Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What Keeps a Man Alive

My father didn’t know why he didn’t die when so many of his friends did.
He once told a story about being hauled out of his barracks with hundreds of other prisoners for a roll call. It was a January night, snowing and below zero, and the men were in rags. The guards started doing a roll call, and as they read the names men began to drop from the cold, falling to their knees. A man here and another there and then more.
When the guards finished the roll, there were dozens of dead prisoners in front of the barracks. But they didn’t let the men go back in the barracks. Instead, the guards started the roll again, and more men collapsed.
That roll call went on for six hours. At the end, garbage trucks came to pick up the dead.
My father didn’t know what kept him alive.

Monday, September 1, 2014

75th Anniversary of the Invasion of Poland

When you read about history in the history books, it’s all so clear.  The numbers make it seem that way.  Numbers, people say, don’t lie.  A thing begins on a certain date, and it ends on another particular date.  You see the beginning of a thing, and you see its end.  It all seems neat and clean, but it isn’t really.
The history books, for instance, tell us that World War II began on September 1, 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland from the west, and the same books tell us that the war in Europe ended almost six years later on V-E day, May 8, 1945.
My father Jan Guzlowski was not a student of history.  He never had any kind of formal education, never went to school, never could read much beyond what he could read out of a prayer book, but he knew history.  He had lived through history.  He was a teenager working on his uncle’s farm in Poland when the Nazis invaded and turned his whole world upside down.  I guess you can say he learned history from the ground up.  He was captured by the Nazis in a roundup in 1940 and sent to Germany.  Like a lot of other Poles, he spent the next five years at hard labor in concentration and slave labor camps there. 
But for him, the war didn’t end when his camp was liberated sometime at the end of March 1945, and it didn’t end on Victory-in-Europe Day, May 8, 1945, and it certainly didn’t end when my family finally came to the US as refugees, Displaced Persons, in June 1951.
The war was always with him and with my mother Tekla Guzlowski, a woman who spent two years in the slave labor camps in Germany and before that had seen the other women in her family raped and murdered by the Nazis.  The trauma of what she had seen never left here.  When I was growing up, I could see it in her eyes and the way she held herself together.  My parents carried with them the pain of war and its nightmares every day of their lives.  In 1997, 42 years after the war ended, when my father was dying in a hospice, there were times when he wsa sure the doctors and nurses trying to comfort him were the Nazi guards who beat him when he was a prisoner in the concentration camp.  There were also times when he couldn't recognize me and my mother and sister.  He looked at us and was frightened.  He thought we were there to torture him.
In 2005, toward the end of my mother's life, I told her that I was going to be giving a poetry reading and that I would be reading poems about her and my dad and their experiences in the war.  I asked if there was something she wanted me to say to the audience.  "Yes," she said, "Tell them we weren't the only ones."
My parents knew that the war had always been with them, teaching them the hard lessons, teaching them how to suffer grief and pain, how to be patient, how to live without hope or bread, how to survive what would kill a person in the normal course of life. 
The war taught them that war has no beginning and no end. 


Siege is a 1940 documentary short about the Siege of Warsaw by the Wehrmacht at the start of World War II. It was shot by Julien Bryan, a Pennsylvanian photographer and cameraman

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In This War Dream by Stephen Herz

This is a poem by Stephen Herz, author of Marked: Poems of the Holocaust.


Wars don't change except in name
The next one must go just the same
--Robert Graves

You squeeze the trigger and shout: I've got the wrong war,
the wrong war, the wrong war. Your words play through
your dream like a beat-up 78, stuck, with no one around
to push the needle. You look into the lieutenant's eyes
but he is your grandfather, young Lazarus of Oppenheim.
You see his long frock coat and the black-and-silver spiked
helmut of a German officer. You salute, take off his helmet
by its spike, tighten the strap, shoulder his Mauser rifle,
and set off for the trenches of Verdun and the Hindenburg
line. You squeeze the trigger and a frenchie is dead.

You squeeze the trigger and a yank is dead. You squeeze
the trigger and see your star in a field of white crosses.
You see your grandfather's black Iron Cross hanging
around your neck. You rise from your grave screaming:
This is the war to end all wars, the war to end all wars.
In your dream you must remember Pearl Harbor. You must
remember D day and VE day and VJ day and Churchill's
fingers forming a V for victory, rising high with pride.
In your dream you must remember the Alamo and Lexington
and Gettysburg and the Persian Gulf. In your dream

you must forget the Somme and Verdun and Nanking.
Forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Dresden. Forget My Lai
and Nam. Forget Somalia. Forget Korea and Chosin. Forget
frozen bodies stacked in the trucks, tied to the fenders
like deer. Forget the tears frozen to your cheek. In your dream
you must put on your old dog tags (one-O-two-six-
three-eight-six J), trade in your old M-2 for an M-16,
put your purple heart on your chest and go back to Iraq. Stuck.
In the wrong war, the wrong war, the wrong war.


