Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A German Soldier Urinates in a Bus

He stood up and braced himself against a crate and unbuttoned his trousers. He had to relieve himself, and this was a good place. Even though it was cold in the bus, he could smell that other men had done the same thing here, and for the same reason. It was safe in the bus.
So he urinated on some smashed boards from one of the wooden rifle crates. He watched the yellow piss shoot from his body and darken the gray wood. And for a few seconds, the stream of hot piss steamed as it rushed out of him and hit the cold boards. It felt good to be urinating and not have to worry about being shot.
When he finished, he shook himself the way his father taught him, and then he buttoned up and slung his Musset bag over his shoulder and lifted his rifle and started moving toward the shattered window he had entered through last night.
A dead man lay there now, half in the bus and half outside. Shrapnel must have killed him; his torso was split and mangled like it was hit by a giant hammer. It must have happened a while ago. The blood was ice already; his dark, frozen intestines covered with snow.
Hans looked at the dead man’s face to see if it was anyone he knew. It wasn’t. He climbed over the body and made his way out of the bus. 
from my novel Road of Bones  -- to be published in spring 2015 by Cervena Barva Press.
Other excerpts are available online: The German and Village of Cold Houses.   

Friday, October 10, 2014


When my mother was dying, she insisted for a long time that she could beat death.

She had survived the murder of her family by the nazis, years in concentration camps, living from hand to mouth in America, an alcoholic husband suffering from PTSD, two cancers, arthritis that crippled her body, a bad heart that would sometimes simply stop, and a lot more.

She had hope. She was up front about it. If you asked her what kept her alive, she’d tell you.


I didn’t know where it came from but she had it. She didn’t believe in God, didn’t believe in others, didn’t believe in any philosophy. They were all worthless, one of her favorite words.

There was nothing that kept her tied to life accept her sense that there was some good thing that could happen and turn it all around. This kept her going for 5 years when she was dying and alone.

And then it left her.

One day I called her and she said, “Johnny, I don’t have hope anymore.”
It was gone, gone because she knew that there were no more miracles that could keep her alive.

But then five brutal years later, it came back, at the very end of her life.

At 83 she had a stroke that left her paralyzed over 85% of her body. She couldn’t move her hands or feet, couldn’t eat, couldn’t move her lips to speak.

The doctor said there was no hope for recovery. She would just get worse.

In the hospital, I asked her if she wanted me to take her off life support.

She struggled to speak, and when the word finally came out, it was “No.”

And what did I do?

I went home and wrote a poem:


Hope is kind.

Hope is a door and a window.

Hope is the silly neighbor child we ignore when we are children ourselves.

Hope is the lesson learned too late.

Hope is friday and sunday morning.

Hope is a train going so fast that not even time can catch it.

Hope is the brother of sorrow, the sister of grief.

Hope is soft cows in a distant pasture of grass. 

Hope is our mother. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Village of Cold Houses -- an Excerpt from Road of Bones

Road of Bones:  That's the title of my forthcoming novel (Červená Barva Press) about two German lovers separated by war.  It's set in Berlin and the Russian Front during one cold week in January of 1945.  The main characters are Hans, a soldier, and Magda, a widow and his lover.

Hans is a fictional representation of the German soldiers who killed my mom's family in 1942.

I wanted to write about him so I could better understand what happened to my grandmother and my aunt and my aunt's baby.

WIPs -- an online journal that offers excerpts from novels in progress -- has published a chapter from late in the Road of Bones, along with an interview in which I talk about writing the book, my motivation and the problems finding a publisher.

Please take a look.

Here's the interview:

An early chapter of the novel entitled "The German" was published by Ontario Review.  

I've posted that chapter here at Lightning and Ashes.  Just click HERE.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

BE•HOLD: A Performance Film

I first heard about Janet R. Kirchheimer and her project to make BE*HOLD, a documentary focusing on poetry dealing with the Holocaust, this last summer.  I was immediately interested in the focus of this work and the possibilities that it raised for understanding how people respond to the Holocaust and how they respond to writing and art about the Holocaust.  As I've given poetry readings about my parents' experiences as Polish slave laborers, I've often felt that poetry has the ability to communicate the meaning and experience of the terrible things that happened like no other medium.

I asked Janet to write about her project so that I could post it here.

