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.