Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What My Father Believed

Garrison Keillor's reading of my poem "What My Father Believed" from my book Lightning and Ashes is now available at the following link:

http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/programs/2007/12/24/#friday

The poem talks about my father's faith, how he learned about God in Poland as a child, and how his faith sustained him in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas and Forgiveness

I recently gave a talk about my parents and their experiences with the Nazis to Narci Drossos’s class at Valdosta High School in Georgia. I talked about my father who spent 4 years in Buchenwald and other camps around Buchenwald, and I talked about my mother who spent 2 and half years in various slave labor camps in Germany.

During the discussion after my talk, a young man asked me a question. I’m sure it was in part sparked by the Christmas season, the talk that you hear at this time of year about “Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Men.” He asked me whether or not I forgave the Germans for what they did to my parents.

The question stopped me. I haven’t thought about it before.

Of course, I had thought about whether or not my parents forgave the Germans. My father never met a guard he would forgive. They were brutal men who beat him and killed his friends for no reason. One sub-zero winter night, these guards ran roll calls over and over. Hundreds of prisoners in pajama thin clothes stood outside in the cold and snow. By morning, about a hundred prisoners were dead.

He felt anger toward all the Germans.
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My mother seldom talked about her experiences during the war. If you asked her what they were like, most of the time she would just say, "If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run away."

A lot of people say, forget it; it was all a long time ago. For my parents, it was never a long time ago.
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My parents carried the pain and nightmares with them every day.

When my father was dying in a hospice, there were times when he was sure that the doctors and the nurses were the guards who beat him when he was a prisoner in the concentration camp. There were also times when he couldn’t recognize me. He looked at me and was frightened, as if I were one of the guards.

I don’t think he ever forgave the guards for what they did to him.
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I remember asking my mom once toward the end of her life if she forgave the Germans. She thought for a while. I’m sure she was thinking about her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby. They were killed by Germans who came to her farm house in eastern Poland. My mother saw this and escaped, at least for a while, by jumping through a broken window and making her way to a forest.

What my mother finally said surprised me. I thought she was going to say what I had heard my father say over and over that all the Germans were evil. But that’s not what she said. She told me a story about when she first was brought to Germany. She was taken to a camp where they worked the women just like they were men, making the women work sixteen, eighteen, twenty hour shifts, six days a week. She said that she knew she couldn’t survive that for long, maybe a week, maybe two.

She was saved by a German, a guard in a concentration camp.

For some reason, this German guard took pity on her. Who knows what his motives were? My mother often said that Germans thought she looked like a German, a niemka in Polish. Maybe this was what got her saved. Maybe not. Whatever it was that motivated this guard, he succeeded in getting her transferred to a different work area where the work was not killing work. She survived the war.

After telling me this story, she said, “Some Germans were good. Some bad. I forgive the good ones.”
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All of this went through my head when the student asked me if I forgave the Germans, and here’s what I said to him, “I don’t forgive the stupid ones, the ones who think that what happened to my parents didn’t happen or it wasn’t as bad as people say.”
And I told this student why I was saying this. I told him how I had gone to an academic conference in Paderborn, Germany, in 1989, and I met a woman, a professor, there. We were chatting, and she asked me if I had ever been in Germany before. I said, “Yes, I have. I was born in Germany in fact, in Vinnenberg.”

She was surprised and asked me about this. I told her my parents had been kidnapped by the Germans and brought to work in the slave labor and concentration camps in Germany, and that I was born in a refugee camp after the war.

She said, “Your parents were lucky they were brought to Germany during the war. It was better for them here than in Poland. Here they got good food, shelter. Here they got to escape the chaos of the war.”

I looked at her and couldn’t believe that she could say such a thing. I thought about my father and mother and what they lost and suffered during the war, and I thought about how their lives after the war never shook the scars of the war. I thought about my father’s nightmares and his dead eye, the one blinded by a guard; and I thought about my mother’s coldness, her inability to feel much beyond grief and anger and hatred. I thought about how she directed that coldness and anger and hatred toward my father, my sister, and me.

I didn’t know what to say to this German professor, and didn’t say anything.

She was not the kind of person I could forgive. She was one of the stupid ones.

This is what I told the student who asked if I forgave the Germans. Some I forgave, the smart ones who recognized what had happened during the war. Some I didn't forgive, the ones who didn't recognize what had happened.

But later as I kept thinking about what the student had asked and what I had answered, I started thinking more and more about my mother. With all she had experienced in the war and with all of her coldness, anger, and hate, she was still able to find some human warmth in her heart. She was still able to forgive some Germans.
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This makes me think that I should be able to do more than condemn the stupid ones and forgive the smart ones, that I should be able to feel more of the good will toward all of them than I do.

(The photo of the Buchenwald prisoners above was taken by Margaret Bourke-White, one of the first photographers to come to this concentration camp after the liberation.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving Day

My people were all poor people, the ones who survived to look in my eyes and touch my fingers and those who didn’t, dying instead of fever, hunger, or even a bullet in the face, dying maybe thinking of how their deaths were balanced by my birth or one of the other stories the poor tell themselves to give themselves the strength to crawl out of their own graves.


Not all of them had this strength but enough of them did, so that I’m here and you’re here reading this blog about them.

What kept them going?
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I think about that a lot.

Maybe there's something in the DNA of people who start with nothing and end with nothing, and in between live from one handful of nothing to the next handful of nothing.

They keep going.


Through the misery in the rain and the terror in the snow, they keep going--even when there aren’t any rungs on the ladder, even when there aren’t any ladders.



(The photos are of my uncle Jan Hanczarek. He was taken to Siberia by the Russians in 1941. The Russians enslaved millions of Poles. In the first photo, he is standing with his wife and two children. I don't know their names. In the second photo, he and his wife are standing at the grave of my grandmother and my aunt and my aunt's baby who were all killed by the Nazis.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Happy Places

Sometimes when I'm doing poetry readings, I get questions about whether or not my sister and my parents and I were ever happy given the kind of experiences my parents had in Germany during the war. I can't talk for them, but I know that there were times that I was happy when I was growing up. This is a piece I wrote a couple years ago about those times.

We all have special perfect places, places where we feel most ourselves, most comfortable. In these special places, we feel our “self” most fully; we feel that what we were meant "to be" is suddenly "is"; we feel that our pasts, our presents, and our futures are mingling. We feel the joyful arms of our guardian angels and personal saints embracing us, and we feel their warmth touching us in seventeen places all at once. For some people, this special place is a chair in the kitchen or a bleacher at a baseball game.

Happy people are those who know where this place is.

