Photo- Polish victim of Luftwafe bombing 1939
It is certainly an honour to interview John Guzlowski. A son of a Polish immigrants , with both parents spending years as labourers in German concentration camps, Professor Guzlowski uses poetry and short pieces of prose to convey their experiences. John Guzlowski was born just after World War 2 in a Displaced Persons camp, and moved with his parents and sister to the USA 1951.
This interview, conducted by E mail in March 2017 will be published in three parts. And please visit John’s blog
“She learned that the world is a broken place Where no birds sing, and even angels Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.” -’What the War Taught Her’
His greatest legacy to war poetry will be in highlighting the reality of the German occupation of Poland for the Polish agricultural workers who were forced work for the Nazi regime. John Guzlowski’s work is harrowing. Most of the poems depict the systematic brutality and cruelty of the German occupation and concentration camp life : German soldiers appear in Poland “ like buffaloes , terrible and big” . They are not merely ‘obeying orders’ , but relish the suffering and degradation they are causing.
“Soldiers from nowhere came to my mother’s farm killed her sister’s baby with their heels shot my grandma too One time in the neck then for kicks in the face lots of times…” -‘My mother was Nineteen’
1. Why do you write about your parents’ war time experiences ?
I never set ought to write about my parents and their experiences. As I was growing up, I wanted to get as far as possible away from their experiences in the war and in the concentration and refugee camps.
My parents seemed hobbled, disturbed, overcome by their experiences. My dad had terrible nightmares all the time. My mother couldn’t smile, couldn’t be warm, couldn’t show her love. She was always fearful. She wouldn’t let me whistle in the house when I was a kid because she felt that whistling was a sign of joy and the devil would come with a hammer and bust up the place where he sensed joy. I’m not kidding.
We lived with fear and nightmares.
Now, I understand it. My father was taken to Buchenwald when he was 20. He saw friends castrated and crucified and beaten to death. My mother saw her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby killed by the Germans, and then my mom was taken to the slave laborer camps where she saw things that – as she says in one of my poems – she couldn’t tell me about even though I was a professor and middle-aged.
And this fear and these nightmares weren’t only in my house. We lived in a neighborhood in Chicago full of survivors – American GIs and Jews, Poles, Germans, and Ukrainians. It was a neighborhood where I would see crazy things happen to my friends – crazy things done to them by their parents. One of my poems talks about my friend Joe, Polack Joe. I remember his father stripping him naked and chasing him through the streets, beating him with a belt all the while.
And the world outside that neighborhood didn’t see us as survivors or refugees, Displaced Persons, or Poles or 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, dirty or dumb 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 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.
Growing up, I didn’t want to write about this or even be a part of it.
I ran away from it as soon as I could. When I went to college, I studied American literature. I wanted to be an American, a kid who didn’t have to carry the burden of his parents’ life in the camps, a kid who didn’t have to remember that he was born in a refugee camps and came to the US as an alien, a displaced person, a dirty refugee.
And then all this changed for me. I think I realized at some point, when I was away from my parents and their whole survivor and immigrant experience, that I needed to hear their voices again, needed to hear their “tattered” tongues. And that’s when I started writing about them.
It happened by accident. There was no intention on my part. I didn’t feel driven to write their story. I just sat down one day when I was working on my PhD in American literature and wrote a short poem about my parents and what they were thinking about. It was the poem “Dreams of Unhurried Memories.” It focused – as the title suggests – on what my mom and dad were thinking about on a hot summer afternoon, and what the poem suggests is that they are thinking about the war. I guess I was thinking about it too. I had fled those memories and suddenly I was back with those memories.
That was almost 30 years ago. I’m 68 now and have been writing about my parents and their experiences for 30 years. I’ve written 5 books of poems and 3 novels, and all of them have something of my parents and their story and my story in them.
If you had asked me 30 years ago whether I would ever write about my parents, I would have told you, “No way.” I saw myself as a writer, but it was as a writer of cool, detached academic prose.
The Guzlowski family, New Years Eve 1958 -courtesy John Guzlowski
2. How did they rate your poetry – I am particularly thinking of ‘My mother reads my poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg’ ?
