Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Polish Mushrooms


Polish Mushrooms
I remember my mom once opening a plastic bag with dried mushrooms that came all the way from Poland. She put them in a broth, and while it was heating she talked about how Polish mushrooms were like no other food on earth.
I was a kid, maybe 7 years old, and I expected them to taste like the greatest chocolate cake in the world.
You can imagine I was disappointed.
But when my mother finally poured the mushrooms and broth into our bowls, she smiled first and then she started to cry.
_____________
Years later, when she was in her 70s and I was in my 40s, she told me about what her home in Poland was like before the war, the woods around the house, and the things she loved about those woods.

I wrote a poem about it.

Like any poem, it doesn't capture the truth of what she remembers, but now that my mom is gone, it's all I have.

My Mother Before the War

She loved picking mushrooms in the spring
and even when she was little she could tell
the ones that were safe from the ones that weren’t.

She loved climbing the tall white birch trees
in the summer when her chores in the garden
and the kitchen were done. She loved to ride
her pet pig Caroline in the woods too
or sit with her and watch the leaves fall
in the autumn. She felt that Caroline
was smarter than her brothers Wladyu and Jan,
but not as smart as Genja, her sister
who was married and had a beautiful baby girl.

My mother also loved to sing.
There was a song about a chimney sweep
that she would sing over and over;
and when her father heard it, he sometimes
laughed and said, “Tekla, you’re going to grow up
to marry a chimney sweep, and your cheeks
will always be dusty from his dusty kisses.”
But she didn’t care if he teased her so.

She loved that song and another one,
about a deep well. She loved to sing
about the young girl who stood by the well
waiting for her lover, a young soldier,
to come back from the wars far away.

She had never had a boy friend, and her mom
said she was too young to think of boys,
but Tekla didn’t care. She loved the song
and imagined she was the girl waiting
for the soldier to come back from the war.

________
The poem is from my book about my parents, Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

My Mother and Her Neighbors



Tens of thousands of Poles in Eastern Poland were killed between 1943 and 1944 by Ukrainian Nationalists working with their German colleagues.  July 11 was the day of the worst killing, a day when the Nationalists attacked 100 or so villages.  That was seventy-four years ago.

My mother's family was killing during this period by her Ukrainian neighbors.  Her mother was murdered, her sister was raped and killed, her sister's baby kicked to death.  My mother, a girl of 19 at the time, was able to survive by breaking through a window and running into a forest to hide.  She was found a couple days later and taken to a slave labor camp in Germany.  She spent the next 2 years in those camps.

My mom and my dad went back to her village in 1988 to see if she could find the graves of her mom and sister and the sister's baby.  There were no graves.  The men who did the killing didn't take the time to dig graves and put up crosses or markers.

During that trip, my mom made it to her old house, the one where the killing took place.  She knocked on the door and when someone answered her knocking, she introduced herself and told them that she had lived in this house when she was a girl, before the killings.

The person who answered the door, a Ukrainian fellow about my mom's age, said that he had been living in the house all his life and he didn't know her and didn't know what she was talking about.

My mom left and never went back.

I haven't written a lot about my mom and her Ukrainian neighbors, but I have written two poems.

The first is called "My Mother was 19," and it's about the day the Nazis and her neighbors came to her house and did their killing.

The second poem is "My Mother's Neighbors." It's a poem of mine that has never been published.  It tells about what the killers did after they left my mom's house.

My Mother was 19

Soldiers from nowhere
came to my mom’s farm
killed her sister Genja’s baby
with their heels
shot her momma too

One time in the neck
then for kicks in the face
lots of times

They saw my mother
they didn’t care
she was a virgin
dressed in a blue dress
with tiny white flowers

They raped her
so she couldn’t stand up
couldn’t lie down
couldn’t talk

They broke her teeth
when they shoved
the blue dress
in her mouth

If they had a camera
they would’ve taken her picture
and sent it to her

That’s the kind they were

Let me tell you:
God doesn’t give
you any favors

He doesn’t say
now you’ve seen
this bad thing
and tomorrow you’ll see
this good thing
and when you see it
you’ll be smiling

That’s bullshit

_____________________

My Mother’s Neighbors

Their clothes are wet and cold with the blood
of the baby and the women they helped the Germans
kill in the barn.  But they won’t remember that.

They’ll only remember this walk home, the snow
falling fast around them, muting the clicking trees
and silencing the birds.  They will remember

their slow talk, the old men going on about
how the potatoes they gathered this year
could never match the weight of last year’s harvest

the young men trying to hide their joy 
by whispering about the village girls
and what they have seen beneath their dresses.

