A Way Forward: Louise Steinman's "The Crooked Mirror"

By Piotr FlorczykNovember 2, 2013

A Way Forward: Louise Steinman's "The Crooked Mirror"

The Crooked Mirror by Louise Steinman

TO CALL THE POLISH-JEWISH RELATIONSHIP complicated would be an understatement, and to label it uneasy or acrimonious seems both inadequate and unfair. But we must use words  — aside from “long” — to describe the common history of the two peoples, which goes back to at least the 12th century. There was a time when Polish royals welcomed and encouraged Jews to settle in their land, which is one reason why Poland had been home to the largest and most vital Jewish community in all of Europe as recently as 100 years ago. What remains of that rich culture is of course paltry; the Nazis destroyed an 800-year-old community in six years. World War II spelled the end for 90 percent of Poland’s prewar Jewish community, among them some of humanity’s best and most promising scientists, academics, politicians, musicians, artists, and writers. While many acknowledge the profound crisis that has hung like a black cloud over Polish-Jewish relations since that time, few have provided any insight into how best to break the impasse.

It is the shape of Polish-Jewish relations in the present that concerns Louise Steinman. In the search for the remnants of her own family, she cannot help but trace and address the many unresolved issues that still stand in the way of a sustained dialogue between Poles and Jews, a dialogue that would at last put them on the path toward true reconciliation. Steinman’s book, The Crooked Mirror, will no doubt be part of that reconciliation.

Some people are forced to bear witness; others volunteer, as in the case of the journalist or relief worker. And others, like Steinman, are called back to witness something that can only be glimpsed by solemn digging. These kinds of witnesses offer their labor, their connection to others on a similar quest, and their profound feeling to the dead; what else can we do now that so few of the living witnesses remain?

“The Jews may have once been part of Poland’s body and soul, but they’d been excised, cast out,” writes Steinman. As a granddaughter of Polish-born parents, Steinman grew up feeling an animosity toward all things Polish deep within her family. Her mother could barely utter the name of the country. Rebecca, Steinman’s grandmother on her father’s side, told stories in heavily accented English about being smuggled into Poland from Ukraine in 1921 during that country’s civil war. But from the maternal side, radio silence. “Even as a child and without knowing why,” writes Steinman, “the absence of family history on my maternal side was a gap, an ache.” And so while she continued to live her life in Los Angeles, Steinman took up a second life as a historian on a series of journeys into Poland, a historian whose guiding questions were intensely personal and sometimes unclear even to her.

In her introductory chapter Steinman reminds us that “an estimated 80 percent of American Jews are of Polish-Jewish descent,” and she goes on to point out that most of them exude more animosity toward Poland than toward Germany, believing, erroneously, that the Nazis had set up their death camps in Poland because they could count on the locals to help them exterminate the Jews. Those Polish-Jews who survived the Holocaust only to be chased out of the country by their former neighbors wanted nothing to do with Poland; their experiences and the stories they told contributed to the image of Poles as most vile anti-Semites. Only the most intrepid, in both communities, have tried to find what unites rather than divides them.

It is Steinman’s Zen rabbi in Los Angeles who encourages her to get involved in establishing a dialogue between Poles and Jews. At first, she does not see this as her calling, but in the course of nine trips over a decade, she discovers a deep-seated affinity for Poles and the country as a whole. Much of this awakening stems from her working with Polish guides and translators in their 20s and 30s. These are the new ambassadors to Poland, so much more open and tolerant than their parents and grandparents. On her first visit, Steinman attends a Bearing Witness Retreat, held in the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she participates in workshops with others from Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, France and Israel, most of them the children and grandchildren of survivors. One night they listened to the stories of a Polish actor who had worked as a slave laborer at the camp when he was 19. When the man characterized the Jews in the camp as more passive than the non-Jewish Poles, he angered many of the visitors. Immediately the group was plunged into the quandary of the book –– how to find a way to talk about the thorniest of subjects.

The language Steinman employs in this lyrical yet magisterial book testifies to the depths to which she’s gone, as both a researcher and someone marked by the Holocaust, to ask for and offer forgiveness and understanding. Recounting multiple trips to Radomsko, a provincial town in south-central Poland, in search of her family’s roots, she elucidates the more important points of general Polish history, including the three partitions at the end of the eighteenth century, after which the country disappeared from the map for 123 years, as well as the fact that “of all the countries in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, Poland was subjected to the most severe and sadistic repression.” Indeed for any Pole during World War II saving the life of a Jew meant risking the lives of everyone in his or her family. Yet among the nationalities bestowed with the title of “the Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Center for Holocaust Research, Poles constitute the largest group. Some have tried to downplay the fact, pointing out the relatively small number of honored Poles, given the country’s total population and the size of its Jewish minority before the war, but Steinman refuses to play the statistics game, turning instead to a metaphor and asking “why does one person reject the view through the crooked mirror and another accept the distortion?” The answer lies at our fingertips, Steinman seems to suggest, yet remains stubbornly out of reach.  

