Tuesday, November 24, 2015


I've given a lot of thought and feeling to suffering over the years.  My father spent 4 years in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, my mother spent three years there as a slave laborer.  They were people who knew genuine and constant suffering, suffering that they were afraid would not end until it killed them. My father had seen friends beaten, hanged, castrated and crucified.  My mom had seen her mom and sister raped and murdered, her sister's baby kicked to death.
Both of them carried the scars of the suffering all their lives.  My dad’s scars were psychological and physical.  My mom’s were mostly psychological.  Did the suffering make them better people, people closer to God, people uplifted?  I don’t think so. 
What the suffering taught them was that the world was too often a terrible place, a place where what you most held dear was liable to vanish in a cold wind.  I don’t think either of my parents thought that sorrow was a gift that God gives us.  My parents were uneducated people, farm people.  Suffering was a prod used to teach the recalcitrant horse or cow or mule to do what you wanted it to do.  If my parents were lucky, the guards in the labor camps would use suffering only this way, as a prod.

If my parents and the other people in the camps weren’t lucky, the guards would impose suffering just for the pleasure of it.  My father told me about the January night when the men from his barracks were chased out and made to stand in the snow and cold so that the guards could enjoy watching men fall to their knees and freeze to death. My mother told me about the woman guard who threw an infant into the wind and shot it for sport.
Suffering of all kinds was to be avoided.  
And what should you do if you see some one suffering?
Here's what my father taught me: 
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.


Here's a link to more info about my forthcoming book about my parents: Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


Bad People

People being evil?  Why do they do it?

I don't know.  But they seem to be doing it a lot more.  There was that book that came out last year or the year before about how civilization is more civilized than it was in the old days.

I find that hard to believe.  I remember giving a reading/presentation about my parents for a class of college students studying genocide.  I don't know if the students learned anything but I learned that more people have died of genocide since the UN establised it's policies against genocide in the early 1950s than died in the Holocaust.

I'm always astonished when I find out stuff like that.  I look around my house and my neighborhood and my city and my state and my country, and I see that sure there's some bad people here and there but where are the millions of bad people who are ready to kill millions of their neighbors.

One of my favorite journalists is Rszyard Kapuscinski (a Pole who grew up under communism)  who wrote a book called Shadow of the Sun about his travels among the genocidists of Africa.  He went here and he went there trying to track down the causes of the killing.  They were always absurd, meaningless, trivial.

What I took away from that book is that people can do bad things for the most absurd, meaningless, trivial reason and no law of God or man can stop them.

My father felt that all Germans were evil.  When I was a kid, he wouldn't let me play with kids with German names like Mueller or Rickert or Hauser.

Was he right?  I asked my mother what she thought of the Germans.  She said some were good, some bad.

I guess that's what we have to remember.  Some people can be bad, will be bad.

So here I am a 67 year old still trying to sort out the truths my parents left me.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

76th Anniversary of the Start of WWII

The following is an essay that will appear in Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded, my forthcoming book about my parents and their experiences in WWII and after the war.  The book will be published in March 2016 by Aquila Polonica.   

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

Monday, July 27, 2015

Day 3 Poem for the 5 Poems 5 Days Poem-thon

Day 3 Poem for the 5 Poems - 5 Days Poem-thon

I wrote this poem about 30 years ago.  We were living in Charleston, Illinois, and I was teaching at Eastern Illinois University.  We had bought a house that was part of a development built in an old corn field.  It was flat and the earth there was pretty much used up through generations of farming. Nonetheless, Linda and I tried to grow trees and roses and flowers and tomatoes and such.  Pretty much unsuccessfully.  Here'a a poem from that time.

A Birch Tree Dying in Illinois

If this were New Hampshire
and I were Robert Frost
this death would go unnoticed 

I'd measure a wall
and worry about the mail

my wife would kneel
at her planting
placing the seed
we will harvest later
as peas or zucchini

my daughter would circle
a pine, draw up before it
and measure herself and it

But this is Illinois
and on the lawn the birch
tree is dying, its grey
bark reddens, deepens
toward death, the dry buds
powder between my fingers
and a living birch
is as scarce as glory.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

5 Poems 5 Days -- Day 2

I've been writing poems for about 37 years now.  I started when I was in grad school working on my Ph.D.  It was a hot, humid August afternoon, and I was sitting at a desk thinking about Faulkner, trying to make sense of a line of imagery that seemed to thread through all of his novels.

I wasn't having any luck.

