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The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation [Hardcover]

Louise Steinman
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

5 Nov 2013
A lyrical literary memoir that explores the exhilarating, discomforting, and ultimately healing process of Polish-Jewish reconciliation taking place in Poland today
“I’d grown up with the phrase ‘Never forget’ imprinted on my psyche. Its corollary was more elusive. Was it possible to remember—at least to recall—a world that existed before the calamity?”
In the winter of 2000, Louise Steinman set out to attend an international Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau at the invitation of her Zen rabbi, who felt the Poles had gotten a “bum rap.” A bum rap? Her own mother could not bear to utter the word “Poland,” a country, Steinman was taught, that allowed and perhaps abetted the genocide that decimated Europe’s Jewish population, including members of her own extended family.
As Steinman learns more about her lost ancestors, though, she finds that the history of Polish-Jewish relations is far more complex. Although German-occupied Poland was the site of horrific Jewish persecution, Poland was for centuries the epicenter of European Jewish life. After the war, Polish-Jewish relations soured. For Poles under Communism, it was taboo to examine or discuss the country’s Jewish past. Among Jews in the Diaspora, there was little acknowledgment of the Poles’ immense suffering during its dual occupation.
Steinman’s research leads her to her grandparents’ town of Radomsko, whose eighteen thousand Jews were deported or shot during the Nazi occupation. As she delves deeper into the town’s and her family’s history, Steinman discovers a prewar past where a lively community of Jews and Catholics lived shoulder to shoulder, where a Polish Catholic painted the blue ceiling of the Radomsko synagogue, and a Jewish tinsmith roofed the spires of the Catholic church. She also uncovers untold stories of Poles who rescued their Jewish neighbors in Radomsko and helps bring these heroes to the light of day.
Returning time and again to Poland over the course of a decade, Steinman finds Poles who are seeking the truth about the past, however painful, and creating their own rituals to teach their towns about the history of their lost Jewish neighbors. This lyrical memoir chronicles her immersion in the exhilarating, discomforting, sometimes surreal, and ultimately healing process of Polish-Jewish reconciliation.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (5 Nov 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807050555
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807050552
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.2 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,304,728 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The numbers alone tell a stunning story. Before World War II, there were 3.3 million Jews living in Poland. Of that number, 90% were killed during the Holocaust. About 200,000 either survived in Poland or returned there at the end of the war, only to find themselves largely unwelcome and even attacked.

It's estimated that 1500-2000 Jews were killed by gentile Poles in the aftermath of the war. Not surprisingly, many thousands chose to leave Poland shortly thereafter. More tens of thousands left in the late 1950s and after the Israeli Six-Day War, when the Communist Party engaged in "anti-Zionist" actions. Today, it's estimated that Poland, once home to the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in Europe, now numbers less than 20,000 people of Jewish ancestry among its residents. Of Jews living in America, it's thought that 80% can trace their roots to Poland.

Given the history, it's not surprising that "Poland" was a dirty word to Louise Steinman and her relatives, whose family members in Poland were wiped out in the Holocaust. When Steinman's rabbi told her that he was very involved in a Polish/Jewish reconciliation project, she was dumbstruck. All the more so when she was asked to attend the annual Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau where, for a week, descendants of survivors, perpetrators and witnesses would meet at the site of genocidal murder and engage in open dialogue.

But Steinman chose to attend, and the retreat led her to work with other groups and, over a 12-year period, continue to return to Poland to visit Warsaw, Krakow and her ancestral home town, Radomsk. It's heartening that Steinman meets many Poles who are working to bring an awareness and appreciation of Poland's Jewish past.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb Account of Polish-Jewish History and Relations 27 Nov 2013
By C. Stephans - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The Crooked Mirror is a startling, eloquently written memoir of the author's explorations of the history of Poland's Jewish residents mainly during the WWII era. The book reads like part memoir, part history and part biography. Steinman adroitly transitions back and forth from present to past. Her writing follows her several trips to Poland and surrounding areas in attempts to learn of the Jewish past of Poland and also the contemporary relations of the people of Poland and their posture toward their past.

This book reveals the tragic, fascinating history of Jews in Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. It brings readers into the horrific events of WWII and post-WWII. More than a mere history lesson, The Crooked Mirror follows the author and her friend in their discoveries of their own Jewish ancestors past and how it affects those living. The author becomes intimately involved in the current processes of healing and reconciliation among the Polish.

The writing is superb throughout. At times, the author may become a bit detailed in her travel narratives (i.e. her meals, the weather--insignificant elements), but overall she keeps the pace moving while zeroing in on significant events, interactions and history.

