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.


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.