Wednesday, September 28, 2016

LA BOOK TOUR -- OCT 7-9, 2016

LA BOOK TOUR, Oct. 7-9 I'll be doing 6 book events in the LA area to talk about Echoes of Tattered Tongues, my prose and poetry memoir about my mom and dad and their experiences as Polish kids forced into slave labor by the Nazis during WWII. If you can, please stop by and say hello. Here's the flyer for the events. Feel free to share it with your friends.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A 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.


To read my other recipe piece please click here.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Today the Gypsies are Burning

My poem "Today the Gypsies are Burning" was recently featured as the poem of the day at Verse Daily.

The poem is about the burning of the gypsies in the German death camp Auschwitz.

Today the Gypsies are Burning

Their dying is something fierce,
like a blizzard wind, like wolves
startled into anger and rage
by the death of one of their own.

Their singing rises in the wind,
their red and orange scarves
and rainbow shawls swirling
in a maelstrom of gasoline flames.

Death cannot hold them.

They are pilgrims who need no God
to save them, no coin to buy them free,
no gray statue on the cusp of time.

The wind’s their mother, their home.


The poem appears in Echoes of Tattered Tongues, my book about my parents and their experiences as slave laborers in the German concentration camp system during WWII.

The Roma mother and her children pictured above died in Auschwitz.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

What My Father Ate

My father survived almost 5 years of slave labor in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

He worked 12-14 hours a day and 6 and 7 days a week, and lived on about 600 calories of food a day.

Once he complained that he was starving to a guard, and the guard clubbed him repeatedly across the face until my dad was permanently blind in one eye.

I once asked my dad how he could live on 600 calories a day.

The poem "What My Father Ate" grew out of his answer.

Here's the poem and a youtube of my reading it:


He ate what he couldn’t eat,
what his mother taught him not to:
brown grass, small chips of wood, the dirt
beneath his gray dark fingernails.

He ate the leaves off trees. He ate bark.
He ate the flies that tormented
the mules working in the fields.
He ate what would kill a man

in the normal course of his life:
leather buttons, cloth caps, anything
small enough to get into his mouth.
He ate roots. He ate newspaper.

In his slow clumsy hunger
he did what the birds did, picked
for oats or corn or any kind of seed
left in the dry dung left by the cows.

And when there was nothing to eat
he’d search the ground for pebbles
and they would loosen his saliva
and he would swallow that.

And the other men did the same.


The entire poem is available in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues.  Click here.

Friday, September 9, 2016

9/11 15 Years Later

One of the things that the past teaches us is that there is really no end to the past.

I saw this in my parents. For them World War II never ended -- even after liberation, even after forty, even after fifty years. The war and the camps my parents suffered in were always there. A snowy day in November would put my mom back in the frozen beet fields that the German guards forced her to work in that first winter in Germany. A TV show as harmless as Hogan's Heroes would leave my father shaking.

I've seen this in other survivors and veterans, and I'm sure you have too.

What the war taught them was that war has no beginning and no end.

It's the same for a lot of us with 9/11. We want it to have an end. We want what people call closure. We want to get beyond what happened.

We've been fighting the War on Terrorism for 15 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Islamic world is changing rapidly where ever we look, and we've killed Osama bin Laden. So why does 9/11 still feel like it happened yesterday? Why does a film clip of a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers stop us? Why does a voice recording of a stewardess on that plane talking to ground control about not being able to open the door to the cockpit bring us to tears?

We want an end, and we've wanted it for 15 years, and it hasn't happened, and it never will. That's one of the things that 9/11 has taught us.

I've written a number of poems about 9/11 over the years. The first one was written a couple days of 9/11. That poem talked about how I wanted an end to 9/11. It didn't happen then, and it hasn't happened since.

Here it is:

Sept 13, 2001

I want to come home
and turn on the evening news
and not see bin Laden,
his terrible lightning
piercing the sky
and showering clouds
of metal down on the streets

I want to say to my wife,
Linda, do you think
it will rain tomorrow?
If it doesn’t, maybe we can
plant those mums in the garden
to replace the verbena
that have been struggling
all summer with the heat,
the sun drying them
to brown slivers, nothing
red or green about them

And I want her to say,
if it rains let’s go to the bookstore
and have a cup of Starbucks
and read some travel books
and talk about where we’ll go
when Lillian comes home
during Christmas break

She’ll need something
to take her mind off
her first year of law school 


I've posted four other times about 9/11.

The first post was a letter I wrote shortly after 9/11. It's called "The Short View and the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks."  It deals mostly with how my wife's New York relatives, including Uncle Buddy, experienced 9/11.  
The second was an update to that post -- talking about what 9/11 looked like in 2007.