This is a profound contribution to sustain the commitment to never forgetting and to never allowing what happened to happen again. I recommend this book to all readers.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poland is Definitely Complicated! 25 Aug 2013
By Sylviastel - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Louise Steinman's memoir is about her own personal journey and pilgrimages to Poland in search for her family's history before World War II and during the Holocaust. I was first hesitant to read the book because my parents were Polish Catholics who were children during the war. Since she is Jewish, I expected her to be quite harsh and critical about Poland itself. I was surprised to read about her personal journey and her enlightenment in researching the country's Jewish-Christian relations.

Somehow despite our differences, I found Steinman to be open-minded and objective about Poland itself. She understands the country's hardships during World War II and that Polish non-Jews would have been executed with their entire families for helping a Polish Jew to survive. She wants to know about the Polish Jews and Polish Catholics who lived side by side for centuries without much incidents of genocide and prejudice. Perhaps, historians and scholars need to know how these two groups survived and thrived together. We must also learn about their relationships and the possibility of inter-marriage between the two groups as well.

I truly believe that there is more to Polish Jewish-Catholic relations than previously thought. We need to know more before my parents and others of their generation pass on to the next life. There is too much fighting, hatred, and bitterness going on in the world even now. It's not just a book about reconciliation but about healing and forgiveness. Louise Steinman is an enlightened intelligent woman who sees beyond the obvious and looks for more.

I felt like I was on Louise's journey as well. She makes the reader feel at home with her without being judgmental or critical. Upon her discoveries, she finds a relative who lives miles away from her. She also learns about the life before the war for Jews and Christian in Radomska, Poland.

I don't think she is done yet with Poland nor am I who believes that there is more out there to be studied and analyzed.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Save this Jewish baby for the Jew in whom you believe." 22 Sep 2013
By T. Patrick Killough - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Read Louise Steinman's coming (November 2013) THE CROOKED MIROR: A MEMOIR OF POLISH-JEWISH RECONCILIATION, and come away with two sets of impressions, one sweeping and broad and the other beautifully told little stories in concrete detail. They instance in concrete situations and through named real persons obstacles to reconciliation that must be tackled one by one: misunderstandings, prejudice, ignorance, wrongs, hurts, apologies and non-apologies regarding Poland and the 800-plus years before Hitler and Stalin when Jews were bone of Poland's bone.

-- (I) The sweeping general impression that will stay with you after details are fogotten is this: how unfathomably deep and seemingly unspannable is the chasm between Jews and non-Jews of Poland and Poland's diaspora! How very plucky and wonderful it is, therefore, that the few faltering efforts at reconciliation instanced in THE CROOKED MIROR have accomplished what little they have as of 2013.

-- (II) The rest of this review will dwell on seven or eight details encountered by author Louise Steinman between 1988 and today as she made trip after trip to Poland, trying always to be fair to and understand Jews and Christians alike.


Don Singer really was "the Zen Rabbi of Malibu." In 1988 and later sometimes during Friday evening services attended by Louise and her second husband, both at the time only lightly observant Jews, Rabbi Singer told of his five visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau as principal rabbi in interfaith gatherings called the Bearing Witness Retreat. Don's artist father had taken his teenage son in the 1950s to the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

To the Rabbi, Israel's most radical command from God to Jews is "You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were a stranger in Egypt, and you know the heart of a stranger." In his visits to Poland Don decided that Jews understood Poles who had "received a bum rap." He felt called to bring Poles and Jews together. And he passed this sense of inspiration leading into mission along to American writer and teacher Louise Steinman.

Steinman decided to probe Poland, to the extent that interviewing and finding records allowed, in search of her own roots, her paternal and maternal ancestors. THE CROOKED MIRROR retraces her steps, many frustrating and pained.

Early on, a computer search by Louise unearthed a memorial book in Yiddish about Radomsk, one of the places in Poland where her family had long lived. Energized by an emerging English translation of that memorial book, Steinman visits Poland again and again. She also tells of early efforts by others in Germany and Poland to find grounds for reconciliation. She is told of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against occupying Germans that began in April 1943. Next came the 1944 general Warsaw Rising that ended in virtual destruction of Poland's capital, while the Red Army stood idle ten miles away across the Vistula River. Louise Steinman visited Jewish cemeteries. In ancestral Radomsk Steinman visited and revisited the Regional History Museum with almost no relics of Jews.

She tells the story of a 1992 visit by a London Jewish journalist to ancestral Krakow. There he met a young Catholic Pole. The journalist "wrote what the young man confided in him: 'that, as a believer, a student of ancient history and a practicing Catholic, it no longer caused him any difficulty to accept that Jesus was a Jew. 'But in no way,' he said, 'am I able to accept that Our Holy Virgin Mary, the Queen of he Crown of Poland, as we like to call her, was a Jewess'" (Ch. 9).

An actress-singer in L'vov, Ukraine, took the author (one of whose grandmothers was Ukrainian) and an American Jewish traveling companion to a late evening meeting five stories up in an old stone apartment building. For two hours the Ukrainians sang traditional songs for their visitors. At the end one said, "Welcome home!"