Later they will all be home.  Already their wives
And mothers watch for them at the windows,

Afraid the snow will catch them far from home.

___________________________________

I've posted a lot of blogs about my mom over the years.  This is a recent one about remembering her on the anniversary of her death: Remembering My Mom.

If you want to read more about the massacre, here is a wikipedia piece.

If you want to read more about my mom and dad, my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues is available from Amazon.  Just click here.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Dreams of Warsaw, 1939


The First Poem I Wrote about My Parents

I've been writing poems for about 37 years now.  I started when I was in grad school at Purdue working on my Ph.D.  It was a hot, humid August afternoon, and I was sitting at a desk thinking about Faulkner, trying to make sense of a line of imagery that seemed to thread through all of his novels.  I wasn't having any luck.

Out of nowhere, I had this sense of my parents and where they were and what they were doing.

It came as a shock this sense.  I hadn't  lived at home in almost a decade, seldom saw my parents, tried in fact not to think about them and their lives.  I didn't want to know about their worries, their memories of WWII and the slave labor camps and the mess those memories were making of their lives.   But suddenly there they were in my head, and for some reason I started writing about them.

I hadn't written a poem in at least a decade either, but there suddenly I was writing a poem.  And it wasn't the last.  This poem about my parents started me writing poems again, and I've never stopped.

Here's the poem:

Dreams of Poland, September l939

Too many fears
for a summer day
I regulate my thoughts
and my breathing
regard the humidity
and dream

Somewhere my parents
are still survivors
living unhurried lives
of unhurried memories:
the unclean sweep of a bayonet
through a young girl's breast,
a body drooping over a rail fence,
the charred lips of the captain of lancers
whispering and steaming
"Where are the horses
where are the horses?"

Death in Poland
like death nowhere else‑‑

cool, gray, breathless

__________________

The poem appears in Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

The illustration above is by the Polish artist Voytek Luka.  It was done as an illustration for my book Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Me and Whitman



Me and Whitman
Today is the anniversary of the first publication of Leaves of Grass back in 1855.
This book was my bible, my pal, my diary when I was in my late teens and early 20s.
I carried a copy with me wherever I went.  I would sneak it open in the classroom when the biology professor wasn't looking, and I would read it on the L trains as they criss-crossed the skies of Chicago.


And he never left me!
Here's a poem about me and Walt and that time and this time.
It appeared recently in the Beltway Poetry Quarterly.

AN OLD MAN LISTENING TO A YOUNG MAN
LISTENING TO WHITMAN

He spoke to me in the desert
Outside of Elko, Nevada,
Back forty-some years ago.
Maybe I was asleep
Or maybe I was dreaming.
I don’t remember now.
I was lying on the hard sand,
The billion names of God shining
Above me in the darkest sky.
I was alone there. Not even
A book of poems with me,
When Whitman whispered,
“Arise and sing naked
And dance naked
And visit your mother naked
“And be funny and tragic
and plugged in, and embrace
the silent and scream for them
“And look for me beneath
the concrete streets beneath
your shoeless feet in Chicago
“And ask somebody to dance
The bossa nova and hear him or her say
Sorry I left my carrots at home
“And be a mind-blistered astronaut
With nothing to say to the sun
But—Honey I’m yours.”
That’s the kind of stuff
Whitman was always whispering,
On and on, stuff like that.
And I got up and searched
In my backpack for a candy bar,
Chewed it ‘til there was nothing left
And then I hitched up the road
Out of that silence
Back to the city I grew up in,
Its blocks of blocks of bricks
And its old people in their factories
Who went to Church and got drunk
Who hurt the ones they loved,
Who wondered who made them,
Who lived and died in due time
Who taught me the world is sand
And drifting dreams and clouds
That speak no English.






Monday, July 3, 2017

Coming to America

Coming to America

When I asked my mother what we had when we came from the refugee camps in Germany, she shrugged and started the list: some plates, a wooden comb, some barley bread, a crucifix, two pillows and a frying pan, letters from a friend in America.

We were as poor as mud, she said, and prayed for so little: to find her sister, to work,
to not think about the dead, to live without anger or fear.

J

Sunday, July 2, 2017

What Elie Wiesel Knew



Today is the first anniversary of the death of Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author.

Here is a poem I wrote last year when I heard he had died.  It was published in the journal  New Verse News. 

WHAT ELIE WIESEL KNEW

Death is the air we breathe.
The bread we chew.
The brother and sister
who stand by us always.

Elie Wiesel knew this
And taught us this
Everyday.

Don't be afraid.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Memory

Memory


I once had the immigration cops come to my family's apartment in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago.  This was when I was like 13.

I answered the door and two of the cops stood there with their guns drawn shouting "Romerez, get down on the floor!"

I was a kid.  I didn't say anything.  I just dropped to the kitchen tile as fast as I could, and then I shouted back, "I'm not Romerez.  He's in the other 2nd floor apartment."

They looked at me for a moment and turned around and kicked in the door across the hall.

This was in 1961.

Romerez was a Mexican guy who lived with his family across the hall.  I used to play with his kids, hide and go seek, and tag.

I never saw any of them again.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Funny Story



Funny Story

Our granddaughter Lulu was over this morning, and Linda and I were sitting around the dining room table, and Lulu asked, "You want to see my animal ballet?"   And we said sure.

So she started doing an animal ballet.  She did the giraffe ballet, and then she did the elephant ballet, and then a lion ballet and a panda ballet.  And each one was perfect.  She hummed a tune and danced like each of the animals would dance a ballet if it could.

It was great.

Then she turns to me and says, "It's your turn."

I can't dance.  I can barely walk, so I say, "I'll tell you a story."

She nods, and I start ad-libbing.

I do this all the time, just some kind of goofy stuff, one silly plot point after another.  This time I'm telling her a story about a panda and a horse and how the horse gets lost in the panda's jungle and how the panda doesn't want to help the horse get out of the jungle so the horse starts eating all the panda's bamboo.

And then I stop.  The story is just some dumb ad-libbing that ends as soon as it begins, and I say, "That's it, Lulu."

And she pauses for a moment and doesn't say anything and then suddenly says, "Oh I get it.  It's like Aesop's Fables.  The panda first refuses to help the horse and so at the end the horse sort of punishes the panda by eating its bamboo.  The panda should have been nicer."

And I sit there and marvel.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

All of History's Polacks



"All of History's Polacks"
I'm going to do a presentation today at the annual conference of Holocaust Educators of Virginia.
One of the things I'm talking about is what it was like for us as refugees in Germany for 6 years and what it was like when we came to America finally.
I'm going to start my presentation by reading from the preface to Echoes of Tattered Tongues:
Where I’m Coming From
I never set out to write about my parents and their experiences in the concentration camps in Germany and what it was like for us as immigrants here in America. When I was growing up, I wanted to get as far as possible away from them and the world they came from.
When we landed at Ellis Island, we were unmistakably foreign. We didn’t speak English. We dressed in black and brown wool that had been given to us by a UN relief agency. My mother wore a babushka on her head, my father a woolen cloth cap with a broken brim. They both wore their best shoes, leather boots that came to their knees. My mother’s brother had stitched and hammered those boots by hand. All our belongings were gathered together in a small steamer trunk my dad had built.
Our lives were hard: America then—like now—didn’t much want to see a lot of immigrants coming over and taking American jobs, sharing apartments with two or three other immigrant families, getting into the kinds of trouble immigrants get into. We were regarded as Polacks—dirty, dumb, lazy, dishonest, immoral, licentious, drunken Polacks.
I felt hobbled by being a Polack and a DP, a Displaced Person. It was hard karma.
I started running away from my Polishness as soon as I could, and for much of my life I continued to run. As I started moving into my early teens, I didn’t want anything to do with my Polish parents and their past. I thought of it all as that “Polack” or immigrant past. It was so old world, so old-fashioned. I had parents who couldn’t speak English, couldn’t talk about baseball or movies, didn’t know anything about Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, couldn’t spend a night without arguing with each other in Polish, the language of misery, poverty, and alienation. I wanted to spend as little time as possible thinking about my parents and their Polishness and what my mother sometimes called “that camp shit.”
I moved away from them, physically and psychologically and emotionally and culturally and intellectually. I stopped going to church, I left home, I didn’t maintain my Polishness, I stopped talking Polish, I stopped eating Polish food, I went to grad school, I immersed myself in American culture. I studied Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Dickinson, Eliot, John Dos Passos, Eugene O’Neill, Fitzgerald, and on and on.
I became the person my parents didn’t want me to be. They wanted me to be a good Polish boy, living Polish, going to church, residing at home, dreaming of returning to Poland like my dad.
I guess I did what some immigrant kids always do. I said, your world is not my world.
And then it all changed: I started writing about my parents when I was in grad school. Maybe it was because I had finally gotten far enough away from them. Maybe not.
I realized very quickly that even if people don’t want to read what I write, I had to write my poems about my parents just to make sure someone would. Really, there just aren’t a lot of people writing about people like my parents and the other DPs. And if I don’t write, who will? Imagine all of those hundreds of thousands of Poles who came to this country as DPs. Who wrote for them?
I sometimes feel that I am writing for all the people who’ve sought refuge in America, whose stories were never told, whose voices got lost somewhere in the great cemetery of the 20th century—that I have an obligation to listen to those voices and give them a place to be heard, to tell the stories they would write themselves if they could. For the last thirty-five years, while I have been writing about my parents’ lives, I sometimes think that I am not only writing about their lives, but also about the lives of all those forgotten, voiceless refugees, DPs, and survivors that the last century produced, no matter where they came from.
All of history’s “Polacks.”

