The Collaborative Skein: Searching for a Way Forward in Polish-Jewish Relations, a Conversation

February 9, 2021   •   By Piotr Florczyk, Louise Steinman

THE AWARD-WINNING POET, essayist, and translator of Polish poetry Piotr Florczyk and Louise Steinman, a writer and artist who co-directs the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC, met 10 years ago, introduced via email by their mutual friend, the great Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewski. Both residents of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, they have since supported each other’s work and have had many conversations about poetry, literature, and the arts. When Steinman published her memoir of Polish-Jewish reconciliation, The Crooked Mirror (Beacon Press, 2013), Florczyk reviewed it in these pages, calling it “heartfelt, poignant, redemptive, and brave.” The book remains a seminal volume for anyone considering undertaking a search into their Jewish family’s past in Poland.


What precipitated this email exchange were two events: the forthcoming Polish publication of The Crooked Mirror (by Fundacja Ośrodka KARTA) and the recent publication of Florczyk’s poetry volume, From the Annals of Kraków (Lynx House Press, 2020), which stems from his time as a fellow at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research. Florczyk’s immersion in the testimonies of Holocaust survivors has resulted in poetry that Rachel F. Brenner has called “a remarkable contribution to Holocaust literature.” Unlike Steinman, Florczyk isn’t Jewish, but like her, he has waded deep into Polish-Jewish relations not only to penetrate the decades-long wall of mutual animosity and prejudice but also to honor the memory of the country’s Jews and those who, especially today, speak freely about what happened.


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PIOTR FLORCZYK: Your memoir of Polish-Jewish reconciliation, The Crooked Mirror, came out in 2013. I was deeply moved by it. Having been accused of antisemitism by complete strangers just because I’m originally from Poland, I found your discussions of what at once divides and brings the two groups together inspiring. Now your book is finally being translated into Polish and will soon be published in Poland. How do you think it will be received?


LOUISE STEINMAN: It’s a small miracle that The Crooked Mirror will finally be published this spring in Polish (in a translation by Dorota Gołębiewska). Perhaps the mystery rabbi of Radomsko weighed in. It feels counterintuitive to release the book into the tense, divided social-cultural-political climate of present-day Poland. (My 2001 book, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War, about Japanese American reconciliation after World War II, came out right after 9/11. People were not so eager to talk about reconciliation at that time, either.)


I won’t be surprised if there are those who will find the book uncomfortable. Yet I was heartened by the responses I received from Polish readers of the English edition of Crooked Mirror several years ago when I gave talks in Kraków, Warsaw, Sejny, and Lublin. The book took over a decade (2000–2013) to come into form. I’m sustained to this day by the impressive efforts of goodwill that I encountered over the course of writing it, the ongoing friendships that I formed with Poles willing to look at our entwined Polish-Jewish history. As the poet Edmond Jabès writes, “Where our paths cross, our wings grow intimate.”


Piotr, what gave you the courage — indeed, the nerve, or perhaps the need — to listen and then respond to the Shoah testimonies? Were you constrained by the Adorno quote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric?” I know that Primo Levi disagreed with him. Does poetry respond on another plane altogether? To me, your phrase, “I sing for those who pretend / these things never happened and for those / who long for their voices / to disappear in a chorus” is, in part, an address to that question. Yes?


PF: Indeed, it feels like Poland is once again at a crossroads. Which way will it tilt? To be honest, I’m not optimistic that any meaningful, forward-looking change will take place. Sure, the Church will be weakened and so will the current government — deservingly so, I might add — but other changes will be glacial at best. Why? Poland thrives on antagonisms. That’s the ruling party’s — called “Law and Justice” — modus operandi as well. You’re either with them or against them. The more people speak up and voice their opposition, the deeper the government digs in.


Amid the conflicts tearing Poland apart, your book, once it appears, may actually be welcomed by scores of people; after all, you bring the proverbial olive branch to the Poles, not the other way around. You have become a conduit that has brought people together and allowed them to talk about painful issues. There is a risk, however. What if your book gets hijacked by the right-wingers who will use it to further whitewash Polish history? Look, they’ll say, misinterpreting your intentions, an American Jew is reminding the world that we too have suffered and that we did our best helping out our Jewish neighbors. Cut us some slack, would you? Instead of engaging in the dialogue, instead of stating unequivocally that some Poles sheltered the Jews while many others, particularly in the countryside, persecuted them, and still many more didn’t care either way, they may use your words to bolster their denialism. I find their stance on this issue egregious, for we are not being judgmental in demanding that they own up to the facts.


