Friday, October 26, 2007


"Tell them we weren't the only ones."

My mother said that to me once just before I did a lecture about her experiences and my dad’s experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany. She wanted me to be sure I told the audience that my parents weren’t the only people that terrible things happened to in those concentration camps. I promised my mother I would, and in fact, when I got to the lecture hall that night and stood up in front of that audience the first thing I did was tell them what my mother told me to.
“We weren’t the only ones.”

For a long time, I thought I knew what she meant by that sentence. My mom hadn’t told me much about her experiences. My dad, however, had told me a lot about his terrible experiences during his five years in the Germany concentration camp system, and he also told me something about what had happened to my mother and her family, her mother, her sister, and her sister’s baby. They had been brutally murdered by the Nazis who came to their farm in eastern Poland. As I said, my mother didn’t talk about this experience or many of her other experiences for much of my life with her. I talk about this in one of my poems, “Here’s What My Mother Won’t Talk About.” In it, my mother’s response to my questions about her time under the Nazis is to tell me that I’m a fool and “If they give you bread, eat it. If they beat you, run.” That was pretty much it.

This last September, Tracy Meyers, the Director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Valdosta State University, invited me to do a lecture and poetry reading about my mother’s experiences during and after the war.

To prepare for it, I started thinking about my mother’s experiences and her silence about so much that had happened to her. I re-read an article I read years before by Jessica Alpert called "Muted Testimony: Rape and Gendered Violence of the Holocaust." Alpert’s argument was that women tended not to talk about their experiences in the concentration camps and the death camps because of the sexual brutality they experienced. This led me to do some more research, and what I found out was that a lot of the histories and memoirs and literary writings about war talk about what men are doing in a war, but these histories don’t always look at what’s happening to women and how they are experiencing war.

It’s not surprising. Women’s experiences of war tend to be different than men’s experiences of war. Women’s experience tend to be brutal and without much glory or sense of victory or accomplishment. Doing a Google search of “women” and “war” brings up things like the Japanese rape of the city of Nanking. The actual number of rapes that occurred there is hard to pin down but they range from 20,000 to 80,000. One source said that when the Japanese soldiers weren’t raping the women, “They took great pleasure in forcing fathers to rape their daughters and sons to rape their mothers.” British historian Antony Beevor says in Berlin: The Downfall 1945 that the Russians raped millions of women as they moved west, pushing back the Germans in the final months of World War II. These women were not only German women but also Russian women and Polish women and Ukrainian women and the women in the liberated concentration and death camps.
In her study Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front in World War II (available on the internet), historian Wendy Jo Gertjejanssen argues that sexual violence against women by Russians and Germans both was common and seldom talked about.

Dr. Gertjejanssen says at the start of her study that sexual violence during the war happened to many, many women, perhaps millions, on the eastern front. These women were sexually abused and harassed, they were forced into military brothels, and they were raped and mutilated. Also, because they were deliberately starved, these women often found that they had to exchange sex for food and water to stay alive.

If you look at the memoirs left by women who had been in the camps, not many of these memoirs talk about the sexual brutality that took place in the camps. One of them that does is Seed of Sarah by Judith Isaacson. In fact, she talks about women’s silence about being sexually brutalized. In her book, Isaacson relates a conversation she had with her daughter about what happened to the women her mother knew during the war. Isaacson tells her that most of them had been raped and killed either by Nazis or the Russians. When her daughter wonders why no one ever hears about all of the women who were raped during the war, Isaacson answers, "The Anne Franks who survived rape don’t write their stories.”

Was my mother raped? Was she sexually brutalized?

These are hard questions for me to think about. They make me feel very sad. You want to think about the good things that happened to the ones you love; you don’t want to think of all the terrible things that might have happened. If my mother herself was not the victim of sexual brutalization, she must have seen it, and it must have hurt her deeply. One of the things my father frequently talked about and that I heard about from the time I was a kid was the story about the German soldier cutting a woman’s breasts with his bayonet. This woman was my aunt Genja who died with her baby and my grandmother when the Germans came to my mother’s farm.

