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.  

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

My Mother's Polish Cooking


My Mother's Polish Cooking

Food as you can imagine was always an issue at my house. My mom and dad grew up on farms in Poland in the 1920s and 30s, and they had a completely different sense of what was delicious in the way of food.

Plus, there was all that concentration camp and slave labor camp stuff to take into consideration.
My dad lived on 600 calories a day for 5 years in Buchenwald.  My mom fared little better as a slave laborer in Germany.  When the Americans liberated them, my dad weighed 70 pounds, my mom weighed 100.  My mom used to joke that my dad looked like two shoelaces tied together when she first saw him in the camps.

My parents could never understand me and my sister and our strange American attitudes toward food.

Here's a poem about all that. 

Marzipans

When my sister and me
wouldn’t eat the veal veined
with rubber strings

the gray pigs feet
stewed in a gel
and floating in vinegar

the polish sausage
gristled with white cubes
of hard fat

My mother would ask,
“Maybe you want
some marzipani?”

And my father
would laugh and nod
and take the fat

fingers of kielbasa
and gum them
with joy.


Friday, March 24, 2017

How's Your Polish?

How's Your Polish?

My Polish is almost non-existent now. It was my first language, the only language I spoke until I was 5, but I've lost most of it over the years. My mother in her last years in fact used to say my Polish hurt her ears. Here's a poem about what I have left of my Polish:

KITCHEN POLISH

I can’t tell you about Kant
in Polish, or the Reformation,
or deconstruction

or why the Nazis moved east
before moving west,
or where I came from,

but I can count to ten, say hello
and goodbye, ask for coffee,
bread or soup.

I can tell you people die.
It’s a fact of life,
and there’s nothing
you or I can do about it.

I can say, “Please, God,”
and “Don’t be afraid.”
If I look out at the rain
I can tell you it’s falling.

If there’s snow,
I can say, “It’s cold outside
today, and most likely
it’ll be cold tomorrow.”

____________

from my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues

Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring Poem

Spring Poem
My Polish father spent five years in the German concentration camp system. He was captured by the Germans in fall of 1940 and finally liberated by the Americans in spring of 1945.
During those five years, he saw men crucified and hung, castrated and frozen to death, women raped and beaten and shot, their breasts torn apart by bayonets, their babies thrown and scattered in the air like sand.
He never thought he would be free.
He thought he would be a slave until he died.
And then the war ended. This is a poem about that. It's from my book about my parents, Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

IN THE SPRING THE WAR ENDED

For a long time the war wasn't in the camps.
My father worked in the fields and listened
to the wind moving the grain, or a guard
shouting a command far off, or a man dying.

But in the fall, my father heard the rumbling
whisper of American planes, so high, like
angels, cutting through the sky, a thunder
even God in Heaven would have to listen to.

At last, one day he knew the war was there.
In the door of the barracks stood a soldier,
an American, short like a boy and frightened,
and my father marveled at the miracle of his youth

and took his hands and embraced him and told him
he loved him and his mother and father,
and he would pray for all his children
and even forgive him the sin of taking so long.

______________

There are no photos of my dad in the camps, but this is a photo of him after the war when he was a refugee for 6 years waiting for some country to say "come on over."
He's the fellow in the cap with his hands on his knees. The other fellows are guys who survived Buchenwald with him.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Ode to Paul Carroll




The first writer I ever met was Paul Carroll. He was a poet, literary critic, and editor involved with and publishing the beats. He knew the poets and writers I loved: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs.

Me?

I was a kid, 18 or 19, a sophomore at the University of Illinois in Chicago, taking English courses and dreaming about writing. I had discovered Kerouac the year before when I bought a copy of his The Subterraneans in a second-hand store, and I couldn't get enough of his spontaneous bop prosody. When a friend told me that the university offered courses in poetry writing, I couldn't believe it. I had never heard of such a thing. Courses in creative writing!

 
Posted by Picasa


I signed up immediately and ran into Paul Carroll. He was a knock out. A writer who loved poetry in the way that I imagined Shakespeare and Keats and Whitman and Yeats and Eliot and Ginsberg and Kerouac loved poetry.

I ended up taking three courses from him, and they probably shaped my writing more than anything else I learned as an undergrad or grad student.

I never saw Paul Carroll after I graduated from the U of I in Chicago, but the lessons he taught me about writing and what it means to be a writer stayed with me.

A couple of years ago, I read an article by Paul Hoover about Paul Carroll's death. It was a sad piece about his last days, his problems with drinking, his personal problems, and his writing problems. It made me want to write something that would recapture what Carroll meant to me and to a generation of young writers in Chicago in the late 60s. The poem I wrote is called "Ode to Paul Carroll."

Ode to Paul Carroll

(dead these many years but still singing in Heaven
with the Irish angels and the Chinese saints
who drowned in their love of poetry)

Remember me, Paul?

I wrote those weird poems that bad summer of '69

about Jesus burning
the prostitutes up
with His exploding eyes

and about being a mind
blistered astronaut
with nothing to say
to the sun except,
Honey, I'm yours

Remember?

You were the first poet
I knew

the one who told me
to believe all poets
are brothers and sisters
and poetry is all the poems ever written
and that if you're lucky enough
to still be writing poems
when you're fifty
then you'd know the true grace of poetry

Do you remember that guy
in the red plush beefeater's hat?

He said in class the revolution
would send old farts like you
to the camps with the other assholes proud of their money
and their dick pink ties
and all you said to him was

"Maybe you won't be able to get it up tonight
because you're tired or drunk-but
someday there will be weeks and weeks
when your penis
will just stay a penis
and then,
there you'll be"

We were young and nobody
knew what you were talking about, running
riddles past us like some
Irish Li Po from the back of the yards

I still don't get your Ode to Nijinsky, its blank staring page

And what's behind it?

The lesson that poetry and art
Disappear/vanish before
we can see their dance?

But surely that's not the lesson
you wanted to teach us

You always had faith in poetry and poets,
called them your pals, even the dead ones
like Wordsworth and Milton
Dickinson and Yeats,
pals sharing a ragged pencil nub and sneaking smokes
between visions of angels
and teacups and Picasso
bald and 80 among the true Chinese poets

Our brothers and our sisters

You'd tell us stories about poets drowning
in their love of poetry
and you'd lick your lips
And say, Yes, Yes, and Yes
As if some great meal
Had just been served

When you died I read in the Chicago papers
that your last days
weren't so lucky
your wife gone, you
drinking too much and searching for James Wright
in the yuppie bars around Division and Clark

When I read that I thought maybe
you were wrong
about how Yeats's Chinese grace
could keep a man alive
and a drunk sober

But reading your
last poems again last night
I saw you were right

So I went to the library and stole
a copy of Odes, your first poems

and read your Nijinsky poem again

_________________________________

Carroll's books are apparently out of print, but they are available at Amazon. I especially recommend his book Odes and Poem in its Skin.

There's not much about Carroll on the internet. I haven't been able to find any of his poems there, but there is a good short piece about him at the University of Chicago site. Also, there's a youtube posted by Bob Boldt of Carroll talking about poetry.



By the way, I got the opening photo of Carroll at the University of Chicago site. The other guy in the picture is Allen Ginsberg.

The second photo? That's me.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Killing

 
Killing

My father knew men and animals 
did not die the same way.  A man 
would kill a horse or a cow or a pig 
with respect he’d never show a man.  

Killing a pig, a man would steady it, 
prepare it for the single killing blow, 
work to make its suffering quick 
if not instant, a poised hammer 
ready to strike down in such a way 
the pig wouldn't see it or hear it, 
would hardly feel it on the back 
of its head in that one sure spot 
that would end it before it knew it.  

