Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Interview with Poet John Guzlowski (Part 1)

I want people to know about how much suffering
took place during the war.
~ Poet John Guzlowski

Professor Emeritus of Eastern Illinois University, where he taught American literature and poetry writing, John Guzlowski came to my attention serendipitously. Back in March, I happened upon one of his poems, "What the War Taught Her", and left a comment to which John kindly responded by e-mail. The e-mail included a link to a YouTube video that I immediately watched and another poem, "Night in the Labor Camp", from John's book Lightning and Ashes (Steel Toe Books, 2007). The latter poem has an unforgettable image in its concluding couplet: "He is a man held together / with stitches he laced himself." On reading the poem, I knew not only that I needed to obtain and read a copy of Lightning and Ashes but also that I wanted to interview John, who is the son of the late Jan Guzloswki and the late Tekla Hanczarek Guzlowski, two of many millions of persons rounded up by the Nazis in World War II who were destined to spend years as slave laborers and, subsequently, having survived the war, as "displaced persons" in refugee camps. As I like to do when a subject interests me, I asked John for an interview. Gracious person that he is, John agreed, telling me that he appreciates every opportunity to keep his parents close, stir the memories, and "clarify [his] own feelings."

Cover of Lightning and Ashes
Cover and Book Design by Joelean Copeland

Below is the first of three posts containing John's responses to my numerous questions via e-mail. I am grateful for the time John took to relate his parents' experiences in the horrific camps, as well as his own life, both as a child of Holocaust survivors and as a writer. John also provided the poems and family photos that accompany our interview. Brief biographical information and resources follow the questions and answers.

Living the Stories:
During and After the War
Interview with John Guzlowski, Part 1

Maureen Doallas: How old were you and what do you remember feeling the first time you heard either of your parents speak about their experiences in Germany's slave labor camps?

John Guzlowski: I really can't say when I first started hearing the stories. My father was an unrestrainable witness to what had happened to him. For instance, he would be hammering a nail into a door and he would suddenly remember something that had happened to him earlier in the concentration camp, and he would start telling me about it.

Honestly, I don't remember a time when I wasn't hearing these stories. [My father] would have friends over. These were people he had known from the concentration camps or refugee camps, and they would sit around the kitchen table drinking beer and start telling stories.

We lived in a small apartment; my bedroom was just off the kitchen. I remember lying [on my bed] there and listening to the stories. I heard some terrible things—stories of hangings and beatings, killings of mothers and children. One of my first poems about my parents is called "Dreams of Warsaw", and it contains an image from one of my earliest memories of my dad's stories: the image of a young girl getting her breasts cut off with a bayonet by a German soldier.

If my mom was there in the kitchen, she'd sometimes try to get them to stop or go outside with their stories.

She hated to hear the stories.

MD: What do you think prompted your parents to begin sharing their experiences with you?

JG: My father couldn't control himself. The war was always with him. He would wake us up sometimes, screaming in his sleep about the Nazis and what they were doing to him and the people in his dreams, taking them to the ovens or beating them across the eyes. The whole war was there again, in his head, and he couldn't get it out, couldn't shut it off.

Sometimes it was like that, too, when he was awake. He wasn't a man who could hold his liquor, so even after a single beer or shot of vodka, he would start letting the stories roll out of him.

This never stopped.

Even after he stopped drinking in his '50s, he had to tell the stories. I remember visiting him in the hospital when he was dying. There were stories he had to tell me. Just before his death, when he was still able to speak, he told me a story about a friend of his who was castrated and then beaten to death by the German guards. That story became my poem "A Story My Father Told" ["My Father Tells a Story" in Lightning and Ashes].

My mom was just the opposite. She didn't want to tell the stories, didn't want to hear the stories being told, either. I remember her telling my father to shut up, to stop telling the stories.

I've talked to a lot of children of survivors and they've told me that, generally, one parent serves as the person in the family who will tell the story of what happened during the war. I think that my dad was that designated person.

