My flash fiction piece "The Last Man on Earth" appears in a audio podcast read by the actor Elijah Lucian. It is the 2nd of three stories. The other two are "The Flight" and "The Invasion." Here's the link to the podcast on YouTube:
By the winter of 1944, my father had been in Buchenwald for 3 years.
He thought the war would never end and he would die there, some cold winter morning. I wrote a long sequence of poems about that winter. The sequence is called "Third Winter of War: Buchenwald" and it's in my book Lightning and Ashes.
Here is one of the poems from that sequence: It's about the nightmares my dad had in the camp. They continued until the day he died 53 years later. Theywere always with him.
He dreams again his hands are cut to pieces. He dreams he is falling. He dreams he is an old woman eating the fingers of a young boy who died when his horse reared up crazily and crushed him.
He dreams he swims in a river he can’t escape. It is the blood of the devil, thick and dark and like acid to the tongue.
He dreams of eating human flesh, of women copulating with corpses, of dogs licking his fingers, of soldiers spreading manure around the red and white roses beside the church in his village.
He dreams he swims in a river he can’t escape. It is the blood of the devil, thick and dark and like acid to the tongue.
The statement on the gate at Buchenwald reads "Jedem Das Seine." It is German for "To Each His Own."
January 27, 1945, the Russian army came upon Auschwitz and its various camps
found was terrible.
anyone seeing what they had been doing in Auschwitz, the Germans went
on a killing spree before the arrival of the Russians. They also tried to
blow up the ovens where the murdered had been burned for years.
Russians arrived, they found corpses and 7000 starving prisoners.
conservative estimate is that 1,000,000 people died there.
History is more than numbers, more than
the story of how one war started on such and such a date and how it ended on a
History is about what a child feels
growing up in the poverty of Post World War I Poland. It is about what it is like to feel fear the
day the Germans invaded Poland in 1939.
History is about what it means to stand on a street and know that this
street will take you to a concentration camp from which you may never
return. History is about how one woman
survives the return to her home after a war that has left her country in the
hands of the Soviet Communists.
This is the history that Suzanna
Eibuszyc shares with us in her moving book Memory
is Our Home. Combining excerpts from
her mother’s diary with her own memories of stories her mother shared with her,
Ms. Eibuszyc has created a work that will move every reader with the truth of
what those years between 1917 and 1969 were like.
Ms. Eisbuszyc has allowed me to reprint
three short excerpts from her book.
The first is from her introduction; the
second is from her mother’s memoir of the period and describes the way she fled
Warsaw soon after the German invasion; the third describes Ms. Eisbuszyc’s
response to her mother’s memoir and her experiences.
Introduction: To be a “memorial candle”
It is said that
in every survivor’s family, one child is unconsciously chosen to be a “memorial
candle,” to carry on the mourning and dedicate his or her life to the memory of
the Shoah. That child takes part in the parents’ emotional world, assumes the
family burden and becomes the link between the past and the future. I realize
now that my mother chose me, and that in turn, I chose my daughter to be that
As far back as I can remember, my mother
shared her stories with me. Her tales filled me with overwhelming sadness, but
also brought color to our drab existence in the southwestern corner of
Communist Poland. I have never seen any photographs
that connected my mother to the extended family she so often talked about. I
was frightened, confused, and ashamed, part of me did not believe my mother. The
source of my sadness, which I can’t shake even today, is that I wish I had been a wiser child, but instead I retreated, I
built a wall around me and protected myself. I did not know how to reconcile
the overwhelmingly sad stories my mother was transmitting to me. In order for my child’s mind to resolve something I could
not comprehend, I decided that my mother had to have made those people up, that
those people had never existed. Today I keep
asking myself over and over how I could have been so unwise.
Mother’s Story of Fleeing Warsaw
Finally, the day I had been planning and
waiting for arrived. On November 7th, 1939, Russia had not entered Warsaw as we
expected. I felt it was time to leave. I ran home, packed a few things, and
went to Anja to say good-bye. Anja, once a strong voice behind the Warsaw
workers, still had a fighting spark in her eyes. She was waiting for her
husband Szymon and pacing the room when I came in. She held one baby in her
arms while the other hung onto her skirt. I could see she was worried for her
children and was doing her best not to show it. In a firm voice, she told me to
stay safe and that we would see each other again soon.
It was very difficult for me to leave my
family. I was one ofthousands ofyoung people who were willing to leave everything
untilthe German occupation was over. Those with
commitments, especially those with children felt it was bestto stay. I tried to convince my siblings to come with
me, but my efforts were in vain. They were so filled with hope that any day the
English or the Russians would come to liberate Poland.
After seeing Anja, I met Sala with her
children. Sala looked terrible. She was wrapped in a black satin housecoat, the
same one she had been wearing when her building caught fire. She was dirty and
her hair was uncombed. Her face was
swollen and her eyes were red from crying. She keptrepeating
that she knew we would never see each other again. Her two boys, five and three
years old, were practically naked and were barefoot in November.
Before the occupation, the salon had
been finally thriving. Sala was even able to buy beautiful gold rings for her
fingers. Her children always had extra pairs of shoes and sets of clothing. It
was all destroyed when the bomb fell on her building.
Through my tears, I could only manage to
say: “I promise, we will see each other again soon.” This picture of my sister
with her two boys, barefoot in the winter that last time is a haunting memory
for me. It is still with me today.
Running away from Warsaw andfrommy family was the
most difficult thing I have ever done. It is difficult to relay today how
strong my fear of the Nazis was.I had no idea
what racial genocide was, or that the Holocaust was about to be unleashed
against Europe’s Jews by Nazi Germany. My three older siblings had five
beautiful children. I loved playing with them and I did so every chance I had.
I will never know what extraordinary people they would have grown up to be and
what contributions to our society they would have made. After the war, I
searched for them in vain.
I often think back to how they were when
I left Warsaw that November. Adek’s little girl Bluma was five years old in
1939. She was a precocious little girl who was always attached to her mother.
Adored by her maternal grandmother, she was always dressed in the latest style.
Bluma had big dark eyes and light hair that fell in loose curls on her
shoulders. A shiny, white bow was always tied to her hair right in the middle
of her head. She would put her small hand in mine and let me take her for our
weekly walk. On those walks I told her about my favorite Maria Konopnicka fairytale but I never told her that Marysia was an
orphan. Bluma was a sensitive child. I did not want to make her sad.
Though we had almost lost him from
illness, Sala’s son Piniek grew up to be a healthy five-year-old boy. An
independent child, he reminded me so much of his father Moniek. We also had our
weekly walks in the park. Piniek asked a thousand questions, and I was expected
to have an answer for every one of them. Gutek took after his mother, always
smiling and content. He had dark eyes and a dark head of curls.
Anja’s son Pinkus was three when I left
Warsaw. We were best friends. I got to spend the most time with him because of
Anja’s dangerous second pregnancy. He loved for me to read to him at bedtime.
When I thought he was asleep and closed the book, he would open his eyes and
say, “one more story Ciocia, aunt
Roma please.” I never refused. His little sister, also named Bluma, was only
three months old when I said good-bye to my Anja.
My final farewell was to my Adek. I
handed over to him my most precious possession, a box filled with diplomas, a
few of my favorite books and an album with photographs. I told him to take care
of it. My parting words were, “I will
see you in a few weeks.”
At the time, England had promised
to help Poland fight the Nazi invasion. We had also heard rumors about how the
Russians were going to occupy more Polish territories. All of this gave me hope
that Poland would soon be rid of the Nazis and I would return home to my
family. Besides some clothes and food that I could carry, I left everything
At the last minute, Pola decided to
come with me. I told her to pack up fast. Sevek had also decided to join us.
The three of us left to meet up with my girlfriends Reginka and Hanka and
another last minute friend, Janek. Our group of six left Warsaw on the morning
of November 8, 1939, with a mixture of fear and optimism.
Eibuszyc’s Response to her Mother’s Memoir
My mother’s accounts of her life in
Warsaw and surviving in Russia and Uzbekistan had a deep impact on my
Overwhelmed, I looked for ways to feel safe. I focused my
attention on what I perceived to be my mother’s incredible adventure in Russia.
