Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Sept. 1, 1939 -- Landscape with Dead Horses




78 years ago on September 1. 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. Their blitzkrieg, their lightning war, came from the air and the sea and the sky. By Sept 28, Warsaw, the capital city of Poland, gave up. By October 7, the last Polish resistance inside Poland ended.  In the six years that followed, more than five million Poles died.

A couple years ago, I received an email from a friend passing on some links to US Army films of the invasion of Poland that were compiled from captured German films. I thought I would share these films of what the Blitzkrieg was like. They are in 3 parts (each about six minutes); and if you click on the part you want to see, you will be taken to the appropriate site.



Invasion of Poland, Part I



Invasion of Poland, Part II



Invasion of Poland, Part III

The world had not seen anything like it, and it was the prelude to a lot of things the world had never seen before: the Final Solution, Total War, the concentration camps, the atomic bomb, the fire bombing of civilian populations, and brutality on a level that most people still don't want to think about almost 70 years later.

When the Germans attacked on that September 1, My dad was 19 and working on his uncle's farm with his brother Roman. Their parents had died when the boys were young, and their uncle and aunt took them in and taught them how to farm, how to prepare the soil in the fall and plant the seeds in the spring. My mom was 17 and living with her parents and her sisters and brothers in a forest west of Lvov in eastern Poland.

The summer had been hot and dry, and both of my parents, like so many other Poles, were looking forward to the fall and the beginning of milder weather.

The war turned my parents' lives upside down. Nothing they planned or anticipated could have prepared them for what happened.

By the end of the war, they were both slave laborers in Nazi Germany, their homes destroyed, their families dead or scattered, their country taken over by the Soviet Union.




I've written a number of poems about the first days of the war and what happened to Poland, but none of those poems ever captured, I felt, the struggle of the Polish people to throw off the Nazi invasion.

A couple of years ago, I tried again to describe what my parents and the Poles of their generation felt. Here's the poem.  It's from my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues:


Landscape with Dead Horses

1.

War comes down like a hammer, heavy and hard
flattening the earth and killing the soft things:
horses and children, flowers and hope, love
and the smell of the farmers’earth, the coolness
of the creek, the look of trees as they uncurl
their leaves in late March and early April.
You smell the horses before you see them.

2.

Horses groan, their heads nailed to the ground
their bodies rocking crazily, groaning
like men trying to lift their heads for one
last breath, to breathe, to force cold air
into their shredded, burning lungs.
For these horses and the men who rode them,
this world will never again be the world
God made; and still they dare to raise their heads,
to force the air into their shredded lungs.

3.

Look at this horse. Its head torn from its body
by a shell. So much blood will teach you more
about the world than all the books in it.
This horse’s head will remake the world for you—
teach even God a lesson about the stones
that wait to rise in our hearts, cold and hard.

4.

In the end Hitler sat in his cold bunker
and asked his generals about his own horses,
“Where are they?” He asked, “Where are my horses?”
And no one dared to tell him, “They are dead
in the fields with the Poles and their horses,
bloated with death and burning with our corpses.”

________________________________________________

To read more about my parents, their experiences in the war and after the war, my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues is available at Amazon and most bookstores.

Here is the Amazon link.  Just click here.
________________________________________________

The photograph of re-enactors in 1939 uniforms was taken by Mr. Mazowieckie at a re-enactment of the Bzura River Battle.

Friday, August 18, 2017

My Mother and the War



My Mother hated the way men talked about the war.
It was like they were seeing the conflict, its chaos and brutality, from a great distance.  
They talked about divisions and armies, threw around numbers like scientists or university professors:  The 4th Army and the 3rd.  The 8th and the 10th, and the 10th's Army XVI Corps.  And what about the XVIs 14th Infantry Division, and the 11th, the 53rd, and 116th regiments?
It was like some intricate game with codes and rules no one could understand unless he was born to it.
She wanted to be free of the war and all its secrets and structuress.
When men started talking like that, she always left the room, went to a bedroom and sat with her thoughts, her memories.

____

Here's a poem I wrote about my mom and her war experiences.

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.

_______

To read more about my mother:





"All of History's Polacks"

_____

The photo above is of my mom and her sister.  They both were taken to Germany as slave laborers. They were reunited in a refugee camp after the war.


Monday, August 14, 2017

White Supremacists


My parents suffered under German Nazism

White supremacists told my parents they were subhuman, just mules and pigs.

My parents were enslaved for years and saw their family and friends slaughtered.

My family spent 6 years in a refugee camp in Germany waiting for America to allow us in.

