Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Poetry Reading in Hamtramck

Last week, I did 12 book events in Chicago and the suburbs of Chicago and in Hamtramck, Michigan.

I spoke to Poles and Polish Americans and Americans of all kinds: refugees, immigrants, native-born Americans, and the descendents of refugees and immigrants -- Poles, Chinese, Arab, Mexican, African - Americans.

I spoke in book stores and libraries, schools and a former movie theater, and even McCormick Place.

The Piast Institute -- the sponsors of my reading in Hamtramack -- posted a video of my reading there and the discussion afterward.

I know not everyone who wanted to was able to attend the readings I gave, but I think this youtube of my reading will give you a sense of what goes on when I talk about my parents and the experiences of Poles in WWII.

Feel free to share it.


I would like to thank Thad Radzilowski and the Piast Institute for inviting me to read in the Hamtramck Public Library.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Mother's Day Poem

Mother’s Day Poem

I remember my mother, her old house,
the miracle of her love, her fingers
on my cheek brushing away the night,
the world coming home for breakfast,
her eyes asking if I’d been on the road
for long and was the traffic heavy.

Nothing speaks of love like her kindness,
not the birds swirling in the mountains
nor starlight in the trees.  Nothing speaks
of hope like her silent prayers for me
in the morning before school or the bread
and soup she placed before me at night.

Some people seek comfort in a priest,
the way he washes his hands in holy water,
raises his chin to drink the wine.  But it’s mothers
who divide the loaves and fishes, collect
the crumbs, sweep the floor, and find lost coins.
One day they’ll call us home for the last supper. 


To read more about my mom and her life please click on the following:  a blog I did called "Remembering My Mother."  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Holocaust Remembrance Day -- Yom HaShoah

A Repost

I can remember the Holocaust, but I can't do much more. I can't imagine it, I can't describe it, I can't understand it.

My parents weren't Jews. They weren't in the Holocaust. They were Polish Catholics who were taken to Germany to work as slave laborers in the concentration camps there. My dad spent four and a half years in Buchenwald, and my mom spent more than two years in a number of camps around Magdeburg. They suffered terribly, and they saw terrible things done to the people they loved. My mother's family was decimated. Her mother, her sister, and her sister's baby were killed outright by the Nazis. My mother's two aunts were taken to Auschwitz with their Jewish husbands and died there.

I remember asking my mother once if she could explain to me what she felt in the worst month of her worst year in the slave labor camps in Germany. All she could say was, you weren't there.

I wasn't there.

I've spent much of my life writing about the things that happened to my parents in the slave labor camps and reading about what happened in those camps and in the Nazi death camps in Poland where so many Jews died, and still I will never be able to understand or comprehend what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust.

I went to Auschwitz in 1990 with my wife Linda and our daughter Lillian. We walked around, took pictures, tried to imagine what had happened there. We couldn't. We were just tourists.

I wrote a poem about it:

Tourists in Auschwitz

It’s a gray drizzly day
but still we take pictures:

Here we are by the mountain of shoes.
Here we are by a statue of people
working to death
pulling a cart full of stones.

Here we are by the wall where they shot
the rabbis and the priests
and the school children
and the trouble makers.

We walk around some too
but we see no one.

Later, we will have dinner
in the cafeteria at Auschwitz.

We will eat off aluminum plates
with aluminum knives and forks.
The beans will be hard,
and the bread will be tasteless.

But for right now, we take more pictures:

Here we are by the mountain of empty suitcases.
Here we are in front of the big ovens.
Here we are by the gate with the famous slogan.

Here we are in front of the pond
where the water is still gray from the ashes
the Germans dumped.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

May 3 -- Polish Constitution Day

In the 50s, when I was a child growing up around Humboldt Park in Chicago, the biggest non-religious holiday was not Halloween or the 4 of July or Memorial Day. It was always May 3, Polish Constitution Day, Trzeciego Maja. My family would start preparing weeks ahead of time, cleaning the house, sprucing up what needed to be painted, sanded, or nailed, making sure we would have the food and drink we'd need for all of our guests.

We lived only about a half a block from the park where every year Poles celebrated the 3rd of May, and we knew that there would be dozens and dozens of our Polish friends stopping by to help us celebrate after the big parade in the park and all of the speeches by local and national politicians.

This holiday was important not just because it gave Polish friends a chance to celebrate the way they did in the Old Country, but because it re-affirmed a promise they had made to each other and to Poland. They had promised never to forget Poland, never to give up fighting for her freedom. 

Poland had also made a promise to them, and the 3rd of May was the day when she re-affirmed her promise. She promised that despite all the chains that she was shackled by, all the foreign armies that occupied her and raped her and spat on her, she would remain the country of their dreams and hopes forever. 

This was one of the things my dad taught me, the sacredness of the 3rd of May, and the sacredness of this promise.

Shortly after he died, I wrote a poem about the 3rd of May and what that date meant to him. It's called "Poland."


They’ll never see it again, these old Poles
with their dreams of Poland. My father
told me when I was a boy that those who tried
in ‘45 were turned back at the borders 

by shoeless Russians dressed in rags and riding
shaggy ponies. The Poles fled through the woods,
the unlucky ones left behind, dead
or what’s worse wounded, the lucky ones

gone back to wait in the old barracks
in the concentration and labor camps
in Gatersleben or Wildflecken
for some miracle that would return them 

to Poznan or Katowice. But God
wasn’t listening or His hands were busy
somewhere else. Later, in America
these Poles gathered with their brothers

and with their precious sons and daughters
every May 3, Polish Constitution Day,
to pray for the flag. There was no question
then what the colors stood for, red for all 

that bleeding sorrow, white for innocence.
And always the old songs telling the world
Poland would never fall so long as poppies
flower red, and flesh can conquer rock or steel. 

-- from Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded

PS: If you want to read some of the history behind May 3rd, Polish Constitution Day, you can check out a brief article in Polonia Today.

The photo is from John Vachon's photographic record of life in Poland following the war, Poland 1946.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Poem for a Rainy Day

(as described by the writer john guzlowski)

John Milton died alone in his room,
his daughter Ann picking herbs
in the garden, parsley and rosemary.
She said she’d be right back,

and he said nothing.  He was dying,
and didn’t want his daughter with him.
There was something about the way
she sat in silence next to the bed

that made him want to turn his head.
And he knew if he did, she’d ask him
if he were in pain, and her concern
troubled him.  He knew when he died

she’d mourn for him, and her mourning
would be brutal.  Her heart was tender,
and every misery touched her hard.
Dying, he didn’t want to think of it.

He wanted to be free of the mourning world,
free of everything, free of  all the sadness
that woke him early every morning,
and seemed to sleep at night but never did.

He wanted only to think of the poem
he burned because he knew finishing it
would have brought misery to Ann,
but he loved thinking about the poem,

and so he lay there, dying and thinking
about the poem he burned in the fireplace.

Its first line?  Wasn’t it, “In His bright day,
the world awaits” something, something,


This poem originally appeared in The Atticus Review.  If you click on that link, you'll be taken to a page where you can access several of my other poems, including "The Bakers of Auschwitz" and "A Brief History of Sorrow."

Friday, March 25, 2016

Easter Poem

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.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

St. Patrick's Day Poem: Quarantine by Eavan Boland

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, here's one of the great contemporary Irish poems by the poet Eavan Boland, a poet who has inspired so much of my own writing.
In the worst hour of the worst season
    of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
     He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
    Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
     There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
      Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.