There were times when I would ask my mom specific questions about the war, and she would just wave me away. I wrote a poem about this called "Here's What My Mother Won't Talk About" [in Part II of Lightning and Ashes]; here's a section that describes her reaction:

Ask her

She'll wave her hand
tell you you're a fool
tell you

if they give you bread
eat it

if they beat you
run away

That was something she would say sometimes, if I pestered her: "If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run away." And she'd fall silent and walk away.

There were things she didn't want to talk about, didn't want to bring back. I think now that part of that was her desire to protect us, the kids, my sister and me, from what had happened.

She had seen terrible things: her mother shot, her sister raped and murdered, her sister's baby kicked to death.

How does someone start talking about that to their kids?

The surprising thing was that she started talking, telling her stories. It was after my dad died in 1997. About a half-a-year later, she started telling stories, not only about what had happened to her but also [about] what had happened to him and to other people she knew.

Sometimes when I'd visit her, she'd ask me to take out some paper and write down a story that she wanted to tell me about. This was around 2002. My first book about my mom and dad, Language of Mules, had come out, and a Polish version had been published.

I remember one time I was going to give a poetry reading at Western Kentucky University, and I was telling her about this, and she stopped me and said, "Tell them we weren't the only ones in the camps."

I think that in those last years of her life, she felt that she and I were sometimes collaborating on these poems, these stories about my mom and dad and the people they knew in the camps. I think she realized that her stories were important and that people needed to know about what happened.

I think, too, that she realized that the pain of talking about her experiences was worth it, if people learned about those terrible things.

MD: Victor Frankl wrote, "Life isn't ever made unbearable by circumstances but only by lack of meaning and purpose." How, if at all, might this statement help to explain how your parents were able to endure their horrific experiences? Did your parents themselves ever relate why they thought they survived while so many millions of others did not?

JG: I asked both my parents how they were able to survive. They both said same the same thing: They didn't know.

My father spent four years in a concentration camp where every year it's estimated that 25 percent of the prisoners died from starvation, exhaustion, execution, and cruelty. At the end, there was almost no one left who had come in with my father. They had died in one way or another.

Cover for The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald
Poems by John Guzlowski, Art by Vojtek Luka (Poland)

My father didn't know why he didn't die when so many of his friends did. He once told a story about being hauled out of his barracks with hundreds of other prisoners for a roll call. It was a January night, snowing and below zero, and the men were in rags. The guards started doing a roll call and, as they read the names, men began to drop from the cold, falling to their knees. A man here and another there, and then more. When the guards finished the roll call, there were dozens of dead prisoners in front of the barracks. But they didn't let the men go back in the barracks. Instead, the guards started the roll call again, and more men collapsed. That roll call went on for six hours. At the end, garbage trucks came to pick up the dead.

My father didn't know what kept him alive.

Did he have meaning and purpose? Maybe. He loved Jesus, and often referred to Him as Baby Jesus. He hated the Germans. He loved the other prisoners he was with in the camp. They were his brothers, his family. Did this keep him alive? Maybe. But he saw other men in the camp who had meaning and purpose, dreams they lived by, faiths that would keep them safe, die in the camp every day.

Here's something I said in a recent interview for Rattle: "I'm sure hope and courage were important in the camps but probably what was most important was luck."

MD: You and your sister were born in refugee camps. What do you recall about living in such camps?

JG: My sister was born in 1946 in a refugee camp and I was born in 1948 in a different camp. We left the camps in 1951; [my sister] was 5 and I was 3.

[My sister] doesn't want to talk about her time in the camps. There aren't a lot of people around who were born in 1946 in the camps. There were diseases in the camps, and the women had been starved and worked to exhaustion by the Germans. The mothers were weak, sickly after the war. There were a lot of miscarriages, premature births, infant deaths. At some of the refugee camps, they had mass graves for the babies. My sister was one of the fortunate ones — when my mom got out of the camps, she weighed about 100 pounds — but even so, there were things she saw that she feels she shouldn't share.

