Shall I write about the storks clacking their beaks high in their nests on the road to Sejny? And in Krasnogruda, near the border with Lithuania, the hare that bounded across the road and straight out of Milosz’ beautiful poem? In the candle-light coffee-house, Song of Porcelein Cafe, in the basement of what was once Milosz’ childhood summer home, surrounded by Polish listeners from surrounding villages, I speak with my host–Krzysztof Czyzewski– about my “time-based” work, this ten year journey to learn about the actual Poland, our shared history, to “re-imagine” the “Poland in my head.” Three institutions were just a dream when i began this project– the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews was just an idea among some people in an office; the House of Words in Lublin was just some printing presses in a basement; and the poet Czeslaw Milosz’ childhood estate, Krasnogruda, near the border with Lithunania,was a dilapidated forestry hut in the woods. What dynamic visionary enclaves have sprung from those ideas and on this 2015 trip to Poland, I pay a visit to each one for book talks and conversation. Now POLIN in Warsaw is a magnificent museum chronicling 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland; Krasnogruda is a magnificent conference center for poets and bridge-builders from around the world; the House of Words in Lublin occupies the whole of that building and thrums with historical necessity and present-day creative energy– master printers, school children, archivists, book binders, paper-makers. Here, local children learn the (almost) lost traditions of their city, in a place where the Nazis murdered the staff of the printing houses, the presses are rolling. The good people of the Grodzka Gate scrutinize old photographs for the clues to the identities of the murdered Jews of their town– to honor them, to restore their names. “This is not an exhibit anymore,” the founder, Tomasz Pietresewicz tells me, “this is a library of lives” and Tomasz and his colleagues are “the reliable workers of memory.” In Lublin, after my talk, in the Brama Grodzka Cafe, musicians pulled out traditional Polish fiddles, bass and drum, tables were pushed away, shots of Zubrovka appeared and dancers whirled and sang and stamped their feet. There is joy in the room; I can feel it pulsing through my body. In Sejny, at 5 AM the morning after my talk, too wired to sleep, I walk to the edge of the lake, looking towards Lithuania, and watch the clouds that roil across from Lithuania to Poland, from Poland to Lithuania. Two loons on the water and five flying cranes silhouetted overhead in the dawn light. Tonight, back in Warsaw… I accompany Joanna Klass, my indefatigable Warsaw host, to a small alternative space called XS for an improbable and rigorous discussion/practicum on the subject of LAUGHTER which is, as we all know, beneficial, contagious, and sometimes– even hard work. OK! and onwards to Krakow. [drawing from POLIN Muzeum confersation by Mariusz Tarkawian]
some notes from this Warsaw residency (courtesy Adam Mickiewicz Institute, courtesy Warsaw Bauhaus)… the word “resident” from the Latin <em>sidere</em> to abide awhile, to settle down. To settle down on ul. Smulikowskiego, to read and write and move and think in this quiet flat not far from my friends Joanna and Wojtek, to emerge from this quiet flat to walk in the morning, drink coffee in cafes near the university library, to observe the animated conversations of young Warsavians, the changing exhibitions at Warsaw Bauhaus…
to enter the Warsaw zoo where the sight of flamingos ignites the landscape, where strolling families are exiting after a Saturday looking at zebras… to a special ceremony to dedicate the villa residence of the Zabinskis, the zookeepers who rescued many Jews during the German occupation of Warsaw..
that was two days ago, sitting under chestnut trees listening to Chopin with geese clacking overhead and i swear i heard other creatures (wolves?) adding to the melange of sound and feeling… late afternoon walk on the nearby Vistula, admiring a barge named Atalanta, thinking of the saviors of Atlantis who wandered and collected the shards of Jewish history in Poland after the war, to the present, the vibrant present here in Warsaw today… walking through the doors of the new POLIN Museum and where I will be in conversation with my dear friend Tomasz Kitlinski in just two days… a chance to sit and talk with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the scholar, the nimble mind who designed, oversaw, strategized, curated the core exhibition… which, as she points out, is told without foreshadowing or backshadowing, where we are asked to walk through a 1000 years of history, an exhibition worthy of debates, an exhibition that left me emotional and asking questions and remembering that moment years ago, when my friend Cheryl asked, startled, “Am I Polish?”
