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Thursday, March 6, 2014

"The Crooked Mirror" by Louise Steinman. Review of a New Book that touches on Christian-Jewish Relations

There's a new book out, "The Crooked Mirror" by Louise Steinman, published by Beacon Press.

It's about Polish-Jewish relations, but by extension it's about Christian-Jewish relations, too.

The book is just so awful.

Review below.

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.

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