Monday, December 21, 2009

The Stories of Four Poles

The population of Poland was about 36,000,000 when the Nazis decided to destroy the country and its people. Six million of them died. The ones who didn't die lived unimaginable lives for decades and decades to come, first under the hammer of the Nazis and then under the hammer and sickle of the Communists.

Not all of them want to talk about what happened. Some Poles don't want to remember the killings, brutality, deportation, enslavement, deprivation, and suffering that many of them felt would never end. My mother was one of these Poles. If I asked her about what those years under the Nazis were like, she would wave me away and tell me simply, "If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run away."

I respect the silence of those like my mother who wouldn't talk about those years. I'm sure she felt that she was protecting my sister Donna and me from the kind of sorrow few can bear.

Other Poles, however, were like my dad. He was a man who felt that it was his duty to let people know about the terrible things that were done. He didn't want people to forget the evil that came down upon the Poles.

Justine Jablonska, a graduate student in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, recently published a series of reports about four Poles who, like my father, feel that they must keep the memories of what happened alive.

These reports are gathered together under the title "Four stories: The nurse, the child, the Resistance fighter and the Home Army soldier."

In this series of articles, Ms. Jablonska describes what happened to a 19-year old nurse who was deported to Siberia, a 7-year old boy who witnessed the collapse of Warsaw, a resistance fighter who was captured and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, and a 16-year old who fought to free Poland during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

The stories these Poles tell are personal stories, human stories, that remind us finally that courage and hope, honor and faith, re-awaken in every generation and help to see us through.

You can read Ms. Jablonska's entire article online by clicking here.


Justine Jablonska is a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She is specializing in urban issues and global journalism. In her previous corporate life, she worked as an editor, writer, and project manager for various companies, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, NASD, Humana, and Creative Powers Inc.

Her article about a veteran who fought in the Uprising as a very, very young boy is also online.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving Day

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.)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

All Souls Day

When I was a child growing up in Chicago, All Souls Day wasn't a big deal. My parents would tell me stories about what it was like in Poland when they were kids.

People, my mother would say, would walk to the cemeteries where their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, were buried and leave fall flowers and lighted candles there. Some times at night, there would be so many candles burning on and near the graves that you could see the light shining above the cemeteries as you walked back home, even if your home was far away.

But we didn't do that in America. We were Displaced Persons, immigrants, and all our dead were buried far away in Poland. My mother didn't even know where her mother and her sister and her sister's baby were buried. The men who killed them put my mother on a boxcar and sent her to the slave labor camps in Germany before she could bury her family. It was a bad time.

A little while ago, the Polish-American poet Oriana Ivy sent me a poem about All Souls Day, and she said it would be okay to share it with people.

Here's the poem:

All Souls

Sometimes I think Warsaw fog
is the dead, come back

to seek their old homes –
wanting to touch even the walls.

But they cannot find those walls,
so they embrace the trees instead,

lindens and enduring chestnuts.
They embrace the whole city, lay

their arms around the bridges
and the droplet-beaded street lamps;

they pray in the Square of Three Crosses,
kneel among the candles and flowers

under bronze plaques that say
On this spot, 100 people were shot –

they bow, they kiss
even the railroad tracks –

they do not complain, only hold
what they can, in unraveling white.

-- Oriana Ivy



If you want to read more of Oriana's poems, she has a new book out called April Snow, the winner of the New Women's Voice Poetry Award.  Some of her poems are available online at the journal qarttsiluni. She blogs about life and poetry at Oriana Poetry.

If you want to know more about Polish and Polish-American All Souls Day, Deacon Konicki's blog has a post about the way it is celebrated in Poland and Robert Strybel has a piece on the way the day is commemorated by Polish-Americans in the US.

By the way, the Polish-American community in Buffalo, NY, has organized an All Souls Day commemoration. There's an article about it in the Polish News.


