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.

(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

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

All Holocausted Out: What I Think of Non-Jews Using the Word Holocaust

I got an email in the comments section of this blog from the scholar Danusha Goska about something that I said in my posting about how I came to write my book Lightning and Ashes. I had mentioned that a friend said to me that I must be “all holocausted out” after writing my first book about my parents.

Dr. Goska wanted to know what I thought about using the word “Holocaust” to describe the experiences of non-Jews like my parents in World War II.

The following is my answer to her question:

My mother wasn't an educated woman. She had no college, no high school even. She couldn't read the books that argue about who was and who was not in the Holocaust.

When I was growing up, she never said she was in the Holocaust. She wasn’t a talker, but she talked a little about what happened to her family. Her mother and sister and the sister's baby were killed by German Soldiers and Ukrainian neighbors. She had two aunts who died in Auschwitz with their Jewish husbands. My mother spent a couple years in a slave labor camp in Germany. There were Jews and non-Jews in her camp; people suffered and died there. She didn’t talk about any of this much, and when she did she didn’t use the word “Holocaust.”

This changed as she got older. Toward the end of the 1990s, she started talking about how she was in the Holocaust. I think part of this might have come from the fact that people in general, not historians or academics but “just plain folks,” were using the term more often. They had seen Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful and Holocaust and other films about the Holocaust. I heard her using this word and saying that she was in the Holocaust. She said this to Christians (she was Catholic) and Jews alike. Maybe it was a sort of short hand for her. She was getting older and it was harder for her, I think, to try to explain to people that Polish Catholics also were in death camps and slave labor camps like their Jewish neighbors.

Was my mother right to use this word “Holocaust”? Did she have a right to use this word?

I think she had a right. When my father tried to talk about what happened to my mother during the war, he couldn’t say much. Sometimes, he would start crying, and all he could say then was, “She suffered so much.”

I have an education, and I’ve read about the debate concerning the word “Holocaust.” I think I can lay out some of the arguments from each side in a rudimentary sort of way given the complexity of everything that happened in World War II. One side feels that the Holocaust is what happened to the Jews alone. This side feels that the Nazis and their anti-Semitic allies in all countries worked to eliminate the Jews, and that what happened to the Jews was unique. The other side of the argument has it that Non-Jews by the millions from all of Europe suffered and died alongside the Jews, and that the term Holocaust should apply to all of those who suffered and died in the camps.

So, you ask, what do I think about using the word “Holocaust.” First, I’d have to say that I would never have told my mother that she wasn’t in the Holocaust. I think she had a right to describe her experiences in any way that she saw fit. She was there, she suffered. If she felt she was in the Holocaust, I wouldn’t argue with her.

Second, let me say, that I believe that what happened to Jews was different from what happened to non-Jews. Jews were singled out for immediate destruction. They suffered, they starved, they waited, they died, they waited, they died. Non-Jews who were considered non-Aryan (the Poles, the Italians, the Russians, the Rumanians, the Czechs, and others) were not singled out for immediate destruction. They suffered, they lingered, they starved, they waited, they died, they waited. My father used to talk about the difference between the death camps that the Jews were in and the slave labor camps he was in this way: The Jews, he would say, were in the death camps; he was in the slow-death camps.

To me, it doesn’t seem necessary to spend time discussing the word “Holocaust” and whether it’s applicable to what happened to my parents and other non-Jews.

I think about the Jewish dead and I think about the non-Jewish dead. They are dead.

What I know of hell comes to me primarily from my reading of Dante’s Inferno. In his hell, no one is untouched by pain. Everyone suffers. Some suffer more. Some suffer most. What I know of pain and suffering teaches me that I cannot judge the suffering and pain another feels. I can try to ease that pain and suffering. That is pretty much all I can do.

Let me also say this, I think that all of us who talk about what happened in those dark years of Hitler’s ascendancy and power and the Holocaust and suffering he helped to bring about finally cannot fully understand what happened or what it felt like or what it was like. In this respect, all of us, despite our very best efforts, cannot know what the Holocaust was. We are finally tourists in the kingdom of the Holocaust. We look, we wonder, we cry, we look, we turn away, we look again.