Some people have a story to tell; some people have a talent for telling a story; few have both. Poet and writer John Z. Guzlowski has both. When we were calling for submissions to Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration, Dr. Guzlowski (Professor Emeritus Eastern Illinois University) sent in an amazing tale about a trunk his father had built in the concentration camp in Buchenwald, and the subsequent journey of that trunk and the family connected to it. Since then, we have come to know John as honest, courageous, and modest in his writing. He gets to the truth of things.
Please note that this Profile (in John Guzlowski’s own words) is subject to copyright and cannot be used without his permission; likewise, the image pictured here is the work of Vojtek Luka, is subject to copyright, and cannot be used without permission from the artist. After you read John’s Profile, you might want to visit his wonderful blogs: 1. Lightning and Ashes or 2. Everything’s Jake.
Finally, Thomas Napierkowski, in his review of Lightning and Ashes, (Polish American Studies 65.1 ), says that “John Guzlowski is arguably the most accomplished Polish-American poet on the contemporary scene, a writer who will figure prominently in any history of Polish-American literature. . .” Having experienced Lightning and Ashes (it is not merely a book one reads), we can tell you that John Guzlowski’s unforgettable images, metaphors, and voice reverberate deeply and profoundly. Find out for yourself, here, since John has provided three poems along with this Profile. And as an added bonus, if you click on the title of the poem “What My Father Believed,” you will hear it read by Garrison Keillor!
For the last thirty years, I’ve been writing about my parents and their experiences during World War II. I’ve written about how my dad spent four years in Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Germany, and how my mother survived the day the Nazis raped and killed her mother and her sister but was taken to a slave labor camp in Germany. I’ve written about this and so many other things that happened to my mother and father first in Poland when the Nazis invaded, then in Germany where my parents were imprisoned, and finally in America after the war.
But growing up, I never thought I would. In fact, my parents’ story was one that I wanted to get as far away from as possible. Not only didn’t I want to write about it, I didn’t even want to hear about their experiences. I didn’t even want to tell people that I was born in a refugee camp, a Displaced Persons camp in Germany.
When I was growing up in Chicago during the 1950s, I didn’t want anything to do with my parents’ lives as slave laborers during the war and as Displaced Persons, refugees, after the war. I felt there was something shameful about who we were and where we had come from and why we were in the US.
Part of this feeling of course came from where we settled in Chicago. It was a neighborhood that mixed working class Americans with Polish refugees, survivors, and immigrants; and there was frequent tension between the Americans and the non-Americans. In the eyes of many of our neighbors, we weren’t Poles or Polish Americans. We were Polacks, dirty Polacks, dumb Polacks.
We were Displaced Person, DPs, the people who nobody wanted to rent a room to or hire or help. We were the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse of Europe's shore – like in Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty – and our neighbors didn’t much want anything to do with people who reminded them of what poverty and dirt and need were like. Or at least this was the way we saw it.
People looked at DPs like we were vermin. I remember being four years old and walking around with my father looking for rooms on Milwaukee Avenue that we could rent, and having people turn us away when they heard we were DPs. DPs were dirty, unreliable. We were drunkards, wife beaters, bar fighters, thieves, and murderers. We were the garbage 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 dirty Polacks with us.
If anyone ever asked me when I was a kid, whether I wanted to be a Polish-American writer or teacher or doctor, I would have told him take a hike but not in words so gentle.
When I first started writing, I didn’t want anything to do with what my mother used to call “that camp shit.” I loved comic books as a child, and that’s what I wanted to write and draw, stories about super-heroes and monsters and aliens from other planets. As I moved into my teens, I started writing science-fiction and fantasy stories about desolate planets and heroes beset by weird creatures. When I look back on all those stories now, I sometimes think that writing about those aliens and their lost worlds probably was a way of dealing with my parents’ past and what was happening to them in America. But back then, those stories were just something that had nothing to do with my father’s hunger in the concentration camps or the grief my mother felt for years because of what she had seen done to her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby.
Then, college jarred me loose from all of that science fiction. I discovered I had a gift for reading American literature and writing academic prose about it. Leaving behind my comic books and my science fiction novels, I earned a BA in English literature and later a Ph.D. in American Literature, specifically focusing on Postmodern American fiction. I was reading novels by John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, and John Hawkes, and these novels were supposedly not about anything except their own artificiality. Reading these novels, I could concentrate on technique and nothing else. I probably was as far as possible away from my Polack past and my miserable parents and their miserable lives in the concentration camps and refugee camps.
And that’s when I started writing about my parents.
