Thursday, March 7, 2019

Charity in America

Charity in America

Here’s my latest column from Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the Polish Daily News.  It’s about the people who helped us when we first came to America as refugees in 1951.

Please leave a comment at the paper if you like the piece.  The link is below following the English version.  The Polish version is at the site.

To read more about our experiences as refugees please see my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues.  


When we first arrived in Chicago in 1952, we were lost. My family had spent 6 years in the DP camps in Germany after the war and another year outside of Buffalo, NY, working for a farmer who paid our passage over to America.

But now we were in Chicago, and we were lost. We had nothing, just the things we brought with us from Germany. I remember years later asking my mother what we had brought to America in the wooden trunk my father built. She shrugged and went through the list: some plates, a crucifix, a wooden comb, some goose down pillows, a frying pan, and letters from a friend in America.

In Chicago we lived in dark rooms in small apartments in that we shared sometimes with two or three other DP families from the camps in Germany.  We were all people who had lost so much and had left so much behind, our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, our brothers and sisters.

We were alone and didn’t know where anything in this new world was.  I remember one time my father was going out looking for a store where he could buy some Polish sausage, and my mom stopped him and said, ”Maybe they don’t have kielbasa here.”

I was 4 years old that first winter in America, and I remember staring out a window at the snow falling on the buses moving slowly up and down Milwaukee Avenue, and begging my father to take us back to the refugee camps in Germany. I said it was too hard for us here.

We were lost in America — but sometimes people helped us.
We didn’t know who they were or what their names were or why they helped us.  But they did.

I remember one time two women who came to our apartment. They didn’t speak Polish, and the only English my parents knew was “Thank you, Missus.” These two women came and brought a dress for my mother, rubber boots for my dad, cans of pork and beans and loaves of bread for all of us, and for my sister and me, they brought some comic books, a hard rubber toy, a doll and a red truck with a missing tire.

We didn’t know who these two women were or how they found us. We didn’t even know their real names, so we gave them names. We called one woman “dobra,” and the other one “fajna.”

We knew what these two words meant. 

These were “good” and “fine” women.


Here's the link to the Dziennik Zwiazkowy site where the article appeared 

Friday, March 1, 2019



I'm always writing.  24 hours a day I got my antenna up waiting to hear from the muse.

Most of the time the signal is weak, creaky.

But sometimes it's perfect.

Either way, I write it down.

And what happens is that I have a house full of little sheets of paper.   Everywhere.

Sometimes I find one, and I say that's it. That's right and I put it in the pile of stuff I'm working on.

Sometimes I find one and wonder where it came from and where it's going.  I put it back where I found it.

Here's one of the poems I put back where I found it.

Hurry Home -- It's getting late


Black man came out of the dark woods
singing a song


White man came out of the dark woods
singing the same song


Here's what they sang:

The graves of the dead
are the graves of the dead


In Jerusalem they do
the hokey pokey
and they turn it all around

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Suitcase Charlie is Back

Suitcase Charlie is back in Print

The first edition of my novel — about a serial killer in a Polish immigrant area of Chicago — sold out following the reviews in the terrific New York Times and Wall Street Journal, but it’s back and Amazon has it.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Controversy over "Growing Up Polack"

The Controversy over "Growing Up Polack"
What's the most controversial thing I've ever written?
It's not the poem about my mother people raped by German soldiers, and it's not my novel Suitcase Charlie with it's serial killing and dead kids in suitcases, and it's not the poems I've written about being a drunk and stupid -- almost homicidal -- hippie back in the 1960s.
The most controversial thing I've ever written is an essay called "Growing Up Polack." It's my personal essay about what it was like growing up a Polish refugee immigrant kid in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s.
I say controversial because it apparently is. I've had Polish Americans tell me that they have felt every word of my story in their own lives, and I've had other Polish Americans tell that me that I should be ashamed of myself for writing stuff like this that portrays Poles in such a damning light.
This essay has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize this year, and it's also been banned from Facebook pages for even using the word "Polack"!
‪Honestly, I don't understand the hatred this piece has generated, and I'm sure there will be more coming my way since this essay has just been republished in the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America!‬
Check it out. In Polish and English. ‬And leave a comment whether you like it or not, whether you think I should be lauded or lashed. (Click on the word LINK and it will take you to the essay. It appears first in Polish and then when you scroll down in English.)


