John Z. Guzlowski
Dr. John Z. Guzlowski is Professor Emeritus at Eastern Illinois University. He says, "Most of my poems are about my Polish-Catholic parents' experiences in the slave labor camps in Germany." Garrison Keillor used one of his poems poem for the show Writers Almanac, and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz—in a review published in Poland—said that Guzlowski's poems about the war "astonished" him.
(After a story told by Tadeusz Borowski)
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.
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.
My Mother was 19
Soldiers from nowhere
came to her farm
killed her sister Genja’s baby
with their heels
shot her momma too
One time in the neck
then for kicks in the face
lots of times
They saw my Aunt Sophie
they didn’t care
she was a virgin
dressed in a blue dress
with tiny white flowers
so she couldn’t stand up
couldn’t lie down
They broke her teeth
when they shoved
the blue dress
in her mouth
If they had a camera
they would’ve taken her picture
and sent it to her
That’s the kind they were
Let me tell you:
God doesn’t give
you any favors
He doesn’t say
now you’ve seen
this bad thing
tomorrow you’ll see
this good thing
and when you see it
you’ll be smiling
There Were No Miracles
Men died where they stood
Children were left
for the dogs and the pigs
Schoolgirls came home
to find their mothers dead
their fathers with necks cut
Priests sat at their tables
wondering if they should
Some of them did
Others hid in the woods
till hunger and fear
brought them back
to the villages
and the trains
that would take them
and some took their crosses
and others left them
in the stations
where they’d prayed
German Soldiers Come to My Mother’s Village
On their knees, and one by one, each man
and woman, each child, is shot and falls
backward without a sound into the mud
like an iron rod. God doesn’t love these people.
They live in darkness, thatch their low cottages
with straw, burn wet wood in mud stoves
like evil children in a fairy tale.
There is no fat for their lamps. The sole light
you see comes from a candle in a cellar
where a woman in rags searches for roots.
This is the only world they’ll ever know:
these huts, and the mud road that brought us here
and will take us out again when we are done.
This is where we gather them, here on this road.
Listening to their screams and pleading
we know these people will never again
drink from their pond or make shoes of straw
or eat a filling meal of sausage and bread
or laugh like children laugh alone in the dark.
We soldiers are only human. We love
to kill. It is the hidden God in each of us.
Cattle Train to Magdeburg
My mother still remembers
The long train to Magdeburg
the box cars
by Baltic winters
The rivers and the cities
she had never seen before
and would never see again:
the sacred Vistula
the smoke-haunted ruins of Warsaw
the Warta, where horse flesh
met steel and fell
The leather fists
of pale boys
boys her own age
convinced of their godhood
by the cross they wore
different from the one
she knew in Lvov
The long twilight journey
four days that became six years
six years that became sixty
And always a train of box cars
bleached to Baltic gray.
My Father Talks about the Boxcars
The train would slow, and then stop
And we would wait for the doors
To grind open so we could see
Where we were, and sometimes
There would be children in the fields
Bent over boards or a broken plow
And we would beg them for water
And they would say, “Dear Jesus,
If we only could, but the Germans
Would shoot us,” and we would beg
The children to tell us where we were
And we’d ask if they knew where
The tracks led—and they’d whisper,
the tracks went west to Germany
And maybe further but they didn’t know,
Maybe to America or France.
And we would watch the doors
Grind back and close with hungry eyes.
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.
Hunger in the Labor Camps
1.What My Father Ate
He ate what he couldn’t eat,
what his mother taught him not to:
brown grass, small chips of wood, the dirt
beneath his gray dark fingernails.
He ate the leaves off trees. He ate bark.
He ate the flies that tormented
the mules working in the fields.
He ate what would kill a man
in the normal course of his life:
leather buttons, cloth caps, anything
small enough to get into his mouth.
He ate roots. He ate newspaper.
In his slow clumsy hunger
he did what the birds did, picked
for oats or corn or any kind of seed
in the dry dung left by the cows.
And when there was nothing to eat
he’d search the ground for pebbles
and they would loosen his saliva
and he would swallow that.
And the other men did the same.
2. What a Starving Man Has
He has his skin. He has a thinness
to his eyes no bread will ever redeem.
He has no belly and his long muscles
stand out in relief as if they’d been flayed.
He is a bony mule with the hard eyes
one encounters in nightmares or in hell,
and he dreams of cabbage and potatoes
the way a boy dreams of women’s breasts.
They come uncalled for, round and fevered
like rain that will never stop. There is always
the empty sea in his belly, rising
falling and seeking land, and next to him
there’s always another starving man who says,
“Help me, Brother. I am dying here.”
3. Among Sleeping Strangers
The moon set early and it grew darker,
and the men settled to sleep in the cold
without blankets. Soon it would be spring
but it was still cold, and it was always cold
at night, and they did what men always did
at night when they were cold. They pressed their bodies
together and looked for warmth the way a man
who has nothing will look, expecting nothing
and thankful to God for the little he finds,
and the night was long as it always was
and some men crawled roughly across the others
to reach an outside wall to relieve themselves,
and some men started coughing and the coughing
entered the dreams of some of the other men
and they remembered the agony
of their mothers and grandfathers dying
of hunger or cholera, their lungs coughed up
in blood-streaked phlegm, and some men dreamt
down deeper and deeper against the cold
till they came somehow to that holy moment
in the past when they were warm and full
and loved, and the sun in those dreams rose early
and set late and the days were full of church bells
and the early spring flowers that stirred their lives
and in the morning the man shook away
from the cold bodies of their brothers
and remembered everything they had lost,
their wives and sisters, their lovers, their homes
their frozen fingers, their fathers, the soil
they’d been born on, the souls they’d been born with,
and then they crawled up out of the earth
and gathered together to work in the dawn.
4. The Germans
These men belonged to the Germans
the way a mule belonged to the Germans
and the Germans stood watching
their hunger and then their deaths,
watched them as if they were dead trees
in the wind, and waited for them to fall,
and some of the men did. They sank
to their knees like children begging
forgiveness for sins they couldn’t recall,
or they failed to rise when the others did
and were left in the wet gray fields
where the Germans watched them
and the Germans stood watching
when the men who were still hungry
came back and lifted the dead men
and carried their thin bones to the barn,
and buried them there before eating the soup
that wouldn’t have kept them alive.
The Germans knew a starving man
needed more than soup and more than bread
but still they stood and watched.
The Work My Father Did in Germany
He lifts the shovel, sees the dirt,
the clods still heavy with snow,
and knows that this will always
be his life, one shovel and then
another shovel until his arms
are shaking. He never knows
what the guards will say to him.
Maybe they’ll ask him for a song
he knew in Poland that he sang
while leading the steaming cows
into the woods early in the spring.
And he will smile and sing
and ask them if they’d like another.
Or maybe they will tell him
he is a fool and his mother
a pig the farm boys fuck
when their own hands are weak
from pulling on their sore meat.
And my father will shovel
in terror and think of the words
he will not say: Sirs, we are all
brothers, and if this war ever ends,
please, never tell your children
what you’ve done to me today.
My Father Tells a Story
My friend Jashu was an artist in Wilno
before the war. He would paint pictures
of young women in dresses made of roses
and yellow flowers no one had ever seen.
In the camp he would push a stick
through the dust and sketch your face
give you eyes like Charlie Chaplin
or a funny stomach like Oliver Hardy.
Jashu told me of the women he knew
before the war, of making love in blue rooms
after a dessert of marzipani on silver plates,
then going into the dark, wet park
And making love again in the half shelter
of a band shell or kiosk. Near the end
he told me he had the French disease,
and when I said I didn’t understand
he pointed down to his thing there
and asked me what he should do.
He was a good friend, and I looked him
in the eye and said, “Go to the Elbe
And drown yourself.” He laughed and went
to Stefan Czernak who said, “Go to the Germans
And tell them what you did.” The Germans asked,
“Who was the woman you made love to?”
He told them, and they beat her with clubs
and killed her and they beat him too,
and castrated him, and killed him.
My mother looks at herself
in her dress and striped coat
and knows she is who she is—
bones and skin, and the war
has always been here with her,
like an older brother, not mean
or evil but hard, never soft, teaching
hesitance and patience, teaching her
not to put her hand out to take
the cup of water or touch the bread.
It has always been this way
and will always be this way.
War has no beginning, no end.
War is the god who breeds and kills.
From The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald
My father is the corpse without lips
or the desire to lick its lips.
He is the corpse that doesn’t envy
the sparrows or the pigeons,
or the horses or cows that stand
around waiting for men to beat them
across the flanks when they’re angry
or across the eyes and mouth
when the men are truly mad.
He is the corpse that has made
its journey and now waits only
for the slumber promised by God
in the bible and other books that lie.
My mother tells me of the beets she dug up
In Germany. They were endless, redder
Than roses gone bad in an early frost,
Redder than a grown man's kidney or heart.
The first beet she remembers,
She was alone in the field, alone
Without her father or mother near,
No sister even. They were all dead,
Left behind in Lvov. The ground was wet
And cold, but not soft, never soft.
She ate the raw beet, even though
She knew they would beat her.
She says, sometimes she pretended
She was deaf, stupid, crippled,
Or diseased with Typhus or cholera,
Even with what the children called
The French disease, anything to avoid
The slap, the whip across her back
The leather fist in her face above her eye.
If she could've given them her breasts
To suck, her womb to penetrate
She would have, just so they would not
Hurt her the way they hurt her sister
And her mother and the baby.
She wonders what her reward will be
For living in such a world? It won’t be love
Or money. She wonders if God
will remember her work with the beets.
She wonders if there is a God.
Night in the Labor Camp
Through the nearest window
he stares at the sky and thinks
of his dead father and mother,
his dead sister and brother,
his dead aunt and dead uncle,
his dead friend Jashu, and the boy
whose name he didn’t know
who died in his arms, and all
the others who wait for him
like the first light of the sun
and the work he has to do
when the sun wakes him.
He hates no one, not God,
not the dead who come to him,
not the Germans who caught him,
not even himself for being alive.
He is a man held together
with stitches he has laced
himself, his eyes burning
and dead from staring.
In the Spring the War Ended
For a long time the war was not in the camps.
My father worked in the fields and listened
to the wind moving the grain, or a guard
shouting a command far off, or a man dying.
But in the fall, my father heard the rumbling
whisper of American planes, so high, like
angels, cutting through the sky, a thunder
even God in Heaven would have to listen to.
At last, one day he knew the war was there.
In the door of the barracks stood a soldier,
an American, short like a boy and frightened,
and my father marveled at the miracle of his youth
and took his hands and embraced him and told him
he loved him and his mother and father,
and he would pray for all his children
and even forgive him the sin of taking so long.
My father dreams of pigeons,
their souls, their thin cradles
of bone, but it is their luck
he admires most. A boy in Poznan
in a dawn all orange and pinks,
his hands opened like a saint's
and taught those birds to fly, to rise
on the air, their wings beating
the rooftops into flesh, into dreams
of angels above the crystal trees.
And later in the gray dawn clouds
blowing about him in the camps,
where not even pigeons were safe,
where his body, thin then,
like a shoelace, sought other dreams
other bodies, and found only
the comfort of worms — even then
he could still remember
the birds without chains,
breathing quickly and cooing
"We are going, we are going."
We came with heavy suitcases
made from boards by brothers
we left behind, came from Magdeburg
and Katowice and before that
Lvov, our mother's true home,
came with our tongues
in tatters, our teeth in our pockets,
hugging only ourselves, our bodies
stiff like frightened ostriches.
We were the orphans in ragged wool
who shuffled in line to eat or pray
or beg anyone for charity.