I tried to picture my mother living in exotic, interesting places: the
beautiful cities of Saratov and Moscow where she even experienced romance and
love. While in Uzbekistan, she lived in the desert, under a hot sun and she ate
exotic food. I never allowed myself to see her hungry or sick. My mother was
heroic and strong, splendid and beautiful in her tailored black coat. Her
stories influenced the choices I made when I left home.
Strangely, I found
comfort in unfamiliar and far-off places. Choosing to study ancient and present
cultures was like revisiting the landscape of my childhood. I got to work under
the hot sun, live in a tent, ride a camel and, like my mother did in Uzbekistan
eat exotic food. I excavated in the desert at Tel Beer-Sheva, Israel. I
observed the lives of Arab men and women, evoking my mother’s stories of
strange lands. I remembered that when I was a child all I ever wanted was to
follow in my mother’s footsteps and follow in her adventure. I was my mother’s
daughter. I inherited her spirit. We saw
the world through the same set of eyes.
I was aware of an overwhelming fear of putting down roots, perhaps not
wanting to have them severed in the same way my mother and her generation
Traveling had always put me in touch
with my mother’s strengths and temporarily wiped out the negative voices that
played in my mind. While on the road, surrounded by unusual, new places, I was
happy and at home. I went back to communist Poland, still haunted by my
memories of our departure, my mother’s inconsolable crying. I had to return. I
was looking for something, a piece of me I had lost or perhaps left behind. I
heard my father calling me back to the small, overgrown Jewish cemetery in
Klodzko, where he was laid to rest. Like
my mother, I too had succumbed to the notion that Poland was my homeland, now
the ghosts of my childhood were clamoring for attention.
Excerpted from the book Suzanna Eibuszyc’s Memory is Our Home, published by the academic
press Ibidem-Verlag, ISBNs EU edition: 978 3 8382 0682 0, US edition: 978 3
8382 0702 5" spring 2015.
This poem is part of a sequence of three poems called
"Landscape with Dead Horses" that were published in War, Literature,
and the Arts: A Journal. If you click here, you will be taken to the
My friend Anglo-Polish artist Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk posted some of his family photographs on Facebook recently and wrote some remarks about them. Originally, he planned only to post 5 photos and his commentary, but the project has expanded. At this point, he has written about more than 20 photos.
I find both the remarks and the photos moving. It makes me want to go back to my old family photos and write their stories. Here are the first 5 of his family photos along with his comments. Day 1
One of the few photographs my mother carried with her through the chaos of her life. It is a picture of her and her fellow "inmates" in the orphanage in Dubno (now in the Ukraine) where she spent her life (having been orphaned as a baby) upto her teens when she set out to rediscover her home and history. This photo is only about 80 years old yet it could be from some ancient past, even an alien world... and indeed, it is. Day 2
The funeral of my Uncle Mieczyslaw, 1959 (I think).
This is a very important photo for me because it was the first time I saw what many of my father's family looked like. In the centre are my grandparent (in their 70s at the time, by my grandmother is my aunt Stacia and, by my grandfather, is my aunt Maricia. I think, next to Stacia, is my aunt Joska and the grieving uncle is Josek. My uncle committed suicide. Miecio was very young when the war broke out and, of course, that changed the whole of his future. He drank heavily, apparently. One night he actually fell asleep, drunk, in the winter frost and awoke with his head stuck to the ground. He caught Tuberculosis and tried to keep it quiet (God knows why). In the end he shot himself in a very beautiful spot. The double tragedy is the loss of a young man (he was in his early twenties) and (in a Catholic, peasant community) being a suicide, he could not be buried in consecrated ground. I wrote about his death: Miecio The crickets are mournful, wailing in the afternoon heat in a baleful monotony. Bright yellow sunflowers, their heads bowed towards the ground under the weight of the seeds, fade into the dusty yellow of wheat and heat. Dryly, weeds struggle to reach the sunlight, spindly, leggy. A sickly dust-covered green, the blue-purple splash of cornflower or the orange-yellow of Ox-eye, sprinkled liberally, hardly visible in the straw yellow. The unified ranks of wheat break up, almost in a straight line; rich ears at the head of a stalk grow out of long dry pointed papery leaves broken and bent , an occasional plant where a seed sprouted, then grass. Miecio is sat here, on the semicircular slope of the field, on the dry grass at the boundaries... At the boundary...