Father's Day Post: What My Father Ate


My father spent more than 4 years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp as a Polish slave laborer. He was captured in a round up when he went to his village north of Poznan to buy some rope. When he was taken by the Nazis, he was a kid, just 19 years old.

A lot of times when he talked about his experiences, he couldn't help telling me about how hungry he was for those four years. He said that most days he got about 600 calories of food. Once when he complained about the food, the Nazi guard hit him across the head with a club. From that day on, my dad was blind in one eye.

When the Americans liberated the camp, he weighed 70 pounds. My mother said that when she saw him stumble into her camp at the end of a death march, he was skinny, like two shoelaces tied together.  And he was one of the lucky ones. A lot of the guys in his camp didn't make it.

Once I asked him what it was like that first meeting with my mom, he smiled and said, "First, we had something to eat, and then we got married."

__________

I've written a lot of poems about how hungry he was during those four year. The following is one of them. It's called "What He Ate." It appears in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues. Here's a youtube of me reading the poem. I'm posting a copy of the poem itself after the video.



What My Father Ate

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
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.

__________________________________

If you want to read more about my dad, I recommend the poem "What My Father Believed."  Garrison Keillor read it on his radio program a couple of years ago.  Here's the link, just click on it: What My Father Believed.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Anne Frank's Birthday


Anne Frank's birthday is June 12. She would have been 88 years old if the Nazis had not killed her.

I first read her diary for a class in high school. I don't remember which class or which teacher or how old I was or what I was obsessing about, but I remember her book, the silence I felt as I read it, and I remember how slowly I read it because I didn't want the book and her life to end.

There weren't a lot of books about the Holocaust available to me back then in the early 60s. This book was the first, and it taught me something profound about that experience. The suffering and death of even a single person can touch and change a person.

Here's a link to one of the best website's about her: the Anne Frank page at the US Holocaust Memorial. Just click on the words US Holocaust Memorial.

The site includes interviews with those who knew Anne Frank, information about her diary, weblinks, and the shared thoughts of many people who have read Anne's diary and been touched by her and her story.

You might also want to take a look at a youtube done by the poet Lois P. Jones. It collects a series of photos of Anne and her family. Click here.

Feel free also to leave a note here about Anne Frank.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

War Reparations


Recently, I was following a discussion on Facebook about reparations from the German Government to people who suffered in the concentration and slave labor camps in Nazi Germany. 

The discussion centered around whether or not financial reparations can actually compensation for that suffering.

The answer seems obvious to me, but let me tell you anyway.

There are no repayments, no restitution for what happened.

My mother was in the camps from 1942 on, my dad was in Buchenwald from 1940 on.

She got a lump sum from the German government of about 1500 bucks and a monthly allowance starting in 1990 or so of $32 per month. When she died in 2006, the monthly check had increased to about $87.

The Germans were never able to find my father's paper work from his time as a slave laborer, so they said he had no proof that he was in concentration camp for almost 5 years.

A German guard had destroyed his eye and left a scar from one side of his head to the other. When my father died in 1997, they sewed his eye shut and puttied in the scar. The broken eye and scar were not sufficient evidence of incarceration.

Because he had no proof, he got no reparations. He spent a couple years working through various Polish legal aid groups trying to get reparations. He finally decided that the money he was spending to get the reparations wouldn't get him anything and he stopped pursuing reparations.

My mother used to say that the Germans killed her mother and her sister and her sister's baby, and put my mother in a slave labor camp for 3 years and then gave her 30 dollars a month for compensation. It wasn't enough. Nothing was enough.

Sometimes my mother would laugh about this.

By the way, a couple of years ago, 25 some years after my dad last applied for reparations from the Germans, the US Holocaust Museum sent me jpegs of 15 documents about my parents' years as slave laborers. A number of them prove that my dad was eligible for reparations.

I wonder why the German government couldn’t find them.

___________________________________________

The photo above of my mother, my sister, and me was taken by my father two years after we arrived as displaced persons in the US.