Toward the end of her life, my mother told me about how she cried and couldn’t stop crying after this killing. I wrote a poem about it called “Grief.” It talks about how she was taken to Germany after the death of her sister Genja and the baby and her mother. Here it is:


My mother cried for a week, first in the boxcars
then in the camps. Her friends said, “Tekla,
don’t cry, the Germans will shoot you
and leave you in the field,” but she couldn’t stop.

Even when she had no more tears, she cried,
cried the way a dog will gulp for air
when it’s choking on a stick or some bone
it’s dug up in a garden and swallowed.

The woman in charge gave her a cold look
and knocked her down with her fist like a man,
and then told her if she didn’t stop crying
she would call the guard to stop her crying.

But my mother couldn’t stop. The howling
was something loose in her nothing could stop.


I want to say one more things. The poet Christina Pacosz sent me an email a couple weeks ago reminding me that bad things haven’t stopped happening with the end of World War II. She’s absolutely right.

This comes from a UNICEF post on Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War:

"The State of the World's Children 1996 report notes that the disintegration of families in times of war leaves women and girls especially vulnerable to violence. Nearly 80 per cent of the 53 million people uprooted by wars today are women and children. When fathers, husbands, brothers and sons are drawn away to fight, they leave women, the very young and the elderly to fend for themselves. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Myanmar and Somalia, refugee families frequently cite rape or the fear of rape as a key factor in their decisions to seek refuge."(

My mother wasn’t the only one.

(Drawing by Kathe Kollwitz)


Urkat said...

I can only say after reading that, and with some consciousness of my own fallibility and the limitations of my judgment that, if people understood the consequences of war beforehand, they'd make far greater efforts to avoid it.

I have felt and still believe that after 9-11 greater efforts should have been made to defuse and de-escalate the situation. Had the U.S. used the admirable restraint that would have been the preferable response to the situation, it would have redounded to the glory of this nation down to distant times.

D Goska said...

John, as ever I want to thank you for your posts, and for your blog.

I want to offer you an evergreen, permanent thank you.

Your blog today resonates for me and I'll respond selfishly; I'll talk about myself.

I recently volunteered to read from my memoir at a university function.

My memoir describes my being violated and abused.

I didn't want to go.

But I pushed myself to go. I reminded myself that, to paraphrase your mother, "It is happening to someone else right now. Do it for her. Do it for him."

Him -- males can be violated, too.

At first no one was there. I cringed in the way that a writer who has written a self-exposing document cringes when she has volunteered to read and goes to the venue and no one is there, not even the host with a welcoming bottle of pop.

At the hour, one person showed up. It was immediately evident that she was Polish. So, I was going to read to one woman, a young woman from Poland, about Poles violating other Poles.

I geared myself up to read for one person. And, my mouth dry, I began to read.

After ten minutes, after Kasia and I had formed a rapport, forty rowdy freshmen stormed into the room. A teacher had brought her class. In that group, some were my own students.

My palms sweat.

I reminded myself: it's happening to someone else right now. You survived; don't focus on yourself. Read for her. Read for him. Read for the victim suffering now.

I said, "I'm reading for the abused. I'm reading for friends of the abused. I'm reading for anyone who is contemplating a career in law enforcement, or education, or medicine."

Part of "Love Me More" talks specifically about what I think is the theme of your blog today.

I'll quote just a short snip:

"I need a hero whose heroism has been censored from the language of the heroic: Nobel, grand slam, "I want to thank the members of the Academy," "One small step for man." She will never find the vocabulary she requires in that lexicon. The shelf holding up the great books sags but you won't find her story in the Bible or the Declaration of Independence or the Odyssey. I need a body that has been penetrated and filled with filth, for no good reason, in the name of no cause.

