Monday, January 23, 2023

78th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

On January 27, 1945, the Soviet army came upon Auschwitz and its various camps and subcamps.  

What they found was terrible.

Afraid of anyone seeing what they had been doing in Auschwitz, the Germans went on a killing spree before the arrival of the Russians.  They also tried to blow up the ovens where the murdered had been burned for years.  

When the Russians arrived, they found corpses and 7000 starving prisoners.

A conservative estimate is that 1,000,000 people died there.  Two of the them were my mother's aunts, Polish girls who married two Jewish boys.  

Here is a poem I wrote about Auschwitz.  It is based on an incident Tadeusz Borowski, a survivor of Auschwitz, describes in his memoir This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.  

I wrote the poem after a student at one of my readings asked me if I had one word for everything that happened in Auschwitz and the other German camps.  

The word was fear.

The poem appears in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues, available from Amazon.  


During the war, there was only work and death.

The work broke you down, filled your stomach

with rocks and threw you in the river to drown.

The work shoved a bayonet up your ass

and twisted the blade till you were dead.

In the camps, there was only what we ate

and those we worked with—sometimes women.

But we never made love. I’ll tell you why.

Fear. I remember once a thousand men

were working a field with sticks, and trucks came

and dumped naked women in front of us.

Guards were whipping them to the ovens,

and the women screamed and cried to us, pleaded

with their arms stretched out—naked mothers,

daughters, and sisters, but not one man moved.

Not one. Fear will blind you, and tie you up

like nothing else. It’ll whisper, “Just stand still,

soon it will be over. Don’t worry, there’s nothing

you can do.” You will take this fear to the grave

with you. I can promise. And after the war,

it was the same. I saw things that were as bad

as what happened in the camps. I wish

I had had a gun there. I would have

pressed it here to my forehead, right here.

Better that than what I feel now. This fear.

The painting is by my friend Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk from his series of paintings of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Friday, January 20, 2023


 Who Am I?

I was interviewed recently, and the interviewer asked a question I’ve never been asked by an interviewer.

He asked me who I am.

Personally, I feel that’s an impossible question to answer.

Let me explain why. 45 years ago, I did my PhD dissertation on the sense of the “self” in contemporary literature. The focus was on the “postmodern” notion that there is no definable “self.” According to my research, I cannot explain who I am. All I can give you is a sense of my “self” that is a fiction created out of the bits and pieces of my “self.”

So who am I?

Well, here’s the fiction I’ve created to answer that question: I’m a 74-year old guy with bad knees, vertigo, eyes that can’t focus, constant pain in my back, and two feet I’m always tripping over. My rheumatologist says my body is being taken over by a form of arthritis called “undifferentiated spondyloarthropathy” a mysterious disease affecting everything from my eyeballs to my toes.

But that’s not all I am. I’m also a writer who writes mystery novels, poems, and newspaper columns that have nothing to do with all that. I write about snow and sparrows, the world in the morning, the more mysterious world at night, the friends who are still here and wondering where I’ve gone to, and the friends who are waiting in their graves for my memories to give them some breath. I write about God and aging, my wife and my family, the way a door closes and the way a door waits to be opened. I write a lot about my mom and dad, the lives they had after they left the concentration camps. And I write about standing at a bus stop on the corner of Michigan Ave and Chicago waiting for a passing crucifixion just the way I did when I was a hippie 55 years ago.

So who else am I?

I’m also still what I once was: a kid born in a refugee camp after WWII, growing up in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, listening to my mother telling me how she saw her mother raped and killed by the Germans, dreaming of Henryk Sienkiewicz and Władysław Reymont, listening to my father telling me about how he watched German soldiers stabbing women in their breasts with bayonets, going to schools and colleges, finding friends and losing friends, teaching and marrying and having a family like no family I had ever had, and growing and growing and growing.

And still that’s not who I am.

Just yesterday, a friend I had in 6th grade got in touch with me on Facebook. I haven’t spoken or written to this guy in more than 60 years. I asked him who I was in 6th grade. He wrote back, “You were a tall, skinny, bad boy.”

