To all my friend and colleagues:

My new book: Portraits in Literature: The Jews of Poland. An 
Anthology has been reviewed by Jonathan Kirsch in the Jewish Journal 
in Los Angeles of September 16-22, 2011.

The Gift Poland Once Offered,

     The long history of the Jews in Poland has been almost wholly 
eclipsed by the Holocaust. Fully half of the victims of German mass 
murder were Polish Jews, who numbered approximately 3.5 million on 
the eve of  World War II. But the fact remains that Poland was the 
seat of a vibrant and enduring Jewish civilization that survives on 
the printed page, and in a real sense, in many of our own ideas about 
what it means to be Jewish.

     The point is vividly and memorably made by Hava Bromberg Ben-Zvi 
in the pages of "Portraits in Literature: The Jews of Poland. An 
Anthology" (Vallentine Mitchell: $74.95), an extraordinarily rich 
collection of more than 50 excerpts from fiction, reportage, poetry, 
memoir, correspondence, folklore and humor, all touching in one way 
or another on the Jewish experience in Poland.

     "My Jewish ancestors resided in Poland for approximately 1000 
years," affirms the author, who shares a Polish-Jewish heritage with 
millions of American Jews. "This book is a saga of Jewish life in 
Poland as reflected in the mirror of literature."

     Ben-Zvi has selected some of the most affecting and enlightening 
passages from her remarkably diverse source material, and she makes 
them even more meaningful by providing her own annotations and 
illuminations. For example, she begins with a passage from Sholem 
Asch's story "The Rebel," and she introduces the once-revered Yiddish 
writer to a new generation of readers  who know little or nothing 
about him or his work. She points out that his novels about the life 
of Jesus, intended to show "the common roots of Judaism and 
Christianity and to bridge the gap between them," resulted in a 
charge of apostasy. "Misunderstood, he defended himself for the rest 
of his life," she points out, "mostly without success."

     Other selections are meant to remind us, quite literally, of the 
rhythms, sound and tastes of Jewish life in Poland. A charming memoir 
by Nina Luszczyk-Ilienkowa, for example, evokes the experience of a 
modest little store that was, in the eyes of the writer, nothing less 
than a place of wonder. " Look, ladies and gentlemen, what we have 
here. Hats of Vilnius milliners, from Zamkowa Street, slightly out of 
fashion, but at convenient prices. Christmas ornaments and colorful 
tissue paper, laces, beads, pins, ribbons, clasps for girls' braids. 
Tooth-combs, side combs, and gloves of fabric and wool, or lightly 
knit and transparent, On the other side, on little shelves, choice 
morsels galore." Even now, the writer confesses, " I swoon at the 
memory of the aromas long forgotten, not experienced for sixty 
years." And so do we.

     Of course, Ben-Zvi feels an obligation to remind us that the 
victims of the Holocaust were flesh-and-blood human beings and not 
merely numbers. Aliza Melamed recalls the unspeakable sights that she 
saw in the Warsaw Ghetto, but she also gives us a glimpse of the 
famous ghetto fighter Mordecai Anielewicz at an unguarded moment: "He 
always wore a gray coat, sports trousers and golf-socks; he had a 
thin face and greenish eyes with daring in them, which would 
sometimes smile, and then they looked so fatherly and forgiving."

     Another intimate view of Anielewicz is given in an essay by the 
ghetto documentarian Emanuel Ringelblum, who recalls how the young 
man would borrow books on history and economics. "Who was to know 
that this quiet, modest, pleasant youth would, three years later, be 
the most important person in the ghetto, and that his name would be 
spoken with veneration by some and with fear by others?" Anielewicz 
himself, who died in combat during the Warsaw ghetto uprising, speaks 
for himself in a brief letter: "The last aspiration of my life has 
been fulfilled," he wrote in the last moments of his heroic life. 
"Jewish self-defense and Jewish revenge are a reality."

     "Jewish literature and culture did not perish from the face of 
the earth," Ben-Zvi concludes. "Inherited and transformed by a new 
generation of writers, it was reborn, changed and enriched, finding 
new configurations, images and expressions." Ben-Zvi's beautiful and 
stirring book is a superb example of the same phenomenon.

       Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book 
editor of the Jewish Journal. He blogs on books and can be reached at


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