Archive for Polish-Jewish reconciliation

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.

Cheryl in Kolomay
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…

painting at top:
“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

Thinking about Katyn and onwards to Poland

Posted in Poland with tags , on November 27, 2010 by Louise Steinman

All over Poland there are memorials to  Katyn. For decades under Communism, all mention of this 1940 NKVD massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers in a remote forest in western Russia was taboo, punishable by prison or worse. Poland’s wartime underground heroes were considered traitors to the Communist cause. (In Moczarski’s “Conversations with an Executioner,” the former Home Army officer was imprisoned in the same cell (!)  as SS General Jurgen Stroop, the liquidator of the Warsaw Ghetto, a man whom Moczarski had once tried to kill… it’s one of the strangest and most profound jailtime interviews you’ll ever read.)  Poland’s Communist rulers kept in tune with the Soviet hierarchy in claiming that the massacres were the work of the Nazis. But they were lying. And the Poles knew better. As historian Norman Davies writes, “For once, Goebbels could have been telling the truth.” And yesterday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev  announced the resolution of the Russian Parliament to make what the Poles have long known official:  Stalin ordered the Katyn massacres. It’s a big step forward in Polish-Russian relations. For a visceral understanding of this tragedy and its central place in Polish political and cultural history since 1940, don’t miss Andrzej Wajda’s gut-wrenching film from 2007, KATYN.

I’m heading to Poland later this week, and it will be interesting to see the reverberations of this decision among friends in Krakow and Warsaw. I’ve started this blog THE CROOKED MIRROR primarily to blog on this trip. My friend Anne asked about the blog title, a good question. It (mirrors) the title of the book I’ve been working on for some time–  THE CROOKED MIRROR: A Conversation with Poland. The phrase comes from the title of a satirical Yiddish paper — Der Krumer Spigel (the crooked mirror) once published in the little Polish town of Radomsko, where my family lived for hundreds of years.   I loved that phrase and later read an essay by the Polish priest Josef Tischner in which he talks about how– when we look at our neighbor through a crooked mirror– what we see is distorted, unrecognizable. That’s how Poles and Jews have largely regarded each other since the traumas of the last war.  For the last eight years, I’ve been exploring the problematic, surreal and sometimes surprisingly exhilarating territory of Jewish-Polish dialogue in Poland, a journey into The Crooked Mirror.

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