My father knew that wasn’t the way 
men killed each other.  He had seen 
men crucified and hung, castrated 
and frozen to death, women raped 
and beaten and shot, their breasts
torn apart by bayonets, their  babies 
thrown and scattered in the air like sand.

He knew suffering is the sauce 
we reserve for men and women.  

___________

The poem is from my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

The photo is of some of the dead at Dresden after we bombed it.  There were more dead of course.  The rough estimate, according to Kurt Vonegut n his novel Slaughterhouse 5, is about 135,000.  

So it goes.  

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

A Question























A Question:

What can we say about the past when so much of the past is lost?

It's a question that I ask myself all the time.  I asked it when I wrote my first poem about my parents in 1979, and it's a question I ask myself whenever I think of my latest book about my parents, Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

My mother felt the weight of her mother's death and her sister's death and her sister's baby's death at the hands of the Germans all her life, but what can I know of those deaths.

There was my mother's horror when she told me the stories, but my mother could not tell me much without breaking down, turning her face and its tears away from me.

And so what's left to learn, what can I know about my mother's grief, my grandmother's face when she was shot again and again, my aunt's absolute sorrow when she saw her baby daughter kicked to death, the baby's screams that would not stop?

There are no photographs of what happened, no news reports, no eye witnesses now that even my mother is gone, and all that's left is just a handful of broken memories that will never truly belong to me.  

What's left to say?

Please let me know.

_________________

The photo is of my mom and her sister Zofia who survived the war.  It was taken outside of a refugee camp in Germany.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Nazism and Christianity: A Response to Danusha Goska's Essay

Edwin Woodruff Tait responds to Danusha Goska's essay "Against Identifying Nazism with Christianity."  To read her essay, please click HERE.  


NAZISM AND CHRISTIANITY: A Response to Danusha Goska's Essay

I'm honored to have been asked to reply to Danusha Goska's essay on Nazism and Christianity. I approach this question as a historian of Christianity, specifically the late Middle Ages and early modern periods. I'm more familiar, in other words, with traditional Christian anti-Judaism than I am with Nazi anti-Semitism, and that may be one reason why Danusha and I reach very different conclusions on the relationship between the two.

First of all, I want to highlight my agreement with Danusha's basic thesis: of course Nazism was not itself a Christian ideology. It was a modern secular ideology, many of whose adherents were Christians of one sort or another (frequently unorthodox ones) but whose inner circle, as Danusha documents, was consistently contemptuous toward Christianity and nostalgic for ancient Germanic paganism. Many people in our culture seem to believe that Nazism was basically Christian--in one recent Facebook discussion I got into, someone said that Nazis "persecuted non-Christians," and I was excoriated as a dishonest Christian apologist for pointing out (fortified by having read Danusha's essay) that Nazis were certainly not persecuting Jews for "not being Christians," since key Nazi leaders hated and despised Christianity themselves. I think Danusha's discussion of the role of the Grimm fairy tales in Nazism is fascinating and thought-provoking.

Here's the thesis I still maintain, with which Danusha disagrees: the acceptance by Germans of Nazi anti-Semitism, specifically, was in significant ways facilitated by the longstanding presence in European society of religiously inspired Christian anti-Judaism. That is to say, Germans who were culturally Christian (which meant pretty much all Germans who were not Jews or Roma) most likely found it easier to accept Nazi anti-Jewish policies because of the centuries of anti-Judaism. Catholics in particular had been very concerned in the early 20th century with a secularizing bent in European society, and had frequently blamed Jews for this. See this article by Martin Rhonheimer published in First Things in 2003, which has heavily influenced my thinking about these issues. Danusha and I first became acquainted, in fact, due to an online discussion about some of the things Civilta Cattolica printed about the Jews. I single out Catholics not because I think they were more to blame, but because on the whole they represented a more traditional Christian approach which led them to reject some aspects of Nazism, such as racial theory. Protestants were less likely, perhaps, to rant about the dangers of too much Jewish influence in society, but (setting the Confessing Church aside, of course) they were far more likely to identify their religion with German culture and "progress" and had far weaker resources for resisting racial theory, which presented itself as new scientific truth to which traditional ideas must be made to conform. They also tended to have a more spiritualized idea of the role of faith, whereas Catholics had a vigorous tradition of defending the "social reign of Christ the King."

