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.
(The illustration here and the next one are by the Polish artist Vojtek Luka. He drew them to illustrate my poem Hunger in the Labor Camps.)
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.
They met in that camp, but they didn’t have much to do with each other. The Germans kept the men separate from the women.
When 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