Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Day Poem

I wrote the following poem to thank my parents and all of my relatives who suffered in World War II. Some like my parents survived and others didn't.

Thanksgiving Day Poem

My people were all Polish people,
the ones who survived to look
in my eyes and touch my fingers
and those who didn’t, dying instead

of fever or hunger or a bullet
in the face, dying maybe thinking
of how their deaths were balanced
by my birth or one of the other

stories the Poles tell themselves
to give themselves the strength
to crawl out of their own graves.

Not all of them had this strength
but enough did, so that I’m here
and you’re here reading this poem
about them. What kept them going?

Maybe something in the souls
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 terror
in the snow and the misery
in the rain--till some guy pierces
their stomachs with a bayonet

or some sickness grips them, and still
they keep going, even when there
aren’t any rungs on the ladder
even when there aren’t any ladders.


My book Lightning and Ashes contains much of my parents' story of the war years and their lives after they came to the US as Displaced Persons.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sept. 1, 1939: The Day World War II Started

On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. In those first days and the six years that followed, more than five million Poles died.

I've written a number of poems about the first days of the war and what happened to Poland, but none of those poems ever captured, I felt, the struggle of the Polish people to throw off the Nazi invasion.

A couple of years ago, I tried again to describe what my parents and the Poles of their generation felt. Here's the poem:

Landscape with Dead Horses


War comes down like a hammer, heavy and hard
flattening the earth and killing the soft things:
horses and children, flowers and hope, love
and the smell of the farmers’earth, the coolness
of the creek, the look of trees as they uncurl
their leaves in late March and early April.
You smell the horses before you see them.


Horses groan, their heads nailed to the ground
their bodies rocking crazily, groaning
like men trying to lift their heads for one
last breath, to breathe, to force cold air
into their shredded, burning lungs.
For these horses and the men who rode them,
this world will never again be the world
God made; and still they dare to raise their heads,
to force the air into their shredded lungs.


Look at this horse. Its head torn from its body
by a shell. So much blood will teach you more
about the world than all the books in it.
This horse’s head will remake the world for you—
teach even God a lesson about the stones
that wait to rise in our hearts, cold and hard.


In the end Hitler sat in his cold bunker
and asked his generals about his own horses,
“Where are they?” He asked, “Where are my horses?”
And no one dared to tell him, “They are dead
in the fields with the Poles and their horses,
bloated with death and burning with our corpses.”


This poem originally appeared in War, Literature, and the Arts along with several other poems I wrote about Poland and the war. Here's a link to those poems. Click here.

By the way, in that same issue of WLA, there are also poems about war by Polish-American writers John Minczeski and Lisa Siedlarz.

Click here for my previous post on September 1, 1939.

The photograph of re-enactors in 1939 uniforms was taken by Mr. Mazowieckie at a re-enactment of the Bzura River Battle.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Father's Day

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My father didn't teach me to fish or play ball or paint a fence or drive a car. He couldn't do any of those things. He was an orphan who worked on his aunt's farm in Poland until the Nazis came and took him to a concentration camp. When he got to America after the war, he was too busy working to do much of anything else. You don't learn a lot beyond the basics when you lead that kind of life.

But he did teach me somethings: to care for my family, work hard, and love life.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.


To read more about my dad, click on the following poems from my book Lightning and Ashes:

Why My Mother Stayed with My Father

What My Father Believed

Looking for Work in America

Monday, June 7, 2010

Code Name: Zegota: Rescuing Jews in Occupied Poland, 1942-1945: The Most Dangerous Conspiracy

Irene Tomaszewski and Tecia Werbowski have recently published the American edition of their book about Polish attempts to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Code Name: Zegota: Rescuing Jews in Occupied Poland, 1942-1945: The Most Dangerous Conspiracy in Wartime Europe tells the story of the only secret organization in occupied Europe set up for the sole purpose of saving Jews. The first book on the subject in English, it details the danger and complexity behind Zegota rescue attempts, clarifying the relationship of the Germans, who had total control; the Poles, who were relegated to sub-human status and treated as slave labor; and the Jews, designated nonhuman and collectively condemned to death. Illuminating the moral dilemmas that arose as one life was pitted against another under the lawless apartheid conditions created by the Nazis, Code Name: Zegota explores the critical situation in occupied Poland and the personalities that responded to desperate conditions with a mix of courage and creativity. It profiles the key players and the network behind them and describes the sophisticated organization and its mode of operation. The cast of characters ranges from members of prewar Poland's cultural and political elite to Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, who worked as couriers. As this inspiring book shows, all of these brave souls risked torture, concentration camps, and death—and many paid the price.


The book is available from Greenwood Press and Amazon.

Irene Tomaszewski is one of the editors of Cosmopolitan Review.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day: My Wife's Uncle Buddy

I first posted this blog about 2 years ago:

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's experiences in that camp, 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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Holocaust Remembrance Day

I can remember the Holocaust, but I can't do much more. I can't imagine it, I can't describe it, I can't understand it.