How did my parents rate my poetry? That’s a funny question. My parents were immigrants, non-native speakers, and they were people with very little education. My mom could read some English, but my dad couldn’t read a word of it or much Polish either, for that matter. When I started publishing my poems about their experiences, I would show them the journals and magazines the poems were appearing in, and my parents would shrug. They were very uninterested. They couldn’t read the poems, couldn’t see what they were about. I remember one time translating the one of the poems into Polish and reciting it to my parents. Even then, they weren’t interested. Their only response was that my ragged Polish hurt their ears. So for a long time I didn’t show them my poems.
It wasn’t until 2002 when a bilingual Polish/English edition of my book Language of Mules about my parents came out that my mom started taking an interest in my writing. My father had passed away by then, and I remember coming to her home and showing her the book. I was so excited to be able to give her the book and I handed it to her and said, “Mom, here’s the book of poems I’ve been writing about you and dad all these years, and it’s in Polish so that you can at last read the poems.” She took the book and opened it to one of the first poems, “Cattle Train to Magdeburg,” a poem about the journey she took from her village in Eastern Poland to the slave labor camps in Magdeburg, Germany. She read it and looked at me, and said, “That’s not the way it was.”
I loved her response. It was so much like her.
Most of the poems in that book were based on stories that my father had told me. They were from his point of view, not my mom’s. My father couldn’t stop himself when it came to talking about the war. His stories of what happened were as uncontrollable as the nightmares that plagued him. My mom on the other hand never – up to that point – ever talked about the war in front of me and my sister.
So when she read the cattle train poem she heard her story filtered through my dad’s voice and then my voice, and it was a story she didn’t recognize, and that’s when she said, “That’s not the way it is.” But she didn’t stop there. For me, the miracle was that she went on to say, “Let me tell you how it was.”
Everything changed for me when she said that. I grabbed a notebook and a pen and started writing down as fast as I could what she was telling me. And it became the poem “My Mother Reads My Poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg.’”
That was the day that transformed what I was doing. My mother became an active participant in the story of her experiences and my dad’s experiences. Starting that day, she often asked me to take out a notebook because she had a story that she wanted to tell me.
I think she realized with that book what I was doing and how important it was to carry on these stories and pass them on. I remember one time just before I did a reading of my poems at a university in America, I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to say to the audience, and she said yes there was something. She wanted me to tell the audience that she and my dad weren’t the only ones in the camps. She was afraid that I was making it sound like my parents were the only people in these camps being brutally abused by the Germans. She wanted people to know that there were many many people in the camps, suffering the brutality and terror there.
To come back to your question about how my parents rated my poems. I think that at one point – after the publication of the book and after I started lecturing about the war – my mother came to feel that what I was doing in the poems was important. It just wasn’t something to shrug at.
My mother says, these men from the west Were like buffaloes; terrible and big. She waves the dreams away with her hand And starts again, talking of plowing the fields Of cutting winter wood, of that time When the double-bladed axe slipped And sank a wound so deep in her foot That she felt her heart would not Jar loose from its frozen pause -How Her Mother and Sister Died
3 How do you manage to write about brutal acts that were done to your parents in the slave labour camps ? Does it ever just get too much to tackle subjects such as your father being beaten and starved or your mother being raped by guards? It must have been very harrowing to write a poem such ‘My Mother’s First Winter in Germany’?
Writing about my parents and the brutal things they experienced and saw is hard. I’m talking about terrible things that happened to my mom and dad that were with them for a life time. I think one of the things that helps me talk about the things I talk about is that I feel that I’m connecting with my parents when I write about them and talk about them. Talking about my dad eating seeds he’s dug out of cow shit connects me with him in some strange way. Once again, I’m the little boy listening to my father telling me the things about his life that he can’t hold back.
Does it ever get to be too much? Of course. I feel this sometimes when I’m reading the poems and prose pieces before an audience. I’ll read something in a piece like ‘The Day I Was Born,’ and it will trigger a memory of my mother so strong and so brutal that I won’t be able to go on. I pause then, and do what my mother did when she told the story. She went on.
I know finally that these stories must be told, and I know that telling them connects me with my parents and the people hearing these stories as sure as the turning of the earth.”
End of Part One