I was surprised. I think he had me confused with someone else. Or not.

My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America. 

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Happy New Year!


My parents loved New Year’s Eve.

They loved dressing up in their fancy clothes. For weeks, my mom would search the department stores and dress shops on Milwaukee Avenue and Chicago Avenue looking for the most beautiful gown and shoes she could afford. For days, my dad would polish up his shoes again and again and make sure his best suit was free of any wrinkles and tears. They wanted to look as fancy as the Americans they dreamt of being.

They loved the spectacular ballroom they went to on New Year’s, the one in Wicker Park, on Wood Street just north of Division. They loved spending a long evening celebrating the coming year with their friends. These people – like my parents – were survivors. They survived the German invasion of Poland in 1939. They survived the years in the German slave labor camps. They survived seeing their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and friends killed by the Germans and the Russians. They survived the hardship of coming to America with nothing more than a wooden trunk filled with the few possessions they were able to gather together in the years they spent in the Displaced Persons camps in Germany waiting for some country like Canada or Australia or the United States to say finally, “Sure, we’ll let you come in, but it won’t be easy on you.”

My mother loved to dance the evening away. My father never learned to dance growing up, and so my mother would dance with anyone who looked like he or she was in need of a partner. She danced polkas and waltzes and tangos. She loved to hear the band on the stage play the old songs like “To ostatnia niedziela” and “Ada, to nie wypada” and “Dobranoc, kochanie” as she swirled around the dance floor with her friends and even strangers. 

Dancing, my mother would once again be the little girl who loved to dance with her sister Genja. My mother would once again be the girl she had been before the war killed her sister and ended all of her childhood.

And while my mom danced, my dad would sit at his table with his friends and talk about the war. They would talk a little about what they themselves suffered, but that wasn’t at the heart of their conversation. Whatever suffering they experienced was nothing compared to the suffering of those who hadn’t survived. My dad and his friends would sit at the table drinking their drinks and talking about the friends they had lost in the war, about Andrzej and Piotr and Janus and Antoni, about their suffering and bleeding and dying.

And dancing and drinking and sharing stories, my parents and their friends said goodbye to the year that had passed and embraced the year that was coming.


My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.


Saturday, December 31, 2022

New Years Resolutions

 New Year’s Resolutions

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been making Resolutions for most of my life.

I don’t remember when I started making them or why I did. It wasn’t something my parents did. I know that for a fact. New Year’s Eve they were always too busy partying with their friends to sit down and make a list of changes they would like to make in their lives. But like I said, I’ve been making Resolutions for a long time.

Recently, I looked over my New Year’s Resolutions for the last 10 years, and they are pretty much the same from year to year.

Here they are:

I will lose 25 pounds.

I will spend more time playing with my granddaughter Lulu.

I will ride my bike on good weather days.

I will be a better friend to my friends.

I will read 50 novels this year.

I will write 2 hours a day.

I will do yoga or Pilates every other day.

I will clean up my book shelves.

I will keep track of my wife’s earrings.

I will not make any mistakes!

It’s an interesting list, and the fact that I have pretty much the same list year after year tells you something pretty obvious about my ability to hold to these resolutions. For the most part, I can’t. To be honest with you all, I’ve only accomplished two of the resolutions this year.

First, I’ve managed to clean up my bookshelves. But I had little choice. We moved recently, and I had to box and move my totally chaotic 10,000 book library. (I should also add that some members of my immediate family like my wife, my daughter, and my granddaughter think my bookshelves still need pruning).

Second, I managed to lose 25 pounds. But before you start applauding me, let me explain I lost them because of a health emergency that hit me in September. I came down with the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a tick-borne disease that kills your appetite.

But the other stuff? Nope. Nada. Nothing.

Reading a novel a week? Not even close. I think I started reading a novel a month ago but I’ve lost it.

