Archive for the Beacon Press Category

Between Nothing and Infinity: Poland’s Evolving Jewish Remembrance

Posted in Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Poland, reconciliation with tags , , , , on November 5, 2014 by Louise Steinman


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.”

CONTINUE READING on the Beacon Broadside]

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.
ania goldman i babcia grafika
[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.
cemetery

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

IMG_3968

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

After “Aftermath”

Posted in Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Human Rights, Literature, Poland, reconciliation with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by Louise Steinman

Misterium_JZDS_Scan0010e-1
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

%d bloggers like this: