Saturday, April 5, 2008

Growing Up Polish American

The following article appeared in a special issue of the journal Polish American Studies dedicated to Polish-American poets Phil Boiarski, Linda Nemec Foster, Leonard Kress, Mark Pawlak, Cecilia Woloch, and me. The issue featured a gathering of poems by each poet as well as a personal essay from each writer about what it means to be a Polish-American writer. The entire issue is available from the Polish American Historical Association.
I wrote about what it was like growing up in the Polish Triangle in Chicago in the 50s and 60s, and how that shaped the kind of writer I am.
Here's what I wrote:

Growing Up Polack

I was born in a Displaced Persons’ camp (a DP camp) in Germany after World War II and came to the states with my parents Jan and Tekla Guzlowski and my sister Danusha as refugees in June of 1951.

Forty years later, I found a series of pictures in the New York Times archive of the ship we sailed on, the General Taylor, taken the day we arrived. These photographs stopped me. History, the past, had given me a gift. We weren’t in any of the pictures, but we must have brushed against the people who were. We must have stood in line with them, waited for food with them, closed our eyes and prayed with them, worried about what it would be like in America with them.

We were all Displaced Persons, country-less refugees, who had lost our parents and grandparents, our families and our homes, our churches and our names, everything. It had all been left behind, buried in the great European grave yard that stretched from the English Channel to the Urals and from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean. And here we all were on this former troop ship, coming to start a new life in America. We could not have imagined what we would find and what we would become.

After working in the farms around Buffalo, New York, to pay off the cost of our passage over, my parents, my sister, and I settled in Chicago, first near Wicker Park and later in the Humboldt Park area, an area with lots of other Poles and DPs, refugees, survivors, and immigrants. And one of the things we soon found out there was who we were. We weren’t Poles and we definitely weren’t Polish Americans. I never heard those words. What I did hear in the streets and in the schools and in the stores was that we were Polacks. We were the people who nobody wanted to rent a room to or hire or help. We were the “wretched refuse” of somebody else’s shore, dumped now on the shore of Lake Michigan, and most people we came across in America wished we’d go back to where we came from. And that we’d take the rest of the Polacks with us.

So, if anyone had ever asked me when I was growing up, “Say, kid, you want to be a Polish American poet or a Polish American teacher or doctor or wizard,” I would have told him to take a hike, but not in words so gentle.

Poles, I felt, were losers. They worked in factories when they could get jobs, they were rag-and-bone men leading horse-drawn wagons through the alleys of Chicago, they went door to door selling bits of string and light bulbs, they didn’t know how to drive cars or make phone calls or eat in restaurants. They stood on street corners with pieces of paper in their hands trying to get Americans to help them get to the address printed on the paper, mumbling “Prosceh, Pan” (please, sir) or “Prosceh, Pani” (please, lady).

When I was a child, I thought that Poles didn’t know how to do anything and Americans knew how to do everything. Americans knew how to be happy. They could go to ball games, zoos, museums, planetariums, and movies. They could stroll freely through the great American, sunshiny-bright world like so many smiling, charming Bing Crosbys, singing the song “Pennies from Heaven” as they strolled and believing every word of its chorus: “Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.”

Americans could go to restaurants and order meals and not get into arguments with waiters about the price of a hamburger, or other customers in the restaurant about who was there first. They could go to picnics and not lose their children or their children's balloons. Americans could go to weddings and dance waltzes without ripping their pants, without falling down, without getting into fights, without beating their children.

Americans could laugh at the jokes Milton Berle told on TV, and know what they meant. Uncle Miltie could deadpan the punch line, “Sure, the lady was from Missouri,” and Americans would roll in the aisles till they busted a gut. They could smile and mean it, show love, concern, happiness, sorrow, sadness. And all at the right and appropriate times!

Poles, on the other hand, seemed to be hobbled.

I actually believed that there were places we couldn't go.