The convoluted, not to mention bloody, history of much of Central and Eastern Europe, including its peoples’ narratives of victimhood and resistance, is the key to understanding the deep-seated prejudices that divide the two communities. As part of her strategy to learn more about it, Steinman attended a kind of working retreat at Wannsee, outside of Berlin, where in early 1942 the Nazis had met to outline their plans for the Final Solution. The goal of the more recent gathering, organized by One by One, an organization founded in the 1990s by descendants of “survivors, perpetrates, bystanders, and resisters,” is to explore the legacy of the Holocaust and Hitler’s regime. The “conspiracy of silence” that prevailed in both West and East Germany after the war had also been in force in Poland, Steinman learns. This isn’t to suggest that Poles did not wage a heroic battle against both German and Soviet occupiers, which they did, and she says so; rather, what was absent from the postwar narrative is what had happened to the country’s Jewish citizens during and after the war. It was primarily the Nazis who had slaughtered them, of course, but there were also thousands of incidents in which local Poles, mainly peasants living in the countryside, killed Jews or otherwise contributed to the already miserable prospects they faced by either leading the Germans to their hideouts or barring them from returning to their homes after the war. While some of the perpetrators were tried and sentenced after the war, these shameful facts had been downplayed, and thus never entered the country’s postwar narrative, most of which continues to center around the Poles’ valiant struggle against their occupiers.

All this began to change after Jan Gross’s Neighbors was published in 2000. The book, written by a Polish-American historian, documents the killing of 600 Jews in the village of Jedwabne, on July 10, 1941; the victims were herded into a barn that was then set on fire. Gross made public that “the atrocity was perpetrated by the Jews’ Polish neighbors, not German soldiers, as had been previously assumed.” The ensuing dialogue in Poland has been compared to a “huge national psychotherapy session.” Writing in his 2007 bestseller Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, from which Steinman quotes, Gross offers a two-pronged explanation for why Poles turned on their neighbors: the Poles were betrayed by the Soviets — who arrested and deported thousands of Poles during the war, and in the aftermath of the war executed Poland’s Home Army heroes. The Jews returning from the camps were betrayed by Polish neighbors who appropriated their homes, property, and jobs. “A combination of greed and guilt made the sight of the returning Jews so threatening to their Polish neighbors,” writes Gross. At the ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne massacre, in July 2001, the then Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski apologized “in the name of those Poles whose conscience is moved by that crime.”

Steinman compares the Poles’ response to Jedwabne to the massacre at My Lai, and our own country’s search for truth, while addressing the issue of collective punishment experienced by civilian populations of all armed conflicts as well as the selective amnesia that follows. In order to break taboos and open a dialogue, Steinman reaches out to the Poles she meets, and in no time discovers how much it pains some of them, including her guide and translator, that Jewish visitors to Poland focus only on the Holocaust rather than the centuries-long history of the Jews in the country. She responds — perhaps unaware that she’s echoing the Poles’ own oft-repeated summary of what had happened to them during World War II — that “those five years were not like any other five years,” to which her guide replies, “without those 800 years of Jewish life in Poland, you cannot understand what was lost in those five.”

Soon Steinman and another American Jew — who is herself struggling to come to terms with her own horrific family history and who becomes Steinman’s companion for many of the trips in and around Poland — meet with four university students. The issues that arise between them have been standard fare as points of contention. For instance, the young Poles rightly claim that there’s no shortage of events and organizations celebrating Jewish culture in Poland, citing as an example the hugely popular annual Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków, ”which is often criticized by Jews because it’s mostly attended by non-Jewish Poles.” One of the students contends that the main obstacle on the road to reconciliation is the fact that Jews perceive all Poles in an overwhelmingly negative light. Quoting the writer Eva Hoffman, whose own family left Poland after the government-led 1968 anti-Semitic purges, Steinman suggests that “the varied tonalities of feeling and opinion that must have existed in the long centuries of Polish-Jewish coexistence have been lost in the absence of actual contact.”

Ironically, there is perhaps no greater issue at present dividing the two communities than the March of the Living. Organized by Israeli government, these trips to Poland, during which young Jews visit the former concentration camps and ghettos, had until recently been off-limits to Poles, including Polish Jews living in Poland. What’s more, according to one Polish Jew living in Warsaw whom Steinman quotes, not only were the Israelis discouraged from meeting the locals, they came equipped with orientation fliers that stated something to the effect of “You shall see the local inhabitants. You shall hate them for their part in the atrocity. But you will pity them for their miserable living conditions.” While the fliers have been rewritten and the hateful language removed, the misunderstanding persists. The young Israelis see Poles as the embodiment of anti-Semitism, while Poles see the Israelis as ignorant of Poland’s culture and history in general.

