Born in Paris in 1947, Michael Charles Steinlauf talks about his childhood in New York City, in the south of Brooklyn (Brighton Beach), in a milieu of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors. His later experiences were largely associated with American counterculture, the New Left, an anti-war and antiracist student movement of the 1960s (Students for a Democratic Society, SDS) as well as the anticapitalist underground of the 1970s (“Sunfighter”, “No Separate Peace”). In the 1980s, having undertaken Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, Steinlauf arrived in Poland, where he became part of the democratic opposition circles centred around the Jewish Flying University (Żydowski Uniwersytet Latający, ŻUL). In the independent Third Republic of Poland, he contributed to the creation of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Michael C. Steinlauf’s research interests focus on the work of Mark Arnshteyn (Andrzej Marek) and of Yitskhok Leybush Peretz, Yiddish theatre as well as Polish narratives of the Holocaust. The latter were the subject of his monograph Bondage to the dead: Poland and the memory of the Holocaust (1997, Polish edition 2001 as Pamięć nieprzyswojona. Polska pamięć Zagłady). An important topic of the conversation is the dispute concerning the categories used to describe the Holocaust, including the conceptualisation of Polish majority experience of the Holocaust as a collective trauma. Controversies also arise in connection with the contemporary phenomena popularly conceptualised as the “revival of Jewish culture in Poland” and “Polish–Jewish dialogue.”
Another subject of the conversation is Michał Sztajnlauf (1940–1942), Michael C. Steinlauf’s stepbrother. The fate of the brothers was introduced into the canon of Polish culture by Hanna Krall’s short story Dybuk (1995, English edition 2005 as The Dybbuk) and its eponymous stage adaptation by Krzysztof Warlikowski (2003). Looking beyond artistic convention, the interlocutors try to learn more about Michał himself. This is the first time the readers have an opportunity to see his photographs from the Warsaw Ghetto.
The conversation is illustrated with numerous archival materials from periods before and after World War Two as well as from German-occupied Poland.