When I was a boy growing up in Chicago, I never knew any one who ever went to a professional ball game. This despite the fact that I lived about two miles from Wrigley Field and maybe three miles from Comiskey Park. It was as if there were written restrictions. Poles could not go to ball games. Or museums. Or zoos. Ever! I'm sure now much of this was simply the result of growing up in a working-class neighborhood with working-class parents where even one night at a ball game was an extreme extravaganza. Who could afford a trip to a ballpark? I realize this now, but at that time I had the feeling that Poles just didn't do such things. Only Americans did them.

And nothing ever seemed to go right. Washing machines would break down for no reason. Repairmen were always crooks or incompetents. Shirts -- even brand new ones -- would be stained or missing a button. My father once spent what seemed like a year working on a drain pipe that wouldn’t be mended, no matter how hard he struggled with his mismatched wrenches.

I remember one time when my mother went into a Woolworth's dime store and tried to bargain down the price of a Lincoln Log set. Of course, that strategy didn't work either. Nothing worked. Our Polack fate was hard karma. And there was no one to tell you how to change the hard karma, make it a little more malleable, a little softer. Everyone was in the same boat and trying to find some way to survive, keep afloat. The Oleniechaks, the Popowchaks, the Budzas, the Czarneks, the Goras, the Pitlaks, the Bronowickis, the Stupkas, the Milczareks, the Wos’s, the Kapustkas, and the Guzlowskis—all of us on that block of houses on Evergreen Street were drowning in the kind of hard karma that only the DPs, the dumb Polacks, knew.

So if somebody had asked me back then, “Do you see yourself becoming a Polish American Poet?” I would have said, “Are you kidding?”

I started running away from Polish American stuff as soon as I could, and for most of my life I’ve been running. Not all the Polish kids I knew were like that, of course. I had a friend who held tight to his Polishness, and to hear us talk about our youth, you’d think we grew up in separate countries with concertina wire between them. He went to Polish School on Saturdays and was a member of the Polish Scouts. I would sooner have worked a 20-hour day at the kind of hard labor my dad and mom knew in the slave labor camps. I didn’t want anything to do with that Polack stuff—I wanted to be an unmistakable and anonymous American.

Even though I didn’t speak English until I was five or six, I can barely speak a lick of Polish now. I consciously fought to strip all of that away, and I succeeded to a degree. When I tried speaking it to my aged mother a couple of years ago, she’d always say the same thing. “Johnny, please stop. You’re hurting my ears.”

So why am I editing special issues of Polish American Studies on Polish American poetry, and writing poems about being a Polish American?

The answer isn’t easy.

I think a lot of it comes from who my parents were. If my parents had been Illinois farm people raising soy beans and corn or if they had been Italian gelato sellers, I don’t think I would be writing about them. I would be like ever other poet in America: writing about the weather or what it’s like being driving a big car west or east on I-80. But instead my parents were people who had been struck dumb and quivering by history, by the Second World War, by their lives in the labor and DP camps.

My mom used to like to say, “Slach traffi.”

I don’t know if this is a Polish idiom or if she made it up or what. Literally, I think it means “the truncheon or billy club will find you.” Maybe it’s something the Nazis used to say in the camps when they were beating the Poles and Jews and Gypsies and Russians to get them to move faster pushing the cement-filled wheelbarrows. But whatever it means literally, here is what it means to me: shit happens, and not only does shit happen, it will find you no matter what you do, or where you run, and it will not just get in your way, it will cover you and smother you and kill you.

I grew up with people who had seen their families killed, babies bayoneted, friends castrated and then shot to death. My mom saw her sister’s legs ripped apart by broken glass as she struggled through a narrow window to escape from the Nazis.

And no one much cared.

Even if people don't want to read what I write, I feel that I have to write my poems about my parents just to make sure someone does. 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? They couldn't write for themselves. I sometimes feel that I am writing for all those people whose stories were never told, whose voices got lost somewhere in the great cemetery of the 20th century, and I have an obligation to listen to those voices and give them a place to be heard.