They can go there when they need to: maybe not in their darkest moments (at the bedside of a dying parent or friend, or when a woman or man they truly loved leaves them finally with no offer of a hand to hold for even a moment), but surely in those moments after those moments they can turn to these holy places.


For me this place was a place in time: The June day I turned four, a Sunday in 1952, when I stood in the garden in the back of a house we were renting from a veteran of the First World War, an alcoholic with a plate in his head to cover the spot where a shell fragment had carried away a piece of his skull (his name was Ponchek which means donut in Polish and always made me laugh to say it), and I stood in his garden among Black Eyed Susans with their yellow petals and long necks. And my mother in a white dress with little blue flowers sat in the garden between me and my sister, and my father stood in front of us with a Brownie Cadet box camera.


He was asking us in Polish to smile, while my mother told me about the day ahead, how we would go to Kiddie Land up in Melrose Park, Illinois, and my sister Danusha and I would ride on the blue and yellow and red cars and the roller coaster built just for kids. My mother made it sound like there was something special about being a kid the way she talked about the day we had planned.

It makes a picture I don’t want to forget.

Maybe we remember these special places and special times and turn to them because they were the places and times our parents were happy, before their lives took their inevitable turns. Maybe not. Like most of us, I’m not good at figuring out the complex why of things.

But I remember a Sunday morning, and you remember sitting at a ball game between your mother and father, and both are screaming at the batter in a way that frightens you just a little but you know is okay; or you remember a day on a beach in Ocean City with your mother laughing at your father wearing her bathing cap pulled down over his eyes; or you remember your father sitting at the piano with a cigarette between his lips playing a piece you love like “Wild Colonial Boy” or “Stardust” while your mother stands at the ironing board straightening a pleat in her skirt with steam.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

November 11, 1918--The Day World War I Ended

I first heard of World War I when we came to America as Displaced Persons in 1951. We were refugees after World War II, and we moved into a basement apartment on Hamilton Street in Chicago.


Our landlord was a veteran of the First World War. He was a Polish American named Ponchek. He was also a drunk, but that wasn't anything special. There were a lot of drunks around. What made Ponchek special was that he had a steel plate in his head. As a kid and a recent immigrant to America, he had been drafted and sent to France to stop the Germans who were trying to rip France apart and shove it into the Atlantic. He ended up in the trenches in France in late October fighting the Germans, and a bullet took off the top of his head. The doctors cut away what bone they could, cleaned out the wound, and screwed a steel plate into the skull bone.

This fascinated me when I was a kid. I wondered about that plate, and what it felt like. Did Ponchek always feel a weight pressing down on his head? Was it like wearing a steel hat? A steel helmet? And I wondered what they covered the plate with. Skin? And where did it come from? Was it his skin or someone else's? I never could ask.

Like a lot of the veterans I knew, he was frightening. He wasn't a guy you wanted to spend a lot of time talking to.

Veterans were men who limped. They dragged their legs behind them like Lon Chaney in the Mummy movie. They were men who had wooden legs that creaked when they walked past you and the other kids sitting on the stoop. These veterans had no arms or only one arm, or were missing fingers or hands, or ears.

My dad, a guy who lost his left eye when he was clubbed by a Nazi guard in a concentration camp, used to go to a bar where the owner had a black, shiny rubber hand. He lost his real hand during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 when he shoved a homemade grenade into the steel treads of a German tank. The black rubber hand was like some kind of weird toy. Sometimes, it looked like a black fist, sometimes it looked like an eight ball.

Sometimes, a vet without arms or legs sat on the sidewalk in front of this bar. He had a cloth hat in front of him, and he was selling pencils. He'd sit there smiling, making chit chat with the guys walking in and out of the bar. You'd toss him a nickel, and you could take a pencil, but most guys didn't. Who needs a pencil?

Veterans were frightening. Some of them beat their kids and got drunk and had trouble getting through the day. They had trouble getting through the night too. There were these two little girls who lived two doors away, Patty and Cathy. Their dad was a Korean War veteran, and he would come home from his job at about midnight. The kids and their mom had to be out of their basement apartment then. He would beat and curse all of them if they weren't. They'd have to walk around the neighborhood until he was safely in bed, asleep. This veteran didn't like to fall asleep with people in the house. Everyone knew he was crazy.

Ponchek was a veteran too, and -- like I said -- he was a drunk and a man with a steel plate in his head. One time he and his two buddies got so drunk that they all came down to our basement apartment and tried to force my mother into giving them money for whiskey. There she was alone in a house with her two little kids, and this drunk and his two drunk buddies came around trying to take money from her. They told her that she hadn't paid the rent, and that if she didn't paid them, they would throw her out on the street. What kind of guys would do that? She pushed Poncheck down and kicked him, and took a broom and beat him and his friends as they tried to get away from her. My mom was a veteran too; she spent two and a half years in a Nazi slave labor camp.

Three or four years later, my mom and dad and my sister and me visited Ponchek in the big Veterans Administration hospital on the south side of Chicago. We didn't have a car, and so we had to take buses, and it seemed like it took forever to get to the hospital. This must have been about 1956 or 1957. The hospital was full of veterans, men from World War I and World War II and the Korean War. Ponchek was dying from some kind of stomach cancer, and he was in a lot of pain. We came to say goodbye to him. We found him in a bed in the corridor because there were no available rooms.

He was happy to see us. My parents had brought him some cigarettes, and my dad gave him one, and lit it for him. My sister and I stood there watching my mom and dad and Ponchek smoke and talk. They talked about those days on Hamilton, and the good times they had.

They didn't mention his steel plate and his drinking and his craziness.

PS: Before I sign off, let me say something about Veterans Day.

It grows out of Armistice Day, the day the carnage of World War I ended. It ended on the 11th hour of the 11 th day of the 11th month.

Here's a poem by John McCrae called "In Flanders Field." He was a doctor who wrote the poem in 1915 for a friend who died in the Battle for Flanders Field. The battle lasted 100 days and cost 400,000 Allied and German casualties. The war went on for another 3 years after that, and millions of people died in those years.

Here's McCrae's poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.



When I told my daughter Lillian that I was going to use the Flanders Field poem, she suggested another poem.

Here's what Lillian wrote:

"Personally, I like the Ode of Remembrance (the 3rd and 4th stanzas of Binyon's "For the Fallen") that they use throughout the "British Empire" at Remembrance Day commemorations. I think Binyon's poem, at least the following two stanzas, is more universal. It could be any war, any century, any side; and I think that is what Remembrance Day is for, remembering every fallen soldier--every kid who is too naive or too idealistic or too stupid or too gullible and so they join up for all of the right and all of the wrong reasons and then they die, painfully and horribly and wastefully, but bravely and nobly."