Here's a link to a wikipedia article on World War II war reparations.  Click here.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Mother's Day Poem



























Mother’s Day Poem

I remember my mother, her old house,
the miracle of her love, her fingers
on my cheek brushing away the night,
the world coming home for breakfast,
her eyes asking if I’d been on the road
for long and was the traffic heavy.

Nothing speaks of love like her kindness,
not the birds swirling in the mountains
nor starlight in the trees.  Nothing speaks
of hope like her silent prayers for me
in the morning before school or the bread
and soup she placed before me at night.

Some people seek comfort in a priest,
the way he washes his hands in holy water,
raises his chin to drink the wine.  But it’s mothers
who divide the loaves and fishes, collect
the crumbs, sweep the floor, and find lost coins.
One day they’ll call us home for the last supper. 

___________________________________

To read more about my mom and her life please click on the following:  a blog I did called Remembering my Mother.  It contains links to a number of my posts about her.  

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Hitler's Suicide Day -- April 30

72 years ago today, Adolf Hitler committed suicide. Some historians say he killed himself with a cyanide capsule, others say he shot himself first.


My mother didn't know how he killed himself, and she didn't much care.

She was happy that he did it. 

She had never met him, but she had felt his fist across her face, his whip across her back. She was taken to Germany as a Polish slave laborer after watching her mother, her sister Genja, and Genja's baby daughter murdered. My mom escaped by jumping through the window and escaping into a forest. The Nazis caught her pretty soon after that.

My mother didn't talk much about what happened to her and her family. When I was a kid, I thought her silence came from annoyance with my questions about the war. Later, I realized that she didn't talk about her experiences because she wanted to protect me from the terrible things that happened, even though I was a grown man and a teacher.

Here's a poem I wrote about what Hitler did to my mom and her family.

My Mother was 19

Soldiers from nowhere
came to my mom’s farm
killed her sister Genja’s baby
with their heels
shot her momma too

One time in the neck
then for kicks in the face
lots of times

They saw my mother
they didn’t care
she was a virgin
dressed in a blue dress
with tiny white flowers

They raped her
so she couldn’t stand up
couldn’t lie down
couldn’t talk

They broke her teeth
when they shoved
the blue dress
in her mouth

If they had a camera
they would’ve taken her picture
and sent it to her

That’s the kind they were

Years later she said:

Let me tell you,
God doesn’t give
you any favors

He doesn’t say
now you’ve seen
this bad thing
and tomorrow you’ll see
this good thing
and when you see it
you’ll be smiling

That’s bullshit

__________________

The poem appears in my book about my parents, Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

The photo was taken by my wife Linda in 1979 or so. From left to right in the back row, it's my dad, my mom, my sister Donnna, her daughter Denise, and me. In the front row are my sister's daughters Kathie and Cheryl.

If you want to read one of my poems about Hitler's Suicide Day, you can click on this link.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Holocaust Remembrance Day -- Yom HaShoah April 23-24




I can commemorate the Holocaust, but I can't do much more. I can't imagine it, I can't describe it, I can't understand it.

My parents weren't Jews. They weren't in the Holocaust. They were Polish Catholics who were taken to Germany to work as slave laborers in the concentration camps there. My dad spent four and a half years in Buchenwald, and my mom spent more than two years in a number of camps around Magdeburg. They suffered terribly, and they saw terrible things done to the people they loved. My mother's family was decimated. Her mother, her sister, and her sister's baby were killed outright by the Germans. My mother's two aunts were taken to Auschwitz with their Jewish husbands and died there.

I remember asking my mother once if she could explain to me what she felt in the worst month of her worst year in the slave labor camps in Germany. All she could say was, "you weren't there."

I wasn't there.

I've spent much of my life writing about the things that happened to my parents in the slave labor camps and reading about what happened in those camps and in the German death camps in Poland where so many Jews died, and still I will never be able to understand or comprehend what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust.

I went to Auschwitz in 1990 with my wife Linda and our daughter Lillian. We walked around, took pictures, tried to imagine what had happened there. We couldn't. We were just tourists.

I wrote a poem about it:

Tourists in Auschwitz

It’s a gray drizzly day
but still we take pictures:

Here we are by the mountain of shoes.
Here we are by a statue of people
working to death
pulling a cart full of stones.

Here we are by the wall where they shot
the rabbis and the priests
and the school children
and the trouble makers.

We walk around some too
but we see no one.

Later, we will have dinner
in the cafeteria at Auschwitz.

We will eat off aluminum plates
with aluminum knives and forks.
The beans will be hard,
and the bread will be tasteless.