The photo is of an All Souls Day commemoration in Poland.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt: War Through a Woman's Eyes, 1939-1940

I've been looking forward to this memoir by Rulka Langer for a very long time. It's the first publication of Aquila Polonica, a new press started by Terry Tegnazian and Stefan Mucha dedicated to publishing works about the Polish World War II experience in English. The press hopes to publish firsthand accounts, memoirs, poetry, literature, photographs, artwork and historical studies. Terry Tegnazian has written that what inspires her is Poland's role in World War II. It is, she says, "possibly the most heroic and tragic of all the Allies, yet remains one of the least-known aspects of WWII to those living in the West. It is our mission to bring this amazing story to the wider English-speaking world."

Aquila Polonica's The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt: War Through a Woman’s Eyes, 1939-1940 is a rare eyewitness account of the first six months of WWII – the Nazi German invasion of Poland, the Siege of Warsaw, and the first months of the Nazi occupation – written by Rulka Langer, a civilian, a young Polish career woman and mother, who was a graduate of Vassar College in the U.S.

Her story is enhanced by the historic photographs, documents, and maps that the publishers have gathered together especially for this volume.

The book has been chosen as a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the History Book Club, and the Military Book Club, and is endorsed by Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski. Publishers Weekly calls it “an unusual take on WWII.”

The recently retired head of the Los Angeles Public Library system read it and says: “I couldn’t put the book down. Her story is riveting … utterly contemporary and compelling.”

The Mermaid is available in hardcover at your local bookstore (if it’s not in stock, they can order it for you), or online at

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Men From the East Were Terrible

70 years ago today the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east and divided up the country with the Nazis. In some places in Poland, they light candles and put them in the windows to remember the dead and the suffering of the living during that time.

My mother was living west of Lvov in eastern Poland when the Russians invaded. I once asked her what that time was like. She said, "The men from the east were terrible--like buffaloes."

Tonight in Danville, Virginia, where I live, I will light a candle.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Waiting to Be Heard: The Polish Christian Experience Under Nazi and Stalinist Oppression 1939-1955

I first met Dr. Bogusia Wojciechowska over the internet about five years ago. Someone sent me a note about her and her work, and I got in touch with her as soon as I read it.

She was working on an extensive research project to document the lives of Poles who were forced to leave Poland during World War II. This was a project that touched me directly. For years, I've try to find books that would tell me more about what happened to people like my parents who had been rounded up by the Germans and taken to the slave labor and concentration camps in Germany. What I found surprised me. Beyond Richard C. Lukas's excellent Forgotten Holocaust there weren't many such books, and his book in fact didn't tell me what I wanted to know about the lives of the Poles who were taken to German and those -- like my Uncle Jan -- who were taken to Siberia.

It seemed that what my mom once said was true. They don't make books about people like us.

Dr. Wojciechowska's project has attempted to change that. Over the years, as a historian, she devoted herself to chronicling the experiences of those who were forced to leave Poland. Her website -- The Polish Diaspora -- has been an essential source of information about those experiences. Now, she has edited a book that brings together much of her research about the lives of those who were taken from Poland during the war.

The book is called Waiting to Be Heard: The Polish Christian Experience Under Nazi and Stalinist Oppression 1939-1955 .

If my mom were to see this book, she would probably say, "At last, here's a start."

Here's a press release from the publisher of Waiting to Be Heard:

Polish Christian survivors of WWII oppression

All wars disrupt; they leave behind the dead and the living, the victims and the survivors. The war that tore apart Poland in 1939 with Hitler’s avowed annihilation of an eastern neighbor "for German expansion", Stalin’s westward thrust with Soviet communism and the mass deportation to Siberia of whole societies, all ensured that while millions died, those who survived could not or would not speak of their ordeal. Theirs was the story of deprivation and of humiliation; it was the realization that not only was a homeland lost, but that an entire future was denied.

