Monday, February 8, 2016

The Story of Some Polish WWII Refugees

My parents met in a slave labor camp in Germany during World War II. My dad had been there for four years, my mother for almost three. They met toward the end of the war. My dad had worked on a farm when he was a boy before the war, and the Germans needed people to work on their farms. The German male population was mostly in uniform and out of the country trying to conquer Russia and England and Africa and other countries too.

So the Germans grabbed up people to work in their munitions industries, clear the rubble from the cities the Allied planes were hammering, and do farm work too. They grabbed them up wherever they could find them. My dad and mom hadn’t met yet, and they were picked up separately in different parts of Poland and sent west to Germany. My dad was picked up when he went to his village to buy some rope. My mom was picked up when she was hiding from the German soldiers who killed her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby.

In Germany, my mom mainly did agricultural work. She worked in the fields and in the barns. She didn’t talk much about what she did, but one of the things she mentioned all the time was how hard it was digging beets out of the frozen ground. (I wrote a poem about this called “The Beets.” If you Google my name and the word “beets,” you’ll be able to read about what that was like.) The other thing she always talked about was the wooden shoes she had to wear. In the winter, they always froze, and her feet froze too. She blamed the wooden shoes for the fact that in her last years her feet were useless. They were kind of shapeless and puffed up, and she couldn’t stand or walk.

As a slave laborer, my father did all kinds of different work. He dug for German bodies under the bricks in Magdeburg; he worked in German coalmines; he carried heavy things in the factories were they were making German guns and uniforms; he hoed German fields and milked German cows. Like the other slave laborers from Poland and every other country in Europe, he didn’t have a choice. Slaves don’t have choices.

My parents met at the end of the war.  My father was being driven on a death march past the camp my mom was in.  For some reason, the German guards leading my dad ran away when they came to my mom's camp.    My mom and dad were suddenly free for the first time in years.

After the war ended in the spring of 1945, my parents got married. The Germans couldn’t keep anybody apart then. My dad liked to say that after the liberation of the camps, the first thing the slaves did was eat. The second thing they did was get married. And then they had babies.

Maybe they shouldn’t have had babies so soon because the former slaves weren’t really physically very strong, and the conditions weren’t too good either. The slave laborers were now called Displaced Persons, but they were still living in the old barracks that they had lived in when they were slave laborers. Some of these camps still had unburied bodies piled up waiting to be buried, but there were so many bodies that needed to be buried that the DPs sometimes had to live next to where the dead were waiting to be buried. The DPs, my mom told me, were always being shifted from one camp to another. Germany was being divided up between the Allies, and the Displaced Persons were being resettled over and over again. It was like the Allies couldn’t decide what to do with all of these DPs.

A lot of the babies in those DP camps were sickly and many of them died. My sister and I got sick and dehydrated and feverish, but we survived. Years later, my mother was telling me about this and she said, “I thought you were a goner.” It was like this all over, I guess. At one of the DP camps, the one at Wildflecken in Germany, there’s a Polish cemetery where you can see the graves of 427 babies born right after the war. Kathryn Hulme was a UN administrator at this camp and wrote about her experiences in The Wild Place.

There were masses of DPs in Germany after the war. The numbers are hard to imagine. I’ve seen estimates as low as 11 million, and as high as 20 million. There were DPs there from all the countries of Europe, and they were all kinds of people: Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, gypsies, Christians of all kinds. The Germans had brought them all to work in the slave labor camps. In these camps, there were farmers and lawyers and nuns and college professors and school girls and nurses and priests and waiters and artists from everyplace. My father would talk about the Greeks he worked alongside of, the Italians who kept dreaming about eating macaroni, the Russians who the German guards hated and abused all the time, and the Frenchmen who showed their fine Sunday manners even when they were dying. And after the war, many of these people couldn't get back to their own countries, and they waited in these DP camps.

What education my dad had came mainly from what he learned about the world from the people in the camps. He was an orphan and had never been allowed to go to school, but he learned about history and geography and politics and even opera in the slave labor camps. There was an Italian professor who spoke Polish and loved to talk to the other slave laborers about Italian operas. It was amazing what my father knew about Italian opera. He had opinions on the relative merits of French and Italian and German operas. And my dad could back those opinions up! Verdi was great. Wagner, not so hot.

I don’t personally remember much from this time after the war. I was born in 1948. I just have a few memories, and maybe these are based as much on the photographs that I played with as a child as anything else. I remember living in barracks, watching the convoys of dark green army trucks always passing. I remember a pair of camouflaged pants my mother sewed for me out of material that she salvaged from an old army parachute. I remember being lost in the barracks, wandering around calling for my parents and my sister Donna. It felt like I was lost for hours, and it felt like the barracks and the camp went on for thousands of miles. And maybe it did go on for thousands of miles, from one end of Germany to the other. It felt like that.