We were told that America would be different.  

We were told that in America we wouldn't have to fear Nazism.

I want to believe that again.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Little Schoolboys!



Little Schoolboys!

I finally got my copy of my most recent crime novel, the sequel to Suitcase Charlie.

This one's got everything!

A murdered nun.  A kidnapped high school girl.  Rival street gangs.  Miss Kansas of 1963.  Comic book collectors.

And stoned-out drug dealers galore in the psychedelic 1960s.

Get your copy.  Available as a paperback or a kindle.  Just click:

Paperback: Little Schoolboys.

Kindle: Little Schoolboys. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Letter to Boy Dylan


Bob, do you remember me?

I saw you about a million years ago in a club on Wells Street in Chicago. Maybe 1962 or 1963. I think it was the Earl of Old Town, but I'm not so sure anymore. My memory stinks. I was like 15, now I'm not.

I remember it was a snowy night, a blizzard wind had stopped all the buses, but I wanted to see you bad. So I walked to the club down North Avenue. About 2 miles through the snow from my house. Sometimes the sidewalks were so jammed up with snow I had to walk in the street.

You sang Don't Think Twice and Blowing in the Wind even though there weren't too many of us in the club that night. Just a handful. A lot of cars weren't getting through either.
I remember you joking about how we would all have to spend the night and cuddle up together because the snow outside was saying, ain't nobody going nowhere. We laughed and said we were ready.

I remember the last song you sang. The Walls of Red Wing. You wanted to sing something about Minnesota, wanted to remember the winters there.
I remember we all joined in on the chorus, all five of us, and then I went out into the snow and began the long walk home humming your songs and thinking about how someday I'd maybe grow up to be a lawyer or such, or maybe I'd end up inside the walls of the prison at Red Wing.
Yours,

John Guzlowski

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Poems of the Warsaw Uprising


Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was a woman who fought with the Polish resistance during World War II.  When the Germans decided to destroy Warsaw in 1944, she became a front-line nurse in a battle that saw the city leveled and 250,000 Poles die.

Thirty years after the war, she published a book of poems about her experiences in that slaughter. It was called Building the Barricade. Gifted poet and translator Piotr Florczyk has produced the present volume, Building the Barricade and Other Poems. It combines the best poems from that earlier book along with Anna Swir's later poems, poems which focus on the human body and her experiences of love and family. This bi-lingual collection, starting with her writing about the war and ending with the last poem she wrote, "Tomorrow They'll Cut Me Open," gives the reader an overall sense of her career and her strengths as a poet.

I could quote from what readers like Czeslaw Milosz, Edward Hirsch, Eva Hoffman, and Sandra Alcosser say about these powerful poems, but I won't. The poems don't need it. They speak clearly and powerfully on their own.





I CARRIED BEDPANS

I worked as an orderly at the hospital
without medicine and water.
I carried bedpans
filled with pus, blood and feces.

I loved pus, blood and feces—
they were alive like life,
and there was less and less
life around.

When the world was dying,
I was only two hands, handing
the wounded a bedpan.



THOUGHTS
OF A FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD NURSE

If all the bullets in the world
hit me,
then they couldn’t hit anybody else.

And let me die as many times
as there are people in the world,
so that they wouldn’t have to die,
even the Germans.

And let nobody know
that I died for them,
so that they wouldn’t be sad.


THE RATS REMAIN

In this city
there are no more people. Sometimes a cat
with burnt eyes
crawls out from an alley
to die.

Or a rat
scuttles to the other side of the street.

Or the wind moves
a page in a book on the pavement
and knocks the window
with the glinting shard of glass.


____________________________

Anna Swir's book Building the Barricades and Other Poems can be purchased from Calypso Editions (free shipping included).

Translator Piotr Florczyk previously translated Julian Kornhauser's Been and Gone. I posted a blog about it recently.

"The Rats Remain" and "Thoughts of a Fourteen-Year Old Nurse" were originally published in the online journal Little Star.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Photo of Me from 1968



I'm 23 in the picture here, and it was taken in Chicago’s Grant Park.  We're all standing around waiting for an anti-war demonstration to begin and the Vietnam War to end.  While we wait for the soldiers to stop killing the Vietcong and for the Vietcong to stop killing the soldiers and for Jane Fonda to get back from Hanoi, we are trying to look cool. 

Do you see the button on my lapel?  If you could get close to it, you'd see that it says, "Share Water With Me."  It's a quote from a SF novel by Robert Heinlein called Stranger in a Strange Land, and it means I want to have a real, authentic relationship with you and every other person on the planet.  I took that kind of stuff seriously back then, and I guess I still do now, give or take a few people I know it wouldn't be a good idea to share water with.