Out of nowhere, I had this sense of my parents and where they were and what they were doing.  It came as a shock this sense.  I hadn't  lived at home in almost a decade, seldom saw my parents, tried in fact not to think about them and their lives.  I didn't want to know about their worries, their memories of WWII and the mess those memories were making of their lives.   But suddenly there they were in my head, and for some reason I started writing about them.

I hadn't written a poem in at least a decade either, but there suddenly I was writing a poem. And it wasn't the last. This poem about my parents started me writing poems again, and I've never stopped.

Here's the poem:

Dreams of Poland, September l939

Too many fears
for a summer day
I regulate my thoughts
and my breathing
regard the humidity
and dream

Somewhere my parents
are still survivors
living unhurried lives
of unhurried memories:
the unclean sweep of a bayonet
through a young girl's breast,
a body drooping over a rail fence,
the charred lips of the captain of lancers
whispering and steaming
"Where are the horses
where are the horses?"

Death in Poland
like death nowhere else‑‑

cool, gray, breathless


The poem appeared in Lightning and Ashes.

5 Poems in 5 Days

5 Poems in 5 Days

First Poem

Dean Pasch Patty Dickson Pieczka and Maja Trochimczyk have each tagged me to do the 5 poems in 5 days thing. 
As I understand it, this means I'll be posting a poem a day for 5 days. Then I'll find someone and tag her to do 5 poems in 5 days, and on and on until the whole internet is nothing but poems and ads for James Patterson's writing workshop!
Here's the first poem. It's one that Maja Trochimczyk published in her wonderful anthology of poems about Chopin (Cherries with Chopin: A Tribute in Verse, available at Amazon).
The poem is about my dad and his love of Chopin. My dad had literally no education. He was an orphan from the age of 5 and grew up on his uncle's farm in Poland. His uncle never let him attend school, and as a result my dad had no schooling, was never introduced as a child to any kind of culture. He didn't know anything about books or art or music.
But in the concentration camp, he met professors, musicians, and artists, and one of the things they told him about was Chopin. My dad loved to listen to Chopin. He felt that he and Chopin shared a soul.

A Good Death

My father says
in time he'll learn
to listen to the Polonaise
and not hear Sikorski
or Warsaw, the hollow surge
and dust of German tanks,

only Chopin,
his staff of clean notes
and precise legato.

His dreams will be
of crystalled trees,
papered gifts
in red half light,
the smell of warm sheds
and girls drawing milk
from waiting cows.

The snow will fall
and go unnoticed.


A Good Death first appeared in Lightning and Ashes, my book about my parents.

Thursday, June 4, 2015


June 6 is the anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe.  It's a day that means a lot to me.  

My parents were two of the 15 million or so people who were swept up by the Nazis and taken to Germany to be slave laborers.  My mom  spent more than two years in forced labor camps, and my dad spent four years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  

Like almost every other Pole living in Europe at that time, they both lost family in the war.  My mom's mom, sister, and infant niece were killed by the Germans when they came to her village.  Later, two of her aunts died with their husbands in Auschwitz.  

After the war both my parents lived in refugee camps for six years before they were allowed to come to the US.  My sister and I were born in those refugee camps.  June 6, 1944 was the day that long process of liberation for all of us began.

I've written a lot about my parents and their experiences, and here are two poems from my book Lightning and Ashes about those experiences.  The first poem is about what the war taught my mother; the second is about the spring day in 1945 when the Americans liberated my dad and the camp he was in:

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.

In the Spring the War Ended

For a long time the war was not in the camps.
My father worked in the fields and listened
to the wind moving the grain, or a guard 
shouting a command far off, or a man dying.

But in the fall, my father heard the rumbling 
whisper of American planes, so high, like 
angels, cutting through the sky, a thunder 
even God in Heaven would have to listen to.

At last, one day he knew the war was there.
In the door of the barracks stood a soldier, 
an American, short like a boy and frightened, 
and my father marveled at the miracle of his youth 

and took his hands and embraced him and told him 
he loved him and his mother and father,
and he would pray for all his children 
and even forgive him the sin of taking so long.


The boy soldier in the liberation poem is in part modeled after Michael Calendrillo, my wife's uncle.  He was one of the first American soldiers to help liberate a camp.  His testimony about what he saw in the camps was filmed for a documentary called Nightmare's End: The Liberation of the Camps.  You can see a youtube of him talking about what he saw in that camp by clicking here.  

Here's a link to a presentation I gave at St. Francis College about my parents and their experiences in World War II: Just click here.

My daughter Lillian sent me the following link to color photos from before and after D-Day from Life Magazine. The photos are amazing, and a large part of that amazement comes from the color. The color gives me a shock, a good one--it takes away the distance, makes the photos and the people and places in them immediate in a profound way. 

Here's the link: Life.