My poems give my parents and their experiences and the experiences of people like them a voice. My parents had very little education. My father never went to school and could barely write his name. My mother had two years of formal education. I feel that I have to tell the stories they would write themselves if they could. For the last thirty years I have been writing poems about their lives, and I sometimes think that I am not only writing about their lives, but also about the lives of all those forgotten, voiceless refugees, DP's, and survivors that the last century produced.

All of history’s Polacks.

(The photos: My parents, my sister Donna, her daughters [Cheryl, Kathie and Denise], and I in front of the Old Warsaw Restaurant, 1979. The photo was taken by Linda Calendrillo. My mother and I in a cage at the Back of the Yards festival circa 1959.)


macon d said...

Powerful stuff, thank you! This essay brings back so much, with such careful details. This article is very affecting.

I have a quibble, though--why does the word "white" never appear in this piece? Aren't the people you talk about here, for instance, actually white people, not Americans--that is, not all non-Polish-American Americans?

Americans knew how to be happy. They could go to ball games, zoos, museums, planetariums, and movies. They could stroll freely through the great American, sunshiny-bright world like so many smiling, charming Bing Crosbys, singing the song “Pennies from Heaven” as they strolled and believing every word of its chorus: “Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.”

Surely those were, for the most part, white Americans. There's a pernicious way in which the true "American" people are, even today, white people. It's an identity trap that lurks within our racialized nomenclature, a trap into which your essay seems to have fallen.

I think this perplexity also persists in terms of Polish Americans and the present. Yes, you are a Polish American poet, as your essay's title proudly and rightfully proclaims, but when people see you on the street or in a store or at a restaurant counter, you're just a white guy. In fact, surely, in most cases and places, you function as a white guy, not as a Polish American one.

It's nice that so many white Americans can exercise ethnicity as an option, but it's not nice that it's not an option for so many other people. Where might we get, and how much faster, if white people were to acknowledge more fully the presence, and significance, of their own whiteness?

John Guzlowski said...

Dear Macon d,

Thanks for the comment.

You've given me a lot to think about.

The Polish Triangle when I was growing up was an area that was racially mixed. I grew up alongside African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans.

I, of course, saw myself as white, and therefore better off than those African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans.

It's a message that comes back to me over and over.

I gave a lecture at a high school recently that is about 60 or 70% African-American. The black students couldn't believe that white people would enslave white people, that white people would treat other white people as filth.

I told them that evil transcends race or ethnicity.

No race or ethnic group or person is free of the possibility of acting terribly, or having terrible things happen to them.

I think this tendency toward treating other people as filth is something we all need to struggle with.

macon d said...

I think this tendency toward treating other people as filth is something we all need to struggle with.

Yes indeed, John, and I thank you for your thoughtful response. When people, or groups of people, commit evil, it's so difficult to get other people to see and think about the larger social inducements toward such actions--and then blame and work to dismantle that--rather than seeing as evil the people who commit such actions.

I try to inspire such shifts in thought on my own blog, where I of course welcome your eyes and thoughts. More and more of us blog now, eh? Maybe this is how Andy Warhol's 15-minute prediction will finally come true. Now THERE'S an interesting Polish American! One who became so white instead . . . and yet in the process, certainly gave the lie, covertly, to stereotypes about Polish intellectual inferiority.

Macon D

Urkat said...

The fact is that no race has a monopoly on suffering. Hard Karma finds people of all races and creeds. You may suffer because of your skin, someone else because of his or her beliefs, another because of his or her personality or economic status or lack of education, etc. The belief that "whiteness" is somehow privileged is a myth brought about because most of those holding wealth in America are traditionally white. But they are not the majority. The problem many Caucasian Americans have with theories of whites and whiteness is that they overgeneralize in the same way as stereotypes about African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, etc. do. But those trying to make the case for special victim status of African Americans normally can't take the time to factor in discrimination directed at whites because it's not usually related to skin color. I'm not trying to start an argument, but the truth's the truth and everybody suffers--slach traffi--even the wealthy, but most don't feel their suffering is worth reporting.