Waiting To Be Heard (The Polish Christian Experience Under Nazi and Stalinist Oppression 1939-1955) is an attempt to give voice to those who, in fear of their lives or in anticipation of an eventual and triumphant return, found themselves exiled across the world. Dr. Bogusia Wojciechowska, the daughter of a couple that found refuge in a camp outside Oxford, England, and now Dean at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston MA, had an incomplete picture of her family’s plight until she chanced upon some letters written by her grandfather. Her training as a historian gave her the confidence and the methodology to conduct over one hundred interviews with a rapidly decreasing population that had first-hand experience of both Nazi and Stalinist oppression. In the majority of cases these interviews were the first time this diaspora had spoken at length about their suffering and their determination to secure freedom for their homeland.

Presented as a series of vignettes, Waiting to Be Heard is a chronology punctuated by the poetry of a subsequent generation that includes Martin Stepek, John Guzlowski, and Hania Kaczanowska, each of whom pay respectful and heart-rending homage to the dignity of their parents. This 400-page book contains many photographs and artifacts, and has a foreword by Ryszard Kaczorowski, former president of the Polish Government-in-Exile in London who, in 1990, was finally able to hand over the safeguarded State Insignia to the newly and democratically-elected president, Lech Walesa, in Warszawa.

Published this September, by AuthorHouse, Waiting To Be Heard is printed to order, so wait times may vary. Please order through Amazon, and Barnes & Noble websites, or through your local bookstore. Meanwhile, one can get a feel for the content by visiting The ISBN is 978-1-4490-1370-7

For additional information, write to: WaitingToBeHeard(at) -- substitue @ for (at).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Poland to Buffalo Through World War II

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I recently received the following information regarding the upcoming conference (Oct. 3-4) sponsored by the Andy Golebiowski and the Polish Legacy Project of Buffalo, NY:

Untold Stories Come Alive

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; the start of WWII. The war exacted an enormous physical and human toll. Apart from the millions of dead, millions others became displaced from their homes. Many of these displaced persons found a home outside of their homeland, in England, Australia and North America, in places like Toronto and Buffalo. Since settling here, these immigrants quietly built new lives, worked hard and generally kept silent about what they had experienced.

Conscious of the fact that many of the survivors have died, taking their stories to their graves forever, the Polish Legacy Project in Buffalo-WWII was formed with the aim of documenting the stories of those who are still among us. Feeling a sense of urgency, we have set out to capture these stories in order to share them with the community at large.

The conference is the beginning of a larger project aimed at documenting Polish stories of wartime survival.


For more information, including registration forms, conference schedule, and list of speakers, please refer to the Polish Legacy Project website.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Schedule for Polish Mission World War II Commemoration--Schedule

Further information -- including free registration information -- may be found by clicking here.

Here's the schedule:

It All Began in Poland
World War II Commemoration

The Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools
SS. Cyril & Methodius Seminary
& Michigan Polonia, LLC

3535 Indian Trail
Orchard Lake, Michigan

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

6:00 PM Sunset Wypominki & Candle Service at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes
Mass follows in the Shrine Chapel

September 5 - 6, 2009

We are honored to have Mr. Zygmunt Matynia, Consul General of the Republic of Poland (Chicago) with us for the events on Saturday and Sunday.

Throughout the weekend there will be ongoing activities including:

Batilion Burza a living history re-enactment group of Polish & American military men and women.

Assembling a Time Capsule - Collection of WWII and commemoration materials to be opened in 2039, the Time Capsule will be registered with the Smithsonian Institute.

Personalization of Pewabic Memorial Tiles with signatures of Polish Veterans and Displaced Persons, and Księga Pamiątkowa - Guest Book Signing

Saturday, September 5, 2009

10:00 - 11:30

Reunion with Sybiracy - Polish Refugees

Antoni Walawender MA, speaks of his personal experience as a “Chlopcy z Polski”
Photo history of the Sybiracy experience including Siberia, Iran, India, South Africa, and Mexico and the launch of the oral history website

Selected Interviews with Survivors of German work camps

Poet John Guzlowski PhD, reads his poetry and explains the symbolism

11:30 - 12:15 Lunch

12:15 - 2:15

Opening of the Art Exhibition

Peggy Grant, BFA presents the History and Symbolism of Artist Adam Grochowski

Cecile Wendt Jensen, MA presents the History and Symbolism of Artist Jan Komski

Polish Photographer Marcin Chumiecki speaks about his Assignment Auschwitz Portfolio

2:15 - 2:30 Break

2:30 - 3:30

Guy Stern PhD, Director of the Holocaust Museum and Director of the International Institute of Righteous, pays tribute to the Polish Catholics who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II and Sue Krolikowski PhD pays tribute to the Polish Catholic nuns who sheltered Jewish children.

