Archive for the Travel Category

A Return (Chatham Cemetery, August 2016)

Posted in history, Pacific War, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War, Travel on August 22, 2016 by Louise Steinman

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My friend Beth lives across the street from the rural cemetery in the town of Chatham, in New York’s lush Hudson Valley. On summer visits from bone-dry L.A., it’s a balm to walk between the pair of centuries-old sentinel maples into the cemetery’s vast silent greenspace; to stroll the rows of mossy granite headstones, shaded by ancient hawthorns and oaks.

I calibrate lifespans– the gravestones of women whose lives ended in their twenties in childbirth or flu pandemic. I ponder those who lived across the cusp of centuries and savor the musicality of their names: TenBroek and Van Tassell, DeMoranville. I always visit the graves of the three veterans of the Union Army’s “Colored Infantry,” their names erased by wind and rain on stone. Small headstones mark births and deaths of children who succumbed perhaps to whooping cough, diphtheria—- sending my thoughts veering to front page photos: young children dying now in besieged Aleppo.

Usually when we walk, we’re the only ones there.

A few days ago, we encountered a rare invasion: pick-ups parked along the gravel drive; young men with weed whackers cleaning around graves. What had summoned so many volunteers on a hot afternoon? A friendly matron collecting litter filled us in: a WW2 soldier was soon to return home. She pointed to a grave bedecked with small American flags where the remains of PFC George Traver, a Marine born in Chatham in 1918, will soon be re-interred from a mass grass on Tarawa, a coral atoll in the Pacific. Travers died there in November 1943, along with a thousand other Marines and some 4500 Japanese (most of whom fought to their death rather than surrender)– in one of the most hideous battles of the Pacific War. Exposed to the heat, the bodies decomposed quickly and the Marines buried their dead in one large grave. A Florida-based group called History Flight discovered Traver’s remains along with 35 other fallen Marines in May 2015.New radar penetrating technology revealed the decades-old mass grave on Tarawa, and George’s remains were sent—with those of the other Marines—to an Army facility in Hawaii. They identified him by dental records and the Boy Scout knife in his pocket. He’d written to his mother requesting it, wanting to carry into battle a souvenir from home.

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George Traver will be buried next to his Gold Star mother, Nellie V. Cramer, who received a Western Union telegram on December 23, 1943: “Deeply regret to inform you that your son was killed in action in performance of his duty and in the service of his country.”

Our now-tearful informant added that George’s mother waited thirty-five years for him, “until she couldn’t wait anymore.” For the ceremony coming up on August 29th, she added, there would be “full military honors—a firing squad and all…” I knew she meant a twelve-gun salute.

On our way back, we paused in front of the grave of another younger Chatham veteran, Joseph J, Wright. he was born in 1987, fought in Iraq, came home in 2012 and died two years later, in 2014. By mistake, the metal plaque from the government with his birth/death dates was delivered by FED EX to Beth’s doorstep on Cemetery Road. She searched out the young man’s obit, noting requested donations to the Wounded Warrior Project. The photo attached to this still-shiny headstone shows a handsome young man in uniform, “a beloved husband and father.”

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At dinner that night, we were joined by a mutual friend who grew up in Germany. When we told her about Private Traver’s impending return, and the mother who waited 35 years, she recalled an image from her own childhood right after the war: her young aunt sitting by the radio each night, listening intently to Deutsches Roteskreuz, the German Red Cross broadcast, hope fading that her lost soldier husband had been found somewhere. No matter the war, someone is waiting at home. I learned this when I made the trip to Japan in 1995 to return the flag my own father acquired in combat to the family of Yoshio Shimizu, who was twenty-one when he died. “You brought us back Yoshio,” one cousin told me. “The government just sent sand in a box.”

On today’s early morning walk, I followed the path by the cemetery pond, surprising a great blue heron who took wing towards the cemetery’s new Jewish section. There are only a few graves so far, all recent. On the headstone of Saul Cohen, someone’s “beloved father and grandfather”—his kindred have left copious small stones—as is the custom. The summer sky is blue with voluminous moving clouds. Crows chant sporadically from the high branches of the elms, the dead sleep their sleep and soon—after long delay, and in this long summer of our national discomfort. Private First Class George Traver, a native of this town, will join them.
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A Peaceful Return

Posted in Family History, reconciliation, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War, Travel with tags , , , , on February 15, 2016 by Louise Steinman

IMG_0967It was startling to walk into a museum in Astoria, Oregon a few weeks ago and behold WW2 Japanese flags framed on the gallery wall. Those flags with their  bright red disks on white silk were just like the one I found with my father’s possessions, after he died, in an envelope with one of his letters home from combat in Luzon and wrote about in my memoir, The Souvenir. These flags on display in the darkened gallery are the centerpiece of an unusual exhibition called “A Peaceful Return: The Story of the Yosegaki Hinomaru” at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon.