There were a lot of these anti-war demonstrations back then.  There were so many that they now seem to blend into each other.  When I sit down and try to figure out when I started to demonstrate and when I finished, I can’t come up with any solid answers.  From about 1966 to 1975, I always seemed to be going to some demonstration on the northside or the southside of Chicago with my friend Bill Anderson.  A lot of these demonstrations seem small now, a couple hundred students, maybe a thousand, (especially after the big demonstrations that followed the Kent State Massacre when the National Guard killed four students), but they seemed big at the time and important too.  There weren't many people trying to stop the war before that.

File:Kent State massacre.jpg
Kent State University, May 4th, 1970
I know my dad wasn't one of them.  He and I would get into arguments about the war.  They were the only serious arguments that we ever had.  For the most part, my dad was pretty easy going and so was I, but we fought over the Vietnam War.  He was a Pole, a Polish patriot, who couldn't go back to Poland after the war because his homeland had been taken over by the Communists.  He was afraid that they would kill him if he went back.  So he couldn't see why I would be supporting the Communist Vietcong against the Americans.  I gave him some kind of explanation about the Vietcong being the democratically chosen representatives of the Vietnamese people.  I was doing a lot of reading about the history of the struggle and thought I had the answers.  He didn’t buy it, and it almost broke his heart to see me, his son, siding with the guys who had enslaved Poland.  It was a rocky few years for us until the war ended.

But that’s all politics and for most people politics is just old news.  Looking back at the picture now, I’m really interested in what I’m wearing.  

It may not seem like it if you’ve gotten your ideas about what people were wearing back then from Time Magazine, but I’m appropriately dressed as a hip/Vietcong 60's beat student.  Please notice that I’m wearing a Vietcong peasant hat, and that I don’t have long hair and that I’m not wearing love beads or flowers.  All that hippie stuff (hair, beads, etc.) was probably just a media concoction.  I didn’t know people who dressed that way, at least not in Chicago.   

Speaking of the way I’m dressed, the jacket I’m wearing in the picture has a history. It belonged to a dead man, a friend of my dad's who left him all his clothes.  Nice stuff, jackets, shoes, white shirts, and wool overcoats.  I wore them out over the course of the next ten years.  My wife Linda was happy to see the last of them go. Although she didn’t have to worry about the sport coat I’m wearing in the picture above.  A couple months after the picture was taken, I threw it away because somebody threw up on it.  Really.  I tried to clean it up (took it to North Avenue beach and washed it in the surf) and even doused it with perfume, but nothing helped.

I like the picture a lot because for me it does capture a moment.  Can you see the black fellow in the photo with his rooty-kazooty hat!  And the kid (Billy Martin, comic book fan) in front of me.  Cleancut as April.  Really, this is the way everybody looked in the 60's--even at an Anti-War Demonstration.  

Nobody was hip.  Everybody was hip.

___________________

You can read more about me in the 60s in a piece I posted at Flash Fiction Online called "1968: A True Confession."  Just click here.

By the way, Bill Anderson took the photo.  He was the official photographer for the Chicago/Guzlowski/Anderson antiwar movement.  He died of cancer about 10 years ago.  I miss him a lot.  May he rest in peace.

Monday, July 24, 2017

THE DAY I ALMOST KILLED SAUL BELLOW

My wife Linda and I were showing Chicago to her brother Bruce who was visiting from the east. We were driving around the University of Chicago area on the southside of Chicago, and Bruce was saying, "Say this is a pretty campus, what kind of people teach her?"

I was driving and started in, "Well, this is one of the great universities in the world. There are probably more Nobel Laureates teachng here than in any other school in the midwest."

Bruce is a scoffer and he said, "Yeah, like who, any names an average guy would recognize?"

I'm driving around these narrow streets around the school and trying to avoid hitting anybody because it's a Saturday and people are walking to and from shopping.

Bruce thinks I'm ignoring him and he says again, "So name some of these Nobel guys!"

I say, "Well, one of my favorite writers is Saul Bellow and he won the Nobel prize and he teaches here."

And Bruce says, "Yeah? What's he like."

And I slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a guy with two bulging grocery bags who just stepped into the intersection, and I say to Bruce, "That's him. The guy I almost hit. Saul Bellow!"

And Bellow must've heard me call his name because he looked up at me and smiled, and nodded his head.

I felt a blessing descend on me, a connection I'd never forget.

I was the man who did not kill Saul Bellow.

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.