3:30 – 3:45 Break

3:45 – 4:45

Poet John Guzlowski PhD discusses his work Lightening and Ashes and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald


Polish Evening Concert in the Shrine Chapel with Curtis Posuniak, organist at St. Patrick Church in Carleton, Michigan.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

1:00 - 2:00

Mass at the Shrine Chapel to honor the Polish Army Veterans and Camp Survivors

Poet John Guzlowski addresses veterans

2:00 – 3:00

The Filarets Chorus, led by David Troiano, presents a repertory of patriotic and military songs for the Veterans

3:00 - 3:15

Group Photo of Veterans

3:15 - 4:15

William Krul, President, Polish Genealogical Society of Michigan, outlines the required governmental steps he took to obtain the proper military recognition for his father William Krul, Sr. who died in combat during WWII.

4:15 – 4:30 Break

4:30 – 5:30

Hands on training to retrieve U.S. military, refugee, and naturalization documents via the database and documents via the Kresy-Siberia website.
Adam Cardinal Maida Library.

This project is funded in part by Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


To see posters and a youtube regarding the commemoration, please click here.

I have also posted a blog about Sept. 1 with some films of the invasion and memories of my father's stories about it. Click here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sept. 1, 1939: Commemoration

This September 1st marks the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland. This invasion and the subsequent invasion by their Soviet allies almost destroyed Poland. According to some historians, one out of six Poles died in the ensuing struggle.

The Polish Mission of the Orchard Lakes Schools, SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary, and Michigan Polonia have organized a commemorative event for the first week of September. The event will allow those who witnessed World War II in Poland to share their memories with others. I'm honored to have been asked to be one of the speakers.

Further information about the commemoration is available at The Polish Mission site. You can also contact Ceil Wendt Jensen at ceil(at) [substitute @ for (at)].


Last year, I posted a blog about Sept. 1 and what it means to me. The blog also features 3 youtube videos about the Nazi invasion. You can see all of that by clicking here.

Scholar Jan Peczkis has compiled a list of books about the Nazi and Soviet invasion of Poland. The list and Mr. Peczkis' comments on the individual books are available at the Amazon site.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Happy Father's Day

My father was probably the hardest working man I knew.

When I was a kid he would work double shifts, 16 hour days, and some years he wouldn't take vacations because the bosses at the factory where he worked would pay him double time. They would give him his vacation pay, and they would give him the week's salary on top of that.

Double time. He loved earning double time. He'd laugh and say it was one of the best things about America. Like getting something for nothing.

When he wasn't working at the factory, he was working around the house. Five years after coming to America, my parents bought a five-unit apartment building. Nine years after coming to America, they sold that one and bought a six unit on Evergreen Street in Chicago. My dad--and my mom--were always working on these buildings to maintain them and spruce them up. They plastered ceilings, painted walls, and stripped and varnished floors. When he wasn't doing that kind of work, he would be outside chopping wood to feed the massive furnace we had in the basement, or he'd be in one of the apartments with his pliers and hammer working on a leak. He didn't know a thing about pipes, but he was sure that sweat and hard work could fix them.

He was always like this.

Toward the end of his life when he was dying of cancer, he was still hauling new orange trees -- with their roots bundled up in burlap -- into the back yard and trying to plant them. Sometimes he just couldn't do it, didn't have the strength to stand up, and he would ask me to help. He'd sit on a chair in the backyard, trying to breathe and pointing to a spot where he had lugged the orange tree.

"Plant it there, Johnny," he'd say in Polish. "Plant it there."

