Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bieganski in the New Age Hot Tub: "The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation" by Louise Steinman. Book Review.

Louise Steinman's "The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation" has been praised as "appealing to wide audiences," and "unblinking, scrupulous and enduring." Richard Rodriguez called "Crooked Mirror" "the most extraordinary travel book I have ever read" about a "nightmare" country, "dark, haunted" Poland, into which "miracle" working Steinman breaks "shattering light."

In fact "The Crooked Mirror" is the self-indulgent, impressionistic travel diary of a New Age, dilettante Holocaust tourist. The book consists of brief, unorganized anecdotes. In one, a Lakota healer burns sweet grass and waves an eagle feather over Auschwitz visitors. In another, an impoverished Polish peasant listens to Radio Maryja. These anecdotes are meant to give us enough ammo to conclude who our protagonists and antagonists are. With the sketchiest of information, we presume to gain the authority to elevate the healer as a good guy, and condemn the old woman.

"Crooked Mirror"'s literary style is basic, its discipline absent, its arrogance depressing. Steinman's tic is putting two parts of speech at the end of sentences and separating them with a comma. The Jews she knew hated Poland more than Germany, "a fact I never questioned as odd, misplaced." Or, "why would you expect your neighbors to shoot you, take your house?" Or "she begged her father, her aunts." Or "he questioned her urgently, gently." Or "We baffled him with our reactions, our decisions." Or "my overcoat was forgiving, pliant." Steinman's tic is distracting, annoying. Where is the editor, the proofreader?

Steinman visits Treblinka and tries to say something of note about that piece of earthly Hell, but Treblinka receives fewer words than tedious descriptions of the dreams of Steinman's travel companion, Cheryl Holtzman.

During a layover in Paris, Steinman visits La Bibliotheque Polonaise – the Polish library. In this chapter she says a few things about Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet, and then a bit about the gingko trees in Krakow, Polish words for trees, and how fashionably dressed and made-up the library's chief curator is. At the end of this chapter I had to ask myself, "Why did I just read that?"

Steinman asks rhetorical questions, for example, "Why does one person reject" stereotypes, and why does another accept them? She responds to her own rhetorical question: "Breathe in why. Breathe out why. So simple. So difficult." The chapter, and the book's attempt to plumb the serious questions it raises, end right there.

Steinman purports to be addressing how the Holocaust could happen, and why Polish Catholics responded as they did. Scholars have addressed these questions. Michael C. Steinlauf provides historical context and psychological insight. Jan Tomasz Gross cites economic motivations. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz writes about real tensions caused by high-profile Jewish Communists who did torture and murder Home Army veterans. Edna Bonacich and Amy Chua advance universally-applicable theories that explain atrocity as far afield as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Africa – not just acts committed by Polish Catholics. It behooves any ethical author and publisher taking on this topic to engage previous scholarship. Steinman and Beacon Press do not.

Nature abhors a vacuum. In this empty space where scholarship should be, Steinman reveals her "answer" to the big questions in a series of anecdotes. For the most part, older, poorer more rural and more Catholic Poles are "provincial" "Neanderthals" who hate Jews. Younger, better educated, more sartorially elegant Poles who have devoted their lives to recreating Poland's lost Jewish culture through tours, publications and artwork are good Poles.

Steinman and Beacon Press hand a free pass to the reader. Do you, reader, need to know any serious facts about Poland before making up your mind about any of these issues? Nah, not really. Just interpret the dream you had last night.

Breathtaking in its arrogance and solipsism, "Crooked Mirror" reports that Steinman and her travel companion Cheryl "imagined convening some grand international conference" for Jews and Poles. Later she and Cheryl powwow with "four sincere Polish university students. It was a start." "It was a start"? There have been numerous international conferences dedicated to Polish-Jewish relations. Steinman's and Cheryl's chat was not "a start" at anything.

Steinman appears never to have learned even conversational Polish – but that's okay; she speaks hot-tub. Steinman encounters an elderly Polish woman. This woman wears "threadbare" and "frayed" clothing. Her hands are "stained" with dirt. Her greenhouse is "rotting." Her lawn furniture is "overturned." Her blanket is "rumpled." Her hand is a "claw." This Polish peasant crone is listening to the "infamous Radio Maryja," an "anti-Semitic station." Steinman concludes that the old woman is an anti-Semite and "xenophobic."