Remembering the air and the trees,
the sky above the Polish fields,
we dreamt only of the lives waiting
for us in Chicago and St. Louis
and Superior, Wisconsin
in our mouths.
Looking for Work in America
He knew death the way a blind man
knows his mother’s voice. He had walked
through villages in Poland and Germany
where only the old were left to search
for oats in the fields or beg the soldiers
for a cup of milk. He knew the dead,
the way they smelled and their dark full faces,
the clack of their teeth when they were desperate
to tell you of their lives. Once he watched
a woman in the moments before she died
take a stick and try to write her name
in the mud where she lay. He’d buried
children too, and he knew he could do any kind
of work a man could ask him to do.
He knew there was only work or death.
He could dig up beets and drag fallen trees
without bread or hope. The war taught him how.
He came to the States with this and his tools,
hands that had worked bricks and frozen mud
and knew the language the shit bosses spoke.
I Dream of My Father as He Was When He
First Came Here Looking for Work
I wake up at the Greyhound Station
in Chicago, and my father stands there,
strong and brave, the young man of my poems,
a man who can eat bark and take a blow
to the head and ask you if you have more.
In each hand he holds a wooden suitcase
and I ask him if they are heavy.
He smiles, “Well, yes, naturally. They’re made
of wood,” but he doesn’t put them down.
Then he tells me he has come from the war
but remembers little, only one story:
Somewhere in a gray garden he once watched
a German sergeant chop a chicken up
for soup and place the pieces in a pot,
everything, even the head and meatless feet.
Then he ate all the soup and wrapped the bones
in cloth for later. My father tells me,
“Remember this: this is what war is.
One man has a chicken, and another doesn’t.
One man is hungry and another isn’t.
One man is alive and another is dead.”
I say, there must be more, and he says,
“No, that’s all there is. Everything else
is the fancy clothes they put on the corpse.”
Landscape with Dead Horses, Sept. 1939
War comes down like a hammer, heavy and hard
flattening the earth and killing the soft things:
horses and children, flowers and hope, love
and the smell of the farmers’ earth, the coolness
of the creek, the look of trees as they uncurl
their leaves in late March and early April.
You smell the horses before you see them.
Horses groan, their heads nailed to the ground
their bodies rocking crazily, groaning
like men trying to lift their heads for one
last breath, to breathe, to force cold air
into their shredded, burning lungs.
For these horses and the men who rode them,
this world will never again be the world
God made; and still they dare to raise their heads,
to force the air into their shredded lungs.
Look at this horse. Its head torn from its body
by a shell. So much blood will teach you more
about the world than all the books in it.
This horse’s head will remake the world for you—
teach even God a lesson about the stones
that wait to rise in our hearts, cold and hard.
In the end Hitler sat in his cold bunker
and asked his generals about his own horses,
“Where are they?” He asked, “Where are my horses?”
And no one dared to tell him, “They are dead
in the fields with the Poles and their horses,
bloated with death and burning with our corpses.”
A letter to My Mother from Poland, Oct. 4, 1952
Dearest Tekla, my only sister,
The war has been over for so long but still we suffer the leavings of war. We have tables but no food, pain but no medicine, strong metal beds but no straw to sleep on.
Each day I wait for night to free me from the longing but it only brings me dreams of our dead mother crying about the wash, blaming me for the dresses I can’t get clean. I hold them above the tub but haven’t the strength to lower them into the water.
Sometimes, I see her standing in the doorway looking east toward the autumn forest where snow already falls. Perhaps if you could come back to Poland and travel back to the village with me, maybe we could find the grave where they dropped her and Genja and Genja’s baby. Someone there must know where they are buried. Maybe then mother would stop coming to me.
If you could come in the spring, perhaps you could bring me a bolt of blue cloth, blue with little white flowers. You know the kind we wore the year before the war. A new dress for summer would be so nice.
Your loving sister,
Garrison Keillor's reading of “What My Father Believed”:
Dr. John Z. Guzlowski's blog about his parents and their experiences in Nazi Germany: