Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What My Father Believed

Garrison Keillor's reading of my poem "What My Father Believed" from my book Lightning and Ashes is now available at the following link:

The poem talks about my father's faith, how he learned about God in Poland as a child, and how his faith sustained him in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas and Forgiveness

I recently gave a talk about my parents and their experiences with the Nazis to Narci Drossos’s class at Valdosta High School in Georgia. I talked about my father who spent 4 years in Buchenwald and other camps around Buchenwald, and I talked about my mother who spent 2 and half years in various slave labor camps in Germany.

During the discussion after my talk, a young man asked me a question. I’m sure it was in part sparked by the Christmas season, the talk that you hear at this time of year about “Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Men.” He asked me whether or not I forgave the Germans for what they did to my parents.

The question stopped me. I haven’t thought about it before.

Of course, I had thought about whether or not my parents forgave the Germans. My father never met a guard he would forgive. They were brutal men who beat him and killed his friends for no reason. One sub-zero winter night, these guards ran roll calls over and over. Hundreds of prisoners in pajama thin clothes stood outside in the cold and snow. By morning, about a hundred prisoners were dead.

He felt anger toward all the Germans.
My mother seldom talked about her experiences during the war. If you asked her what they were like, most of the time she would just say, "If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run away."

A lot of people say, forget it; it was all a long time ago. For my parents, it was never a long time ago.
My parents carried the pain and nightmares with them every day.

When my father was dying in a hospice, there were times when he was sure that the doctors and the nurses were the guards who beat him when he was a prisoner in the concentration camp. There were also times when he couldn’t recognize me. He looked at me and was frightened, as if I were one of the guards.

I don’t think he ever forgave the guards for what they did to him.

I remember asking my mom once toward the end of her life if she forgave the Germans. She thought for a while. I’m sure she was thinking about her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby. They were killed by Germans who came to her farm house in eastern Poland. My mother saw this and escaped, at least for a while, by jumping through a broken window and making her way to a forest.

What my mother finally said surprised me. I thought she was going to say what I had heard my father say over and over that all the Germans were evil. But that’s not what she said. She told me a story about when she first was brought to Germany. She was taken to a camp where they worked the women just like they were men, making the women work sixteen, eighteen, twenty hour shifts, six days a week. She said that she knew she couldn’t survive that for long, maybe a week, maybe two.

She was saved by a German, a guard in a concentration camp.

For some reason, this German guard took pity on her. Who knows what his motives were? My mother often said that Germans thought she looked like a German, a niemka in Polish. Maybe this was what got her saved. Maybe not. Whatever it was that motivated this guard, he succeeded in getting her transferred to a different work area where the work was not killing work. She survived the war.

After telling me this story, she said, “Some Germans were good. Some bad. I forgive the good ones.”
All of this went through my head when the student asked me if I forgave the Germans, and here’s what I said to him, “I don’t forgive the stupid ones, the ones who think that what happened to my parents didn’t happen or it wasn’t as bad as people say.”
And I told this student why I was saying this. I told him how I had gone to an academic conference in Paderborn, Germany, in 1989, and I met a woman, a professor, there. We were chatting, and she asked me if I had ever been in Germany before. I said, “Yes, I have. I was born in Germany in fact, in Vinnenberg.”

She was surprised and asked me about this. I told her my parents had been kidnapped by the Germans and brought to work in the slave labor and concentration camps in Germany, and that I was born in a refugee camp after the war.

She said, “Your parents were lucky they were brought to Germany during the war. It was better for them here than in Poland. Here they got good food, shelter. Here they got to escape the chaos of the war.”

I looked at her and couldn’t believe that she could say such a thing. I thought about my father and mother and what they lost and suffered during the war, and I thought about how their lives after the war never shook the scars of the war. I thought about my father’s nightmares and his dead eye, the one blinded by a guard; and I thought about my mother’s coldness, her inability to feel much beyond grief and anger and hatred. I thought about how she directed that coldness and anger and hatred toward my father, my sister, and me.

I didn’t know what to say to this German professor, and didn’t say anything.

She was not the kind of person I could forgive. She was one of the stupid ones.

This is what I told the student who asked if I forgave the Germans. Some I forgave, the smart ones who recognized what had happened during the war. Some I didn't forgive, the ones who didn't recognize what had happened.

But later as I kept thinking about what the student had asked and what I had answered, I started thinking more and more about my mother. With all she had experienced in the war and with all of her coldness, anger, and hate, she was still able to find some human warmth in her heart. She was still able to forgive some Germans.
This makes me think that I should be able to do more than condemn the stupid ones and forgive the smart ones, that I should be able to feel more of the good will toward all of them than I do.

(The photo of the Buchenwald prisoners above was taken by Margaret Bourke-White, one of the first photographers to come to this concentration camp after the liberation.)