish descent. There was scant generosity in their feelings about Pol∧ always dependable heat. Most harbored more bitterness toward Poland than they did toward Germany, a fact that I never questioned as odd, misplaced. The Jews may have once been part of Poland''s body and soul, but they''d been excised, cast out. 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. It was a given that Poland was a country full of people who hated Jews, who allowed and perhaps even abetted an unspeakable genocide on their soil. Bitterness calcified, and in my home and among my generation of comfortable suburban Los Angeles Jewish kids, the very idea of Poland resonated anguish and betrayal in a way it did not for other Americans. MY MOTHER''S PARENTS EMIGRATED from Poland to the United States in 1906. Back beyond that, silence. Even as a child and without knowing why, the absence of family history on my maternal side was a gap, an ache. My father''s mother, my Russian grandmother, was a gifted storyteller. Rebecca (Becky) Steinman read Hebrew and spoke Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and heavily accented English. Becky''s stories of flight and migration fascinated me. It was a Polish farmer, she said, who--in 1921 with a civil war raging--smuggled my grandmother with her two children out of Ukraine and into Poland on his horse-drawn cart covered with a bed of straw. In recompense, she gave the Polish farmer the family samovar. I loved watching my grandmother light Friday night candles-- eyes closed, chanting singsong Hebrew and gesturing both arms in wide circles toward her heart to embrace the light. She told tales of "dream peddlers," traveling Jewish merchants who passed through her village selling pots and pans, zippers, combs, ribbons, and special books explaining the meaning of all one''s dreams. She advised me to share my dreams "with only three smart people." But on my mother''s side, no one talked. Did they not know about their Polish past? Had it been forgotten so quickly? I knew that my mother''s mother, Sarah Konarska Weiskopf, came from a place in Poland called Czestochowa, and that my mother''s father, Louis Weiskopf, came from a town nearby called Radomsk. The word tickled me as a child. Ra-dumpsk ! I imagined Radomsk as an impoverished backwater, like Dogpatch in those L''il Abner cartoons we read on Sunday morning. I remembered Grandma Sarah as an exhausted old woman who lived in a tiny apartment on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, tied her wisps of white hair into a bun secured with bobby pins, and, to my eternal fascination, hid rolls of dollar bills in her oven. Grandpa Louis died before I was born. Four of my generation--including me--were his namesakes. Growing up in 1950s Los Angeles, in an orderly grid of postwar stucco houses, it wasn''t as if I was surrounded by kids who could recite their ancestors back to the Mayflower. Had I queried my playmates, I would have learned that almost all of them had gaping holes in their family histories. My father, like many others on our block, had returned from the war--in his case, combat in the Pacific. The priorities were building economic security, starting families, launching businesses. My dad''s new pharmacy in Culver City was open 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., and he was always there. My mother had three young children to supervise, including my sister who had polio. Being severed from one''s family past wasn''t supposed to matter. But at least I knew the names of my grandparents. I thought it odd that my mother, if asked, didn''t know the names of hers. Nor was she eager to try and fill in the blanks. If asked about her parents'' families, names of her grandparents, uncles, aunts, she would only say, "They didn''t make it out of Poland." Her huge gray-blue eyes watered, her voice constricted. She didn''t want to talk about it. An incident when I was eight shifted the axis of my world. I was watching my favorite TV show in the family room. My usually permissive mother barged in, abruptly switched the channel, and issued an order: "You watch this!" Then she left the room. It was a black-and-white documentary on the camps, the naked bodies stacked like cordwood, the emaciated striped-suited survivors unrecognizable as human beings. I heard my mother sobbing on the other side of the closed kitchen door. The next day I took odd and spontaneous revenge--ripping up the pages on Hitler in volume H of the Encyclopedia Americana shelved next to my desk in the fourth-grade classroom at La Ballona Elementary. A classmate--Jewish, no less--betrayed me. Later, after recess, while I lined up with the rest of my class, my teacher handed me the mutilated book and grimly dispatched her gold-star student to the principal''s office. From a framed portrait over the principal''s desk, President Eisenhower bore silent witness to my interrogation. "Why this page? Why not this one?" I wanted to tell the principal that those dead people on television could be my unnamed relatives--great-aunts, uncles, cousins--in Radomsk, the town in Poland with the funny name. But I could not coax a single word to come out of my mouth. My mother was summoned. She conferred with the principal behind the frosted glass door, emerging with red, wet eyes. She took my hand and we walked outside into the bright glare of the afternoon. We drove