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.