First, I wrote one poem, “Dreams of Warsaw, Sept. 1939.” It wasn’t anything I planned. I was almost at the end of writing my dissertation, deep into one of Thomas Pynchon’s cathedral-like novels, probably Gravity’s Rainbow, when I paused and started thinking about my parents. It was a hot day, August, and I was sitting at my desk in my office wondering what they were thinking about. It suddenly came to me that they were probably thinking about the war and what I had not wanted to think about for so long. All of that went into the poem, the heat and their postwar lives and the memories that would always be with them. And my fear of writing about them. That went into the poem too.
DREAMS OF WARSAW, SEPTEMBER 1939
Too many fears
for a summer day
I regulate my thoughts
and my breathing
regard the humidity
Somewhere my parents
are still survivors
living unhurried lives
of unhurried memories:
the unclean sweep of a bayonet
through a young girl’s breast,
a body drooping over a rail fence,
the charred lips of the captain of lancers
whispering and steaming
“Where are the horses
where are the horses?”
Death in Warsaw
like death nowhere else –
cool, gray, breathless
And here are two more poems:
WHAT THE WAR TAUGHT HER
My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.
She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.
She learned that only the young survive
The camps. The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.
She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.
She learned that you don’t pray
Your enemies will not torment you.
You only pray that they will not kill you
WHAT MY FATHER BELIEVED
He didn’t know about the Rock of Ages
or bringing in the sheaves or Jacob’s ladder
or gathering at the beautiful river
that flows beneath the throne of God.
He’d never heard of the Baltimore Catechism
either, and didn’t know the purpose of life
was to love and honor and serve God.
He’d been to the village church as a boy
in Poland, and knew he was Catholic
because his mother and father were buried
in a cemetery under wooden crosses.
His sister Catherine was buried there too.
The day their mother died Catherine took
to the kitchen corner where the stove sat,
and cried. She wouldn’t eat or drink, just cried
until she died there, died of a broken heart.
She was three or four years old, he was five.
What he knew about the nature of God
and religion came from the sermons
the priests told at mass, and this got mixed up
with his own life. He knew living was hard,
and that even children are meant to suffer.
Sometimes, when he was drinking he’d ask,
“Didn’t God send his own son here to suffer?”
My father believed we are here to lift logs
that can’t be lifted, to hammer steel nails
so bent they crack when we hit them.
In the slave labor camps in Germany,
He’d seen men try the impossible and fail.
He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other. If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won’t save him.
I wish I could say that after writing that single poem (“Dreams of Warsaw”) I gave up academic writing and devoted myself to writing about my parents, but that’s not what happened. I went on to finish my dissertation, and I found a job teaching American Literature at Eastern Illinois University, and I moved there with my wife Linda and our daughter Lillian, and I started my 25 year career as a Professor of English. I did the kinds of writing that a career like that calls for: I wrote essays about postmodernism, psychology and literature, magic realism, and reams of committee minutes and such.
But during all this time, I was also writing poems about my parents. Not many, maybe one or two a year, sometimes three. But they added up. If I’ve learned anything about writing, it’s that writing’s an incremental art. You write one line one day, and the next you write another, and the day after that you write a third, and a decade or two later (if you’re lucky) you’re sitting at a desk copy-editing a manuscript of ninety pages about something you were afraid to write about, ashamed to write about, but finally needed to write about.
Now when I look back on all that writing, the academic writing and the writing about my parents, the former seems inconsequential, pointless, work done for a paycheck or a promotion. For instance, I look at an essay about William Burroughs that I struggled to compose and publish, and I feel nothing. I hear nothing. The academic prose I wrote doesn’t speak to me the way my poems and prose about my parents speak to me. I do a lot of presentations about my parents. I address students and church groups and historians and general audiences, and invariably during those presentations I read some of the things I’ve written about my parents, and when I do, I hear my parents’ voices again, the way they told me their stories, and for me that’s the value of the poems and the personal essays I’ve written about them – hearing their voices that for so long I didn’t want to hear. And finally, it’s all about those voices, my parents’ voices and the voices of all those people who didn’t survive or who did survive but couldn’t speak about what happened.
Toward the end of my mom’s life, I gave my mom a call and told her that I was going to be giving a presentation about her experiences and my dad’s experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany. My mother didn’t pause at all. It was as if she knew what she wanted to tell me. She said, “Tell them we weren’t the only ones.”
She was afraid that people hearing my poems and my prose about my parents might think that they were the only ones who were put into the concentration camps. She wanted to make sure that I told people that that wasn’t the case. She wanted me to tell people that there were many, many, many people who suffered and died there, and that my writing was about them as much as it was about her and my dad and me.
I’ve never forgotten what she said to me and what it is that I’m supposed to be writing.