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


(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.)


D Goska said...

Thanks again, John.

A book readers here might be interested in: Forgotten Survivors.


John Guzlowski said...

Thanks, Danusha, I'll take a look. The only books I know on the period are Anna Kirchmann's Exile's Mission and The Forgotten Holocaust.

Both worth reading.

Daiva said...

Interesting. I especially like the part about the opera. In some Lithuanian DP camps there were poetry circles and informal literature evenings. I'm sure this was true for other groups.I wish I knew more about my dad's DP camp experience. He talked very little about it, and there don't seem to be many books out there.

John Guzlowski said...

Thanks for the note, Daiva. Like you I'm surprised by how little there is about the DP camps. There's the book by Anna Kirchmann I mentioned in a comment to Dr. Goska. I found however that there is a lot of information online. The site dedicated to the DP camp at Wildflecken is useful(http://www.rhoener-reservisten.de/wta/dp-camp-wildflecken/index.htm), and there's a link at that site to a book by Kathryn Hulme about her experiences as a relief administrator for the UN at Wildflecken (http://thewildplace.netfirms.com/#b).

Urkat said...

My Dad worked at a prisoner of war camp after the war and what has always amazed me is the artworks he got from there. These are paintings and things like a hand-carved chess set some of the prisoners gave him out of affection for him or sold to him in some cases for a small amount, beautiful works, miles ahead of what so-called artists mostly produce today in terms of sheer draughtsmanship and execution. What amazes me is that these talented people were serving in the army, against their wills in many cases. What a terrible waste of talent.

D Goska said...

John, I've got a question for you.


My parents were immigrants; English was not their first language; their experiences of it were fraught.

Won't go into detail here ...

I grew up speaking non-standard English. I taught myself standard during my first teaching jobs, overseas, so that my students would not end up speaking like me.

When I first began writing for publication, language was a huge barrier for me.

how to communicate? The non-Stanard I grew up with is no power language; it's not even Ebonics.

I can't write in Polish or Slovak, my parents' languages.

I have really had to sweat over the language I use in the writing I do about my experience as a Polish / Slovak American.

If I may, I'll include, below, the opening paragraph of a paper I wrote about my mother.

My question for you: Language.

Here's the paragraph I mentioned:

"I can't tell the most frightening story I know, because stories are made of words, and once I was without them. I was trekking in Nepal and ended up with amnesia. Later I stumbled into a mission hospital with a bruised jaw. A bad fall? I can't say. I had no words. No words for this thing that was wrenching and crying, in which "I" – a bundle of terror – seemed trapped. No words for where I began, stopped, or the mud stubble terrace on which I sat. No words to map, no words to define, no words to possess. No words for the blobs of light and shadow shifting or parking before me. No words to rank or relate the garbage – my own memories – blasting against my consciousness, randomly, insistently. Names shouted inside my head – my family, my lover, my own name; places – my hometown in America, the name of the mission hospital I'd eventually find my way to. An eleven-thousand-foot mountain rose in front of me. A backpack pulled at my shoulders. A Nepali woman stroked my arm. I had no words to weave any of these into a safety net of story or meaning. All were uncontrollable, unpredictable, stimuli, which somehow, suddenly, had complete, and therefore sinister, power, and struck again and again against – some other thing – me – a thing I couldn't name or inhabit, for I had no words. I remember this sensation now when I want to know what it must have been like for my immigrant mother when, as an eight-year-old Slovak peasant child, she first arrived in America in 1929."



I include this with a big thank you, as ever, to Stuart, who did the webpage for me.

John Guzlowski said...

Danusha, thanks for leaving that comment/story. I remember reading the essay it came from and finding it very moving. I think that what happens is that people forget how hard the sorts of transitions immigrants made going from one culture to another are. Your piece really makes that hit home.

And thanks too for linking the rest of your piece.


John Guzlowski said...

