Louise Steinman's about to be published (November 5, 2013) THE CROOKED MIRROR: A MEMOIR OF POLISH-JEWISH RECONCILIATION gave me several new insights.
-- First is the author's belief that about 80% of Jewish Americans are of "Polish" stock in the sense that their ancestors came to the USA from Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine or thereabouts.
--Next is that most of those Polish American Jews positively detest Poland. Or cannot bring themselves to think of Poland or speak of it to children or grandchildren.
--Third is Ms Steinman's thesis that non-Jewish Poles in Poland or elsewhere today either despise Jews (for a variety of indefensible reasons) or know nothing about the role of Jews in Poland for an estimated 800 years before the 20th Century's first German Nazi then USSR Communist domination.
THE CROOKED MIRROR sent me scurrying and googling for facts. I quickly found regular statements that by 1939 Jews had lived in some numbers in Poland between 800 and 850 years. Literally this would have flagged the years 1139 and 1089 respectively as dates of entry from elsewhere. Murky waters, those "800 years!" Christianity (in its Roman Catholic form) came late to Poland, with the baptism in 966 of King Mieszko I.
I mention in passing the need for googling and elementary historical research because many facts are not mentioned by author Steinman. THE CROOKED MIRROR is not a general history of Poland. Nor is there a map of that "Polish" area where Jews at one time made up a tenth or more of the population.
Forget, however, any fussing about cartographic or historical niceties. THE CROOKED MIRROR is valuable to me personally for showing how much ignorance, ill will and prejudice must be faced among Jews in the USA and elsewhere and among non-Jewish residents of Poland and their far-flung progeny in the USA and elsewhere. Faced, faced down and come to terms with before any solid, deep "Polish-Jewish Reconciliation."
How explain the book's striking title? The author's ancestral village Radomsko, "no backwater," once had a satirical Yiddish newspaper, Der Krumlikher shpigel (yiddish for The Crooked Mirror), all about Jewish life, warts and all (Ch. 1). How does that haunting phrase resonate among those who promote Polish-Jewish reconciliation?
"When reflected in a crooked mirror the face of a neighbor is distorted. The neighbor is always worse than we imagine, he is false, treacherous, evil" (Polish priest and philosopher Jozef Tischner -- Ch. 2).
The years go by and slowly nearly Jewish-free Poland is blessed from one end to the other by non-Jewish residents who buck the trend of silence and try to find imaginative ways to relearn the history of Jews and Jewish Poland. That way is hard and, in the beginning, yearly tours of students from Israel to Auschwitz did not help. Their guides are all Israelis. Fraternization with non-Jewish poles was not encourged. But such deliberate self-isolation is no more.
Story by story we see misconceptions and prejudices begin to melt away. Here is but one example of 50 and more. In 1992 Jewish Polish-English journalist Rafael Felix Scharf visited from London his native city of Krakow. He soon became friendly with a sincere young Polish Catholic man. Scharf 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).
Multiply such views, incomprensible to people like me without a dog in that particular Jewish-Polish race, by literally millions among scattered Poles and Jews everywhere and it dawns on you deep down inside how patient the author herself was in her several false starts at fact finding, prejudice removal and reconciliation. Louise Steinman herself had lost family in the Holocaust. She traveled to Poland with an American Jewish woman whom the mere being in Poland made sick to her stomach. The author found it close to impossible to find lost relatives or eye witnesses to their lives who were willing to talk about it, including Catholics who had hidden Jews from Nazis.
And yet. And yet: through theater, dance, acts of contrition, imagination and persistence, here and there in Poland, little by very, very little, non-Jewish Poles have painfully taught themselves to do justice to "eight hundred years" when yiddish speaking Jews were bone of Polonia's bone. Even today's virtually Jewish free Poland would not be what it is without those centuries of Jewish life and love, music, artistry, religion, philosophizing and being useful to non-Jews among whom they had their being.
A very sobering, serious book is THE CROOKED MIRROR. Do not expect to do a lot of laughing when you settle down to read it.
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