The yosegaki hinomaru are good luck banners, given to Japanese soldiers when they left for war, inscribed with messages of protection from their friends and family.  The inscription on my father’s flag,  translated, said:  To Yoshio Shimizu in the Great East Asian War… to persevere is to win… I realized I possessed the name of my father’s “enemy.” But who was Yoshio Shimizu?

It took five years after my discovery of the flag to the spring day in 1995 when my husband and I formally returned Yoshio’s flag to the Shimizu family (his sisters, cousins, nephew) and friends (who’d signed the flag when Yoshio went off to war) in the town of Suibara in the snow country of Japan. Yoshio was 19 when he set off to fight for the emperor, 21 when he died. “You brought us back Yoshio,” his sister told me, “…the government just sent sand in a box.”

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Suibara, Japan at the Shimizu family home, 1995

A friend who heard about the exhibit at the Columbia River Maritime Museum commended me for “starting a whole movement of returning flags to Japan,” but I had to correct him. These current efforts to return the yosegaki hinomaru are a project initiated by a remarkable Astoria-based non-profit group called Obon Society, founded by a husband-wife team of Rex and Keiko Ziak. They receive, analyze, document and research the flags’ place of origin and, when possible, return these heirlooms to families of soldiers in Japan at no cost to the veterans or their families. To date they have returned fifty-two flags to Japan on behalf of US veterans as a gesture of healing and reconciliation. These flags on exhibit await their repatriation. Like the flag of Yoshio Shimizu, they represent souls who want to return home.

The Souvenir was first published right after September 11th. The U.S. invaded Iraq soon after, and in the fifteen years since then, our country has been in a perpetual war with no end in sight. There was no doubt as to the continuing relevance of this story as I spoke to the audience in Astoria about how the war transformed my gentle father and shaped the life of our family.  They in turn shared their own stories—as veterans, children of veterans—about an uncle in the Bataan Death March, a brother wounded in Vietnam, a son in Afghanistan. It was an emotional morning.

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Oregon veterans’ memorial, Eugene, Oregon 2008

After my talk, my friend Susan and I drove across the cantilever bridge spanning the wide mouth of the Columbia, aptly called “The Graveyard of the Pacific” because of its shallow shifting sand bars. Over 2000 ships have gone down here and over 700 people have lost their lives to the sea.

At Cape Disappointment State Park, where Lewis and Clark ended their journey, we ran our hands along the smooth surface of a fish-cleaning table formed out of native basalt (one of Maya Lin’s several projects as part of her Confluence Project) and read the text of a Chinook song of praise. We picked up driftwood wands and danced on the black sand beach.

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Before we drove back across the bridge to Astoria and Susan’s sweet house, we paused above the officers’ quarters at Fort Columbia. The gun turrets and batteries reminded me of Fort Worden, up in Port Townsend, Washington, where I first began The Souvenir so many years ago,  holed up in a cabin with my husband, my dog, and my father’s letters.

In both these strategic west coast defensive fortifications, the soldiers were battle-ready but never saw combat. They waited. Each day, each night they scanned the sea for the enemy, but the enemy never arrived.  As they waited and watched– my father and his buddies in the 25th Infantry fought in the Caraballo Mountains against General Yamashita’s troops in the brutal battle of Balete Pass. It was during that campaign when my father acquired Yoshio’s flag as a souvenir. He sent the blood-flecked flag home to my mother and after he did, he regretted doing so. He mentioned it five times in his letters. “It was the stupidest thing I did in the whole war,” he wrote to apologize.

At another talk I gave recently, on “Memoir as an Art of Healing” at a university in SW  Florida, a young woman, her hair streaked blue and her nails painted black, sidled up to me afterwards to say she had something to tell me.  It wasn’t a question per se, she told me, hesitant. She said that sometimes she hears “messages from beyond”and she’d heard one during my talk.  She wanted me to know that my father was very glad that I returned the flag of Yoshio Shimizu. She hoped I didn’t mind her telling me that.

I didn’t mind at all.

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Notes on a Warsaw Residency, 2

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Life and What about It, Poland, reconciliation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2015 by Louise Steinman

image 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.” image 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. image 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.” image 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. image 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. image[drawing from POLIN Muzeum confersation by Mariusz Tarkawian]

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

From an Island #3 the pelican rescue

Posted in birdwatching, CAPTIVA, Life and What about It, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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Some of the strange events on the island this week, among them the rescue of a great white pelican at sea. Our hero, Matt (long-time Rauschenberg “can do” guy) is at the helm when we notice the injured bird… is a fishing line wrapped around his neck? He can’t lift his wing and is unable to fly. Matt doesn’t hesitate. The rescue will commence! Bill takes the helm, others shout out directions as he aims the pontoon straight for the pelican. After several tries, Matt lunges over the bow of the boat and hauls the giant bird onto the deck. Great white pelicans have a wing-span of 9 feet! Our pelican struggles, then settles down, Malia’s calm hand on his beak, stroking him, talking to him. Matt examines the bird– there’s a bloody gash under his right wing. Our resident painter, Lucinda Parker, offers art history commentary, Leda and the Swan, while others wield cameras, cell phone to call CROW, Center for Rehabilitation of Wildlife on Sanibel. We stare into the eyes of the pelican on the journey back to Captiva, where Carrell awaits on the dock of the Fish House with a pelican-sized cardboard box to transport our friend to medical help. I am happy to report today that Patient #142 is stable.

