Sunday, December 7, 2008
When my father was dying of liver cancer, the doctors popped him full of morphine, enough morphine -- they thought -- to keep him drifting peacefully toward his death, but the morphine wasn't enough. Nothing was enough to make him forget what it was like in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. He had spent 4 years there, a place where every year one out of every four of the prisoners was worked to death.
Dying and drugged up in 1997, he was back in the camps, starving and struggling to keep alive. He was convinced that the doctors and nurses were Nazi guards. He was also sure that my mother and I had betrayed him to the guards. There was nothing we could say to make him realize the war was over and he wasn't working in the camp and that there was no reason to be afraid.
He was still afraid.
Let me tell you one of the stories he told me about working in Buchenwald:
I lifted the shovel, saw the dirt, the clods still heavy with snow, and I knew that this would always be my life, one shovel and then another shovel until my arms were shaking. I never knew what the guards would say to me.
Maybe they’d ask me for a song, one of the songs I knew in Poland that I sang when I was a boy leading the steaming cows into the woods early in the spring. And I would smile and sing, and then I would ask the guards if they’d like another song.
Or maybe they would tell me I was a fool and my mother was the kind of pig the farm boys fucked when their own hands were weak from pulling on their sore meat.
And I would shovel in terror and think of the words I would not say but wanted to say:
Sirs, we are all brothers, and if this war ever ends, please, never tell your children what you’ve done to me today.
(You can read a version of this story and other stories about the work my father and mother did in Germany in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues.)
Friday, November 28, 2008
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.)
Friday, November 7, 2008
It brought back a lot of memories. All Souls Day was always a holy day that I felt deeply. In Poland the day was important. People would take candles and flowers and visit the cemeteries where their family and friends were buried. They would say prayers for the souls of their mothers and fathers, their grandfathers and grandmothers, the children who had died.
It was different in America. My parents had lost so many of their family members and friends, but there were no cemeteries we could visit to find their graves. The loved ones my parents lost were buried in Germany and in Poland, even in Russia. They were buried in graves my parents would never see again, and some of those graves no one would ever see. They were unmarked, lost. Sometimes, people had died where they stood, and their bodies were left there by the Germans or the Russians.
My parents didn't visit cemeteries on All Soul's day, but they did grieve. There was a heavy leaden grayness that hung over everything that day, and not all the candy I had collected on Halloween could lighten it.
Here's a poem from Lightning and Ashes about my mother's grief. It's about when she was taken to Germany by the Nazis and left behind her dead mother and dead sister and her dead sister's baby.
My mother cried for a week, first in the boxcars
then in the camps. Her friends said, “Tekla,
don’t cry, the Germans will shoot you
and leave you in the field,” but she couldn’t stop.
Even when she had no more tears, she cried,
cried the way a dog will gulp for air
when it’s choking on a stick or some bone
it’s dug up in a garden and swallowed.
The woman in charge gave her a cold look
and knocked her down with her fist like a man,
and then told her if she didn’t stop crying
she would call the guard to stop her crying.
But my mother couldn’t stop. The howling
was something loose in her nothing could stop.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Just a few days ago, I received an email from Wanda with her thoughts on memory, language, writing, and loss. Her letter continues the discussion Christina and I and the people who have written comments on my earlier post have been having. Wanda has an insight and clarity that has me thinking again about language and loss.
Here's her letter:
I remember something I read in Out of the Silent Planet by C.S Lewis when I was about 16. It was about how events remain incomplete until we remember them. It is our memory which draws the essential truth from an event, and the telling of it closes a circle. Other circles may be born from the event as we recall different aspects of it, as we grow older and gain more perspective, but as soon as we tell it -- whether speaking, writing, or merely naming it in our own minds -- it closes a circle. It becomes complete. And separate unto itself. Another loss.
