Monday, October 21, 2019

Olga Tokarczuk and the Nobel Prize for Literature

Here’s my latest column for the Chicago Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America. Whether you like what I say or hate it, feel free to leave a comment on the paper’s website, linked below. The website is popular both in this country and in Poland and wherever Poles live.
When I woke up yesterday morning, the first thing I saw on my iPad was a news note from one of the online news services that Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature along with Austrian novelist Peter Handke.

Despite my 71-year old bum knees, I leapt immediately out of bed. I was so excited and happy when I saw Olga Tokarczuk’s name and the word Nobel. Although I have not read much of her fiction, what I have read I have found to be absolutely engrossing and imaginative and inspiring.

Hearing that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature reminded me of when I heard that Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz won the prize. His winning in 1980 pretty much changed my life. Up to that point, I was a Polish immigrant who wanted nothing to do with Poland or Polish-American culture. In college and in grad school, I worked on my BA, MA, and finally my PhD in American Literature, and the last thing I wanted to think about was the poets and novelists and writers of Poland. Poland was that Old World on the other side of a dark and expansive ocean, and as far as I was concerned it should just stay there.

That all changed when Milosz won the Nobel Prize and I started reading his books of poems and essays. He showed me a Poland I had never seen before, a Poland that inspired me to read its history, re-learn its language, meet its people, and even be one of its people – if only as a tourist. For the first time, as I read Milosz’s writings, I felt I wanted to be as Polish as I could be.

So when I heard that Olga Tokarczuk had won the prize, I felt again much of what I felt when Milosz won the prize. Not only did I again feel reconnected to Poland, I thought that there were readers in the Polish Diaspora who would have the opportunity to connect with Poland the way I did when Milosz won.

And I’m sure that there are such readers, reconnecting with Poland through the voice of Olga Tokarczuk, but there are other voices, many other voices, that are trying to silence Tokarczuk, drown her virtues as a writer, and turn everyone away from the gifts she has.

Almost immediately after discovering Tokarczuk had won the Nobel Prize, I went online to see what social media was making of this great honor given to her. What I found was not what I expected to find.

On one of the popular Facebook pages devoted to Poland, people were calling her a “bitch,” a “cunt,” a “traitor,” and an “idiot.” They were saying she wasn’t even Polish, that in fact she was an anti-Polish Ukrainian. They were also condemning her for being anti-Catholic, pro-Semitic, pro-LGBTQ, a man-slamming feminist, and a Nazi – interestingly — all at the same time. In fact, one of the frequent images of Tokarczuk I saw at this social media site and other social media sites was of her standing with a group of people at a modern art exhibit in front of what looks like a painting of a cross being transformed into a swastika.
or me, one of the interesting things about this onslaught of attacks on Olga Tokarczuk is that no one, I must repeat, NO ONE, has said a single word about what she has written. The accusations and attacks are there, but there is nothing in all of the social media sites I’ve gone to that indicates that anyone making these accusations has read even one of her novels or other writings. One commentator in fact says he refuses to read anything by Tokarczuk because of what other people are saying about her on social media.

So, what should you and I do faced with this deluge of negative accusations and insinuations against Olga Tokarczuk?

The answer is simple. We read her books.

I plan to read her novel Flight next, and after that The Books of Jacob, when the English translation appears in the near future. I may even re-read her novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead.

Join me in discovering your own sense of what Olga Tokarczuk is up to.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Why I Never Worked in a Factory

Here’s my latest column for Chicago’s Polish Daily News. Please leave a comment at the paper, linked below.
The purpose of college is to keep from working. That’s the why I saw it, and that’s why I went to college in 1966.
My dad wasn’t happy with the idea. He was a hard-working Polish guy who had spent most of his life working harder than you or I can ever imagine. Like a lot of Poles, he had been a slave laborer for almost 5 years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany during World War II.
How hard was the work he did there? The slave laborers worked about twelve to fourteen hours a day without any kind of pay on about 600 calories of food per day. When my dad was liberated, he weighed about 75 pounds. He was one of the lucky workers. About 25% of workers there died each year.
When we came to Chicago from the DP camps in Germany in 1952, my dad didn’t stop working. In fact, one of the things that drew him to Chicago was that there was so much factory work here he could work double shifts and make some real money. My dad used to joke that he liked America better than the slave labor camps because at least here you could take a shower and get a cold Budweiser after a day of work.
When I graduated from high school in 1966, I told my dad I planned to go to college, and he tried to talk me out of it. He took me aside and gave me some advice. He said I was smart, and I could speak English like a true American and that if I got a job in a factory I would probably be a foreman in 10 years, and in twenty I would probably own the factory. I laughed.
I didn’t want to work like he did. I had looked around during my last year of high school for a job, and what I saw was that most of my friends with a high school education and no talent were working in factories. I even applied for some of those jobs – jobs making candy or unloading trucks or packing appliances into boxes. The funny thing was that I didn’t get called back for any of those factory jobs I applied for, and the more I filled out those applications the less I wanted to work in some factory.
So I ignored what my dad told me to do, and I went to college. I kept at it until I got a Ph.D. and was lucky enough to get a job teaching. Teaching beats making candy in a candy factory or doing what my dad did–pulling paper tubes out of a chemical bath for 30 years until his lungs got so eaten up by those chemicals that the owners of the factory fired my dad because he couldn’t stand up any more.
PS – I wasn’t the only one that my dad gave that advice to about going to work in the factory and being a foreman and then being the guy who owned the factory. He told my friend Dennis that, and Dennis took my dad’s advice and ended up the millionaire owner of a factory that made burger packaging for McDonalds!

