IN THE SPRING of 2021, KARTA Center in Warsaw brought out a Polish translation of my book, The Crooked Mirror, nine years after its publication in the United States. The book chronicles my decades-long immersion in the discomforting, sometimes surreal, and ultimately healing process of Polish-Jewish reconciliation.
I first visited Poland in 2000 and was privileged to observe, in that more hopeful time, the nation’s new openness to historical inquiry about its past after forty years of Communist rule, when it was taboo to discuss Polish collaborators, pogroms, or the killings of returning Jews after the war. I met brilliant artist-activists who were finding ways to commemorate the Jewish absence in their midst and to educate their communities about a history in danger of being lost or obscenely distorted. I also saw fresh stirrings of Jewish life in Poland, and a touching inquisitiveness among the young about Jewish identities kept hidden after the war.
In democratic Poland, it became possible for historians to examine the country’s wounds and losses under two regimes of tyranny. An important piece of the past was uncovered by Polish-born sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross, now professor emeritus at Princeton University. In 2001, he published Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, a book that set off what Polish journalist Anna Bikont called “a huge national psychotherapy session.” The debate was raw and very public.
Gross’s book laid out the bone-chilling details of the July 1941 massacre of almost the entire Jewish population of Jedwabne, a village in the northeast. Also in 2001, on the 60th anniversary of the crime, then-president Aleksander Kwaśniewski startled the nation by admitting for the first time that Polish civilians, not Nazi forces, were responsible for the killings. He offered an unflinching apology, carried live on Polish national television.
In recent years, however, the public conversation on controversial topics, Jedwabne among them, has radically devolved. In 2018, Poland’s government passed a law creating grounds for prosecution if anyone were to falsely lay blame on the Polish nation for crimes committed by Nazi or Soviet forces. This sparked concerns beyond Poland’s borders (and particularly among historians) as to how such a concept might be interpreted. When I wrote to Kostek Gebert, a journalist friend in Warsaw, to say I was coming in October 2021 to give two book talks — one in Radomsko, the other in Warsaw — he emailed me right away: “Expect to find a much nastier Poland.”
That’s what was on my mind the night before the scheduled book event for The Crooked Mirror at the Regional Museum in Radomsko, the town where my maternal grandparents were born, where my great-grandmother is buried, and where I found the house that was the last known address of my great-aunt Fayga Konarska Wilhelm before she and her family were deported to Treblinka. This would be my first return to Radomsko since my book was published in Polish. I couldn’t sleep. But at least I would be traveling with three trusted friends.
— Louise Steinman
Our Day Begins
LAURIE WINER: Later I felt bad about brushing off Louise’s fears, telling her there was no reason to worry. I was spending a year abroad and decided to join her in Warsaw, where she was going to give a talk to some high schoolers — what could go wrong? We were driving from Warsaw to Radomsko, the town where Louise’s mother’s family had lived before World War II.
Radomsko’s wartime history was both shocking and not at all unusual: of its 10,000 Jews, only a couple of hundred survived. In her book, The Crooked Mirror, Louise explores the way that people and localities struggle all these decades later to cope with so profound a trauma. The Crooked Mirror is subtitled A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation, and Louise begins it by admitting she inherited a specific prejudice from a mother who, though she never lived there, was so traumatized by her family’s history that she could barely say the words “Polish” or “Poland.” At the instigation of her Zen rabbi (this is a story, after all, that begins in Los Angeles), Louise attended a week-long Bearing Witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2000 and then traveled to her grandparents’ birthplace to find out more about the fate of her ancestors. She returned to Poland a dozen times over two decades, inevitably grappling with the mystery of mysteries: why groups of humans are sometimes stirred to kill other groups of humans, and with a savagery so astonishing that no one — victim, perpetrator, bystander — is left whole. In Radomsko, we soon found out, the wounds were still raw.