I need a hero whose heroism reminds me that uniforms are for games, and that cruelty and virtue are not distributed by team. I need a hero who has resurrected from societal blindness and deafness darker than any Good Friday tomb, muter than any tomb-sealing boulder.

And not just that. I require a hero who has been stupid. I need a hero who has done worse to herself, for longer, than the initial perpetrator did to her. I need a hero who has squandered her best time and energy frantically auditioning to play handmaid to those who destroy her. I need a good share of her memories to be simple shame and charring regret.

I'll recognize her heroism. She will not boast an impressive weapons cache, monument, or adoring fans. My hero will function. My hero will groom herself. My hero will tell the truth. My hero will be kind, even to men. My hero will keep trying. And she will never do to anyone else what They did to her.

But I lack her. And I feel her lack. I can't light this way myself. I can only stumble, and fall, and play the clown, the buzzing annoyance, the one who's always getting it wrong."

John Guzlowski said...


Growing up I read Emerson and Whitman and Thoreau and became a believer in American superiority.

We were the guys and gals who were going to figure out how to live in the world correctly, live with hope and peace and justice. And we were going to show the rest of the world how to live that way too. We were going to be the beacon on the hill.

I still believe that that's what America should be about.

Sometimes I think I'm a fool.

John Guzlowski said...

Danusha, I can't add much to your post except to say that -- like you -- we have to be remember that people have suffered and they continue to suffer, and we have to try to lessen that suffering.

Most of the time suffering is so big, and we're so small, but we have to try.

Urkat said...

John, Thoreau was an awakening to me, that non-conformity could be a moral position. I still love the independence of his mind. It's hard to know these days what to do to "make the world better," but dealing with uncertainty is a facet of every problem and so we must act without always knowing whether what we do is right or what possible effect it may have. Thanks.

Marty said...

Wonderful and difficult post, John. You aren't a fool, but fools are in charge.

Urkat said...

Our country was founded by fools and dreamers, and now, sane people are in charge, to the detriment of us all.

Anonymous said...

Extraordinary post and thread, this.

John, thank you. Your mother will be in my thoughts for a long time.

Danusha, if it helps -- you did it for me and my daughter, too. And if it helps, you are a hero to me.

Corrina said...

HI John, I have come across your blog through my research into my father's migration to Australia from Germany when he was just 3 years old. I researched it by accident actually! I was looking up a particular beach to see if it was safe to swim in. It happened to be int he area of the first displaced camp my father's family came to when they first arrived in Melbourne. This led me to a link on the camp (called Bonegilla) which led to the National Archives where i found digital copies of the paperwork accompanying my father and his family from Germany. It contained medical records and photos of all of the family. My grandfather(from the Ukraine) , my grandmother (from Poland) and my Uncle John, my father Vincent and my Aunty Sophie. (She was not even a year old when she came out here) . It was incredible to see and sad because both my gandparents and my father have passed away. All of the children grew up in Australia with much difficulty. My grandfather was violent and a heavy drinker. He seemed to have passed this on to my uncle John,the oldest son. My father was diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder at 34 and my Aunty is now dealing with her eldest son's mental illness of Schizophrenia. He has been telling her stories of incidents that occured when he was a child between him, my grandfather and uncle. She has alot of hatred for her father and older brother. It is therefore difficult to gain any information about their lives before, during and after the war. Reading your posts and the many others on this blog has been very intriging, to say the least. I have been on the computer researching for 12 hours, almost non-stop. It is as if I am obsessed, yet I can't seem to stop. I feel so desperate to know, to acknoweldge their stories. I heard only snippets from me grandmother before she would be stopped by my father attempting to protect me from stories that 10 year olds shouldn't really hear. But I have no doubt that if she was alive today and I was to show her that I wanted to listen, she would start talking and probably never stop. I always felt bad that I didn't/couldn't listen to her because she seemed so desperate to tell her story. But it was a sad, depressing and horrific story and no-one wanted to hear it.
So thankyou for the chance to hear some of the stories of WWII, the chance I have lost now that Nenna has gone.
Kind regards
Corrina Janczak

John Guzlowski said...

