The Crooked Mirror: An Interview with Author Louise Steinman
Louise Steinman, curator of the indispensable ALOUD series of author interviews at LA Central Library and the author of three books, is someone I’m honored to call a friend. Yet I confess I was less than supportive when, some seven years ago, she first told me about the book upon which she was lavishing a great deal of time, toil, and tears: a wide-ranging memoir of “Polish-Jewish reconciliation,” initially inspired by a trip she undertook in the year 2000 to the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau at the invitation of her Zen rabbi, Don Singer, back in LA; he had found a donor to cover the stipend for an author willing to brave the Polish winter to participate in this interfaith conference to help “close the gap between what society is and what it could be.”
Rabbi Singer told Louise he felt the Poles had gotten a “bum rap.” At first, this sounded like blasphemy. Louise’s own Polish Jewish mother could not bear to utter the word “Poland,” a country, Steinman was brought up to believe, that had allowed, perhaps even abetted the genocide that decimated Europe’s Jewish population, including members of her own extended family.
Turns out my queasy reaction to her book project was typical of Louise’s Jewish friends; after all 80% of American Jews share my Polish heritage (my late father, Herman Eichenthal, was born in Lodz, hometown of pianist Artur Rubinstein. Though my dad, who was largely self-taught, spoke six languages, and eventually worked as a translator, Polish wasn’t among those languages. In fact, I never heard him utter a single word of Polish.).
Yet Louise was to discover, through repeated travels to Poland over ten years, a complex, multi-layered history. She gradually learned---and informed her once scoffing friends---about Polish Catholics who saved Jews in her family’s own hometown of Radomsko, and who, before the war, even painted the sky-blue ceiling of the local synagogue. Today, it is the non-Jewish Poles who are the tour guides and guardians of Jewish Poland’s heritage. They are making art and theater about Jewish Poland, opening major Jewish museums in Warsaw and Krakow, and paving the way for a far more open society.
Here’s our conversation, recorded at the KUSC Studios last week, about Louise’s transformational new book, The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation ( a shorter version of the interview will appear on this Saturday’s edition of Arts Alive, Dec. 7 at 8:00am).
Louise Steinman, curator of the award-winning ALOUD series at LA Central Library, also co-directs the Los Angeles Institute for Humanities at USC. She is the author of three books: The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War; The Knowing Body: The Artist as Storyteller in Contemporary Performance; and, just out, The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation. Her work appears in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Los Angeles Times, and on her Crooked Mirror blog.