Unknown said...

Very moving piece, and since i've discovered your poems and blog--your work always takes me back to consider my own experiences and memories of growing up as a Polish-American in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago in the early sixties.

I admire how your thoughtful words honor and bring to life what your parents experienced and how they managed to survive and continue.

I also recall the buzz of discovering Nelson Algren's writing so very long ago, and smiled when I saw your mention of him/photo.

macon d said...

I see what you're saying, Manfred. But I also disagree with it. You wrote:

The belief that "whiteness" is somehow privileged is a myth brought about because most of those holding wealth in America are traditionally white. But they are not the majority. The problem many Caucasian Americans have with theories of whites and whiteness is that they overgeneralize in the same way as stereotypes about African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, etc. do.

It's true that wealthy white Americans are not the majority, but white Americans still are the majority, and that fact does result in a lot of privileges for whites. Many white privileges occur merely because of that numerical preponderance, such as, say, the ease with which whites can find a barber shop in a city they're visiting for a professional conference--blacks have to shop around more, or travel further from the conference site. That may sound trivial, but add up the many, many other examples and you have a whole "invisible knapsack" of white privilege, as Peggy McIntosh put it in a famous article on the topic that you should read some time.

Regarding your acknowledgment that most wealthy people are white, the fact that almost all of them are white is itself evidence of white privilege. If you don't see that, you've got some work to do toward a more accurate understanding of the world.

Oma J said...

Very thought provoking ideas. Growing up white, but different from you in a small rural farming area, we had a different bad karma. I, too, couldn't wait to get away from the farm and all the hardships it brought with it. We didn't have what the "city" kids had and couldn't do the things they did because we had chores, animals, etc. to tend to. I always felt so different because I was a farm kid. We weren't expected to go to college . . . we would have to join in the farming operation so that it could be handed down. I guess that is why your class and others at EIU made such a difference to me. I do believe education is the key to the future in so many different ways. As I've always said, you don't know what you don't know. Education provides you the mechanism to become creative, to think, to dream and eventually, those ideas have to be applied and experienced. One should, however, never forget where they came from as it sets the course for their future. That is what has happened to you, to me, and to others around us who had their own karma.

I so enjoy your writings! THANK YOU!

John Guzlowski said...

James, Thanks for your comment, and I wish you would have told me more about the Pilsen area, growing up there in the 60s.

Talk about feeling superior and privileged! I honestly have to say that as a Polack living on the near north side of Chicago, I always felt superior to the Poles living on the south side in the Pilsen and Back of the Yards areas.

Eventhough we lived in apartments that we shared with other families and had next to nothing, I felt that there was something "blessed" about the north side.

Do psychologists talk about a "natural" psychological tendency to believe your group (no matter how much hard karma it carries around) is better than some other group whose karma is as hard?

John Guzlowski said...

Oma, thanks for the comment.

One of the things I liked most about teaching was that I felt I was teaching students who came from the same place I came from.

I was a first generation college student who had parents who could barely speak English. My father in fact was almost illiterate. He could sign his name (if forced) and piece together words by studying the letters.

But I loved reading and dreaming about the world that college would open me up to.

Just like a lot of my own students.

macon d said...

John wrote, "Do psychologists talk about a 'natural' psychological tendency to believe your group (no matter how much hard karma it carries around) is better than some other group whose karma is as hard?"

In a way they have--Blumer's theory of group position comes to mind. I think it's pretty outdated, though. Explanations for the lower-order divisiveness that you describe seem to focus more on external than internal factors. Examples include the divide-and-conquer strategy of white overlords, whereby black and non-black (yet also, at that time, non-white) indentured servants were set against each other by declaring only the black ones slaves for life. Or later, when ethnic immigrants were pitted against each other to prevent a united front facing upward, and a striving toward whiteness for European immigrants, which had that lower-order divisive effect as well.