Before I address Danusha's specific arguments, I want to tackle what I think is the fundamental methodological difference between us. Danusha seems interested in isolating necessary and sufficient causes for Nazism, and she appears (she can correct me if I'm wrong) to hold that historical events, at least events such as the Holocaust, are primarily caused by socio-economic factors. I agree with her entirely, for instance, that the "middleman" status of Jews played a huge role in causing people to resent them. But I don't think this excludes consideration of beliefs which focused resentment of Jews' "middleman" status and provided justification for them. My advisor, David Steinmetz, taught me that human behavior is "overdetermined." You can always find multiple causes for everything people do. While it's certainly nice when we can isolate necessary or sufficient causes for human behavior (and these are generally more likely to be socio-economic, because these kinds of causes are easier to measure), I don't think that's a reason to dismiss what appear to be likely contributing causes. So many of Danusha's arguments don't move me, because they amount to "there are other reasons for the Holocaust and it might have happened anyway." That may be true--counterfactuals are hard to prove or disprove. Certainly Danusha is right that the Nazis massacred many other groups. Whether she's as correct about Christian anti-Judaism being no more intense than that of other cultures I'm less convinced (more on that later). But the basic methodological issue is that I'm not convinced we can isolate necessary and sufficient causes for human behavior with any precision. Hence, we should speak responsibly and cautiously about all the possible contributing factors, not ruling some out just because we can't set up some kind of laboratory test to see what would have been the case if they hadn't been present.

In defending Christianity against the charge of contributing to the Holocaust, Danusha seems almost to have reduced it (and religion in general) to irrelevance. She's certainly right that Christianity has been distressingly unable, in many cases, to affect human behavior on a large scale. And from my perspective as a Christian, one important reason for raising this issue of Christian influence on anti-Semitism is to try to understand just what that is the case. Yes, it's possible to say simply, as a rather disillusioned Romanian evangelical told me sadly years ago, "Faith is faith but people remain people" (Credinta-i credinta, iar om ramane om). But when there are, in fact, specific elements in Christian tradition and historic Christian practice on which human sinfulness can seize in order to inoculate itself against the transforming power of the Gospel, I think it's important not to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt in analyzing the possible effect of those elements.

Now to Danusha's specific points:

1. Yes, Nazism was anti-Christian, at least based on the statements of its inner circle. However, it arose in a historically Christian culture where Christianity still had huge influence, and many Christians either embraced it explicitly or passively accepted it, often expressing sympathy with some of its measures, including some of the measures against Jews. Danusha outlines the ways in which Nazis drew from German Romanticism--but German Romanticism, like Christianity, can't simply be identified with Nazism. I take Danusha's point that Luther, for instance, didn't directly influence Nazi anti-Semitism (though they used his pamphlet when talking to Lutherans, just as they drew on Catholic anti-Jewish polemic when talking to Catholics). But the Reformation shaped German Protestant culture in ways that at times facilitated Nazism. The failure of Luther and other early Protestants to reject the medieval anti-Jewish tradition (indeed, Luther's "On Jews and Their Lies" is a particularly savage expression of that tradition) while they were about rejecting medieval "corruptions" ensured that the seeds of anti-Judaism remained within German Protestant culture (as within German Catholic culture), ready for the Nazis to use.  Danusha defines Christian ethics as "universalist"--but Christianity had frequently made its peace with various forms of nationalism. (Here Protestantism was far more guilty than Catholicism--this is in fact perhaps the single major way in which the Protestants helped pave the way for the Nazis.) 19th-century liberal Protestant theologians in Germany frequently write as if Christianity is simply identical with bourgeois Protestant culture. This, as Barth saw, was a huge factor in preparing German Protestants to accept Nazism. If you think your culture (as in a Hegelian paradigm, for instance) is the highest point that Spirit has so far reached in human evolution, then the dichotomy between universalism and nationalism disappears. The interests of your race are the interests of the human race. Catholicism wasn't free from blame either. As this article points out, Karl Adam, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the time, was deeply influenced by German Romanticism (this was positive in many ways, because it enabled him to articulate an ecclesiology that was mystical and imaginative rather than the "perfect society" ecclesiology that had reigned for centuries), and this led him to accept many aspects of Nazism, even as he also pointed out its "pagan elements" and actually got in trouble with the Nazis. Joseph Lortz, the first major Catholic scholar to see value in Luther, was initially enthusiastic about Nazism, though he had a change of heart later. In short, even though Christianity was not the primary direct influence on Nazism, it contributed to the cultural milieu from which Nazism arose, and was in turn shaped by that milieu in ways that hindered its ability to resist Nazism. The fact that Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda resonated with and drew on traditional Christian anti-Judaism is the single most striking and disturbing example of this.

II. Yes, the inner circle of Nazis despised Christianity, and yes, they persecuted those Christians who stood up to them (orthodox Catholics and Confessing Church Protestants). But that does not change the fact that many Christians worked with the Nazis or even joined them, and (especially in the case of Protestantism) modified their own traditions to fit Nazism. So it's not relevant to the dispute between myself and Danusha. There were specific elements of Nazism that many Christians found appealing even when they recognized that Nazism as a whole was incompatible with Christianity (see my remarks about Karl Adam above), and Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda was often one of those elements.

Points III-VII do not, I think, contradict anything I'm arguing for. I don't think that the Holocaust was the "inevitable" result of 2000 years of Christian anti-Judaism. I agree that the Nazis needed huge social trauma, propaganda, and considerable deception as to the actual nature of the "solution to the Jewish problem" in order to put their genocidal plans into operation. But this does not mean that Christian anti-Judaism didn't play a role in disposing Germans to go along with Nazi plans given these factors.

Point VIII observes that the Nazis slaughtered many other people as well, such as Slavs. Yes, and there were historical roots to Nazi violence against Slavs too, going back to the medieval German Christian expansion into Slavic lands. Danusha has written about anti-Polish stereotypes. Surely she would agree that stereotypes and prejudices against Poles and other Slavs helped facilitate these atrocities? If Poles had been seen for centuries as "brutish" and "sub-human," then it makes sense that they were prime targets--as Jews were. Under Point XI, Danusha argues that everyone stereotypes and that this doesn't necessarily lead to genocide. Of course not--but stereotypes pave the way for us to treat others as inhuman when social conditions favor it. They are like germs that remain latent in a healthy organism but become virulent under conditions of stress. In times of chaos and hardship, people tend to look for scapegoats. Of course this is common human behavior across time and space. But when particular groups of people have been consistently treated as scapegoats and subjected to oppression and violence on that account before, it strains credulity to say that the latest (and by far the worst) outbreak of such persecution is totally unrelated to all the previous examples. Again, to use the disease analogy (admittedly an ironic and disturbing one to use in this context, given the way Nazis used it), it's just plain truth-telling to say that the same germs have caused successive outbreaks, even if in modern times they mutated significantly in ways that made them even more deadly.

Point IX argues that the NT's message is "overall one of love," and thus Christianity is nothing like Nazism. But this is painting with too broad and essentializing a brush. As Danusha admits, there are passages in the NT which, taken out of their original context (a small group of apocalyptic Jews criticizing mainstream Jewish leaders for rejecting their Messiah), could be used in anti-Jewish ways. And they were so used, over and over again. Danusha says that Christians "struggled to defuse" these interpretations. Yes, that's one side of the story. But there's another, much darker side, which I don't have the space to tell here but which has been abundantly documented in works of scholarship such as Cohen's The Friars and the Jews, Netanyahu's The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, and Miri Rubin's Gentile Tales. Official Church doctrine and policy simultaneously fanned and sought to quench the flames of anti-Jewish hatred. Jews were referred to routinely in the liturgy and in devotional literature in ways that inevitably inflamed violence, even as the Church sought to restrain that violence. The Nazis liberated the anti-Jewish passions that had smoldered at the heart of Christian Europe from the restraints that the Church had set in place.

Danusha's example of Germanic violence against Prussians and Slavs hardly gets Christians off the hook. That violence was condoned and even, at times, encouraged by the Church as long as the targets were non-Christian. (Or, as in the Teutonic Knights' invasion of Russia in the 13th century, schismatic Christians.) The war against the Prussians was a papally sanctioned crusade spearheaded by a religious order, the Teutonic Knights. Danusha points out that Christians accepted the Old Testament, which forbade murder. But of course that same Old Testament described God commanding genocidal warfare against unbelievers. Even in the New Testament there is plenty of apocalyptic imagery describing the violent destruction of the wicked, and rulers are said to "bear the sword" on God's behalf, which could easily be taken to mean that Christian rulers were agents of this apocalyptic vengeance. Even Paul's language about separating from false brothers within the community and handing an evildoer over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh could be understood, in a post-Constantinian context, as referring to the physical punishment of the wicked by Christian authorities, whether through war or through judicial punishment. Medieval Christians frequently spoke of heresy and unbelief as a "contagion" (the disease metaphor again) and used medical language to describe the "harsh remedies" that divinely appointed civil and religious authorities needed to use in order to cure society of its spiritual diseases. Modern Christians are frequently extremely naive about just how deeply this concept of redemptive, curative violence was rooted in the Christian tradition, including the Scriptures of both Testaments. So no, it is not true to say that because Christianity had an "ethic of love" therefore it was nothing like Nazism. It would be more accurate to say, again, that Nazism liberated the destructive, vicious elements of European Christian culture from the moral and spiritual restraints in which orthodox Christianity had held them.

Rodney Stark's argument in Point X, like many of Stark's historical arguments, appears to be propagandistic rather than a fair reading of history. (I haven't read Bearing False Witness yet, but I have little confidence in Stark as a writer about premodern eras, though he's excellent as a sociologist of modern American religion. See my review of his The Victory of Reason for some of the errors he makes when writing about the Middle Ages.) Yes, it's true that Christians were a minority religion for three centuries, but during that time they built up plenty of animosity toward Jews. In the late fourth century, John Chrysostom condemned Christians who worshiped in Jewish synagogues by describing Judaism as demonic and using imagery about Jews that would recur over and over again in anti-Semitic polemic. (Chrysostom was not advocating violence against Jews, who still had quite a secure position within the newly Christian Empire, though Christians did sometimes destroy synagogues even this early.) Justinian ordered synagogues to be converted to churches, and Heraclius (early 7th century) ordered the forced baptism of all Jews, though apparently neither of these had much effect. (To be fair, Jews massacred Christians during the Persian invasion under Heraclius.) Jews were persecuted in Visigothic Spain in the 7th century as well. However, certainly it's true that things got much worse in the later Middle Ages. Whether that was because of conflict with Islam I'm not sure (Stark is probably thinking of the "people's Crusade" which massacred Jews on the way to the Holy Land). R. I. Moore has argued that in the 12th century Christian Western Europe became a "persecuting society" in a number of different ways, for reasons that are hard to explain.