Stephen is the author of Marked: Poems of the Holocaust.

Writing the Holocaust recently conducted an interview with him which you can read by clicking here.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


Henry Avignon is an artist friend of mine, and recently when I read something he wrote about the kind of paintings he does.  His piece hit home.

Over the years I've had people ask me about why I write about my parents and their experiences in the war rather than write about something more pleasing, joyful, life affirming.  The question always puzzles me, and I've never felt that I've been able to come up with a good response.  I think that what Henry wrote in response to some questions about his painting "Sad Boy with Red Accessories" offers an answer.

Here's Henry's painting and what he said about it:

People often ask me why the crude faces, why so tribal, why so sick, why so devastated, why so fashionably disturbed.

When I think about these questions I always return to a question I asked myself years ago. Which artists in history began investigations psychically that I feel have not been fully developed?  

For me there just a few always in mind. First and foremost is Jean Dubuffet. He felt strongly for the art of the insane, of children under the age of 5, and of criminals who came from difficult childhoods. Perhaps because I had seen the inside of those Mental Health Hospitals one to many times early on in my artistic development, perhaps because I have daughter who was a brilliant painter until she gave it up at 5 years of age, and perhaps because most people close to me came from difficult upbringings...perhaps.

What all of these groups have in common is an uncensored intensity, a lack of concern for rules, and unbridled emotional spectrum that speaks to a rare kind of inaudible intelligence. They are all speaking from the gut.

I want to speak from the gut at all costs. I don't want circumspection to enter the creative process. That is what Yves Kline's "Leap into the Void" means to me...a literal, potentially destructive leap into the charge of emotions to wrench free whatever is there in that instant. It always hurts. The blow always reaches the flesh. There is no escaping the outcome. Regrets are futile. This is for me a process that parallels the condition of being a living body hurtling toward death. This is the middle finger up to fear. This is all I've got and I don't fucking care what I don't have.


To view more of Henry Avignon's work, please go to his website.   Click here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Recently, I was following a discussion on Facebook about reparations from the German Government to people who suffered in the concentration and slave labor camps in Nazi Germany. 

The discussion centered around whether or not financial reparations can actually compensation for that suffering.

The answer seems obvious to me, but let me tell you anyway.

There are no repayments, no restitution for what happened.

My mother was in the camps from 1942 on, my dad was in Buchenwald from 40 on.

She got a lump sum from the German government of about 1500 bucks and a monthly allowance starting in 1990 or so of $32 per month. When she died in 2006, the monthly check had increased to about $87.

The Germans were never able to find my father's paper work from his time as a slave laborer, so they said he had no proof that he was in concentration camp for almost 5 years.

A German guard had destroyed his eye and left a scar from one side of his head to the other. When my father died in 1997, they sewed his eye shut and puttied in the scar. The broken eye and scar were not sufficient evidence of incarceration.

Because he had no proof, he got no reparations. He spent a couple years working through various Polish legal aid groups trying to get reparations. He finally decided that the money he was spending to get the reparations wouldn't get him anything and he stopped pursuing reparations.

My mother used to say that the Germans killed her mother and her sister and her sister's baby, and put my mother in a slave labor camp for 3 years and then gave her 30 dollars a month for compensation. It wasn't enough. Nothing was enough.

Sometimes my mother would laugh about this.

By the way, just this past summer, 20 some years after my dad last applied for reparations from the Germans, the US Holocaust Museum sent me jpegs of 15 documents. A number of them prove that my dad was eligible for reparations.

I wonder why the German government couldn’t find them.


The photo above of my mother, my sister, and me was taken by my father two years after we arrived as displaced persons in the US.

Here's a link to a wikipedia article on World War II war reparations.  Click here.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Ekphrastic Poem

Ekphrastic Poem: 

In the photo, she stands behind a crescent moon.

Behind her there are clouds, behind the clouds there is always what is always before her eyes. Her mother dead on the floor, her face redrawn by the bullets from the guns of the soldiers. Her raped sister, a dead rag on the floor. The baby kicked until she wouldn't cry.