As I said, there were a lot of people from all over in those DP camps in Germany, and it took a while to get this mass of DPs straightened out after the war. The DPs were all lost, separated from their families, grieving for their dead mothers and dead fathers and dead sons and daughters, afraid to stay in Germany where they had been slaves, and afraid to go back to where they came from because home was maybe just another bunch of graves, or maybe the Communists had taken over and were shipping the DPs who returned to Siberia and the slave labor camps there. The DPs all felt mixed up and lost.

The United Nations was still trying to straighten this mess of DPs up six years after the war when my parents and my sister Donna and I were allowed to leave in 1951.


If you want to read more about my parents and our experiences in Germany and the US, please consider buying Echoes of Tattered Tongues, my new book about those times.  It's available at Amazon and elsewhere.  Click here for Amazon.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

First Full-Length Review of Echoes of Tattered Tongues

The first full-length review of my new book Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded has just been published by the Cosmopolitan Review, a wonderful transatlantic journal of Polish culture, history, and art.

Maja Trochimczyk, the reviewer, loved it!

Here's the way the review opens:

Some books take a lifetime to write, yet they can be read in one sleepless night, filled with tears of compassion and a heaviness of heart. John Z. Guzlowski’s book of poetic memoirs is exactly such a book: an unforgettable, painful personal history, distilling the horrors of his parents’ experiences in German labor and concentration camps into transcendent artwork of lucid beauty.

The book is available for pre-order through Amazon. Here's a link to the entire review: Just Click Here.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Winter in America

Winters were hard when I was a kid in America. We were Polish refugees and immigrants, victims of Hitler and WWII, and we lived in shacks and apartments with two or three other families, apartments without heat or only a wood-burning stove in the kitchen.

It felt like it was always too cold and we didn't have enough to eat.

Winter and the cold seem to be a presence in a lot of the prose pieces and poems in my new book Echoes of Tattered Tongues, a book that includes a substantial section about what it was like for us here as immigrants.

Here's one of the poems from Echoes of Tattered Tongues about those immigrant winters.

All the Clichés About Poverty are True

Our first refugee winter in Chicago
my dad came home with a box of wood scraps
he traded some guy in a bar for a drink
and maybe a couple packs of cigarettes.

Me and my sister Danusha made houses
with those clean-smelling blocks and wedges,
pushed them around the floor like they were horses,
trains, and cowboys. My father that night

put them into the wood stove in the kitchen
for a little warmth, but it wasn’t enough.
My mom raised her hand and said she’d spank us
if we didn’t stop crying for the blocks.

I don’t remember what we did the next night.
Maybe we burned our crayons and chairs.


Echoes will be published by Aquila Polonica. The book can be preordered from Amazon.

Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year's Poem

New Year's Poem
Hope is kind.
Hope is a door and a window.
Hope is the silly neighbor child we ignore when we are children ourselves.
Hope is the lesson learned too late.
Hope is Friday and Sunday morning.
Hope is a train going so fast that not even time can catch it.
Hope is the brother of sorrow, the sister of grief.
Hope is soft cows in a distant pasture of grass.
Hope is our mother.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

My Mother's Death -- a sonnet

The Dead are Dead

Death was a wind and a flood.

It came in the night and it came in the light.

It broke the children and their parents, the mothers who smiled and the fathers who worked in the fields.

Death broke them and buried them and scattered dust over their graves and told a story about death and the road it takes to heaven.

The dead listened and wrote the stories down and kept them close to their hearts.

They knew a story is hope.


The above is part of a sequence of poems called My Mother's Death -- a sonnet.  More of the poem appears at the James Franco Review.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Story My Mother Told Me

My mother spent 3 years in the slave labor camps in Nazi Germany.  Here is a story she heard from one of the other Polish women there.

A Story My Mother Heard in the Slave Labor Camp

They took me from my children, three little ones, Jan was 3, Wlad 5, and Sasha 6.

They said the children would be useless on the farm in Germany. They were too young to do anything but cry and plead for food.

I begged the soldiers to let me take them with me. I said I could care for them and do the work both. I even dropped on my knees and wept, clung to their boots but they said no.

I asked them who would feed them, and they said that surely a neighbor would.

I couldn’t stop weeping, and they said if I didn’t stop they would shoot the children.

So I left them behind in Dębno.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Nazi Artifacts and Memorabilia

I was reading a fine essay by Matthew Vollmer about visiting the home of a man who collected Nazi artifacts and memorabilia, and it got me to remembering.

I had nazi relics/artifacts when I was a kid.
I was born in 1948 in a refugee camp in Germany, and I grew up in the 50s, in a neighborhood of Holocaust survivors and Polish refugees. I knew Polish cavalry officers, hardware store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos, men who had lost their hands in the Warsaw uprising, Polish women who had walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Soviets.
My friends were the children of these people, and all of us had artifacts from the war--knives, arm bands, watches, gas masks, helmets, etc. We traded them, brought them home, played with them, never considering that our parents had been beaten and raped by the men who wore these things.
I remember one time, when I was probably 10, coming home with a dark blue Nazi helmet on my head. My father opened the door and started to weep.