And here's Binyon's poem:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

PPS: Let me say just one more thing:

War comes to us, and we weep at our losses and pray for our delivery. And then peace comes and then peace goes, and wars come and come and come.

Friday, October 26, 2007

WOMEN IN WAR

"Tell them we weren't the only ones."

My mother said that to me once just before I did a lecture about her experiences and my dad’s experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany. She wanted me to be sure I told the audience that my parents weren’t the only people that terrible things happened to in those concentration camps. I promised my mother I would, and in fact, when I got to the lecture hall that night and stood up in front of that audience the first thing I did was tell them what my mother told me to.
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“We weren’t the only ones.”


For a long time, I thought I knew what she meant by that sentence. My mom hadn’t told me much about her experiences. My dad, however, had told me a lot about his terrible experiences during his five years in the Germany concentration camp system, and he also told me something about what had happened to my mother and her family, her mother, her sister, and her sister’s baby. They had been brutally murdered by the Nazis who came to their farm in eastern Poland. As I said, my mother didn’t talk about this experience or many of her other experiences for much of my life with her. I talk about this in one of my poems, “Here’s What My Mother Won’t Talk About.” In it, my mother’s response to my questions about her time under the Nazis is to tell me that I’m a fool and “If they give you bread, eat it. If they beat you, run.” That was pretty much it.

This last September, Tracy Meyers, the Director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Valdosta State University, invited me to do a lecture and poetry reading about my mother’s experiences during and after the war.

To prepare for it, I started thinking about my mother’s experiences and her silence about so much that had happened to her. I re-read an article I read years before by Jessica Alpert called "Muted Testimony: Rape and Gendered Violence of the Holocaust." Alpert’s argument was that women tended not to talk about their experiences in the concentration camps and the death camps because of the sexual brutality they experienced. This led me to do some more research, and what I found out was that a lot of the histories and memoirs and literary writings about war talk about what men are doing in a war, but these histories don’t always look at what’s happening to women and how they are experiencing war.

It’s not surprising. Women’s experiences of war tend to be different than men’s experiences of war. Women’s experience tend to be brutal and without much glory or sense of victory or accomplishment. Doing a Google search of “women” and “war” brings up things like the Japanese rape of the city of Nanking. The actual number of rapes that occurred there is hard to pin down but they range from 20,000 to 80,000. One source said that when the Japanese soldiers weren’t raping the women, “They took great pleasure in forcing fathers to rape their daughters and sons to rape their mothers.” British historian Antony Beevor says in Berlin: The Downfall 1945 that the Russians raped millions of women as they moved west, pushing back the Germans in the final months of World War II. These women were not only German women but also Russian women and Polish women and Ukrainian women and the women in the liberated concentration and death camps.
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In her study Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front in World War II (available on the internet), historian Wendy Jo Gertjejanssen argues that sexual violence against women by Russians and Germans both was common and seldom talked about.

Dr. Gertjejanssen says at the start of her study that sexual violence during the war happened to many, many women, perhaps millions, on the eastern front. These women were sexually abused and harassed, they were forced into military brothels, and they were raped and mutilated. Also, because they were deliberately starved, these women often found that they had to exchange sex for food and water to stay alive.


If you look at the memoirs left by women who had been in the camps, not many of these memoirs talk about the sexual brutality that took place in the camps. One of them that does is Seed of Sarah by Judith Isaacson. In fact, she talks about women’s silence about being sexually brutalized. In her book, Isaacson relates a conversation she had with her daughter about what happened to the women her mother knew during the war. Isaacson tells her that most of them had been raped and killed either by Nazis or the Russians. When her daughter wonders why no one ever hears about all of the women who were raped during the war, Isaacson answers, "The Anne Franks who survived rape don’t write their stories.”

Was my mother raped? Was she sexually brutalized?

These are hard questions for me to think about. They make me feel very sad. You want to think about the good things that happened to the ones you love; you don’t want to think of all the terrible things that might have happened. If my mother herself was not the victim of sexual brutalization, she must have seen it, and it must have hurt her deeply. One of the things my father frequently talked about and that I heard about from the time I was a kid was the story about the German soldier cutting a woman’s breasts with his bayonet. This woman was my aunt Genja who died with her baby and my grandmother when the Germans came to my mother’s farm.

Toward the end of her life, my mother told me about how she cried and couldn’t stop crying after this killing. I wrote a poem about it called “Grief.” It talks about how she was taken to Germany after the death of her sister Genja and the baby and her mother. Here it is:

Grief

My mother cried for a week, first in the boxcars
then in the camps. Her friends said, “Tekla,
don’t cry, the Germans will shoot you
and leave you in the field,” but she couldn’t stop.

Even when she had no more tears, she cried,
cried the way a dog will gulp for air
when it’s choking on a stick or some bone
it’s dug up in a garden and swallowed.

The woman in charge gave her a cold look
and knocked her down with her fist like a man,
and then told her if she didn’t stop crying
she would call the guard to stop her crying.

But my mother couldn’t stop. The howling
was something loose in her nothing could stop.

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I want to say one more things. The poet Christina Pacosz sent me an email a couple weeks ago reminding me that bad things haven’t stopped happening with the end of World War II. She’s absolutely right.

This comes from a UNICEF post on Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War:

"The State of the World's Children 1996 report notes that the disintegration of families in times of war leaves women and girls especially vulnerable to violence. Nearly 80 per cent of the 53 million people uprooted by wars today are women and children. When fathers, husbands, brothers and sons are drawn away to fight, they leave women, the very young and the elderly to fend for themselves. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Myanmar and Somalia, refugee families frequently cite rape or the fear of rape as a key factor in their decisions to seek refuge."(http://www.unicef.org/sowc96pk/sexviol.htm)

My mother wasn’t the only one.


(Drawing by Kathe Kollwitz)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

HISTORY AND NUMBERS

I was invited by Gladys Kirkland to give a series of poetry readings/lectures about my parents and their experiences in World War II to the Freshmen Social Studies students at Valdosta High School last Thursday (Oct.4), and I wrote up an introduction that I hoped would get the students interested in what I was telling them about.

I know that a lot of the students I had over the years at Eastern Illinois University hated to hear about wars and such because it sounded to them like war was just a bunch of numbers. I was afraid that the students at VHS would respond like that, so I wrote up this introduction. I wanted them to know that the war was more than just numbers. I ended up not using the introduction because the students at VHS didn't seem afraid of numbers, but I hate to write something and not use it so I thought I would post my introduction here.

HISTORY AND NUMBERS

History is full of numbers, dates, fractions, the number of this, the number of that.