Louise had just heard through her editor that there was a Radomsker gentleman, an innkeeper, who was unhappy with her depiction of him in her book. And a few weeks earlier, she’d received an email from another man who said she’d gotten some things wrong about his family.
I was not worried. As a theater critic for many years, I had received numerous letters from people who actively wished for my physical demise because I disliked a show. I developed a hard shell about such grievances. Also, this talk was taking place in public, at an institution that had invited Louise, and she would be traveling with three friends — her translator Dorota, her editor Hanna, and me — all of whom, I’d like to think, could handle any situation that might arise.
DOROTA GOLEBIEWSKA: My first response to the invitation to go with Louise to Radomsko was sheer enthusiasm. Hooray! I could finally see all the places I had heard and read about — places that, sorry to say, although Polish myself, I had never visited. There was to be a public meeting at the Regional Museum. Would I translate? Sure I would. I reassured Hanna everything would go well — after all, Louise and the townspeople had become friends, hadn’t they?
HANNA ANTOS: The day before our trip I had a rather difficult phone conversation with a man mentioned briefly in The Crooked Mirror. Someone underlined for him a few phrases describing his posture and behavior, which he found unfair. I tried to assure him that there was nothing offensive in the description, that it was definitely not the author’s intention to offend him (or anybody else from Radomsko), and that she was grateful for his care of the Jewish cemetery. I asked him to read the whole book, not only the underlined sentences, and hoped that he would understand that Louise reveals her own initial prejudices and her efforts to overcome them. She reaches out to Poles who do the same, so that both parties could find some common understanding of the past — leading to a true, if not ideal, reconciliation. That’s the core of The Crooked Mirror, not the details describing how she saw and remembered a particular person from 20 years ago.
Heading to Radomsko, I was only slightly worried about the expected attendance — about how many people would show up apart from the high school class.
LW: As to what happened next, I must first introduce myself as a hobbled narrator. I do not speak Polish, and the drama in front of me unfolded in that language. So I could use only my understanding of theater, body language, and intonation to interpret what was going on.
We arrived at the Regional Museum at the appointed time, 45 minutes before the talk was to begin. There to greet us was a harried dark-haired woman, the Museum’s director, and a young male curator who would be the moderator for Louise’s talk. Also joining us for reasons unknown to me was a svelte blonde woman clad entirely in beige, a silk Dior scarf at her neck. Her name was Lili and, as I understood it, Lili had just taken up residence in Radomsko and had a kind of proprietary relationship with the town. She had beautiful translucent skin that seemed to radiate light, and she threw off an excited energy.
LOUISE STEINMAN: I’d read about the Kesselmans, Lili’s family, in the Radomsk Yizkor Book, and she’d gotten in touch with me after my book came out in English. This was the first time I was meeting her in person. I knew she lived in France so I was startled to learn that she had taken an apartment in Radomsko and was planning to move permanently to Warsaw.
LW: But the most perplexing figure in the welcoming committee was an imposing and unsmiling silver-haired gentleman in a blue suit and black dress shoes who comported himself with the formality of a funeral director.
HA: He said he was an otolaryngologist.
LS: I had no idea who he was or what he was doing there. He seemed friendly enough when he introduced himself before we were invited to sit down for tea.
LW: I took a chair off to the side and watched the group take tea, an encounter that seemed amiable. If a dash of nervous energy hung in the air, I chalked it up to pre-performance excitement and the uncertainty of people who were mostly strangers to each other.
DG: I sat at a table not really knowing who was who, hoping someone present was more knowledgeable than me. I jumped in by translating the words of whoever was talking without even one deep breath to get ready. The suited gentleman, the doctor, described himself as a member of the family who originally owned the house in Rolna Street where Louise’s family had been forced to live in the ghetto during the war, their last known address. In her book Louise describes visiting the house and meeting an elderly lady she called “a xenophobic pensioner” listening to an anti-Semitic broadcast on Radio Maryja.