Those who know Poland know that Radio Maryja does broadcast anti-Semitic material, but the station also broadcasts genuinely loving material. I have met deeply good people who listen to Radio Maryja. Not all its listeners are anti-Semites, any more than all NPR listeners are effete, brie-eating anti-Zionists. I suspect that had this old woman been more elegantly dressed – perhaps in garments by Hugo Boss, the Nazis' couturier – Steinman would not have judged her so harshly. Indeed Steinman, while writing about Poland but never capturing its appearance except to describe it in clich├ęd ways as dreary or grim, never misses a chance to report who is wearing a leather jacket.

Cheryl dresses "beguilingly" with "great fashion sense." Cheryl is an American woman who lives in the South of France and enjoys the beach. She makes everyone around her indulge her whims to march, unannounced, almost into strangers' laps at their workplaces, withdraw into pouts, stop a car suddenly, run down a public road, and scream, or to detail yet another one of her dreams. Cheryl's carte blanche to be difficult: she inherited grief from her survivor father.

The reader is to be less indulgent of August Kowalczyk. Kowalczyk, a Pole, was captured by Nazis at age 19 when attempting to join the resistance. He was imprisoned in Auschwitz for eighteen months. He was tortured. Kowalczyk described an SS man casually reading the newspaper, his pet dog at his feet, during this torture. Kowalczyk escaped. In retribution for his escape, Nazis gassed three hundred Poles.

The only thing in Kowalczyk's talk that raised a reaction from his listeners – one was "stricken" – was his perhaps casual comment that "Jews were resigned." Listeners to Kowalczyk's talk protested – just that comment. That was perhaps all they heard of this Polish man's description of his own crucifixion in Auschwitz. One must question a value system that allows Cheryl her constant indulgence of her own pain, though she was born in the US and lives in the South of France, and denies to a man like August Kowalczyk his heroism and his pain because he is Polish.

Steinman reports anecdotes as unquestioned fact. Scholarship shows that this is a mistake. People alter first-person accounts. Anecdotes may or may not be representational. A responsible storyteller addressing the Holocaust will compare first-person accounts with accepted scholarship. Steinman's readers will take these stories as true and representational. That is unfortunate on so important a topic.

Steinman Orientalizes. Because she does not speak Polish or Ukrainian, or possess much knowledge of the cultures she visits, Poles and Ukrainians come across as wacky exotics. They paint murals, sing songs, love or hate Jews, and kiss hands. Poles exist exclusively as "Neanderthals" who hate Jews or good goys who love Jews and devote their lives to them. There are no Poles who live their lives without their relationship to Jews being their primary feature.

I cannot imagine Beacon Press publishing such an Orientalizing text about Jews and the Holocaust. Would they publish a book about a tourist who spent several weeks in Israel and never bothered to learn conversational Hebrew, or penetrate Israeli culture? No. Then by what set of rules is this book's paradigm acceptable? Poles remain objects in this text – things about which Steinman speaks. They do not speak, or live, for themselves.

17 comments:

  1. I see your points. However, I think that this book is a heck of a lot better than a lot of Jewish-authored books on Poland.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Jan Peczkis you and I do often disagree.

    On this one we disagree one hundred percent. Forgive me for being so blunt but I think you are totally wrong on this one.

    JP please have a look at the reviews of this book on Amazon. You've got people saying that this book shows that Poland cannot come to terms with "its Nazi past" and people insisting that businesses in Poland commonly feature images of Jews with coins in order to increase business ...

    I can think of plenty of Jews who would be offended by this book as well. The trivial treatment of her visit to Treblinka, Cheryl, her shallowness, her lack of language, her belief that she need not check facts.

    that this book has received so much positive attention is a very bad indicator of how totally Polonia has renounced its own responsibility to tell the Polish story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We need, I think, to distinguish between what author Louise Steinman writes, and what reviewers say. Nowhere does Steinman say anything remotely like Poles having a "Nazi past". That is solely the mental invention of one reviewer (out of 35 reviewers so far).

      The popularity of this book owes less to Polish inaction than to the dominant role of the Holocaust in American culture, media, and education.

