Saturday, July 23, 2016

Oral History -- Visiting the Old Neighborhood East of Humboldt Park, Chicago

Forgotten Chicago historian Daniel Pogorzelski and I did a tour of some of my old neighborhood around Humboldt Park this last May.

I talked and talked and at some point he dragged out his iPhone and started filming.

Here's the result.  

The first three follow me as I walk from the corner of Washtenaw and Evergreen to where my house used to be at 2728 W. Evergreen.

The last one finds us talking about a section of Humboldt Park I liked a lot when I was a kid.

Part 1



Part 2



Part 3



Part 4




If you want to read more about the old neighborhood in Chicago, definitely buy my books Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded and Suitcase Charlie.  

The former talks in large part about what it was like being a refugee in Chicago.  The latter is a crime novel set in the old neighborhood.  

You'll like them.  I promise.

If you don't want to buy my books, take a look at some of the other posts on this blog -- especially "Growing Up Polack" and "Sweet Home Chicago."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

HOW MY PARENTS MET: A SURVIVORS' STORY



My parents didn’t much talk about their relationship or their love for each other or how they met.   To tell the truth, they weren’t a happy couple.  In fact, they didn’t much talk about anything to each other.  They made sure for years that they had work schedules that conflicted and kept them out of the house when the other one was home.  The only time they would really see each other was on the weekends and holidays, and you could always expect a serious fight or argument. 
It was a hell of a marriage. They went at it whenever they’d get together, even on Sunday mornings, even on Christmas Day.  It got so bad at times when I was a kid that my sister and I would plead with them to get a divorce.  What finally stopped them arguing was the death of my dad in 1997. 
But I knew the bare bones of how they met.  It was during World War II, and sometimes, if my mom wasn’t around and my dad had had a few drinks, he’d start talking about the war, the stuff he saw, the life he led.  He’d talk about how he’d been a Polish farm boy when he was captured by the Nazis and taken to Buchenwald Concentration Camp as a slave laborer.  He spent more than four years there, doing the work that the Nazis needed done because their own farm boys were out conquering the world.  My dad would talk about the work and the hunger, and once in a while he would talk about my mom.
One of the stories he told me was about the day she was captured by the Nazis.  They came to her house and killed her mom and my aunt and my aunt’s baby, kicked it to death.  My mom was able to save herself by breaking through a window and escaping into a forest.  That’s where the Nazis caught her the next day.  They shipped her and a bunch of the other girls from her village off to the slave labor camps in Germany.  When she got to the camp a week later, she was still crying so much that one of the guards said if she didn't stop crying he would shoot her. 
My dad liked to tell that story about how she was captured and how brave and strong she was when she saw the terrible things that happened to her family, and sometimes he would tell me about when she was freed.  It happened near the end of the war when he and some other slave laborers from Buchenwald were being led on a death march.  My dad and these other guys were passing the camp where my mom was, and that’s when my dad first met her.
And that’s also pretty much where my dad’s story about what happened and my mom’s story split.
The way my dad told it, the guards prodding the prisoners on this death march came up to the camp my mom was in and found all the Nazi guards gone.  It had been deserted by the men who were supposed to watch it.  According to my dad, every Nazi in Eastern Germany was trying to put as much distance between himself and the ten million or so invading Russians.  There were no guards in my mom’s camp because they had fled before the Reds that were barreling down on Germany.  When the Germans who were watching my dad realized this, they split too, leaving my dad and the other prisoners in front of my mom’s camp. 
Telling this story, my dad would always throw in at this point the fact that he had been a prisoner for 4 ½ years, and that they were hard years.  He has seen his friends beaten, hanged, starved to death, and castrated.  The German guards controlling his concentration camp never extended a human touch toward the prisoners, as far as my dad could tell, and he figured it was the same for the women.  They had seen their mother’s raped, their sisters’ bayoneted, babies thrown up in the air and shot.   When my dad and the other men saw those women standing at the camp gate with their hands on the barbwire looking at them, you can imagine what they thought, what all of them thought. 
My dad liked to say about that meeting between the men slaves and the women slaves, “First we had something to eat, and then we got married.”
He always made it sound like some kind of party, a sad party maybe, but a party nonetheless.  People in rags eating and falling into each others’ arms like heaven had suddenly sprung up where hell had flourished. 
But – he assured me – he was always a gentleman.
That’s the way my dad told it, and that’s the way I understood it for years—until after my dad died, and I asked my mom about what she remembered of that day she met my dad.
I asked her because I was writing a series of poems about them for the book that eventually became Lightning and Ashes, and I wanted to write about that day they met.
When I asked her, she said, “Sure, I’ll tell you.  Take out a legal pad.”
 She was always doing that, asking me to write things down, if she knew that she was going to tell me something that she wanted me to put in the book I was writing.  So I reached for my briefcase and took out the yellow legal pad and sat back to listen.
She told me that she first saw my dad in front of the barracks building she was in.  He was walking with a dozen other prisoners, a German soldier behind them prodding them on with some kind of rifle.  My father, she said, wasn’t fat like he got to be toward the end of his life.  He was skinny then, like two shoelaces tied together.  70 pounds, she said, and he had only one eye. He lost the other when a guard clubbed him because he begged for food.
She wasn’t such a prize after three years in the camps either, she said.  When the Americans liberated the camp she was in, they put her on a scale and found she weighed less than 100 pounds.  She was wearing woolens on her legs, a grey rag to hide her hair, and a dirty stripped dress.
And here’s what else she said to me:
“And him?  Your father?   Like I said, skinny, a shoelace, with a bleeding towel across his face from where he lost his eye. Still, he walked up to me, took my hand, and said in Polish, ‘Proszę, pani.’  Yes, that’s what he said, ‘Please, miss,’ and like a proper gentleman, he clicked his heels.  I thought he was at least a count, maybe a prince.  Then just before your dad had a chance to kiss my hand, the German behind him kicked him in the pants and said, ‘Dumbkopf  raus.’  Get moving, dummy. 
“Your father was like that.  Always putting on airs, even there in the camp talking of Polish honor as if he and Poland shared a soul.  Really, he was worthless.  I wish he had left me there in the camp.  He couldn’t drive a car, he couldn’t fix a leaky roof. After the war when I asked him in the refugee camp to help me pack to come to America, and what do you think?  He took a little drink and bundled all the clothes together in a bed spread like America was across the street.
“The fool, I should have kicked him like the German soldier did when I first met him.  Instead, I kissed him and wept.”
You’re probably wondering whose story was the true story about that first meeting, my mom’s or my dad’s.  I heard both stories first hand.  Listened to my dad and my mom, and they both sounded true.  I could see it in their eyes, the way they looked at me when they told about that meeting at the camp gate, separated by barbed wire.  They probably were both telling the truth.  The truth’s never simple.  If my parents taught me one thing, that’s it.  Different people tell the truth in different ways.















