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Book Review: The Polish Woman by Eve Meckler

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The Polish-American experience is a complex one, and there is a vast disparity in that experience between if one is a Jew or a Catholic. I am neither of the above, and I am not Polish.

“‘Americans are not interested in Poland,’ she concluded as though this were a foreign conclusion. ‘Why should they be? When our artists and intellectuals leave, they go to Paris or Prague and live with respect as émigrés. Only our poor go to America where they become refuges – which Americans make sound like a dirty word.'”

As an American, my interest in Poland derives from a variety of acquaintances: a business partner of some 20 years whose mother was from Poland, living in Williamsburg-Greenpoint, Brooklyn, amid the Polish community (before it became fashionable to live there); in the construction business of historic preservation employing Polish mechanics over many years; through several Polish friends (particularly Misia Leonard, deceased, a Polish-born actress who became an architect); and, lastly, via a friend who has been gracious to bring me to visit his homeland on several visits. One of those visits was in connection with the desire to reconstruct a 17th-century log and timber synagogue near Bialystok.
Mekler’s novel, A Polish Woman, a romance, explores not so much the Polish-American experience — though it is certainly evident in very subtle and striking details — but the very difficult relationship between Polish Catholic and Jew. It is an incredibly bitter relationship full of emotional landmines and deep scars of distrust and hatred. It has much to do with the Holocaust and how it was played out in Poland — and continues to play out in the lives of the characters. It also plays out in the lives of my friends, a few of whom have distanced themselves from me as I have become increasingly interested in the richness of the culture of Eastern Europe, and, in particular, the Polish facility for heritage restoration.
The novel takes place in the late 1960s, prior to Solidarity, when Poland was under Soviet domination, and prior to the assassination of Martin Luther King (a historical detail I throw in for benefit of the disinterested American). Since the 1970s, Poland has gone through a whole lot of changes in politics. I suspect though that the land, the trees, the rivers, the birds have remained pretty much the same.
My personal forays have been with a look in a range of the 1300s, or earlier up to the current post-EU Poland. What I can say — and this from visits to a variety of synagogues, churches and mosques — is that the Catholic-Jew relationship is not as volatile in Poland today as it was in the late 1960s. It did not help anyone that in Poland the history and memory of millennia of Jewish culture was repressed by decades of Soviet domination:

“The Soviets would bleed the country dry before letting the Poles succeed in anything but growing potatoes…”

Karolina Staszek is the female protagonist of this novel. She is a sculptor, working with stone, and she has come to New York from Warsaw as a young artist. In the unfolding of the plot she is faced with a question: if she was the child of a Jewish leatherworker who was harbored during the Holocaust by a Catholic farmer and his wife. If her father was the Jewish leatherworker, he subsequently survived the Holocaust and moved to America where he became wealthy as a construction contractor. Karolina becomes enmeshed in seeking out the truth of her background — to discover if her identity is as a Jew or a Catholic. Along in the plot there are various emotional and romantic attachments, and, for those needing it, some very pleasantly subtle sex scenes. Oh, yes, and there is a Jewish lawyer involved.
There is also much beauty to the Polish-English language of the dialogue of this novel, a particular breaking down in translation that often creates new measures of understanding between cultures:

“‘Good,’ Karolina said. ‘Soon you will speak like a native.’

“Philip broke into a grin. ‘Yeah?’
“‘No,’ she said, without breaking her stride. ‘But I wish to encourage.'”

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About Gabriel Orgrease

  • Gabriel:
    You were graced to know Misia, who sat by Padorevsky when he played for her Mother in the Bristol Hotel in Warsaw, before the Nazis burned it. I was blessed to have known her in the 70’s & 80’s, when she was studying for her degree. She represents the part of the spectrum of of Polish settlers here in America who brought great depth and complexity to their experience.