Writing 2 hours a day? I’ve come close. I was doing really well with the fourth novel in my Hank and Marvin mystery series, and then we had to move into the new house. Prepping for that and then actually moving ate up a lot of time. Then there was our London vacation! You can’t write if you’re wandering around London.

Yoga and Pilates? Nope. In fact the only exercise I have been doing is for my bum knee.

Bike riding? I look at my terrific bike every time I go into the garage and I think about how much I loved biking and how my bum knee has screwed up that love.

Be a better friend to my friends? Hard to do when most of the time you spend with your friends is on Facebook

So what am I going to do with these resolutions?

I think I’m going to scrap them and come up with a whole new New Year’s Resolution this year that has less to do with me and more to do with the people I love and the world I love.

So here’s my Resolution for this year:

I’m going to love the people I love, and let them love me, and I’m going to work to make sure the world I love stays safe from the people who want to change it.

An old column I wrote for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, Chicago’s Polish Daily News.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Christmas Trees!


I was talking to a friend yesterday about putting up Christmas decorations.  She was complaining about the time involved in the whole process. She talked about how hard it was putting the artificial tree together and then dragging the boxes of lights and ornaments out of the attic and then trying to track down the little statues of Santa and Mrs. Claus that she thought she had put in the basement but hadn’t.   My friend said that the whole operation took about 5 hours, even with her husband helping her put the Christmas lights on the bushes outside the house. 

5 hours to decorate the house for Christmas?  Is that all?

Let me tell you what it was like when I was a kid growing up in the fifties in the Polish neighborhood just east of Humboldt Park.    

The biggest problem was finding a tree.  It wasn’t like you could go down to Adolf and Rosita’s Grocery on the corner and buy a tree.  Trees were sold in weird places that you wouldn’t expect to be selling trees.  

Let me give you one example.  Taverns.

For some reason, taverns in the area sold trees.  They would have a dozen or so trees leaning against their front windows. Picking out a tree at a tavern sounds easy.  But it wasn’t.  A lot of times these trees were ragged with broken branches or needles that were turning brown.  What you had to do then was find another bar and another bar and another bar until you found one with a perfect tree.

My parents were picky when it came to trees.  They had both grown up near forests in rural Poland, and they knew a great tree when they saw one.  So when they checked out the trees at these taverns, they knew what they were looking for.  They were looking for the  best Christmas tree in Chicago.

What made this search especially difficult was the fact that my parents didn’t own a car.  We would, therefore, have to walk from tavern to tavern.  We’d walk from a tavern on the corner of California and Division to one on the corner of Western and North Ave to one on the corner of Kedzie and Armitage.  And of course, what made this search for the perfect Christmas tree even more difficult was the weather.  Once we had found the perfect tree we would often have to carry it home through the falling snow on ice-covered sidewalks.  This whole journey of finding the perfect Christmas tree would often take an entire Saturday afternoon.

And of course, that was just the beginning of the process of decorating our house for the holidays.  I knew that as soon as my dad carried the tree home, he’d drag his hand saw out of the basement and get to work on trimming that tree’s trunk and branches to make it the perfect tree — like the Christmas trees he loved in Poland as a boy before the war. 

My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.

Saturday, December 10, 2022


The Death of the Polish Captain

When I was a little kid back in the 1950s, we lived in an apartment building east of Humboldt Park. The building wasn’t much: three units, each with four tiny rooms, and no central heating! But we had some great neighbors, and probably the most interesting was Pan Kaminski.

Like us, he was a Polish Displaced Person, a refugee, but he was like no one else in the neighborhood. He knew everything. While most of us struggled with English and living in America, he understood English and America perfectly. When neighbors had questions about America, they would bring them to him.

One of the things I personally loved about Pan Kaminski was that he had been a captain in the Polish cavalry during World War II and had fought at Monte Cassino. Whenever I saw him, I would salute him.

Like I said, I knew this man when I was a kid, but I didn’t know what happened to him or his wife and his family. So one day years later, while visiting my mother, I asked about Pan Kaminski.

What she told me became the following poem in my book about my parents, Echoes of Tattered Tongues:

The Death of the Polish Captain of Lancers

His wife loved the captain for his wounds,

The red shrapnel scars across his chest,

The fingers broken by the Germans,

The way he looked down at his hands

As he listened to Chopin or talked of those

Who died around him at Monte Cassino

When the Poles finally moved toward

The abbey’s fallen bricks and ruined walls.

She listened with her fingers across her lips

When he told her who the fallen men were,

The orphan from Poznan who loved Poland

As if it were his mother. The mandolin player,

Older than the others, who played the songs

A boy from Beaumont, Texas taught him,

The corporal who left Poland before the war

And came back because everything was lost,

And the others, men who needed to take

Monte Cassino the way hungry men dreamed

Of bread and needed to feel it in their hands.

She listened to the stories a hundred times,

Every time he’d come home from the bars

On Division street where Poles would still

Sing the song the survivors sang about the battle.

The song’s words were simple, about red poppies

Growing among the fallen walls and bricks

Getting their blood from the blood of those

Who fell where crosses would later stand.

She loved the captain for the way he always

Cried for Poland, but she didn’t love the drinking,

The cognac he’d take straight from the bottle

When he thought nothing could make him sadder

And he needed it more than some needed bread.

And finally when she found him drunk

And crying and singing about the poppies

Growing red with the blood of Polish boys

She forced the bottle into his mouth, saying

“If you want to drink so much, drink” and held

That position until he choked to death.

My latest column from Chicago’s Polish Daily News

Friday, December 2, 2022

Stay Home Part 2

  STAY HOME! Part 2

A couple weeks ago, I told you about the rotten cruise we had at the beginning of this November.  I told you about the Hurricane that came rumbling up toward the ship, how the ship fled north toward Baltimore, how we missed two great ports we were supposed to visit, how the Hurricane ruined the food and wine on the cruise and the entertainment we dreamt of seeing on it.

But I didn’t tell you about my COVID.

Three days into the cruise, my nose started running.  At first I thought I was just having a temporary allergic reaction to the pillows in our stateroom, but my running nose got worse.  It kept running constantly, and then I developed a cough, constant headaches, and body pain, and I started sneezing constantly.

My wife Linda finally said, “Maybe you have COVID.”

I said, “No way.” I reminded her that we had both just received our third COVID booster and tested negative before getting on the ship and that we had had a bad case of COVID at the beginning of the year that probably created a lot of anti-COVID antibodies in us.  

She wouldn’t listen, and so we both took a COVID test in our stateroom. Hers was negative.  Mine was of course positive. I had COVID.  

I did what any responsible passenger would do.  I picked up my stateroom phone and called the ship’s medical team.  We expected a quick and forceful response from them.  I was wrong.

The nurse I spoke to said he wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do but that he would get back in touch with me after he asked around.  Then he hung up.

I looked at my wife.  We were both surprised by the nurse’s apparent confusion.

After about an hour, there was a knock on our stateroom door and a doctor came in.  She was wearing a mask and carrying a bag of medical supplies.  I expected her to give me another COVID test, but she didn’t.  Instead, she took my temperature and my blood pressure, and she handed me some cough drops for my sore throat and some pills to control my runny nose.  She also told me that I was quarantined in my room until the end of the cruise.  

My wife said, “What about me?”  

The doctor told her she wasn’t quarantined. She was free to wander around the ship and enjoy herself.  

“But shouldn’t I be quarantined?” my wife asked. “ I’m sharing a room with a person who’s got COVID.  Aren’t you afraid I’ll contaminate people on the ship?”

The doctor shook her head and said, “It’s entirely up to you.”

My wife and I felt this was a strange and rather frivolous response.  The medical team was ignoring the possibility that I had infected my wife and that she might infect other passengers.  

The doctor assumed that since my wife tested negative she was negative. In fact, my wife took a test when we got back home and she tested positive for COVID.

I guess the moral of all this is that people who should be taking COVID seriously aren’t and that the responsibility falls back on people like you and me to protect ourselves and others.

So remember to stay home!

I wrote this column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.