      I think that our disagreement stems from what we emphasize. While certainly Steinman's book has a lot of schlock, it also has a refreshing candor, about popular Jewish misconceptions about Poles and Poland, that is rarely broached by Jewish authors. I elaborate on this in mine own review, which can be read by clicking on my name in this specific posting. I tend to appreciate books that, schlock notwithstanding, show a measure of fairness and objectivity relative to Poles and Poland. I also appreciate Steinman's humility as she confronts and rejects many of her prior Polonophobic prejudices. This, too, is seldom seen in books of this nature.

      Delete
  3. JP I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this one.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Actually, this may not exactly be the right time or place, but can I ask Jan Peczkis if he ever reviewed the 1978 TV mini-series 'Holocaust'? I've been catching up on various films which I missed the first time around for one reason or another and I'm halfway through this. So far, the acting's been good, the main characters fairly believable, but then - about halfway through - I was staggered to discover that soldiers in Polish uniform were shown keeping a Jewish crowd in order, and, much worse, actually executing Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto by firing squad! Unbelievable!

    Was there a furore about this back in '78 in the States? I certainly don't remember hearing about it. No wonder there is anti-Polish feeling when TV can get away with something like this...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Then again, considering Poland was still in the grip of the communist authorities back then, there would probably not have been an official protest from the government for a couple of reasons: the first being that no American series would have been shown in Poland anyway, and the second that even if someone had seen it, it would have suited the communists to portray the Polish army (or resistance) as Nazi collaborators. But there must have been an outcry at the time in American Polonia, surely?

      Not sure whether to continue watching this now - can it get any worse?

      Delete
    2. To answer Michal's question, I did watch the 1978 HOLOCAUST series myself, and was immediately struck by its exclusivist focus on Jewish suffering and its rather vulgar Polonophobia. I wrote a review of it, and also wrote a review of a rebuttal piece written by a Polish Jew. To see this latter review, please click on my name in this specific posting.

      To answer Michal's other question--yes, there was a furor among Polish-Americans about it. Polish-American organizations spoke out against it, but the media largely ignored them. This shows that more Polish involvement is, by itself, not the answer, so long as the media is much more sympathetic towards Jewish suffering than Polish suffering.

      Delete
    3. Jan Peczkis, I must say, I take much exception to your post, above.

      "The media is much more sympathetic to Jewish suffering than Polish suffering."

      This is demonstrably false. "The media" didn't care much about the Holocaust while it was happening.

      Jewish people learned to effectively organize to get their story told. They also raised funds and filmmakers and storytellers arose from the Jewish community and fellow Jews supported them financially and culturally.

      Polonia does not support her artists and writers. Polonia does not organize and does not strategize. And Polonia pays the price.

      Also, while Poland's fate was certainly bad, the fate of Europe's Jews was more extreme.

      Delete
    4. "Also, while Poland's fate was certainly bad, the fate of Europe's Jews was more extreme."

      I find the use of this argument incredibly harmful. We know the Shoah, as a specific attempt to exterminate Europe's Jews (and eventually all Jews on Earth). But to say that the Nazis plans for Poles and other victims was 'less extreme' is, in my very honest opinion, misleading. To say that one was more extreme than the other is to cheapen or lessen the experience of other oppressed populations under the Nazis.

      To defy this DOES NOT mean one ignores the Shoah, or cheapens THAT, as well. It simply must recast the understanding of the Holocaust as a genocide of various strengths and speeds, but a total genocide against all the Nazis deemed to be untermensch.

      Delete
  5. Thanks for the reply, Jan. Good to know there were objections and protests at the time. Thank goodness for people like Chester Grabowski and Sigmund Gorson.

    As I said, I didn't see the series when it first came out - I generally didn't watch much TV in those days and I avoided committing to any long series - but I'm pretty sure it was shown over here in the UK. I don't know if my parents watched it. If they had, they would have been appalled, both having been in the Polish army; my dad in the September Campaign, then France and Italy and my mother through the Middle East and Italy with the Anders Army. In fact, my father, as a military historian, would have undoubtedly said straightaway that the Polish Army Oath would have made it a crime for a Polish soldier to harm (let alone fire on) a fellow Polish citizen. (Which is, of course, why there was such outrage during the ugly episodes of martial law in Poland back in 1981).

    Perhaps I wasn't as interested as I might have been in things Polish back in those days - and it's good to know there have been people out there who have been fighting the good fight.

