Archive for Warsaw

A psycho-geographic walk in Warsaw

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Life and What about It, Poland, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2017 by Louise Steinman

The last days of August I spent in Warsaw, holding animated conversations with my Polish friends about the abounding dangers in their country and my own. On my second morning in town, my friend Wojtek Szaszor a conceptual artist, offered me an unusual gift, a Warsaw map with circles drawn around locales he considered “symbolic chakra-Monuments” of Warsaw.  It was an invitation for what Wojtek calls “a free association- self-guided psycho-geographic tour in the spirit of John Cage,” all within walking distance of his Powisle neighborhood.

Wojtek uses conversations and dialogue as part of his art practice (in the arts district in LA, in the mid-90’s, he was an organizer of the alternative space on Traction Avenue called Spanish Kitchen), and until a few months ago, with his wife—artist and theater producer extraordinaire Joanna Klass, they ran an an “experimental incubator of art” called Curie City in central Warsaw near the Palace of Culture A storefront with theater artists creating new work alarmed the conservative Polish government. Curie City got hassled out of their lease.

What were the criteria for inclusion on this tour? Wojtek suggests that, in these present troubled circumstances, it could be helpful  to “assemble a team” composed of the living and the dead, those who are, he says, the true non-conformists and have some kind of knowledge of what is happening. Very few people in Poland, he added, are true nonconformists. I asked if he would join me on this walk but no, he said, his presence would spoil it.

My first stop was just a few blocks from my apartment, on the banks of the Vistula. The sun was bright and children were soaking up the last days of summer, splashing themselves in the fountain at the base of the Syrene of Warsaw, the mythical symbol of that grand city’s defiance, who rears up on bronze waves on her Piscene tail, holding her sword aloft.  A mermaid as a symbol of a city? I thought about the value of hybrids, what it means to be part human and animal, how hybrid forms are for non-conformists, for breaking norms that we’ve outgrown. And most of all, the siren must be heard.

The statue was unveiled in July, 1939, just a month before the German invasion of Poland. The statue survived the war, but the young poet on whose visage the sculptor, Ludwika Nitschowa, modeled the Syrene, did not. Her unblinking gaze belongs to the young poet and ethnographer, Krystyna Krahelska, who died on the second day of the Warsaw Uprising. Krahelska fought for the AK, the Polish Resistance, under the code name Danuta. She was nursing a wounded AK soldier when she was shot three times by a German sniper.

Her face was pure and idealistic, the face of a woman who would do what she needed to do for her country. It made me think of my young grandmother, who took refuge in Warsaw in 1920, two young children in tow, on her solo journey from Russia during its civil war. She secured her visa to come to the States at the Belgian legation in Warsaw, part of my own mythology. (I have not yet found the Belgian legation in Warsaw) . She did what she felt she must do to get her family to safety. She took risks. And so did Krystyna Krahelska.

I consulted the map for my next site, some commemoration of a woman named Eliza Orzeszkowa, located in a park crisscrossed with paths and lush pines. I needed practice navigating by street map. Where was she? There was the spring house that Wojtek had mentioned, where generations of Warsovians have filled their bottles from a natural spring. And there was the duck pond with some  mallards paddling around; I saw no plaque, no statue.  I sat down on a bench to ponder, to be still. It was a relief not to speak; Wojtek was so right to send me solo.  It took some minutes then I glanced over my shoulder at a noise– Eliza Orzeskowa, obscured by bushes, was staring right at me. Orzeszkowa, I learned, was a 19th century reformer and a prolific novelist who wrote about social conditions and campaigned for social reform in partitioned Poland, fought for the rights of women, espoused tolerance for Jews, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1905. Russian authorities placed her under police surveillance for five years. Her solidity reassured me. I got out my pencils to draw her.

The Marie Curie Museum, on Freta Street in New Town, is in the townhouse where Maria Sklodowska was born. I observed flasks and beakers from her childhood lab, photos of Marie with Pierre Curie on their bicycle honeymoon, her spectacles in a glass case.

