Friday, March 31, 2023


Lent I went shopping one Wednesday afternoon about 40 days ago and was surprised no one had ashes on their foreheads. It was Ash Wednesday! Lynchburg, Virginia, where I live, doesn’t have a large Catholic population, but still, a lot of Christians observe Ash Wednesday, so I was expecting to see people with ashes on their foreheads to mark the start of Lent. When I got home, I contacted a few friends and asked if they had seen anyone with ashes on their foreheads. All my friends said the same thing. There were no ashes in sight. This surprised me. I grew up in St. Fidelis Parish, a Polish Catholic parish near Humboldt Park in Chicago, and Ash Wednesday was always a major event. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing people with ashes on their foreheads. Lent was a major event back in the 1950s when I was growing up. As kids we had to do what the adults did. We were supposed to fast from eating meat on Ash Wednesday, every Friday during Lent, and Holy Saturday morning. There were also church services we had to attend. Every Friday, the nuns marched us to church where we had to kneel for an hour during the Stations of the Cross. If that wasn’t hard enough, the nuns expected each student to give up one thing he loved for Lent. My parents were strict believers in Lent. They didn’t limit my sister Donna and me to one thing. It was like my parents wanted to take all of the fun out of our lives. When I was a kid, I loved reading comic books and watching TV comedies like The Jack Benny Show and Gillian’s Island. All of that disappeared from my life during Lent. But that’s not all! I loved going to Saturday matinees at the local movie theater on Division street. Every Saturday, the theater would show one comedy like Jerry Lewis’s At War with the Army, one horror movie like Invasion of the Saucer Men, and twenty cartoons. During Lent, no matter how much I pleaded with my parents, cried, and banged my head on the floor, I was not allowed to go to the movies. Why were my parents so strict during Lent? It took me years to figure this out, but at 74, I know why they were so demanding. They made us give up what we loved because my parents gave up what they loved most. My mom loved to go dancing on weekends at bars and wedding receptions. During Lent, there was no dancing for her. While my mom loved dancing, my dad loved drinking. An alcoholic, he loved his vodka and pints of beer. During the 40 days of Lent, he was totally sober. If mom couldn’t dance and dad couldn’t drink, you could bet I couldn’t watch Jerry Lewis being stupid.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The Worst Things the Sisters Taught Us

 This last month, a couple of my columns have been about the good things I learned from the Sisters at St. Fidelis, my parish school in the Humboldt Park area.  I think the columns went over well.  In fact, I got my first fan letter ever after that first column about the parish school!

This week I want to complete the picture of what I learned in the Catholic parochial school I attended.  

Like I said in those previous columns, we learned great things.  We learned how to succeed in high school and college, how to be comfortable around people of the opposite sex, how to make and do things that have helped us throughout our lives, and how to develop friendships that have lasted for decades.

But we also learned and saw stuff that we wished we hadn’t.

A couple of the priests were pedophiles, and I’ve written about that here in the Dziennik Zwiazkowy before, and I’ve also written about it in my mystery novel Little Altar Boy.  I don’t think I need to drag that up again.

The other stuff we learned and saw that we wished we hadn’t mainly involves the meanness of some of the Sisters. Generally, the Sisters were good people, people devoted to their vocations, people devoted to teaching us.  There were several nuns, however, who weren’t good people. Some of our worst memories were of seeing kids in the class being punished by some of the nuns.  It didn’t happen often, but those memories stay with you.

We remembered boys kneeling in the front of the class with books balanced on their arms.  We remembered kneeling on a bag of hard peas with our arms reaching for the sky.  We remembered kneeling on our own hands.  

We remembered having our hair pulled by the nuns for laughing about something in class.  We remembered being whacked across the shoulders with a ruler for speaking without raising our hands first. We remembered being struck on our palms with a ruler for getting a math question wrong. 

We remembered being forced to stand at the front of the class sucking on pacifiers because we were acting like babies.  We remembered being told to put our heads on the desk and being hit on the head with a book.  We remembered a boy who did something to annoy a nun, and she punished him by sticking his head out the window and closing the window down on his neck.

There are those memories, memories that are hard to escape.

Today, if a teacher were to do these things, she would be fired, possibly arrested.  It wasn’t like that back then.  We assumed that the sisters had a right to whack us and yell at us and pull our hair and make us feel stupid.  We didn’t complain.

Thankfully, some things have changed in our schools

Monday, January 23, 2023

78th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

On January 27, 1945, the Soviet army came upon Auschwitz and its various camps and subcamps.  

What they found was terrible.

Afraid of anyone seeing what they had been doing in Auschwitz, the Germans went on a killing spree before the arrival of the Russians.  They also tried to blow up the ovens where the murdered had been burned for years.  

When the Russians arrived, they found corpses and 7000 starving prisoners.

A conservative estimate is that 1,000,000 people died there.  Two of the them were my mother's aunts, Polish girls who married two Jewish boys.  

Here is a poem I wrote about Auschwitz.  It is based on an incident Tadeusz Borowski, a survivor of Auschwitz, describes in his memoir This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.  

I wrote the poem after a student at one of my readings asked me if I had one word for everything that happened in Auschwitz and the other German camps.  