But silence is not the answer. The Crooked Mirror is proof that dialogue is the way forward. Nations, groups, individuals must engage in order to bring about change. Each one of us must stare at the image in the mirror and ponder what’s there. This is why I wanted to watch and respond to the testimonies. Despite having read many books on the subject, studies written by Poles and non-Poles alike, I craved a more personal account of what happened. As a whole the testimonies do not stray from the grand narrative of the Holocaust, but individually, each one was unique. I had indeed worried that I would be accused of trespassing or, worse, engaging in Holocaust porn, but then I decided that the alternative — silence — was unacceptable.


Adorno’s adage, as you know, has been taken out of context too many times. In fact, I believe he followed up his famous phrase with a statement affirming poetry’s meaningfulness and right to exist. Nevertheless, poets have wrestled with their art’s ability to respond to war, genocide, and so on. Some of them, like Celan or Różewicz, developed a kind of anti-poetry aesthetic, aiming to scrub out the romantic overtones, but they went on writing. I would never put myself in the same league as them, obviously, but I too wanted to make sense of what happened to Poland’s Jews, if only for myself.


One of the things I was reminded of while watching the testimonies is that horrible things happened to specific people in a particular time and place. This was key for me, for while grand narratives help us see the bigger picture, it is the individual stories that have the power to really make someone sit up and listen.


But I want to shift gears and ask about a technical — if that’s the right term — aspect of your book. On your field trips to Poland, you were exposed to countless stories of suffering, persecution, death. You also learned that not all Poles are antisemitic, which went against the stories you had heard while growing up. As far as style or form is concerned, did you find writing about both facets of Polish-Jewish relations difficult?


LS: First, I want to address your concern, which I’ve thought about for several days, that the right-wing Polish government might “hijack the book” and use it to “further whitewash Polish history.” Let them try. It will come as a Trojan horse. The book asks for a willingness to confront an uncomfortable history and our stereotypes of “the other,” and to do so together. As you said, it suggests that dialogue is the way forward. 


As to your other question, yes, there was a lot of discomfort to work through in writing the book. I often turned to my dreams to distill my feelings. I remember the hours I spent interviewing survivor Berek Ofman, who, with his young fiancé and her parents and cousins, was hidden by a young Polish widow, Janina Bereska, in my grandparents’ town, Radomsko. Berek spoke Polish, which was an advantage for any Polish Jew trying to survive in hiding. I felt nervous asking Berek to talk about the occupation, the deportations, the deaths of his parents and siblings. I didn’t want to cause him more pain. But as we talked, as he told his stories, I sensed his release. I didn’t have to coax him. They flowed out of him. His son Leo sat nearby, amazed, as he was hearing these stories for the first time. I remember how shocked I was when Berek, after telling of the harrowing risks his rescuer, whom he called “his angel,” had taken, then said: “You know, if the same situation would happen now, and if I would come to my own son, and if he would know that they would kill his whole family, they wouldn’t let me in. This was a lady alone! She was in her early thirties. With two children! The cost was so big. No one in my family would do such a thing.” His son, understandably upset, denied that this was possible. “But Leo, you are a father,” Berek said. “You would not risk the lives of your children.”


Your Annals of Kraków poems highlight to stunning effect those tiny details in the testimonies of survivors that made all the difference: “a constellation of what / could’ve been / if the day of the week were / Monday instead of Wednesday. / Morning instead of evening.” Every survivor’s story is extraordinary because it had to be extraordinary in order for them to survive. As one survivor in your poems testifies: “No room for error.”


I’m struck by your observation about Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, which floats in and out of your text, that “the survivor [is] talking to Lanzmann through a translator. Beyond the frame, off to the left, the villagers [are] talking directly to me.” Talking to you as a fellow Pole? Speaking to you as the poet who listens empathetically? Tell me about those off-camera villagers. The French Catholic priest Patrick Desbois, who wrote the remarkable book The Holocaust by Bullets (2008), interviewed Ukrainian villagers, witnesses to the Nazi executions of their Jewish neighbors. Some, children at the time, had been requisitioned to dig or fill in the pits. Desbois asked them if people had come to the village since the war to talk to them. They told him, “No, you are the first one.” At the end of the interview, he asked why they had never spoken. They all responded that they had never been asked. “Today,” Desbois writes, “they are like windows through which we can see and understand.”


PF: It’s impossible to think about the Holocaust as an archive of what happened without referencing or alluding to Lanzmann’s magnum opus. His film made a huge impression on me when I first watched it, though to this day I’m not quite sure I could put my finger on why. Was I drawn to it as a source of facts? A sociological study? Or was it its aesthetics that captivated me?


