Friday, September 14, 2007

DPs in the Polish Triangle, Chicago, 1950s

When we came to America in 1951, we soon settled in Chicago where there was and still is a huge Polish community. My parents, however, mainly associated with other DPs. They felt that the Poles who had come before, what people called the "old immigration," didn't much care for the DPs. We were the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse of Europe's shore--like in Emma Lazarus's poem on the Statue of Liberty--and the Poles who were here already didn't much want anything to do with DPs who reminded them of what poverty and dirt and need were like. Or at least this was the way we saw it.

My parents called the older immigrants Warsavjaki (forgive my spelling). The older immigrants tended to treat the DPs like farmers/yokels/hillbillies, and the DPs tended to look on the older immigrants as effete, pretentious, hi-falutin’ urbanites. There wasn't a lot of social commerce going on between the two groups.

When we first came to Chicago, we settled in what's been called the Polish Triangle, an area bordered by California, Milwaukee, and Division. I don't know how many Poles there were there, but it felt like everyone was a Pole. A lot of the store owners, priests, cops, trash men, teachers, librarians, either spoke Polish or had family that spoke Polish. You would walk past stores that had signs that said, “Mowimy Po Polsku” (We speak Polish). There were taverns and restaurants too with names that reminded the DPs of home: Sawa, The White Eagle, Old Warsaw.

But not everything was like a scene from some old movie about the American Melting Pot and how it worked to make us all a happy family of Americans. There were people who looked at DPs like they were vermin. We got some of this from the older Polish immigrants, and we got this from some some non-Poles too. I remember walking around with my father looking for rooms on Milwaukee Avenue that we could rent, and having people turn us away when they heard we were DPs. DPs were dirty, unreliable. They were drunkards, wife beaters, criminals, and bar fighters.

I'm not sure why this was. I would have thought that people would have been sympathetic to the DPs, aware of the kinds of trials and struggles they had experienced in the slave labor and concentration camps, but maybe I'm being naive. People probably just saw DPs as another problem, guys and gals after their jobs on the assembly lines at the Motorola and Zenith plants, or down at the docks in Calumet City or Navy Pier.

At first when we came to America, we lived in single rooms. We would rent a room in an apartment on Belden Avenue or Hamilton Street, and there would be other DP families renting other rooms in this apartment. I remember our first Christmas in the US. We were living in one of these rooms and a guy dressed as Santa was going from room to room passing out simple toys to the DP kids in those rooms. I got a tin army tank and a ball with a star on it. My sister got a jack in the box. America didn’t seem so bad.

All the time, my parents were working. My father worked the day shift, and my mother worked the night shift. This way there would usually be somebody home with my sister and me. My parents did this for years. Sometimes my dad would work two shifts, the 8am to 4pm, and the 4 pm to midnight shift; and he would do this 6 days a week. He wouldn't come home except on Saturday night, and then he would stay until Monday morning. When he was away working his double shifts, he slept in a room in the factory. I remember visiting him once. He had a cot to sleep on and a little box to store his stuff.

He and my mother worked in all kinds of factories, string factories, TV factories, perfume factories. My mother even worked for a time in a factory making walkie-talkies for the GIs fighting against the Communists in Korea. She worked the punch presses in the molding room. She’d come home with burn scars on her arms from the black plastic that melted and settled on them. Fifty years later when she was in a hospice dying from a stroke, I held her hand, and I could still read the scars there.

All of this crazy work my parents were doing started bringing in enough money so that we were moving out of the single rooms into double rooms and then whole apartments and then into an apartment in a building my parents bought at 2633 Potomac in Chicago. It must have been 1954, three years after we got to America, that they bought that first building.

Reading over this, I feel like I'm almost writing about the great American success story. The immigrants who come here with nothing but sand in their pockets; and in a couple of years, they're buying apartment buildings and driving around in black Cadillacs, smoking fat Cubans and dreaming about dating Marilyn Monroe--but it wasn't like that.

The war had come down like a hammer on my parents, and they were still reeling from the blow. My father drank whenever he could. He never drank when he was working but when he wasn’t working he would be down at the White Eagle tavern on the corner or down at the Sto Lat tavern on the next block. He was a black-out drunk. The only thing that would stop him from drinking was getting so drunk that he would pass out. When I got older, I would be sent to look for him in the bars on Division Street. I would find him pretty much gone, still able to walk but barely. I would help him make the trip home. Sometimes, I couldn’t get him up the stairs to our second floor apartment, and I would set him down in the basement where he would sleep it off.