In Krakow they heard how Jews wept when the hearse of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski (1866 -1935) rolled by. "The general had been a bulwark against the anti-Semitic nationalists. His demise marked the beginnings of boycotts against Jewish businesses and quotas on Jews attending university that intensified in the years leading up to the war" (Ch. 14).

A question often asked about Poles and their attitudes by Jewish Cheryl, the author's frequent travel companion, was "Do they miss us?" (Ch. 16). Evidence gradually builds up throughout the narrative that either the remaining non-Jewish Poles already miss the millions of Jews exterminated in the Shoah or are painfully, often clumsily, teaching themselves how and why to miss them, to appreciate what Jews did for Poland down the centuries. Unlike Communist-controlled East Germans, Poles had no West Poland as a living showcase of nearby "otherness." For there were not enough Jews left anywhere in Poland. Jew had to be sought not spatially but in history.

Slowly non-Jewish Poles, when they research Polish history, find that yiddish-speaking Jews "were Europeans before all else. The Jews were the yeast of that society" (Ch. 16).

In Chapter 20, "Among the Odd Believers," Louise Steinman meditates almost mystically on the ever shifting "borderlands" of Eastern Europe: Lithuania one day, the USSR the next or first Poland, next Austria-Hungary. The thought arises that for Jews in Poland, as yiddish speaking natural "Europeans," perhaps changes of sovereigns were less traumatic than for larger nationalities longer rooted in particular soils.

Chapter 21 describes Tykocin a particular tragedy for Jews of the Second World War and muses that, yes, there had always been friction. Nonetheless, "Catholics and Jews traded, they joked. They were used to each other. They lived this way, together, for hundreds of years." Nowadays there is a moving Purim play in this town, played by non-Jews. Reconciliation takes many forms.

Chapter 25. "The Seer," is haunting and lingers in readers' memories. The city is Lublin and these days the focus of reconciliation is its Grodzka Gate, once the entry point at one end of the Royal Way into the Jewish section (1/3 of Lublin's population in 1939) and to the Castle Hill beyond it. Since 2004 artists have built a powerful interfaith pageant around the Grodzka Gate. In displayed blueprints and models, the city's old way of life has been recreated.

An organizer of that pageant, which annually varies it productions, called "Mysteries," drew the author's attention to a middle-aged Catholic priest, Father Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel. "Around his neck he wears a Star of David with a crucifix insert." He had two sets of parents, first Jewish, then Catholic. Born to Jewish parents in 1943, infant Yakub Weksler was given by Batia his mother to be raised by a devoutly Catholic acquaintance, Emilia Waszkinel. The Waszkinels would have been executed if caught by Nazis (as the boy's birth parents -- tailor Jakub and Batia Weksler actually were). Seeing frightened Emilia's hesitation, Batia Weksler won Emilia over with one simple argument: "Save this Jewish baby for the Jew in whom you believe."

I hope that this perhaps too long review gives you enough of the flavor of THE CROOKED MIRROR: A MEMOIR OF POLISH-JEWISH RECONCILIATON. The book is low key in describing incidents, personalities and contradictory attitudes both destructive and constructive. But the cumulative effect is, I think, this: Jewish-Polish reconciliation is far harder than a reader thinks before he opens THE CROOKED MIRROR. So God bless anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, who patiently, tessera by tessera, builds this emerging mosaic of Polish-Jewish reconciliation.

The major drawback in my edition of THE CROOKED MIRROR is that it has no maps. Unless you already have imprinted in your head a decent map of Poland, Lithuania, the USSR, Ukraine, Austria-Hungary, etc. you will have to consult outside atlases.

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful book and a wonderful story. 19 Dec 2013
By A. Fenster - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Having traveled 2 years ago to Kracow, Poland and having visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, that visit made this book come alive. There were places in and events that I had experienced along with the author's guide, my guide Tomasz (Tomek) Cebulski when visiting Poland. There were also many new things that I learned through the eyes and personal experiences of the author. Reading this book made me feel like another visit to Poland was necessary in the future. I realized the things I missed that I hope to one day explore. I recommend this book to anyone who is a student of history or just wants to learn more about the Holocaust.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful memoir and historically fascinating 2 Sep 2013
By asiana - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Most of the books pertaining to WWII are military memoirs, histories of specific battles and, of course, holocaust memorabilia. This book incorporates all of the preceding in a fascinating travel memoir such that I did not put it down for the 8 hours it took me to read it. The relationship between Christian Poles and Polish Jews left its mark not only on those who previously lived in Poland, but on the offspring of those individuals. By trying to trace her own family's history, the author confronted not only her own prejudices and but those of the people she met during her journey. This book is a must read for both Jews and Christians who are interested in the complexity of this relationship.
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