“I hope this speaks to reconciliation of all kinds,” says Louise Steinman about her new book, The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation. “I don’t think it’s restricted to Poles and Jews; we all carry a weight of received prejudices of various kinds, so I wanted to be your test case—your guide—and put myself out there, move through this landscape, and see what it does to me and share that with you.” For over a decade, Steinman, who is also the founder and director of the Library Foundation’s ALOUD series, has undertaken an epic journey exploring her Polish-Jewish ancestry. In the beginning Steinman resisted the idea of writing a book that would so preoccupy her with the deeply complex (and horrific) issues surrounding the history of Polish-Jewish relations. But through a series of fated events, eventually she reconciled with her own resistance and took off on a literal soul-searching journey.
Steinman in front of Czeslaw Milosz’ family’s old home in Krasnagruda, near the Poland/Lithuania border.
Steinman’s memoir begins in the winter of 2000 when she was invited to attend the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau by her Zen rabbi. In a conversation about the Poles’ often-alleged complicity in the genocide, her rabbi casually stated that the Poles had gotten a “bum rap.” The seemingly glib remark upended her understanding of the events during the war—an understanding that had been shaped by stories (and the silence) around the fate of her extended family in Poland. Over the next 12 years, she returned to Poland many times beyond that first conference and immersed herself in Polish culture, history, and politics. The chapters in the book are informed by a critical mass of experiences throughout the years—from on-the-ground tours of cemeteries, memorials, and museums with historians, to interviews with local journalists, artists, and students, to the readings of Jan Gross, Adam Zagajewski, and Czeslaw Milosz, and others.
The vibrant cast of present characters—including many Poles, Steinman’s family, and her American travel companion—makes this look at the past come alive. Each voice sheds new insight into the religious, political, and social issues her ancestors faced—as well as the legacy of Poland’s history as an occupied country, which many young Poles are rigorously examining in today’s democratic Poland. “There were so many illuminating and beautiful moments, and there were also many dark nights of the soul along the way, but the excitement of learning something about my family and the history that shaped them was a deeply satisfying feeling,” says Steinman. “I enjoy wrestling with moral issues.” This was true for her previous book too, The Souvenir, a search for answers about her father’s experience in WWII that led her to the snow country of Japan and a battlefield in the Philippines.
The pleasure that Steinman finds in the discovery process underscores the compassion her writing brings to the stories of The Crooked Mirror. Instead of feeling weighted down with doom, her writing breathes in the landscapes, food, and culture of Poland like an exuberant travelogue as she treks across rainy cemeteries and into bakeries with warm strudel. She explains that when she would return home to Los Angeles from a trip to Poland, she could not easily slip into the writing of such fraught material among the demands of everyday life, so she sought out writers’ retreats to fully re-engage with her notes, her memories.
By the end of the book, she has not only met long-lost relatives and discovered incredible survivor stories in her search to make peace with the past, but she becomes a local hero of sorts in Radomsko, the town of her ancestors. Even though she never intended to become an ambassador for sharing the story of this place with the rest of the world, she is honored by the city of Radomsko with an award and she helps to inspire a new Jewish memorial. “It’s a magical thing that you actually can open this curtain to the historical past,” says Steinman, “It’s about making a gesture in the world and if you do, you can be received on the other side of the planet.”
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–Posted by Bridgette Bates
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