Companions for the Holidays: Sharing the Bread of Life
My Easter with Christians, Jews, and Muslims

“For we were strangers in the land of Egypt…”: Passover, Radical Empathy, and Reconciliation

By Louise Steinman

I first heard of the idea of “Polish-Jewish” reconciliation from my Zen rabbi, who often evoked the most radical commandment in Judaism in his Friday night talks: “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were once a stranger in Egypt, and you know the heart of the stranger.”

This week, Jews are obligated to commemorate the liberation from slavery in Egypt with the Passover seder. The observance demands that we ask questions, sing songs, even argue—all in the service of keeping alive a story that we’ve told and retold through the millennia. We are asked to “enter” the story, to imagine that we ourselves were slaves, that we wandered in the desert for forty years. 

The image of the Passover seder plays a central role in both my memoirs—The Souvenir and The Crooked Mirror. The Souvenir is based on my discovery, after my father passed away, of hundreds of letters my father wrote to my mother during the Pacific War, as well as my discovery in those letters of a war souvenir—a bloodied Japanese flag—which bore the name of a Japanese soldier named Yoshio Shimizu.

In March of 1945, my father, Private Norman Steinman wrote of leaving the battlefield during combat, for a Passover seder at Clark Field. In a chapter titled “Speculation,” I imagined my father’s encounter with Yoshio Shimizu—a ragged young soldier waving a white flag—on that road to the seder. This did not happen. However, imagining my father’s “enemy” seated beside him at the table, was a healing image for this veteran’s daughter to contemplate, some fifty years later, when venturing into the bitter legacy of that conflict.

Over the years of writing The Crooked Mirror, a book about Polish-Jewish reconciliation, I was fortunate to celebrate two Passovers in Poland.

In the eastern Polish town of Lublin, in 2009, I participated in the first seder in sixty years at the restored Chachmei Yeshiva (Yeshiva of the Wise Men). During the occupation, the Nazis deported the yeshiva’s students and faculty to the camps. They threw some twenty-two thousand books out the windows of the yeshiva’s famous library, carted them off to the market square, doused them with kerosene, and lit the match for a fire that lasted twenty hours. During the Communist years, the building housed the State Medical Academy. Now the yeshiva once again belongs to the Jewish community, its rededication covered by Poland’s leading newspaper and carried live on Polish television.

It was deeply emotional to sit down to celebrate liberation among Polish Jews and interested non-Jewish Poles, all with their own remarkable stories of survival and liberation. Among the celebrants at the Lublin seder was a Polish Catholic priest who learned late in his life that he was born Jewish. His Jewish mother—who foresaw her own fate—entrusted her infant to a Polish Catholic couple for safe-keeping during the war. His Catholic mother, like those heroic midwives in the Exodus story who refuse to follow Pharaoh’s decree to kill the sons of Israelites—risked her life in order to follow a higher law.

Passover requires a leap of imagination. As we free and fortunate Americans dip the parsley in salt water, we must imagine the bitter tears of a slave laboring under Pharaoh’s task masters. The process of reconciliation demands a leap of imagination as well. We must envision our shared historical narrative told from the viewpoint of “the other.” Over the years of travel in Poland, I learned about the price that Catholic Poles paid for resistance under German occupation—that’s a history I’d never known before. Now in a democratic Poland, Poles, who were long forbidden any discussion of the topic under Communism, are finally able to learn about the fate of their Jewish neighbors.

My own experience tells me that it is when we are able to look at our shared history together—to imagine ourselves into the dilemma of the other—that a space for reconciliation opens up. Imagination leads to radical empathy, which is how we come to know “the heart of the stranger.”


Louise Steinman by Rick LoomisLouise Steinman is the author of The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation. She also wrote the award-winning memoir The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War and The Knowing Body: The Artist as Storyteller in Contemporary Performance. For the past two decades, she has curated the ALOUD literary and performance series for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. She also codirects the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at the University of Southern California.