Thursday, June 4, 2015


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 15 million or so 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 dad 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 by the Germans when they came to her village.  Later, two of her aunts died with their husbands in Auschwitz.  

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 Echoes of Tattered Tongues about those experiences.  The first poem is about what the war taught my mother; the second is about the spring day in 1945 when the Americans liberated my dad and the camp 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.


The boy soldier in the liberation poem is in part modeled after Michael Calendrillo, my wife's uncle.  He was one of the first American soldiers to help liberate a camp.  His testimony about what he saw in the camps was filmed for a documentary called Nightmare's End: The Liberation of the Camps.  You can see a youtube of him talking about what he saw in that camp by clicking here.  

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.

Another Satisfied Reader of Suitcase Charlie

Author Sandra Kolankiewicz gasps at my novel Suitcase Charlie!

You can gasp along with her!  Suitcase Charlie is available at Amazon as a Kindle or a paperback. A sample chapter is also available at Amazon.

Sandra's latest book of poems is The Way You Will Go.  Also available at Amazon.

Here's the title poem from that book:

The Way You Will Go

It will not begin with your heart  
though your fingers may go numb.

One day you’ll know it’s time to trade 
that philosophical surf board for benefits.

You’ll reluctantly roll your dreams
into your pocket, where you can keep

your hand on them all week long, especially
when you need courage.  Soon you’ll begin

to meet other persons like you, forever
exchanging their right with their left, wearily

shifting one foot to the other in the grocery
store, the dentist’s waiting room, getting their

tires changed, similar strangers whose insides,
or the insides of their loved ones, have acquired

some strange price tag attached to a history
of autoimmune dysfunction, apoplectic

collapsing, perhaps facial tics accompanied by
obsessive nail picking.  From now on, experience

is reduced to the actuarial projection
of the genetic proclivities of thin skin

and fragile bone, like a Curt Explanation
of the obvious outcome of a clogged artery,

a Frank Dismissal of the vagaries of night
sweats and coated tongues, a Direct

Warning about the consequences of
diabetes just in the moment before the Extreme

Cancer Tale is recounted—the details of which
only the few ever appreciate or understand!—

as if sickness were a language one learns
only in its country of origin!—

all uninsurable, unlike the vase my dear auntie
mailed me right before she unexpectedly

gave way, an extra $1.40, the green and white
label she and the man in the uniform signed

together in some modest post office in the

Adirondacks, a cricket chirping in the corner.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Schuessler-Peterson Murders

My novel Suitcase Charlie begins with a Prologue, a statement from an Associated Press wire report from October 18, 1955.
The bodies of three boys were found nude and dumped in a ditch near Chicago today at 12:15 p.m.  They were Robert Peterson, 14, John Schuessler, 13, and brother Anton Schuessler, 11.
They had been beaten and their eyes taped shut.  The boys were last seen walking home from a downtown movie theater where they had gone to see “The African Lion.”
As I wrote in my recent essay “Suitcase Charlie and Me,” the murder of the Schuessler brothers and Bobby Peterson is at the heart of my novel Suitcase Charlie.  It’s what terrified me as a kid and haunted a lot of the other kids I grew up with.  Until we got older and went to high school and learned that fearing something isn’t cool, we feared stuff, and one of the fears we most felt was the fear of the person who killed John, Anton, and Bobby. 

There’s not a lot actually about their murders in Suitcase Charlie. The first murder in the novel is discovered about seven months after the Schuessler-Peterson murders.  So the detectives in my novel worry that it may be the same killer.  They talk about how the investigation of the Suitcase Charlie murders is or isn’t like the earlier investigation.  Also, people in the neighborhood of the killings wonder about a connection.  Like I said, there’s not a lot about the earlier murders in my novel.  My novel isn’t about them.
But I know some readers are interested in the Schuessler-Peterson case.  They’ve asked me about the novel’s Prologue, so I’m going to talk a little about the case that inspired my novel.
The day the boys disappeared, Sunday, October 16, 1955, they were seen in a number of places: some buildings downtown in the Loop and some bowling alleys near their home on Montrose Avenue.  The cops figured that after seeing the movie The African Lion the boys hung out downtown until about 6 pm, wandering around, seeing stuff, probably doing the kind of goofing around I talk about in my “Suitcase Charlie and Me” essay.  They were spotted on Montrose at a bowling alley around 7:45 pm.  One of the men working there said some older guy was talking to them, some guy who seemed friendly.  The boys left a little while later and started walking and hitching down Montrose Avenue toward home.