Click HERE.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Transcribing Notes while Waiting for FEDEX

So I'm staring out the window waiting for the Fedex guy to show up and pick up this case of wine we never ordered and didn't want, and I'm wondering what can I do while waiting.  I don't want to do anything where I have to focus too much because then I might miss the Fedex guy.  But I don't want to be wasting my time, so I decided to finally get together all the notes for poems that I’ve been collecting for the last 6 months. 

Here’s what I mean:

I’m always writing down stuff that pops into my head, lines for poems, words for poems, topics for poems.  I write this stuff down on a piece of paper, or rather many many pieces of paper.  I have legal pads and scratch pads scattered around the house and when something interesting hits me, I write it down on one of these pads.  I do this all the time, write stuff down, because I know that if I don’t then I’ll just forget the line or the phrase.  

Trust me, it happens all the time.  

Just this morning while I was exercising on my stationary bike two lines, a couplet, came into my head.  I went to write it down but couldn’t find a pen that worked, and before I got to the bedroom where we store dozens of pens, the lines were gone.  You know what that’s like.  Even if they were dreck, you’ll never know because they’re lost.  And what if they were the lost chord that Leonard Cohen always sings about?!

So while waiting for the Fedex guy, I figured I would gather all these notes together and type them into my computer, and while I’m doing this I can start shifting these lines and trying to see if they come together as poems or possible parts of poems.  My long poem "Third Winter of War: Buchenwald" that's included in Echoes of Tattered Tongues came together this way.  I spent about a year just jotting stuff down and finally when I sat down and typed it all into the computer there was the book.  A good poem in fact.  then it appeared as a chapbook The publisher nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize!

So I’m sitting at the desk, looking out the window for the Fedex guy, and typing. 

Typing slow.

Typing slow because I can’t easily read my writing for the most part.  When I dash these lines and phrases down, I usually write as fast as I can so that I don’t forget what I want to write.  This results in about 40% of the writing being a blur—is it “a land time egg” or “a long time ago”?   “Felt the brown stuff” or “Feel the torn skin”? 

So I’m doing this and keeping an eye on the window and typing and pretty soon I realize that most of everything I’m transcribing from the notes I’ve taken in the last 6 months is shit.

Holy smokes.


I’m not being coy and looking for praise,  I’m not looking for you to tell me, really this stuff is great. I can see it on the pages I’ve typed.  It’s all junk.

Let me give you a few of the pages I’ve transcribed:

  • ·        In the dark there is fear and fantasy, dreams and nightmares

  • ·        when we breathe our last we breathe still—all is well all is well all is well

  • ·        thank you for listening

  • ·        If a man has legs he should walk.

  • ·        a man walks into a kitchen looking for a knife

  • ·        the knife is looking for him

  • ·        The Polish word for hand is ręka.  In German it is shovel, rake, fork, and knife.

  • ·        Spring—I watch the earth as if feeds its dead.  I don’t know what to say.

  • ·        A man will drink water if there’s no beer, no liquor, no love of a woman he knew as a boy.

  • ·        No god waiting for his mother and father at the door of the home he knew as a child

  • ·        For a second just then before dawn the sky is red.

  • ·        All babies are born left-handed.

  • ·        Some men turn to sorrow, others to anger

  • ·        There is death before birth and birth before death

  • ·        The last man on earth asks for a drink of water
  • ·        there is no one to give it to him

  • ·        There’s no pain like loneliness

  • ·        Love isn’t love when it doesn’t exist

  • ·        It came back like the devil and his son

  • ·        Man was not built for staying put,    that’s why god gave him two feet  and a soul that itches.

  • ·        Self defense is the law of nature not the law of Jesus

  • ·        forgiveness is indifference

  • ·        in July the grass is dry, the leaves in the trees as green as they’ll get. 

