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?
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.)


Danusha said...

John -- something strange.

I read and post on the internet a lot, and your blog is the only place where I am always tempted to reply to a post by quoting myself -- that is, by quoting a bit of my previously written writing.

Elsewhere, in response to other authors, I just type in some new thing.

With you, I always want to quote myself.

I wonder if that is because you and I are, in one sense, parallel chapters. You grew up the child of Bohunk parents who lived through the Depression, World War Two, and atrocities in Europe, whereas I grew up the child of Bohunk parents who lived through the Depression, World War Two, and atrocities in the US, after leaving Europe behind.

As if in a Krzystof Kieslowski movie ... we are telling opposite ends of the same story, and we will meet in the middle?

Anyway, reading this latest blog of yours brought to mind one of my radio broadcasts from WFIU. The text is below:

Missing Yesterday's Old People

I recently went through some hard times; did not see how I'd survive from one day to the next. And I began to miss yesterday's old people.

I grew up among immigrants, peasants, like my mother, who packed everything into a tight bundle and traveled on ox carts to Prague or Warsaw, where they were shipped off to coalmines. They faced American racism that lynched one of my ancestors. The Depression, World War Two, the Holocaust, the first atomic bomb: their headlines, as they scrubbed floors, manned trenches, and waited on an American Dream that would never stop for them.

In the kitchen on weekday nights, under fluorescent lights and overhanging laundry, my mother and Dave, the traveling salesman who had a crush on her, would trade fabulous tales. Not about people who get their picture in the paper, but about people like Joe, Dave's father. Joe had been chased out of his village by a pogrom. A girl in a neighboring village booked passage to America, because her heart was certain that Joe was *the one.* Asking locals about this man she'd met only once, she traveled, alone, and speaking no English, to three different American cities until she found Joe, and married him.

I knew that no matter what I was going through, these old people had gone through so much more, and found cause for laughter and pride.

But now I'm all grown up, and the old people of my childhood are gone. Mom, Dad, Dave, Aunt Rose and Uncle Rudy, who made outrageous claims about his relationship to Archduke Ferdinand. I seek their like in muscle, exaltation and beauty, in vain. And so, I tell their stories. Yesterday's old people, by wrestling with the ruination of dreams, wars, and rumors of wars, and never losing their decency, or their backbone, make today seem possible to me.



Your blog also brings to mind my students.

Some say that this generation has been encouraged so much that they lack stick-to-it-tive-ness.

I don't know if that is true.

I do know that my students' biggest enemy is their own willingness to permit themselves to quit.

A student told me this semester that they had a car accident and that that made successful completion of the semester impossible. No broken bones, no cuts or bruises, just ... one car accident.

Another student, very quiet, very good, handed in a "my life story" type of paper ... the details were mind boggling ... a birth in a toilet ... a drug addicted mother ... constant medical problems caused by being born to a woman who was drug addicted ... and this is one of the best students I've ever had.

I wish, if I could convey nothing else to my students, that I could convey this: you can. As soon as you tell yourself you can't, or that you are to be pitied, you can't.

it's up to you.

Manfred said...

I admire the determination like what it took for the Poles to get through their decades and more of relative misery, but I fear I don't have it. I think that kind of hardship would have finished me.

Wanda said...

From what I have been told, and what I have observed in the Poles I know, is that it was their faith in God and their nation that kept them going (in addition to the desire to see their families and homes again). It's a kind of faith experience that many in the second and third generation don't or cannot relate to...the reasons are many. I believe a faith in a Higher Power, a Greater Good, in Truth etc can take us some of the way forward through hard times...but it's become more of an intellectual choice rather than an embodied faith as it was for our parents and ancestors. We are exposed to so many choices, so many worldviews, so many wonder it's hard to hang onto what's real and true and worth dying for and living for. Yet, there are still things from our past, our ancestors' lives, that resonate within us. We need to listen, and have the courage to say Yes. This is part of me. This is worth it. This will carry me through no matter what.

John Guzlowski said...

