MACIEJ and IDA

Posted in Art and Culture, Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Literature, Poland, reconciliation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on June 4, 2014 by Louise Steinman

Maciej and Lulu

My dear friend Maciej Ziembinski, a pioneering journalist and editor (and a central figure in my book, The Crooked Mirror), recently passed away in Radomsko, in central Poland. Maciej was fiercely devoted to this little town, where my mother’s family lived for generations. When poet Adam Zagajewski wrote of those Poles imbued with “the ecstasy of the provinces,” he must have had Maciej in mind.

Before World War II, Jews made up approximately 40% of Radomsko’s population. Very few survived the war and most who did survive left the country. Under Communist rule, there was but one sanctioned narrative of the recent past— the patriotic war against the German Fascists. Discussion of the town’s vanished Jews, of local rescuers or those who betrayed—was taboo. Maciej’s father, who’d rescued a Jewish woman to whom he’d been secretly engaged, raised his son to have an open mind. Even as a young man, Maciej was determined that the history of Radomsko’s Jewish population must be told, too. He understood it was an essential part of the town’s story.

He carried on, he told me, “his own private war with town hall.” When Poland transitioned to democratic rule, he established Radomko’s first alternative weekly. Until then, newspapers were the mouthpiece of the state. He named his paper, most appropriately, Komu I czemi (For whom and what for?). As its editor, he wrote and published over sixty articles about Radomsko’s Jewish history. He oversaw the translation of the Radomsko Yizkor, the Jewish memorial book, from Yiddish to Polish and published it in his paper. He was a principled man. A scrapper, a gadfly.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s exquisite recent film “Ida,” set in b&w provincial Poland in the early sixties– gives you some idea what obstacles Maciej faced under Stalinist rule. (In an interview, Pawlikowski calls his film, “a crooked mirror… so whoever looks can take away different things.”) The film’s young protagonist is a wide-eyed novitiate, an orphan, living an austere life at a convent in the countryside. With her downcast eyes, this young woman is the model of obedience and humility. There is no indication she’s made any inquiries about her origins. Soon she’ll take her final vows. Before she does, however, her Mother Superior orders her to visit her aunt, who’s suddenly requested to see her.

It’s the first time this naïve young woman learns she has living relatives. Within moments of her arrival at her aunt’s flat in Lodz, there is more surprising news. Her dead parents were Jews. Her real name is Ida Lebenstejn. “You’re a Jewish nun,” her aunt informs her with a harsh laugh. Ida’s swift response: “I want to see their graves.” Another hard truth: there are no graves. Most likely her family’s bones are in a pit in the forest.

In Poland, there are hundreds, thousands of adults with stories like that of young Ida in Pawlikowski’s film. They were Jewish children whose frantic parents, during the Occupation, entrusted their precious sons and daughters to Catholic neighbors or clergy. Several of those crooked stories are in my book—one of them is about a survivor named Ania Poniemunska, born in Radomsko in 1937.

In 1941, before they fled to Russia, Ania’s parents left their four year-old daughter in the capable hands of her maternal grandmother, a local midwife. The grandmother escaped the ghetto with Ania, and found shelter with a Polish farmer and his wife. The headman of the village betrayed them. The Germans dispatched the Polish farmer to Auschwitz. They surrounded the village, rounded up all the hidden Jews, marched them to the forest, forced them to dig their own graves. Before she was shot, however, the grandmother handed young Ania into the arms of a farmer’s wife who pretended the child was her own. Of the twenty-three Jews hidden in the village, only Ania survived.

In 2009, when Ania came back to Radomsko with her son for the first time since she’d emigrated to Israel after the war, she was in great conflict. Could she bear to visit the site where her beloved grandmother was murdered? Ania quickly found her way to Maciej; after all, he knew more about the Jewish history of the area than anyone else around.

In Pawlikowski’s film, Ida and her aunt elect to go into the forest, to the place where the unspeakable happened. Ida points to the open pit and asks the man unearthing her family’s remains: “Why am I not here? Why did I survive… not the others?” She needs to know. Maciej advised Ania: “Go to the forest. It is important to your son. It is the big story of your life. It made you who you are.” Maciej understood that. Ania, like Ida, was strong enough to bear the truth. She needed to bear witness.
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[drawing of Ania Poniemunska with her grandmother Chava Borys, by Kasia Kabzinka]

Over the years, Maciej and I spent many afternoons in the Radomsko cemetery—in sun and snow—walking unruly rows of tilting stones. Maciej, between puffs of a harsh Polish cigarette, would tell me stories of the more recent burials– about the few Jews who survived the war and stayed. Over there, he’d say, “that’s the grave of my friend Borkowski; he had an affair with the wife of his friend Andomierski; but they all wanted to be buried near each other anyway.” Maciej was like the narrator in Our Town.

Maciej helped me find the grave of my great-grandmother, Golda Zylberman Wajskopf. That afternoon in the melancholy Radomsko cemetery was magical. Blue butterflies fluttered through yellow gorse. Golda was luckier than most of her relatives—she died fourteen years before the Nazis invaded Radomsko and turned life for all its inhabitants into hell on earth.

