Sunday, December 7, 2008

Buchenwald: The Work He Did

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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

Happy Thanksgiving Day

Last year, I posted the following. I wanted to thank all my generations and generations of Polish ancestors who simply kept going despite all the misery and grief they faced.

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


Andy Golebiowski sent me an article from the Am Pol Eagle entitled "WWII Survivors, Families Commemorate All Souls Day." Here's the picture by photographer Peter Sloane that accompanied the piece:

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

Language and Loss: Some More Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago I posted a blog about language and loss. It was inspired by a conversation I have been having with Christina Sanantonio, a writer and blogger living in Central Illinois. She wrote about how difficult it was to talk about loss. Many of the things she said hit home with me, but one of the things was especially important. She said, "We ache for a language that doesn't exist."

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

Language and Loss

My friend the writer Christina Sanantonio and I have been having a conversation about writing about loss. It’s a conversation fueled in part by the recent suicide of the novelist David Foster Wallace. She wrote me a long letter about how we use or don’t use language to talk about loss, and about how hard it is to write about loss.

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.

I’ve spent the last 30 years trying to find words to describe what happened to my parents in the concentration and slave labor camps and what those experiences made me feel. I write about this event or that image; and no matter how powerful the original event described by my mother or father I can’t really describe it, explain it, bring it out of the past. I can’t bring it out of memory into this life. I’m left pushing around some words, trying to make myself feel what I felt the first time I heard that story when I was a child. Sometimes I think I almost succeed; most of the time I know I’m not even close.

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

September 1, 1939

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

DPcamps.Org and We Were Children

I don't often recommend websites, but I want to share two with you.

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

May 3rd Polish Constitution Day, Update

I got an email from a friend after my last post. He wanted to know how my father celebrated May 3rd, Polish Constitution Day.

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.

The parade wound through the park and finally ended up at the statue of Thaddeus Kosciusko, a Polish hero of the American Revolution. That's where people would come to hear speeches. And these were big deal speeches by big shots!
It seems like I heard Bobby Kennedy one year and Walter Mondale the next. Senator Muskie and LBJ? Yeah, I'm sure they were there too. Mayor Richard J. Daley? Absolutely. And the governor of Illinois, and the state senators and representatives, and Cardinals and Bishops and Monsignors by the bus load. If you were anybody, you'd want to be giving a speech to the Poles in Humboldt Park on May 3rd.
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.

My dad would talk about this all the time. He would talk about how the Reds he saw in 45 (he was in the eastern half of Germany) were as emaciated as the Poles he suffered along side with in the slave labor camps. My dad never figured that the West's war against the USSR would be a walk over, but he always felt that the West owed it to Poles to help them regain Poland. It was only right because the Poles shed more blood in the fight against Hitler than the British and the French and the Americans combined. They had shed that blood and been betrayed by their Allies. The only reward the Poles received for fighting against Hitler was to have their country turned over to the Soviets.
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."
And there was always some guy who would bring out his accordion, and he would start playing, and there would be more singing and more weeping. And it would never seem to stop.

(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


In the 50s, when I was a child growing up around Humboldt Park in Chicago, the biggest non-religious holiday was not Halloween or the 4 of July or Memorial Day. It was always May 3, Polish Constitution Day, Trzeciego Maja. My family would start preparing weeks ahead of time, cleaning the house, sprucing up what needed to be painted, sanded, or nailed, making sure we would have the food and drink we'd need for all of our guests.

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


I posted a piece recently on this blog about Growing Up Polish American. One of the things I talked about was a series of photos I had once seen of the ship I came to America on. It was the General H. Taylor, and it was bringing Displaced Persons from to the US Germany after the war. The photos were taken on the day we arrived in America, June 21, 1951.

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:

The Tumultuous Fifties: A View from the New York Times Photo Archives by Douglas Dreishpoon, Alan Trachtenberg, and Luc Sante, 2001.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

KATYN: The Forest of the Dead

April is the month when many of the killings at Katyn Forest took place during World War II. Poles try to remember this every year, and I've been thinking about Katyn recently. I've been thinking about Katyn and my father.

When I was a child, he told me a lot of stories about what happened in the war, about things that happened to my mother's family and his family and to Poland. One of the stories that he came back to repeatedly was about what happened in the Katyn Forest near the Russian town of Smolensk in 1940.
He told me about how the Soviets took 15,000-20,000 Polish Army officers and killed them. Nobody knows the number for certain.
My father used to say, "It's hard to count bones."
These soldiers were mainly reservists; that means they weren't professional soldiers, just civilian soldiers. In their daily lives, they were doctors and lawyers, teachers and priests. My father used to say that they were the future of Poland. He said that the Soviets didn't want Poland to have a future, so they took these doctors and lawyers, scientists and librarians and tied them up and blindfolded them and shot them in the back of the head. They were buried in mass graves.

One of the things he also told me was that people knew about this, countries likes the US and England knew about this, and nobody did anything about it. The Soviets, of course, denied it, and so did other countries. They didn't want to bring it up. I guess they figured what was the point of talking about massacres and genocide.
My father never wanted me to forget about Katyn.
Years ago, I wrote a poem about it for my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues, and I want to share the poem with you on this anniversary of the Katyn Massacre.