After you read it, please take a look at the progress reel for the documentary.  Just click HERE, and when asked for the password, type in the word: perform

Janet R. Kirchheimer

Writing the Holocaust Through Film

My parents are eating dinner in a Jerusalem hotel. Their waiter asks where they live. My mother tells him, “America.” The waiter says, “You should come to live in Israel because it’s home.” My father tells him, “Home is anywhere they let you in.”

Born in a small town in Southern Germany, my father hid, along with his parents, older sister and younger brother, in the basement of their home during Kristallnacht. The next morning, on November 10, 1938, he was ordered to report to town hall. Along with nine other men, he was arrested and sent to Dachau.  He was sixteen years old. My mother, also born in Germany, was six years old when she was backed up against a wall at school in 1936. Her classmates threw rocks at her because she refused to say “Heil Hitler.” Her parents got her out to a Jewish girls’ orphanage in Amsterdam, the Israelitisch Meijesweeshuis. She was one of one hundred and four girls.  Four survived.  My mother came to America with her parents and an older sister.  In 1942, my father’s parents, sister and brother were deported to Westerbork, and then to Auschwitz and killed upon arrival. 

I consider myself lucky.  My parents answered all my questions about the Shoah and what happened to their families.  Some of my friends told me their parents refused. I don’t make any judgments.  When I was a child, I remember visiting a friend of my father who was from his hometown.  They would stand off in a corner speaking about the Shoah in low voices, and would stop when I came by.  But I wanted to know.  In my teens, I asked what happened.  My father and I made lists of the transports of Jews from his town.  We talked about Kristallnacht and Dachau; about the watercress his mother planted each spring near the house and used as a border around the Kartoffel salat (potato salad); how his younger brother wrote in one of his last letters, “with God’s help, we will get to America.”  My mother sang me “The Song of Lorelei” one night at the kitchen table; she told me she had to come back into Germany from Holland in 1937 to get her visa from the American Consulate and that she only spoke Dutch and could barely communicate with her mother; how her mother threw out her gold and silver jewelry from the window of a train after the Nazi Government ordered Jews to turn it in, saving only her wedding ring; and her father who walked home in the blizzard of ’47, collapsed and died in her mother’s arms.

Holding these stories for years, I took a poetry workshop and began writing.  I didn’t stop for over fifteen years.  In 2007, my book, How to Spot One of Us, was published.  I’ve given many readings and taught using my book at a wide variety of venues.  Each time I speak in a school, I am asked by a student why it is important to remember the Holocaust, an event that happened so long ago.  I tell them because, “We still keep killing each other.”  I use my family stories and poetry as a springboard for a discussion about the Shoah and current genocides.

Writer and child survivor Aharon Appelfeld stated, “After the death of the last witnesses, the remembrance of the Holocaust must not be entrusted to historians alone.  Now comes the hour of artistic creation.”  I met film director RichardKroehling at a conference.  We discussed our mutual love of poetry and, within a few weeks, we decided to make BE•HOLD.  The film presents poetry written by survivors, their descendants, and Jews and non-Jews grappling with the Shoah and its aftereffects. Presented by poets, survivors, actors and people from all walks of life, BE•HOLD creates a deep well of voices responding to evil. We want to make BE•HOLD to honor the murdered, the survivors and those who rose up against the Nazis. The team making the film is Richard Kroehling who directed “A. Einstein: How I See the World” for PBS The American Masters Series, and cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, a multi-award winning cinematographer, and I am producer. 
Jane Hirschfield wrote, “Poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being,” and Robert Altman said, “Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes.   BE•HOLD brings the viewer into the lives of the poets and the performers.  Richard and I believe that the language of poetry and the language of cinema can be brought together for profound and powerful results.  During each filming, we watched poetry and cinema collide and recorded what happened.  Each time something unexpected happened, and it was magical to see it unfold.  Each poem has its own visual island. Capturing a wide range of experiences, viewers’ lives will resonate with the poet’s, allowing them to engage with history through a vibrant and contemporary lens. In BE•HOLD, language becomes a character. The film is designed as a poetic anthology like Wim Wender’s dance anthology film “Pina.” Viewers will follow each performer into a time when good and evil, life and death walked the razor’s edge. It is our hope that new personal meanings for the audience will emerge out of the juxtaposition of the poems, the unique approach to each piece, the performances, cinematography, music and uses of sound and silence.