Before my mother, my sister and I smile.


An Ekprhastic poem is a poem that comments on another art form.  "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats for example is an Ekphrastic poem. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Ten Things I See from the Division Street Bus, 1967

Ten Things I see from the Division Street Bus, 1967

1.      The young man in a white T-shirt
and black slacks puts his right hand
into his pocket and stands on the corner
of Division and California

His left hand holds a paper shopping bag
from the A & P.  He looks down Division
as if waiting for someone, and she’s late.

2.      A black man with a necklace of plastic
baby dolls, every one of them as naked
as baby Jesus, dances in front of the bank. 
He is singing that every time it rains

it rains pennies from heaven, heaven.
I love these songs sung by men with no wives,
no homes, no dinners of southern-fried steak
and mashed potatoes, no dreams of anything

but this gray sidewalk and a foolish dancing step.
Songs like this will let a woman in a blue scarf
with yellow flowers know that he too is someone
without hope or dreams.  This song will urge her

to take him home and sit him down at a table
that smells like some Sunday afternoon dinner  
he will always remember, even in the moments
before he dies, no matter how he dies or where.

3.      And with him dances his chicken.  A beat
red rooster he found in Humboldt Park
in the bushes at the southwest entrance
to the park next to the statue called Home,

a statue of a father kneeling to embrace
his daughter, his lunch pail chiseled like him
from rock that will last as long as fathers
come home and their children wait for them.

4.      The bus speeds up, travelling eastward,
toward the lake it never reaches
because the route bends south on State Street.

5.      A seventeen- or eighteen-year old girl
walks past Pierce’s Deli.  In her heart, she carries
a secret she fears will make the boy she loves
angry.  If she could find some way to tell him
that wouldn’t hurt him, she’d say a rosary
to the Blessed Virgin this Sunday after mass.

6.      There’s Polack Joe going into the bar
next to the New Strand Movie Theater. 
If this were ten years ago, I would say
he’s looking for his father Dulek, a drunk
who survived the killing on Monte Cassino
so he could drink too much and run naked
like a crazy man in the streets.  So long, Joe.

7.      A school girl in a plaid-green skirt circles
around and around her little brother,
her arms spread wider than she’ll ever be,
wider than her mother’s love, and wider
than the white-checkered table in their kitchen. 

She’s going faster, and making a roar-
ing noise like wind in the winter pines,
and her brother shouts, “Danusha, please stop,
you’re making me dizzy and I’ll fall!”

8.      A man stands waiting for the bus.  
As it angles toward the corner,
the driver sees he has no eyes,

not even dark glasses or an old rag
to protect the passengers from this sight,
just the empty mouths of his sockets,

Red like the chicken I saw dancing
with the singing black man.  The doors open
and the blind man gets on.  His feet

are sure, so is his hand grasping the rail. 
He drops a quarter in the coin box,
and asks the driver to call out Ashland

The driver looks square in his eyes
and says, Mister, you ought to put
something over your eyes.

9.      Two well-dressed men shake hands
in front of the Russian-Turkish Bath. 
The younger man is smiling and saying
something quickly, the older man laughs

and we can all hear it in the bus,
even with the traffic that grinds
toward Milwaukee with its Polacks,
Jews, Puerto Ricans, Austrians

Mexicans, Italians, Ukrainians,
even farm boys and their wives and children
from someplace in Mississippi
where the levee broke ten years ago

and cursed the family to a life
of geographical evolution,
toward this city and the shopping
they’ll all be doing on Milwaukee.

10.  At the dreaming center of Chicago
is an island formed by the intersections
of Milwaukee, Division, and Ashland

Once, Indians stripped the skins off buffaloes
here, and lived in huts children have been taught
to call hogans.  The driver calls the stop,
and the blind man is first to leave the bus,
thanking the driver for his courtesy. 

A woman presses the blind man forward.
She’s in a hurry, and he understands. 
His grip is still sure on the rail and he’s
getting off as fast as he can.  I’m behind him,
and I’m behind her and leave the bus in turn
walking quickly to the subway entrance. 

A legless man sitting on the sidewalk
raises his wool cap to me and in Polish
offers me a pencil.  Like my mother taught me,
I toss a quarter in his cap and say in Polish,

“Thanks, but you keep the pencil.  I’ve got plenty.”


The photo of Nelson Algren walking on Division Street is by Chicago photo journalist Art Shay.