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It is always worth meditating on Marie Curie– her daring, her intellect, her dedication and imagination, her resilience in surmounting the many tragedies life handed her. As a young woman in Warsaw, she defied the Czar and attended the Flying University, where classes were in Polish. She allowed herself to imagine the freedom, as a woman, to study at the Sorbonne. She coined the term “radioactivity.” As chronicled in the beautiful Lauren Redness graphic novel about Marie, titled  Radioactive: “…in the lab she learned to counterbalance the unknown with the known.” She and Pierre attended séances, they were fascinated by all attempts to “coax the unseen into plain view.” She invented specially outfitted X-ray wagons and drove them herself to treated wounded French soldiers, pioneering new medical treatment on the battlefield.  Her discoveries—of radium, polonium (named for her native country) earned her two Nobel Prizes and were, she hoped, to be used for the common good.  Full stop.
Oh long-lost sisters, oh Vistula siren,
Oh Risk-taking Spirits, oh free radicals
Please guide us, hybrid as we may be

as we find our way

to resist
to exist
in these perilous times.

…and, since Wojtek invoked John Cage, I took the long way home, walking slowly along the Vistula, pausing for awhile under the Slasko-Dabrowski Bridge to listen to the songs the trams made as they clattered by overhead.

Quite beautiful songs, each one unique.

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]

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]

Friends in Warsaw, Late Summer 2011

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Literature, Poland with tags , , , , on August 26, 2011 by Louise Steinman

It is such a pleasure to visit friends in a foreign city, though Warsaw sometimes feels as familiar as New York. I like to touch into my friends’ current preoccupations, catch glimpses of their lives.

Today a visit to Staszek and Monika, took the tram at the stop across from the two mighty atlases at Pod Gigantami (“under the giants”) holding up the balcony of a surviving pre-war tenement on Aleje Ujazdowski.

Staszek and his son Daniel meet me at the door of their building. Daniel, a most charming young man with Downs syndrome has a budding career as an actor. His drama group recently performed a version of Alice in Wonderland, with an autistic girl as Alice. Daniel played the role of the “judge” who interrogated Alice as to why she lived in such a dream world. Staszek said it was powerful beyond belief.

Staszek teaches philosophy at the university and one feels like you can talk to him about anything. He relishes digging into the meaning of things. And Monika, beautiful Monika, arrives a few minutes after I do, wearing a bright red skirt and carrying ice cream from the market. Their flat is full of her art work, delicate paper cuts embodying traditional Jewish themes, storks, fish, outlines of books. She collects bells and dragons and takes exquisite photographs of the engraved stones in Poland’s Jewish cemeteries.

Their older son, G, lives in a squat, off Warsaw’s official grid, in a slower but arguably more dangerous world. They worry about him. Staszek and Monika were rebels in their youth, dissidents against a repressive regime. Their son is rebelling against materialism, against living life by the clock or the wallet.

Strolled back to the hotel through the leafy green Lazienski Gardens. The city is enjoying the last days of summer with ice cream cones and sunbathing, families fanning themselves on the benches near the former emperor’s Orangerie.

The other day I walked in Lazienski with Kostek, a well-respected Warsaw journalist. As we passed the romantic marble statue of Chopin, Kostek admitted he was “Chopin’d out.” I mentioned this friend Wojtek, a conceptual artist, who commented as to how he’d love to perform a double homage to John Cage and Chopin by hosting a silent Chopin concert. Kostek applauds the idea.

And yesterday Gosia, a playwright, took me to see the astonishing gardens on the roof of Warsaw University LIbrary. There are paths named for poets, bridges and arbors, views across the Vistula and above the rooftops of this historic city. She told me about an assignment she once had, creating a film for a Warsaw TV station about a visiting Dutch author– Matthijs Van Boxsel– who calls hmself a morosopher. Morosophy (fool-osophy): means foolish wisdom or wise foolishness.

(as he writes in an interview: “Morosophs operate at the crossroads of science, religion, art and madness. Is the earth flat? Was Dutch spoken in paradise? Are atoms spaceships? Is Delft Delphi? Can the floor plan of the pyramid of Cheops be found in the street plan of ‘s-Hertogenbosch? Is the world entering the Lilac phase? Did abstract thought commence when the clitoris evolved from the inside to the outside?” (attribution to follow)

As we walked paths named for Petrarch and other poets, Gosia told me how she interviewed von Boxell on this very rooftop garden, following him down one path and another as he talked about his attempt– which took many years– to figure out the theory that could explain everything. Then he said, he returned to “the initial page of his theory… and the same intelligence that had got me so far, turned against me and I dived into a deep depression.” He had to take a break from writing and learn to enjoy life again, live in his body and not his mind. Then he could return to stupidity.

This week, as hurricanes brew and insurrections continue and demagogues rail at home in the States, I am walking and feeling my body, enjoying life and dear friends in the late summer sunshine of the fine old city of Warsaw.