My parents weren't Jews. They weren't in the Holocaust. They were Polish Catholics who were taken to Germany to work as slave laborers in the concentration camps there. My dad spent four and a half years in Buchenwald, and my mom spent more than two years in a number of camps around Magdeburg. They suffered terribly, and they saw terrible things done to the people they loved. My mother's family was decimated. Her mother, her sister, and her sister's baby were killed outright by the Nazis. My mother's two aunts were taken to Auschwitz with their Jewish husbands and died there.

I remember asking my mother once if she could explain to me what she felt in the worst month of her worst year in the slave labor camps in Germany. All she could say was, you weren't there.

I wasn't there.

I've spent much of my life writing about the things that happened to my parents in the slave labor camps and reading about what happened in those camps and in the Nazi death camps in Poland where so many Jews died, and still I will never be able to understand or comprehend what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust.

I went to Auschwitz in 1990 with my wife Linda and our daughter Lillian. We walked around, took pictures, tried to imagine what had happened there. We couldn't. We were just tourists.

I wrote a poem about it:

Tourists in Auschwitz

It’s a gray drizzly day
but still we take pictures:

Here we are by the mountain of shoes.
Here we are by a statue of people
working to death
pulling a cart full of stones.

Here we are by the wall where they shot
the rabbis and the priests
and the school children
and the trouble makers.

We walk around some too
but we see no one.

Later, we will have dinner
in the cafeteria at Auschwitz.

We will eat off aluminum plates
with aluminum knives and forks.
The beans will be hard,
and the bread will be tasteless.

But for right now, we take more pictures:

Here we are by the mountain of empty suitcases.
Here we are in front of the big ovens.
Here we are by the gate with the famous slogan.

Here we are in front of the pond
where the water is still gray from the ashes
the Germans dumped.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The German--an excerpt from the novel Road of Bones

In the year after her death, I was writing a lot of poems about my mother and my father and their experiences in the war. Those poems grew into my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues (Aquila Polonia).

One of the poems that didn't get into that book was a sonnet called "Early Fall." It's about the German soldiers who killed my grandmother and my aunt and her baby. I had written poems about what happened after that day, but up to that point I hadn't written about that day. The sonnet describes the soldiers just before they enter my grandmother's house to kill the women inside.

"Early Fall" ends with one of the soldiers pushing the door open with the barrel of his rifle and taking the first step into the house.

Writing the poem started me thinking. I tried to visualize what actually happened in that house in the woods west of Lvov. Of course, I had heard about what happened from both my parents, but I had never tried to imagine that moment when the Germans came and the sequence of events that followed. The story below grew out of that imagining, and so did my forthcoming novel Road of Bones (Kasva Press).


With the barrel of his rifle, he slowly pushed the door open, but he didn’t enter. The log hut’s single room was like all of the rooms he’d seen since crossing the border into Russia. There was a mud floor, a wooden table, and two rough-cut chairs. In the corner next to the stove stood an empty wooden pen where they had kept some kind of small animal, perhaps a pig or calf. On the table, a lamp burned unsteadily, flickered like the fuel had been mixed with water. In the shadows he saw an old woman asleep in a bed. The bed smelled of wet and sour rags. He could smell it from a dozen feet away.

He wondered how people could live like this, in small rooms with dirt and animals, and so little light that a man had to spend his life squinting at things, struggling to see clearly. But outside it was already dark, and the snow was falling harder, so he entered.

Raising his rifle, he walked over to the old woman lying in the bed. Her eyes and mouth were open, a babushka hid her hair but he knew it must be thin and gray. Her skin was gray too, a yellow gray. This woman was old the way the earth was old in the late fall, spent with spring and summer work, tired of doing everything that needed to be done each day.

The soldier stood above her next to the bed and felt the weight of his rifle in his hands. Even after four years of carrying it, it was still heavy. He wanted to put it down, and he wanted many other things too. He wanted warmth first and then safety. Yes,safety would be good, and a wife and food and a God who would take pity on him and send His only Beloved Son to do the killing the man felt he couldn’t do anymore. But he knew too that wishing and praying were useless. He’d seen the ashes of too many churches and synagogues. He’d settle for food.

He poked the old woman’s shoulder with the barrel of his Mauser.

At first she didn’t move at all, and he thought she must be ill or weak from hunger, but then she moved a little. She drew in a ragged breath and then another. Her breathing was grim and harsh. There was no sweetness to it. She drew the breath deep into her lungs slowly like she was filling a glass past overflowing. He poked her again, and she opened her eyes slowly and looked at him without moving her head.

There was cold and silence in the room, but he didn’t sense any fear. In peddler’s Russian he said, “Grandmother, I’m hungry.”

She didn’t say anything. He felt her staring at him. She probably knew by his accent and gray uniform that he was a German. Then, she nodded with her eyes and began to rise. Her right hand gripped the edge of the bed, and her body tensed for the work of lifting itself. Like her breathing, the rising was grim and painful. Old people carry burdens that would break a young man’s faith and hope.

The German sat down on one of the clumsy wooden chairs and looked at the old woman. Maybe once she was young and had some life in her veins, but now she was like a dead creature, like something left in a barn for too long, a cow whose fat and muscle had thinned in a dry season when the grass was burnt and gone by the first of July.