DG: The man sitting with us at the table stated that this woman was his late aunt, I think. An anticipation of trouble filled the air. He also said something about his family hiding Jews at some point during the war. According to the man, the Jews survived and later returned — alas, not to express their gratitude, but with Communist police, to collect their valuables from a place where they had hidden them. His family had risked their lives to save these people, and they were given just one scarf in return, so he said.
HA: I immediately felt uneasy because I understood this bitter story was meant as an example of “Jewish ungratefulness.” (Had the Jewish family paid for the hide-out? Why weren’t the rescuers submitted for the Righteous Among the Nations title?) It’s also true that, for decades after the war, many of the righteous felt the need to remain silent for fear of how their neighbors might react. But it’s difficult to explain in brief the complex relations between Polish rescuers and their larger communities, to say nothing of their relationships to the people they helped. In any event, there was not enough time to inquire.
DG: As the man spoke, I had to wonder: when did this all happen? The house in question was within the ghetto, which was established in December 1939. This man’s family was forced to leave it and Jews were forced to move into it from somewhere else, so where and when did the man’s family hide Jews? Maybe I misunderstood some part of this hasty conversation. No time for questions, though. We were being rushed to the auditorium in the Museum where the public meeting was about to begin.
LW: Whisked into the room where Louise would give her talk in English, I sat front and center, next to Lili, who sat up very straight and listened ardently. Louise talked with a calm lucidity about how her multiple journeys to Poland had enlightened and changed her. Her thesis, essentially, is that there is no wound that cannot be salved by a commitment to honest communication over time.
There were a dozen or more of the expected high schoolers in the crowd. The room was filled mostly with adults, older adults. One felt a heavy quiet as the moderator chatted with Louise. When it was time to take audience questions, Lili popped up to speak. After acknowledging Louise and Dorota, she faced the crowd with a beautiful smile. She was making a presentation that seemed in some way promotional.
LS: Lili told the crowd about how she had spent the last 10 years funding and creating the Kesselman Open Air Jewish Museum, which commemorates Jewish life before the war, much like the memory-stone project in Germany, by setting plaques in front of buildings that were once residences, mikvas, shteible (prayer rooms), community buildings, and sports clubs. Kesselman’s own family story is quite tragic. When the Germans invaded, her 18-year-old father took his family into the woods, where they survived the war in hiding, helped by two Polish neighbors. In January 1945, when the Russians entered the city, Lili’s family returned to their house, which had been occupied by a German officer. Six months later, two Poles broke in and murdered her grandmother and her 20-year-old aunt. The remaining Kesselmans left Poland, never to return. Lili first arrived for a visit in 2011, and began to devote considerable efforts to researching her family history and preserving Jewish memory in Radomsko.
HA: She also mentioned that she grew up in fear of coming back to Poland, as do many children of Holocaust survivors. But when she finally came here, all her fear and hatred went away.
LW: In any event, Lili did not really have a question for Louise. I looked around at the teenagers in the room to see if any of them were going to ask a question. Right then the otolaryngologist I had mistaken for a funeral director strode to the front of the room and stood stiffly, holding a paper in his hands.
HA: He said that he wanted to take the opportunity to “pass a few reflections to Louise now she is here with us.”
LS: First he walked up to where Dorota and I were sitting and, in a theatrical gesture, “delivered” a sealed envelope with my name on it in handwriting, placing it on the table in front of me. As I opened the envelope and began to read (though I couldn’t read it, of course, as it was in Polish), he started reciting the same statement aloud as Dorota translated into my ear. It was difficult to hear her because this gentleman had a booming voice. He didn’t need a microphone.
LW: He read in a monotone, reminding me of a boy giving a book report. Clearly he did not have a question. I got no sense of what he was saying, but I noticed Louise’s expression turn quizzical as Dorota quietly translated into her ear.
DG: When he approached us with a large envelope, I smiled, expecting a heartfelt welcome gift. Louise smiled too. As he began speaking, the warmth I felt turned to disbelief. He was reading aloud a letter accusing Louise of defaming his whole family and demanding printed apologies in the local newspaper and in a right-wing national one plus a donation of $5,000 to a foundation of his choice.
HA: After reading his statement the man concluded that everybody has a right to some mistakes in one’s life (including himself), but the true measure of a person is their ability to admit those mistakes and to correct them. If we are going to write a true “diary of Polish-Jewish reconciliation,” he said in a rather lofty way, we have to listen to each other and to dialogue, so that the often wonderful attitudes of many Poles and many Jews from the past may serve as a model for the younger generation.
I didn’t catch exactly why he was demanding a written apology from Louise, as he didn’t clarify it in his statement, and I think many in the audience must have been equally confused. Later I found out that what offended him so deeply was Louise’s mention of an unnamed relative’s supposed anti-Semitism. He must have been referring to his late aunt, who had been listening to Radio Maryja when Louise came to question her.
LW: As the doctor finished there was a determined round of applause that surprised me. I turned around to see who was clapping; it was a group sitting near the door, a contingent of people in their sixties and seventies — four burly men and one woman with an Angela Merkel bob. Two more men stood in the doorway with crossed arms, and it seemed that these people had come together in some kind of joint protest.
DG: The group was sitting together in the same part of the room, near the exit, as if they were ready to — I don’t know — use it as an escape route or block it, depending on the way things went.
HA: As soon as the doctor finished and while everyone was still trying to absorb his statement, a woman from the audience rose to ask Louise who her sources were “about the war” and “Polish-Jewish-German relations.” She said, “From which country were your sources?”
LW: This woman seemed to be actually asking a question. When she stopped talking, I heard Louise say, incredulously, “What were my sources?” The Crooked Mirror, after all, is a first-person account of her own experiences visiting Radomsko and many other parts of Poland, including the week-long retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I have studied the techniques of Holocaust deniers and I know that their favorite is to find a thread, any thread, which they suggest could be dubious, and then pull on it in an attempt to unravel the largest ball of historical evidence ever stockpiled for the future. Rightly or wrongly I associated this woman with that line of argument.
HA: Then a man stood up. He said he didn’t want to ask questions because “if this meeting is for reconciliation let’s keep it this way.” But he declared that for him, we were still stuck in a crooked mirror.
DG: Just as the man made his statement, another one started to speak from the far end of the room. He said that the elderly woman residing at the building in Rolna Street was his grandmother; this was the same woman Louise had supposedly libeled without ever naming her. He claimed he never heard anything anti-Semitic from his grandma and believed she must have been surprised by the unexpected visit, so maybe she had acted awkwardly. He also claimed that his family, apparently the same family as the doctor’s, was involved in the anti-Nazi resistance movement and helped Jews before and during the war. Louise’s response — “I wish I’d heard this story before” — underlined the point that this story was new to her.
LS: The man was saying that his family had rescued Jews, that’s why I said I wished I’d known. It seemed everyone had come to say their family had hidden Jews.
DG: If it was true that this family had helped to hide Jews during the war, it would prove Louise extremely lucky in that she found not one, but two rescuers’ families on her quest to Radomsko. Now yet another man stood up and asserted that Louise had pretended a “fake” affection for their city while “in fact she described it as gloomy, dark, depressing, and ugly.” Louise tried to explain her process, how those were her early impressions, before she made friends in the town, felt connected to it, and began to see its beauty. All of this is very clear from the book.
LS: I think at this point I was in fight-or-flight mode. Cortisol. Adrenaline. Restraint. Crossed circuits. Brain going overtime. I turned to the moderator and said, “I believe we are done,” thinking he might restore some order. By now people were yelling at each other, like the videos I’ve seen of schoolboard meetings in Texas towns.
