Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A Valentine's Day Story -- How My Mom and Dad Met in a Slave Labor Camp

My mom had been brought to Germany to work in a slave labor camp. The day she was captured she saw her mom and her sister and her sister's baby killed by German soldiers. My mom was crying so much when she got to the camp that one of the guards said if she didn't stop crying they would shoot her.

Near the end of the war, my dad and some other slave laborers were brought to my mom's camp by German guards who were escaping the Russians. The Germans left him there and fled toward the American lines. When my mom saw my dad, he was a scarecrow in rags. He weighed about 70 pounds and had only one eye. He had lost the other when a guard clubbed him for begging for food.

She was 23, he was 25. She had been a slave for 2 years, he had been one for 4.

When I would ask my dad what it was like when they met, he would smile and say, "First we had something to eat.  Then we got married."   My mother's version was a little more complete.  Here's the way she told the story in a piece from my book about them, Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded.

My Mother Tells Me How She Met My Father

I first saw him in front of the barracks. He was walking with six other prisoners, a German soldier behind them pushing at them with some kind of rifle. Your father wasn’t how he is now. He was skinny then, like two shoelaces tied together.

I was not such a prize after three years in the camps either. When the Americans came, they weighed me and found I was less than a 100 pounds—and what was I wearing? You want to know? Woolens on my legs, a gray rag to hide my hair, a striped dress.

And him? Your father? Like I said, skinny with a bleeding towel across his face from where he lost his eye.

Still, he walked up to me, took my hand, and said in Polish, “Proszę, pani.”

Yes, he said, “Please, miss,” and like a proper gentleman, he clicked his heels. I thought he was at least a count, maybe a prince.

Then just before your dad had a chance to kiss my hand, the German behind him kicked him in the pants and said, “Dummkopf, raus!” Get moving, dummy!

Your father was like that. Always putting on airs, even then in the camps talking of Polish honor as if he and Poland shared a soul.

Really, he was worthless. I wish he had left me there in the camp. He couldn’t drive a car, he couldn’t fix a leaky roof.

When I asked him in the refugee camp to help me pack to come to America, he took a little drink and bundled all the clothes together in a bedspread like America was across the street.

The fool, I should have kicked him like the German soldier did when I met him.

Instead, I kissed him and wept.


If you want to read more about their life together, check out my Echoes book or my blog.  Here's a piece in fact about their life in America and how hard it was sometimes for them and why they stayed together:  Why My Mother Stayed with my Father.  (You can click on these links.)

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Subway Dreams

Subway Dreams

I lived at the end of the Ravenswood El in Chicago for years.

All day and all night subway cars pulled into the terminal.  I heard their wheels scraping against the metal rails in my sleep, and this gave me dreams and nightmares of subways and subway tunnels.

In these dreams I walked through the underground world of Chicago, met the people living in those tunnels, the husbands and wives and the frogs they gave birth to.

One time one of these frogs somehow got into my mouth and crawled into my body, through my stomach and into my womb.  Even though I was a guy, there was only one thing I could do to get rid of it.

In the darkness of the subway tunnels of Chicago, I gave birth to a blue frog.