“Saviors of Atlantis” is how a Polish friend refers to those non-Jewish Poles who gathered up the shards of Jewish life and history in a post-war Poland, then a broken country living under the strangle-hold of Communism.

Maciej was one of those saviors. He was also a gifted storyteller, a great friend, a good—if sometimes troublesome– man to have in your town. I am among many who will miss him.
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Radomsko cemetery, painting by Natan Spigel, courtesy Natan Spigel Foundation

Photo of Maciej and LS in Radomsko cemetery by Tomasz Cebulski

“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

Dreaming in Russian

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Family History, Literature, Los Angeles with tags , , , , on March 12, 2014 by Louise Steinman

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[drawing: Vlada Ralko]

News from Ukraine trickles into my weekend haven in Ojai Valley. I peel an orange fresh from the tree, exulting in the scent. A woman in Maidan grates beets for borscht for weary protesters, her fingers stained blood red. The crisis keeps Russia in the headlines and the nerves on alert.

It’s both the crisis in Ukraine and my anticipation of Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen coming to ALOUD (tonight!) that explains my gravitation over the past month to memoirs about Russia, both Soviet and post-Soviet. Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure, Colin McCann’s Dancer; Anya Von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking; Emmanuel Carrere’s startling My Life as a Russian Novel ; Geoff Dyer’s ZONA, an inventive meditation on Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker.”

It’s Gessen’s brilliant new book on Pussy Riot [Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot] that brings her to L.A. tonight; but I also reread her beautiful memoir, Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace. Gessen stresses the ways people under those regimes, in order to live, were forced to make moral compromises—in ways most of us have not had to face. “Each of my grandmothers was burdened with a conscience, which meant that both of them at crucial points in their lives tried to find a way to make an honest peace with the system. They had vastly different ways of doing it…”

Reading so many books about Russia may explain why, in a recent dream, in a vast warehouse in a small town, every door I opened (and there were many) lead to the Russian River. And after all, though my father forgot his childhood Russian (he was six when he emigrated from Ukraine, during the Russian Civil War) he told me he still sometimes dreamed in Russian.

Today’s NYTimes features a video of Ukrainian troops in the Crimean city of Sevastopol (famous in my childhood from Pete Seeger’s version) facing off with Putin’s soldiers. The Russians have rifles at the ready, and their captain yells, “Come no further!” but the canny Ukrainians are holding aloft both their own blue and yellow flag as well as a red flag bearing (what the voiceover calls) “Russian symbolics “(apparently hammer and sickle is still in vogue)… “because they know the Russians won’t fire on their own banner.”

This stand-off brought back the memory from 1962, sitting in the den of our house in Culver City with my father, worriedly watching the Cuban missile crisis unfold on TV. I stomp off and return to the table with envelope and stamps and begin writing: “Dear Mr. Khruschchev, I don’t want to die.” I’m not sure what the U.S. Post office did with it; but I dropped it in the mailbox with an eleven year old’s sense of personal urgency.
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In the meantime, during the current stand-off, I console myself with a recent delight– the divine DAKHKA BRAKHA, whose voices and songs fill my ears and heart. They call themselves a “Ukrainian ethno-chaos” band. Eastern Europe meets the full force of global sound. A free and fair trade.

Ukrainian Egg Cup Woman

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Human Rights with tags , , , , , , , on January 1, 2014 by Louise Steinman

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It’s good to have a talisman (or taliswoman, i suppose) when you’re in a dark place, suffering emotional turmoil, or just needing a visage of joy to counter balance suffering, angst. So here’s to the Ukrainian Egg Cup woman, another (inanimate) character who appears in The Crooked Mirror. Cheryl found her in on a dusty shelf in an antique store in the old city of L’vov (L’viv).

“The cup balanced on the woman’s sturdy head was cheerful too; orange and yellow dots, each looped by a delicate broken line. The Eggcup Woman was probably from the 1940s. Russian constructivist in style but authentically Ukrainian, the woman in the shop had informed Cheryl.

I imagine the artisans in that factory in some Ukrainian city, painting stripes on the red harem pants of a cheerful eggcup at the same time agents of the NKVD arrived unannounced in their black police vans (the infamous ‘chernyj voron’, or ‘black crows’) to arrest scores of Ukrainians on nonexistent charges.

Upon entering any bleak hotel room for the rest of our trip, our first act was to set up an Eggcup Woman. She was our Ukrainian Quan Yin, our Constructivist Buddha, our polka-dot Humpty Dumpty, our talisman of good cheer.”

So here’s to good cheer for the beginning of 2014! Here’s a toast to all those fighting for their democratic (and human rights) all over the world, in freezing squares in Kiev, in Minsk, in Cairo, and more. Here’s to brave Pussy Riot who stood up to Putin, to Reverend Billy who fights the Corporate Medusa… the Ukrainian Egg Cup Woman wishes you all a Happy (and more liberated) New Year!
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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.

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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…

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“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

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