He watched her as she walked slowly to the door and closed it. Then she moved over to a small porcelain stove. It’s pretty, he thought—a creamy white with large green flowers on the oven door. He wondered how it got here to this shack in the middle of this flat, dead country. There was nothing else in the room that spoke of wealth like this stove did. He felt there must be a story to it, but he didn’t want to ask. A story would just slow her down, and he was hungry.

He slapped the palm of his hand on the table once and shouted in German that he wanted food and he wanted it quickly, “Mach schnell, frau, essen, essen!” The sharp noise and the shouting did not startle her. The old woman continued to move slowly, lighting a match to the crumpled newspaper in the stove, closing the door, dragging a large wooden box across the floor with both hands so it would be near the stove.

Then, she started taking metal cans out of the box. They were army issue. Some had big German lettering, some had Russian. One of the large cans had script that was neither German Gothic nor Russian Cyrillic. He couldn’t make it out in the shadows.

Maybe it was Japanese. The letters looked like pagodas and huts and trees. He wondered how she came by these cans, and imagined some soldier from the war between Russia and Japan, the old one, the one fought in the high desert country of Mongolia and Korea, passing through here forty or fifty years ago and trading the cans for a look at her breasts or a poke at her cunt. Maybe fifty years ago she was something to look at, still a girl then, a blonde, moving like a slow cool breeze on a hot day. Now she moved like a spent mule on a cold day, broken and shivering.

He knew that pounding his palm on the table wouldn’t get her moving any faster. This woman moved as she moved. She was bone and hanging skin and breathing that came from the center of the earth, all harsh and ragged whispers.

He took his steel helmet off and unwound the rags that kept his ears warm. Then, he ran his hand through his hair. It was matted and greasy, and he felt lice and fleas there, spending the winter like they were millionaires on some sun bleached Riviera beach. He scratched his head with both hands lightly so as not to draw blood, and he tried to remember the last time he bathed. It was a month ago probably. Some place farther east, maybe near Kursk, when his squad had to guard a ford that the Mark IV’s were going to use to cross over a stream so they could get out of the way of the Russians. He and the others waited for two days for those tanks. The hollow boom of artillery firing in the distance disrupted their days, and in the nights they could see flashes too, purple and yellow against the clouds, filling the sky like bruises. The waiting men took turns bathing in the water upstream from the ford, first the boys in the squad and then the old men. The boys splashed and laughed and tried to dunk each other; the old men stood in silence in the water washing their faces and hands. And always while some bathed, others watched and listened for the partisans. A place like that was full of them, and a small squad alone at a stream was like hot milk sweetened with honey to the Russians.

He looked at the old woman again. She had opened a can with a key and was heating some kind of meat in thick dark brown gravy. He wondered if she knew any partisans. Maybe her son was with them, or her daughter, or her husband. The German knew she had probably seen her fill of killing. She must be sixty or seventy. How many dead had she seen in her life? Ten? Fifty? A hundred? And who were they? Children?

Husbands? Parents? Grandparents? Neighbors? Too many to remember all of their names, he thought. If you lived long enough, the dead you knew outnumbered the living, and they were closer to you.

And now this war. Three years of armies moving here and there across her land. If she looked out her door any summer morning, she would see the soldiers or their dust. Hear them too if the wind was coming from the right direction. Smell them too. It would be better in the winter perhaps. Like now. With a heavy wet snow falling, you couldn’t hear or smell anything more than ten meters away. Couldn’t see it either, not even five meters away. Your home would be safe, hidden from the soldiers, unless they fell upon it by accident as they were fleeing or rushing forward.

He raised his head and said, “I bet I startled you, little mother. Coming in like I did with you lying there, maybe even sleeping. I bet it made your heart jerk. I bet you felt like a young girl again, a yellow-haired maiden with flowers in her hands waiting for her first kiss behind the church.”

The woman stopped stirring the meat in the shallow, black pan, and looked at him. She was bent like a willow, and the skin on her face and hands was hard and cracked with the cold, despite the fat she had rubbed into it. The hand with the wooden spoon was almost shut completely with arthritis. Her fingers thin and crippled like tree limbs, her knuckles fat and red. Her eyes didn’t say much, just that she had been here before, fed other men, knew how to give them what they wanted so they would leave her alone.

She turned back to her stirring, and the German looked away from her. There was a window in this hut, and where the newspaper she had pressed against the window had pealed back, he could see the snow falling, coming down harder. He knew that by the time night came he wouldn’t be able to leave this hut, if he was still here. But where could he go? There were no towns nearby, only armies fumbling in the cold and the dark, pressing here and there, and hoping that the morning would show that their blind movements had brought them some small advantage.

Suddenly, he wanted to talk. For days he’d been alone, ever since his squad had entered that ravine and they were ambushed by the partisans hiding in a stand of birch trees.

His comrades died there, slowly at first, then quicker and quicker. The bullets ricocheting off the rocks and boulders with a terrible zwingging noise, trees exploding into splinters, splinters burning quickly and spreading their fire to the twigs and underbrush. There was nowhere to hide from that noise and the fire and the splintering wood that would kill a man slower than a bullet but as surely. First one of the sergeants fell, and then another. Peter fell with a wrist-thick piece of oak embedded in his throat like a wooden lightning bolt. He had been with the German since they crossed the border into Poland three years ago. Then the Hungarian boy Jurek dropped, then it was happening so fast that the German could not say, this one fell next and then that one fell. All he knew was that he had to run, get away from the ravine and the Russians. He crawled back up the hill, the way his squad had come down. And while he crawled, bullets picked at him, hit at him, moved him this way and then that, but still he kept climbing up the ravine. He felt like an old man crawling up a sand dune under a load of bricks that was getting heavier and heavier with each bullet that ripped at his clothes and cut at his skin. But he didn’t stop till he crested the hill and left behind the ravine with his dead comrades.

He had left dead men behind before and he knew that it would hurt him only for a little while. The next day, Peter and Jurek and the others would just be the dead.

The soldier stared at the old woman again. He wanted her to say something, he wanted to hear a voice. “Mother,” he asked in Russian, “do you live here alone?”

She didn’t say anything; she kept stirring the canned meat with her crooked fingers. Her back was too him, but he knew she had heard him because she had stopped stirring for a second when he first asked the question.

He tried again. “Mother, I said, do you live alone in this hut?”

She turned her head and looked at him over her shoulder. “I live here with my husband; he’s out looking for the pig. She got away yesterday morning when the soldiers came.”

“A pig? I’m surprised there’s anything left here. This war’s not easy on pigs.”

She moved toward him, placed a tin plate on the table. She didn’t offer him a knife or fork, but he didn’t expect her to. He had the ones the army gave him, his first day as a soldier. They were bright as the chrome on a new Mercedes roadster then.

“Rest yourself while I eat,” he said, and gestured for her to sit across from him on the other chair.

She moved instead to the bed and sat down on the comforter. It was a pale red color and thin, almost flat. The goose feathers in it were old; they must have lost their fullness, their fatness a generation ago. She put her hands in her lap and looked at him without speaking.

“Why are you so quiet?” he said. “I bet when your old man is around you’re a regular hen, pecking and clucking at him. Tell me something, anything. Tell me what’s it been like here this fall?”

She shrugged and sat in silence, her eyes on his eyes. Then she started speaking slowly. She told him that the fall had been hard so far. Early in October, there was rain and mud, and then the cold started and the mud froze. She liked it when the mud froze. She didn’t like the smell of the mud when it was wet—it was like manure, like living in a toilet. It was better when the muck froze. She could walk outside and not worry about the mud sucking her boots off. Her husband lost a rubber boot once right outside the door. The mud was like a demon, it just sucked the boot right off his foot, like a giant mouth. Her husband never found the boot. Not even in the spring.

The German thought about what she said, the mud like a giant mouth. Here in Russia he had seen mud like that, seen men disappear into the mud and never appear again. He’d felt it pulling him under more than once too. He could picture in his mind this mud like a mouth—and it was almost like a short movie, one that you would expect a dancing and singing mouse in gloves and a tuxedo to appear in, scolding the old woman’s husband for stepping on the mud. The German thought about this mud like a giant’s mouth and the dancing mouse and started laughing, deep laughs, loud and long. He imagined the mouse singing something in Italian, maybe a happy song of love and hope from some opera. It was a funny thought, and after a while he stopped laughing, and then he picked up the brown-gray meat with his fork. He looked at it for a second and bit off a piece.

Chewing, he watched the woman stare at him. She’d stopped talking. He knew his laughter must have made her nervous. He was a German sitting in her hut with a rifle leaning against her table, and he was laughing. She must fear what would come next. He watched her pull something out of her pocket. It looked like a leather shoestring. Her arthritic, twisted fingers started worrying it, knotting it and unknotting it.

The meat in his mouth was hard, stringy with gristle. He knew it was horse meat but he was hungry, and just having something in his mouth to chew made him happy. He felt the warmth of the meat already in his stomach, and he remembered when he was a boy eating bread with butter after a long day of fasting and waiting for the communion host. The old nuns used to say that God wanted us to wait because patience brought us closer to him.

He pointed at the old woman with his knife and hoped she saw the smile through his beard. “Go on,” he said, “tell me some more.”

So she began again. This time she told him about how the pig was lost. Yesterday morning as the snow and the wind were slowing, she told him, there was a loud knock at the door and then before she and her husband could get out of bed, two soldiers came in, Russians, her own people.

The old woman said to the German, “One of them was short like a boy, but he wasn’t a boy. He had a hard beard and an angry voice.”

He said, “We’re taking your pig,” and he moved to the wooden pen against the wall. Her husband got out of bed quickly then and stepped in front of the soldier.

“Please, sirs, don’t take the pig,” he said to the soldier. “It’s all we have to get us through this winter. The harvest was nothing, as you know, sirs, and much of what we grew was taken for our boys in the army already.”

