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.