Feeling the pain of loss is a silver thread which continues to unite us with the loved one who has died, so there's often a subconscious, or even conscious, reluctance to actively do things which would alleviate the pain. Even though we know it might "be better" to talk about the loss, to write about it, paint it, whatever, I think we also know deep down that once we do so and let some of the pain move out from us, borne by the flow of expression and received in witness by another, that something in us will be subtly and irreparably different. Even if we come out "better" for it, we still mourn the way we were mourning because in that way we had a certain connection with our loved one. Now, that connection is different. Stepping into the "now," we have to step off the shore of the "then." It's a bittersweet thing.
As my aunt and my father were dying between November and March this year, I - like you - kept note of everything I could. I even got my dad to draw or write something in a small sketchbook every day that he could. He’d draw his house in Poland, the storks, faces, chickens, and flowers. Day by day they changed a bit, and when the drawings deteriorated along with his presence, they became such mournful treasures. My aunt shared her dreams with me until one day, about three days before she died, she just said "There is so much I have that I'd like to share with you, but I'm not going to because if I do, I won't have it anymore." With both my aunt and my father, our manner of communication changed -- somehow more intimate while the space between our worlds grew ever larger.
One of the things which kept me going was knowing that I would write and paint about their dying. I've often wanted to share the poems and the painting, but I find it strange that I don't seem to be able to. Not even my siblings have read them. Still, I know that certain lines and poems of yours have resonated to the core with me...painful, but helpful. And some of Martin Stepek's are the same...I cry each time I read them, but it's good to read them. So it's by some kind of grace that our pain can move out from within us on waves of words, ripple out to spark healing in others. And the old wisdom of ancient healers has always said that what you put out into the world shall return sevenfold to you.
Is the healing in movement? in sharing? in knowing? Holding only helps for a while...the universe is movement, and as we are part of that I would have to say that movement is important for life and healing and yes for the dying too.
The poems about your mom's dying will come when it's time. But even when you write about not being able to write them, it means a lot to those of us who read that.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
One of the things in her letter that really resonated with me was something she said about Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and writer who, like Wallace, apparently took his own life. Primo Levi talked about the frustration of trying to write about loss and suffering, especially the loss and suffering so many experienced in the Nazi camps. He felt we needed a new kind of language to talk about what happened there. Christina wrote that we ache for a language that doesn’t exist.
For me the poems that work best are the ones with my parents’ actual words. Those words are the real thing. My mother says to me, “If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run”; or my dad tells me what he said to the German guards who beat him and tormented him, “Please, sirs, don’t ever tell your children what you’ve done to me today.” There are bits and pieces of their words scattered through my poems, and when I read those words out loud my parents are there with me. My parents’ words are a kind of magic for me.
But how does one convey this magic to other people?
I think sometimes that all I can do is read my poems out loud and show people how the poems effect me. I guess what happens then is that my words become like my parents’ words. I become my father and mother for that moment in the poem.
Sometimes this touches people, conveys the magic to them.
I’ve seen this happen at some of the poetry readings I’ve given. A person stands up at the end of the reading when I invite questions, and he doesn’t say anything. He just stands there. I don’t know if the person even has a question. Maybe he just wants to show how much he feels my parents’ lives; or maybe the loss I talk about somehow reminds him of a loss he experienced and couldn’t talk about and still can’t talk about.
For me one of the central images of the Bible is the image of the Tower of Babel. It represents in my eyes the moment when humanity became trapped in language that would not communicate what we needed to communicate. It was a second fall from grace. Our lives became chained to a language that doesn’t convey what we feel or what we mean. Although we have this deep need to say what we feel, we often can’t explain it to ourselves or to other people. Sometimes our words fail us and some times other people fail us. They can’t bring themselves to listen to our stories of loss. It’s hard to take on that burden.
My father used to tell a story about a friend of his in the camps who made love to a woman and contracted VD. He came to my father and asked him what should he do. My father said, “Go to the river and drown yourself.” His friend thought he was joking, and he went to another friend who told him, “Tell the Germans what you did.” He did and they killed the woman; and then they beat him and castrated him and killed him.
