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.


Unknown said...
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Kathleen said...

Thank you for this, and for your poem, which I remember.

Urkat said...

My generation grew up in the shadow of the holocaust. It is probably the single worst fact of which I'm aware, along with Hiroshima. I think it's important to remember that the holocaust didn't happen to a race of people, it happened to many, many individuals who, like you, could scarcely comprehend why.

Linda C. Wisniewski said...

Thank you, John. I will be a tourist at Auschwitz this coming July, and I am a little afraid of the negative energy I believe is there. Not sure if I'll be able to get off the bus. It's impossible to comprehend what happened there.

Christina said...

Hi John,

I wanted to let you know that Youtube has some wonderful documentaries about Primo Levi.You may already be aware of these... I have watched several recently and one, in particular, in which Levi returns to Auschwitz is facinating. There is only one part of this posted...about 7 minutes of footage while Levi and companion travel by train back through Poland. I thought it might interest you because Levi discusses the Polish language and the various dialects affected him and even the smells of Poland-how they have come to represent, for him, the lager.
He also mentions how he and others felt when they would see the occassional bus go by with advertisments pasted on the side. I thought that this image alone, has implications for a poet.

The other documentaries available are well worth watching too. They include many survivors who are mentioned in Levi's books.

Warmest regards,

John Guzlowski said...

Christina, thank you so much. I will look at the youtubes as soon as I finish grading my Literary Masterpieces papers.

By the way, have you read Isaac Singer's great novel about survivors, Enemies: A Love Story. The film is also good

kanchan said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the post and the poem.
You mentioned Enemies: A Love Story movie. I am unable to find it. Can you please help me find.

- Thanks & regards,
Kanchan Dhankani

John Guzlowski said...

Kanchan, the film is available at Amazon apparently. Here's a preview available at youtube: