Thursday, November 16, 2017

1945: A Savage Peace


This morning I watched 1945: A Savage Peace, a BBC documentary on what happened to the ethnic German civilians living in Eastern Europe immediately after the war.

A brutal film.

I knew that they suffered, that the Russians raped and killed many as they moved west, but I had no idea about how the Poles and Czechs took vengeance on these German civilians.

Some of the documentary footage of Czechs shooting and hanging German civilians is very disturbing.

Also the interviews with the German children who survived this brutality are hard to listen too.

My only complaint is that there is too little made of the German atrocities committed during the war that inspired this revenge.  That seems forgotten, and I wonder if this is simply another way of changing how the world sees the Germans and the war.

Overall, the film tells me once again that war is shit.

The film is available on Netflix.

I recommend it.

Here's a link to a Daily Telegraph article about the documentary. Just click here: Link



Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Bad People

Bad People

People being evil?  Why do they do it?

I don't know.  But they seem to be doing it a lot more.  There was that book that came out last year or the year before about how civilization is more civilized than it was in the old days.

I find that hard to believe.  I remember giving a reading/presentation about my parents for a class of college students studying genocide.  I don't know if the students learned anything but I learned that more people have died of genocide since the UN establised it's policies against genocide in the early 1950s than died in the Holocaust.

I'm always astonished when I find out stuff like that.  I look around my house and my neighborhood and my city and my state and my country, and I see that sure there's some bad people here and there but where are the millions of bad people who are ready to kill millions of their neighbors.

One of my favorite journalists is Rszyard Kapuscinski (a Pole who grew up under communism)  who wrote a book called Shadow of the Sun about his travels among the genocidists of Africa.  He went here and he went there trying to track down the causes of the killing.  They were always absurd, meaningless, trivial.

What I took away from that book is that people can do bad things for the most absurd, meaningless, trivial reason and no law of God or man can stop them.

My father -- a concentration camp survivor -- felt that all Germans were evil.  When I was a kid, he wouldn't let me play with kids with German names like Mueller or Rickert or Hauser.

Was he right?  I asked my mother -- also a survivor -- what she thought of the Germans.  She said some were good, some bad.

I guess that's what we have to remember.  Some people can be bad, will be bad.

So here I am a 69 year old still trying to sort out the truths my parents left me.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Found Book

A Found Book

You pick up a book of poetry off of one of the shelves in your study, and you wonder where it came from. 

There’s nothing you remember about it. 

The light tan cover? 

The title?

The author’s name?

Nothing.

Was this author a friend whose name you’ve forgotten? Or did another friend give you the book, telling you to read it because it meant so much or so little to him?

You don’t remember.

You turn to the blurbs on the back and discover the book is 40 years old, and you realize it’s probably been sitting on your bookshelves for that long.

You’ve moved it from one house to another through those 40 years and you never once opened it. It’s sat on those shelves through storms and deaths, through crises and miracles, and you never opened it.

And now you do.

You open it.

And the words are magic.

But only for a second.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

First Snow in a Refugee Camp in Germany


I still remember the first time I saw snow.

I was almost three years old, living in a refugee camp in Germany.

The snow fell thick and fast on a convoy of camouflaged army trucks moving through the camp.

I stepped outside of the barracks without shoes on.  I didn't know the snow would be cold and wet, but that didn't matter, the cold and the wet.

I stood in the white swirl and put both hands out to catch the flakes.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Road of Bones -- A Novel of War and Love

Road of Bones

That's the title of my forthcoming novel (Gloria Mindock's Červená Barva Press) about two German lovers separated by war.

It's set in Berlin and the Russian Front during one cold week in January of 1945.  The main characters are Hans, a soldier, and Magda, a widow and his lover.

Hans is a fictional representation of the German soldiers who killed my mom's family in 1942.  I wanted to write about him so I could better understand what happened to my grandmother and my aunt and my aunt's baby.

WIPs -- an online journal that offers excerpts from novels in progress -- has published a chapter from late in the Road of Bones, along with an interview in which I talk about writing the book, my motivation and the problems finding a publisher.

Please take a look.

And buy the book when it comes out!

Click here to read the chapter.

http://www.wipsjournal.com/john-guzlowski-village-of-cold-houses-an-excerpt-from-road-of-bones/ http://www.wipsjournal.com/john-guzlowski-village-of-cold-houses-an-excerpt-from-road-of-bones/


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Brothers and Sisters from the Slave Camps


My father always talked about the men and women he was in the slave labor camps as his brothers and sisters. I remember once walking with him on a street in Chicago when he ran into of the men he had been with in Buchenwald. My dad threw his arms around him and hugged him and wept, whispering "my brother, my brother" as he cried. This is a short piece I wrote about his brothers and sisters from the camps.

The Despair of his Brothers and Sisters in the Slave Camps

Even though he had not known them before, they were his brothers and sisters now, brothers and sisters from towns whose names appeared on no maps, villages lost in the marshes of the east and the ravines of the south, men and women from cities who’d known food he couldn’t imagine: bread in the shape of birds, wine as bitter and blue as tears, potatoes soft and warm as summer clouds--and macaroni.

And each day they did the work the Germans forced them to, whether it was cutting the wood, or hauling the pine coffins from the trains, or stacking crumbling bricks in Magdeburg after the American planes bombed it.

At first these brothers and sisters talked about the smell of the dead, the awfulness of the work, and then they didn’t.

And from the same gray metal buckets, these brothers and sisters ate what the Germans gave them soup that was always too thin, meat alive with maggots, bread made from sawdust and sorrow, and they looked at each other with the same cold eyes, and knew that nothing, not even love, could keep them alive till spring.

_____

To read more about my parents please buy my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

My First Death



I remember the first time I knew there was death in the world.  

I was in kindergarten at St. Hedwig's, a parochial school on the near northwest side of Chicago, an area that they now call Bucktown.  

One of my friends and his mom were hit and run over by a drunken driver while standing waiting for a bus on Milwaukee Avenue across the street from the Congress Theater.  

We didn't know what happened to him until a couple of days later when the nuns took the whole class to the church to see him one last time.  

There were two open caskets.  His mom was in one, and Jimmy was in the other.  He was dressed all in white and his hands were holding a white flower to his chest.  The sisters told us that he was in Heaven and that we would see him again when we got there, but still that couldn't keep me from grieving for him, wondering about his last moments, his fear.  

It's 65 years later, and I still think about Jimmy and his mom.  

Sometimes, I see him standing on the corner with her across the street from the Congress Theater waiting for the bus, not knowing a car was going to come and kill him.  He's talking to her about school that day, and how he ran around the play lot with me and two other boys.  She smiles and tells him it's good to have friends.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Charity in America



When we first arrived in Chicago in 1952, we were lost.

We had spent 6 years in the DP camps in Germany and another year outside of Buffalo, NY, working for a farmer who paid our passage over.

But now we were in Chicago, and we were lost.

We had nothing, just the things we brought with us from Germany, some plates, a crucifix, a wooden comb, some goose down pillows, a frying pan, and letters from a friend in America.

In Chicago we lived in dark rooms in small apartments that we shared with other DP families from the camps in Germany.  We were all people who had left everything behind, our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, our brothers and sisters.

We were alone and didn't know where anything in this new world was.  I remember one time my father went out looking for a store where he could buy some Polish sausage and my mom said to him, "Maybe they don't have kielbasa here."

I was 4 years old that first winter in America, and I remember staring out a window at the snow falling on the buses moving slowly up and down Milwaukee Avenue, and begging my father to take us back to the refugee camps in Germany.

We were lost in America -- but sometimes people helped us.

We didn't know who they were, what their names were, or why they helped us.  But they did.

Here's a poem I wrote about those people who helped us in Chicago during that first winter.

Charity

The women who came to our apartment
didn't speak Polish, and the only English
my parents knew was "Thank you, Missus,"
but they came and brought dresses for my mom,
rubber boots for my dad, cans of pork and beans
and loaves of bread for all of us,
and for my sister and me, comic books
and sometimes a hard rubber toy, a doll
or a red truck with a missing tire.

We didn't know who they were or how
they'd found us or even their real names.
But they had names: "dobra" and "fajna,"
and we knew what those words meant.
These were "good" and "fine" women.

____

The poem is from my book about our refugee experience, Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

Friday, September 15, 2017

First Christmas -- DP Camp

A Photo from the DP camps -- Bob Jensen, a producer, is making a video presentation of some of my writing from my book about my parents and our lives as refugees after the war, and he asked me for some photos that he could splice in. Here's one of them, my first Christmas: 1949 in a DP camp in Fallingbostel, Germany, my sister and me in front of a tree.



Monday, September 11, 2017

Sept 11, 2001 -- The Short View



I got a letter on Sept. 12, 2001, from my friend Bill Anderson who tended to take a cynical view of people and government and the human animal in general. The following was the response I wrote to him that day:

I wish I could take the long view the way you do, Bill: look at the attack, and see it the way it probably is: Bush seeing this as his way of putting a lock on his second term, Americans showing their true nature by making money on increased gas prices, Hollywood being angry because this will put the next Bruce Willis film on hold for 2 weeks. The long view: we're all self-serving crooks.

I'm not good at the long view. I'm more of a short view guy: One of my wife Linda's cousins saw the first tower go down from her office. Her name is Lisa. She was a wonderfully fat baby. One time her mom, Linda's Aunt Anne, dressed her in a tutu, and Linda's dad Tony laughed and laughed, and still 25 years later the family talks about the tutu and how much we all loved her in her tutu and laughed with joy at her beauty.

Lisa got out okay. She was evacuated, and finally found herself across the river at a phone booth in Hoboken, New Jersey. She called home to Aunt Anne and Uncle Buddy. He’s also a short view guy: He was with Patton's soldiers when they freed the first concentration camps. He still shakes and cries when he remembers the piles of corpses.

My niece is an emergency room nurse at NYU hospital (I think I saw her in the background on an NBC spot about the hospital--but I wasn't sure. She looked old and tired and gray with pain). Her dad, Linda's brother Bruce, was calling her and calling her to make sure she was okay. Finally she got through to him late in the afternoon on Tuesday. He begged her to leave the hospital, said he would drive down from Connecticut and get her. Cried and begged her. He said he was her father and she had to listen to him. (Bruce isn't much of a crier. He's a jokey, tough Brooklyn guy.) But she was his baby and he wanted her away from all of it. And she said she couldn't leave. He cried some more and pleaded, and she hung up on him. She had to get back to work.

And all those people looking for their relatives and friends, holding pictures up to the TV cameras and telling us about how some guy was a great friend, and he was a waiter in a restaurant at the top of the building. And I see this picture of this poor foreign looking schmuck with a big nose and a dopey NY baseball cap that's way too big, who probably came here with a paper suitcase and thought that working up at that restaurant was the greatest thing possible in the world. And the friend hoping to find this guy thinks this guy is alive someplace, maybe in a coma in some hospital. 

And I know there's not a chance in hell this guy or any other guy or gal in any of these pictures is alive. They're dead, all dead, but I wouldn't tell this guy holding the picture.

Boy, these are stories that touch me so hard I can't think about the other stuff, the long view.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Echoes of Tattered Tongues Reviewed by the Harvard Review



Okla Elliot's review of my recent book about my parents and their lives as slave laborers in Germany and refugees in America.

John Z. Guzlowski has been writing about his parents’ experiences during and after the Holocaust for years, working through the surface and subterranean hurts wrought by that calamitous world event upon a single family. Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded should be read as a capstone project to Guzlowski’s years of processing this cultural and familial material.
The body of the book, after a brief introduction, is broken up into five parts—a preface, three “books,” and an epilogue—the classical structure for a drama. Each section of poetry is introduced by a prose section in a style that might be called “critical creative nonfiction.” These add much and detract nothing, despite the usual injunction against poets commenting on their own work; if anything, they enhance the memoir-like effect of the entire book and offer a theoretical context for the larger themes. 
The preface is a poem titled “My People.” It has little to do with the Holocaust directly, but is rather about the Polish-immigrant experience and, perhaps, in a broader sense, about poverty. 
My people were all poor people,
the ones who survived to look
in my eyes and touch my fingers
The poem speaks of deaths and, knowing the context, we might assume these are deaths that occurred during the Holocaust. But Guzlowski doesn't mention Poland or concentration camps in the poem, instead using this preface to establish a wide conceptual background for a book that is at other times staggeringly intimate and specific to the experience of his family. 
According to much research, trauma disrupts time and dislodges the self from linear experience, and it is interesting to note that Guzlowski does not organize the book in chronological order. The first full section is titled “Half a Century Later.” In other ways, too, the book is commendable for its psychological accuracy. 
In the poem “My Parents Retire to Arizona,” the speaker describes the odd and useless items his parents want to give him: 
They give us things we don’t want: blades
for hacksaws I don’t own, canna lily bulbs
in Ziploc bags even though I am death on them,
four cans of Comet cleanser
And the list goes on, subtly layering these useless gifts until the end of the poem, when the mother says, "Please take these things.” Then, finally, the speaker understands what the mother cannot say: 
“Think of us as you use these things.
Once we were as young as you, cleaning
the house, dreaming over the backyard
of bright red lilies, counting these pennies.”
Echoes of Tattered Tongues is a formally coherent, challenging, and important book, chronicling the lasting scars of one family with deftness and narrative depth. Guzlowski is often bluntly direct, and occasionally lyrically oblique, but both to great effect. Emily Dickinson admonished poets to tell it slant, and Guzlowski certainly takes her advice, but he also sometimes ignores it in favor of Chekhov’s equally sage admonishment to tell the most monstrous events in the coldest and most direct fashion.

______________

Echoes of Tattered Tongues is available as a hardbound book, a Kindle, and an audiobook.  Here is the Amazon link.  Click HERE.



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 1969



I'm 21 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.