Fifty years later, when my father was telling me this story, he still didn’t know what he could have said to his friend to save him from what happened.
No matter how hard it is to tell someone something, no matter how hard it is to get beyond the Babel we’re caught up in, I think we need to try.
Will it change the world? Make anything different? Better?
We can only hope.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
73 years ago on September 1. 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. Their blitzkrieg, their lightning war, came from the air and the sea and the sky. By Sept 28, Warsaw, the capital city of Poland, gave up. By October 7, the last Polish resistance inside Poland ended.
Recently, I received an email from a friend passing on some links to US Army films of the invasion of Poland that were compiled from captured German films. I thought I would share these films of what the Blitzkrieg was like. They are in 3 parts (each about six minutes); and if you click on the part you want to see, you will be taken to the appropriate site.
Invasion of Poland, Part I
Invasion of Poland, Part II
Invasion of Poland, Part III
The world had not seen anything like it, and it was the prelude to a lot of things the world had never seen before: the Final Solution, Total War, the concentration camps, the atomic bomb, the fire bombing of civilian populations, and brutality on a level that most people still don't want to think about almost 70 years later.
When the Germans attacked on that September 1, My dad was 19 and working on his uncle's farm with his brother Roman. Their parents had died when the boys were young, and their uncle and aunt took them in and taught them how to farm, how to prepare the soil in the fall and plant the seeds in the spring. My mom was 17 and living with her parents and her sisters and brothers in a forest west of Lvov in eastern Poland.
The summer had been hot and dry, and both of my parents, like so many other Poles, were looking forward to the fall and the beginning of milder weather.
The war turned my parents' lives upside down. Nothing they planned or anticipated could have prepared them for what happened.
By the end of the war, they were both slave laborers in Nazi Germany, their homes destroyed, their families dead or scattered, their country taken over by the Soviet Union.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
The first is We Were Children.
I recently heard from Alexandra Gibson about this website. It's dedicated to helping child victims of World War II reunite with their families. The site is beautifully and simply constructed, and at present focuses on the story of Alexandra who as a child was separated from her father. She writes about her search for her father in her memoir(written under the name Alexandra Tesluk) Ashes of Innocence and in it she credits another website with helping her search.
That website is Olga Kaczmar's great DPcamps.Org.
For the last eight years, she has maintained a site that is the best place on or offline to get information about the DP camps. I'm a frequent visitor at this site, and I've always found it a place that is informative and inspiring and often heartbreaking. Much of what I have come to know about DPs I learned at this site.
There's a fine article by Jim Walker about Olga and the work she's done helping former DPs reunite with their families at The Santa Clarita Valley Signal.
I recommend both of these websites to anyone interested in the lives of DPs.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Here's what I wrote my friend:
My dad celebrated by going to the big Polish parade in Humboldt Park. The parade wound through the park, and it always seemed like every Polish-American Boy Scout troop and civic organization and parish was represented. Some of the groups had floats, but most were just Poles walking dressed in Red and White, the Polish colors, or costumes from the old country.
These speeches were Cold War speeches, speeches full of anger and fury and blood. Poland had been taken over by the Russians at the end of the Second World War, and the Poles wanted it back; and they wanted some American politician to say he was with us in wanting it get it back. My father and his friends and thousands of other Poles stood before the statue of Kosciusko riding a riding a high stepping cavalry charger and listened to speeches about charging into Soviet-controlled Poland and fighting to make it free. These were speeches full of steel and rubble and blood. They were full of anti-Communist vitriol and calls for the US to bomb the stuffing out of Moscow, unleash those American tanks with their nuclear-tipped artillery shells.
You'd hear Polish soldiers who had fought the Nazis in Poland in 1939, in France in 1940, in England in 1941, in Italy in 1943, in France in 1944, and at the gates of Berlin in 1945 stand up and talk about how the USSR was a paper lion, that when the Reds came into Poland in 1945 they were riding shaggy ponies and the Russian soldiers had rags on their feet instead of shoes.
