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The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation

Poland, near Lublin, 2009

The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation
by Louise Steinman

"Readers can be grateful to Ms. Steinman for bearing witness to those seeds of understanding being planted in lands where so much blood flowed."
DIANE COLE, The Wall Street Journal

[Steinman] achieves something close to peace with those struggling intensely to understand and rectify Poland's Jewish path." Robert Levgold, Foreign Affairs

“Louise Steinman has written the most extraordinary travel book I have ever read--about a journey to nightmare, through unmarked mass graveyards and dark haunted Polish and Ukrainian streets. The miracle is that shattering light breaks repeatedly into this otherwise dark journey. Jews--religious and secular--will have many reasons to read this book. As a Christian, I urge other Christians to read every page of The Crooked Mirror, to face evil again, and to better understand redemption.”

—Richard Rodriguez, author of Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography

“The Crooked Mirror is both provocative and ultimately redemptive, a book that will appeal to a wide audience of readers who care about history, genealogy, and the possibility of peace between estranged peoples.”

—Jonathan Kirsch, author of The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan

“An event like the Holocaust not only takes a toll of dead and traumatizes the survivors. It leaves its mark on later generations as well—the children and grandchildren of the families of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. This is the territory Louise Steinman explores, with great feeling and with hope, in The Crooked Mirror.”

—Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars

"Louise Steinman's story is heroic in all the old senses of the word: a journey of a literal sort; a journey into the terrible past; and a journey into her own soul. Unblinking, scrupulous and enduring."

—Alexandra Fuller, author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

“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.” —Kirkus Reviews

an excerpt from "The Crooked Mirror"

from Chapter Eleven:
An Orange Room in L’viv

From the tarmac of the L’viv airport, I peered out the round window of our small plane. The main columns of the Art Deco terminal were decorated with four gigantic Soviet Realist, cast-concrete personae— a factory worker, a peasant woman, a soldier, a pilot—to greet us.

L’viv, the largest city in Western Ukraine, would be our staging ground for the trip to Kolomyja, one hundred twenty-five miles away at the base of the Carpathian Mountains.

The Ukrainian customs official possessed the charm of a street mugger. “How much money do you have?” she snarled. Cheryl dumped all her Euros on the counter. The functionary wasn’t pleased. “No dollars?”

While they negotiated, I studied my first Ukrainian bill, a five hryvna banknote that featured a grizzled Ukrainian hero. Using my foggy high school Russian, I painstakingly sounded out the Cyrillic letters: they spelled Boh-dan Ch-miel-nick-i.
Bohdan Chmielnicki was a hero of Ukrainian nationalism, but no hero to Jews or to Poles. In 1648, he led a Cossack uprising against Polish nobles that degenerated into an anti-Jewish crusade. Chmielnicki did not distinguish between Catholic Poles and Jewish Poles in his depredations. Chmielnicki and his Cossack followers massacred over two hundred thousand Jews and razed nearly every Jewish settlement in Ukraine before Polish forces suppressed the insurrection. Among the Jews, the Chmielnicki catastrophe came to be called The Deluge. Until the Holocaust, this was the most calamitous oppression ever visited on the Ashkenazim (Eastern European) Jewish community. Poles also consider Chmielnicki one of the most brutal oppressors of their people.

This was one loaded five hryvna note. I tucked the wrinkled bill in my wallet.
Once we made it through to baggage, a friendly face was waiting: our stalwart Ukrainian guide—Alex Dunai. He was bear-like in build, sunny in temperament, warm and funny. Alex was a historian; he and his wife, a cardiologist, had two young sons. Driving into the city, he told us a little bit about his Ukrainian family. “The Germans and Soviets were equally evil to my family,” he told us. The Nazis deported his grandfather’s sister to Auschwitz, the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) dispatched Alex’s great-uncle to Siberia.

