Monday, November 19, 2012

Landscape with Dead Horses, Sept. 1939





73 years ago on September 1. 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. Their blitzkrieg, their lightning war, came from the air and the sea and the sky. By Sept 28, Warsaw, the capital city of Poland, gave up. By October 7, the last Polish resistance inside Poland ended.  In the six years that followed, more than five million Poles died.

A couple years ago, I received an email from a friend passing on some links to US Army films of the invasion of Poland that were compiled from captured German films. I thought I would share these films of what the Blitzkrieg was like. They are in 3 parts (each about six minutes); and if you click on the part you want to see, you will be taken to the appropriate site.



Invasion of Poland, Part I



Invasion of Poland, Part II



Invasion of Poland, Part III

The world had not seen anything like it, and it was the prelude to a lot of things the world had never seen before: the Final Solution, Total War, the concentration camps, the atomic bomb, the fire bombing of civilian populations, and brutality on a level that most people still don't want to think about almost 70 years later.

When the Germans attacked on that September 1, My dad was 19 and working on his uncle's farm with his brother Roman. Their parents had died when the boys were young, and their uncle and aunt took them in and taught them how to farm, how to prepare the soil in the fall and plant the seeds in the spring. My mom was 17 and living with her parents and her sisters and brothers in a forest west of Lvov in eastern Poland.

The summer had been hot and dry, and both of my parents, like so many other Poles, were looking forward to the fall and the beginning of milder weather.

The war turned my parents' lives upside down. Nothing they planned or anticipated could have prepared them for what happened.

By the end of the war, they were both slave laborers in Nazi Germany, their homes destroyed, their families dead or scattered, their country taken over by the Soviet Union.




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

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.
________________________________________________

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

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Visiting a Class


My friend Barry Koplan invited me to speak to his class about my parents and their experiences in World War II.  Afterward, he wrote the following description of my visit and posted it at his blog The Poetscry:

Holocaust poetry, living memories         “There’s a book, just published, of interviews with former Nazi soldiers,” said Dr. John Guzlowski, our guest speaker. John mentioned that the soldiers had been asked why they were willing to kill indiscriminately, why they followed brutal commands. Although I wanted to read the book, I wasn’t sure I would believe a single word in it.

What I did trust was John’s poetry about what his parents had endured as Polish Catholic prisoners in Nazi German work camps. “My Dad weighed seventy-five pounds when he was liberated. Do any of you remember when you weighed only that much?” he asked my class.

So softly spoken, John caused all of us to feel personally involved with the tragic experiences his parents had survived. Too many of his parents’ closest relatives and friends had been smashed or raped or viciously murdered while his parents were present. John’s father had lost the sight of an eye to the butt of a Nazi’s gun. As John read poems from his painfully brilliant collection, Lightning and Ashes, a mournful but appreciative pallor touched all of us.

Remarks about why the Holocaust atrocities happened were followed by details about the horrors survivors could not escape. “My Dad had such nightmares. He would scream in his sleep. On his death bed, he shouted fearfully; he thought Nazi doctors were in his room.”

Each poem was picture perfect and was absolutely heartbreaking. Every story John told reminded us that the Nazis had placed no value on their human conscripts. “Estimates are that 12,000,000 to 20,000,000 people, from Europe to Africa, had been captured. My Dad,” John said quietly, “saw his first black person, a fellow prisoner in the camps.” No one had escaped the reach of the Nazi collectors.

“The prisoners lived on less than 600 calories a day, yet they worked hard labor twelve to fourteen hours each day.” Such gruesome facts were followed by a story about John’s mother who was forced to harvest beets from frozen ground. “With her hands,” he told us, “and with no warm clothes.” She may not have had shoes.

For years, his mother wouldn’t talk about what had happened to her to John or his sister. “We were normal kids in a crazy house. It was just like the others in our neighborhood. Most who lived there were Polish Holocaust survivors.” He said that his father came home drunk “three or four times a week.” Not until years later, when he finally received help from a psychologist, was his father able to stop drinking.

“Dad never hesitated to talk about what happened. Mom kept quiet until Dad died. Then she told me to write down her stories. Even so, some of the worst, she never revealed.”

John read another poem about his dilemma about what he should or shouldn’t tell his children. “When I was a child, I know that my mother and Dad had different answers. Our house was insane. My sister married at eighteen to get away. She never wanted to hear the tragic stories. I wrote a poem about her, a poem she told me never to publish. She didn’t want to read it. I didn’t put it in my first collection, but I added it to my second one. And I sent her a copy.”

“How did she respond?” I asked. Everyone in the room was eager to hear John’s answer.

“She didn’t,” he said.

“What about your daughter?” I asked John. She teaches English at our public high school. “How does she feel about your poetry and your readings?”

He paused, then answered in a way that made us think she kept a safe distance from that part of John’s past.

I watched John, a man I’d known for years, as he tried to answer that query. That’s when I wondered about the impact of the Holocaust on third and fourth generation family members.

“Would your daughter speak to us?” I asked, gesturing to my students.

All eyes turned to John. “She might, if I’m not here,” he said. “I’ll ask her.”

I checked the time. To my surprise, more than two hours had passed. I dismissed my class, although many lingered. One student, a young Polish immigrant, spoke privately with John. Admittedly, I was curious about their conversation.

And I wondered whether John would be curious about what his daughter might tell our class about being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. “Do you want to meet her?” I directed that question to my students.

They responded with an instant, “Yes!”

Later in the day, John’s daughter e-mailed me that she would visit us. Both she and I understood that her father wouldn’t appear with her. We agreed with John on that condition.

My students left the room; they seemed subdued. I sensed that many of them were trying to imagine what Friday’s class would bring.

So was I.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

All Souls' Day


When I was a child growing up in Chicago, All Souls Day wasn't a big deal. But in Poland it was.  At least that's what my parents said.  They 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.

A piece by Anna Maria Mickiewicz about an observance in England is available here.

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

Saturday, September 1, 2012

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




73 years ago on September 1. 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. Their blitzkrieg, their lightning war, came from the air and the sea and the sky. By Sept 28, Warsaw, the capital city of Poland, gave up. By October 7, the last Polish resistance inside Poland ended.  In the six years that followed, more than five million Poles died.

A couple years ago, I received an email from a friend passing on some links to US Army films of the invasion of Poland that were compiled from captured German films. I thought I would share these films of what the Blitzkrieg was like. They are in 3 parts (each about six minutes); and if you click on the part you want to see, you will be taken to the appropriate site.



Invasion of Poland, Part I



Invasion of Poland, Part II



Invasion of Poland, Part III

The world had not seen anything like it, and it was the prelude to a lot of things the world had never seen before: the Final Solution, Total War, the concentration camps, the atomic bomb, the fire bombing of civilian populations, and brutality on a level that most people still don't want to think about almost 70 years later.

When the Germans attacked on that September 1, My dad was 19 and working on his uncle's farm with his brother Roman. Their parents had died when the boys were young, and their uncle and aunt took them in and taught them how to farm, how to prepare the soil in the fall and plant the seeds in the spring. My mom was 17 and living with her parents and her sisters and brothers in a forest west of Lvov in eastern Poland.

The summer had been hot and dry, and both of my parents, like so many other Poles, were looking forward to the fall and the beginning of milder weather.

The war turned my parents' lives upside down. Nothing they planned or anticipated could have prepared them for what happened.

By the end of the war, they were both slave laborers in Nazi Germany, their homes destroyed, their families dead or scattered, their country taken over by the Soviet Union.




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

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.
________________________________________________

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

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Remembering D-Day: June 6, 1944


Today, June 6, is the anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe.  It's a day that means a lot to me.  My parents were two of the millions of people who were swept up by the Nazis and taken to Germany to be slave laborers.  My mom  spent more than two years in forced labor camps, and my day spent four years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  Like almost every other Pole living in Europe at that time, they both lost family in the war.  My mom's mom, sister and infant niece were killed when the Germans came to her village.  After the war both my parents lived in refugee camps for six years before they were allowed to come to the US.  My sister and I were born in those refugee camps.  June 6, 1944 was the day that long process of liberation for all of us began.

I've written a lot about my parents and their experiences, and here are two poems from my book Lightning and Ashes about those experiences.  The first poem is about what the war taught my mother; the second is about the spring day the Americans liberated my dad and the camps he was in:



What the War Taught Her


My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.

She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.

She learned that only the young survive
The camps.  The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.

She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.

She learned that you don't pray
Your enemies will not torment you. 
You only pray that they will not kill you.


In the Spring the War Ended

For a long time the war was not in the camps.
My father worked in the fields and listened
to the wind moving the grain, or a guard
shouting a command far off, or a man dying.