After listening to the speeches, groups of people would come back to our house for more speeches and drinking and reminiscing and singing. They loved to sing the song about the red poppies on Monte Cassino and the Polish National anthem. They loved to sing about how "Poland will never fall so long as we were alive."
(The photo of the Polish accordion player is by John Vachon, a UN photographer who followed and photographed the Poles who returned to Poland. His superb pictures are available in his book Poland, 1946.
Monday, May 19, 2008
We lived only about a half a block from the park where every year Poles celebrated the 3rd of May, and we knew that there would be dozens and dozens of our Polish friends stopping by to help us celebrate after the big parade in the park and all of the speeches by local and national politicians.
This holiday was important not just because it gave Polish friends a chance to celebrate the way they did in the Old Country, but because it re-affirmed a promise they had made to each other and to Poland. They had promised never to forget Poland, never to give up fighting for her freedom.
Poland had also made a promise to them, and the 3rd of May was the day when she re-affirmed her promise. She promised that despite all the chains that she was shackled by, all the foreign armies that occupied her and raped her and spat on her, she would remain the country of their dreams and hopes forever.
This was one of the things my dad taught me, the sacredness of the 3rd of May, and the sacredness of this promise.
Shortly after he died, I wrote a poem about the 3rd of May and what that date meant to him. It's called "Poland."
They’ll never see it again, these old Poles
with their dreams of Poland. My father
told me when I was a boy that those who tried
in ‘45 were turned back at the borders
by shoeless Russians dressed in rags and riding
shaggy ponies. The Poles fled through the woods,
the unlucky ones left behind, dead
or what’s worse wounded, the lucky ones
gone back to wait in the old barracks
in the concentration and labor camps
in Gatersleben or Wildflecken
for some miracle that would return them
to Poznan or Katowice. But God
wasn’t listening or His hands were busy
somewhere else. Later, in America
these Poles gathered with their brothers
and with their precious sons and daughters
every May 3, Polish Constitution Day,
to pray for the flag. There was no question
then what the colors stood for, red for all
that bleeding sorrow, white for innocence.
And always the old songs telling the world
Poland would never fall so long as poppies
flower red, and flesh can conquer rock or steel.
-- from Lightning and Ashes
PS: If you want to read some of the history behind May 3rd, Polish Constitution Day, you can check out a brief article in Polonia Today.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Here's what I wrote:
Fifty years later, I found a series of pictures in the New York Times archive of the ship we sailed on, the General Taylor, taken the day we arrived. These photographs stopped me. History, the past, had given me a gift. We weren’t in any of the pictures, but we must have brushed against the people who were. We must have stood in line with them, waited for food with them, closed our eyes and prayed with them, worried about what it would be like in America with them.
We were all Displaced Persons, country-less refugees, who had lost our parents and grandparents, our families and our homes, our churches and our names, everything. It had all been left behind, buried in the great European grave yard that stretched from the English Channel to the Urals and from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean. And here we all were on this former troop ship, coming to start a new life in America. We could not have imagined what we would find and what we would become.
My friend Joe Glaser tracked down the pictures. They appear in a book called The Tumultuous Fifties published by the New York Times. They were never published in the paper, but they were reprinted as a contact sheet in the book.
Here are some of those images:
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
There are no Great Walls there,
Through the coolness of the day,
And soon not even the names
Saturday, April 5, 2008
I wrote about what it was like growing up in the Polish Triangle in Chicago in the 50s and 60s, and how that shaped the kind of writer I am.
Here's what I wrote:
Growing Up Polack
I was born in a Displaced Persons’ camp (a DP camp) in Germany after World War II and came to the states with my parents Jan and Tekla Guzlowski and my sister Danusha as refugees in June of 1951.
Poles, I felt, were losers. They worked in factories when they could get jobs, they were rag-and-bone men leading horse-drawn wagons through the alleys of Chicago, they went door to door selling bits of string and light bulbs, they didn’t know how to drive cars or make phone calls or eat in restaurants. They stood on street corners with pieces of paper in their hands trying to get Americans to help them get to the address printed on the paper, mumbling “Prosceh, Pan” (please, sir) or “Prosceh, Pani” (please, lady).
