Friday, April 18, 2014

Easter Poem: What My Father Believed

My father wasn't an educated man.  He was born on a small farm in Poland and never attended school.  He didn't know much about stuff most of us take for granted.  One of the things he didn't know much about was religion.  You couldn't talk to him about things like Moses or the Garden of Eden or the Holy Trinity, even though he was born a Catholic.

But he had a strong faith, and there were things that he believed with a certainty as sure as the turning of the earth.   This is a poem about that.

What My Father Believed 

He didn’t know about the Rock of Ages
or bringing in the sheaves or Jacob’s ladder
or gathering at the beautiful river
that flows beneath the throne of God.
He’d never heard of the Baltimore Catechism
either, and didn’t know the purpose of life
was to love and honor and serve God.

He‘d been to the village church as a boy
in Poland, and knew he was Catholic
because his mother and father were buried
in a cemetery under wooden crosses.
His sister Catherine was buried there too.

The day their mother died Catherine took
to the kitchen corner where the stove sat,
and cried.  She wouldn’t eat or drink, just cried
until she died there, died of a broken heart.
She was three or four years old, he was five.

What he knew about the nature of God
and religion came from the sermons
the priests told at mass, and this got mixed up
with his own life.  He knew living was hard,
and that even children are meant to suffer. 
Sometimes, when he was drinking he’d ask,
“Didn’t God send his own son here to suffer?”

He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other.  If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won’t save him.


Garrison Keillor read this poem on his program the Writer's Almanac.  Click here to hear him read it.  

The illustration at the top of the page is by the artist Voytek Luka from my book Third Winter of War: Buchenwald. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Story about Dying

When my father was dying, his dying was awfully hard.  He had liver cancer, and in the hospital they gave him morphine to ease the pain, but the morphine did just the opposite.  It brought back memories of the war and his years as a slave laborer in the Buchenwald concentration camp. 

We sat in the hospital room with him trying to comfort him, but he thought we were German guards come to drag him to the ovens.  Dying, he became so frightened that he tried to crawl out of his bed.  Finally, two nurses had to strap him in to the bed.

My mother sat next to him then holding his hand, whispering “Janek, Janek,” the name his mother called him, but he still struggled, wept, tried to loosen the straps around his hands and feet.

In the corridor, there was some noise, and my mother looked up.  Four nurses stood there talking. One of them smiled and then laughed, and the others started laughing too.

My mother looked at me, nodded slowly, and said, “Half of us are going to the grave, and the other half are going to a wedding.”

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Night in the Labor Camp

My father spent 4 years as a slave laborer in Nazi Germany.  He was a prisoner in Buchenwald and its sub camps.  He worked in its factories and its field.  He plowed, shovelled, and scrambled through bricks looking for dead Germans.  He did the work the Germans told him to do.

When the war ended, he was 25 years old, weighed 75 pounds, and had only one eye.  He had seen men die singly and in large numbers.  He had seen them hanged, shot, castrated, beaten to death with clubs, and left to stand in the snow till they fell to their knees and died.

I often think about what he must have thought about it all, the long years, the hunger and suffering.  Here's a poem that tries to get at that.

Night in the Labor Camp

Through the nearest window
my father stares at the sky and thinks
of his dead father and mother,
his dead sister and brother,

his dead aunt and dead uncle,
his dead friend Jashu, and the boy
whose name he didn’t know
who died in his arms, and all

the others who wait for him
like the first light of the sun
and the work he has to do
when the sun wakes him.

He hates no one, not God,
not the dead who come to him,
not the Germans who caught him,
not even himself for being alive.

He is a man held together
with stitches he has laced himself.

—originally appeared in Lightning and Ashes, 2007, reprinted in the journal War, Literature, and the Arts

What the War Taught Her

Today, at George Washington High School here in Danville, I did a poetry reading about my mom and her experiences as a slave laborer in Nazi Germany.  Here's one of the poems I read, from my book Lighting and Ashes.

What the War Taught Her

My mother learned that sex is bad, 
Men are worthless, it is always cold 
And there is never enough to eat.

She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.

She learned that only the young survive
The camps.  The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.

She learned that the world is a broken place 
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.

She learned that you don't pray 
Your enemies will not torment you.  
You only pray that they will not kill you.


The photo above is a still taken from  Siege, a documentary by Julien Bryan about the fall of Warsaw.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Radiant Poetry

Here's a review of my book Lightning and Ashes by Grady Harp.  He's one of Amazon's Top Ten Reviewers.

Radiant Poetry

John Guzlowski has presented us with a book of poems based on his family's harrowing life in the Nazi concentration camps and their subsequent move to the United States, forever tattooed with the horrors of the war experience. The reader begins to look for the reasons for the author's parents confinement - they were Christians, not gypsies, not radicals - and we must turn to the explanation the writer gives for the truth: ' I was born in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II, and came with my parents Jan and Tekla and my sister Donna to the United States as Displaced Persons in 1951. My parents had been slave laborers in Nazi Germany. Growing up in the immigrant and DP neighborhoods around Humboldt Park in Chicago, I met Jewish hardware store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos on their wrists, Polish cavalry officers who still mourned for their dead horses, and women who walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Russians. My poems try to remember them and their voices.' 