To sit in the flat of the journalist Kostek Gebert, with his cat Kescia on my lap, purring… to feel at home in Warsaw. To walk Dobra at night, under the bridge where the tram clacks along, a mysterious night walker passing by, wearing a coat with a fur collar….
to wander the Warsaw flea market with Joanna and Wojtek, where discarded dolls speak from boxes of clutter, postcards of alpine flowers and soldiers from a war a century ago, tools that had a meaning in another age, that stretched a woman’s elegant shoes, a Ukrainian ceramic of a fish with a wide-open mouth, bent-wood chairs, 60’s jazz playing on an old turntable, a yellow china teapot my grandmother might have used to brew her dark tea, which she’d drink through a sugar cube, held in her mouth.
On Friday nights, the Sabbath prayer that my husband and I recite is from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. We light the candles and chant: “In the name of Anna the Almazifull, the Everliving, the bringer of plurabilities…” and as we praise Anna’s “haloed eve,” I think of my beautiful friend, Anna Valentina Murch, who died this year. It’s been nine months; I’m having a hard time believing she’s gone.
She was lovely, my friend. Playful. An artist through and through. Anna’s house on the peak of San Francisco’s Bernal Hill, shared with her husband and collaborator – Doug Hollis– was full of candles and mirrors, living room windows open to the glittering city below. Anna loved light and shadows; harnessed them to great effect in her installations for museums and public spaces over the last decades. Her lighting design for Portland’s new Tillicum Bridge (with Doug) completed after her death, casts jewel-colored beams of light above into the night sky and below, onto the surface of the Willamette River.
Anna and I held an Old Country in common; though hers was probably more Nabokov’s White Russia and mine hewed more to the shtetles that Isaac Babel described in his diary. Her mother’s family was from St. Petersburg, and fled to Shanghai after the Revolution (when my grandparents emigrated to the Lower East Side). During the second World War, Anna’s father—a British naval officer—was stationed in Shanghai, and fell in love and then married Anna’s mother—a beautiful red-haired Russian actress.
Her mother, Valentina, played a role in the 1948 film of Anna Karenina, and, like the romantic title character, eschewed the maternal role. Anna was packed off to a strict English boarding school at the age of three. Her liberation came in her twenties, art school and graduate work in lighting and architecture in London. Her adventurous spirit brought her to the U.S, to San Francisco.
Her first art works as a newcomer to the American West in 1976 were in the desert. She planted glass rods in the shifting gypsum sands of White Sands, New Mexico, a test missile site. Where did one space begin and other end? How could beauty co-exist with destruction? Light with dark? The presence of geological shiftings and fault lines in her adopted land, both geological and psychological, engendered a series of “volcanica” installations, red neon illuminating black coal. Anna always wanted to know, wanted us to wonder, what lay underneath the surface of things?
“I want things to unfold slowly,” Anna once said of her installations. “Often my things are quiet and simple enough that it takes time—a kind of slow overlapping—before people feel it.” She wanted to make time palpable. In her installation, “Voyages” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, you entered a small room, crunching underfoot stones washed smooth from years of river time. You could feel time in your feet.
From early childhood, she was fascinated by ruins and abandoned buildings, old barns in the Devon countryside she knew well, stone houses in north England, bombed out residences in London. Who had lived there? What secrets and memories had been shared in what were now the empty shells of dwellings? The remnants of a structure often provided the basis for an imagined archeology. She was also consistently fascinated with psychological thresholds, boundaries, and what it was that empowered people to cross over them.
She built her “Staged Garden,” on the crumbling concrete foundations of an abandoned lot in downtown San Francisco. At night, the installation was entirely transformed by gelled theater lights, hidden in the long grass, which illuminated the stage and left long low shadows. A “stage door” lit by blue neon—though sealed– beckoned from a niche of weathered bricks. To explore the piece as a spectator, you became a performer. And part of the performance was the sight of bejeweled opera patrons promenading past the empty ghost stage on their way the San Francisco Opera House two blocks away.