She told the German how the short, angry soldier pushed her husband aside and loosened a rope he had in his hands. He and the other soldier entered the pen and tied a harness across the pig’s neck and chest. While the pig squealed and kept trying to push back from the soldiers, the old woman and her husband pleaded, even though they knew pleading was worthless. Soldiers take what they want.

When the soldiers dragged the pig out of the hut, she and her husband followed them out into the cold and snow. They knew that nothing would bring the pig back but they could not let it go.

She pleaded with the angry soldier, “Please give us a chit, just some piece of writing that will say you soldiers took our pig. We could show the paper to our village headman, and he would get us something in exchange, maybe some rubles or some flour.”

Pulling the pig, the short soldier said, “Mother, I’d give you a receipt if I could, but I can’t write and my comrade here, he’s a fool and he can’t write either.” He laughed as he said this and shoved the pig along with his boot.

Then, there was an explosion in the falling snow. The short soldier died where he stood. A shell exploded his head and scattered red and purple pieces across the front of the wooden hut and the snow on the ground around him. The other soldier didn’t even have time to unshoulder his rifle. There was another explosion in the falling snow, and he dropped to his knees, a spreading red stain growing darker and bolder on his gray tunic. He was dead before his face fell hard on the dirty snow. The startled pig jerked the rope loose from the headless soldier’s hands, scurried across the frozen furrows, and was immediately lost in the snow.

“That’s when my husband took off,” she said. “My husband took off after the pig. He stumbled in the snow and raised himself and stumbled again. He’s an old man, and his legs aren’t much good. He disappeared into the snow on his knees.”

The German didn’t wait for the story to end. He couldn’t stop laughing. He dropped the fork and moved his hand to his eyes to wipe away the tears. Really, he thought, this story is better than the Laurel and Hardy films, the silent ones they show in Magdeburg. The old woman had the gypsy’s gift for story telling, and he thought again about her husband falling and crawling after the pig.

“Mother,” the soldier said, “pardon my laughing. You must be thinking, just like a German to be laughing at another’s misfortune, but really, I haven’t laughed this way for a month, not since we retreated across the River Desna. If I had a kopec, I would give it to you for these stories.”

She looked at him and frowned. She slowly shook her head from side to side in disapproval.

When he stopped laughing, he asked for another piece of meat and chewed it slowly after she gave it to him. He wasn’t used to food and the heat in the room, slight as it was. They made him drowsy. Soon he would want to sleep, but he was afraid of falling asleep. This woman was Russian, and even though she might blame the Russian soldiers for the loss of her pig and her husband, the German knew he couldn’t trust her not to kill him while he slept. He’d heard plenty of stories about Germans dying with their throats cut in some Russian peasant’s shack. And he’d seen too many dead German soldiers sitting at wooden tables with their tunics unbuttoned and their boots off. Maybe if he tied her up he’d be safe—safe from her at least.

He pushed the empty plate away and asked her for some rope, not much, just enough to hobble a horse.

She looked at him and started talking softly, “Why do you want a rope? Are you going to strangle me, or tie me up and take me somewhere? What if my husband comes back with the pig and finds me gone? What will he say? He’s like me, old and weak. We don’t make war on soldiers, or anyone. We couldn’t even stop the soldiers from taking the pig. Or the cow before that. Or the grain even before that.”

“Don’t worry, Frau,” he said. “I won’t take you away. Why would I want to drag an old witch like you anywhere? And where would we go? Back to Berlin? You’d be a prize catch. Better than a Soviet general. Better than your holy Stalin. I just want to tie you up so that I can sleep peacefully without you cutting my throat with your butcher knife.”

“You don’t have to worry. I’ve never killed anyone.”

“I’m sure, but what if your husband comes back and finds me here asleep, maybe he’ll think I’m trying some funny business with you, and he’ll try to shoot me. Or maybe the two of you will try to kill me.”

“You don’t have to worry. He’s an old man with lungs that are thin like paper. And a bad back, too. He won’t try to do anything to hurt you.”

“Shut up. This isn’t a debate. I’m going to tie you up.”

In the shadows at the other end of the room, he saw a stretch of rope hanging from the pig pen, and took it and cut it into two lengths. Then he ordered her to sit in the other chair. With one length he tied her hands up, with the other he tied her feet. Then, he picked her up and carried her to the bed. He put her near the edge and covered her with part of the red comforter.

She said nothing and lay with her face pressed to the mattress.

He looked at her and wondered what she was thinking. She was probably afraid, he imagined. An old woman, brittle bones, not much strength in her hands and legs, tied up by a German soldier—she must be thinking he was going to torture her, or rape her. She was surely afraid. And she was right to be. Some would take a poke at her—no matter that she was 60 or 70. A soldier, German, Russian, English, Hungarian, American, Italian, whatever, out here in this frozen muck, wandering around like a gypsy without home or family, would take her and spread her and be happy for the moment’s comfort no matter how much she fought, no matter how much she pleaded.