They were last seen alive about 3 miles away, getting into a car near the intersection of Lawrence and Milwaukee.  That was at 9:05 that night. 
Two days later, on Tuesday, October 18, their bodies were discovered outside the Chicago city limits, in a ditch in the Robinson Woods Forest Preserve, near the Des Plaines River. 
A liquor salesman was taking his lunch in a parking lot there that day.  When he looked up from his sandwich, he saw what he thought was a manikin.  It turned out to be the body of a young boy, naked with his eyes and mouth taped shut with adhesive tape.  Near him were two other naked bodies with eyes and mouths taped.  All three boys had died the same way, asphyxiation.

What followed was one of the most extensive investigations in the history of the Chicago Police Department.  Between the date the boys’ bodies were found and 1960 when the Chicago Tribune ran an article updating this cold case, more than 44,000 people with some kind of information about the murders were interviewed.  More than 3,500 suspects were questioned. 
None of it led to the discovery of the killer of the 3 boys.
However, what did follow were some additional murders, ones that seemed to share similarities with the Schuessler-Peterson case.
December 28, 1956, a little over a year after the Schuessler-Peterson murders, two young sisters, Barbara, 15, and Patricia 13, went to the Brighton Theater on Archer Avenue to see an Elvis Presley movie, Love me Tender. Four weeks later, on January 22, 1957, their naked bodies were found behind a guard rail on a country road in an unincorporated west of Chicago.  Their bodies like those of the Schuessler-Peterson boys had apparently been thrown out of a car.  Unlike the boys, the girls had not died of asphyxiation.  Their deaths were thought to have been caused by secondary shock due to exposure.   The investigation into the cause of their deaths led nowhere.

Over the years, a number of other murders in the area have been linked to the Schuessler-Peterson killings.  John Wayne Gacy, the notorious “Killer Clown” guilty of murdering at least 33 young boys, was suspected by Detective John Sarnowski, one of the detectives working the Schuessler-Peterson cold case, of possibly being involved with the murders of John, Anton, and Bobby.  Brach Candy Heir, Helen Brach was also linked with the Schuessler brothers and Bobby Peterson.  She disappeared in February 1977 and was declared legally dead in 1984.  One of the suspects in this case was a racketeer and stable owner Silas Jayne, a man also for a while a suspect in the deaths of the Grimes Sisters. 

So who killed the Schuessler boys and their friend Bobby Peterson?
The best guess is Kenneth Hansen. 
His name came up during a Federal investigation in the early 1990s of arson in horse racing stables around Chicago.  A number of the people being investigated told the Federal authorities that Hansen had repeatedly over the years spoken about his involvement with the killing of John, Anton, and Bobby.  Prosecutors at the trial proved that Hansen picked up the boys while they were hitching, abused two of them, and then killed all three when they threatened to tell their parents.  He was sentenced to 200-300 years for his crimes and died in prison in September 14, 2007.

For those people who like to re-work old crimes, there are a number of interesting facts here that should get them going:
  1. Hansen worked at Idle Hour Stables.  That’s where the killing of the three boys took place.
  2. Silas Jayne, who I mentioned earlier, was the owner of the Idle Hour Stables at the time. 
  3. Later he was a suspect in the Grimes Sisters’ murder.
  4. Hansen was also a suspect in the Helen Brach disappearance.
  5. Recently, a former head of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police has offered the theory that Hansen might have been involved in the disappearance or death of the Grimes Sisters. 
If you’re interested in finding out more about these murders, doing your own preliminary detective work, a good place to start is the Chicago Tribune’s extensive online archives.  They are free and easy to use and will keep your eyes going for a long time.  Just Google and put in your search phrase. 
Here are some of the archival articles I found especially important.  Just click on the titles.
The Trial of Kenneth Hansen.

The novel Suitcase Charlie is available from Amazon as a kindle and a paperback.  Just click HERE.
The first photo is by Vivian Maier, the great urban photographer.  The other photos are archival.