Anna loved dressing up, giving dinner parties, inviting friends for Twelfth Night with the house glittering with candles and redolent with savory aromas from their kitchen. She adored hats, silver sandals, a jacket with a good cut. Even when she had to wear a wig, she did it with style. She was explicit as to what I meant to her as a friend. We talked about artist- husbands and the demands of our jobs (she was a much-loved professor of art at Mills College for two decades), about balancing our responsibilities while trying to do our own creative work.
On our last visit, in January, we took a slow walk around Bernal Hill, leaving “the boys” as we called them, to their own pace. We sat on a bench and looked out over the city. She told me she knew she didn’t have much time. I wanted to push it away, to say that wasn’t so, but I couldn’t. it was likely true. She still had good days, like the previous week, which ended with Anna and Doug strolling arm in arm on the sand, tide lapping around their bare feet, in Pacifica. I reached them by cell, their voices were happy,light. They’d made it to the beach without having to walk down steps. Doug said they would go there again, it was so easy.
“Space is our friend, but time has death in it,” the poet Gaston Bachelard has written. Perhaps the fact that much of Anna’s art was a meditation on time helped her cross the threshold from this world with what appeared as equanimity. She told me she was not afraid of death, and I believed her. The more time you spend in a space, she once said, the more choices you have in what you see and how you see it. She had bravely struggled with, lived with breast cancer for years. She worked in the garden and together with Doug on their collaborative public art projects almost to the last day. She spoke on the phone to old friends here and in England. As Doug said, “She used her time very wisely.”
On that day in January, our last visit, in the late afternoon, the four of us brought deck chairs up to the garden, leaning back to catch the last rays of winter sun, clocks of our life spans ticking. Anna shoulder to shoulder with Lloyd to the right; Doug next to me on the left end. It was a sweet and unburdened hour, four friends talking quietly or sitting in companionable silence as we might have on a trip together to Yosemite or Joshua Tree. We left in early evening, so that Anna could get some nourishment, so that we could drive across the Bay Bridge and relieve the babysitter at our nephew’s house. We said goodbye with such tenderness, pushing hard against the thought that this could be the last time we’d see each other face to face in this world.
In the name of Anna, the Almaziful, The Everliving,
The bringer of plurabilities
Haloed be her eve!
Her sing time sung,
her rill be run, unhemmed,
I remember the confusion I felt when I visited my family’s town, Radomsko, on my first trip to Poland in the fall of 2000. What was I looking for? I had no idea. I didn’t know anybody there. My relationship to the town, where my mother’s family had lived for over a hundred years, had been obscured by time, emigration, and trauma.
In the Radomsko Regional Museum, located in the lovely historic town hall, I accompanied a guide past collections of pottery shards from archeological digs, displays of nineteenth-century butter churns, exhibits of roof thatching and farm implements.
There were photos of Radomsko citizens deported to Siberia under Russian rule, infantry helmets from the First World War, and gruesome pictures of Polish partisans from the town, standing in front of pits before their execution by German soldiers. Where was any mention of the town’s Jewish citizens, nearly 55% of the town before World War II, almost all of whom perished under the German occupation?
Our guide finally paused in front of a glass case which contained artifacts from the Jewish community of Radomsko: a set of tefillin like my grandfather Louis wore; a pair of silver Kiddush cups; silver candlesticks; and two small oil paintings by a noted local painter. The paintings evoked the ambience of the town’s prewar Jewish life: well-worn wooden benches in an intimate little prayer house; a water carrier lugging his bucket up a crooked staircase. But I was disappointed. Just one glass case?
A few years later, in Warsaw, I mentioned this lonely glass case to a friend, Kostek Gebert, a prominent Polish journalist and a member of Warsaw’s Jewish community.
“Believe me,” he said, “ten years ago there was nothing in Radomsko. What you saw was not just ‘a little glass case.’” He paused.
“Please. You must understand, there’s infinity between nothing and a little glass case.”
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.
[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.
Radomsko cemetery, painting by Natan Spigel, courtesy Natan Spigel Foundation
Photo of Maciej and LS in Radomsko cemetery by Tomasz Cebulski
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).
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.
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.