I recall reading all sorts of attacks on the film, including those that pertained to the scenes involving the Polish villagers, and I would agree that Lanzmann seems to be reveling in their answers. I mean, he’s getting what he came for, isn’t he? He baits them and they bite, crude and antisemitic, unaware of how their testimony will be used. The fact that he is communicating with them via a translator, who’s performing her duties only cursorily, relaying, most of the time, only the gist of the words, is hugely problematic. I am not really interested in painting them in a better light, but their exchanges are mediated at best: they tell Lanzmann what he wants to hear.


The villagers talking to me offscreen are not necessarily contradicting their neighbors, in their story or their attitude toward what took place there, but they are more nuanced. Indeed, my hope is that they are not performing, which is what Lanzmann’s interlocutors, including his translator, are doing. In my poems, the reader encounters the phrase “these are the facts” several times, because I am interested in questioning what facts reveal and, in some ways, obscure. Once something has been granted the status of a fact, we are not supposed to argue with it, but human actions and, more importantly, human recollections are more complicated than that. In a way, my entire project is all about teasing out what we haven’t yet learned about the Holocaust. Some of that work, for me, consists of visiting the places marked by it, if only to reimagine their current state and status. I withhold judgment, though, as much as possible, as I have no idea how I would behave. Your example of Berek Ofman, what he says his own family would or wouldn’t have done, is a good reminder of that.


I would like to circle back and ask a question about the reception of your book in the States. Was there much, if any, pushback from American Jews who might have felt that you were letting Poles off the hook too easily? And, conversely, do you think your book helped some of them see Poland and its people differently? After all, what we’re doing in our books is asking people to re-image, to re-vision things — not the facts, of course, but the narrative surrounding the facts.


LS: The very first talk I gave when the book came out in 2013 was at the Queens Jewish Library. Most of the audience were survivors in their 80s. They were not so willing to reconsider their opinions of Poles, though they listened, and they bought quite a few books! Jewish groups were definitely the most skeptical; long-held prejudices were being countered. To some, my going to Poland at all was unthinkable. (My uncle told me, “You need to go to Poland like you need a hole in the head.”) I reminded myself that I had harbored similar feelings before I actually went and talked to Poles and started learning, studying about that “entwined history” and the double catastrophe — the Nazi occupation and the Soviet occupation — that the country suffered. Those early talks were not comfortable, that’s for sure. In fact, as I continued to make trips to Poland and write about my experiences there, I kept protesting (to myself), “I’m not writing a book about Polish-Jewish reconciliation, that’s too hard, that’s crazy.” Later, I would hear from Jewish readers, themselves descendants of Polish Jews, who, after reading my book or listening to a talk, decided to make their own first trip to Poland, to see and experience for themselves. Those trips were — from their feedback — always difficult, but also rewarding and life-changing. Of course, the experience for some children of survivors could also amplify inherited trauma, as it did for Cheryl Holtzman, an important figure in Crooked Mirror, who gamely traveled twice with me to Poland, and to her family’s town in what is now Ukraine.


My next question for you: how does listening to those testimonies from Kraków survivors change your very sense of the city you know so well? As you lay the map of those Shoah testimonies over the grid of the Kraków where you were born, does looking through the scrim of history change your view of the place? Or was what was absent always present for you growing up there? I remember a friend telling me how it was years after he began swimming in an indoor pool in a gymnasium in Poznań that he learned the building had originally been a synagogue.


Here in Los Angeles, sites of historical calamity have not been well-marked, though that is starting to change. When I read testimonies from Japanese Americans who were rounded up during World War II, put on trains in downtown L.A., and sent away to distant internment camps, I began to see my city in a different way. We have no direct oral testimonies, however, from the Indigenous People of this region who were decimated by the Spanish missionaries and Gold Rush settlers in what was a California genocide. Now, as a way of showing respect, many ceremonies, events, gatherings begin with an acknowledgment that recognizes Indigenous Peoples as stewards of the land. Reconciliation is an ongoing process.


PF: I can only imagine how difficult those first meetings with the survivors and Jewish groups must have been. I’ve had several similar encounters, albeit in one-on-one settings. I allude to one of them in my book, when I mention someone asking if the reason why I’ve been to the Auschwitz Museum so many times had to do with my enjoying the place. The man who said that to me — a professor of English at San Diego State, I can see his face clearly — wasn’t joking, although I’m not sure how he expected me to react. Today, I probably would’ve reported him, but back then I just winced, disgusted.