Maybe you’ve heard of the M-1 rifle or the V-2 bomb or the B-17 bomber, or 2nd Lieutenants and Privates first class and 5-star generals.

We even give numbers to Wars. There was the 100 Year War, the War of 1812, the First World War, and World War II. Right now the US is fighting what’s some times called the Second Gulf War.


But it's the Second World War that I'm here to talk about.

If you go on line, and Google WWII statistics, you’ll get a lot of numbers, enough to fill up a couple or more textbooks.

You’ll find out that the Nazis murdered 6,000,000 Jews. You’ll find out that altogether 52,000,000 people died in the war, more or less. You’ll hear that 20 million died in Russia, 7,000,000 died in Germany. 2 million in Japan. I was surprised to hear that Yugoslavia, a country that I don’t think much about anymore and probably never did, lost 1.7 million people. The country my parents came from was Poland, and it lost 1/6 of its population. Before the war, there were 36 million Poles; that means about 6 million died. In Warsaw, the capitol city of Poland, a quarter of a million civilians died during a 60 day battle to throw the Germans out in 1944.



America got off pretty easy in WWII. It lost just a half a million, mostly soldiers. In those other countries it was about half soldiers and half civilians. “Civilians” is another way of saying wives and husbands and their children.

There are also the numbers involved in how much was spent on the war. The numbers here run pretty high. The U.S. spent the most money on the war, an estimated $341 billion. Germany was next, with $272 billion, followed by the Soviet Union with $192 billion. All the billions spent probably add up to a trillion.
There are also numbers associated with what kind of mess was made by the war. The Soviet government calculated that Russia lost 30 percent of its national wealth. As far as I can figure, that means it lost one out of every three of everything: houses, banks, cars, schools, railroads, bikes, and farms.

In Germany, bombing and shelling produced 4 billion cu m (5 billion cu yd) of rubble. I don’t know how big a pile that is but it sounds like a big pile of rubble. By the end of the war, the Germany capitol Berlin had been pretty much leveled. The people that count up such things estimate that 400,000 buildings were destroyed in Berlin. After the war, the Germans who survived the war got shovels and bulldozers and shoved all of those 400,000 building out of the city. Altogether there was about 17,000,000 cubic yards of rubble, bricks, bits of glass and silverware that melted together during the bombings, wood beams, busted up furniture, rusting pipes and porcelain bathtubs. It made a mountain 390 foot tall that in the past was used by Berliners looking to ski in the winter. It’s called Teufelsberg in German. That means Devil’s Mountain.

War does generate a lot of numbers, and the numbers tend to be big.

I was talking to a friend at VSU, a mathematician, a person who studies numbers, and she said that most people can’t imagine a number larger than 1000.

I know I can’t.

I only think about small numbers, human numbers. My mother, for example, would be one, my dad would be another one. That’s two, the two my poems are about.


(The photos are from the book The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1939-1945 by the historian Jörg Friedrich--there's a link to it on the right hand side.)

Friday, September 14, 2007

DPs in the Polish Triangle, Chicago, 1950s

When we came to America in 1951, we soon settled in Chicago where there was and still is a huge Polish community. My parents, however, mainly associated with other DPs. They felt that the Poles who had come before, what people called the "old immigration," didn't much care for the DPs. We were the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse of Europe's shore--like in Emma Lazarus's poem on the Statue of Liberty--and the Poles who were here already didn't much want anything to do with DPs who reminded them of what poverty and dirt and need were like. Or at least this was the way we saw it.


My parents called the older immigrants Warsavjaki (forgive my spelling). The older immigrants tended to treat the DPs like farmers/yokels/hillbillies, and the DPs tended to look on the older immigrants as effete, pretentious, hi-falutin’ urbanites. There wasn't a lot of social commerce going on between the two groups.

When we first came to Chicago, we settled in what's been called the Polish Triangle, an area bordered by California, Milwaukee, and Division. I don't know how many Poles there were there, but it felt like everyone was a Pole. A lot of the store owners, priests, cops, trash men, teachers, librarians, either spoke Polish or had family that spoke Polish. You would walk past stores that had signs that said, “Mowimy Po Polsku” (We speak Polish). There were taverns and restaurants too with names that reminded the DPs of home: Sawa, The White Eagle, Old Warsaw.

But not everything was like a scene from some old movie about the American Melting Pot and how it worked to make us all a happy family of Americans. There were people who looked at DPs like they were vermin. We got some of this from the older Polish immigrants, and we got this from some some non-Poles too. I remember walking around with my father looking for rooms on Milwaukee Avenue that we could rent, and having people turn us away when they heard we were DPs. DPs were dirty, unreliable. They were drunkards, wife beaters, criminals, and bar fighters.

I'm not sure why this was. I would have thought that people would have been sympathetic to the DPs, aware of the kinds of trials and struggles they had experienced in the slave labor and concentration camps, but maybe I'm being naive. People probably just saw DPs as another problem, guys and gals after their jobs on the assembly lines at the Motorola and Zenith plants, or down at the docks in Calumet City or Navy Pier.

At first when we came to America, we lived in single rooms. We would rent a room in an apartment on Belden Avenue or Hamilton Street, and there would be other DP families renting other rooms in this apartment. I remember our first Christmas in the US. We were living in one of these rooms and a guy dressed as Santa was going from room to room passing out simple toys to the DP kids in those rooms. I got a tin army tank and a ball with a star on it. My sister got a jack in the box. America didn’t seem so bad.

All the time, my parents were working. My father worked the day shift, and my mother worked the night shift. This way there would usually be somebody home with my sister and me. My parents did this for years. Sometimes my dad would work two shifts, the 8am to 4pm, and the 4 pm to midnight shift; and he would do this 6 days a week. He wouldn't come home except on Saturday night, and then he would stay until Monday morning. When he was away working his double shifts, he slept in a room in the factory. I remember visiting him once. He had a cot to sleep on and a little box to store his stuff.

He and my mother worked in all kinds of factories, string factories, TV factories, perfume factories. My mother even worked for a time in a factory making walkie-talkies for the GIs fighting against the Communists in Korea. She worked the punch presses in the molding room. She’d come home with burn scars on her arms from the black plastic that melted and settled on them. Fifty years later when she was in a hospice dying from a stroke, I held her hand, and I could still read the scars there.

All of this crazy work my parents were doing started bringing in enough money so that we were moving out of the single rooms into double rooms and then whole apartments and then into an apartment in a building my parents bought at 2633 Potomac in Chicago. It must have been 1954, three years after we got to America, that they bought that first building.