Urkat, sorry for not getting back to you sooner. Thanks also for the note about your dad and the prisoner art. I found a site called trench art. It's art from WWI done by prisoners and soldiers. Etchings on bone. Shells reshaped into something worth looking at.

Here's the link:


Urkat said...

I was thinking about what I wrote, John, and while one can't expect holocaust survivors and their families to have much sympathy for German war prisoners, like most things, there are many, many sides to the story. Being an artist, I feel for those trapped into a war they had no part in creating.

I mention this a propos of nothing, except that the blog got me thinking about that part of it, and also about how historians have the tendency to foreshorten history to fit their overall schema. Anyway, there are many tragedies as a result of that conflict. Having been raised in the aftermath of that war, I'm very much affected by the plight of Jews and others who suffered during that terrible "time of troubles."

Urkat said...

Thanks for the site!

D Goska said...

John, I've got yet ANOTHER question for you.

Thank heaven you are not one of those people who gets angry at me for asking questions.


People who write about pain.


How do you handle it?

Does it do any good?

I've written about some painful stuff. Some of it I've managed to publish, which gives you a sense of, "That wasn't for naught."

Some of it I haven't been able to publish, and that gives you a different sense.

I'm engaged in a writing project now that is force-marching me through a record of human suffering that I'm finding overwhelming.

And I don't even have to say whose suffering this was, or where, or when, or why, or how, because this world is full of so much overwhelming suffering ...

In America today there are a couple of intellectual approaches to suffering that don't work for me at all.

One of them is the Politically Correct approach to suffering. An example.

i was listening to a tape, I think (?) of the Bill Moyers broadcast of the PBS discussion of Genesis, and one of the privileged, elite persons invited to discuss Genesis said something, paraphrase, that I remember as: Blacks and Jews have suffered, and have a right to identify as having suffered, but "whites" have not suffered, and have no right to talk about suffering.

That stance doesn't work for me for more reasons than I can go into here, but one reason stands out today, after my session of forcing myself through these difficult materials I'm working with.

Suffering is not neat. It is not something we can control or address by coloring within the lines.

We don't know the suffering of the person we are talking to, of the person sitting next to us on the city bus.

We don't know a fraction of the suffering going on in the world right now. of the Nepali village child sold into sex slavery. Of the Alzheimer's patient being betrayed by his own children. Of the hopeful person having hope dashed yet again.

Who the devil is ANYONE to pronounce on the degrees, the topographic maps, of suffering?

Psia krew cholera.

The world is bleeding. It's been bleeding since Eden, which is as good a story as any to explain it all.

Urkat talks about the suffering of the Germans.

I'm not receptive of that talk, but that's just me.

But someone more fair than I would mention the mass Russian rapes of German women in Germany after WW II, of the Germans dispossessed and driven from their homes ...

So, John.

In a world where elites insist that they understand suffering ...

in a world where suffering is avoided ...

How? How do you, as a writer, handle it?

And why do you do it?

Aren't you holocausted out?

And, hey, aren't you aware -- and this is the second American approach to suffering that doesn't work for me -- of the best selling book, "The Secret," that says that if you just allow the universe to make your life bliss, your life will be bliss?

Must be true. it is a best seller.

Urkat said...

Hope you don't mind if I chime in because I have an interest in this subject as well. My mother is German, was displaced by the war, hid out in the back of milk trucks, barely avoided being blown to bits. I am susceptible to German suffering, but I would also go to the wall to prevent another Jewish holocaust because I feel strongly about it.

Not only that but I try to be an ecumenical thinker and writer. The only historian I know of who has done that is Will Durant, who was a Jesuit.

The problem of pain is interesting because it affects everything we are. We are hedonistic, pleasure-seeking beings and so continually frustrated by the unwanted incursions of pain into our lives. The only solution to this dilemma would perhaps be to find a way to "enjoy" pain, which is rather impossible. I don't believe any belief system will enable us to rationalize our pain away and render it harmless, much as we might try. So yes, Danusha, you raise an interesting question. The world is so full of pain and suffering. How should we feel about that. What is our moral obligation with regard to others' suffering. I wish I knew.