The word was fear.

The poem appears in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues, available from Amazon.  


During the war, there was only work and death.

The work broke you down, filled your stomach

with rocks and threw you in the river to drown.

The work shoved a bayonet up your ass

and twisted the blade till you were dead.

In the camps, there was only what we ate

and those we worked with—sometimes women.

But we never made love. I’ll tell you why.

Fear. I remember once a thousand men

were working a field with sticks, and trucks came

and dumped naked women in front of us.

Guards were whipping them to the ovens,

and the women screamed and cried to us, pleaded

with their arms stretched out—naked mothers,

daughters, and sisters, but not one man moved.

Not one. Fear will blind you, and tie you up

like nothing else. It’ll whisper, “Just stand still,

soon it will be over. Don’t worry, there’s nothing

you can do.” You will take this fear to the grave

with you. I can promise. And after the war,

it was the same. I saw things that were as bad

as what happened in the camps. I wish

I had had a gun there. I would have

pressed it here to my forehead, right here.

Better that than what I feel now. This fear.

The painting is by my friend Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk from his series of paintings of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Friday, January 20, 2023


 Who Am I?

I was interviewed recently, and the interviewer asked a question I’ve never been asked by an interviewer.

He asked me who I am.

Personally, I feel that’s an impossible question to answer.

Let me explain why. 45 years ago, I did my PhD dissertation on the sense of the “self” in contemporary literature. The focus was on the “postmodern” notion that there is no definable “self.” According to my research, I cannot explain who I am. All I can give you is a sense of my “self” that is a fiction created out of the bits and pieces of my “self.”

So who am I?

Well, here’s the fiction I’ve created to answer that question: I’m a 74-year old guy with bad knees, vertigo, eyes that can’t focus, constant pain in my back, and two feet I’m always tripping over. My rheumatologist says my body is being taken over by a form of arthritis called “undifferentiated spondyloarthropathy” a mysterious disease affecting everything from my eyeballs to my toes.

But that’s not all I am. I’m also a writer who writes mystery novels, poems, and newspaper columns that have nothing to do with all that. I write about snow and sparrows, the world in the morning, the more mysterious world at night, the friends who are still here and wondering where I’ve gone to, and the friends who are waiting in their graves for my memories to give them some breath. I write about God and aging, my wife and my family, the way a door closes and the way a door waits to be opened. I write a lot about my mom and dad, the lives they had after they left the concentration camps. And I write about standing at a bus stop on the corner of Michigan Ave and Chicago waiting for a passing crucifixion just the way I did when I was a hippie 55 years ago.

So who else am I?

I’m also still what I once was: a kid born in a refugee camp after WWII, growing up in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, listening to my mother telling me how she saw her mother raped and killed by the Germans, dreaming of Henryk Sienkiewicz and Władysław Reymont, listening to my father telling me about how he watched German soldiers stabbing women in their breasts with bayonets, going to schools and colleges, finding friends and losing friends, teaching and marrying and having a family like no family I had ever had, and growing and growing and growing.

And still that’s not who I am.

Just yesterday, a friend I had in 6th grade got in touch with me on Facebook. I haven’t spoken or written to this guy in more than 60 years. I asked him who I was in 6th grade. He wrote back, “You were a tall, skinny, bad boy.”

I was surprised. I think he had me confused with someone else. Or not.

My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America. 

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Happy New Year!


My parents loved New Year’s Eve.

They loved dressing up in their fancy clothes. For weeks, my mom would search the department stores and dress shops on Milwaukee Avenue and Chicago Avenue looking for the most beautiful gown and shoes she could afford. For days, my dad would polish up his shoes again and again and make sure his best suit was free of any wrinkles and tears. They wanted to look as fancy as the Americans they dreamt of being.

They loved the spectacular ballroom they went to on New Year’s, the one in Wicker Park, on Wood Street just north of Division. They loved spending a long evening celebrating the coming year with their friends. These people – like my parents – were survivors. They survived the German invasion of Poland in 1939. They survived the years in the German slave labor camps. They survived seeing their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and friends killed by the Germans and the Russians. They survived the hardship of coming to America with nothing more than a wooden trunk filled with the few possessions they were able to gather together in the years they spent in the Displaced Persons camps in Germany waiting for some country like Canada or Australia or the United States to say finally, “Sure, we’ll let you come in, but it won’t be easy on you.”

My mother loved to dance the evening away. My father never learned to dance growing up, and so my mother would dance with anyone who looked like he or she was in need of a partner. She danced polkas and waltzes and tangos. She loved to hear the band on the stage play the old songs like “To ostatnia niedziela” and “Ada, to nie wypada” and “Dobranoc, kochanie” as she swirled around the dance floor with her friends and even strangers. 

Dancing, my mother would once again be the little girl who loved to dance with her sister Genja. My mother would once again be the girl she had been before the war killed her sister and ended all of her childhood.

And while my mom danced, my dad would sit at his table with his friends and talk about the war. They would talk a little about what they themselves suffered, but that wasn’t at the heart of their conversation. Whatever suffering they experienced was nothing compared to the suffering of those who hadn’t survived. My dad and his friends would sit at the table drinking their drinks and talking about the friends they had lost in the war, about Andrzej and Piotr and Janus and Antoni, about their suffering and bleeding and dying.