Sometimes, he'd have so little breath that the words would be a whisper. You know what I mean.

Here's a poem about my dad and why he worked so hard. It's part of a sequence of poems about his working that appears in my book about him and my mom, Lightning and Ashes:

From "Looking for Work in America"

What My Father Brought With Him

He knew death the way a blind man
knows his mother’s voice. He had walked
through villages in Poland and Germany

where only the old were left to search
for oats in the fields or beg the soldiers
for a cup of milk. He knew the dead,

the way they smelled and their dark full faces,
the clack of their teeth when they were desperate
to tell you of their lives. Once he watched

a woman in the moments before she died
take a stick and try to write her name
in the mud where she lay. He’d buried

children too, and he knew he could do any kind
of work a man could ask him to do.
He knew there was only work or death.

He could dig up beets and drag fallen trees
without bread or hope. The war taught him how.
He came to the States with this and his tools,

hands that had worked bricks and frozen mud
and knew the language the shit bosses spoke.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler was a Polish woman, a social worker, who, in the middle of World War II, in the middle of the worst killing in a country where the Germans would kill you if you tried to help a Jew, decided to save Jewish children trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto.

She couldn't save all of them. There were too many and the Germans were killing them too fast, but somehow she and her friends in the Polish Underground were able to save 2,500 Jewish Children.

This Sunday, April 19, CBS is showing a movie about her called The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.

You can also learn more about her by visiting a website started by a group of school children in Kansas to keep alive the memory of what she did. Their project is called Life in a Jar, and its name comes from something Irena Sendler did so that eventually after the war the Jewish children she saved could know who they were. She made lists of the children's real names and put the lists in jars, then buried the jars in a garden, so that someday she could dig up the jars and find the children to tell them of their real identity.

Here's a short video about how the Kansas school children found out about Irena Sendler:

To learm more about Irene Sendler, I recommend the following cite, dedicated to making a documentary about her and the Poles who worked with her: In the Name of their Mothers: The Story of Irene Sendler. The film includes some of the last interviews she gave.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Remembering Katyn

I recently received an email from the artist Carolyn Bardos. We were exchanging notes about my parents and their experiences in the war, and Ms. Bardos mentioned that she had seen Andrzej Wajda's motion picture KATYN in Budapest.

This is what she wrote:

What I recall so clearly is the audience, as the credits rolled, sitting in profound silence, until the crying started. A few people were standing, as if to leave, but they just stood. It was a small theater, and after the credits, the projectionist left off the lights to give the weeping audience time to dry our eyes, switch the cell phones back on, and walk back out into the city.


Please visit the website of The Katyn Memorial in Baltimore.


Last year at this time, I posted a blog about my father and what he told me about Katyn. I'm posting it again this year:


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 Lightning and Ashes, and I want to share the poem with you on this 68th 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 Andrzej Wajda.


Friday, February 20, 2009

My Parents and Happy Places

Recently, SGI Quarterly, a Buddhist magazine devoted to Peace, Culture, and Education, asked me to write a piece about my mom and dad and what they -- as concentration camp survivors -- were like as parents for a special issue of the magazine devoted to parents and children.


At first, it was hard to think of my parents as parenting role models. My mom and dad had gone through years of slave labor in Nazi Germany's camps, and the experience left them with traumas they never were able to shake. In one of my new poems called "The Evil that Men Do," I write half jokingly about how as a kid I sometimes thought that my mother had learned her parenting skills from Nazi guards.

I didn't think I could write the article. But then I did. Here's the article:

My father was a man plagued by nightmares about the Nazi concentration camps he and my mother both spent years in. When I was a child, his screams would wake us all. I don't think I've ever heard screams like that. They were muffled in an odd way. Screams, in my experience, are usually accompanied by an explosion of air. My father's nightmare screams were drawn in. Even in his sleep, it was almost like he was afraid to scream. I would come to my father's bedroom, and he would be asleep and screaming and struggling with the Nazi guards who were beating him. He drank all the time to keep these nightmares back.