    You may have your differences with Danusha Goska, but the way I see it, you're both on the same side and doing your best to combat prejudice and misinformation. Neither of you are trying to whitewash any Polish wrongdoing (when it is shown to be beyond doubt) and are treading a very difficult path.

    As for how American Polonia organizes itself, that's not something I can really comment on. All I know is that over on this side of the pond, there's not a great deal of English-language information on the kind of issues you are dealing with.

    Best wishes to all Polish Americans from Michal

    ReplyDelete
  6. Good grief! I've just googled Chester Grabowski and discovered he was accused of being an anti-Semite. Just shows how naive I am about American Polonia. In fact, I'm now reading your article on him, Dr Goska.

    I can't find any info on Sigmund Gerson, though...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My mistake. I should looking for Sigmund Gorson, not Gerson.

      Delete
    2. Do you really think that a Polish Jew, “Ziggy” Gorson, would agree to write a booklet with an anti-Semite? I rather doubt it. Notice also that Grabowski is the nominal author: Polish Jew “Ziggy” Gorson is the main author.

      I urge you to be cautious what you find on the Internet, because anyone can post anything they want on it. In addition, as you doubtless know, the charge of anti-Semitism is a standard tactic used to de-legitimize views that don’t fit the standard “party” line. Furthermore, we should not let others tell us what to think.

      You need not search around to find this specific item. The item is on Amazon. Just click on my name in this specific posting.

      Finally, the issue at hand is not Grabowski. It is the HOLOCAUST series, and how it inculcated anti-Polish views in tens of millions of unsuspecting American viewers.

      Delete
    3. Good point about Gorson working with Grabowski. I won't get into what views Grabowski may or may not have had for the simple reason that I still don't know enough about him. What does seem to somewhat compromise his credibility relating to his comments about Poland during WWII is not so much whether he was or was not anti-Semitic, but by the fact that he was an American, born in the US. Did he know about conditions in Poland during the war? If so, how? Perhaps I am doing him a grave injustice here and perhaps he did, indeed, serve with the Polish army. I'd be interested to find out.

      Gorson, on the other hand, as an Auschwitz survivor, clearly had first-hand knowledge of Poland. He seemed to be one brave individual. I see he came to the defense of Maximilian Kolbe when it was quite an unpopular thing to do.

      Delete
    4. Remember, as I had indicated earlier, that Gorson wrote nearly all the text. For that reason, the credibility or otherwise of Grabowski is irrelevant.

      Delete
    5. Looks like the pamphlet is out of print. Maybe I can get hold of it in my nearest Polish library. Unless anyone knows where I can get hold of a copy? Or, indeed, any other critiques of the TV series?

      Apologies to Danusha Goska for my appearing to hijack what started out as a discussion about Louise Steinman's book, but perhaps my excuse can be that my comments could be connected in the sense of being on the general theme of Christian/Jewish relations in Poland?

      As for the TV series, it's clearly a fact that many people have never been interested in reading an academic book in their lives - and I don't mean to be in any way patronising when I say this - but because of that, any knowledge of history they may have gleaned has been through films and television. Therefore, as Jan Peczkis observed, tens of millions of viewers were exposed to this series. It may even have been more influential in forming people's opinions on the subject of the Holocaust than Claude Lanzmann's 'Shoah'.

      Delete
    6. The item is a few decades old, and, yes, it is long out of print. I had gotten it via interlibrary loan from a library in Connecticut. You may look it up in WorldCat and see if you can borrow it, and perhaps even scan it in and post it on the Internet.

      Delete

Comments are moderated.
Your comment is more likely to be posted if:
Your comment includes a real first and last name.
Your comment uses Standard English spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
Your comment uses I-statements rather than You-statements.
Your comment states a position based on facts, rather than on ad hominem material.
Your comment includes readily verifiable factual material, rather than speculation that veers wildly away from established facts.
T'he full meaning of your comment is clear to the comment moderator the first time he or she glances over it.
You comment is less likely to be posted if:
You do not include a first and last name.
Your comment is not in Standard English, with enough errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar to make the comment's meaning difficult to discern.
Your comment includes ad hominem statements, or You-statements.
You have previously posted, or attempted to post, in an inappropriate manner.
You keep repeating the same things over and over and over again.