  • ·        if a man stands still for a moment, what he’ll hear is the silence

  • ·        Winter is ahead, waiting for the world to catch up

  • ·        The trees of heaven have roots that go deeper than sorrow. 

  • ·        Love is a kind of literature

  • ·        Anything but the wire.

  • ·        His voice a violin at a funeral

  • ·        Hell is the place where they keep the cigarettes

So I’m typing this kind of stuff up and getting tired and taking breaks to look for more notepads and slips of paper with lines written on them, and it’s getting later and later, and I’m getting disgusted with the stuff I’m typing up on my computer and wondering where all of it leads, and how come I don’t just stop typing and do something else, and I’m looking at the street through the window, and wondering where the Fedex guy is, and suddenly I see him.

There he is.  A big fedex ground truck.  My truck. 

And I’m ecstatic because I can stop worrying about the case of wine, and the money it’s going to cost me if I don’t get it picked up, and I can stop worrying about the shit I’m transcribing that refuses to cohere, to come together in some kind of shape that I can work into a poem.  All of the world is suddenly golden because the Fedex guy is here, and I’m happy at last, and then suddenly the truck starts up and the truck is over the hill and out of sight in a couple of seconds.  He’s gone.  Him and his truck.  And he never even got out of the truck, to walk up the sidewalk to the house and ring the bell or knock on the door to pick up the case of wine that was waiting just inside the door.

He’s gone.

And I’ve got to go back to transcribing all of this rotten poetry.

All of it—that I can’t read and that doesn’t make any kind of sense.      
So I type from the sheets of note pads:

  • I just want to say to the world, hold me.
  • And here’s what’s God say, “Not now.” 
  • He keeps me waiting like a cow.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Age of Medical Miracles and Wonders

The Age of Medical Miracles and Wonders

Here's an article I wrote for the Polish Daily News of Chicago about my swollen knee and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever problem and how I'm dealing with this medical mess and the different way my Polish parents dealt with their medical problems.

If you like the piece, please leave a comment at the newspaper's website. I've got a new editor and I have to convince her people are reading my columns in the Polish Daily News/Dziennik Zwiazkowy. So be sure to leave a comment. The link appears at the end.


When I was a kid, I seldom saw my parents go to doctors.

When my mom and dad had an ache here or there, they would use the remedies they brought with them when they crossed the seas from Poland. If my mom had a cold coming on, sometimes she would take a clove of garlic and rub it on her nose. If she had a swollen ankle, she’d drink some water mixed with vinegar. If she saw that I had some kind of ulcerations or bruises on my legs or arms, she’d warm up some cabbage leaves and wrap my bruises in them. If the remedies she believed in didn’t clear up the problem, she’d go visit her friend, the Polish herbalist down near Milwaukee and Division, and get a second opinion.

My dad tended to take a different but equally unusual approach. If his back was throbbing from trying to lift a 50-gallon trashcan by himself or if his hands were hurting from some kind of assembly-line accident he experienced down at the factory, he would grab a bottle of vodka and go down to the basement of the apartment building we lived in near Humboldt Park. Down there, he’d open up the furnace door, pull up a chair, and start drinking the vodka – slowly of course – and letting it and the heat from the furnace do their stuff. Generally, a couple of hours later, he’d come up starts smiling and feeling better.

Sometimes I think my parents had the right idea.

About seven months ago, I was doing some jumping jacks. I wasn’t doing a lot, just three as a part of a daily exercise regimen, but I guess three was too many for a 70 year-old man. A couple days later, I noticed that I had some pain in my left knee. At first, I didn’t give it any mind. I figured it would go away if I just took it easy for a week. But it didn’t go away. After a week, the swelling around my knee was so bad and walking was so difficult that I decided to see my doctor.

I didn’t think at all about what my Polish parents with their old-world health remedies would have suggested. I just contacted my doctor. He sent me to an urgent-care facility connected to his office. They looked at the swollen knee, nodded their heads, took X-rays, and said I needed physical therapy. I said great and started doing fourteen sessions at the local therapy center.

When I got done at the end of June, I was feeling better. The swelling had gone down a lot and walking was only a little painful. The physical therapist told me to keep doing the exercises and soon I would have the knees of a twenty-year old. She even celebrated my successful graduation from physical therapy by giving me a red T-shirt that says, “I Love Physical Therapy!”

Things were going well until the start of August. I looked at my left knee one morning, and it was swollen more than it had ever been before. And I was limping like I hadn’t been limping since a couple days after that jumping jack fiasco. And I suddenly realized that it wasn’t only my knee that was bothering me, but I had aches and pains all over my body, in my chest, my ribs, my neck, and even in my groin area. And I noticed also that I was sweating for some reason. My temperature was hovering around 100.3. And when I got on the scale I immediately realized I had lost five pounds.

