Monday, April 28, 2014

Holocaust Remembrance Day

My father spent four years as a slave laborer in Nazi Germany, and my mother spent two and a half years there.  They were two of about 12 million people who were taken to Germany to do the work the Germans needed done while their own workforce was out trying to conquer Europe.

My parents weren't Jewish, but they knew people who were.  Poland was a country with a large Jewish population, and Jews had lived in Poland for almost a millenium.

Like I said, my parents knew Jewish people.  Two of my mom's aunts in fact married two Jewish fellows, twins.  The four of them died in Auschwitz.

Here's a poem I wrote about what my mom thought about the war and the things that happened.


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.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Simple Polish Soup

A Recipe for a Simple Polish Soup

When my mother was in her late 70s, she couldn't cook for herself any more.  Her heart and her back had both given out, and she couldn't stand for more than a minute or two.  When you can't stand, you can't cook. 
So she started having her meals brought in by a charitable organization in Sun City, Arizona, where she lived after my dad died.  This food wasn’t much to speak of even though it didn’t cost her more than a couple dollars a day: Salisbury Steaks, tuna salad sandwiches, little cups of salad, vanilla cup cakes--stuff like that, five days a week.  They would bring a white bag of this everyday just before noon, and it was expected to last her through lunch and dinner.  On the weekends she was on her own.  Sometimes, she would try to prepare something simple for herself, a bagel sandwich with cheese or a bowl of cereal.  She didn’t like to impose on people, but sometimes she would ask a friend to bring her some chicken from KFC or a piece of cooked ham from the deli section at the Safeway Supermarket down the street.  She would microwave this food Saturday and Sunday.   Monday, she would wait for the guy from Meals on Wheels to bring her another bag of ham or egg or tuna salad sandwiches. 
 It was like this for about four years. 
 She didn't complain much.  My mom had spent two and a half years in a German concentration camp and that kind of punishment teaches you something about complaining.  But she did complain about one thing when it came to those meals: the tuna salad.  She had a gallbladder problem and the onions in the tuna salad were hard on her gall bladder.  She would try to pick the tiny shards of onion out of the tuna salad, but this got harder and harder as her eye sight gave out.  (When she finally died, it was after a gall bladder operation.  She survived the operation, but she had a stroke afterward that shut down her whole body.  But that's another story.)
 When I would come to visit her four or five times a year, she was always happy to see me because she could invariably talk me into cooking for her.  This was no small feat.  I hate to cook, and I hated to work around my mother.  Like I mentioned, my mother had spent two and a half years in a Nazi concentration camp, and she used to joke that what she knew about discipline she learned from the Nazi guards in the camps.  She expected you to follow orders, and she expected you to do it right the first time.  There was no screwing up allowed around her.  If you did, she would freeze you out, turn her sarcasm against you.  Call you a baby or a fool.  Tell you that even though you were a college professor, you still couldn’t boil a stinking egg! 
 Like I said, I hated to work with and around her, but I cooked for her when I came down to visit.  What choice did I have?
My mom knew I was a fool with my hands, that I couldn't make the things she really wanted to eat, those Polish staples that she grew up with in the old country like pierogi (dumplings stuffed with cabbage) or golumpky (cabbage leaves wrapped around meat and rice), but she also knew that she could talk me through some simple dishes.   Navy Bean Soup was the one she had me make most often.  Not even a fool could ruin it.
We would start making the soup the night before by putting the beans in a pot full of a couple quarts of water.  This would have to soak overnight.  The first time she had me make it I asked her why I just couldn’t follow the directions on the package, and let the beans soak under boiling water for a couple hours on the day we were going to make the soup.  She just looked at me and shook her head.
Then the next day, the day we were actually going to make the soup, we would start early in the morning, so that the soup would be ready for lunch.
I would chop up about four good-sized onions.  They had to be chopped really fine because of my mother’s gallbladder problem.  As I would chop, she would watch from her wheel chair.  Some times she would think a chunk I chopped was too big, and she would point it out. 
“There, that one!” she would say.  “Are you trying to kill me?”  And I would chop it some more with this old, skinny-bladed knife that she had been honing for 30 years until it was just a honed wire stuck in a dirty yellow plastic handle. 
Then I’d fry up the onions in about four tablespoons of butter.  I’d fry them until they were caramelized, a sort of hot brown jelly with an oniony smell.  This would take about an hour.  Meanwhile, I would be chopping up everything else, a half pound of carrots, two or three pounds of any kind of potato, 3-4 stalks of celery.  It didn’t matter how I chopped those up.  My mother’s stomach had no trouble with them.  It was just the onions that were a problem.  So I chopped everything else pretty rough.  Personally, I like big chunks of stuff in my soup.
I would take these chopped vegetables and add them to the frying onions and cook and stir all of that for about ten minutes on a low flame.  Next, I would add the beans and the water they were in, along with too much pepper and salt.  Salt and pepper were the only spices my mom ever used, but she liked them in abundance. 
At this point my mother would stop watching me.  She would figure that there was no kind of damage I could do to the soup, so she would wheel her wheelchair out of the kitchen and into the living room where she would turn on the TV, The Oprah Winfrey Show or the Noon News or anything else except soap operas.  She hated soap operas, all that talk and people who were worried about stupid things.
I’d cook the soup for about an hour, maybe longer, and then I would carry a really large blue bowl of that hot navy bean soup to her and place it on her TV tray.  She always said that she liked to eat like an American, on a TV tray.  So while I was finishing up in the kitchen, she would drag the TV tray up to her wheelchair, and she would ask me to put the soup right there.
I would and as soon as I did she would start crumbling saltine crackers into the soup.  They were the final touch.
We would eat this soup just about twice every day I was visiting, lunch and dinner.  If we ran out, I would make some more.  It was better than the stuff my mom got from Meals on Wheels. 
She never said that, of course.  My mom wasn’t the kind of person to hand out compliments.  I guess that was something else the Nazi guards taught her in the concentration camps, but I knew she liked that soup because of the way she ate it.  She never complained about anything while she was eating, not about the onions or her gallbladder or the spices. 
The only thing I heard from her as she spooned the soup was an occasion whispered “mmm.” 