When I was a child, I thought that Poles didn’t know how to do anything and Americans knew how to do everything. Americans knew how to be happy. They could go to ball games, zoos, museums, planetariums, and movies. They could stroll freely through the great American, sunshiny-bright world like so many smiling, charming Bing Crosbys, singing the song “Pennies from Heaven” as they strolled and believing every word of its chorus: “Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.”
I actually believed that there were places we couldn't go.
And nothing ever seemed to go right. Washing machines would break down for no reason. Repairmen were always crooks or incompetents. Shirts -- even brand new ones -- would be stained or missing a button. My father once spent what seemed like a year working on a drain pipe that wouldn’t be mended, no matter how hard he struggled with his mismatched wrenches.
Even though I didn’t speak English until I was five or six, I can barely speak a lick of Polish now. I consciously fought to strip all of that away, and I succeeded to a degree. When I tried speaking it to my aged mother a couple of years ago, she’d always say the same thing. “Johnny, please stop. You’re hurting my ears.”
I don’t know if this is a Polish idiom or if she made it up or what. Literally, I think it means “the truncheon or billy club will find you.” Maybe it’s something the Nazis used to say in the camps when they were beating the Poles and Jews and Gypsies and Russians to get them to move faster pushing the cement-filled wheelbarrows. But whatever it means literally, here is what it means to me: shit happens, and not only does shit happen, it will find you no matter what you do, or where you run, and it will not just get in your way, it will cover you and smother you and kill you.
All of history’s Polacks.
(The photos: My parents, my sister Donna, her daughters [Cheryl, Kathie and Denise], and I in front of the Old Warsaw Restaurant, 1979. The photo was taken by Linda Calendrillo. My mother and I in a cage at the Back of the Yards festival circa 1959.)
Monday, March 17, 2008
I did a series of presentations about my parents a couple of weeks ago at Lowndes High School.
After one of them, Joey Slater, a student there, told me about a project he was doing photographing people making signs and displaying them. The project was called "Diversity," and he wanted me to make a sign he could film and add to his project.
I said I would be happy to.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Friday, January 11, 2008
When the Americans and Russians came they destroyed the Nazis and set people free. The sad thing about that is they had no where to go. Countries wouldn’t accept them, so they had to go back to the camps so they would have shelter, food, and help.
I learned that the camps were the worst place to be. It was like there was no God.
Mr. Guzlowski’s mother kept crying and crying.
It was sad when he said that his mother’s mother and sister were killed. I wonder what had happened back then that was the reason for it.
The German’s killed all of the Jews they could find. They took people from Poland too, and they killed about 2,000,000 of them. They were sent to concentration camps.
The Germans went through the villages and killed the weak, and they took the strong to work in the camps.
I was surprised when Mr. Guzlowski said his father ate flies and other nasty stuff in the camps. He must have been a small, skinny man to eat stuff like that. I can’t imagine eating flies and chewing on pebbles.
What the Nazis did was not right.
I’ve learned that no matter what you do or how much you make your life can be taken away just so easily.
There was no where the prisoners could run because they would’ve got shot or chased down by the dogs.
It was a period of time where if you didn’t work, you died. If you complained, you died. If you cried, you died, and if you didn’t really die, you died inside.
His mother came home one day and found her mother, his sister, and her sister’s baby dead because the Germans had shot them.
His mother didn’t like to talk about it.
The death camps were for killing off Jews, Polish people, gypsies, and so many many others. It was done because the Germans wanted to kill off races and ethnic groups they thought were inferior.
The most important part of the presentation was just being there to learn what happened…. It all becomes real to us.
I say that genocide like that should not take place ever again.
The Nazis killed men, women, and even babies which I thought was very evil. They had no mercy.