________
This memoir first appeared in Shout Out, a British journal.  

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Refugee Camp 1948

My tweet poem was featured in @escarp, the twitter poetry venue.

Refugee Camp, 1948/

I remember only a little/
the grayness of everything/
and how silently/
my mother wept./

Sunday, June 26, 2016

SUITCASE CHARLIE 99 cents!

SUITCASE CHARLIE KINDLE SALE

My Readers' Favorite Award Winning crime novel is on sale from now until the 4th of July.

The novel deals with a serial killer loose in a neighbor of Holocaust survivors and refugees in Chicago in the 1950s.

99 cents!

Cheap at half the price!

Just click here: Amazon Kindle

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Leonard Lopate Interview



Dear Friends,

My recent National Public Radio interview with on the Leonard Lopate Show is now available as a podcast online. 

We talk about my new book Echoes of Tattered Tongues and my parents' experiences in the Nazi slave labor camps and the post war refugee experience.

If you do listen, please leave a comment on the podcast page to encourage Lopate to feature other survivors' stories on his show.

Here is the link to the interview.  Just click here.

_________

The photo is by John Vachon from his book Poland 1946.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Father's Day Post -- What My Father Ate


My father spent more than 4 years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp as a Polish slave laborer. He was captured in a round up when he went to his village north of Poznan to buy some rope. When he was taken by the Nazis, he was a kid, just 19 years old.

A lot of times when he talked about his experiences, he couldn't help telling me about how hungry he was for those four years. He said that most days he got about 500 calories of food. Once when he complained about the food, the Nazi guard hit him across the head with a club. From that day on, my dad was blind in one eye.

When the Americans liberated the camp, he weighed 75 pounds. My mother said that when she saw him stumble into her camp at the end of a death march, he was skinny, like two shoelaces tied together.  And he was one of the lucky ones. A lot of the guys in his camp didn't make it.

Once I asked him what it was like that first meeting with my mom, he smiled and said, "First, we had something to eat, and then we got married."

__________

I've written a lot of poems about how hungry he was during those four year. The following is one of them. It's called "What He Ate."  Here's a youtube of me reading the poem. I'm posting a copy of the poem itself after the video.






What My Father Ate

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

He ate the leaves off trees. 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 did 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 loosen his saliva
and he would swallow that.

And the other men did the same.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Reading at the Holocaust Educators Conference at Lynchburg College




















Holocaust Educators Conference at Lynchburg College

I'll be reading poems and some prose pieces from my new book Echoes of Tattered Tongues about my family's experiences as Displaced Persons in Germany and refugees in America.

I love talking to students and teachers about my parents.  If you ever want me to visit a class just drop me a line.  (The Georgia Holocaust Commission gave me an award for talking to high school students in Georgia.)

The first poem I'll read is Refugees.

REFUGEES

We came with heavy suitcases
made from wooden boards by brothers
we left behind, came from Buchenwald
and Katowice and before that
Lvov, our mother's true home,

came with our tongues
in tatters, our teeth in our pockets,
hugging only ourselves, our bodies
stiff like frightened ostriches.

We were the children in ragged wool
who shuffled in line to eat or pray
or beg anyone for charity.

Remembering the air and the trees,
the sky above the Polish fields,
we dreamt only of the lives waiting
for us in Chicago and  St. Louis
and Superior, Wisconsin

like  pennies
in our mouths.

(The conference is being conducted by the Holocaust Educators Foundation of Central Virginia.)