Dear Danusha, Manfred, and Wanda,

Thank you for postings.

First, to Manfred, don't be so hard on yourself. You don't know if you would be "finished off" by such hardships. I think one of the things that history teaches is that people do survive things--whether they're prepared or not. When the challenge of a really bad situation confronts us, forces take over that are sometimes beyond our understanding.

What these forces are is -- to me -- a mystery. In my blog I suggest maybe it's something in the DNA, but I'm just scratching my head and wondering when I say that.

Wanda, in her comment, says maybe it's faith, faith in God and Nation and family, faith in a Greater Good or in truth.

I can't argue with that.

Karen Armstrong in her book the History of God says that we have an instinct for God, an instinct for faith and belief.

I look around and what I see people saying and doing seems to indicate that the existence of such an instinct is likely.

And maybe we have another instinct, an instinct to tell stories of hope like the one Danusha told.

Manfred said...

"And maybe we have another instinct, an instinct to tell stories of hope like the one Danusha told."

I think we do tell such stories to encourage one another the way geese honk in formation to keep their spirits up. I liken faith to the faith trees have--completely unconscious, born from centuries of patient waiting and multiple cycles of experiencing seasonal change and the returning spring.

Rabindranath Tagore has an interesting saying: "The faith waiting in the heart of a seed promises a miracle of life which it cannot prove at once."

wanda said...

Ooh, Manfred, that was so well put! I actually dreamt of a tree of faith last night. I could see its roots through the earth, and they matched its leafless canopy above perfectly in shape. The ground around it was damp to the circumference of the tree's canopy. I was worried about how it would survive the winter...but a figure nearby indicated the circle of damp earth and told me to have faith..the tree knows how to survive.

I experienced that emobdied sense of faith you describe when I walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain (850 km/500 miles)...full of fears of the unknown at first, then with the rhythm of walking and surviving each day, there came a moment when I realized that I was just BEING in a state of faith -without analyzing, measuring, monitoring. Where did it come from? Is that the seed within? Is that how our parents and ancestors survived? Did they pass that to us through their DNA?

Steve said...

Reading thru your blog, it breaks my heart that humanity would have such a cold and calloused hand. At the same time, it makes me proud that my Uncle helped in destroying such a horrible regime. You must, YOU MUST continue to enlighten the populace, they-we-must never be allowed to forget what happened. It is paramount that these sufferings, these injustices never be forgotten.

Danusha said...


"I admire the determination like what it took for the Poles to get through their decades and more of relative misery, but I fear I don't have it."

I think you do.

I think that what keeps people going is God.

And I think that God is available to everyone.

Jean Shepherd, the famous radio raconteur, said that you never know, in advance, who is going to come through for you in a foxhole. He was in the military, but I don't think he saw active service (?)

But he did say that -- that you go through basic training with a group of guys, and some of them are macho and some of them are not -- the usual human diversity.

And then when the chips are down, someone comes through, and you can never predict who that is going to be.


Wanda, do you have a description of your pilgrimage anywhere that I could read? I dream of someday doing the Campostella pilgrimage.

Manfred said...

That was so encouraging, thank you Wanda and Danusha--and John of course. Now I want to know more about the Pilgrimage also.

I too miss the old people I have known, even the actors whose faces we recognize, who played so many roles while we watched.

John Guzlowski said...

Dear Mandred, I'd like to read about Wanda's pilgrimage also. She recently sent me a poem called "Cork Tree" she wrote about the pilgrimage

Perhaps she'll post it here or let me forward it to you.


Danusha said...


"I too miss the old people I have known, even the actors whose faces we recognize, who played so many roles while we watched."

I feel the same way.

One of my favorite essays is by Roger Rosenblatt. It salutes Oscar Levant, a figure familiar to old movie fans like me.

He was never a big star, and it's highly likely that most young people today have no idea who he was.

and yet he was part of our lives.


Manfred said...

Danusha, I love Oscar Levant. When I play piano, like I have to do tonight, I always play "Blame it on my Youth," which he wrote. It's a beautiful ballad.