As for your meetings with these groups, who am I to judge them? Still, I wish people stopped stereotyping. Even if most Poles had behaved dishonorably during the war, which I don’t believe was the case, there would have been a small percentage of people left who deserve not to be automatically made guilty-as-charged just because they’re Polish. Indeed, working with the testimonies has further confirmed for me that much of the hate regularly aimed at the Other — be they Jews, migrants, Muslims — stems from beliefs and opinions rooted in fantasy. For instance, most of the testimonies I watched revolved around facts — as in who, what, where, when — but I also heard instances of stereotyping that were just preposterous. Needless to say, antisemites have perfected this kind of approach to demonizing the Other.


I will never look at Kraków the same way. When I was growing up, the city’s (and the country’s) Jews weren’t talked about much. The city’s former Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, had become for decades after the war a place one did not venture into after dark. That’s also how members of my family, who grew up nearby, remember it to this day, even though the place underwent a major face-lift, so to speak, and is now a major tourist and party destination (a problem, for some). On the other hand, school-sponsored field trips to Auschwitz also took place, so I suppose one wasn’t completely ignorant of the Holocaust. There were also commemorative events and recognized sites of memory within the former Kraków Ghetto, but, you know, I wasn’t after that kind of remembrance.


As I’ve said elsewhere, these poems are based on archival and field research — i.e., my visiting some of the sites mentioned in the testimonies. And yes, this reflects my wish to penetrate decades of shameful silence and denial. I was drawn to sites — particular buildings, squares, intersections, train tracks — that have been around forever, but one would never suspect what role they played or served during the war. The Cistercian Abbey at Mogiła is a good example of a place I’ll never look at the same way. For years it was just a church I’d pass on the way to do laps at the nearby swimming pool, but one of the survivors, whose testimony I watched, had initially found shelter and served as an altar boy there. I know someone who lives across the street from it — do they know its wartime history? I doubt it. Another place is the long-defunct airstrip near Czyżyny — now, like Mogiła, part of the city — which I mention in one of the poems. It is slowly disappearing to make room for apartment buildings, even though it gets plenty of visitors to its excellent aviation museum and adjacent city park. Well, not many people know that during World War II, when the Nazis decided to modernize the airfield, some of the slave laborers forced to do so were Jews lucky enough to obtain fake identification papers.


It is important to uncover, confront, and re-narrate these sites of memory — buildings, structures, yes, but also beliefs, memories, ideas — which I see as the main takeaway from The Crooked Mirror. Things are changing for the better, you and I know they are, but how do we bring more people into this process? Historians, including some very brave folk in Poland, are continuing to write about the Holocaust and Poles’ role in it, but, alas, their work is often thought to be aimed exclusively at specialists and thus remains unread by the general public.


LS: I cringe when I hear your story about the university professor making jokes about how much you must have enjoyed visiting Auschwitz. Those kinds of anti-Polish stereotypes too often go unchallenged. I can imagine the shock and pain you felt.


There is an obituary I was reading in The New York Times the other day that feels relevant to our discussion. It told the story of an American physician, the late H. Jack Geiger, one of the founding members of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Geiger set up clinics for the poor in Mississippi. He worked with burned Iraqi children after the first Gulf War. He interviewed torture victims in the West Bank.


His Jewish parents emigrated to the United States from Nazi-occupied Europe before the war, and his family’s apartment, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was often a way station for relatives fleeing the Nazis. The last relatives to appear were some cousins from his mother’s birthplace, a small town in Germany. He told an interviewer: “When they got their visas to come to the U.S., the Nazi authorities were furious. On the night before their departure, the authorities ordered all their neighbors to go out at twilight and stone their house. The neighbors all dutifully gathered — and threw loaves of bread instead.” It was that story, Dr. Geiger said, that taught him not to stereotype.


We need to hear all the stories, about the throwing of bread as well as the throwing of stones. I wrote in Crooked Mirror that, before I went to Poland, I hadn’t known I was looking for Polish compadres on the other side. I never imagined that they were looking for me. That we were “trying to reach out toward one another across that abyss of loss, to construct a collaborative skein of memory.” You are one of those compadres, Piotr, and your poems in From the Annals of Kraków are an essential weft in that collaborative skein.


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Piotr Florczyk is an award-winning poet, essayist, and translator of Polish poetry. Born and raised in Kraków, Poland, he has lived in the US since 1994. For more info, please visit www.piotrflorczyk.com.


Louise Steinman is a writer, artist, and literary curator. She co-directs the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC. For more info, please visit www.louisesteinman.com.


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Featured image: “Kraków Ghetto wall 62 Limanowskiego Street commemorative plaque” by Adrian Grycuk is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.


Banner image: “Krakow mur getta” by Andrzej Otrębski is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.