As we entered old L’viv I felt an instant affinity with this proud old city with its wrought–iron filigrees on balconies from its Hapsburg days, its Art Deco gargoyles, the young lovers necking under blooming chestnut trees. Old women with faces wrinkled like potato skins sold bouquets of fresh dill and lilacs and white coral bells on almost every street corner. Alex bought a fragrant bunch that I zipped into my backpack, the protruding blossoms attracting an honor guard of honey bees.

L’viv was founded in the thirteenth century by Prince Halitskiy who. named the city after his son Lev, which means "lion." The city’s architecture was an improbable yet harmonious blend of styles, from the medieval to the modern. According to Alex, people were now starting to buy the enormous, mainly eighteenth century flats in the deserted center of town. It was an expensive proposition; under Soviet rule, nothing got repaired here. The floorboards were usually rotted, the plumbing useless.

Alex, a budding entrepreneur, wanted Cheryl’s opinion about real estate as an investment. She had successfully renovated several flats around Nice. Maybe L’viv was the place for a second home?

Under the rule of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, as capital of the crown land of Galicia, the city was known as Lemberg. In 1919, it reverted to Poland and was known as L’vov. After the second world war, it was no longer in eastern Poland but in western Ukraine and it was re-named L’viv.

The Poles still consider this city, in fact all of western Ukraine, as part of their “Lost Lands.” Between the wars, L’vov was cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, a “Polish-Jewish-Austrian” island in a Ukrainian sea, as historian Anna Reid described it. It was the cultural capital of the region and a seat of Jewish learning. At the beginning of World War II, Jews made up a third of L’vov’s population of 340,000. After Warsaw and Lodz, it was the largest Jewish community in Poland. Several memoirs about life in pre-war L’vov mentioned ethnically mixed neighborhoods where Jews and Gentiles lived side by side, with no apparent enmity.

One of those memoirs was written by the Polish philosopher and science fiction writer (“Solaris”) Stanislaw Lem, who was born in L’vov. Lem was of Jewish ancestry, but was raised Catholic. During the war, he was part of the resistance fighting against the Germans. He recalled the years 1941 and 1942, when the Jewish community, long a vibrant part of the city, was banished by the Nazis: “when the streets past the theater and beyond, one day were empty, silent, their windows open and curtains moving in the wind.

At the beginning of September 1939, L’vov was part of the Polish territory annexed by the Soviet Union, and under Stalin’s rule. If you were a Polish Catholic family living in western Ukraine in 1939, you were subject to vicious repression by the NKVD, as part of Stalin’s anti-Polish repressions designed to eliminate Polish intelligentsia. If—like Cheryl’s family—you were a family of Polish Jewish hotel owners living in western Ukraine in 1939, your business would likely have been expropriated as part of Stalin’s anti-capitalist repression.

As the Russians withdrew and the Germans pushed into western Ukraine in 1941, all Poles—Jews and Catholics both— were in a quandary. They were glad to be rid of the Soviets and the murderous NKVD, but terrified of the Germans. Stay or go? Either way, you took your chances.

Cheryl’s grandfather in Kolomyja, was advised by a friend to take his dreamy elder son Andrzej, who’d joined the Communist youth league during the Soviet occupation, and flee east to the Soviet Union. “When the Germans come in, he will be the first target.”

Her grandfather took heed. “Stay home,” he told his younger son Max (Cheryl’s father), “I will return from the east in a few weeks.” But Max had his own ideas. When his father and brother departed Kolomyja by horse and wagon in the pre-dawn dark, fifteen year-old Max was already aboard, stowed away under a blanket. They were five kilometers from town when his father finally noticed him. As Max told me the story sixty years later in Cheryl’s living room, “My father said, ‘ “I told you to stay home, but you are here…(a shrug), so you will come with us.’”