The plainful song of the crickets is loud and continuous. A wailing song, a mournful cacophony. The song almost merges into a single voice, a multicoloured song... The sun burns down on his head and his neck. Between his fingers he crumbles the dry yellowy-grey soil into dust... Into dust.
The monotonous wail gives weight to the air. He breathes it in with the dust of the fields and the heat of the air. Looks down the slope, across the dry stream bed towards the dark green leaves of the impenetrable thicket. The dark shapes suggest silent openings and cool spaces into which he may wander... Its coolness and mystery beckons.
In Zalesiany field he hears the dull sound of his mother talking into the ground as she bends to her work. Other voices answer, distant, clear. He recognises his sisters. Their conversation is a harness. They are a team. They shuffle through the field almost in unison, not seeing each other yet physically bound by the labour. Mentally he can picture them stretching their backs as they stand... the energy flows through their spines and into their necks and arms. For a moment they speak clearly, animated, then bend down again... to the earth.
Cough... blood... rich red on white cotton...
The crickets wail, the flies buzz. The heat weighs down on his back. He smells dust, crumbles earth, coughs blood. An ant races in its purposefully chaotic way as it runs, almost flows over the grains of dry, yellowy soil. He watches it with mindless fascination, watches the trail it follows, an invisible scent, unseen markers. Activity.
How pointlessly we run, blind to the dooms we create, following trails we cannot see.
Weddings are happy events, everyone drinks, everyone dances. Miecio drinks more fully, dances more lively...songs and cameraderie... eyes gleam with the joy of alcohol. But going home in the frozen night he is alone... he stumbles, drunk. He stumbles again. Comes to, head almost frozen to the ground, bent over, kneeling... a confused stupor, amazed... what’s happened ... and in his mind he recreates it all... he’s fallen onto his knees and then his head has fallen forward onto the frozen earth and in his drunkenness he senses the dizziness, all spins for a moment, all goes blank.. then he shakes out of it, cold, frozen. His eyes see the sparkling crystals of frost glimmer as stars on the dark road... on his hands...
And later the coughing... the blood... and he is afraid, afraid of telling anyone but he knows what blind path he has run down... and death is not far away...
The gun is cool in his hand. Hard, metal, cold.
(Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk is a painter. In writing about Day2, he includes an image he created that was originally used in his series of painting based on Dante's Inferno. The above was inspired by the secion of the poem devoted to those who commit suicide in Inferno XII.)
This was a very easy piece to produce - the picture was there in my head from the very beginning, all I had to do was find suitable images that I could play with. There are three suicides that have been with me over the years and their "counterparts" appear here. The first suicide that I was ever aware of was one of our neighbours who lived at the corner of Horsedge Street and Rock Street. His wife had left him and he gassed himself. In my teens my uncle, Mieczyslaw, contracted tuberculosis and, seeing no future, shot himself. More recently, my cousin's young son, only seventeen and with no apparent cause, hanged himself. When I was a schoolboy I was told that suicide was a mortal sin not because of the taking of one's own life but because it is a sin of despair, a loss of faith in God's mercy. I wanted to create that image of despair. The suicides despair in Hell, wedded to the items they used to killed themselves for eternity. I wanted to use a colour of despair and chose the sickly greens of a gas cooker of the 50s and 60s. Dante's suicides had been changed into withered trees, symbolising the destruction of all hope. Broken accidentally by passers-by, they would weep blood. I think this imagery works better in a written work but I did want to maintain some link with the original therefore I decided to have the image of withered trees as a backdrop. I found a suitable picture of trees damaged in World War One, that great suicide of the nations, which I manipulated, drew out and stained with watered-down blacks and then stained again with a coating of red (for the blood). This forced me to work over the top with stencils and then paint into as I had done with earlier works. I know there will be people who will not like the clash of colours but I feel the disturbing quality of the image adds to that sense of eternal despair that I wanted to capture. Day 3
My brother Waj stood outside what used to be our home on Rock Street. 1972.