Another strange occurrence– standing on the lawn near the mangroves as a shrieking osprey clutching a wriggling mullet in its talons circled three times over my head. Flying fish! How strange to spend your life swimming in the sea and your death high in a tree.

I’m still searching for a double-spiraled lightning whelk (one in a million), there are preparations afoot for a Mullet Parade at Jensens tonight

LeBrie Rich and one of her original felt mullets

LeBrie Rich and one of her original felt mullets

and then there’s the appearance of a mysterious boar…
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From an Island, #2

Posted in birdwatching, CAPTIVA, Life and What about It, Literature, Travel with tags , , , , on January 18, 2013 by Louise Steinman

Jon asked for more pictures from Captiva, so I’m thinking, which ones? The strangler vines that remind me of Daphne turning into a tree?
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I wish I could show you the turtle that Lucinda saw in the jungle, the one with the delicate sepia pattern on its cream-colored carapace, but s/he hasn’t revealed her/himself to me yet. Whenever one of us sees some new wildlife, there some anxiety about having not been observant enough to see it when it’s a combination of attention and LUCK that brings it about. Bill was able to show me where the screech owl sings and Lucinda had heard him in that spot already several times.

Yesterday I watched an osprey devour a mullet for lunch. there was only half a mullet there by the time I happened on the scene… usually it’s still wriggling as it’s devoured, now that’s, as Beckett would say, “lepping fresh.”
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“After lifting its catch from the water, an osprey turns the fish’s head forward, thus reducing wind resistance while flying back to the perch.”

In his new memoir, Nick Flynn notes: “Mimesis, it would seem, can only come from close attention to the world, and this attention (as Weil points out) is a type of prayer, another (possible) way to escape the cage of ego.”

Drawing the little blue heron on the dock of the Fish House was today’s prayer, my blue pencil following the rotation of his body as he warily watched me watching him.
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Lear in Paris

Posted in Art and Culture, Family History, Life and What about It, Theater, Travel with tags , , , , , , on December 24, 2012 by Louise Steinman

“Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.”
(King Lear to his daughter)

I performed naked for my father once (you see, that got your attention! ) I’ve written about it on this very blog. I’ve used his voice in a soundtrack and I’ve mined his wartime letters in my book The Souvenir. But it never occurred to me to perform with my father… what would Norman Steinman have thought of the invitation? (I used to tape my family seders for use in my plays, and the one year I didn’t set up the tape recorder, my father asked, “Aren’t we interesting to you any more, Louise?”) Would this very private man have agreed to perform with me, simply out of love and a sense of solidarity? That’s what three stolid German fathers agreed to do with their daughters who form the radical theater collective She She Pop, for “Testament,” an astonishing take on King Lear which I saw at Theatre des Abesses earlier this month in Paris (in German with French supertitles.)

There’s a saying in French: tenir tete a quelqu’un… standing up to someone. How do we stand up to someone who has power over us? What if Norman and I had aired our disagreements, our differing perspectives of life– on stage? What if I’d argued to the audience as witness– that my older brother, the math genius and doctor-to-be, received preferential treatment during my childhood? What if my father had bemoaned on stage my choice of going into the theater and said, as he often did, “You’d have made a very good lawyer.” This is raw, uncomfortable powerful theater.

It was deeply moving to see these flaccid older men stripping to their underwear in the “tempest” scene (while being doused with water from a plastic bottle by one of the daughters), revealed in all their frailty and wounded pride. An annotated paperback of Lear—a template for this deep conversation about parent/child issues, is displayed on the wall with an overhead projector. Key words set off the scenes—what is the equivalent of your father arriving at your house with his courtiers? Lisa Lucassen diagrammed how much space would be left in her tiny flat if her father moved in with his entire library, concluding, of course, absolutely none. One daughter/actor recites all the benefits her father will receive under the German health care system, while on a video screen (the camera is live on her father on-stage), he intones repeatedly in a quavery voice, “but I will always love you. But I will always love you.”

She She Pop/Testament

She She Pop/Testament

Perhaps my father, like one of the German fathers in the play, would have graphed a complicated mathematical equation (he was once a math teacher) to chart the dynamics of our love and obligation for and to one another. My pharmacist father may not have understood why his daughter spent hours in a dance studio, crawling on the floor or playing with Howdy Doody puppets. But he never withheld his support, emotional or material. And he was there in the audience for my performance at Project Artaud, accepting a piece of matzoh from his naked daughter on the stage. Ah what one does for love.

Louise and Norman

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