Corrina, thank you for your post about your family.

I've heard from a number of people since starting this blog who've written to tell me about the difficult time their parents or grandparents had after the war.

One of the things I've learned is that the war didn't end in 1945 with the liberation of the camps. For my parents and for your grandfather and others, the war continued on and on. When my father was dying in 1997, the trauma of the war was still with him. The doctors and nurses in the hospital and the hospice were -- in his eyes -- the same Nazis who beat and tortured him. He thought that I was one of the Nazis too. Eventhough he had always loved me, he thought I was a Nazi come to beat him.

Not all people who were in the camps suffered like this. But they suffered in their own ways.

When I was growing up in Chicago, in a neighborhood where everyone seemed touched by the war and the slave labor and concentration and DP camps, it was as if everyone was living out their own personal pain: abuse, alcoholism, early stupid deaths, crime, and loneliness.

These people had gone through so much, lost so much.

My parents had been rural people with almost no sense of a world beyond their farms, beyond their villages, and suddenly they were thrown into a world of unimaginable terror that they could not understand.

When I was a kid and something bad would happen, my father would jokingly say in Polish, "The world's coming to an end."

This was a joke but it was true for him and so many other people.

Their world had ended. They lost their homes, families, culture, religion, language. They lost their past and their dreams, their expectations.

And what was given them in turn was often terrible during the war and incomprehensible after the war.

I spent much of my life trying to understand my parents and what they experienced, but I can't really.

Despite everything I try to do to understand what my parents experienced and felt, I can't understand.

Maybe the most I can do is feel the sorrow I feel.

Corrina said...

Hi John

Thanks for your reply to my post. I might have left two posts as I wasn't sure that the first one went through and I sent another. Only the second appears on the blog though? Not sure.

Anyway I have become very intrigued about the stories of WW2 and the effect it had on my grandparents, my parents and in some respects (well maybe in alot more ways than we give credit to) myself as well. As a third generation migrant I can read and learn and talk about these times with a sense of being somewhat removed. Of course I still feel sadness that these atrocities and their long lasting effects have happened to my own family, and particularly the legacy they held for my dear late father who was so close to those effects.

I can totally relate to you when you say:

"Despite everything I try to do to understand what my parents experienced and felt, I can't understand."

I feel that way too, and I know my father did too although he certainly felt the after effects.

My grandparents were also farmers who were pulled away from their homes and thrown into unimaginable lives. But I suspect my grandfather (from Ukraine) may have felt effects of Stalin even before the Nazi's stepped in. This is where I must bring myself up to date with the history of the region.

I heard a story once told at my grandmother's house that my grandfather pulled my grandmother out of a line at the railway station (they hadn't known each other) and said to her " you will be my wife" and they got married. I'm not sure how true that is or if it makes sense but I wondered if you had heard of anything like that happening? From the paperwork filled out in Germany after the war, I discovered that my Grandfather was previously married and divorced and then widowed (although I cannot be sure of this as deciphering the forms has proven to be very hard). Their marriage date was listed as 3-6-1945 yet their oldest son was born in Jan 1944. Interesting.

There is so much secrecy to their past. I'm so sad that they have died and I can no longer speak to them about it. Particularly my Grandmother as she would have wanted to tell me about it I'm sure. She appeared to be such a strong woman and boy she needed to be to get through the stuff she went through! She is a heroine to me.

Steve said...

John, your posts always touch me so; so much terror and heartbreak, yet so much compassion.Thank you for baring your soul for us.

If I may be so bold, could I possibly copy this post as a handout? I am working at a WWII awareness exhibit this coming weekend at the Charlotte Museum, and I'd love to be able to pass this out. I'd of course have your name, the title of the blog and book, as well as your url address on the paper. If you decline, I will understand,it is your art after all, and I hope you will accept my apologies if I have put you in a bad position. If you do accept,thank you in advance.

My email has changed, it is now