But for right now, we take more pictures:

Here we are by the mountain of empty suitcases.
Here we are in front of the big ovens.
Here we are by the gate with the famous slogan.

Here we are in front of the pond
where the water is still gray from the ashes
the Germans dumped.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

LANGUAGE AND LOSS


My friend the writer Christina Sanantonio and I have been having a conversation about writing about loss. It’s a conversation fueled in part by the suicide of the novelist David Foster Wallace back in 2008. She wrote me a long letter about how we use or don’t use language to talk about loss, and about how hard it is to write about loss.
One of the things in her letter that really resonated with me was something she said about one of my favorite writers, Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and author of Survival in Auschwitz, who, like Wallace, apparently took his own life. Primo Levi frequently talked about the frustration of trying to write about loss and suffering, especially the loss and suffering he and so many others experienced in the Nazi camps. He felt we needed a new kind of language to talk about what happened there. Christina wrote that we ache for a language that doesn’t exist.
I’ve spent the last 35 years trying to find words to describe what happened to my Polish-Catholic parents in the German concentration and slave labor camps and what those experiences make me feel. I write about this event or that image; and no matter how powerful the original event described by my mother or father I can’t really describe it, explain it, bring it out of the past. I can’t bring it out of memory into this life. Instead, I’m left pushing around some words, trying to make myself feel what I felt the first time I heard that story when I was a child. Sometimes I think I almost succeed, but most of the time I know I’m not even close.
For me the poems that work best are the ones with my parents’ actual words in them. Those words are the real thing. In my poem “Here’s What My Mother Won’t Talk About,” my mother refuses to tell me anything about the murder of her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby and her own rape.  All she will say to me is “If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run.”  Likewise in my poem “The Work My Father Did in Germany,” my dad tells me what he said to the German guards who tormented and beat him and blinded him, “Please, sirs, don’t ever tell your children what you’ve done to me today.” There are bits and pieces of their words scattered throughout my poems, and when I read these words out loud my parents are there with me. I’m again a kid listening to my dad tell me about the day he saw a German soldier cut off a woman’s breast or listening to my mom tell me about the perfect house she lived in in the perfect woods in eastern Poland before the Germans came.  My parents’ words are a kind of magic for me. 
But how do I convey this magic to other people?
I think sometimes that all I can do is read my poems out loud and show people how the poems affect me. I guess what happens then is that my words become like my parents’ words. I become my father and mother for that moment in the poem.
Sometimes, I think, this touches people, conveys the magic to them.
I’ve seen this happen at some of the poetry readings I’ve given. A person stands up at the end of the reading when I invite questions, and he doesn’t say anything. He just stands there. I don’t know if the person even has a question. Maybe he just wants to show how much he feels my parents’ lives; or maybe the loss I talk about somehow reminds him of a loss he experienced and couldn’t talk about and still can’t talk about.
For me one of the central images of the Bible is the image of the Tower of Babel. It represents in my eyes the moment when humanity became trapped in language that would not communicate what we needed to communicate. It was a second fall from grace. Our lives became chained to a language that doesn’t convey what we feel or what we mean. Although we have this deep need to say what we feel, we often can’t explain it to ourselves or to other people. Sometimes our words fail us and sometimes other people fail us. They can’t bring themselves to listen to our stories of loss. It’s hard to take on that burden.
When my father was dying, he told me a story about a Lithuanian friend of his in Buchenwald Concentration Camp who had made love to a German woman and contracted VD. He came to my father and asked him what should he do. My father said, “Go to the river and drown yourself.” His friend thought my dad was joking, and he went to another friend who told him, “Tell the Germans what you did.” My father’s friend did that, and the soldiers killed the woman; and then they beat my father’s friend, castrated him and killed him.
Fifty years after his friend’s death, when my father was telling me this story, he still didn’t know what he could have said to his friend to save him from what happened.
No matter how hard it is to tell someone something, no matter how hard it is to get beyond the Babel we’re caught up in, I think we need to try.
Will it change the world? Make anything different? Better?
We can only hope.