My mother's experiences in the camps showed themselves in a different way. She was afraid of so many things, loud noises, whistling, even clowns she saw on TV; and she was especially afraid of things being done incorrectly. She would beat and scold all of us, even my father, if the table was set the wrong way for dinner or if we came home late after an outing. My sister and I often thought that our parents were crazy; our lives amid the screaming and fear and anger just didn't make sense.

But despite all of this, I now realize that my parents wanted so hard to give us happiness. And when I think about my childhood, I think about the happy times my parents tried to give us, and I think about the special places where these happy times took place.

For me, the most important of these moments took place on the June day I turned four years old, a Sunday in 1952, when I ran to the garden in the back of a little house we were renting in Chicago and stood there among Black-eyed Susans with their yellow petals and long, thin necks. And my mother in a white dress with little blue flowers sat in the garden between me and my sister, and my father stood in front of us with a Brownie Cadet box camera.

He was asking us to smile in the Polish we still spoke at home, while my mother told me about the day ahead, how we would go to Kiddie Land, an elaborate children's playground, and my sister Danusha and I would ride on the blue and yellow and red cars and the roller coaster built just for kids. My mother made it sound like there was something special about being a kid the way she talked about the day we had planned.

It makes a picture I don't want to forget.

I think we all have such special perfect places, happy places where we feel most ourselves, most comfortable. Maybe we remember these special places and special times and turn to them because they were the places and times our parents were happy, before their lives took their inevitable turns. Maybe not. Like most of us, I'm not good at figuring out the complex why of things.

But I remember that particular Sunday morning when I was four, and you remember sitting at a baseball game between your mother and father, and both are yelling at one of the players in a way that frightens you just a little but you know is okay; or you remember a day when your parents took you swimming and your mother was laughing at your father because he was wearing her bathing cap pulled down over his eyes in a silly way; or you remember your father sitting at the piano with a cigarette between his lips, playing some slow, sad piece you loved so much while, in another room, watching and listening, your mother stood washing some dinner plates or ironing some clothes.

To see the entire issue of SGI devoted to Parents and Children just click here.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

World War II Through Polish Eyes

I recently heard from my friend Halina Koralewski, a Polish-American interested in making sure Americans know about Polish and Polish-American history. She told me that that she had just read a book called World War II Through Polish Eyes, and she wanted to recommend the book. It sounded interesting, and I asked her to write a piece about it for this blog so that others could hear about this book.

Here's what she wrote:

I just read the best book ever on Polish history, by M. B. Szonert - World War II Through Polish Eyes – a history of one Polish family (as well as the nation) before and during the war. What a great, great book. The family lost their relatives in the east, due to the Russian attack (which resulted in the deportation of Poles deep into Russia and Siberia).

After the war this part of Poland (almost ½ of its prewar land) was annexed to Russia and forever lost.

The boyfriend of Danusia (the protagonist in the book), a young Polish officer, was captured by the Russians in September of 1939. A couple of months later, in April 1940, he was executed along with 4,100 fellow Polish officers and 11,000 Polish government/administration officials, who were Poland's intellectual elite. These murders were all done on Stalin’s orders, and carried out by the NKVD (currently KGB), the infamous Soviet Secret police. The burial place of thousands of other Polish officers, also executed in 1940 by the Russians, is still unknown. This crime was never put to trial.

Also covered in the book is the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944, which is undoubtedly one of Poland's most heroic events, yet only a few lonely souls know of it. The Russian Army was on the other side of the Vistula River and didn’t help, while the Germans methodically suppressed the uprising, destroyed Warsaw, and murdered its citizens.

Another event is the battle of Monte Cassino – won by the Poles' famed Second Corpus after all other attempts by the Allied forces had failed. Roughly 1100 Polish soldiers lost their lives in this famous battle.