But in the fall, my father heard the rumbling
whisper of American planes, so high, like
angels, cutting through the sky, a thunder
even God in Heaven would have to listen to.

At last, one day he knew the war was there.
In the door of the barracks stood a soldier,
an American, short like a boy and frightened,
and my father marveled at the miracle of his youth

and took his hands and embraced him and told him
he loved him and his mother and father,
and he would pray for all his children
and even forgive him the sin of taking so long.

_______________________________

Here's a link to a presentation I gave at St. Francis College about my parents and their experiences in World War II: Just click here.

My daughter Lillian sent me the following link to color photos from before and after D-Day from Life Magazine. The photos are amazing, and a large part of that amazement comes from the color. The color gives me a shock, a good one--it takes away the distance, makes the photos and the people and places in them immediate in a profound way.

Here's the link: Life.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Holocaust Remembrance Day 2012

Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) begins in the evening of Wednesday, April 18, 2012, and ends in the evening of Thursday, April 19, 2012

I wrote the following blog a couple of years ago to commemorate 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.




Friday, April 13, 2012

67th Anniversary of the Liberation of Buchenwald


April 11 was the 67th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

My dad spent four and a half years there.  He was a farm kid living in Poland when he was captured by the Germans.  In the camp my father learned a lot of things, but one lesson stayed with him always.  As he used to say, “There is only work and death.” 

When he was liberated in the spring of 1945, he was dressed in rags, weighed about 75 pounds, and  only had one eye.  He had lost the other when a guard repeatedly clubbed him for complaining about the food.  

Here’s a poem I wrote about the day my father was liberated by the Americans.  It comes from Lightning and Ashes, my book about the experiences of both my parents in the German slave labor and concentration camps.

In the Spring the War Ended

For a long time the war was not in the camps.
My father worked in the fields and listened
to the wind moving the grain, or a guard
shouting a command far off, or a man dying.

But in the fall, my father heard the rumbling
whisper of American planes, so high, like
angels, cutting through the sky, a thunder
even God in Heaven would have to listen to.

At last, one spring day he knew the war was there.
In the door of the barracks stood a soldier,
an American, short like a boy and frightened,
and my father marveled at the miracle of his youth

and took his hands and embraced him and told him
he loved him and his mother and father,
and he would pray for all his children
and even forgive him the sin of taking so long.

____________________

My wife's Uncle Buddy Calendrillo was with Gen. Patton's army when they liberated the camps.  I've written about him and what liberating the camps meant to him.  You can read that post by clicking here.

The photo above was taken by Margaret Bourke-White, an American photographer who was one of the first reporters in the camps. She wrote a great book about her experiences called Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly: A Report on the Collapse of Hitler's Thousand Years.



Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Talking about Home at the AWP 2012

One of the things that immigrant poets are always writing about is home.  We write about the homes we left behind, imagine what they were like back then and dream about what they're like now.  You see this in all the writers who left their home countries to come to America.  


This March 1 at 430 pm, I'll be talking about this idea of home at a panel with some other immigrant poets.  The occassion is the AWP conference in Chicago. 


The title of the panel is What is Home: The Poetics of Negotiating the Old, Reimagined and the New, Adopted Homeland, and I'll be there with poets Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Raza Ali Hasan, Malena Morling, and Ilya Kaminsky


The session will be held in the State Ballroom at the Palmer House Hilton, 4th floor. If you're at the conference please stop by.  


By the way, here's the official description of the panel:  What is Home: The Poetics of Negotiating the Old, Reimagined and the New, Adopted Homeland


Political conflicts and wars often inspire immigrant poets to produce works rooted in two worlds: the old and the new, adopted homeland. The displaced poet arrives in America from Europe, Africa, or elsewhere, stuck in their old world, often with nostalgic, painful memories, looking for home on the new landscape. Is the new literature American, European, African, or just world literature? Our diverse panel will explore the poetics of negotiating the delicate spaces of home in our poetry.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Valentine's Day: A World War II Love Story


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. Another is called The Wooden Trunk We Carried With Us From Germany. There's also The Day My Mother Died.  

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



Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Day My Mother Died



My mother died six years ago, January 27, 2006. She died in a hospice in Sun City, Arizona. It was a beautiful place, out in the desert, cactus and sage and rocks and reddish sand all around. She would have liked it. Before she got too sick, she used to like sitting outside and enjoying the little bit of desert that she had in her own back yard.