Friday, April 21, 2017

The Ovens and Bakers of Auschwitz

The Ovens at Auschwitz
"Three hundred and sixty corpses every half hour, which was all the time it took to reduce human flesh to ashes, made 720 per hour, or 17,280 corpses per twenty-four hour shift.
And the ovens, with murderous efficiency, functioned day and night.
However, one must also take into account the death pits, which could destroy another 8,000 cadavers a day.
In round numbers, about 24,000 corpses were handled each day. An admirable production record—one that speaks well for German industry."
-- from Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor's True Story of Auschwitz by Olga Lengyel

_____

Here's a poem of mine about the men who burned the corpses at Auschwitz :-

The Bakers of Auschwitz
We hear in this oven
this scented room
the sighs of dough
rising
a confection of worldly
advice, a jelly
of dreams, the light
of these souls
bursting blackbirds
in a hurricane
of light
a marzipan of
human form and spirit
spreading a marmalade
breasts lips
soft hair thighs
in ribbons and foiled paper
that will feed us
and those
in the sewers of Stalingrad
the streets of Tripoli Benghazi
their Jew eyes
liquid sugar their Jew teeth
without cheeks their Jew tummies
so pure so thin so fine
hurry my children my church
a feast a wealth
a delicious legato
a slow wind of notes
Essen essen essen



Thursday, April 13, 2017

Liberation of Buchenwald, April 11 1945


On April 11, 1945, American troops liberated Buchnewald Concentration Camp.  It was a large camp housing about 80,000 prisoners, Poles, Slovenians, Frenchmen, Africans, and others.  They were brought there to work in the factories that the Germans built in and around the camp. 

We have a lot of documentation and photos from this liberation because the great American journalist and photographer Margaret Bourke-White was with the US Army when they liberated this camp.  She took photographs that captured the suffering of the men who were in the camp.

Here’s one of her photos.


My father was a prisoner in this camp for four years.  He was just a Polish farm boy, and he was captured when he went into his village to buy a piece of rope one Saturday.  The Germans had surrounded the village and were rounding up men and boys to go to Buchenwald and work in the factories there.

A lot of times when we think of Concentration Camps we imagine the death camps the Germans built in Poland where the primary business was killing large numbers of civilians.  Buchenwald wasn’t a death camp.  Millions did not die there, burned in the ovens, their ashes scattered in ponds where the water is still gray 70 years later.  But they did die there.  About one out four people died each year. 

What did they die of in Buchenwald?

Mainly starvation.  Fifty years later, my dad could still remember the hunger he felt.  He did hard labor 6 and even 7 days a week, 12 and 14 hour days, on a handful of food a day.  I’ve read accounts of what the men ate.  It came to about 600 calories a day. How much is that?  A Big Mac with Cheese is about 700 calories.  A Big Mac without cheese is 600.  But what my dad ate wasn’t a Big Mac.

I asked my dad once how he was able to stay alive.  He shrugged and said he didn’t know.  He said that most of the time the guards gave them a kind of gray gruel made out of some kind of grain and animal bones.  My dad called it “Hitler’s secret weapon.”  It wasn’t enough to keep a man alive, so my dad was always looking for things to stick into his mouth: twigs, pieces of paper, bits of cloth, leather buttons.  Once when he complained about the food, a guard hit him across his head with a club.  He knocked my dad down to the ground, but my dad got up and begged for food.  It was the wrong thing to say.  The guard clubbed my dad unconscious.  When my dad awoke, he was blind in one eye. 

But men didn’t only die of hunger.  People died for simple infractions, annoying the guards by urinating out of turn, slouching in line, standing in the wrong place. 

They died of cruelty too.  My father told me a story about one cold January night when the 400 men in his barracks were called out into the square for a roll call.  The men were dressed in rags, torn pants and shirts.  Some had shoes, others didn’t.  They had almost no protection from the snow and wind.  The guards lined them up in rows and told them they had to check the roster of prisoners, and then the Germans started reading the long lists of names.  As the guards read, men started dropping into the snow, falling to their knees and then keeling over.  And the guards kept reading.  They read through the roster once and then they said, “Oops, we missed a name,” and then they read through the roster again and again and again for six hours while men fell to their knees and died in the snow.  The next morning garbage carts came and collected the dead and took them to the ovens.  

Others died from overwork, hangings, experiments, crucifixions.  One of my father’s friends, an artist from Wilno, was first castrated and then hanged. 

One in every four died like this.  A lot of Margaret Bourke-White’s photos are of the dead, in piles like worthless paper, like rubbish.

But there are also many pictures of those who survived.

And when I look at the photos Margaret Bourke-White took the day the camp was liberated, I look for the face of my dad.  Thin as a shoelace, blind in one eye, with a scar across his skull where the guard beat him and beat him and beat him.  I haven’t found my dad yet, but I know I’ll recognize him when I see him.  

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 spring 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 photo above was taken by Margaret Bourke-White.

If you want to know more about my dad and his experiences in the war, you can get a copy of my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues, available at Amazon.  Echoes contains the chapbook Third Winter of War: Buchenwald, about my dad's experiences in that camp.