It is hardly surprising how places work into your soul. We lived here for twenty years and my dad worked hard on it to keep it in super condition. The powers that be decided they wanted to make Oldham a modern town and demolished the "slums" of St Mary's Ward, tearing the heart of the town out at the same time and forever destroying it - we're still seeing the after-effects of that idiotic decision today! I'm an Oldham Pole, not an Anglo-Pole or a British-Pole. I'm an Oldham Pole because of this place, on the hill, in the heart of the town. It wasn't a beautiful town but it was a friendly town with character. I miss it very much. I know it's accidental, the way we associate black and white photos with the past, but we do and they somehow manage to capture the soul of those days. Sepia for way back, grainy black and white for the war years, a crisp black and white for more recent times. I remember when Oldham really WAS black and white (or near enough); the red-brick houses were blackened by soot, all the clothes were demob greys and khaki. I remember when I saw my first blue coat (I was about seven years old and we were waiting for the coach to take us to the mill, in the dark early morning, and a young girl (around 16 or 17) arrived wearing a new, very blue duvet. All that colour amidst all that black and white! It was what we would nowadays call a Spielberg moment. Day 4
Wallshaw Street 1968 (Montage of film clips) I have no pictures of St Mary's ward at all. I plunder the internet but, in fact, I have never found any photographs of "home". I have found an old photo of the Theatre Royal (Buffalo Bill's Wild West show played there!) which I actually watched being demolished one morning in 1971, and Wallshaw Street appears in "A Kind of Loving" (as do other parts of old Oldham), but nothing in the immediate vicinity of home. When I was at Leeds my first project was a film (1968). It was, initially, about the cotton mills and I filmed some bits around my home (but strangely none on Rock Street) as part of the complete "story". It was an art film, not a documentary. I was learning the craft as I went along (I had unlimited supplies of film - Leeds were fantastic like that). I shot the film on very course grain 400ASA with a windup Bolex. Course grain 400ASA is brilliant at capturing that gritty, earthy character of the North (cliche, I know) but it doesn't travel well. Recently I transferred it to DVD (not brilliant) and "captured" some stills. This "montage" is a joiner of some of those stills.
I wrote a number of poems about Oldham, my most famous (in that I read it in Oldham and Liverpool on a number of occasions) being "Rhapsody on a Midnight" (1966) - this is an extract:
The pigeons flutter and rise in a wide Spiral; one was white, one was cream, the others Black or greyish. Up and round, out of sight Behind the half-demolished slum. They’re gone.
These are the empty places...empty as My heart. Cold, desolate, depressing. These are the sparks of life within my soul, Streets I knew and loved...The demolished slum.
Rhapsody on a midnight hour, how do you Describe the fall of raindrops? The heavy Breathing in the still sterile silence, the Flutter of thoughts in this white-washed lavatory.
There goes a tipler as the water trickles Into the sewerage. In the faint distance A howl, a scream, a screech, a wail; a goods Train pulls out from Mumps Station.
The mosquito flutters, hovers, almost Motionless. The soft kitchen light casts the Shadow of dad’s ladder, leant against the Wall, onto the white-washed brickwork inside. Day 5
Me and my godfather, Witold Warchalowski. c1950.
It was inevitable wasn't it? A photo of me. But the truth is that each of the photos I've posted in this series are about me. I actually posted this photo for a number of reasons:
One, the little boy, me. It could be any little boy. It could be Einstein, it could be Hitler. We tend to think of children as innocent, as vessels that will be filled with knowledge and experience which will then become the man who... does what? Invent the atomic bomb? Walk on the Moon? Kill millions? That little boy is not a tabula rasa, not if what current scientific belief tells us is true; apparently we are not only born with skills that our ancestors developed, skills that are recorded in our genes - the ability to learn language is the most obvious one - but, so it is claimed, we are born with "memories". The emotions of our ancestors are encoded in our genes, especially those of our parents. The traumas and shocks they experienced are also our traumas, our shocks. Look into that little boy's eyes and ask yourself what he's "seen".