It made me think a lot. I wonder if some one would do us like that one day.
I also feel the pain and suffering when my grandma tells me stories of what life was like when we were slaves. I feel sorry for grandma when she cries then.
It angers me that one man and his army could do such a thing to all of those people and not have any guilt or sadness or grief for what they did to them. They killed for the joy of it, and that sickens me. What kind of monster would do such a thing? I feel sad for the people that survived because even after it was all over they still had trouble to deal with, even after all they had been through. They have to carry around the memories of all the death, hurt, and pain that they have seen. They will forever carry around the wounds on the outside and inside. Everyday they will have to live with the fact that their loved ones will never return to them. They will always have the memory of how bad they had lived in the camps, and how hard they had to work to even survive.
If it was me I couldn’t imagine myself doing what they did to survive.
He also said that he and his mother went into a furniture store one day, and he asked her if she liked the striped furniture set, and she said she didn’t because it brought back those dark memories of the camps and the striped uniform she had to wear.
I wondered what the ladies did when it was time for their period to come on, and I wonder how they would clean themselves. Thinking about that makes me sick.
When Mr. Guzlowski’s father was finally free, he had no teeth, and was missing one eye, and he weighed 75 pounds. Mr. Guzlowski’s mother lost her momma, sister, and sister’s baby. She cried and cried till she was a puddle of tears and she was still crying.
He told us how that stuff hurt his parents and how his dad used to wake up screaming and how his mom always hated anything with stripes.
A person cannot control how they are born and what their race, gender, or background are. And that is the torment of humanity.
They should just let those evil men be thrown into the depths of hell for all eternity.
So many people died.
I learned that if they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run.
It was so bad that his mom didn’t want to have anything in her house with stripes because she had to wear stripes the whole time they stayed in the camps.
It was a dreadful period for the world.
It was very disturbing because he said his dad was beaten for complaining about the food.
When he would ask his mom about the things that happened, she couldn’t even talk to him about it.
He told us they would kill women, men, children, even babies.
He told us about his dad and how he was taken to the camp when he was 20 years old. He told us that his dad was hit in the face a bunch of times with a club so bad that all his teeth were knocked out and he went blind in one eye.
Some people even slept with their bread closed up real tight in their hands.
Many of his father’s friends were beaten to death.
It was crazy. It’s like they wanted the people to die—like they didn’t care for anyone at the camp.
What I learned was this stuff is real.
There were thousands of people dying and the rest of the world knew it but wasn’t doing anything about it.
I learned that the Nazis were mean.
Many people didn’t survive. They died in the boxcars from lack of food and crowding. They died in the camps from beatings and starvation and work.
Mr. Guzlowski explained that the Germans thought they were gods.
I would have gone insane if I had to go to a concentration camp.
The Nazis considered themselves god-like, being above the law and being able to treat “lesser beings” badly without impunity. Many people were starved, killed, or beaten for no reason except existing.
The most important thing that I learned was to be happy with what I have and to be thankful for what I got and that life and death are nothing to play around with.
The Nazis were cold hearted people.
His parents were not Jewish so they were used for slave labor.
What I learned from his presentation in general was to appreciate your family and the freedom we do have because tomorrow isn’t promised today.
There are cruel people in this world.
His dad was fed rotten meat with maggots on it, and he still ate it because he needed the strength. Americans go through drive-thru windows and order their meal and if they put one thing on there they didn’t want, they send it back.
I never knew so many bad events had really happened.
It was like slavery. After hearing all that, it made me realize you can be treated bad no matter what color you are.
He told us that they would shoot the weak and leave them.
They were forced to carry a box of bricks around the yard of the camp just so they would be busy.
The most important thing I learned about Mr. Guzlowski’s parents experiences was that his parents kept going on.
The Nazis loved to see how people would look if they didn’t eat for a long time.
Women died from crying.
Now we live in peace without terror in the streets, all people get along and we all sing songs about how lovely this world is with all different races and beautiful kids and how we live in peace with our deadly fears.