LW: When I saw the moderator put his head in his hands, it was clear that the event was being taken over. The question was, how angry were these people going to get? I turned around and took a photo of the hostile contingent — my way of saying, “We have our eyes on you.” I saw the high school history teacher quietly whisk his students out of the room, though a couple of girls stayed to watch.
HA: The history teacher apologized afterwards, saying that he told his students they did not have to stay and listen to the people from the audience. He was disappointed there was no opportunity for them to ask questions. He told me later: “My students came to meet an American writer. This was exciting because in our little Radomsko there is rarely a native English speaker, and the contents of the book would be interesting to them as well. But I didn’t want them to listen to these so-called arguments.”
LW: Then a neatly dressed woman with a chic short haircut sprang up and began an emotional appeal. She seemed to be attempting a mediation, and she directed her comments to those of us not in the hostile contingent. I heard someone say she was the former mayor or vice mayor of the town. Why had she shown up, I wondered. Had a town meeting taken place before this event? A suspicious number of people with agendas were here, devoting a weekday afternoon to come to a museum talk. In my head I was writing amusing-to-myself headlines like, How dare you come here and suggest that our town is hostile to strangers? As the woman concluded her appeal, her eyes were wet with tears. People here and there applauded, and I joined them, though I did not know what she had said.
DG: The woman started off by asking Louise not to feel “unwelcome” here, not to imagine she was not “their dear guest.” She said she knew what Louise must be feeling because she had been made to feel this way many times when hosting groups from Israel.
LW: Everyone stood now, and the Museum director brought in books for Louise to sign. The troublesome men all approached the table where she sat. I stood just behind her, as if my 115 pounds would add significant heft to her 110. Another slightly younger man who had not spoken was thrusting yet another set of papers into her hand and telling her in English that she had spelled the name of his father wrong in her book. Louise stood up, signaling the event was over, and this seemed to dispel, somewhat, the threatening attitude of the group.
HA: Some people from the audience approached me at this point to say they felt ashamed that instead of dialogue we witnessed one-way accusation of bad intentions toward Louise. They were worried we would get the impression that the people of Radomsko did not want to talk openly about the past.
LW: Now some people lined up for Louise to sign their books, including the doctor who had read his accusation aloud. The objectors were now shaking all of our hands, mine (who had nothing to do with the book), Hanna’s, and Dorota’s. I noticed that Hanna and Dorota looked elated and I knew it was because the end — and a drink — was in sight.
DG: The doctor who had handed us the envelope with his requirements of Louise, now said to me, almost apologetically, while shaking my hand: “I made it difficult for you, didn’t I?” “Well, yes, true,” I answered, “but you made it much more difficult for Louise.” When he asked Louise to sign a book for him, she was incredulous. “Why do you want it?” she asked. “As a first step toward reconciliation,” he said. Now many other people were telling Louise how important her book was to them. Some apologized for the way the meeting went, some called it “shameful.” I wondered why they did not speak up during the main part of the event. The only person who challenged anyone was the history teacher who brought the high schoolers. He told the doctor that he did not appreciate his disruption of the event, and the doctor snapped back, “You don’t respect your elders,” adding, “You are unfit to educate young people.” I think the teacher proved quite the opposite that day.
LS: Finally we were able to walk outside into the crisp fall air. Lili offered to show us around town, the sites of her “Open Air Museum.” We wanted to take her tour, but we were also lightheaded, hungry, upset, and in need of a glass of wine. Lili is not one to take “no” for an answer, so she came with us to get some sustenance: drinks, hot soup, and kasha. En route, she detoured us into a courtyard to show us where mezuzahs had once been affixed to the doorposts of the apartments. She pointed out the storefront that had been Venus Foto, a once renowned studio where the Jewish photographer Aron Wilhelm took special occasion photos for both Jewish and Catholic Radomskers. She showed us a number of other sites as well.