Two, the photograph. It isn't dated. I don't know how old it is. I once wrote;
I suppose, in the end, everything must lose its meaning. A few numbers, a calculation, once jotted down carefully working out what must be a sum of money has lost all significance because there is no Rosetta Stone, no explanation.
And so it goes with all our worldly goods, our souvenirs, even our jottings. The significance of what I write here would only become apparent if I put it in context - what it means to me. Those books, these stones, the snake skin in a jar - all mean something to me. To you they become... what? Relics? Curiosities? Nothing stays the same, all is change, all is transient.
All that is left is dust and memories.... Our dreams have faded away in the dark oh so long ago... And what of those ghosts? they are not ours but belong to someone else for we are not asleep... we do not dream... no thoughts persist... the breeze has come and blown away... everything.
Three, the sailor suit. My dad bought it. He saw it in a shop window and knew he had to have it for me. It cost him a great deal of money. He lived on bread and butter for ages after.
Four, my godfather, Witold.
Everyone should have two types of men, "father figures", in their lives; one, steady and reliable with feet planted on solid ground; the other adventurous, a bit of a rebel, a pirate... even a villain. My father was the steady one and Witold... well he was the "adventurous" one.
During the war Witold had been a partisan in the forests in the east of Poland (I even think I may have located a photo of him on the internet but there's no way of knowing for sure). He fought not just the Germans but also the Soviets. Life expectancy was very short yet he somehow survived. Some of that wildness and danger of those years stuck with him for the rest of his life (like the smell of cigarettes that hang around someone when they come in from outside).
I believe he and my dad became friends in the displaced persons' camp in Osnabrucke (there was talk of some amazing escape, a stolen plane, something like that). Certainly they were together in Full Sutton, near York, when they came over to England (both in pursuit of the women they loved) and travelled together into Lancashire - my father ending up in the dark streets amidst the mills of Farnworth where he found the woman who became my mother. Witold went to find Nina. There was a rumour that Nina was his mistress in the forests and that Witold had left his wife and child in Poland when he had fled the Communists (apparently that wasn't all that uncommon in those quicksand years). I don't know the truth; it fitted the wild and uncertain times he lived through (perhaps a little too much, if you know what I mean) but a rather beautiful grown-up daughter did turn up at some stage, so who knows? People who have never lived through the slaughter and chaos of a brutal war can never really grasp how easy it is to lose touch with family and friends and loved ones, or how much it changes your own life.
Things always got interesting when Witold was about. I have a very vague, very early childhood memory of seeing my dad, Witold, Nina and some other Poles sat round a table playing cards and drinking vodka, clouds of cigarette smoke in the air whilst my mum busied herself cooking for them. It was the year the Christmas tree caught fire. Witold hated rabbit (again, a hangover from his years in the forest) and my mum used to laugh and tell the story of how she once served up her glorious rabbit stew, with its lovely mushrooms and thick sauce. Witold ate it like a starving man and asked for seconds, complimenting her on the way she had cooked up the chicken....
Nina and Witold lived on the hills overlooking Bacup and, once a year, we would all travel up to visit them. It was an adventure; we had to catch at least two buses and travelled into wild and foreign parts (Rochdale and beyond!). Witold kept racing pigeons... the strangest hobby for a pirate or a bandit but quite common in the North (there were even men who kept them in purpose-built sheds in their backyards among the dingy courtyards and ginnels of Oldham). For a town boy who rarely saw a tree or grass (I would get excited at the sight of camomile growing between the paving stones), those visits to the green hills and open skies were unforgettable. Witold also drove a motorcycle (I told you he was a pirate!).
I heard that in his later years Witold ran a business that was very much on the shady side. If it was true I'm not surprised... if it wasn't... it should have been. Many Polish partisans and ex-RAF pilots found life after the war difficult. They had no homeland to return to and, certainly as far as the partisans were concerned, had lived a life that in peaceful times would be considered criminal. A number of the ex-RAF pilots found themselves running smuggling businesses in Africa and South America, or flying as mercenaries for some of those "armies" that rose up in the fight for independence in an Africa crawling out of the Colonial era. A number of partisans also became mercenaries (fighting in Algeria for example) or criminals. A bit of this stuck with Witold and I thank God for having had a character like him in my life - it gives me something to talk about.