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.


Anonymous said...

A moving poem. As a teenager the poem that always made me cry was Auden's about September 1, 1939. My parents are both originally from Poland. As a teenager my father and his parents were deported to Siberia as slave laborers along with 1.5 million other Poles. He recently wrote a well-received memoir about that time: The Ice Road: An Epic Journey from the Stalinist Labor Camps to Freedom by Stefan Waydenfeld.

Alice Faintich

John Guzlowski said...

Thanks, for the note, Alice. And let me say that I strongly recommend your dad's memoir. It's a story that more people should now. My uncle -- like about a million other Poles -- was taken to Siberia by the Soviets. He never returned to Poland.

Stefan Wisniowski said...

Hi John

Thank you for this webpage and for all your special work in the historical cause of our Polish families.

Isagani R. Cruz said...

You're in my blog:

Monika said...


All of your Parents, Relatives and Loved Ones were remembered yesterday as school started in Poland (always on Sept.1 except for Sept. 1, 1939) and little kids prayed to have a good year at school and for the those who died and suffered during WWII. This is always a moving ceremony here in Poland. Not really any state celebrations but little school prayers in which ALL are remembered. So all of You were on our mind yesterday. Take care, Monika from Warsaw, Poland

Urkat said...

Of course John, that poem is as complete as you want it to be, but I have a sense that it might have continued for some time, drawing out the imagery of war, bringing home in some way the pain of what was lost. Great lines in here. We have no concept anymore of that kind of devastation, the pain they went through. Very moving and powerful. Thank you, thank you, thank you for always remembering and honoring what they went through.