What flows from the pages of this book are exchanges of words and creation of memories shared by the author's mother and father about these experiences. Guzlowski's poems are clear, uncluttered by needless metaphors or superimposed styles of writing. They simply speak to us of the horrors experienced and the aftermath of lives forever changed. 

What the War Taught Her 

My mother learned that sex is bad, 
Men are worthless, it is always cold 
And there is never enough to eat. 

She learned that if you are stupid 
With your hands you will not survive 
The winter even if you survive the fall. 

She learned that only the young survive 
The camps. The old are left in piles 
Like worthless paper. and babies 
Are scarce like chickens and bread. 

She learned that the world is a broken place 
Where no birds sing, and even angels 
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them. 

She learned that you don't pray 
Your enemies will not torment you. 
You only pray that they will not kill you. 

or from the conversations with his father he writes: 

What My Father Ate 

He ate what he couldn't eat, 
what his mother taught him not to: 
brown grass, small ships of wood, the dirt 
beneath his gray dark fingernails. 

He ate the leaves off tress. He ate bark. 
He ate the flies that tormented 
the mules working in the fields. 
He ate what would kill a man 

in the normal course of his life; 
leather buttons, cloth caps, anything 
small enough to get into his mouth. 
He ate roots. He ate newspaper. 

In his slow clumsy hunger 
he idid what the birds did, picked 
for oats or corn or any kind of seed 
in the dry dung left by the cows. 

And when there was nothing to eat 
he'd search the ground for pebbles 
and they would looses his saliva 
and he would swallow that. 
And the other men did the same. 

Poetry so seemingly simple expresses more anguish, more ache, more compassion than a hundred thick historical novels about the war. The final long poem 'The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald' is unbearably painful to read, but read and remember it we must so that this can never happen again.

Grady Harp


Mr. Harp is one of Amazon's Top 10 Reviewers.  Here's an article about him from Slate.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's Day: A World War Two Love Story

My parents met in a concentration camp in Germany toward the end of World War II.

My mom had been brought to Germany by the Nazis to work in a slave labor camp. The day she was captured she saw her mom and her sister and her sister's baby killed by German soldiers. My mom was crying so much when she got to the camp that one of the guards said if she didn't stop crying they would shoot her.

Near the end of the war, my dad and some other slave laborers were brought to my mom's camp by German guards who were escaping the Russians. The Germans left him there and fled toward the American lines. When my mom saw my dad, he was a scarecrow in rags. He weighed about 70 pounds and had only one eye. He had lost the other when a guard clubbed him for begging for food.

She was 23, he was 25. She had been a slave for 2 years, he had been one for 4.

They met in that camp, and after liberation they did what a lot of people did. First, they had something to eat, and then they got married.

It was a hell of a marriage. They fought and argued for the next 50 years -- even on Sunday mornings -- and even on Christmas Day.

It got so bad at times that -- after we came to America -- my sister and I would plead with my parents to get a divorce.

They never did. When my dad died in 1997, they were still married. 52 years.

When I was about 57 or 58, I started wondering why they didn't get a divorce, why they stayed together through all the misery they put each other through. The answer to that question became a poem in my book about them, Lightning and Ashes. The poem is called "Why My Mother Stayed with My Father."

Why My Mother Stayed with My Father

She knew he was worthless the first time
she saw him in the camps: his blind eye,
his small size, the way his clothes carried
the smell of the dead men who wore them before.

In America she learned he couldn’t fix a leak
or drive a nail straight. He knew nothing
about the world, the way the planets moved,
the tides. The moon was just a hole in the sky,

electricity a mystery as great as death.
The first time lightning shorted the fuses,
he fell to his knees and prayed to Blessed Mary
to bring back the miracle of light and lamps.

He was a drunk too. Some Fridays he drank
his check away as soon as he left work.
When she’d see him stagger, she’d knock him down
and kick him till he wept. He wouldn’t crawl away.

He was too embarrassed. Sober, he’d beg
in the bars on Division for food or rent
till even the drunks and bartenders
took pity on this dumb polack.

My father was like that, but he stayed
with her through her madness in the camps
when she searched among the dead for her sister,
and he stayed when it came back in America.

Maybe this was why my mother stayed.
She knew only a man worthless as mud,
worthless as a broken dog would suffer
with her through all of her sorrow.


If you want to read more about my parents, you can check out a couple of the blogs here that talk mostly about them. One is called DPs in the Polish Triangle about what my mom and dad were like when they got to America. Another is called The Wooden Trunk We Carried With Us From Germany. There's also The Day My Mother Died.

Just click on the above titles, and it will take you right to them.

My book about my parents is called Lightning and Ashes, and it's available from Amazon.

Monday, January 27, 2014

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 28

My father spent four years as a slave laborer in Nazi Germany, and my mother spent two and a half years there.  They were two of about 12 million people who were taken to Germany to do the work the Germans needed done while their own workforce was out trying to conquer Europe.

My parents weren't Jewish, but they knew people who were.  Poland was a country with a large Jewish population, and Jews had lived in Poland for almost a millenium.

Like I said, my parents knew Jewish people.  Two of my mom's aunts in fact married two Jewish fellows, twins.  The four of them died in Auschwitz.

Here's a poem I wrote about what my mom thought about the war and the things that happened.


My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.

She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.

She learned that only the young survive
The camps.  The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.

She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.

She learned that you don't pray
Your enemies will not torment you. 

You only pray that they will not kill you.