Monday, December 17, 2018

My father tells me how he met my mother

My Father Tells Me How He Met My Mother

We came upon a small slave camp in the woods, three or four buildings, a fence of barbed wire, a closed gate.

Some of us were dying and fell to our knees right there. Others kept walking and stumbling toward that gate. There was no one around, no German guards, no soldiers. They must have run away because they thought the Americans were near. There were no prisoners either that we could see in the barracks beyond the fence. We thought that maybe the ones who’d been there had been taken like us on a death march.
It was so quiet.

One of the men, a Frenchman, stepped up to the gate and shouted hello. That’s all he said. He said it in German first and then French, but no one answered. It sounded funny in French, “Bonjour, bonjour.”

An army truck stood in front of one of the barracks buildings, and I thought I saw some movement there. Even with only one good eye, I could see it. Someone moving near the back of the truck. I pointed this out to the Frenchman, and he saw it too. And we both shouted then, him in French and me in Polish. I shouted, “Dzien dobry, dzien dobry.” I felt foolish saying, “Good day.” There had not been a good day for a long time.

A woman then came out of one of the barracks.

Like us, she was dressed in rags, striped rags. She stumbled to the gate and stopped there. She looked at us, and we looked at her. No one said anything for a while. I could see she was weak. She held the gate so tightly with her hands so she wouldn’t fall.
I couldn’t speak. I had not seen a woman for months and had not talked to one for years. The Germans would kill you for talking to a woman.

Then she spoke, in Polish, slowly. She said, “Co teraz?” What now?

I didn’t know what to say. My tongue was like a rock in my mouth.

She said it again, “Co teraz?” And I still didn’t know what to say, or what would happen, or if the world would end that day or not. I was hungry and spent, and I didn’t know anything.

I looked at her and felt so weak, felt like I was going to fall and join my brothers dying behind me, and your mother pulled the gate open and said, “Proszę wejdź.” Please come in.

And I did.


This is something I wrote for Dziennik Zwiazkowy.  If you get a chance please go there and leave a comment.


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Suitcase Charlie -- Reviewed in CrimeSquad

British mystery writer Danuta Kot reviewed my book for

She liked it!

(Follow the link below if you're interested in mystery novels. Crime Squad is a great site for finding out about what's new in the genre.)

John Guzlowski - Suitcase Charlie

"...a true noir book with a convincing 50s setting and characters. "

Set in the mid-1950s in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago, the book is loosely based on a real-life murder, the Schuessler-Peterson murders, which were not solved for 40 years.

One night, a suitcase is found, dumped in the street. Inside is the dismembered and exsanguinated body of a child.

The case comes to detectives Hank Purcell and Martin Bondarowicz, both experienced police officers – Purcell, a married veteran of the recent war, Bondarowicz a chance-taking, heavy-drinking man, very much in the style of the traditional noir detective.

As further suitcases with their gruesome cargoes turn up on the streets, people become more and more terrified. Purcell and Bondarowicz are determined to find this killer, though the city authorities are more interested in making a quick arrest than coming up with a real solution.

The tropes of noir crime are well known to the point where they can easily be parodied or satirised, but Guzlowski plays is straight. This is a true noir book with a convincing 50s setting and characters. It is also a dark book with dark happenings among a poor and deprived population. This darkness is relieved by touches of real humour, and by the life-affirming portrayal of Purcell's dedication, his home life and his marriage.

Guzlowski portrays with real conviction the social deprivation and racial prejudices that plagued 1950s America – the racism that allows the murder of a black girl child to be ignored, the anti-Semitism that has followed the wartime refugees to their new home. He has a clear eye for the grotesque, and his depictions of nuns in a nearby convent, and a professor locked away in fear behind his own front door from marauding neighbourhood children create a vivid and convincing world. These people are served by a corrupt and inefficient law enforcement regime where men like Purcell have to fight not only the criminal world, but all too often their superior officers in order to do the work they are supposed to do. The combinations of horrific murders, the social upheaval of 50s Chicago and strong characterisation make this book a real page-turner.

Guzlowski presents the horror of his story without any grand guignol embellishment. The story he has to tell is dreadful enough, and Guzlowski wisely allows it to stand on its own. Those readers who are familiar with his poetry, will know that he is a writer well-able to record the worst that humans can do to each other, as well as the factors that lead to redemption and hope.

The ending is unusual – this may be the one place where Guzlowski moves away from the tropes of noir fiction. He also leaves the possibility open that Purcell and Bondarowicz may investigate again – if so, it will be a book worth waiting for.