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.”

The Overcoat

Posted in Poland with tags on December 14, 2010 by Louise Steinman

I was in Warsaw in the winter of 2002, with my dear friend Cheryl who is the daughter of survivors from the town of Kolomyja, which was in Poland and is now in Ukraine. We rented an apartment in the Old Town and got a taste of Warsaw cultural life. Before we left on that trip, however, Cheryl’s anxieties about traveling in Poland (about which she had deeply conflicted feelings) amped up, took form in her dreams. An officer from an invading army demanded that Cheryl make uniforms for his bedraggled soldiers. Cheryl commandeered some itchy cloth and made uniforms that would keep the soldiers distracted, scratching, uncomfortable. A brilliant dream strategy.

My grandmother used to tell me about the beautiful coats the women wore in Warsaw. My grandfather Harry used to travel to Warsaw from Zhitomir to buy cloth for womens coats, for the Steinman family store. On the streets of Warsaw in years past, I noticed women wearing pleated cinched woolen coats of soft pastels. Now everyone is mainly bundled up in long dark down coats that are lighter and perhaps even warmer. In my Warsaw dream, I wandered some Polish city by a river, searching for an overcoat. In a department store, I found one I liked. Not a coat of many colors, like Joseph’s coat, but grey wool felt, soft to the touch. I tried it on in a mirror. I liked what I saw. The seams lined up. The weight and cut suited me. My delight at finding the right overcoat persisted upon waking. The overcoat Cheryl had commissioned—in her dream– for good reason was made from stiff itchy fabric. It was a strategy to discomfort the menacing invaders. My Polish overcoat was forgiving, pliant.
……
(“And after all,” one theater critic reminded me, “We all come from Gogol’s overcoat.”)

The Polish Dream Coat

Neither Black nor Gray

Posted in Poland with tags , , on December 14, 2010 by Louise Steinman

Many journeys yesterday, first the train from Krakow to Warsaw past hundreds of kilometers of white fields and forests. I shivered waiting on the platform in Krakow and was glad to see the train puff into the station. Several gallant Polish gentleman helped me onto the train with luggage and I had a window seat for the view, Jacob Glatstein’s novel for company. I read his description of traveling as a young boy with his grandfather by train from Lublin to Warsaw: “En route, he would untie his kerchief and take his refreshment– a hard-boiled egg, a hunk of bread, a purple plum, and a golden pear that dripped juice down his beard, all the while conducting a conversation with me.” The gentleman around me did not drip pear juice down their beards, rather they spoke briskly into their cell phones or listened to their ipods but I was traveling in my mind in another time.

Dear Gosia met me at the platform at Warsaw Centralny and later that evening hosted a little soiree for me at her flat in Kubaty– herring and pates, salads and cheeses, dark bread and Spanish wine and vodka. I ventured out to her place by Metro, another transportation adventure (but there’s only one line in Warsaw, which makes it easy) and she met me at the station with a bounding Akita at her heels. Her dog savors the snow, of course, inquisitively reading canine narratives in the snowdrifts, and we walked in the chilly night around the new city out to the edge where the forest begins.

Gosia (Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk) is a playwright and her home is overflowing with books which made me feel right at home. Joanna Klass, my dear host from Adam Mickiewicz Institute joined us, and Andreas, Gosia’s German translator. We laughed and told stories and argued about plays and art until nearly midnight, drank good vodka, and thus missed the last Metro and– following Joanna’s lead–jumped onto a wayward bus that wended its way through the streets of Warsaw, picking up other frozen souls along the way. Back to the hotel an hour later in fine spirits. Shades of Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth.”

(Glatstein, after he arrived in Warsaw: “I could scarcely fall asleep, filled as I was with the excitement of the trian ride and of finding myself in a strange city, far from home.”) I am also filled with my grandmother’s tales of passing through Warsaw en route to the U.S. from Ukraine, waiting at the Belgian Legation for her visa, hiding the family valuables in a little pouch secured to my aunt Ruth’s pinafore with a diaper pin. (that’s the term she used, always loved that..)

I ventured out for a walk this morning. These Warsavians are very hearty because it is REALLY cold and they stride briskly about their business. To warm myself I bought a Polish wool hat and when i carried it to the daylight by the shop window to ascertain just what color it was, the saleswoman said, “It is not black it is not gray” which is so apropos to thinking about Polish history and memory.

I feel very Polish wearing my new hat.

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