Urkat said...

"Many white privileges occur merely because of that numerical preponderance,"

MaconD, I certainly appreciate your position on this. I would never deny African Americans have been, and continue to be, cruelly discriminated against. But theories of whiteness generally overlook the many White's who grew up poor and underprivileged, and who have been victimized by similar tendencies of some to exploit others.

One problem I have is with the word privilege. Things like finding a barber shop close by "should" be part of the rights of every citizen. They only become a privilege when such rights are denied to some but not others, making it seem like a special bonus to those not denied access. Freedom is a right, not a privilege, and just because whites in America have enjoyed proportionately more of it, doesn't make them priviliged, it just means African Americans have been denied some of their rights. I dislike it when people try to turn what should be a universal right into a privilege.

I also take issue with the generality of the term whites because "white" is not a race. However, I appreciate your concern for the rights of persons of color.

John Guzlowski said...

I came across a review of a book that addresses some of the issues we've been thinking about here concerning whiteness and ethnicity.

The book is by Matthew Frye Jacobson and it's called Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.)

macon d said...

Manfred, I appreciate your well-considered responses too.

In my readings, those who discuss whiteness don't overlook lower-class whiteness. Instead, they recognize that while that class positioning is generally a disadvantage, their racial positioning is generally the opposite. One doesn't obviate the other.

Regarding "privilege," I find the word applicable to perquisites still accorded white people. I rarely resort to dictionaries in discussions like this one, but, the first one I turn to (or rather, click to) defines privilege this way:

a. A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste.
b. Such an advantage, immunity, or right held as a prerogative of status or rank, and exercised to the exclusion or detriment of others.

Seems to me that access to things that should be universal rights need not be explicitly kept from some for others to be "privileged," because the privileged have, in effect, greater access to them--the definition covers that. I have no problem with, for instance, calling my basic trust of the police in my neighborhood a white privilege. Given the difficulties blacks so often encounter with the police, I enjoy a privilege that they don't: being able to trust that my skin color will mean that such authority is likely to be on my side.

Finally, you wrote, "I also take issue with the generality of the term whites because 'white' is not a race."

Right, I do too, and so do all whiteness studies scholars and activists. They recognize that it's a social fiction, but that it nevertheless has real-world effects, and that the term still has social currency, and is thus still useful for referring to that social currency and to the people who bear it. In fact, many whiteness-studies thinkers would like to abolish whiteness, and call themselves race traitors or new abolitionists.

Finally, thanks for the book rec, John (though I think Jacobson's first book on whiteness is better).

Urkat said...

Macon, I understand your position. I believe that discussions about discrimination and white privilege are somewhat skewed because they're using the U.S. as their case study. In Europe of the last and previous centuries, one would have had a harder time defining discrimination by color. The U.S. has been the poster child for white on black discrimination, but in other places it's more mixed up with other factors like religion, tribal animosities, political affiliations, etc. White vs. black has greater relevancy here than elsewhere.

John Guzlowski said...

I got the following from poet Robert Cooperman, and he asked me to share it as a comment:


Thanks for the article about your Chicago upbringing.

No one escapes easily, do they?

For you it was being Polish and therefore not American enough. For us, it was being Jewish and therefore Christ killers. Periodically the older, tougher Irish kids from St. Rose of Lima would come around and beat the crap out of us, especially one homicidal maniac, Tommy Lockhart, who probably would've murdered someone had he not discovered drugs and became a vegetable.

Anonymous said...

