A writer/literary curator explores the anguished, often contentious topic of Polish Jewry through the lens of her own family history.
For centuries, Jews “had been part of Poland’s body and soul,” writes Steinman (Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities/Univ. of Southern California; The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War, 2001). But during the Holocaust, their Christian neighbors did the unthinkable and allowed millions of Jewish people to die in Nazi death camps. The maternal side of the author’s family was so marked by this horror that family history disappeared into a “black hole” of silence. Aching from this loss of connection to her past, Steinman traveled to a Polish interfaith retreat looking for answers. She left realizing how little she knew, not just about her family and personal prejudices, but also about Polish history. For the next decade, she returned to Poland to recuperate lost family history and understand the relationship between Jews and Christians. As the author pieced together the fragments of her family’s past, she came into contact with Poles of all ages and faiths who had dedicated their lives to not only studying Polish Jewish history, but opening a dialogue about both the Holocaust and Polish anti-Semitism. Steinman discovered how cities throughout Poland and Eastern Europe had once been home to thriving multiethnic communities. When war expunged the Jews and their culture from those populations, the cities became flattened shells of what they had once been. The rise of Nazism was to blame for this mass genocide, but as Steinman learned, Israel also helped to perpetuate anti-Polish sentiment by highlighting only what happened during Hitler’s reign of terror and ignoring everything else.
Steinman’s elegiac book is a powerful reminder of how ideologies can become “crooked mirror[s]” that distort reality and destroy lives, cultures and nations.