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.