“Know before whom you stand,” Daniel Mendelsohn told an audience of nearly 400 people at Loyola University Maryland on Oct. 23. “Stand facing each other, with sorrows and shames, with our own tragic pasts and moments of harmony, and start to talk.”
A professor at Bard College, internationally bestselling author, and editor-at-large of The New York Review of Books, Mendelsohn spoke as the 2019 Jerome S. Cardin Memorial Lecture guest speaker at Loyola’s Andrew White Student Center at its Baltimore City campus on North Charles Street.
Titled “Latkes With The Priests In Lwów: Jews and Christians, Harmony and Horror in Prewar Poland,” Mendelsohn’s lecture covered the seemingly harmonious relationship between Jews and Christians in the small Polish town of Lwów, known by its German name as Lemberg before World War II, and known today as Lviv in Ukraine. It was a town, Mendelsohn said, where Jews and non-Jews got along as neighbors, where gentile Poles and Ukrainians spoke Yiddish, and where priests and the city’s rabbis shared Latkes. Lwów was, at the time, one third Polish (the educated, teachers), one third Ukrainian (farmers, woodsmen, laborers) and one third Jewish (merchants).
It was also a town that was home to a Ukrainian policeman who, according to a survivor Mendelsohn interviewed, spoke beautiful Yiddish. This same policeman would later be known as the Butcher of Lwów for his horrific cruelty in the murder of the town’s Jewish population. Only 48 Jewish survivors were left after the Nazi horror, in that town which had once beamed with life and harmony. The town was once home to 4,000 Jews, and, during the war, had grown to 6,000 as Jews fled to Poland.
Mendelsohn’s lecture was interwoven with stories of his research at the Vatican, where he met Cardinal Jorge Maria Mejia, who was Librarian of the Vatican Library from 1998 to 2003. When he met with Mejia, he was also met with a few surprises. First, the cardinal was “a little old man wearing Birkenstocks,” said Mendelsohn. Second, “on a low coffee table, a large brass Menorah sat next to a Coke Zero and a plate of cookies.”
And finally: “I have been reading you,” Mejia told him.
Five years before, Mendelsohn had published ‘The Lost: A Search For Six of the Six Million, a book about six relatives who died during the Holocaust.’ The book was about his own family.
Under the aegis of this lecture, Mendelsohn encouraged attendees to think about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. “If you did not grow up,” Mendelsohn said, “with the breath of the Holocaust on your neck, with elderly relatives who would show up to family dinners with tattoos still visible on their arms,” it may be difficult to understand this history. But it is important, he continued, to understand how relative harmony devolved into horror. He encouraged the audience to look at the arc “from harmony to horror” and to understand how it can be traced. Hatred against the Jews, Mendelsohn remarked, lurked even with harmony — an ingrained hatred that was bolstered by the church.
“How does harmony become horror?” Mendelsohn asked. “Because people in power allow the hidden resentments to rise to the surface and someone gives permission to forgo shame,” he replied.
“It was a riveting talk,” Father Brian F. Linnane, S.J., President of Loyola University Maryland, remarked. “Rhetorically flawless, and one that evokes the horrors of the Holocaust yet at the same time looks at the depths of the human spirit, and profoundly hopeful.” Father Linnane added, “We have tried very hard to be intentionally more inclusive, yet we have had three horrific hate incidents on campus.”
“Mendelsohn’s lecture was fabulous,” said Mark Osteen, director of the Center for Humanities and a professor at Loyola. “It was enlightening for our students to hear, and incredibly powerful to learn that the Butcher of Lwów’s son — a doctor who read Mendelsohn’s book — had the courage to go around and ask forgiveness for his father.”
“It was very personal, anecdotal, and made the message very profound and clear,” said John Mirarchi, a Loyola freshman. “I would like to use this information to help people see and understand past issues so that we can step up, and be better.”