The German drifted away for a second and saw again the bodies of the dead women he came across last week. They were scattered like dominoes out next to a barn, a dozen of them, some young as school girls, some like this woman, old and broken, and all their skirts were lifted up, bloody and twisted hard with mud. These women, he knew, must have been raped until they could not scream. He had seen this kind of thing before. The women were raped even when they were dead, just so one last soldier could pause for a moment in the middle of this war and forget that he himself was a dead man. The German had seen it before and would see it again. The road from here back to Berlin was long.

He shook his head and thought, here we are, yes, here we are, the world in all its glory and beauty.

He looked again at the old woman, and she was staring up at him. There was nothing in her eyes, no worry or fear. She just looked tired, like she wanted all of this stupidity, the war and the lost pig and the husband who disappeared into the falling snow, to end.

He turned away from her and stepped to the table and the lamp. He turned the knob and the weak flame flickered even more, and then it died. The darkness in the room was tinged with a purple light, a darkness mixed with light reflected from the snow still falling outside. He remembered that this was how the nights looked when he was a young boy in Magdeburg playing outside in the street late in the evening after a heavy snow fall, the mysterious purple light that came from nowhere and came from everywhere. There was beauty in it, and magic too. It felt like the whole world was waiting on his pleasure, like God Himself was staring down from heaven, His elbows spread across a giant windowsill, and He was smiling at him playing in the snow, rolling snow boulders in the night, and maybe it was God’s smile that showered a purple light across the dark, snow-crusted world.

The German shook himself back to the moment. He was tired and thinking too much. Soon he’d be weeping and falling on his knees. He knew he needed sleep.

He made his way to the bed, and climbed over the old lady. She said nothing, not a groan even when his weight pressed down on her for a moment. If she had, maybe he would have asked her pardon. Instead, he pulled the comforter over himself and wondered why it was red. Did Stalin give a red comforter to every woman who gave birth to a strong son or a fecund daughter? The German smiled in the dark at the thought of Stalin, the great Soviet Grandfather with smoking pipe and perpetual smile and work camps and prison camps and five-year plans that left poor people staring into empty cups. The German moved closer to the old woman. He hoped for some warmth, but there wasn’t much.

He knew it would be a cold night. He heard the wind outside. It was like a broom sweeping ice into the world. The door and the wall and the windows would not keep this blizzard out. In the morning, he knew, there would be snow on the frozen mud floor. He snuggled against the old woman, pulled her closer to him gently, and tried to will himself to sleep, tried to empty his thoughts, but couldn’t.

He thought about how some morning he would not rise, would not wake. Some night, the cold would take him before dawn, and some fellows would find his body then, stiff as a plank. They would leave him where they found him, frozen across some path or next to some fence he had leaned against to keep the wind from his stomach and genitals, his soft parts. If he was lucky and the ground was not frozen, the men who found him might drop him in a shallow grave. He’d seen that plenty. A shallow grave with a frozen foot sticking out. It made him laugh sometimes. There’s something funny about a foot poking out of the snow. A frozen hand was a different thing. You see that hand and you know someone had gone down hard, probably pleading at the last, begging for his mother, even in death. Yes, a hard death.

“Happy thoughts for a cold night,” he said aloud and wondered if the old woman next to him was still awake. She said nothing, and he couldn’t hear her breathing.

He wondered what kept her alive. The pig and her husband? Her duty to them? They were gone and wouldn’t come back. Maybe the husband would, but certainly not the pig. The way the old woman told that story, the German knew her husband didn’t have the strength to both pursue the pig and then bring it home. He was probably out there some place, pressed against a slight rise of earth, frozen and dead.

The German’s face felt stiff from the frost on his moustache and beard. He could feel the ice in his feet and his calves as well. It made him wonder if he would be able to walk far tomorrow, or whether he would be able to walk at all. Today, before he found the old woman’s hut, he had covered maybe ten kilometers, not enough to make him feel safe.

He leaned further into the old woman. His knees pressed against the back of her legs, his chest against her back. He felt that her old bones, her rags, her thin flesh must still have a little human warmth left in them to share with another. He tried to pull her even closer.

But where was the warmth? It was like Siberia in the hut.


The above story originally appeared in the 2008 issue of the Ontario Review.

2010 Copyright John Guzlowski

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Art in the Holocaust

I've been invited to speak at the Art in the Holocaust Conference at Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan.

Here's the list of events planned for this conference. Click on each topic for further information.

Art in the Holocaust Series


“Children of the Holocaust” Exhibit by Miriam Brysk


John Guzlowski: Poetry Reading


Art in the Holocaust Panel Presentation & Discussion


Miriam Brysk: “Children of the Holocaust” Artist Presentation


Helen Degen Cohen: Poetry Reading


The above painting is by Miriam Brysk.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Poems of the Poles Who Were Taken to Siberia

February marks the 70th anniversary of mass deportations of Poles to Soviet prison camps in Siberia and other places in the USSR. Some 155,000 Poles were forced to work and live under dangerous conditions. Of those deported, only about 8,000 ever returned to Poland after the war.

Halina Ablamowicz has translated -- along with Kevin Christianson -- poems written by the Poles who were taken to Siberia and collected them in a book entitled Polish Poetry from the Soviet Gulags.