 Wilfred Owen wrote of his WWI poetry: “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn.” When the survivors are gone, we will need new ways to ensure Holocaust memory for future generations.  BE•HOLD will be a living legacy, and an innovative way to remember in a world still rife with genocide. The film imparts the ongoing relevance of the Shoah: that the past is not simply in the past, but rather a vital part of the present and future.  

 BE•HOLD is being incubated at Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. We are forming an Advisory Board for the film. Advisors are poets Mary Stewart Hammond and Edward Hirsch, as well as Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, Chairman Emeritus of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.  Our progress reel features renowned spoken word poet Taylor Mali, Pulitzer Prize nominated poet Cornelius Eady, and me, along with my mother. Please note that it has not been fine edited yet. The password for the video is:   perform

We recently received a challenge grant.  If we raise $15,000, we will receive another $10,000 which will enable us to go into production.  We’ve raised half so far, and are accepting contributions to meet this challenge. Donations can be made by clicking on the link below and filling out the section that says “Special Purpose and Dedication” with BEHOLD.  All contributions are tax deductible.  Just click HERE.

 If you’d like to learn more about the film or become part of the team, please be in contact on the BE•HOLD Facebook page or by email at

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Life Story

Margarita Georgiadis, risking_enchantment

Life Story
He was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1945.
He was 1 pound 8 ounces. 
He was a leaf of grass. He was lovely.
He was born dreaming his mother’s dream
of flying like a robin through the sky
and eating everything
that was pure and good and golden.
And then he smashed into a wall
and was dead, and the nurses
wrapped him up and put him
in the grave with all of the others.

My poem and the image by Margarita Georgiadis are from a series of poems and images published by EIL--escape into life.  To see those poems and the images, just click here.  

War: An Update

I saw an article at the NY Review of Books Blog about whether or not war is coming.  The piece is called "Birds of War" by Christopher Benfey.

He got me thinking.

It seems to me it's an odd question because there is always war coming.  

I was born in 1948 in a UN camp for refugees of WWII.  I came to the US in 1951.  The first job my mom got was working in a factory making walkie-talkies for the GIs fighting in Korea.  From 1963 to 1975, my father and I argued about the war in Vietnam.  

After I started teaching American Lit in 1980, I had students who were veterans of the little wars we fought in Panama and Grenada and Colombia and Iraq.  In 2001, I advised students who were being called up to fight in the war against terror.  

I'm retired from teaching now, but still teach a war stories class online for my old university.
About half the students are veterans of the wars we've been fighting since 2001.  

I expect their daughters and sons will see as much war as I've seen.

Here’s a poem I wrote about it years ago—right after the start of the second Iraq War:

The War Poets

They’re all alike

They tell you
about the bodies
like bundles of rags

the splintered trees

the blood so red
no words can nail it down

You hear it
in Stephen Crane
in Hemingway
in Thucidyes

Remember the butterfly
in All’s Quiet
on the Western Front?

Sure you do

Vonnegut’s soldier
in Slaughterhouse-5
asking “Why me?”