Friday, April 7, 2017

My Sister's Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin's Siberia



For 30 years, I have been reading memoirs and histories about Poles who survived the atrocities imposed on them by the Russians and the Germans in World War II.  I have read about the Poles who were terrorized in their home country, and I have read about Poles who were taken to Germany and to Siberia as slave laborers.  These books have told me about lives shattered and hopes buried along the side of the road.

Donna Urbikas's memoir of her mother and sister's experiences in Siberia may be the best of these books.

She has a gift for conveying not only what happened to her mother and sister, but also how they felt about the things that were happening to them.  As I read this book, at times, I felt I was sitting at a table with Ms. Urbikas's mother listening to her stories of what happened when the Russians came and what it was like in Siberia and how difficult it was getting out of the trap the Soviets created and what it was like when the family finally came to America.

Ms. Urbikas not only was able to make me feel all of this, she also was able to make me experience through her eyes what it was like being the child of a mother who experienced the terror and the outrage that Donna Urbikas's mother experienced.

As I read this book, I felt almost like I was a part of Ms. Urbikas's family.

As a child myself of parents who suffered not only under the Germans and the Soviets, I have to say that this is the one book every person who wants to know what it was like to be a victim of the Germans or the Russians in World War II must read.

__________________________

To read more about Donna Urbikas's book, click here.



Saturday, April 1, 2017

Hope is Our Mother



A question I get often about my Polish parents is what kept them going during the war and after the war.

I think part of the answer is that they were both people who believed in hope.

So what's hope?

Hope for me is tied up with family and friends, people.  Hope for me is a wish.  I hope that all of our lives get better, that war and plague and cruelty somehow get pushed further and further back, that we discover that we don’t have to kill each other to be happy.

My parents were too of the greatest optimists I ever knew.  They knew death and misery inside out, but they also knew hope.  They had experienced sorrow and trials like I can’t imagine, not only during the war, but after.   After spending almost a decade as slave laborers and refugees,hey came to a country where they didn’t know anyone, didn’t know the language, didn’t know anything.  They had to build new lives for themselves and for my sister and me. 

And they kept going, sure that things would somehow get better.

I recently had a discussion with a friend whose parents were also in the camps, and we talked about whether or not we would have what it took to survive, and she said that she would have just given up, given in to the misery and laid down and let the Germans kill her. 

I don’t believe her.  I don’t think she would give up.  From what I’ve seen, most people don’t give up.  Maybe some do, but the majority don’t. 

I once talked about this with my mother.  I asked her about hope and what kept people like her and my dad going.  My mom looked at me and said, “Optimism is a crazy man’s mother.”  

It’s a profound statement, I think.  And it gets at the heart of her understanding of hope. 

At the very end of her life, after two major surgeries for cancer, decades of heart problems, and arthritis that had left her crippled, she had a stroke after a gall bladder operation that paralyzed her almost completely.  She couldn’t move her hands or feet, could barely speak.  The doctors didn’t think she could recover from this, and I told her that, and I asked her if she wanted to be taken off her life support.  Forcing her lips and tongue to move, she said, “No.”

I wrote a poem about this kind of hope for my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues, the hope my mom and dad had.  It’s called “My People.”  Recently, I wrote a poem called "Hope." It follows "My People."

My People


My people were all poor people,
the ones who survived to look
in my eyes and touch my fingers
and those who didn’t, dying instead

of fever, hunger, or even a bullet
in the face, dying maybe thinking
of how their deaths were balanced
by my birth or one of the other

stories the poor tell themselves
to give themselves the strength
to crawl out of their own graves.

Not all of them had this strength
but enough did, so that I’m here
and you’re here reading this poem
about them.  What kept them going?

Maybe something in the souls
of people who start with nothing
and end with nothing, and in between
live from one handful of nothing
to the next handful of nothing.

They keep going — through the terror
in the snow and the misery
in the rain — till some guy pierces
their stomachs with a bayonet

or some sickness grips them, and still
they keep going, even when there
aren’t any rungs on the ladder

even when there aren’t any ladders. 


Hope
Hope is kind.
Hope is a door and a window.
Hope is the silly neighbor child we ignore when we are children ourselves.
Hope is the lesson learned too late.
Hope is Friday and Sunday morning.
Hope is a train going so fast that not even time can catch it.
Hope is the brother of sorrow, the sister of grief.
Hope is soft cows in a distant pasture of grass.
Hope is our mother.



________

This essay on hope originally appeared in a slightly different form as a part of series of interviews I gave to poet Maureen E. Doallas.    The entire interview can be found at her website.  Just click here.