Hi, John,
Your essay reminds me of many similar issues growing up in upstate NY in the 50s and 60s. My grandparents were immigrants in the early 1900s. I've come to terms with the mixed feelings and written about them in my memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman's Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage, Pearlsong Press, 2008.
Fascinating to me how the earlier immigrants have such an inferiority complex and the later ones don't. The Polish psychology is very complex. Best wishes and let's keep writing!
Linda Ciulik Wisniewski

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a non-Polish neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, but I am Polish with a Polish name, of course. My family came to the US and we were pretty Americanized, but in school, just having a "ski" name labeled me for a sad amount of scrutiny. I always felt like I identified more with minorities, not whites, because of this. As an adult in my 20's I am very proud of my heritage and wouldn't change it if I could, but as a child I remember actually feeling angry that I had to have a Polish last name.

Unfortunately, I think Poles are expected to put up with more stereotyping, racism, whatever, because they are white. It doesn't quite fall into the category of racism according to our society. It is racism to me though.

You would think that as humans, we could be compassionate to others whose country has been demolished, but the American way is to make fun of those people.... very sad

John Guzlowski said...

Dear Anonymous, Thanks for the note about growing up in Chicago.

I felt pretty much the same way about the blacks and hispanics and southerners I grew up around.

We were the scattered seed, forgotten on the side of the road.

One of the things this taught me was to try to be kind and forgiving and helpful to others.

Anonymous said...

Thank You for the truth American Black Caucus and NAACP do not see us as minority and do not understand. on the view E. Hasselbeck said to Whoopie I do understand a lot from the experienced of my family members who suffered from discrimination because of being Polish in this country. Whoopies face distorted and she snarled No you dont understand anything! its not the same. Elizabeth got quiet but was not apologetic for any offence Whoopie imagined. Neither did Hasselbeck retract her truth that her family members had suffered discrimination too. Hasselbeck was right Whoopie was the one who was wrong it is she that did not have any idea. My Father worked many low paying dirty jobs and even had fights because of other men calling him Pollock. Dad never could make it to the top because some white Irish English was the one choosen. I still get mad after all these years the Dad spoke and wrote 3 languages played piano trumpet and acordian served his community and Democratic party Never missed mass or committed a crime but never did we get any money or privilidges like the other minority populations. why because we are white.Otherwise we would share the benefits of the 1975 amendment to the voting rights bill which states language minorities in the US are Ameican Indian, Alaskan Natives, Asian Americans, and Persons of Spanish heritage. I bet there are more African american or Asian and above listed millionaires in the United States because of the minority breaks. My guess is many of whites in America who are from Europe have had bad things happen but did they like the poles suffer slavery by the Germans and Russians. Most native Poles were not allowed to have an education or garner wealth unlike the Jews we have no treasures to extract so tell me why are we not considered minority status. Whiteness did not make anything easier once they heard the accent or saw the name so now the blacks actually from 65 on have had many more advantages there are no blanket inclusions for Polish Americans none for college studies Obamas opening to the convention about everymans journey his Father came to this country from Africa and went to Harvard yeah sounds like a typical scenario for all Polish American immigrants to me come from a village go to Harvard yeah thats real. I cant fathom why any immigrant would identify with that story if your a poor Polish guy who came here in the sixtys beleve me your brilliance did not matter Harvard wasnt open filling out papers did not give you the money that President Obamas Father enjoyed or even though his Father left after 2 years the funding of Obamas education through the benevolance of the majority of Americans. Anyway thats all I just dont get it why arent we more vocal about this probably because in this Country at least even Polish slaves (yes there have been many ) could seek freedom here. Long denied by Communism and Socialism in Poland. Did all of you know Polish American flyers like Gabreski were stabbed in the back by Churchill and Roosevelt yeah they dont teach that in school. the Polish Americans fought to free Poland only their President was captive in Poland so C R and S made a pact to parcial her up? Real good huh? so now tell me is being white in America enough Sir please use your gift to write poetry about this if you can.

Indigenous Xicano said...