When the war ended, for Poland it was only the changing of an oppressor - from Germany to Russia. Although Poland fought Germany together with Allied forces, the West gave in to Stalin's demands and sacrificed Poland. Our best patriots, the Home Army fighters, were treated like criminals and executed by Russians. Russia in fact brought from Moscow their own puppet government that was never accepted by the majority of Poles. This terror continued until the Solidarity movement was born and eventually brought down communism.

What is both interesting and disturbing is that you will never find any of these facts in American history school textbooks.

In this particular book the family went through all the stages of Poland's troubled 20th century history and loses everything - only one family and so much suffering. A great, mind-opening book to read.

Poland was the only country in German-occupied Europe where there was an ultimate sacrifice - a death-sentence for helping Jews. Germans would kill Jews and Poles on the spot.

Nevertheless many Polish families helped their Jewish neighbors to survive in hiding. In Yad Vashem, where a tree is planted for each saved Jew, over 80% is attributed to the Poles, who were risking their own lives. Who indeed knows about it?

Poland's history and present is about forgiveness – yet how much can one nation forgive?

Ultimate Meaning in the Universe?

I gave a lecture recently at Benedictine Academy, a Catholic girls’ school, in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  I talked about my parents there and what they went through in the concentration camps during the war and what their lives were like after the war.  Near the end of my presentation, I read a poem that I posted recently on OpenSalon.  The poem is called "What The War Taught Her"; and it’s a bleak poem. 

One of the things it talks about is my mother’s sense that all of the suffering she and the other people in the camps experienced was finally “worthless.”  She believed that none of it did anybody any good.   During the question and answer period afterward, one of the high school girls asked me if what happened to my parents strengthened my faith or weakened it.   

It's a question that I think about all the time, but when you’re standing in front of a couple hundred young people and you know they have to get to their next class and that nobody’s got time for the long answer, you give them the short answer.   That’s what I did.  I told that student that I didn’t have any faith.   

I’ll never see that student again, and I’ll probably never get to Benedictine Academy again, but I wish I could.  It would give me the chance to give that student the long answer, and here’s what I’d say:     

When I posted “What the War Taught My Mother” at OpenSalon, one of the bloggers, Laurel, Not Lauren, asked me a similar question about my faith.  She said, "Tell me, in sifting through the rubble of so much evil and misery, have you come away with a sense that life has ultimate meaning, or are you a nihilist?"

“The ultimate meaning?”

When I look at the kinds of things that have happened and continue to happen, I have to wonder if there is an "ultimate meaning" and if that ultimate meaning is a good thing.

I came across a quotation by the Chicago novelist and Nobel prize winner Saul Bellow a while ago, and he seems to express for me the dark vision of that ultimate meaning. Here's what he says:

“You think history is the history of loving hearts? You fool! Look at these millions of dead. Can you pity them? Feel for them? You can do nothing! There were too many. We burned them to ashes, we buried them with bulldozers. History is the history of cruelty, not love, as soft men think. We have experimented with every human capacity to see which is strong and admirable and have shown that none is. There is only practicality. If the old God exists, he must be a murderer. But the one true god is Death and history is made by madmen and butchers.”

When I read that, I think that maybe the ultimate meaning is that you and I and billions of others should be dead and the sooner the better. The ultimate meaning is that the only meaning is that we are here for a brief moment and it doesn't matter whether we suffer or not.

I consider that, and then I consider what my father and mother felt. My dad spent four years in a concentration camp, and he came out of that experience thinking that he had an obligation to be kind and helpful. I've written about this in my poem "What My Father Believed." You can hear Garrison Kellior read it online.

My mother, on the other hand, was a skeptic and a cynic. 100% of the time when I would ask her if there was some kind of ultimate meaning in the universe (and you can be certain I did ask) she would say, "No priest has ever come back from heaven to tell me if what the church says is true."

Despite this, she had a spoonful of optimism in her--A hopefulness that kept her going past the deaths she witnessed in the war, past the suffering in the camps, past two cancers that left her crippled for the last 4 years of her life.

When I once asked her after her second surgery for cancer how she could go on, she said, "Optimism is a crazy person's mother."

I think that optimism is my mother too.