Saturday, June 24, 2017
Our granddaughter Lulu was over this morning, and Linda and I were sitting around the dining room table, and Lulu asked, "You want to see my animal ballet?" And we said sure.
So she started doing an animal ballet. She did the giraffe ballet, and then she did the elephant ballet, and then a lion ballet and a panda ballet. And each one was perfect. She hummed a tune and danced like each of the animals would dance a ballet if it could.
It was great.
Then she turns to me and says, "It's your turn."
I can't dance. I can barely walk, so I say, "I'll tell you a story."
She nods, and I start ad-libbing.
I do this all the time, just some kind of goofy stuff, one silly plot point after another. This time I'm telling her a story about a panda and a horse and how the horse gets lost in the panda's jungle and how the panda doesn't want to help the horse get out of the jungle so the horse starts eating all the panda's bamboo.
And then I stop. The story is just some dumb ad-libbing that ends as soon as it begins, and I say, "That's it, Lulu."
And she pauses for a moment and doesn't say anything and then suddenly says, "Oh I get it. It's like Aesop's Fables. The panda first refuses to help the horse and so at the end the horse sort of punishes the panda by eating its bamboo. The panda should have been nicer."
And I sit there and marvel.
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
"All of History's Polacks"
I'm going to do a presentation today at the annual conference of Holocaust Educators of Virginia.
One of the things I'm talking about is what it was like for us as refugees in Germany for 6 years and what it was like when we came to America finally.
I'm going to start my presentation by reading from the preface to Echoes of Tattered Tongues:
Where I’m Coming From
I never set out to write about my parents and their experiences in the concentration camps in Germany and what it was like for us as immigrants here in America. When I was growing up, I wanted to get as far as possible away from them and the world they came from.
When we landed at Ellis Island, we were unmistakably foreign. We didn’t speak English. We dressed in black and brown wool that had been given to us by a UN relief agency. My mother wore a babushka on her head, my father a woolen cloth cap with a broken brim. They both wore their best shoes, leather boots that came to their knees. My mother’s brother had stitched and hammered those boots by hand. All our belongings were gathered together in a small steamer trunk my dad had built.
Our lives were hard: America then—like now—didn’t much want to see a lot of immigrants coming over and taking American jobs, sharing apartments with two or three other immigrant families, getting into the kinds of trouble immigrants get into. We were regarded as Polacks—dirty, dumb, lazy, dishonest, immoral, licentious, drunken Polacks.
I felt hobbled by being a Polack and a DP, a Displaced Person. It was hard karma.
I started running away from my Polishness as soon as I could, and for much of my life I continued to run. As I started moving into my early teens, I didn’t want anything to do with my Polish parents and their past. I thought of it all as that “Polack” or immigrant past. It was so old world, so old-fashioned. I had parents who couldn’t speak English, couldn’t talk about baseball or movies, didn’t know anything about Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, couldn’t spend a night without arguing with each other in Polish, the language of misery, poverty, and alienation. I wanted to spend as little time as possible thinking about my parents and their Polishness and what my mother sometimes called “that camp shit.”
I moved away from them, physically and psychologically and emotionally and culturally and intellectually. I stopped going to church, I left home, I didn’t maintain my Polishness, I stopped talking Polish, I stopped eating Polish food, I went to grad school, I immersed myself in American culture. I studied Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Dickinson, Eliot, John Dos Passos, Eugene O’Neill, Fitzgerald, and on and on.
I became the person my parents didn’t want me to be. They wanted me to be a good Polish boy, living Polish, going to church, residing at home, dreaming of returning to Poland like my dad.
I guess I did what some immigrant kids always do. I said, your world is not my world.
And then it all changed: I started writing about my parents when I was in grad school. Maybe it was because I had finally gotten far enough away from them. Maybe not.
I realized very quickly that even if people don’t want to read what I write, I had to write my poems about my parents just to make sure someone would. Really, there just aren’t a lot of people writing about people like my parents and the other DPs. And if I don’t write, who will? Imagine all of those hundreds of thousands of Poles who came to this country as DPs. Who wrote for them?
I sometimes feel that I am writing for all the people who’ve sought refuge in America, whose stories were never told, whose voices got lost somewhere in the great cemetery of the 20th century—that I have an obligation to listen to those voices and give them a place to be heard, to tell the stories they would write themselves if they could. For the last thirty-five years, while I have been writing about my parents’ lives, I sometimes think that I am not only writing about their lives, but also about the lives of all those forgotten, voiceless refugees, DPs, and survivors that the last century produced, no matter where they came from.