I did what any modern person would do. I went to see my doctor again. He was shocked and gave me a couple cortisone shots. I was great for two days. Then all the pain, fever, and misery came back, and I lost another five pounds.

And what did I do then? I went to see my doctor. Of course.

This time he was even more shocked, and he prescribed not only an antibiotic but also an opioid for the pain that was making it almost impossible for me to walk, stand, sit, or lie down.
I thought that finally we had found out what the problem was, and the antibiotics and opioids would fix the swelling in my left knee, rid my body of all the pain and all the sweating, and give me back my appetite so I would stop losing all this weight.

But it didn’t. The fever and the pain and the swelling are back. And I’ve been given another set of opioids and another two-week round of antibiotics because the doctor thinks I have Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and the doctor also set up an appointment for me to see an orthopedic surgeon in the hopes that he can figure out what this mess is all about.

And me?

I wish my parents were still alive, so I could ask my mom what she would take for my pain and fever, and I would ask my dad if he wanted to go down to the rec room in the basement with me and sit by the fireplace and share a bottle of vodka.


Click here to access the Polish Daily News where you can leave a comment.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Wild Place -- the best book about the DP Camps

The Wild Place
This the title of the best book I've ever read about the Displaced Persons Camps in Germany after the war. It focuses on the Polish DP camp at Wildflecken.
It's written by Kathryn Hulme who was the UN director of the camp and also a fine writer. Her most famous book was The Nun's Story which was made into a classic film starring Audrey Hepburn.
For a long long time this book for some reason was out of print. You might find it in an old book store (for a 100 bucks) or some university library, but otherwise you couldn't read it.
Somehow, the book is now available as a Kindle.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know about what it was like for the Poles who survived their years of slave laborer in Germany and then waited in DP camps for some country to take them in.

Here's the link to the kindle: Just click here.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Everyday I will Remember

Everyday I Will Remember by Christopher Kuhl

This excellent book of poems by Christopher Kuhl about his family and their experiences in the Holocaust is now on sale at Amazon for $3.29, marked down from $12.99.  When I saw that this price had been reduced so much, I couldn't believe it.

Here is a review I wrote of the book:

No single book or group of books will teach you about the Holocaust, what happened when the Germans decided to cleanse the earth of Jews and Gypsies and Poles and Gays and the people the Germans considered mules or subhumans or devils.

My mother spent 3 years in the concentration camps in Germany. When I would ask her what it was like, she would just say, “If they give you bread, eat it. If they beat you, run away.” Unsatisfied, I would press her for more, and when she would finally give in and speak, all she would say was, “You weren’t there. You will never understand.”

So where does that leave you and me, who weren’t in the camps, who will never know what it was like?

It leaves us wondering and asking questions and looking for the answers wherever we can find them. It leaves us reading books by those who survived, great writers like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankel and Wladyslaw Szpilman and Olga Lengyel. And it leaves us reading books by writers who have somehow listened to the voices of those who survived and in those voices heard something that allows them to continue the legacy of those who survived and wrote about it.

Christopher Kuhl is such a writer.

Like the best of them – contemporary poets like Charles Fishman, William Heyen, and Cyrus Cassells – Christopher Kuhl blends stark moments of misery and death with a poetic vision that gives those moments an intensity that we will never forget.

We see this throughout his book Everyday I Will Remember. He tells us about those survived the camps and those who didn’t and what they saw and heard: the selections, the ovens, the bayonets in the ribs, the screaming, the diseases, the voices of the German soldiers, the dead children, the mass graves, the boxcars, the empty villages, the electric fences, the bodies piled so high.

But showing us the Holocaust is not all that Christopher Kuhl does. He helps us remember the Holocaust. He does this through his language, his images, his poet’s vision. This is most felt I think in those poems in the second half of the book, the section dealing with the time after the war, after the liberation from the camps. In this section, the survivors and the descendants of survivors are themselves seeking the words that will make some sense of the Holocaust.
We see this, for example, in the poem “A Mother’s Prayer to Her Son: Remember Me”:

I gather the wind
In the palm
Of my hand:

Son of my womb,
Son of my vows,

You have stirred my
Shadow to life . . . .

Christopher Kuhl also brings to his telling of the story of the Holocaust a poet’s gift for asking the ultimate questions the Holocaust forces us to ask.

Why did so many die? What do we owe a God who allowed this to happen? Why do such genocides go on and on? Why did the Germans do such terrible things? Do the dead know why they suffered? What is it like to be dead? How should we remember those who suffered?

And why should we remember them?
In an era where people are forgetting the Holocaust and questioning even whether it ever actually occurred, Christopher Kuhl reminds us as only a great poet can why we should never forget.

Click here to go to Amazon: