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.