Reading over this, I feel like I'm almost writing about the great American success story. The immigrants who come here with nothing but sand in their pockets; and in a couple of years, they're buying apartment buildings and driving around in black Cadillacs, smoking fat Cubans and dreaming about dating Marilyn Monroe--but it wasn't like that.

The war had come down like a hammer on my parents, and they were still reeling from the blow. My father drank whenever he could. He never drank when he was working but when he wasn’t working he would be down at the White Eagle tavern on the corner or down at the Sto Lat tavern on the next block. He was a black-out drunk. The only thing that would stop him from drinking was getting so drunk that he would pass out. When I got older, I would be sent to look for him in the bars on Division Street. I would find him pretty much gone, still able to walk but barely. I would help him make the trip home. Sometimes, I couldn’t get him up the stairs to our second floor apartment, and I would set him down in the basement where he would sleep it off.

When he would drink, what he wanted to do was talk about the war to anybody. He would talk about the camps and the beatings he got and what happened to him and his friends. And he would talk about the great Polish generals of the Second World War, Sikorski and Anders, and how the Polish soldiers fighting along side the Allies took revenge on Hitler and the Germans for what they did to Poland and Warsaw, how they leveled both like they were wooden outhouses. He loved to sing the songs that came out of the war, especially the one about the red poppies that covered the battlefield of Monte Cassino where so many Polish soldiers died, fighting up that mountain in the middle of the boot of Italy. I can still hear his voice getting deeper and quieter as he sang about those poppies and how the blood of the Poles can still be seen in those red flowers.

He also used to carry around a picture of a gallows in Germany where 5-6 Poles were hanging. He would take this into the bars with him and show it to whomever he could, and he would start talking about what happened to these men and the others in the concentration and slave labor camps he had been in. The photograph finally got so ragged from being passed around in the bars on Division Street that there was nothing left of it but tatters. After my father died, I looked for that photo in the shoebox of old pictures my mom kept under the TV set. I couldn't find it. He must have been carrying the tatters around in his old age.

But losing that old gallows picture didn’t matter to him, because he could also talk about the scar on his head, and he could point to his dead eye, the one that never closed. He would tell strangers about how he was clubbed by a Nazi guard for refusing to eat soup that was so inedible that even a starving man – which he was – would have to think twice before spooning that stuff into his mouth.

Sometimes, I would get my drunk father home, and my mother would start in. Normally, she was very quiet, unemotional, almost frozen. But when she saw him like this, she would explode.






She hated his drinking, and she would slap him and kick him and curse him. I learned all the Polish swear words I needed to know from her: psia krev, pierron, schlag trafi, kurva matzh, and others. He would just lie on the floor and take it. Sometimes he would try to crawl away from him, and she’d follow him across the living room floor, kicking him or beating him with a broom. He never raised a hand to hit her. He would just say, “yes, I deserve it” or “I’m sorry, Tessa.” That’s what he would call her, that or Mamusha. That means mother in Polish.

She would explode like this sometimes when she felt that my sister Donna had done something wrong too. If she sassed her, or refused to eat something my mother prepared, or tried to get out of watching me, my mother would slap her or chase her around the house with a broom. My sister would try to hide even under a bed, but my mother would get her, drag her out and beat her. As my sister got older, she would realize that there was no place in the house that she could hide so she ran outside, ran into the night, and after my mother quieted down, I would go out looking for my sister, trying to find her at a friend’s house or hiding somewhere in a neighbor’s basement.

My mother was the opposite of my father in a lot of ways. He would drink and she wouldn’t. She would get violent and abusive, and he never raised his hand to my sister or me or my mother. Another way was in how they treated the war, responded to it. While my father took every occasion to talk about the past, she never wanted to talk about what happened. If I asked her to tell me something about what had happened in the war, she would ignore me, just turn away. I felt that all of what was bad about our situation, being DPs and having a drunk father and a violent mother, came from the war somehow, but she wouldn’t tell me about it. If I pressed her, all she would say was, “If they give you bread, eat it; if they beat you, run.”

Even when we were living in America and safe at last, she never got much beyond that warning.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Upcoming Poetry Reading

I'll be doing some poetry readings over the next couple weeks and I thought I would mention them here and invite everybody to the readings. In all of the readings, I'll be reading from my two new books about my parents and their experiences in the slave labor camps: Lightning and Ashes and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.

The first reading is for the lecture series sponsored by the Women's and Gender Studies program at VSU. It will be at 7pm, Tuesday, Sept. 11 at the Bailey Science Center at Valdosta State University.

Here's some info about that and the entire series : http://www.valdosta.edu/womenstudies/UpcomingEvents_000.shtml

The following week I'll be giving a reading at Western Kentucky University, at 7pm, Tuesday, Sept. 18.

The next day, I'll be reading my poems about my parents as part of the Eastern Illinois University conference on World War II and James Jones. The reading is at 3pm, Sept. 19, in the library.

Here's the website with further information:

http://evff.net/conference-schedule-tentative/

All of the above are free and open to the public, but if you can't come, you can hear and see me read on line.

Janusz Zalewski and Henryk Gajewski put together a website of readings from the January 2007 PAHA conference.

Here's that link: http://gajewski.tv/poets/

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A Wooden Trunk

When I posted my blog about the wooden trunk my parents carried from Germany, I received a number of comments and emails about wooden trunks and samovars and cooking utensils and other things the Poles who came to this country from the DP camps in Germany brought with them after the war.

[If you want to read the original post, here's the url:
http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/2007_06_01_archive.html]

One of those emails came from Christiana Conway. Here's what she said.

"I read briefly your blog and wish to tell you I was born in one of those DP camps...Wildflecken, 1946. I also have a trunk just as you described your parents had. It was painted a dark brown outside, and inside it is plain wood with I believe my mom's name stamped on it. I would never have parted with it. I recently acquired it (somehow my brother wound up with it and I discovered this when they were moving. He planed on dumping it at the curb) It is the only piece of memorabilia I own that was of my Mother's and my journey to the USA."

Christiana also sent me a series of pictures of the trunk her parents brought from Wildflecken, the DP camp for Poles that Kathryn Hulme talks about in The Wild Place.
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Here are two of the pictures:
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This is a picture of the trunk from the side. Chris took the photo in her basement.


The next is a picture of the surface of the trunk. If you look closely, you can see some of the lettering beneath the layer of brown paint. Before being painted over, the lettering may have indicated where Christina's parents were coming from or where they were going. Christina is thinking of doing a rubbing of the trunk to see if she can retrieve some of those words that were painted over.
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She says she can make out her mom's name on the lid of the trunk, Marie Chodacka, and under her name, Christiana says she can read, but only barely, the name of Frank Kozak of Clinton, NY, USA. Christiana feels that Frank must have been her family's sponsor to the USA . He was her sister's godfather, and he owned a dairy farm in Clinton. When Christiana was a child, she spent some summers there.