This may be the best point at which to tackle the comparison with Islam, which Danusha addresses in her Point XV (on non-Christian massacres of Jews). Certainly there are anti-Jewish elements in Islamic tradition, though on the whole they play a less prominent role than in Christianity, I think. (They have come to the fore in recent decades, of course, under the same sorts of circumstances of social disruption that led to the Holocaust, though I believe that there has also been a direct influence from European secular anti-Semitism.) And of course Muslims treated non-Muslims as inferiors, with all kinds of discrimination and humiliation that seem highly intolerant to us today. That being said, I think it is fair to say that Jews had a more stable place in Islamic society than in Christian society, and that massacres and expulsions were fewer. (Danusha jumps from Granada in the 11th century to the 20th century, though she could have found quite a few more examples of Islamic persecution of Jews between those widely separated dates--there was massacre of Jews in Morocco in 1465, for instance, and both the Almohads and the Almoravids persecuted them at various points.) That doesn't nullify Danusha's overall point that Jews certainly have been persecuted by people other than Christians. (See this piece by Mark Cohen for a nuanced argument to the effect that Jews had it better under Muslims than under Christians, together with a critique by Norman Stillman offering some very important qualifications.)

Back under Point IX, however, Danusha attempts to show that living under Christian rule has been good for Jews, by citing important Jewish figures who flourished after the Enlightenment weakened traditional Christian restrictions on Jews. Meanwhile, she says that Jews haven't flourished in the same way in Muslim areas such as Morocco and Yemen. That ignores the major role Jews played in the medieval Islamic cultural renaissance. What about Maimonides, Halevi, Ibn Gabirol, etc?

Point XII (supported by Point XIV, which I won't otherwise comment on) makes the important observation that people such as Maximilian Kolbe who clearly shared traditional anti-Jewish sentiments were still capable of standing up to Nazism on behalf of Jews. Again, I don't see that this refutes my position. One can hold to views that have disastrous consequences without following through on those consequences. My argument, once again, is not that Christian anti-Judaism was identical to Nazi anti-Semitism but that it helped facilitate it. Of course a person of great charity such as St. Maximilian would be capable of heroic defense of people against whom he might have some religious prejudices. But other, less saintly people might well be more likely to sit back and let the Nazis do their thing because of their traditional prejudices against Jews.

Similarly, I consider Danusha (much to her annoyance) to be an anti-Islamic polemicist. I think her views of Islam are to some extent unfair and prejudiced, in the sense that she engages in double standards when comparing Islam and Christianity (as seen above in her passing over the achievements of Jews under medieval Islam). These sentiments are widely held among Christians in the United States, and that is one of the reasons why so many of them see nothing wrong with President Trump's unjust actions toward refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries. Danusha, to her great credit, has spoken out against Trump's executive order, distinguishing between what she sees as her reasonable "anti-jihadi" sentiments and the unjust scapegoating of innocent people from Muslim countries. In fact, from the little that I know of Danusha, I suspect that she'd be a lot more likely to act heroically on behalf of Muslims than I would be, in spite of my (as I see it) fairer and less hostile views of Islam. That doesn't change my overall cultural observation that language such as Danusha's about Islam facilitates the very injustices that Danusha opposes. (Of course, if Danusha is right, she should speak as she does. I'm not arguing that she's wrong because her views could be used to support injustice. And this is not the place for us to thrash out our respective views of Islam.)

Finally, points XIII and XVI get us back to the question of how we talk about historical causation. Danusha argues in Point XIII that atrocities are not caused by stereotyping, and in Point XVI that the violence of hte European Wars of Religion was caused primarily by factors other than theology. In both points, she makes comparisons that I think actually rebound against her. Of course (to Point XIII) atrocities aren't always caused by stereotyping. But the more we dehumanize other people, the more likely we are to commit atrocities against them. We don't know how the Toltecs generally viewed outsiders--they may have developed habits of dehumanizing all outsiders, as indeed many cultures have had. Again, my argument is that stereotyping facilitates atrocity. The Rwandan example is, I think, a poor one for Danusha. Hutus and Tutsis did, I believe, have a history of hostility, exacerbated by colonialism as usual, and arguably with some religious overtones. I don't know enough about Cambodia to know whether there was stereotyping or not, but the fact that it was an "internal" genocide doesn't rule out the possibility.

Point XVI finally gets to territory that I know more about. And here Danusha is, in my opinion, simply wrong. Yes, many historians interpret the Wars of Religion as being "really" about politics. But that generally stems from a prejudice in favor of materialistic explanation and against taking religion seriously as a factor in history. Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his acclaimed history of the Reformation, documents how apocalyptic theological beliefs on both sides helped precipitate the Thirty Years' War. I have myself written (in an unpublished conference paper) about how one Protestant Reformer (Martin Bucer) justified armed resistance to the emperor even when the cause was lost by all reasonable measures. While the Strasbourg city government didn't listen to him, his "defensive holy war" argument prefigured the way many later Protestant holy warriors would think, I believe. (I admit that this is still a hypothesis which I haven't had the leisure to work out in solid research.) To be sure, theological differences don't necessitate violence. But in the early modern period, they certainly facilitated it.

I don't think that explaining the Reformation simply in terms of rulers wanting church property is a "sophisticated" interpretation at all. A sophisticated interpretation of history integrates all kinds of causation instead of trying to reduce everything to one cause.

And this brings us back to the fundamental reason I disagree with Danusha. I'm a historian of premodern Christian theology, particularly that of the Reformation era. I have read quite a bit about historic Christian anti-Judaism. From the perspective of the early modern period, the link between Christian anti-Judaism and later anti-Semitism seems obvious. Of course it might be an illusion. It might be that Christians screamed about the horrible Jews for centuries, and the Nazis just happened to scream about the horrible Jews too, with no connection between the two things. But I don't find this to be historically plausible. I find Danusha's arguments to be extremely persuasive against the view (which I do not hold) that Christian anti-Judaism was the same as Nazism or made it inevitable. I don't find them at all persuasive against the view that Christian anti-Judaism contributed to the success of Nazi anti-Semitism in mid-20th-century Germany. 

In the end, where we stand shapes how we should speak. We should always tell the truth, but we should tell it with a different emphasis depending on where we stand and to whom we are speaking. As a Christian, I am obligated to take very seriously the horrifying correlation between traditional Christian anti-Judaism and the demonic anti-Semitism of Nazism. It may not have exercised any significant causal role. It may simply have been a psychological justification that people in some cases resorted to. But that, for a Christian, should be enough for us to speak humbly and penitently about our failure in this regard. We should give the benefit of the doubt to the very serious possibility that the Christian legacy of anti-Judaism did in some cases make some people less able to resist Nazism (or even more likely to embrace it) than they would otherwise have been.

I entirely agree with Danusha that many people take this correlation out of context and use it as a stick to bash Christianity. But we defend Christianity best by being scrupulous to note anything that can possibly count against us. When we bend over backward to acknowledge the role that our faith may have played in facilitating Nazism, we are in a much stronger position to make all the excellent points Danusha wants to make: that Christians also were deeply involved in stopping Nazism, that Christians were often victims of Nazism, and that the principal driving forces behind Nazism were certainly not Christian.

I don't actually think that Danusha and I fundamentally disagree about the nature of Nazism. I think we disagree much more about how we should speak, as Christian scholars, about the role of Christianity in history. Danusha ends by saying that the Christians who ended the slave trade, led the movement for women's suffrage, blew the whistle on the sexual abuse crisis, and rescued Jews from Nazis deserve "nothing less than the truth." I agree. But similarly, the many people who have suffered in body, mind, and spirit from Christians' failure to live up to the truths of our holy faith deserve nothing less than a rigorous admission of these failures on our part, without excuses. Christians as a whole have, over a period of centuries, failed miserably in loving our Jewish neighbors. Perhaps exactly the same things would have happened if Europe had been pagan or Islamic or Buddhist for a thousand years. But it wasn't. It was Christian. And we must take responsibility for that.

________________

Edwin Woodruff Tait is a freelance writer, homesteader, organist, and homeschooling parent living in Kentucky. He earned his Ph.D. in religion from Duke University in 2005, specializing in the theology of the Protestant Reformation. He blogs at http://stewedrabbit.blogspot.com/.