October 20, 2018

Retrieving a family’s thread in Poland

Louise Steinman's The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish- Jewish Reconciliation, interrupts the two universes of meaning hanging on the phrase: “it's history.”

For many, the words ” it's history” connote something is unimportant, forgotten, and irrelevant.  But for many Poles and Jews to assert “it's history” means, something is of vital, existential importance — that the past commands attention and understanding.  Polish and Jewish relations are complex. Even historical accounts differ. There are many issues, attitudes, distorted perceptions that demand careful study, hence the crooked mirror. The task of addressing and making ourselves aware of the distortions of history/memory is an arduous task.

The yawning chasm of distrust impedes conversation.  The unseemly competition among Poles and Jews for the status of chief victim is carried out with little compassion for the other. Steinman challenges that paradigm by chronicling her own initial avoidance of the subject and eventually an assertive search for dialogue partners.

Appropriately, the book begins with Louise Steinman's own story as she reluctantly accepts the Jonah-like mission to seek conversation and understanding with Poles that is assigned to her by her Buddhist influenced rabbi, Don Singer. With a strong initial sentiment of being sent on a fool's errand to meditate in Auschwitz with Jews and non-Jews, Steinman begins her journeys.  Along the way, Steinman meets many others who are skeptical or reluctant, even averse to the notion of reconciliation. This is the task of reconciliation, which is greatly advanced by Louise Steinman's new book.

In successive trips to Poland and the Polish lands (Vilnius — now in Lithuania, and Kolomay — now in Ukraine) a 10-year chronicle unfolds.  Steinman uncovers traces of her past from the city of Radomsko, and her aunt who stayed behind in Poland. A persistent search uncovers a Wilhelm cousin in Los Angeles who shares photos of pre-World War II Radomsko life. Another source to Steinman's work is and English Internet translation of the Radomsko memorial (Yizkor) book that allows the author to connect with the stories and the survivor's testimonies. These books were originally written in Yiddish or Hebrew by landsman, fellow residents from a particular town or region.

 Among the Radomsko landsman, Steinman finds a quirky Holocaust survivor who becomes a key informant. Eventually, the informant's testimony gives way to the story of a brave rescuer from Radomsko, who saved the survivor and four others. Both the rescued Jews and the Polish rescuer made a pact after the liberation not to disclose the events of the rescue because of a prevalent climate in Poland of suspicion and jealousy toward rescuers. (Did they enrich themselves? Did they endanger their fellow Poles for Jews? Are they secretly Jewish too, for siding with the Jews?) Steinman plays a key role in bringing the rescuer to the attention and to recognition of Yad V'Shem as a Righteous Gentile. Steinman's telling of that story brought me to tears.

The role of Poles who are now the major guardians of the history/memory of Jews in Poland is a key theme in the book. In Radomsko, the work of a journalist Maciej, leads to the serialization of a Polish translation of the Radomsko memorial book. The interest of locals in knowing something of the past of Radomsko's former residents is balm on the soul. During the publication of the memorial book the phones ring off the hook because the serialization is on hiatus for Christmas holidays.  With patience, knowledge, and enthusiasm the “Maciejs of the world” diminish the distrust on the Jewish side. They are precious to us for their efforts that translate to making a symbolic bridge to a past that belongs to both Poles and Jews.

The book eloquently and graciously reproduces many of the voices from this many-sided conversation that grows through the power of the long-term personal experiences, encounters and confrontations of the author.

The complexity and sensitivity displayed by the anecdotes advances the cause of dialogue but also gives a full-throated expression to the anguish of the survivors and their children, especially Cheryl – Steinman's sometime traveling companion. The pain and the personal anger borne by Jews betrayed by neighbors encounters the reality of the passage of time, the new internal reality of Polish society wedged between two factions — the Polish ultranationalist's sentiment of virtuous victims and the aspiration for a society dedicated to building a Polish civic society that integrates itself into the European Union.

I read this book seeking a comprehensive summary that would introduce Jewish visitors to Poland, not only to the Jewish issues but also to hearing the Polish ones. Last summer I led my first tour of Poland. I was surprised that the standard “Jewish” tour did not include the museum of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising led by the remnants of the Polish Army against the Nazi Germans. The Soviet army, the liberators watched from the other side of the Vistula. The museum profoundly demonstrates the betrayal that Poles felt from both their allies and their enemies.  

Understanding some of the basic realities of Polish experience requires the awareness of the loss of Poland's independence in the 1790's. Except for a brief 20-year period of independence, Poland remained in captivity until 1991. Prussian/German imperial forces, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian (Soviet) empires were the dominant powers in a Poland occupied and dismembered for nearly 200 years.

We are in Louise Steinman's debt for helping us move to another conversation that will continue the process of reconciliation. Not all matters will be settled, nor are there easy resolutions, but the sense of connection will grow.

As a rabbi working with the renewal of Progressive Judaism in Poland through the umbrella organization of Beit Polska (sponsored by Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland and the World Union for Progressive Judaism), I would have wanted a chapter on the surprising phenomena of people seeking to identify with Jews and Judaism. The phenomena of people seeking to rejoin the Jewish people, or even to know more about Judaism, is very moving to me. This difficult process is another part of the reconciliation.

 The efforts by the municipal government of Warsaw, the national Polish national government and survivors to build the Museum of the History of Polish Jews point to a world seeking a new horizon.  A persistent question “The Crooked Mirror:  A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation” asks is: Do the Poles miss us? Indeed, some of us Jews miss some Poles.

Louise Steinman will be featured in conversation with Jack Miles about The Crooked Mirror, and will sign copies of the book, at 7:15 p.m. on Thursday, November 7, 2013, in the ALOUD program at the Central Library, 630 West Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071. For tickets and information, visit http://www.lfla.org/event-detail/893/The-Crooked-Mirror-A-Memoir-of-Polish-Jewish-Reconciliation

Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak has devoted himself to the revival and flourishing of Jewish congregations around the world, most recently Beit Warszawa in Poland and Neve Shalom in Parimaribo, Suriname. He also served for 19 years as Chaplain and Hillel Rabbi for The Claremont Colleges.