It has been a year since the last comment on this post. I thank you for writing this. My family was displaced by the destruction of our neighborhood for the construction of the circle campus. We moved to a Polish part of Pilsen in 1963. I was subjected to many racists behaviors that taught me as a child that I was less than the whites.

Your article brought out a side I never pondered of how another oppressed people basically repeated learned interactions with a group that they could dump on.

Those days no longer impact me. Your article gives me a new dimension to consider of why many Polish people, especially the adults, were hostile to the new people in the neighborhood.

John Guzlowski said...

Thanks, Indigenious X.

When I was growing up there was much racism around me. Poles against Ukranians, Ukranians against blacks, Germans against Poles, Swedes against Jews and Puerto Ricans. The list goes on and on.

The color of your skin, your language, where you were from, what your parents did for a living, what you ate, the god you believed in--all of this made you different and frightening.

People were afraid and wanted to push the different ones away.

I hope someday it will not be this way.

Anonymous said...

John - I ran into your essays about being a DP in Chicago just a few days ago by accident. My father was a DP. Not my mother. Her parents came to Chicago around 1900 from Poland, met and married. My parents met at one of the dance halls on Division Street (Polish Broadway) in the 50's and married. My brother and I were born in Chicago.

When I was born, my parents rented an apartment at Milwaukee and Chicago Ave. They then bought a house on Wolcott by Armitage. Later, we moved to North Ave and Kedzie. Finally, we moved way out to a suburb more than 40 miles out of the city.

I really found your description of how Poles were hobbled interesting. Couldn't go to the movies, zoo, museums, etc. I got goosebumps up my arms and tingles down my spine. You were describing exactly what I "knew" and experienced but never understood or was able to define. What I "knew" has been with me for over 50 years and now, finally, I'm getting some insight into the "what and why" of what I experienced.

Since a very early age, I was repeatedly told not to reveal anything about being Polish to anyone. I lived in constant fear that I would betray my parents somehow by saying too much to a school friend or a neighbor.

I'm actually crying right now as I'm typing this.

In addition to your description of what Poles could not do, your essay about the "bad karma" brings up so many memories. Everything seemed to be a big ordeal....buying a car, buying furniture, clothes we wore, even what kind of Christmas tree we had and when we got it. Everything had to be difficult. Everything had to be cheap or we had to go without. There really was no happiness in our home.

Now, finally, I might be able to deal with these memories, understand why they happened and let them go. It has been in only the last 5 or 6 years that I have even told people that I'm of Polish decent. Before that, I couldn't tell anyone, anything. I had been "trained" (particularily by my mother) to not tell anyone where my father was from, what nationality we were, etc. To say anything would be to "betray" my parents. Even now, though my father has been dead for over 20 years and my mother has been dead for over 10 years, I find it difficult to trust anyone with these "secrets" that have been stuffed inside of me. Now I'm slowly releasing them. It's been hard.

Thank you for your essays.

John Guzlowski said...

Dear Anonymous, thank you for writing and telling me what you felt. I sometimes run into people who don't people the stuff I write. They say, you were the only one who felt that way. It's good to know I wasn't the only one.

If you want, drop me a line at jzguzlowski (at)

Eva S said...

John, I just read your story tonight. Did your parents stay in Germany for 6 more years after the war ended? If so, why did they prefer to stay in a country that had kept them in a slave camp rather than return to Poland? I suspect your life would have been much happier in Poland than in Humbolt Park in Chicago. I for one, am very thankful I spent my childhood in Poland & not the U.S. I think there's still a lot of bigotry and racism here.

John Guzlowski said...

Eva, my father tried to return right after the war with a group of other men. They were shot at my Russian soldiers at the Polish border.

Later my uncle went back on a UN sponsored refugee train. When he got back to his home village in eastern Poland, the Russians took him off the train and shipped him to Siberia.

He spent the rest of his life there.

My parents understandably were afraid to return.

They weren't the only ones. Almost a quarter of a million Poles went to the US.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, John. Powerful!