Thanks, Chris.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

THIRD WINTER OF WAR: BUCHENWALD

My chapbook about my father’s experiences in Buchenwald has just been published by Finishing Line Press, and I wanted to say something about how I came to write the book and why the book is the way it is, focusing solely on my father Jan Guzlowski.

When I wrote Language of Mules, my first book about my parents, I felt that it was mainly about my mother. Poems like “Cattle Train to Magdeburg,” “Here’s What My Mother Won’t Talk About,” and “My Mother Talks about the Slave Labor Camps” carried a lot of the weight of the book. For me emotionally, they were the points in the book that I always came back to. The last poem I wrote for that book was the long, four-part poem “My Mother Talks about the Slave Labor Camps,” and that poem seemed to make all of the other poems about my mother coalesce around it. They were the poems that I always read when I did poetry readings. In fact, a lot of times at those readings, I would mostly read the poems about my mother in Language of Mules. They had a psychological and emotional unity and power that spoke to me every time. And they seemed to speak to my audiences too. People would invariably ask questions about my mom, but seldom did they ask about my father.


In Lightning and Ashes, my second book about my parents, I wanted to talk about both my parents. They had been together for forty-two years when my dad died in 1997, and I wanted to write about what that life was like, the war that brought them together and the memories of shared suffering that had kept them together despite their differences and their antagonism. The book feels balanced to me. In fact, I sometimes think that my parents are almost having a conversation in that book. My mother talks about her experiences, and then my dad talks about his, and I’m once again a child listening to their talk and trying to make sense of the lives they lived.

I feel that Third Winter of War: Buchenwald is my father’s book. He was a man who could never be quiet about the war, a man who could never put it aside. My mother could, and frequently she’d tell my father he should too, but he couldn’t. The war was always as present as it had been in 1943. He was a man who could talk for hours about the war, with me, if I was around, with strangers if I wasn’t, with himself if no one was around. Sometimes, I would come into a room where he was sitting and he would be having silent conversations. He would be gesturing, grimacing, turning his head this way and that. His lips would be moving, but he wouldn’t be talking. I would ask him what he was going on, and he would relax and smile, and say something like, “I’ve been thinking about the Germans.”

He was a man who prayed every day for the people he knew who died in the war, and he was a man who dreamt nightmares about the war. When I was a child living at home, I would hear his screams. They would wake us all. I don’t think I’ve ever heard screams like that. They were muffled in an odd way. Screams, in my experience, are usually accompanied by an explosion of air. My father’s nightmare screams were drawn in. Even in his sleep, it was almost like he was afraid to scream. I would come to my father’s bedroom, and he would be asleep and screaming and struggling with the Germans who were beating him.

I wanted to write about these nightmares, and by writing about them, I wanted to understand and capture what the war must have been like for him. I wanted to capture the thing that caused his nightmares and the nightmares themselves. I wanted to write about his hungry days searching through the bricks of the bombed cities he was forced to work in, and the threats and beatings he received. I wanted to know what he felt in the third winter of the war when he was in Buchenwald and felt he would never get out.

That’s what I wanted, but what I realized finally was that I could never understand his war or capture it. I would always just be a tourist walking through his experiences with a sketchpad and a pencil.


Third Winter of War is available from Finishing Line Press
http://www.finishinglinepress.com/2006newreleasesandforthcomingtitles.htm

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

An Interview

I was interviewed last January by Bruce Guernsey of Spoon River Poetry Review, and that journal has recently given me permission to reprint the interview.

If you want to take a look at the interview and a photo of me eating some kind of strange soup, you'll find both at my Everything's Jake blog.

It's at: http://everythings-jake.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What Krystyna Slowikowska-Farley Told Me

I’m sending out letters this week trying to set up some poetry readings in Illinois or Michigan or Ohio, and I got to thinking about the readings I gave in Connecticut and New York last fall.

I was reading in front of old guys who can't walk now but who ran guns during the Warsaw Uprising when they were 14, 80-year old GIs who helped liberate Dachau and still can’t talk about what they saw in the cement factory, people my age whose parents worked in the slave labor camps in Germany. I feel my parents' lives deeply, and so it means a lot to me to meet and talk with people who were there in the camps and share with them and their children and grandchildren the stories about my parents.

One of the strongest encounters I had was at the Polish Cultural Club of Hartford, Connecticut, a wonderful place with welcoming people, Polish Americans very concerned with maintaining their connection with Poland.

There was a woman there, an elderly Polish woman named Krystyna Slowikowska-Farley, who came to the United States like we did, as a Displaced Person in 1951. She volunteered to read some of the Polish translations of my poems, and I got five poems to her before the reading because I wanted to make sure she was clear about what and when she would read.

(This is a photo of Krystyna in a traditional Polish costume selling raffle tickets with a friend at the Polish Cultural Club.)


She was wonderful. Without hesitation, she critiqued the poems, told me which of my poems wouldn't work because they were "too dreamy" and which poems were "poorly translated." The poems had been translated by an excellent Polish poet and translator, but Krystyna didn't like some of the new words in his translations. She said there was too much English in his Polish.

When I finally asked her if she was ready to read the poems in Polish, she said to me with a smile, "Mister, I was in a slave labor camp in Siberia for three years, I'm ready for anything." When she said that, she sounded so much like my mother, that same kind of courage and readiness. Hearing her matter of fact statement about her time in Siberia, I really felt that Krystyna and my mother had gone through the same curriculum at the same school.

Krystyna did a great job of reading those poems. I watched the audience. There were people nodding their heads, and people weeping. Reading my poems about my parents is always such an emotional experience for me that I'm always on the edge of not being able to go on, but when I heard Krystyna read the poems, it was pure joy, hearing the Polish word, hearing her courage. And I didn't even know much about her, but the people in the audience who knew her and her story must have felt so very very much. I feel they’ll never forget her reading. It was like she had stepped out of the past and stepped out of a grave to talk to them and tell them that she survived no matter what the war did to her.

And my appreciation of her courage and readiness got even stronger when Krystyna and I spoke briefly at the end of my evening of presenting poems.

At every poetry reading, I always read one of the first poems I wrote about my mother. It’s a poem called “Cattle Train to Magdeburg,” about the 4 days my mom spent in the box cars going to Germany, and how even sixty years later she still remembered the trip, still remembered “the box cars bleached to Baltic gray.” After this particular reading at the Polish Cultural Club, Krystyna came up to me. She smiled and looked me in the eye and said, "Listen, your mother spent 4 days in the cattle cars. That was nothing. I spent 2 weeks." And she laughed.