There are no Great Walls there,
No towers leaning or not leaning
Declaring some king's success
Or mocking another's failure,
No gleaming cathedral where you can
Pray for forgiveness or watch
The cycle of shadows play
Through the coolness of the day,

And soon not even the names
Of those who died will be remembered
(Names like Skrzypinski, Chmura,
Or Anthony Milczarek).
Their harsh voices and tearing courage
Are already lost in the wind,
But their true monuments
Will always be there, in the dust
And the gray ashes and the mounds
Settling over the bodies over which
No prayers were ever whispered,
No tears shed by a grieving mother
Or a trembling sister.


Here's a trailer for the Oscar-nominated film KATYN by Andrej Wajda.


Saturday, April 5, 2008

Growing Up Polish American

The following article appeared in a special issue of the journal Polish American Studies dedicated to Polish-American poets Phil Boiarski, Linda Nemec Foster, Leonard Kress, Mark Pawlak, Cecilia Woloch, and me. The issue featured a gathering of poems by each poet as well as a personal essay from each writer about what it means to be a Polish-American writer. The entire issue is available from the Polish American Historical Association.
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.

Forty 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.

After working in the farms around Buffalo, New York, to pay off the cost of our passage over, my parents, my sister, and I settled in Chicago, first near Wicker Park and later in the Humboldt Park area, an area with lots of other Poles and DPs, refugees, survivors, and immigrants. And one of the things we soon found out there was who we were. We weren’t Poles and we definitely weren’t Polish Americans. I never heard those words. What I did hear in the streets and in the schools and in the stores was that we were Polacks. We were the people who nobody wanted to rent a room to or hire or help. We were the “wretched refuse” of somebody else’s shore, dumped now on the shore of Lake Michigan, and most people we came across in America wished we’d go back to where we came from. And that we’d take the rest of the Polacks with us.

So, if anyone had ever asked me when I was growing up, “Say, kid, you want to be a Polish American poet or a Polish American teacher or doctor or wizard,” I would have told him to take a hike, but not in words so gentle.

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.”

Americans could go to restaurants and order meals and not get into arguments with waiters about the price of a hamburger, or other customers in the restaurant about who was there first. They could go to picnics and not lose their children or their children's balloons. Americans could go to weddings and dance waltzes without ripping their pants, without falling down, without getting into fights, without beating their children.

Americans could laugh at the jokes Milton Berle told on TV, and know what they meant. Uncle Miltie could deadpan the punch line, “Sure, the lady was from Missouri,” and Americans would roll in the aisles till they busted a gut. They could smile and mean it, show love, concern, happiness, sorrow, sadness. And all at the right and appropriate times!

Poles, on the other hand, seemed to be hobbled.

I actually believed that there were places we couldn't go.

When I was a boy growing up in Chicago, I never knew any one who ever went to a professional ball game. This despite the fact that I lived about two miles from Wrigley Field and maybe three miles from Comiskey Park. It was as if there were written restrictions. Poles could not go to ball games. Or museums. Or zoos. Ever! I'm sure now much of this was simply the result of growing up in a working-class neighborhood with working-class parents where even one night at a ball game was an extreme extravaganza. Who could afford a trip to a ballpark? I realize this now, but at that time I had the feeling that Poles just didn't do such things. Only Americans did them.

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.

I remember one time when my mother went into a Woolworth's dime store and tried to bargain down the price of a Lincoln Log set. Of course, that strategy didn't work either. Nothing worked. Our Polack fate was hard karma. And there was no one to tell you how to change the hard karma, make it a little more malleable, a little softer. Everyone was in the same boat and trying to find some way to survive, keep afloat. The Oleniechaks, the Popowchaks, the Budzas, the Czarneks, the Goras, the Pitlaks, the Bronowickis, the Stupkas, the Milczareks, the Wos’s, the Kapustkas, and the Guzlowskis—all of us on that block of houses on Evergreen Street were drowning in the kind of hard karma that only the DPs, the dumb Polacks, knew.

So if somebody had asked me back then, “Do you see yourself becoming a Polish American Poet?” I would have said, “Are you kidding?”

I started running away from Polish American stuff as soon as I could, and for most of my life I’ve been running. Not all the Polish kids I knew were like that, of course. I had a friend who held tight to his Polishness, and to hear us talk about our youth, you’d think we grew up in separate countries with concertina wire between them. He went to Polish School on Saturdays and was a member of the Polish Scouts. I would sooner have worked a 20-hour day at the kind of hard labor my dad and mom knew in the slave labor camps. I didn’t want anything to do with that Polack stuff—I wanted to be an unmistakable and anonymous American.

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.”

So why am I editing special issues of Polish American Studies on Polish American poetry, and writing poems about being a Polish American?

The answer isn’t easy.

I think a lot of it comes from who my parents were. If my parents had been Illinois farm people raising soy beans and corn or if they had been Italian gelato sellers, I don’t think I would be writing about them. I would be like ever other poet in America: writing about the weather or what it’s like being driving a big car west or east on I-80. But instead my parents were people who had been struck dumb and quivering by history, by the Second World War, by their lives in the labor and DP camps.