When he would drink, what he wanted to do was talk about the war to anybody. He would talk about the camps and the beatings he got and what happened to him and his friends. And he would talk about the great Polish generals of the Second World War, Sikorski and Anders, and how the Polish soldiers fighting along side the Allies took revenge on Hitler and the Germans for what they did to Poland and Warsaw, how they leveled both like they were wooden outhouses. He loved to sing the songs that came out of the war, especially the one about the red poppies that covered the battlefield of Monte Cassino where so many Polish soldiers died, fighting up that mountain in the middle of the boot of Italy. I can still hear his voice getting deeper and quieter as he sang about those poppies and how the blood of the Poles can still be seen in those red flowers.

He also used to carry around a picture of a gallows in Germany where 5-6 Poles were hanging. He would take this into the bars with him and show it to whomever he could, and he would start talking about what happened to these men and the others in the concentration and slave labor camps he had been in. The photograph finally got so ragged from being passed around in the bars on Division Street that there was nothing left of it but tatters. After my father died, I looked for that photo in the shoebox of old pictures my mom kept under the TV set. I couldn't find it. He must have been carrying the tatters around in his old age.

But losing that old gallows picture didn’t matter to him, because he could also talk about the scar on his head, and he could point to his dead eye, the one that never closed. He would tell strangers about how he was clubbed by a Nazi guard for refusing to eat soup that was so inedible that even a starving man – which he was – would have to think twice before spooning that stuff into his mouth.

Sometimes, I would get my drunk father home, and my mother would start in. Normally, she was very quiet, unemotional, almost frozen. But when she saw him like this, she would explode.

She hated his drinking, and she would slap him and kick him and curse him. I learned all the Polish swear words I needed to know from her: psia krev, pierron, schlag trafi, kurva matzh, and others. He would just lie on the floor and take it. Sometimes he would try to crawl away from him, and she’d follow him across the living room floor, kicking him or beating him with a broom. He never raised a hand to hit her. He would just say, “yes, I deserve it” or “I’m sorry, Tessa.” That’s what he would call her, that or Mamusha. That means mother in Polish.

She would explode like this sometimes when she felt that my sister Donna had done something wrong too. If she sassed her, or refused to eat something my mother prepared, or tried to get out of watching me, my mother would slap her or chase her around the house with a broom. My sister would try to hide even under a bed, but my mother would get her, drag her out and beat her. As my sister got older, she would realize that there was no place in the house that she could hide so she ran outside, ran into the night, and after my mother quieted down, I would go out looking for my sister, trying to find her at a friend’s house or hiding somewhere in a neighbor’s basement.

My mother was the opposite of my father in a lot of ways. He would drink and she wouldn’t. She would get violent and abusive, and he never raised his hand to my sister or me or my mother. Another way was in how they treated the war, responded to it. While my father took every occasion to talk about the past, she never wanted to talk about what happened. If I asked her to tell me something about what had happened in the war, she would ignore me, just turn away. I felt that all of what was bad about our situation, being DPs and having a drunk father and a violent mother, came from the war somehow, but she wouldn’t tell me about it. If I pressed her, all she would say was, “If they give you bread, eat it; if they beat you, run.”

Even when we were living in America and safe at last, she never got much beyond that warning.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Upcoming Poetry Reading

I'll be doing some poetry readings over the next couple weeks and I thought I would mention them here and invite everybody to the readings. In all of the readings, I'll be reading from my two new books about my parents and their experiences in the slave labor camps: Lightning and Ashes and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.

The first reading is for the lecture series sponsored by the Women's and Gender Studies program at VSU. It will be at 7pm, Tuesday, Sept. 11 at the Bailey Science Center at Valdosta State University.

Here's some info about that and the entire series :

The following week I'll be giving a reading at Western Kentucky University, at 7pm, Tuesday, Sept. 18.

The next day, I'll be reading my poems about my parents as part of the Eastern Illinois University conference on World War II and James Jones. The reading is at 3pm, Sept. 19, in the library.

Here's the website with further information:

All of the above are free and open to the public, but if you can't come, you can hear and see me read on line.

Janusz Zalewski and Henryk Gajewski put together a website of readings from the January 2007 PAHA conference.

Here's that link: