Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Spring Poem

Spring Poem
My Polish father spent five years in the German concentration camp system. He was captured by the Germans in fall of 1940 and finally liberated by the Americans in spring of 1945.
During those five years, he saw men crucified and hung, castrated and frozen to death, women raped and beaten and shot, their breasts torn apart by bayonets, their babies thrown and scattered in the air like sand.
He never thought he would be free.
He thought he would be a slave until he died.
And then the war ended. This is a poem about that. It's from my book about my parents, Echoes of Tattered Tongues.


For a long time the war wasn't 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.


There are no photos of my dad in the camps, but this is a photo of him after the war when he was a refugee for 6 years waiting for some country to say "come on over."
He's the fellow in the cap with his hands on his knees. The other fellows are guys who survived Buchenwald with him.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Hunger in the Slave Labor Camps

My father spent more than 4 years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp as a Polish slave laborer. He was captured in a round up when he went to his village north of Poznan to buy some rope. When he was taken by the Nazis, he was a kid, just 19 years old.

A lot of times when he talked about his experiences, he couldn't help telling me about how hungry he was for those four years. He said that most days he got about 600 calories of food. Once when he complained about the food, the Nazi guard hit him across the head with a club. From that day on, my dad was blind in one eye.

When the Americans liberated the camp, he weighed 75 pounds. He was one of the lucky ones. A lot of the guys in the camp didn't make it.

I've written a lot of poems about how hungry he was during those four year. The following is one of them. It's called "What He Ate." It appears in my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues. Here's a youtube of me reading the poem. I'm posting a copy of the poem itself after the video.

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.


The photograph at the start is by Margaret Bourke-White, an American woman reporter and photographer, one of the first people in Buchenwald after the liberation. Her story and some of her photos appear in her memoir of being with the advancing Allied army, Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly (1946). The book is out of print but some libraries may still have a copy. You won't regret tracking it down.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Last Day of Life on Earth

The Last Day of Life on Earth


On the last day of life on earth, a little boy asked his mother for a drink of water, and she smiled and kissed him on the forehead.


In Chicago a bartender walked outside and stared at the sun for a minute.  It didn’t look like rain.


A 14-year old girl raced her mom’s Ford Mustang as fast as she could down the hot center of a two lane blacktop heading toward a reservoir.


A man named John couldn’t remember what his friend Bill asked about years ago in the last moments of his life.  He knew it was something about the Sierras and a trip they took when they were in college, but he couldn’t remember. 


A truck driver pulled over to the side of the road.  He had to pee and it was another 40 miles to Davenport, Iowa.


A new bride turned to the last page of her novel to see how many pages she had left.  434.


The TV set went blank, and a fellow named Jim was really annoyed and reached for his remote.


A priest missed the lentil soup his mother used to make.  She used mushrooms that came all the way from Poland.


A single guy named Fred opened up his refrigerator and wondered what his last meal would be.  He didn’t see any beans and wondered too if it was too late to buy some.


Outside of Gretna, Virginia, a part-time farmer and preacher named Charles dropped to his knees in the field and started praying.  He had joy and fear in his heart.


The sky in the east was starting to cloud up just like it did the day before.


A writer wrote a sentence about God and then he wrote another about the devil.  Finished, he read them aloud in wonder.  He had never written about either before.


A marmalade colored cat ran across the street for no apparent reason.  A man sitting at his study window watched the cat and wondered why he did it.


Another man repeatedly smashed the wall in his living room with a hammer.  At last there was an opening wide enough and tall enough for him to pass through.


The radio was on in a house where a father blindfolded his wife and two daughters and shot them before killing himself.  The radio was playing an old Bruce Springsteen song, something about being on fire.


The star of the most popular show on TV sat alone in her bathroom drinking a sloe gin fizz.  She wished her partner was home.  She wanted to make love.


A woman finally sat down at the kitchen table.  She had been running around for hours getting this meal ready for her husband and now it was done.


In the apartment next door, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.


Sheila had been stuck in traffic since lunchtime.  Hungry, she wished she had something in the car, even a cracker would do.  She put her thumb in her mouth and licked the salt off it.


A boy named Larry played a game he loved on his iPad.  His mom was yelling at his dad in the other room, and he didn’t want to listen.  He looked around for his ear buds.


Chari sat in the bathtub.  The bubbles had gone flat and the water was starting to cool, but she didn’t care.


Frank wondered what tomorrow would be like.  He liked this life even with all the bullshit his job put him through.  He couldn’t imagine a better way of living.


In the sky above Wichita, Kansas, an old man in a giant balloon drifted east toward the clouds coming toward him. 




My story originally appeared in the Atticus Review: https://atticusreview.org/the-last-day-of-life-on-earth/

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A Valentine's Day Story -- How My Mom and Dad Met in a Slave Labor Camp

My mom had been brought to Germany to work in a slave labor camp. The day she was captured she saw her mom and her sister and her sister's baby killed by German soldiers. My mom was crying so much when she got to the camp that one of the guards said if she didn't stop crying they would shoot her.

Near the end of the war, my dad and some other slave laborers were brought to my mom's camp by German guards who were escaping the Russians. The Germans left him there and fled toward the American lines. When my mom saw my dad, he was a scarecrow in rags. He weighed about 70 pounds and had only one eye. He had lost the other when a guard clubbed him for begging for food.

She was 23, he was 25. She had been a slave for 2 years, he had been one for 4.

When I would ask my dad what it was like when they met, he would smile and say, "First we had something to eat.  Then we got married."   My mother's version was a little more complete.  Here's the way she told the story in a piece from my book about them, Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded.

My Mother Tells Me How She Met My Father

I first saw him in front of the barracks. He was walking with six other prisoners, a German soldier behind them pushing at them with some kind of rifle. Your father wasn’t how he is now. He was skinny then, like two shoelaces tied together.

I was not such a prize after three years in the camps either. When the Americans came, they weighed me and found I was less than a 100 pounds—and what was I wearing? You want to know? Woolens on my legs, a gray rag to hide my hair, a striped dress.

And him? Your father? Like I said, skinny with a bleeding towel across his face from where he lost his eye.

Still, he walked up to me, took my hand, and said in Polish, “Proszę, pani.”

Yes, he said, “Please, miss,” and like a proper gentleman, he clicked his heels. I thought he was at least a count, maybe a prince.

Then just before your dad had a chance to kiss my hand, the German behind him kicked him in the pants and said, “Dummkopf, raus!” Get moving, dummy!

Your father was like that. Always putting on airs, even then in the camps talking of Polish honor as if he and Poland shared a soul.

Really, he was worthless. I wish he had left me there in the camp. He couldn’t drive a car, he couldn’t fix a leaky roof.

When I asked him in the refugee camp to help me pack to come to America, he took a little drink and bundled all the clothes together in a bedspread like America was across the street.

The fool, I should have kicked him like the German soldier did when I met him.

Instead, I kissed him and wept.


If you want to read more about their life together, check out my Echoes book or my blog.  Here's a piece in fact about their life in America and how hard it was sometimes for them and why they stayed together:  Why My Mother Stayed with my Father.  (You can click on these links.)

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Subway Dreams

Subway Dreams

I lived at the end of the Ravenswood El in Chicago for years.

All day and all night subway cars pulled into the terminal.  I heard their wheels scraping against the metal rails in my sleep, and this gave me dreams and nightmares of subways and subway tunnels.

In these dreams I walked through the underground world of Chicago, met the people living in those tunnels, the husbands and wives and the frogs they gave birth to.

One time one of these frogs somehow got into my mouth and crawled into my body, through my stomach and into my womb.  Even though I was a guy, there was only one thing I could do to get rid of it.

In the darkness of the subway tunnels of Chicago, I gave birth to a blue frog.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

True Confessions -- 1960s


I took acid 3 times, cocaine twice, pot about 3 times a week for 6 years, vodka/beer/tequila just about every day.
I smoked too. A pack a day. A pack was about 25 cents when I started. Sometimes when I ran out of cigarettes I smoked a pipe.
I also drank about 10 cups of coffee a day. In the morning and in the evening and at 3 in the morning.
I don't think I ever slept. Maybe once or twice. I remember one time being awake for 3 days and waking up behind a gas station in Moline, Illinois.
But most of the time I didn't sleep. At night I lay in bed, drunk and stoned and coffeed up, listening to the Doors.
Sometimes there was a girl with me.  Stoned or sober.  It didn’t matter.
Either way, Jim Morrison would be singing.
"This is the end, my friend. This is the end."
I believed it and didn't care.
I'm finishing up a book of autobiographical poems called True Confessions.  It covers my life from about 1965 to about yesterday.  Each section begins with a short prose prologue.  This is the one for the 60s. 

Here's one of the 60s poems:

Talking Drunk to a Drunk Woman I don’t Know

The party’s in another room
but the hallway is safe for silence
and she tells me there is something in winters
that keeps them coming back again and again
and I laugh because I think she said sinners

so again I ask where she comes from
and she tells me there are moons
that never see sunlight, books that never
see rain, and I try to shake my head clear

but it doesn’t help because she starts again:
telling me about the windows in the attic
the basement in her dreams, the cost
of friction when friction means dreaming

I try to stand to go to the bathroom
but she pulls me down into a puddle of bones
and finally I know her words make sense.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

1945: A Savage Peace

This morning I watched 1945: A Savage Peace, a BBC documentary on what happened to the ethnic German civilians living in Eastern Europe immediately after the war.

A brutal film.

I knew that they suffered, that the Russians raped and killed many as they moved west, but I had no idea about how the Poles and Czechs took vengeance on these German civilians.

Some of the documentary footage of Czechs shooting and hanging German civilians is very disturbing.

Also the interviews with the German children who survived this brutality are hard to listen too.

My only complaint is that there is too little made of the German atrocities committed during the war that inspired this revenge.  That seems forgotten, and I wonder if this is simply another way of changing how the world sees the Germans and the war.

Overall, the film tells me once again that war is shit.

The film is available on Netflix.

I recommend it.

Here's a link to a Daily Telegraph article about the documentary. Just click here: Link