She had come a long way to die.

She was born in a forest outside a small village west of Lvov, Poland in 1922. She loved that forest and probably would have stayed there her whole life except for the Germans. They came to her house and killed her mother and her sister and her sister's baby. My mother fled into the woods, but the soldiers caught her and put her on a train that took her to a slave labor camp in Germany. Once I asked my mother to tell me what happened on that train. She said that even though I was a grown man and a professor, she saw things she couldn't tell me about.

For a long time, she also wouldn't tell me much about the slave labor camps in Germany. She would wave her hand at me and just say, "If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run away." When she did start telling me about the things that happened in the camp, some times I had to ask her not to tell me.

At the end of the war, my mother met my father, another Pole who had been in the slave labor camps. 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 married and waited in the refugee camps in Germany until someone in America would agree to sponsor them so that they could come here. They waited for 6 years. During that time, they had two kids, my sister Danusha and me.

In June of 1951, we came to America. For a while my mom and dad worked on a farm to pay off their passage here. Then, we moved to Chicago, and my mom worked in a factory.

The way I remember it my Mom was always working, working in one factory or another and working around the houses she and my Dad bought. She would plaster walls, paint, sand floors, and varnish them too. There was no work that she wouldn't do.

When my parents retired, they finally moved out to Sun City, Arizona, a long way from the village in Poland my mom grew up in. After he died out there in 1997, she lived there alone, taking care of her house and the garden, making friends and thinking about her grandchildren.

I've written a lot of poems about her over the years, and since the day she died, I've been trying to write a poem about her dying. Let me tell you, it's not coming. I've got pages of notes and half starts for the poem, but for some reason none of the words and lines say what I want them to say about my mom and how I feel about her and how her death touched me. Maybe I'll be able to write the poem someday, but I can't do it right now.

So I want to end this with two of my favorite poems about my mom from my book Lightning and Ashes. The first one is called "What the War Taught Her," and the second is called "My Mother's Optimism."


What the War Taught Her


My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.

She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.

She learned that only the young survive
The camps. The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.

She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.

She learned that you don't pray
Your enemies will not torment you.
You only pray that they will not kill you.



My Mother's Optimism


When she was seventy-eight years old
And the angel of death called to her
and told her the vaginal bleeding
that had been starting and stopping
like a crazy menopausal period
was ovarian cancer, she said to him,
“Listen Doctor, I don’t have to tell you
your job. If it’s cancer it’s cancer.
If you got to cut it out, you got to.”

After surgery, in the convalescent home
Among the old men crying for their mothers,
And the silent roommates waiting for death
she called me over to see her wound,
stapled and stitched, fourteen raw inches
from below her breasts to below her navel.
And when I said, “Mom, I don’t want to see it,”
She said, “Johnny, don't be such a baby.”

Six months later, at the end of her chemo,
my mother knows why the old men cry.
A few wiry strands of hair on head,
Her hands so weak she couldn’t hold a cup,
Her legs swollen and blotched with blue lesions,
She says, “I’ll get better. After his chemo,
Pauline’s second husband had ten more years.
He was playing golf and breaking down doors
When he died of a heart attack at ninety.”

Then my mom’s eyes lock on mine, and she says,
“You know, optimism is a crazy man’s mother.”

And she laughs.



______________________________

The first photo is my mom, my sister, and me in Riverview Amusement Park in Chicago, around 1957.

The second photo is of my mom and my daughter Lillian, around 1982.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Photographs by German Soldiers


Recently, I came across a site that features thousands of photographs taken by German Soldiers as they invaded Poland and spread across the country.  The site is called Bagnowka.   You can click here to enter it.  

The photos are mundane and touching, directed and random, unexpected and expected.  There are no captions, no explanations, so that I find myself wondering about them, about who took them and what happened to the person who took them and what happened to the people who appear in the photos.  Finally,  I realized I'll never know, and I just kept looking through the photos.

What I do know, however, is that the photos show me something of what life was like for the German invaders and the Poles who suffered the invasion.

You can look at the photos individually, and they are arranged in fourteen different groups: Sept. 1939, Children of War, Life in Wartime, Warsaw and other towns, Holocaust, Expulsion, Damages, Russia, War Prisoners, War Victims, Horses, Communism, Collaboration, and War Cemeteries.

Also, a number of  the photos have been gathered together as youtube videos under themes or topics accompanied by music.  Here's one of them, called Butchers of Warsaw.