Yeah, that too

You’ve heard it
all before

Every word

And you’ll hear it again
or your son will
or your daughter will


The poem originally appeared in the journal Two Review

Monday, September 29, 2014

Polish Literature and Me

Polish Literature and Me
Polish Literature and I have had a stormy relationship.  For much of my writing and reading life, I wanted nothing to do with it or any other aspect of Poland’s culture or history.  I didn’t want to know anything about Cyprian Kamil Norwid or Henryk Sienkiewicz or Adam Mickiewicz or Władysław Reymont or Czesław Miłosz or Wisława Szymborska.   What those names represented and what those writers had written meant less than nothing to me.  They and the Poland they wrote about represented everything that I wanted to get as far away from as possible.  I wanted to say to Poland and its literature what Jesus said to the devil, “Get thee hence, Satan.” 
Why did I come to feel this way? 
Well, let me explain.
I was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1948.  My parents were both Polish Catholics who were taken to Germany as slave laborers.  My father spent four years there in Buchenwald concentration camp, my mother two and a half in an agricultural camp.  After the war, my parents felt they couldn’t return to Poland, and so they spent six years living in Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany.  That’s where my sister and I were born.  We finally were able to come here to America in 1951.
When we landed at Ellis Island, we didn’t speak English.  We dressed in black and brown wool that had been given to us by a UN relief agency.  My mother wore a babushka on her head, my father a cloth wool cap with a broken brim.  They both wore their best shoes, leather boots that came to their knees.  My mother’s brother stitched and hammered those boots by hand. All our belonging were gathered together in a small steamer trunk my dad built.
Our lives were hard: America then – like now – didn’t much want to see a lot of immigrants coming over and taking American jobs, sharing apartments with two or three other immigrant families, getting into the kinds of trouble immigrants get into.  We were regarded as Polacks -- as dirty, dumb, lazy, dishonest, immoral, licentious, and drunken. 
I felt hobbled by being a Polack and a DP.  It was hard karma. 
I started running away from my Polishness as soon as I could, and for much of my life I continued to run.   As I started moving into my early teens, I didn’t want anything to do with my Polish parents and their past.  I thought of it as all of that “Polack” or immigrant past.  It was so old world, so old-fashioned.  I had parents who couldn’t speak English, couldn’t talk about baseball or movies or Gone with the Wind, didn’t know anything about Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, couldn’t spend a night without arguing with each other in Polish, the language of misery, poverty, and alienation.  I wanted to spend as little time as possible thinking about my parents and their Polishness and what my mother sometimes called “that camp shit.”
Literature helped me run away from my Polishness and our past.  But it was American literature. 
In high school, I started reading and studying American literature: Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau.  What I learned was that the mass of men (all of those Americans out there who thought of me as a Polack) lead “quiet lives of desperation”!  I learned if I stayed true to the essential and existential me-ness of me, Walt Whitman promised me that not only would I be okay, but I would also be downright successful as a human being despite what all those Americans living their quiet lives of desperation thought.  I could both shrug off the people who called me a Polack, and I could shrug off my parents’ desire and need for me to be “a good Polish boy.” 
I could and would be free.
This was great news for me.
This was in the early 1960s, and the writers I started discovering on my own confirmed all of this.  They were the Beat writers:  The French-Canadian-American Jack Kerouac and the Jewish-American Allen Ginsberg and the Italian-American Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  Like me, these Beats were mainly immigrants or the children of immigrants.  They were writers who had also read their Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman and figured out how to be free of their ethnicity and free of all those Americans who wouldn’t allow them to be free of their ethnicity!
In all of that time, as I read American Literature and worked my way toward that PhD that I would eventually receive, I never read Czesław Milosz or Zbigniew Herbert or Tadeusz Rozewicz or Wisława Szymborska.  And I definitely didn’t read anything by Polish-American writers like John Minczeski, Anthony Bukoski, Helen Degen Cohen, or Margaret Szumowski.  And don’t even mention Henryk Sienkiewicz!  They were all part of that Polish world I wanted to leave behind with my parents and their immigrant sorrows.
Get thee hence, Satan.
So why am I here writing an article about Polish and Polish American writers and how much they mean to me?
The answer is easy.
A funny thing happened after I got my doctorate in American Literature, and after I started teaching American literature in an American university in the middle of the heart of the heart of America. 
I was thirty three years old then, and I got homesick for Poland, a country I had never seen, never lived in except through my parents and their homesickness.  I’m not kidding. 
I developed this need, a hunger to know about Poland and Polishness and the way they manifested themselves in me and other Polish Americans here in America.  I had gotten so far away from my roots that they were becoming unreal to me.  I lived among people who for the most part didn’t know where Poland was, or what it was, or what it had suffered in the war.  I remember one day introducing myself to a new class and having a student ask me if my name was Italian or Spanish.  When I said it was Polish, he seemed confused as if I had said I was a parrot or a prairie dog.
Of course, I could never know the Poland my parents knew and had to leave because of the Nazis, but I could know the Poland of words and literature, the Poland of sounds and verbal images.  And the writers who captured this were readily available in the mid 1980s when my homesickness first developed.  So I started reading Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy and Wladyslaw Reymont’s tetralogy Peasants and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s fiction and masses of twentieth-century Polish poetry and Ryszard Karpucincki’s journalistic writings. 
These writers and others like them gave me a taste of what the country my parents came from was like.  Henryk Sienkiewicz’s epic Trilogy (With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe) opened my eyes to Poland’s rich history during the 17th and 18th centuries.  These three novels told me of the patriotism of the Poles, their sacrifices to keep Poland whole as a nation, their heroism and devotion to honor.  Reading these novels, I remembered what my father told me about Poland when I was a child, his stories of kings and wars and the importance of standing by your word and protecting the ones you love. Reymont’s Peasants (Cholpi), a four-volume novel that follows the lives of Polish farmers and villagers across the seasons during one year, told me about the lives my parents’ parents may have lived.  Set in the late 19th century, the work not only introduced me to the kinds of struggles, passions, and dreams people like my grandparents may have experienced, it taught me about the day-today life of people like my people; and it taught be about the traditions and rituals Polish farm people wove into the fabric of their lives, many of which were traditions my parents brought into our home here in America.  In Reymont’s book, I read about midnight mass on Christmas Eve, sharing Christmas wafers, the blessing of Easter baskets on Holy Saturday, the cutting of a bride’s hair, pickling cabbage, Smigus-Dyngus (wet Monday) and more.  It took me back to a world and a life that might have been mine if there had been no World War II.
But there was a World War, and the Polish poets that came of age during that war helped me understand the events that shaped my parents’ lives.  Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen told me of the life Poles experienced in the death camps and the concentration camps.  Anna Swir’s Building the Barricade carried me into the ruble of a Warsaw besieged by the Germans and introduced me to the Poles who fought and died in the ruble.  Tadeusz Rozewicz’s poems about the war (poems like “Survivor”) taught me how one can live without bread or hope, how one can keep going despite the weight of history and despair. 
And the poets who came after – Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, and Zbigniew Herbert – showed me what came after the hope lost in the ruins, the suffering and hunger, the millions of war deaths.  These writers wrote about how a person can live when one’s dreams came up against the reality of a Communist takeover and generations of lives spent waiting.  These are the poets who spoke for my parents, people who came to America only after leaving behind so many of their friends and family, lost in the cataclysm of war and the shadow of Communism.  Szymborska captures for me this moment of despair and hope in her poem the “Beginning and the End”:

Beginning and the End

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

Again we’ll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.

From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth,
gazing at the clouds.

These Polish writers helped me with my homesickness.  They gave me back a past and a homeland I had never personally known, but they weren’t the only ones I reached out to.  I came to realize that there must be other immigrant kids like me with a homesickness that was only lessened by listening to the voices I left behind in the old country, the stary świat as my father would say.  But it wasn’t easy to find them back in 1980.  When I turned to Polish-American writing to read about how the immigrant children of Poland shaped this American world into words, I drew a blank.  I searched for these Polish American writers and couldn’t find them.  They weren’t listed in the card catalogues of the libraries I searched; they weren’t on the shelves of those libraries either.  
I asked my colleagues who I taught American Lit with if they knew of any Polish-American writers. 
And what did they say? 
For all their considerable knowledge, they couldn’t tell me about any books about the Polish-American experience.
And what did they do then?  
They shrugged. 
As far as my colleagues knew, there was no Polish-American writing.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one who noticed this.   In 1988, the great Polish-American scholar Stanislaus A. Blejwas wrote an impassioned essay for Polish American Studies called “Voiceless Immigrants” in which he deplored the absolute lack of Polish-American writers and discussed why this literature “does not exist.”
But it did exist. 
Somehow I heard about a young poet named John Minczeski up in Minnesota who was putting together a collection of Polish-American writers.  It was to be called Concert at Chopin’s House, and it changed the way I looked at literature and the way I saw myself as a writer and as a Polish-American.  The collection he edited and the writers he chose for that collection pointed me in a direction I’ve been traveling in ever since.  He and those writers have not only given me Poland, but they have also given me America, a Polish America.  They have given me the words and images, the ideas and emotions, that have allowed me to feel at home in Poland and in the United States.  I no longer feel hobbled being an immigrant.
Concert at Chopin’s House lead me to Anthony Bukoski’s Twelve Below Zero and his other great collections of stories about Polish Americans, to Linda Nemec Foster’s deeply felt and joyful search for her Polish roots in Amber Necklace from Gdansk, to LeonardKress’s translations of the great Polish poets, to John Minczeski’s Letters from Serafin, his verse memoir of the life of his Polish immigrant family, to Mark Pawlak’s book about growing up in Buffalo (Buffalo Sequence), and on and on and on. 
There are so many brother and sister writers writing and singing about Poland and what it means to them that there’s no time to listen to the voice of homesickness.