And dancing and drinking and sharing stories, my parents and their friends said goodbye to the year that had passed and embraced the year that was coming.


My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.


Saturday, December 31, 2022

New Years Resolutions

 New Year’s Resolutions

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been making Resolutions for most of my life.

I don’t remember when I started making them or why I did. It wasn’t something my parents did. I know that for a fact. New Year’s Eve they were always too busy partying with their friends to sit down and make a list of changes they would like to make in their lives. But like I said, I’ve been making Resolutions for a long time.

Recently, I looked over my New Year’s Resolutions for the last 10 years, and they are pretty much the same from year to year.

Here they are:

I will lose 25 pounds.

I will spend more time playing with my granddaughter Lulu.

I will ride my bike on good weather days.

I will be a better friend to my friends.

I will read 50 novels this year.

I will write 2 hours a day.

I will do yoga or Pilates every other day.

I will clean up my book shelves.

I will keep track of my wife’s earrings.

I will not make any mistakes!

It’s an interesting list, and the fact that I have pretty much the same list year after year tells you something pretty obvious about my ability to hold to these resolutions. For the most part, I can’t. To be honest with you all, I’ve only accomplished two of the resolutions this year.

First, I’ve managed to clean up my bookshelves. But I had little choice. We moved recently, and I had to box and move my totally chaotic 10,000 book library. (I should also add that some members of my immediate family like my wife, my daughter, and my granddaughter think my bookshelves still need pruning).

Second, I managed to lose 25 pounds. But before you start applauding me, let me explain I lost them because of a health emergency that hit me in September. I came down with the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a tick-borne disease that kills your appetite.

But the other stuff? Nope. Nada. Nothing.

Reading a novel a week? Not even close. I think I started reading a novel a month ago but I’ve lost it.

Writing 2 hours a day? I’ve come close. I was doing really well with the fourth novel in my Hank and Marvin mystery series, and then we had to move into the new house. Prepping for that and then actually moving ate up a lot of time. Then there was our London vacation! You can’t write if you’re wandering around London.

Yoga and Pilates? Nope. In fact the only exercise I have been doing is for my bum knee.

Bike riding? I look at my terrific bike every time I go into the garage and I think about how much I loved biking and how my bum knee has screwed up that love.

Be a better friend to my friends? Hard to do when most of the time you spend with your friends is on Facebook

So what am I going to do with these resolutions?

I think I’m going to scrap them and come up with a whole new New Year’s Resolution this year that has less to do with me and more to do with the people I love and the world I love.

So here’s my Resolution for this year:

I’m going to love the people I love, and let them love me, and I’m going to work to make sure the world I love stays safe from the people who want to change it.

An old column I wrote for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, Chicago’s Polish Daily News.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Christmas Trees!


I was talking to a friend yesterday about putting up Christmas decorations.  She was complaining about the time involved in the whole process. She talked about how hard it was putting the artificial tree together and then dragging the boxes of lights and ornaments out of the attic and then trying to track down the little statues of Santa and Mrs. Claus that she thought she had put in the basement but hadn’t.   My friend said that the whole operation took about 5 hours, even with her husband helping her put the Christmas lights on the bushes outside the house. 

5 hours to decorate the house for Christmas?  Is that all?

Let me tell you what it was like when I was a kid growing up in the fifties in the Polish neighborhood just east of Humboldt Park.    

The biggest problem was finding a tree.  It wasn’t like you could go down to Adolf and Rosita’s Grocery on the corner and buy a tree.  Trees were sold in weird places that you wouldn’t expect to be selling trees.  

Let me give you one example.  Taverns.

For some reason, taverns in the area sold trees.  They would have a dozen or so trees leaning against their front windows. Picking out a tree at a tavern sounds easy.  But it wasn’t.  A lot of times these trees were ragged with broken branches or needles that were turning brown.  What you had to do then was find another bar and another bar and another bar until you found one with a perfect tree.

My parents were picky when it came to trees.  They had both grown up near forests in rural Poland, and they knew a great tree when they saw one.  So when they checked out the trees at these taverns, they knew what they were looking for.  They were looking for the  best Christmas tree in Chicago.

What made this search especially difficult was the fact that my parents didn’t own a car.  We would, therefore, have to walk from tavern to tavern.  We’d walk from a tavern on the corner of California and Division to one on the corner of Western and North Ave to one on the corner of Kedzie and Armitage.  And of course, what made this search for the perfect Christmas tree even more difficult was the weather.  Once we had found the perfect tree we would often have to carry it home through the falling snow on ice-covered sidewalks.  This whole journey of finding the perfect Christmas tree would often take an entire Saturday afternoon.

And of course, that was just the beginning of the process of decorating our house for the holidays.  I knew that as soon as my dad carried the tree home, he’d drag his hand saw out of the basement and get to work on trimming that tree’s trunk and branches to make it the perfect tree — like the Christmas trees he loved in Poland as a boy before the war. 

My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.