"All of History's Polacks"
I'm going to do a presentation today at the annual conference of Holocaust Educators of Virginia.
One of the things I'm talking about is what it was like for us as refugees in Germany for 6 years and what it was like when we came to America finally.
I'm going to start my presentation by reading from the preface to Echoes of Tattered Tongues:
Where I’m Coming From
I never set out to write about my parents and their experiences in the concentration camps in Germany and what it was like for us as immigrants here in America. When I was growing up, I wanted to get as far as possible away from them and the world they came from.
When we landed at Ellis Island, we were unmistakably foreign. We didn’t speak English. We dressed in black and brown wool that had been given to us by a UN relief agency. My mother wore a babushka on her head, my father a woolen cloth cap with a broken brim. They both wore their best shoes, leather boots that came to their knees. My mother’s brother had stitched and hammered those boots by hand. All our belongings were gathered together in a small steamer trunk my dad had built.
Our lives were hard: America then—like now—didn’t much want to see a lot of immigrants coming over and taking American jobs, sharing apartments with two or three other immigrant families, getting into the kinds of trouble immigrants get into. We were regarded as Polacks—dirty, dumb, lazy, dishonest, immoral, licentious, drunken Polacks.
I felt hobbled by being a Polack and a DP, a Displaced Person. It was hard karma.
I started running away from my Polishness as soon as I could, and for much of my life I continued to run. As I started moving into my early teens, I didn’t want anything to do with my Polish parents and their past. I thought of it all as that “Polack” or immigrant past. It was so old world, so old-fashioned. I had parents who couldn’t speak English, couldn’t talk about baseball or movies, didn’t know anything about Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, couldn’t spend a night without arguing with each other in Polish, the language of misery, poverty, and alienation. I wanted to spend as little time as possible thinking about my parents and their Polishness and what my mother sometimes called “that camp shit.”
I moved away from them, physically and psychologically and emotionally and culturally and intellectually. I stopped going to church, I left home, I didn’t maintain my Polishness, I stopped talking Polish, I stopped eating Polish food, I went to grad school, I immersed myself in American culture. I studied Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Dickinson, Eliot, John Dos Passos, Eugene O’Neill, Fitzgerald, and on and on.
I became the person my parents didn’t want me to be. They wanted me to be a good Polish boy, living Polish, going to church, residing at home, dreaming of returning to Poland like my dad.
I guess I did what some immigrant kids always do. I said, your world is not my world.
And then it all changed: I started writing about my parents when I was in grad school. Maybe it was because I had finally gotten far enough away from them. Maybe not.
I realized very quickly that even if people don’t want to read what I write, I had to write my poems about my parents just to make sure someone would. Really, there just aren’t a lot of people writing about people like my parents and the other DPs. And if I don’t write, who will? Imagine all of those hundreds of thousands of Poles who came to this country as DPs. Who wrote for them?
I sometimes feel that I am writing for all the people who’ve sought refuge in America, whose stories were never told, whose voices got lost somewhere in the great cemetery of the 20th century—that I have an obligation to listen to those voices and give them a place to be heard, to tell the stories they would write themselves if they could. For the last thirty-five years, while I have been writing about my parents’ lives, I sometimes think that I am not only writing about their lives, but also about the lives of all those forgotten, voiceless refugees, DPs, and survivors that the last century produced, no matter where they came from.
All of history’s “Polacks.”