LW: During lunch, Lili offered to say a Jewish prayer over our bread. We all held hands and she performed one of the longest prayers I ever heard for a piece of toast, chanting at lightning speed while davening. I stared at her in awe; she is a woman who commands your attention. But just then I noticed two tears rolling down Dorota’s face, and I realized the day had taken a toll on all of us.
LS: After lunch, Lili pressed on with her desire to show us around, and she did, for the next two hours.
LW: She ignored all of our hints that we were quite tired and had a three-hour drive ahead of us. But it was an amazing tour. “Here is where the Grynszpan family lived,” she said, and, good students of the Holocaust all, we knew that she meant the family of Hershel Grynszpan, the teenager who assassinated a Nazi diplomat in Paris, a killing that became the pretext for Kristallnacht. We stood staring in silence at the plaque that Lili had installed in the sidewalk, feeling the reverberations of history.
LS: Though it was now growing dark and we were all exhausted, it felt good to move through the streets where my grandparents courted, past what had been the site of the synagogue where they had prayed and the kosher butcher stalls where they had bought their chickens. Lili led us to the site of the deportations, the Umschlagplatz, where Radomskers watched their Jewish neighbors trudge through the snow to the waiting cattle cars. We walked down Rolna Street, in what had been the ghetto, the site of my great aunt’s last known address.
I wondered if this would be the last time I would see Radomsko. But of course I’ve asked myself that a number of times over the years, and I always come back.
The next night there was a book event in Warsaw organized by the KARTA Center. That night Louise was interviewed by an experienced journalist in front of an appreciative audience, who participated in a lively Q and A. One of the persons to speak that evening was Zbigniew Gluza, the editor-in-chief and president of KARTA, which was founded during the days of Martial Law in the early ’80s (Gluza himself was arrested for his political activity and spent six months in prison in 1985). He stood up from the audience and spoke, as Dorota translated in Louise’s ear:
We have published this book convinced of its great symbolic value and with gratitude for it coming into being. For me, the key word in its title and subtitle is the word “reconciliation,” not the crookedness that is a feature of the mirror. Reflecting on the essence of this record, I came to the conclusion that the path the author had traveled and described is surprisingly simple, clear, even movingly pure. And the crookedness is on Poland’s side. I am curious, and this is a question for the author: does she understand the revolutionary nature of what she is saying?
It so happens that the book is published at a time when Poland is very twisted again, losing its clarity. The word “reconciliation” is used here in a situation when hostility is imposed from above, and the official propaganda does not recognize dissent or the possibility of true reconciliatory gestures. The reactions to the book are characteristic of nationalists who operate with an increasingly fascist tinge that the authorities are not fighting. Their accusations centered on the fact that the book starts from the recognition of the country as dead, a graveyard, which they consider indecent and to which they respond with hatred — аlthough this is the natural starting point of the path described.
The image of Poland presented in the book looks better than the contemporary one. At the time when the POLIN Museum was created, Poland was brighter. Then, with the introduction of this nationalistic tone in politics, Jews began to be ushered again into a zone of hostility, where the word “reconciliation” becomes a challenge. If there are no longer two sides, then who should reconcile with whom? We had been separated by history and are now separated by a recurring ideology — hence the difficulty of a return to togetherness. The book, in this context, offers a clear record of the difficult work already done that may yet be undone. Unfortunately, Poland is now a more difficult partner, and here the book can be almost subversive. It contradicts Polish nationalists, showing that human rights and the rules of democracy are about something else, and that dividing people in the way they do is pathological. I hope that the author’s pure intentions will be understood and appreciated here.
Louise Steinman is the author, most recently, of The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation (Beacon Press). She was the longtime curator of the ALOUD series for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and co-directs the Los Angeles Institute for Humanities at USC.
Laurie Winer is a Los Angeles Review of Books founding editor.
Featured image: Jay Van Everen. Abstraction, 1920. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Mrs. Jay Van Everen to the Collection Société Anonyme. Photo: Yale University Art Gallery. Accessed October 11, 2022.