D Goska said...

Urkat, you wrote:

"I am susceptible to German suffering"


"I feel for those trapped into a war they had no part in creating"

I will politely disagree with the second sentence.

The German people very much did have a part in creating the war.

Hitler was hugely popular.

The people who raised him to power created WW II.

Some people rejected his evil.

We know some of their names:

Sophie Scholl, Franz Jagerstatter, the women at Rosenstrasse ...

These Germans resisted.

Not everyone followed Hitler.

So, yes, it was possible to recognize Hitler's evil, and it was possible to resist.

So ... back to your first sentence about recognizing German suffering.

Sure, I recognize German suffering.

To me, though, any ethical stance also factors in what Germans did to bring that suffering about.

Urkat said...

Danusha, Your point has merit, but Hitler's popularity had a lot to do with conditions following WWI. Our own country has been plunged in war by a once popular president, yet I take no responsibility. How should I resist? Wait for another election? Take to the streets in protest. Should German's have risked getting shot to protest Hitler and are all those who didn't cowards? They couldn't foresee the coming disaster. I'm not trumpeting how much Germans suffered compared to others, but many of even those who were forced to fight had little choice in the matter. If Hitler showed up on the street today, who wouldn't gladly put a bullet in him? Hindsight is 20-20. Do we Americans all share collective guilt for the Iraq debacle, if that's how it turns out, even though we have protested every step of the way? We're in a quandary. Wars happen, people make choices, history judges their choices, but with the benefit of hindsight.

Urkat said...

Just for the record, I did not compare Bush and Hitler. Bush is a man of God, as we all know, a patriot and someone who is doing what's right. Hitler was just a crazed maniac pretending to be a man of God, a patriot, and doing what he mistakenly thought was right. No comparison--hehe.

Unknown said...

Hi John, great site!

I hope you don't mind me advertising here; I am researching DP memory and commemoration in Australia. Please email if you have any thoughts, jayne.persian@arts.usyd.edu.au

Radha said...

So much in common. Mom was in Wildflecken DP Camp before reuniting with Dad in Hodgemoor DP Camp, England. I was born in 1948 in that camp. We immigrated to USA in 1951
Now that I'm looking I see your name in many related cites. - Tereska

Anonymous said...

I was born in Wildflecken as Zofia Roman and with parents emigrated to Australia on the Anna Salen arriving in Fremantle on New Years Eve 1950.
Both parents came from parts of East Poland, Volyn and Milno and as teenagers had been taken to work in Germany. Their homeland was taken over by Ukraine in 1943 or 1944.
I have been fortunate to know and write their story for the family and to visit surviving family where they were re-located to what was North Germany.

Sofia Carson (nee Roman)
Perth, Western Australia

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if anyone could tell me more on this...
In the 1970s my father in US Army was stationed in Wildflecken. We went to school in an old Nazi stable, our commissary was an old nazi headquarters building, and dozens of other buildings were old nazi buildings with new purpose.
We used to go to the gymnasium and play basketball or jump on the trampoline. We liked doing that a lot.
After we returned stateside we heard by word of mouth that after we had left Germany, the old gymnasium was torn down and upon hearing this had unearthed a mass grave of Polish boys, I was horrified. I felt sorrow and a sense anger at being allowed to play and have fun atop the bodies of innocent little boys who were probably my age when they died. Those nazis knew what they had done there; the rest of us did not.

I was wondering if anyone had heard more on this tragedy among many tragedies.
God bless.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, I would love to talk more about this with you.

I have a FB page dedicated to Echoes of Tattered Tongues and will print your note there if that's okay with you. The FB page gets a lot of traffic from people with knowledge of the camps.

If you don't do Facebook, drop me a line: jzguzlowski@gmail.com

John Guzlowski