I don't think this was boasting. My mother some times said the same sort of thing when she heard people telling their stories about the terrible things that happened to them during those years. Like I said, I don’t think this was boasting; I think there were a couple things going on instead. One is that people like Krystyna and my mother want you to know that, no matter how bad a time some one had, there are people who had a worse time. The other thing going on is that they really do want you to know how hard it was. My mother spent 4 days in the boxcars, Krystyna spent 2 weeks in the boxcars, Isaac Singer's mother and brother spent 2 winter months in a boxcar. They never left the boxcars. They died some place on a railroad siding in Russia. Their train was just shunted to the side and left there till spring.

Yes, there was always someone who had a worse experience, and that person will tell you about it with a laugh or with tears or with a shaking head. They want you to know that terrible things can happen but that people do survive. They walk out of graves, walk across continents, walk until they can’t walk and then they walk some more.

This is what Krystyna told me.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Wooden Trunk We Carried with Us from Germany

When my family, my parents, my sister and I, finally left Germany in 1951, we were allowed to bring very little, only what would fit into a steamer trunk. The problem was that we couldn't afford to buy one. Not many of the families living in the camps could. So my father did what other people did. He and a friend got together and built one.

Someplace, somehow, my father and his friend found a hammer and a saw and nails and some metal stripping, and they set to work. Getting the wood wasn’t a problem. They got the wood from the walls of the barracks they were living in. It was one of the old German concentration camps that had been converted to living space for the Displaced Persons, and this place didn’t have finished walls of plaster, or anything like that. If you wanted a board, you could just pull it off of the wall, and that’s what my dad did.

I don’t think he felt guilty about busting up those walls. He had probably spent enough time staring at them, so that he probably felt he could do anything he wanted to them, and it would be okay. I think if a man spends enough time staring at a thing, finally it becomes his by a kind of default. I don’t know if that’s what my dad thought. He didn’t say a lot about building that wooden trunk, and he probably didn’t give it much thought.

The trunk my father and his friend built out of those old boards wasn't big. It was maybe four feet wide and three feet tall and three feet deep. The walls of the trunk were about 3/4 of an inch thick. But wood is always heavy, so that even though it wasn’t that big, that trunk needed two people to lift it.

My parents couldn't get much into the trunk, but they put into what they thought they would need in America and what they didn't want to leave in Germany: some letters from Poland, four pillows made of goose feathers, a black skillet, some photographs of their time in Germany, a wooden cross, some clothing, of course, and wool sweaters that my mother knitted for us in case it was cold in America. Somewhere, I’ve got a picture of me wearing one of those sweaters. It looks pretty good. My mother knitted it before her eyes went bad, and she was able to put little reindeer and stars all over that sweater.

When we finally got to America, my parents didn't trash that wooden trunk or break it up, even though there were times when breaking it up and using the wood for a fire would have been a good idea, kept us warm. Instead, they kept it handy for every move they made in the next forty years. They carried it with them when we had to go to the migrant farmers' camp in upstate New York where we worked off the cost of our passage to America. And my parents carried it to Chicago too when they heard from their friend Wenglaz that Chicago was a good place for DPs. And they carried that trunk to all the roomimg houses and apartment buildings and houses that we lived in in Chicago. I remember in those early days in Chicago that there were times when the only things we owned were the things my mother and father brought with us in that trunk, and the only furniture we had was that trunk. Sometimes it was a table, and sometimes it was a bench, and sometimes it was even a bed for my sister and me.

When we were kids growing up, my sister Donna and I played with the trunk. It had large blocky letters printed on it, the names of the town we came from in Germany, the port we sailed from, and the port we sailed to in America. We would trace the letters with our fingers even before we could read what they said. We imagined that trunk was the boat that brought us to America, and we imagined that it was an airplane and a house. We even imagined that it was a swimming pool, although this got harder to imagine as we got older and bigger.

When my parents retired in 1990 and moved from Chicago to Sun City, Arizona, they carried that trunk with them. That surprised me because they didn’t take much with them when they went to Arizona. They sold or gave away almost everything that they owned, almost everything that they had accumulated in thirty-eight years of living in America. They got rid of bedroom suites and dining room suites, refrigerators and washing machines, ladders and lawnmowers. My parents were never sentimental, and they didn’t put much stock in stuff. They figured it would be easier to buy new tables and couches when they got to Sun City. But they kept that trunk and the things they could put in it. And a TV set.


After my father died in 1997, my mother stayed on in Arizona. She still had the trunk when she died. She kept it in a small, 8 foot x 8 foot utility room off the carport. My parents had tried to pretty it up at some point during their time in Arizona. The original trunk was bare, unpainted wood, and was covered with those big, blocky, white letters I mentioned. But for some reason, my parents had painted the wooden trunk, painted it a sort of dark brown, almost a maroon color; and they had papered the bare wood on the inside of the trunk with wallpaper, a light beige color with little blue flowers.

When my mom died, I was with her. Her dying was long and hard. She had had a stroke and couldn't talk or understand what was said. She couldn't move at all either. When she finally died, I had to make sense of her things. I contacted a real estate agent, and he told me how I could get in touch with a company that would sell off all of my mother's things in an estate sale.

I thought about taking the wooden trunk back home with me to Valdosta, Georgia. I thought about all it meant to my parents and to me, how long it had been with them. How they had carried it with them from the DP camps in Germany to Sun City, Arizona, this desert place so different from anything they had ever known overseas. I knew my sister Donna didn't want the trunk. I called her up, and we talked about the things my mother left behind and the estate sale and the trunk. Donna has spent a lifetime trying to forget the time in the DP camps and what the years in the slave labor camps during the war had cost my parents. But did I want it?

I contacted UPS about shipping it, what it would cost, how I would have to prepare the trunk. They told me it would cost about $150 to ship. But did I want it?

I finally decided to leave it there and to let it get sold off at the estate sale. That wooden trunk had been painted over, and the person buying it wouldn't know anything about what it was and how it got there. It would just be an anonymous, rough-made trunk, painted a dark brown, almost maroon color with some goofy wallpaper inside.

Thinking back on all of this now, I'm not sure I know why I left that trunk there. When I'm doing a poetry reading and tell people the story of the trunk and read one of my poems about it, people ask me why I left it. It doesn't make any kind of sense to them. And I'm not sure now that it makes any kind of sense to me either. Why did I leave it?

I was pretty much used up by my mom's dying. It had been hard. My mother went into the hospital for a gall bladder operation and had had that stroke, and the stroke left her paralyzed, confused, and weak. She couldn’t talk or move, and the doctor told me that my mother couldn’t even understand what was being said to her.