It was thanks enough.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Easter Poem: What My Father Believed

My father wasn't an educated man.  He was born on a small farm in Poland and never attended school.  He didn't know much about stuff most of us take for granted.  One of the things he didn't know much about was religion.  You couldn't talk to him about things like Moses or the Garden of Eden or the Holy Trinity, even though he was born a Catholic.

But he had a strong faith, and there were things that he believed with a certainty as sure as the turning of the earth.   This is a poem about that.

What My Father Believed 

He didn’t know about the Rock of Ages
or bringing in the sheaves or Jacob’s ladder
or gathering at the beautiful river
that flows beneath the throne of God.
He’d never heard of the Baltimore Catechism
either, and didn’t know the purpose of life
was to love and honor and serve God.

He‘d been to the village church as a boy
in Poland, and knew he was Catholic
because his mother and father were buried
in a cemetery under wooden crosses.
His sister Catherine was buried there too.

The day their mother died Catherine took
to the kitchen corner where the stove sat,
and cried.  She wouldn’t eat or drink, just cried
until she died there, died of a broken heart.
She was three or four years old, he was five.

What he knew about the nature of God
and religion came from the sermons
the priests told at mass, and this got mixed up
with his own life.  He knew living was hard,
and that even children are meant to suffer. 
Sometimes, when he was drinking he’d ask,
“Didn’t God send his own son here to suffer?”

He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other.  If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won’t save him.


Garrison Keillor read this poem on his program the Writer's Almanac.  Click here to hear him read it.  

The illustration at the top of the page is by the artist Voytek Luka from my book Third Winter of War: Buchenwald. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Story about Dying

When my father was dying, his dying was awfully hard.  He had liver cancer, and in the hospital they gave him morphine to ease the pain, but the morphine did just the opposite.  It brought back memories of the war and his years as a slave laborer in the Buchenwald concentration camp. 

We sat in the hospital room with him trying to comfort him, but he thought we were German guards come to drag him to the ovens.  Dying, he became so frightened that he tried to crawl out of his bed.  Finally, two nurses had to strap him in to the bed.

My mother sat next to him then holding his hand, whispering “Janek, Janek,” the name his mother called him, but he still struggled, wept, tried to loosen the straps around his hands and feet.

In the corridor, there was some noise, and my mother looked up.  Four nurses stood there talking. One of them smiled and then laughed, and the others started laughing too.

My mother looked at me, nodded slowly, and said, “Half of us are going to the grave, and the other half are going to a wedding.”