Thursday, April 24, 2008

GROWING UP POLISH AMERICAN: UPDATE

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.
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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.
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He told me about how the Soviets took 15,000-20,000 Polish Army officers and killed them. Nobody knows the number for certain.
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My father used to say, "It's hard to count bones."
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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.
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My father never wanted me to forget about Katyn.
Years ago, I wrote a poem about it for my book Lightning and Ashes, and I want to share the poem with you on this 68th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre.

KATYN

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,
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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.


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

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video

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.
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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.
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Here's what I wrote:


Why I am a Polish-American Poet


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.
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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. A photo by Art Shay of my neighbor Nelson Algren coming out of the Division Street Y.)