She has allowed me to publish three of them here in both English and the original Polish:

TO MY FELLOW POLES/Anna Rudawcowa (Sybir 1941)

A wicked fate cast us onto the steppes of Kazakhstan
A wicked fate forced us into exile into a world
Where each heart is an open wound,
Where each moment lasts for years on end.
A ghastly train took us across rivers
And across the serrated range of the Urals,
Our Homeland’s smile -- sad and distant
Grew paler and paler, and finally went out.
Life caught us in its iron gears,
In its steel wheels, entangled us in silver rails.
A host of exiles cast into Sybir
For a grave sin that was not committed.
No need for tears! No need for words of grievances,
Because each complaint will grate on the ear. . .
Oh my fellow Poles! People without a Homeland!
The night shall pass, and after it dawn will come!

DO BRACI/Anna Rudawcowa (Sybir 1941)

Zły los rzucił nas w stepy Kazachstanu
Zły los nas wygnał na tułaczkę w świat,
Gdzie każde serce jest otwartą raną,
Gdzie każda chwila jest szeregiem lat.
Upiorny pociąg wiózł nas poprzez rzeki
I przez Uralskich gór zębaty pas,
Ojczyzny uśmiech- smutny i daleki
Bladł coraz bardziej, wreszcie zgasł.
Złapało życie w swe żelazne tryby,
W stalowe koła, sploty srebrnych szyn.
Wygnańców tłum, rzuconych tu na Sybir
Za ciężki grzech nie popełnionych win.
Nie trzeba łez! Nie trzeba slów ni wyznań,
Bo każda skarga zabrzmi tu jak zgrzyt. . .
O bracia moi! Ludzie bez Ojczyzny!
Przeminie noc, a po niej przyjdzie świt!

LONELY GRAVE/Zofia Metelicka

In far off Siberia there is a lonely grave
Flower blossoms lean over it
While the rustling of the steppe’s tall grasses
Brings the quiet sound of grief with the wind.

To look for a cross or a name would be in vain
Nobody remembers whose grave this is
Many years ago flowers were placed there
And a memory lived in minds and hearts.

Those who preserved the memory in their hearts
Have returned to their distant Homeland
But their happiness was not complete, for a part
Of their souls they left behind upon the steppe.

Every year always on that same November Day
When votive candles are lighted in cemeteries
In their thoughts and hearts they’ll be there at the grave
Even though the clock of time has obscured its image.

On a sunny summer day perhaps someone young
Will stop and place a small flower there
And in reflection send a sigh to God while whispering
A prayer in the wind’s hushed sound.

SAMOTNA MOGIŁA/Zofia Metelicka

W dalekiej Syberii samotna mogiła
Nad nią się chylą kwiatów kielichy
A szum wysokiej trawy stepowej
Niesie wraz z wiatrem żalu głos cichy.

Na próżno by szukać krzyża lub imenia
Nikt nie pamięta czyja to mogiła
Przed wielu latami składano tu kwiaty
I pamięć w sercach i umysłach żyła.

Ci co tę pamięć w sercach zachowali
Do swojej dalekiej Ojczyzny wrócili
Lecz niezupełnie byli szczęśliwi
Bo cząstkę swej duszy w stepie zostawili.

Zawsze co roku w dzień listopadowy
Kiedy zapłoną na cmentarzach znicze
Myślą i sercem będą tam przy grobie
Choć zegar czasu przesłonił oblicze.

Być może ktoś młody w letni dzień słoneczny
Przystanie i kwiatek położy w zadumie
A potem do Boga pośle westchnienie
Szepcząc modlitwę w cichym wiatru szumie.

APRIL 13/Anna Rudawcowa

On the night of April 13...The world collapsed
And a new completely different horrible world was born
When in darkness a brutal paw outstretched
Destroyed our nest – our family home.

A knock on the door... Clenched and cunning,
Importunate hands yank the doorknob…
A flash of consciousness: this is the end, the end!
A quiet prayer “Defend us, O Mother of God.”

Thud of heavy boots... A flashlight flickers
In the window and then goes away...
In their little beds the awakened children cry,
And their hearts pound, pound, like hammers.

This child’s eyes insane with fear − pale trembling lips, frantic!
A shout in Russian from the other side of the door:
“Open up! This is the Soviet government.”
And the thought: all’s lost…no use trying...we’re done for…!

Now they’re inside the apartment − smiling, polite,
But something lurks in the depths of their eyes
And the heart senses danger −
The intended blow will fall any second.

13 KWIECIEŃ/Anna Rudawcowa

Noc trzynastego kwietnia…Świat się zapadł
I powstał nowy, straszny, całkiem inny
Gdy wyciągnięta w mroku chamska łapa
Zburzyła gniazdo nasze – dom rodzinny.

Stukanie do drzwi…Natarczywe dłonie
Za klamkę szarpią chytre i spreżone…
Blask świadomości: to już koniec, koniec!
Modlitwa cicha “Pod Twoją Obronę.”

Łomot buciorów ciezkich …W okno świeci
Błyskiem latarki i odchodzi potem…
W łóżeczkach płaczą obudzone dzieci,
A serca biją, biją im jak młotem.