Her condition got worse, and I put her in a hospice in Sun City. I sat with her there for three weeks, watched her breathing get more and more still. Sometimes, her eyes would open, and she would look around. I would talk to her about things I remembered, her life and my father’s life, my life and my sister’s life. I don’t know if she understood anything. She couldn’t blink or nod, or make sounds with her mouth. I just talked to her about what I remembered, any stupid thing, the bus rides we took, the TV shows she always watched, the oleanders she and my dad liked to grow and plant in the backyard. I didn't think that there was much else I could do for her.

When she died, I didn't want to do anything except get back home to my wife Linda in Georgia. Maybe the extra burden of figuring out how to carry that trunk back to Georgia was more than I could deal with. Or maybe I thought that trunk wasn't the same trunk that my parents had brought from the concentration camp in Germany. It had been painted, changed. Or maybe I just wanted that trunk to slip away into memory the way my mother had slipped away, become a part of my memory, always there but not there.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Some Background on Slave Laborers and Displaced Persons (DPs)

My parents met in a slave labor camp in Germany during World War II. My dad had been there for four years, my mother for almost three. They met toward the end of the war. My dad had worked on a farm when he was a boy before the war, and the Germans needed people to work on their farms. The German male population was mostly in uniform and out of the country trying to conquer Russia and England and Africa and other countries too.

So the Germans grabbed up people to work in their munitions industries, clear the rubble from the cities the Allied planes were hammering, and do farm work too. They grabbed them up wherever they could find them. My dad and mom hadn’t met yet, and they were picked up separately in different parts of Poland and sent west to Germany. My dad was picked up when he went to his village to buy some rope. My mom was picked up when she was hiding from the German soldiers who killed her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby.

In Germany, my mom mainly did agricultural work. She worked in the fields and in the barns. She didn’t talk much about what she did, but one of the things she mentioned all the time was how hard it was digging beets out of the frozen ground. (I wrote a poem about this called “The Beets.” If you Google my name and the word “beets,” you’ll be able to read about what that was like.) The other thing she always talked about was the wooden shoes she had to wear. In the winter, they always froze, and her feet froze too. She blamed the wooden shoes for the fact that in her last years her feet were useless. They were kind of shapeless and puffed up, and she couldn’t stand or walk.

As a slave laborer, my father did all kinds of different work. He dug for German bodies under the bricks in Magdeburg; he worked in German coalmines; he carried heavy things in the factories were they were making German guns and uniforms; he hoed German fields and milked German cows. Like the other slave laborers from Poland and every other country in Europe, he didn’t have a choice. Slaves don’t have choices. Toward the end of the war for some reason, the Germans put him to work on the farm where my mother was a slave laborer.  My parents met at the end of the war.  My father was being driven on a death march past the camp my mom was in.  For some reason, the German guards leading my dad ran away when they came to my mom's camp.    My mom and dad were suddenly free for the first time in years.


After the war ended in the spring of 1945, my parents got married. The Germans couldn’t keep anybody apart then. My dad liked to say that after the liberation of the camps, the first thing the slaves did was eat. The second thing they did was get married. And then they had babies.

Maybe they shouldn’t have had babies so soon because the former slaves weren’t really physically very strong, and the conditions weren’t too good either. The slave laborers were now called Displaced Persons, but they were still living in the old barracks that they had lived in when they were slave laborers. Some of these camps still had unburied bodies piled up waiting to be buried, but there were so many bodies that needed to be buried that the DPs sometimes had to live next to where the dead were waiting to be buried. The DPs, my mom told me, were always being shifted from one camp to another. Germany was being divided up between the Allies, and the Displaced Persons were being resettled over and over again. It was like the Allies couldn’t decide what to do with all of these DPs.

A lot of the babies in those DP camps were sickly and many of them died. My sister and I got sick and dehydrated and feverish, but we survived. Years later, my mother was telling me about this and she said, “I thought you were a goner.” It was like this all over, I guess. At one of the DP camps, the one at Wildflecken in Germany, there’s a Polish cemetery where you can see the graves of 427 babies born right after the war. Kathryn Hulme was a UN administrator at this camp and wrote about her experiences in The Wild Place.

There were masses of DPs in Germany after the war. The numbers are hard to imagine. I’ve seen estimates as low as 11 million, and as high as 20 million. There were DPs there from all the countries of Europe, and they were all kinds of people: Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, gypsies, Christians of all kinds. The Germans had brought them all to work in the slave labor camps. In these camps, there were farmers and lawyers and nuns and college professors and school girls and nurses and priests and waiters and artists from everyplace. My father would talk about the Greeks he worked alongside of, the Italians who kept dreaming about eating macaroni, the Russians who the German guards hated and abused all the time, and the Frenchmen who showed their fine Sunday manners even when they were dying. And after the war, many of these people couldn't get back to their own countries, and they waited in these DP camps.

What education my dad had came mainly from what he learned about the world from the people in the camps. He was an orphan and had never been allowed to go to school, but he learned about history and geography and politics and even opera in the slave labor camps. There was an Italian professor who spoke Polish and loved to talk to the other slave laborers about Italian operas. It was amazing what my father knew about Italian opera. He had opinions on the relative merits of French and Italian and German operas. And my dad could back those opinions up! Verdi was great. Wagner, not so hot.



I don’t personally remember much from this time after the war. I was born in 1948. I just have a few memories, and maybe these are based as much on the photographs that I played with as a child as anything else. I remember living in barracks, watching the convoys of dark green army trucks always passing. I remember a pair of camouflaged pants my mother sewed for me out of material that she salvaged from an old army parachute. I remember being lost in the barracks, wandering around calling for my parents and my sister Donna. It felt like I was lost for hours, and it felt like the barracks and the camp went on for thousands of miles. And maybe it did go on for thousands of miles, from one end of Germany to the other. It felt like that.

As I said, there were a lot of people from all over in those DP camps in Germany, and it took a while to get this mass of DPs straightened out after the war. The DPs were all lost, separated from their families, grieving for their dead mothers and dead fathers and dead sons and daughters, afraid to stay in Germany where they had been slaves, and afraid to go back to where they came from because home was maybe just another bunch of graves, or maybe the Communists had taken over and were shipping the DPs who returned to Siberia and the slave labor camps there. The DPs all felt mixed up and lost.

The United Nations was still trying to straighten this mess of DPs up six years after the war when my parents and my sister Donna and I were allowed to leave in 1951

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(The illustration here and the next one are by the Polish artist Vojtek Luka. He drew them to illustrate my book Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.)