The next was about an anthology of poems on how we look at God since 9/11.

The 2012 post was about Joe Calendrillo, Uncle Buddy's son, telling about his experiences on 9/11.   If you were moved by the "Short View" post, read this post.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Labor Day

Labor Day

My parents were both hard workers.  They grew up on farms in Poland when much of the work was still done by hand.  

Then there were the years they spent in Germany as slave laborers.    In Buchenwald, the camp my dad spent almost 5 years in, whether you worked or not was never a choice.  As my dad used to say, there was only work or death.

We arrived in America in 1951, and we had to spend a year on a farm outside of Buffalo, NY, to pay off our passage to the states.  We all worked, even my sister Donna and I.  She was 5 at the time.  I was 3.

After a year we moved to Chicago because my dad said he wanted to work in a factory.  Farm work was too hard, he said.  He wanted some easy work for a change.

Within 3 years of moving to Chicago, my parents had saved enough money to buy a 5 unit apartment house on Chicago's near northwest side, near Humboldt Park.

How were they able to do this?

My dad worked double shifts in a factory, and my mom worked single shifts and took all the overtime she could.  She worked in a molding room with hot plastics dripping on her arms and hands.  50 years later she still had the scars from that work.

Here's a part of a poem I wrote about my dad looking for work in America.  The poem sort of talks about what my father knew about work when he first came here, sort of his resume.

What I say in the poem about my dad being a hard worker is also true of my mom.  You can bet on it.

From "Looking for Work in America"

What My Father Brought With Him

He knew death the way a blind man
knows his mother’s voice. He had walked
through villages in Poland and Germany

where only the old were left to search
for oats in the fields or beg the soldiers
for a cup of milk. He knew the dead,

the way they smelled and their dark full faces,
the clack of their teeth when they were desperate
to tell you of their lives. Once he watched

a woman in the moments before she died
take a stick and try to write her name
in the mud where she lay. He’d buried

children too, and he knew he could do any kind
of work a man could ask him to do.
He knew there was only work or death.

He could dig up beets and drag fallen trees
without bread or hope. The war taught him how.
He came to the States with this and his tools,

hands that had worked bricks and frozen mud
and knew the language the shit bosses spoke.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

77th Anniversary of the Start of World War II

Today is the 77th anniversay of the start of WWII.

The following essay appears in Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded, my book about my parents and their experiences in WWII and after the war:  

When you read about history in the history books, it’s all so clear.  The numbers make it seem that way.  Numbers, people say, don’t lie.  A thing begins on a certain date, and it ends on another particular date.  You see the beginning of a thing, and you see its end.  It all seems neat and clean, but it isn’t really.

The history books, for instance, tell us that World War II began on September 1, 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland from the west, and the same books tell us that the war in Europe ended almost six years later on V-E day, May 8, 1945.
My father Jan Guzlowski was not a student of history.  He never had any kind of formal education, never went to school, never could read much beyond what he could read out of a prayer book, but he knew history.  He had lived through history.  He was a teenager working on his uncle’s farm in Poland when the Nazis invaded and turned his whole world upside down.  I guess you can say he learned history from the ground up.  He was captured by the Nazis in a roundup in 1940 and sent to Germany.  Like a lot of other Poles, he spent the next five years at hard labor in concentration and slave labor camps there. 
But for him, the war didn’t end when his camp was liberated sometime at the end of March 1945, and it didn’t end on Victory-in-Europe Day, May 8, 1945, and it certainly didn’t end when my family finally came to the US as refugees, Displaced Persons, in June 1951.
The war was always with him and with my mother Tekla Guzlowski, a woman who spent two years in the slave labor camps in Germany and before that had seen the other women in her family raped and murdered by the Nazis.  The trauma of what she had seen never left here.  When I was growing up, I could see it in her eyes and the way she held herself together.  My parents carried with them the pain of war and its nightmares every day of their lives.  In 1997, 42 years after the war ended, when my father was dying in a hospice, there were times when he wsa sure the doctors and nurses trying to comfort him were the Nazi guards who beat him when he was a prisoner in the concentration camp.  There were also times when he couldn't recognize me and my mother and sister.  He looked at us and was frightened.  He thought we were there to torture him.
In 2005, toward the end of my mother's life, I told her that I was going to be giving a poetry reading and that I would be reading poems about her and my dad and their experiences in the war.  I asked if there was something she wanted me to say to the audience.  "Yes," she said, "Tell them we weren't the only ones."
My parents knew that the war had always been with them, teaching them the hard lessons, teaching them how to suffer grief and pain, how to be patient, how to live without hope or bread, how to survive what would kill a person in the normal course of life. 
The war taught them that war has no beginning and no end.