Te obłąkane strachem oczy dziecka,
Usteczka drżące, nieprzytomne, blade!
Za drzwiami okrzyk: ”Atkroj! Zdieś właść sowiecka!”
I myśl: skończone…trudno…nie ma rady!

Już są w mieszkaniu – uśmiechnięci, grzeczni
I tylko w oczach czai się coś na dnie,
A serce czuje, że jest niebezpiecznie –
Cios wymierzony lada chwila spadnie.


Dr. Halina Ablamowicz is Professor of Speech Communication at Tennessee Tech University where she teaches courses in public speaking, persuasion, semiotics, intercultural and interpersonal communication. Her book Polish Poetry from the Soviet Gulags: Recovering a Lost Literature, published in 2008 by Edwin Mellon Press (USA), focuses on the horrific experiences of the Sybiracy -- the nearly two million innocent Poles who were deported by Stalin to Soviet gulags between 1940 and 1941. This book contains twenty-five poems written by Polish deportees translated into English in collaboration with Kevin Christianson.

She and Dr. Christianson collaborated on several other Polish -to-English translation projects including a bilingual edition of Andrzej Bursa’s poems-- Wybór Wierszy / Selected Poems published in 2008 by Art-Park (Poland). Their translated poetry have appeared in New Letters, The Formalist, The Minnesota Review, Damn the Caesars, The Sarmatian Review, New American Writing, Guernica, The Bitter Oleander, Home Planet News, Passport, Poetry International, The Ohio Review, Stand, and The London Magazine.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Valentine's Day: Why My Mom Stayed with My Dad

My parents met in a concentration camp in Germany toward the end of World War II.

My mom had been brought to Germany by the Nazis to work in a slave labor camp. The day she was captured she saw her mom and her sister and her sister's baby killed by German soldiers. My mom was crying so much when she got to the camp that one of the guards said if she didn't stop crying they would shoot her.

Near the end of the war, my dad and some other slave laborers were brought to my mom's camp by German guards who were escaping the Russians. The Germans left him there and fled toward the American lines. When my mom saw my dad, he was a scarecrow in rags. He weighed about 70 pounds and had only one eye. He had lost the other when a guard clubbed him for begging for food.

She was 23, he was 25. She had been a slave for 2 years, he had been one for 4.

They met in that camp, and after liberation they did what a lot of people did. First, they had something to eat, and then they got married.

It was a hell of a marriage. They fought and argued for the next 50 years -- even on Sunday mornings -- and even on Christmas Day.

It got so bad at times that -- after we came to America -- my sister and I would plead with my parents to get a divorce.

They never did. When my dad died in 1997, they were still married. 52 years.

When I was about 57 or 58, I started wondering why they didn't get a divorce, why they stayed together through all the misery they put each other through. The answer to that question became a poem in my book about them, Lightning and Ashes. The poem is called "Why My Mother Stayed with My Father."

Why My Mother Stayed with My Father

She knew he was worthless the first time
she saw him in the camps: his blind eye,
his small size, the way his clothes carried
the smell of the dead men who wore them before.

In America she learned he couldn’t fix a leak
or drive a nail straight. He knew nothing
about the world, the way the planets moved,
the tides. The moon was just a hole in the sky,

electricity a mystery as great as death.
The first time lightning shorted the fuses,
he fell to his knees and prayed to Blessed Mary
to bring back the miracle of light and lamps.

He was a drunk too. Some Fridays he drank
his check away as soon as he left work.
When she’d see him stagger, she’d knock him down
and kick him till he wept. He wouldn’t crawl away.

He was too embarrassed. Sober, he’d beg
in the bars on Division for food or rent
till even the drunks and bartenders
took pity on this dumb polack.

My father was like that, but he stayed
with her through her madness in the camps
when she searched among the dead for her sister,
and he stayed when it came back in America.

Maybe this was why my mother stayed.
She knew only a man worthless as mud,
worthless as a broken dog would suffer
with her through all of her sorrow.


If you want to read more about my parents, you can check out a couple of the blogs here that talk mostly about them. One is called DPs in the Polish Triangle about what my mom and dad were like when they got to America. The other is called The Wooden Trunk We Carried With Us From Germany.

Just click on the above titles, and it will take you right to them.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Waiting to Be Heard: Lilka Croydon-Trzcinska

In her book Waiting To Be Heard: The Polish Christian Experience Under Nazi and Stalinist Oppression 1939-1955, Bogusia Wojciechowska brings together the stories of many Poles who experienced Nazi and Stalinist brutality.

One of the most moving stories is that of Lilka Croydon-Trzcinska. She was still in high school when the Nazis invaded, and she and her sisters and brother joined the Polish Resistance. For her activities, the Nazis sent her first to Auschwitz and then to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. After the war, she wrote about her experiences in a book entitled The Labyrinth Of Dangerous Hours: A Memoir Of The Second World War (with a forward by historian Norman Davies).

Dr. Bogusia Wojciechowska has allowed me to post a video of part of her interview with Lilka Croydon-Trzcinska.


To read my earlier post on Waiting to Be Heard click here.