MY MOTHER TALKS ABOUT
THE SLAVE LABOR CAMPS
By John Guzlowski

1. THE PLACES SHE LIVED

She has the peasants' view of the world:
Disorder and chaos, roads that end
In marshy fields, chickens that begin
To bleed from the mouth for no reason.
Nobody makes movies of such lives
She says, and begins to tell me the story
Of when the Americans first came,
Of the sergeant who stood with a suitcase
In the yard between the barracks.

He was shouting, screaming.
They didn't know what he wanted
And feared him. One of the women
Came out (first, she hid her children
Under the bed) and then another.
They knew he wasn't a German.
When fifteen of them stood in the yard,
He opened the suitcase, emptied
Its deutsche marks on the ground,
Said in broken German, "This is for you,
Take it, this is the money they owe you."
And then the British came,
And put them in another camp,
Where the corpses still had not been buried,
Where the water was bad, where my mother
Got sick, where her stool was as red
As the beets she had to dig everyday.

And my father worked hard, sawing
The wood, getting ready for winter,
Like he did in Poland. He knew this work
And did it for her and the children,
My sister and me. But the British
Moved them again, to another camp,
And they had to leave the wood, even though
My father tried to carry some on his back.
And it was cold in the new place, and some
Of the babies died, and my sister was sick,
Maybe from drinking the dirty water.

We were always being moved around.

2. HOW HER MOTHER AND SISTER DIED

Sometimes, my mother says, her home
West of Lvov comes back to her in dreams
That open in grayness with the sounds
Of a young, flowered girl in white
Singing a prayer of first communion,
The dirt streets around the church pure
With priests and girls and boys.

The singing prayer leads her to the grave
Where her mother and her sister Genja
And her sister's baby daughter lie,
The marshy grave where the hungry men
Dropped them after shooting them
And cutting them in secret places.
My mother says, these men from the east
Were like buffaloes: terrible and big.

She wonders if God will remember
Her labors. She wonders if there is a God.

She waves the dreams away with her hand
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.

3. THE BEETS

She 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 big 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 was her reward
For living in such a world. It was not love
Or money. She can't even remember
What happened to the deutsche marks
The American sergeant left that day
In the spring when the war ended.

4. 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.

 

 

Biographical sketch John Guzlowski

John Guzlowski received an Illinois Arts Council Poetry Award for Language of Mules, a book of poems about his parentsí experiences as slave laborers and displaced persons in Nazi Germany during and after the Second World War.

His poems have also appeared in such journals as Atlanta Review, Negative Capability, Manhattan Review, and Madison Review.

His essays on Isaac Singer and other contemporary American authors have appeared in Polish Review, Shofar, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Modern Fiction Studies, The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Studies in Jewish American Literature, and the Polish quarterly Akcent.

Currently, he teaches Contemporary American Literature and Poetry Writing at Eastern Illinois University.

His email address is jzguzlowski@eiu.edu

 

Dear Friends,
I've been working on this poem for a while hoping to get it done before May 3rd but I don't think I can finish it by then so I am sending it off as it is.

The poem remembers my dad and the other old Poles who lived around Humboldt Park in Chicago remembering the Poland they lost.

John

 

POLAND

They'll never see it again, these old Poles with their dreams of Poland. My father told me when I was a boy that those who tried in '45 were turned back at the borders

by shoeless Russians dressed in rags and riding shaggy ponies. The Poles fled through the woods, the unlucky ones left behind, dead or what's worse wounded, the lucky ones

gone back to wait in the old barracks in the concentration and labor camps in Gatersleben or Wildflecken for some miracle that would return them

to Poznan or Katowice. But God wasn't listening or His hands were busy somewhere else. Later, in America these Poles gathered with their brothers

and with their precious sons and daughters every May 3, Polish Constitution Day, to pray for the flag. There was no question what the colors stood for, red for all

that bleeding sorrow, white for innocence. And always the old songs telling the world Poland would never fall so long as poppies flower red, and flesh can conquer rock or steel.

John Guzlowski

 

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