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


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.

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.