All of history’s “Polacks.”
My father spent more than 4 years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp as a Polish slave laborer. He was captured in a round up when he went to his village north of Poznan to buy some rope. When he was taken by the Nazis, he was a kid, just 19 years old.
A lot of times when he talked about his experiences, he couldn't help telling me about how hungry he was for those four years. He said that most days he got about 600 calories of food. Once when he complained about the food, the Nazi guard hit him across the head with a club. From that day on, my dad was blind in one eye.
When the Americans liberated the camp, he weighed 70 pounds. My mother said that when she saw him stumble into her camp at the end of a death march, he was skinny, like two shoelaces tied together. And he was one of the lucky ones. A lot of the guys in his camp didn't make it.
Once I asked him what it was like that first meeting with my mom, he smiled and said, "First, we had something to eat, and then we got married."
I've written a lot of poems about how hungry he was during those four year. The following is one of them. It's called "What He Ate." It appears in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues. Here's a youtube of me reading the poem. I'm posting a copy of the poem itself after the video.
What My Father Ate
He ate what he couldn’t eat,
what his mother taught him not to:
brown grass, small chips of wood, the dirt
beneath his gray dark fingernails.
He ate the leaves off trees. He ate bark.
He ate the flies that tormented
the mules working in the fields.
He ate what would kill a man
in the normal course of his life:
leather buttons, cloth caps, anything
small enough to get into his mouth.
He ate roots. He ate newspaper.
In his slow clumsy hunger
he did what the birds did, picked
for oats or corn or any kind of seed
in the dry dung left by the cows.
And when there was nothing to eat
he’d search the ground for pebbles
and they would loosen his saliva
and he would swallow that.
And the other men did the same.
If you want to read more about my dad, I recommend the poem "What My Father Believed." Garrison Keillor read it on his radio program a couple of years ago. Here's the link, just click on it: What My Father Believed.
Monday, June 12, 2017
Anne Frank's birthday is June 12. She would have been 88 years old if the Nazis had not killed her.
I first read her diary for a class in high school. I don't remember which class or which teacher or how old I was or what I was obsessing about, but I remember her book, the silence I felt as I read it, and I remember how slowly I read it because I didn't want the book and her life to end.
There weren't a lot of books about the Holocaust available to me back then in the early 60s. This book was the first, and it taught me something profound about that experience. The suffering and death of even a single person can touch and change a person.
Here's a link to one of the best website's about her: the Anne Frank page at the US Holocaust Memorial. Just click on the words US Holocaust Memorial.
The site includes interviews with those who knew Anne Frank, information about her diary, weblinks, and the shared thoughts of many people who have read Anne's diary and been touched by her and her story.
You might also want to take a look at a youtube done by the poet Lois P. Jones. It collects a series of photos of Anne and her family. Click here.
Feel free also to leave a note here about Anne Frank.
Wednesday, June 7, 2017
Recently, I was following a discussion on Facebook about reparations from the German Government to people who suffered in the concentration and slave labor camps in Nazi Germany.
The answer seems obvious to me, but let me tell you anyway.
There are no repayments, no restitution for what happened.
My mother was in the camps from 1942 on, my dad was in Buchenwald from 1940 on.
She got a lump sum from the German government of about 1500 bucks and a monthly allowance starting in 1990 or so of $32 per month. When she died in 2006, the monthly check had increased to about $87.
The Germans were never able to find my father's paper work from his time as a slave laborer, so they said he had no proof that he was in concentration camp for almost 5 years.
A German guard had destroyed his eye and left a scar from one side of his head to the other. When my father died in 1997, they sewed his eye shut and puttied in the scar. The broken eye and scar were not sufficient evidence of incarceration.
Because he had no proof, he got no reparations. He spent a couple years working through various Polish legal aid groups trying to get reparations. He finally decided that the money he was spending to get the reparations wouldn't get him anything and he stopped pursuing reparations.
My mother used to say that the Germans killed her mother and her sister and her sister's baby, and put my mother in a slave labor camp for 3 years and then gave her 30 dollars a month for compensation. It wasn't enough. Nothing was enough.
Sometimes my mother would laugh about this.
By the way, a couple of years ago, 25 some years after my dad last applied for reparations from the Germans, the US Holocaust Museum sent me jpegs of 15 documents about my parents' years as slave laborers. A number of them prove that my dad was eligible for reparations.
I wonder why the German government couldn’t find them.
The photo above of my mother, my sister, and me was taken by my father two years after we arrived as displaced persons in the US.
Here's a link to a wikipedia article on World War II war reparations. Click here.