They crossed the border with thousands of others heading east, under German bombs, alongside the retreating Russian Army. Though they endured the privations of hunger, the back-backing routine of labor camps, and many other misfortunes—Max, his brother and father survived the war in the Soviet Union. Those left behind in Kolomyja did not.At the end of the war, in 1945, both Kolomyja and L’vov became Ukrainian cities, part of the USSR. The surviving Polish population, as part of the mandated uprooting of millions of Europeans, were forced out of their ancestral homes and deported west, according to Poland’s new borders as decreed by the three old men at Yalta.

At night at the Grand Hotel, Cheryl and I fell asleep to CNN footage of mass graves in Sudan, children starving, animals torched. There was no remote control and we were both too exhausted to budge from our bed to turn off the TV.

The next morning, while walking with Alex through a deserted side street to the History Museum, an old white-haired gentleman appeared out of nowhere, wearing a striped tie and a stained trench coat of another era. He tipped his hat and introduced himself as “the last Jew in Lemberg.” Cheryl greeted him in Yiddish and his leathery face broke into a grin. He kissed her hand. Alex told us this old man—well known to him—had a daughter in Israel, but that he still needed help. In post-Soviet Ukraine, pensioners received less than $75 a month, no medical care. Life was very hard. We offered the Last Jew of Lemberg a handful of dollars and good wishes.
In the History Museum, you could view 1920’s black and white photos of old L’vov on a stereopticon. Through the lens was a vibrant city populated by Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Armenians, Ruthenians (Catholic as opposed to Orthodox Ukrainians), Turks, Hungarians, Rom. Now L’viv was populated only by Ukrainians. The stereopticon animated the flatness of the photo, as if bringing that pluralistic culture back into three dimensions.
After shuffling across the waxed parquet floors of the museum in obligatory one-size-fits-all boiled wool slippers, we went outside into the Italianate courtyard. Alex and I ordered coffee while Cheryl slipped away to browse the antique shop next door.
At the adjacent table, a Ukrainian woman, her bouffant dyed a dull bottle orange, fussed over her young daughter who was happily spooning ice cream into her mouth. Workmen in overalls shuffled through the courtyard. They stooped to their knees and, grunting, hoisted open a heavy wooden trap door set into the stone floor, revealing a dark void into which they disappeared.
The young girl watched the ground open up with some amazement, then dropped her spoon and began screaming hysterically. Her mother tried in vain to shush her. The child looked betrayed. If you couldn’t count on the ground to be solid, what could you count on? Her distress did not subside until the workmen re-emerged and closed the trapdoor.
Cheryl rejoined us just as the child’s wails subsided. The girl’s terror was no mystery to Cheryl. When her daughter Anna was little, Cheryl told us, she was afraid of taking baths. Cheryl figured out that it was the bathtub drain that frightened Anna, the pull of the water as it swirled out. The child feared she might be sucked down into it. Cheryl played games with Anna, rendering the drain harmless, amusing. She had a gift for concocting playful solutions to comfort the fears of others.
Cheryl unwrapped five porcelain egg cups she’d liberated from the dusty shelf in the antique shop. Each four-inch figurine was a rotund, squatting Ukrainian woman, hands in her pockets. The tips of her black slippers poked out from billowy, red harem pants. Her blouse was egg-yolk yellow with black dots. An orange-red target decorated her stomach. Below her black collar, a white ruffled lace bib.
The cup balanced on the woman’s sturdy head was cheerful too: orange and yellow dots, each looped by a delicate broken line. The Egg Cup Woman was probably from the 1940’s, Russian constructivist in style but authentically Ukrainian, the woman in the shop had informed Cheryl.
I imagined the artisans in that factory in some Ukrainian city, painting stripes on the red harem pants of a cheerful egg cup at the same time agents of the NKVD were arriving unannounced in their black Marias to arrest scores of Ukrainians on nonexistent charges.
Upon entering any bleak hotel room for the rest of our trip, Cheryl and I made it our first act to set up one of the Egg Cup Women. She was our Ukrainian Quan Yin, our Constructivist Buddha, our polka-dot Humpty Dumpty, our talisman of good cheer.