Archive for Museum of History of Polish Jews

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

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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]

Leaving Warsaw, Arriving Warsaw

Posted in Poland with tags , , , , , on December 17, 2010 by Louise Steinman

The sun is shining my last morning in Warsaw, a brisk 9 degrees F. outside. My bag is packed (I think my dear husband, the “master of space and snacks” would be proud of my packing job) and I even have a little time to attempt a last blog post before leaving for the airport, flight to California.

Yesterday’s meeting in the flat of a journalist friend, is what first comes to mind. Climbing the old wooden stairs, the heavy door opening to Kostek’s smile, his Buddha cat, the book lined shelves of his study. High ceilings, folk art, kilims on the floor, kettle on the stove, a shot of welcoming vodka to warm up.

Kostek is a great storyteller and I am happy to sit with my tea, to listen. He grabs a volume of poetry off the shelf, a poet named Wladyslaw Szlengel, who died in the Warsaw ghetto uprising… he reads to me, first in Polish (so i can hear the rhythm of the language), then his own translation. I close my eyes to listen to Kostek’s sonorous voice. It is a poem about the enforced move to the ghetto, the compression of life, the clattering of the wagon laden with possessions which one by one fall away. The objects animate, follow their owner, the table, the chairs, the dishes all are roaming the streets of Warsaw.

Szlengel’s poems were discovered after the war, they’d been secreted inside a table and when the owner of that table started to chop it up for firewood, he found paper, these poems, this testimony.

Yesterday I walked the perimeter of the handsome new building that will house the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, right on the site of the former Warsaw ghetto. It is scheduled to open in 2012 and it will animate the history of a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland. I had dinner last night with the core exhibition team leader, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who has spent the last three years in Warsaw researching, overseeing this incredible creation. Specific stories will anchor the narrative, drawn from diaries, testimonies, much else. What about the medieval Jewish traveler whose carriage breaks down on the Sabbath, what kind of choices did he face? Her passion for this work (check out her marvelous intro to MY NAME IS MAYER JULY, book of paintings by her father of his hometown of Opotow, Poland) is contagious. Barbara and I ate dinner at the marvelous U Kucharzy restaurant, which occupies the kitchen (the size of a cruise ship) in what was once one of Warsaw’s most beautiful hotels. (The SS liked it so much they didn’t blow it up.) Beautiful Polish food– duck and apples, cabbage and mushrooms and potatoes. I am well fortified for the journey home. I took a last late night walk down Nowy Swiat, avoiding the black ice, enjoying the holiday lights, the lit-up shops, the murmuring hand-holding couples, the accordion player. Finished the night reading a few chapters of Jacob Glatstein’s 1934 chronicle. I fell asleep just after Glatstein arrives in Warsaw after an absence of twenty years in America. On the last hour of his train ride, he is fevered by an extraordinary dream: “Thanks to my dream, I was returning home after twenty years not only with a strong sense of home, but also with its sad tonality. I now felt as if my pockets were stuffed with the homey goods of my dream which I had preserved through twenty years of estrangement… I have not forsaken you, O Jewish Poland, with your terrors and sad celebrations. Do not forsake my right hand as I have not forsaken you. Early morning Warsaw hadn’t welcomed me yet, the city still slept.”

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