A trip to Kolomyja, in today’s Ukraine, does not bring closure or relief for Steinman’s friend whose father was born in the town — in fact, it further magnifies the woman’s pain and desolation. Steinman’s repeated trips to Radomsko, her family’s long-ago home, turn out more fruitful. She meets many Poles, whom she calls “memory workers,” people involved in cultivating the memory of Jews — “not because they’re philo-Semitic but because they’re philo-Polish.” Touring the Radomsko Region Historical Museum, Steinman is initially dismayed that the exhibit commemorating the region’s Jews amounts to “just one glass case,” but then she’s reminded that before the case there was nothing, that the handful of artifacts is a sign that things have changed. Seeing school kids act in a Purim play, she comes to believe that the children perform as a way to “salvage an essential part of their own history.” Quoting the Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès, who, writing about Jewish heritage, eschewed continuity in favor of the phrase “permanent rupture,” Steinman writes, “I was the rupture. I was the continuity.” Indeed, she is both, and the same can be said about like-minded Poles; they “will never hear ‘thank you’ from the dead” for their work, but they need to hear it from us.

Coming to Poland against the wishes of their relatives, people like Steinman should be applauded for their willingness to face their own “unexamined prejudices.” Meeting the Other, understanding what has shaped his or her views, isn’t easy. Not all such journeys and encounters have positive outcomes, but many do. In Radomsko Steinman cuts the ceremonial ribbon at the opening of a new Radomsko Cultural Center, thus getting acknowledged as one of their own, a Radomsker. In L’viv, following a heartbreaking trip to Kolomyja, a Ukrainian woman embraces Steinman’s friend and whispers, “Welcome home.” At the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, a photograph taken in a small village — in which a grove of trees in the middle of a plowed field marks the site of the Jewish cemetery — leads Steinman to conclude that “the presence of the past is kept alive by the observance of absence.” Some Poles may not be comfortable talking openly about what had happened to their Jewish neighbors, but they do remember it, and more and more are willing now to face what happened if only among themselves.

Appropriately, the variegated story told by Steinman has two endings. One leads the author back to her native Los Angeles, where she meets a distant relative who remembers the pre-war Radomsko. This woman “embodied all the dizzying polarities and contradictions of the historical debate between Jews and Poles. She’d been rescued by brave Christian Poles who risked their lives — and the lives of their families — to hide her. At war’s end, she’d been chased out of her home at gunpoint by venal profiteers.” The second ending leads Steinman back to Radomsko, where, in 2008, she takes part in dedicating a monument at the site of the Great Synagogue, commemorating the town’s Jewish community and the liquidation of its ghetto. It is this collective memory, as Steinman writes, quoting the Radomsk Yizkor, that links us to “the time when a Polish Catholic painted the zodiac on the ceiling of Radomsko’s Great Synagogue and a Polish Jewish tinsmith designed the spires of the town’s cathedral.” We are left to ponder the image of an elderly man, a Pole who rescued a Jew and has only recently been honored by Yad Vashem, standing side-by-side on a train platform with that Jew’s son. Steinman writes, “they had only met for the first time the day before, and yet they already knew each other so well.” One might add that while they share the past, it’s really looking forward to the future that unites them.

This overdue book couldn’t have been easy to write. Heartfelt, poignant, redemptive, and brave, it offers proof that Poles and Jews can lead a constructive dialogue. Poland is not free of anti-Semitism — perpetrated by people from all walks of life, but mainly those who missed out on political and economic opportunities brought about by the country’s transition to democracy and accession to the European Union, many of whom subscribe to the thinly-veiled xenophobic messages of Radio Maryja, a religious and socially conservative broadcasting service led by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk. For their part, many Jews continue to cling to various stereotypes of Poles, even though they have never actually met a Pole. Poland’s burgeoning Jewish community itself contradicts the message that in Poland “you come to visit death … then you travel back to Israel to see resurrection.” With remarkable generosity and an unwavering sense of purpose Louise Steinman writes about the people she meets and the places she visits in Warsaw, Kraków, Radomsko, Vilnius, Lublin, Sejny, Paris, Kolomyja, and L’viv, finding that things are in fact changing for the better. For those still unconvinced, this book is the proof and the way forward.


Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, and translator of six volumes of Polish poetry.

LARB Contributor

Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, and translator of several volumes of Polish poetry, including The Day He’s Gone: Poems 1990-2013 by Paweł Marcinkiewicz (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014), The World Shared: Poems by Dariusz Sośnicki (co-translated with Boris Dralyuk; BOA Editions, 2014), and Building the Barricade by Anna Świrszczyńska (Tavern Books, 2016). He is the author of East & West: Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2016), a collection of essays, Los Angeles Sketchbook (Spuyten Duyvil, 2015), and a chapbook, Barefoot (Eyewear, 2015). He is one of the founders of Calypso Editions, a cooperative press, and serves as Translation Editor for The Los Angeles Review. He lives in Santa Monica. www.piotrflorczyk.com


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!