My mom used to like to say, “Slach traffi.”

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.

I grew up with people who had seen their families killed, babies bayoneted, friends castrated and then shot to death. My mom saw her sister’s legs ripped apart by broken glass as she struggled through a narrow window to escape from the Nazis.

And no one much cared.

Even if people don't want to read what I write, I feel that I have to write my poems about my parents just to make sure someone does. Really, there just aren't a lot of people writing about people like my parents and the other DPs. And if I don't write, who will? Imagine all of those hundreds of thousands of Poles who came to this country as DPs. Who wrote for them? They couldn't write for themselves. I sometimes feel that I am writing for all those people whose stories were never told, whose voices got lost somewhere in the great cemetery of the 20th century, and I have an obligation to listen to those voices and give them a place to be heard.

My poems give my parents and their experiences and the experiences of people like them a voice. My parents had very little education. My father never went to school and could barely write his name. My mother had two years of formal education. I feel that I have to tell the stories they would write themselves if they could. For the last thirty years I have been writing poems about their lives, and I sometimes think that I am not only writing about their lives, but also about the lives of all those forgotten, voiceless refugees, DP's, and survivors that the last century produced.

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

A Letter from Uncle Buddy

I got a letter from Linda's Uncle Buddy.
For Christmas, Linda's dad Tony gave his brother Buddy a copy of Third Winter of War: Buchenwald, my book about my dad, and Uncle Buddy wanted to tell me about it.
The letter means a lot to me, and you'll see why when you read it.
Here's his letter:

Dear John,

I read the poems you wrote. I found them very moving. I'm no whiz kid about understanding every line you wrote but I could feel the sadness, the hurt, and the agony in your poems. I hope when people read these poems they will realize how these people in the camps suffered and how they were tortured.

I guess I feel it more because I saw it. It took me 50 years to talk about it. I still think about it, and my nightmares that come and go.

The camp we took back in April 4, 1945 was a sub-station to Buchenwald. It was called Ohrdruf.

Be well, our love to you and Linda and Lillian

Uncle Buddy

PS. Don't ever stop writing.

That was the letter, and as I said, it means a lot to me.

I knew Buddy had helped liberate the concentration camp at Ohrdruf. A couple years ago a video came out called Nightmare's End: The Liberation of the Camps. It's a powerful documentary about the soldiers who freed the camps.

When I was still teaching, I would sometimes show this film in my American Lit class when we were talking about the literature of the World War II period. The response would pretty much be the same every time I showed it. I would roll the video tape and turn off the lights. The film would come on. First, there would be silence. Then there would be weeping. At the end of the film, I wouldn't turn the lights back on right away because I knew that students wanted some time alone with their thoughts and emotions.

I saw this documentary maybe a dozen time, and it always moved me. And what always moved me most was watching Uncle Buddy and listening to him.

In the documentary, he's being interviewed by a person who's off camera. All we see is Uncle Buddy, and he just starts talking about going into the camp, and what you realize immediately is that his memories of that day he came to Ohrdruf, April 4, 1945, are as new and intense as they were then. He was in his late teens when he came upon the camp, and in the video he's in his late 70s. Fifty years have gone by and the memories are still new, still intense. What he saw will never leave him. It will always be there.

He can barely talk about what he remembers seeing, but he forces himself to go on and what he says about the prisoners in that concentration camp is simple and human and profound: "They were just people."

Thanks, Uncle Buddy.

Friday, January 11, 2008

What We Learned

A couple of months ago, I met Gladys Kirkland, a teacher at Valdosta High School, at a poetry reading for the Women's Studies Program at Valdosta State University. She came up to me after my reading and asked if I would do a presentation about my parents and their experiences in the Nazi concentration camps to her class. I said yes right away. I'm always interested in telling people about my parents and what happened to them and a lot of other people during World War II.
The presentation spiralled into a series of presentations as other teachers at VHS, Marieh Fitzgerald, Larry Striggles, and Edward Wilcox, asked Ms. Kirkland to ask me to speak to their classes.
I was game for all of them. I like talking about my parents.
It was a great day.
For each of the groups of students, I talked about World War II, about the reasons why the Nazis felt they needed to conquer other people, about my parents and what happened to them during and after the war. I also read some of my poems from Lightning and Ashes and The Language of Mules, and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald, and I took questions. Lots and lots of questions.
About a month later, Ms. Kirkland wrote me an email and said she had something for me from the students. I figured it was candy or a card they signed. The gift was that, but it was also so much more.
The students put together a book entitled This is What We Learned from Mr. Guzlowski. It was a gathering of essays they had written and pictures they had drawn following my talks.
Since receiving the book, I've read through it all a number of times, and each time I've found more to think about.
I want to share some of the book with you. The following is the cover of the book. After that, I've posted some of the things the students wrote. At the end there is a picture from the book. I want to thank all of these students and their teachers.
I wish my parents were alive to see this tribute to them and the others who were taken to the concentration and slave labor camps.

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.