Michael said...

When something went wrong my mom always said, slach traffi.
Thx for the memory
I've never known anyone else that said that phrase.

Michael said...

I've never known anyone else to use that phrase "slach traffi" thx for the memory.
My mom used that phrase all the time.

Unknown said...

I too came with my mother and younger sister to America in 1950 from a displaced persons camp in Germany. We were in a concentration camp for almost a year and the displaced camp for five years. My father died in Buchenwald. I relate to you story because I was also there maybe not as dramatic as yours but nevertheless we also suffered. We came on a cargo boat not sure what the name was. Would like to find out. I will go thru the NY archives see if anything shows up. If by any chance you can send infor through FB that would be great. Bought your book Przez trzy Kacety and am still reading it. Looking forward to reading your latest book.

Eugenia ( Sokolowsi) Kachure said...

Hi John, Your life parallels mine in so many ways. We ( my mom ,brother and stepfather) came on the General Stewart June 1951. We settled in Lorain,Oh. My mom would never talk about her experience during WWII.I was born June 1944. Does that tell you.She remarried 1946 to a gd Russian. Your poems give me insight to our life in Germany and what my poor mom went through. I thank you again.

Linda said...

John, loved reading your essay, my great grandparents came to Canada in 1894 before the wars and left family behind, family we know nothing about or what happened to them, I have been searching for a number of years and it is hard to find anything. But reading your story may help me understand something of them. Reading your essay made me feel like I was there with you, I will get your book it sounds like a true event, stories .I love to read, a true account of events. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Macon D. I am 8 years later to commenting on this,but as a half Eastern European American, of mostly Polish descent I am very offended by your dehumanizing statements. You don't get to deny our ethnic heritage and tell us we have to fit into so.w bland vanilla blob called White. In addition, those who are multiple generational wealthy elite is the US tend to be of Western and Northern European heritage. Eastern Europeans did not go colonizing the world and take part in the slave trade. In fact at a similar time in history some of our nation's were being colonized by Germany, Austria, and regularly invaded by an Empire in Turkey for Slave raids. Slave comes from the word Slav. You trying to tell us what we are and who are is bigoted and Racist. We will decide our own identity for ourselves.

Lorraine said...

John, My heart goes out for your family and all the things they experienced and am so glad you are writing about it all. I just hope the people and kids of today try to learn what it was all like and what you all went through. I am 75 now and my people all came from Poland (Austrian side) in the mid to late 1800's and I was so glad that I paid attention to my Mom when she would tell me the things of when her Mom first came here. My family all settled in Md. My grandmother's husband left as soon as they got here but not before she had 3 daughter born in US. My grandmother and the 3 girls, one was my Mom lived in one room and my grandmother went to work in a packing house, The girls all went to work in a chocolate factory and sewing factories and worked in the fields in the Summer. My Mom said my grandmother would wake them up at 5 am to comb their hair and they sat and cleaned the one room until they left for school and by the time they were in the third grade, they had to stop and help by getting full time jobs, There was a fire in the building and one of the 3 sisters died in the fire. It seems Poles have always had it rough, very rough. They all wanted their children to have it better then they did. My Mom and Dad were married in 1920 when my Dad came back from the Navy in WW1. They worked hard and were first generation to be born here, My Dad worked his way up and became head pf Personal eventually of the Pennsylvania RR. My Mom worked in a sewing factory until my brother and I were born which was 21 years after their marriage because children just didn't come along . I lost them both in a year when they were 65 and I was only 23, but following Polish tradition to work hard and better oneself, I became an RN even though I had 3 children.....I have lost my parents, husband and 2 of my 3 sons and life has not been easy but I so admire you for writing about everything your family went through and hope and pray that this younger generation realize what life was like and the heartbreak they went through. You can't forget this stuff. It will never leave and the pictures in your mind will be there forever. Thank you for all your writings.