What I remember is very little, fragments, and maybe these are based as much as anything else on the photographs that I played with as a child. I remember living in refugee barracks, watching the convoys of dark green army trucks always passing. I remember a pair of camouflage pants my mother sewed for me out of material that she salvaged from an old army parachute. I remember being lost in the barracks, wandering around, calling for my parents and my sister Donna. It felt like I was lost for hours, and like the barracks and the camp went on for thousands of miles. And maybe [that camp] did go on for thousands of miles, from one end of Germany to the other. It felt like that.

In a Refugee Camp
John Guzlowski in Camo Pants

MD: Did you experience in America any stigma from being a "displaced person"? When did that phrase have meaning for you?

JG: I grew up in an inner-city neighborhood in Chicago full of "displaced persons" ("DPs") and regular people. I must have been 5 or 6 when I started hearing people calling us "DPs", and I was told that that meant "dirty Polacks". It hurt to be called "dirty" and a "Polack".

I still don't like it when people tell Polack jokes. All of that feels like I'm being called a "DP" again, a "dirty Polack".

"Displaced Persons" in a Field After the War
Jan Guzlowski, Pictured Left, Hands on Knees

Please join me tomorrow for Part 2 of my interview, "Telling the Stories in Poetry" in which John Guzlowski answers my questions about writing poems about his parents and their experiences as slave laborers and refugees.

John Guzlowski's first book about his parents is Language of Mules (DP Press). He continues telling stories with Lightning and Ashes and follows that with his chapbook The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald (Finishing Line Press, 2007). John's poems have appeared in Atlanta Review, Atticus ReviewCrab Orchard Review, The Drunken BoatEscape Into Life, Mississippi ReviewNimrod, Poetry East, Rattle, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Writer's Almanac, and other print and online literary periodicals and blogs; they are anthologized in Battle Runes: Writings on War (Editions Bibliotekos, 2011), Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration (Editions Bibliotekos, 2010), poet Charles Fishman's Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (Time Being Books, Rev. 2nd Ed., 2007), and other publications. His work also appears in City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2012). John's critical essays can be found in Polish American Studies, Polish Review, Studies in Jewish American Literature, and other literary journals.

Winner of an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry (2001, for Language of Mules) and a four-time nominee for a Pushcart Prize, John Guzlowski, who is profiled in The Polish American Encyclopedia (McFarland, 2011), writes sparely, movingly, and with deep sensitivity to the issues he chronicles. In light of the experiences he recounts, he gives profound expression to facts themselves, letting them shape all the voices that have been forever silenced.

John Guzlowski on FaceBook and Twitter

John Guzlowski's Blogs: Lightning and AshesLiving in Partial Light, Writing the HolocaustWriting the Polish Diaspora (Be sure to read John's excellent post "Polish Literature and Me".)

Poems from Language of Mules at The Scream Online and Escape Into Life

"Never Tell Your Children: Poetry by John Guzlowski" at AGORA: Faces of War, October 2007

YouTube Video: Reading and Discussion with John Guzlowski, October 11, 2011, St. Francis College

Megan Green's interview with John Guzlowski at Rattle

Review of Lightning and Ashes at Barn Owl Review

Review of The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald at JmWW

"Truth Teller - John Guzlowski" at Bibliotekos 


L.P. Jones said...

The truth is, most people only know that the Nazis were responsible for killing millions of people, Jews, Catholics, Gypsies, and members of other groups they considered subhuman. What could be perhaps even more heinous than taking a life is the kinds of torture the Nazis perpetrated on their prisoners. Without stories like John's we would never know the depths of LIVING hell people were forced to endure. We would be forced to contend only with their uncountable absence. These stories not only speak to the utter insanity which surrounded the Nazi's methods but of the unimaginable strength of those who survived. Thanks to the interviewer,Ms. Doallas for her incisive and well-rendered questions and the great quote by Frankl.


Maja Trochimczyk said...

John, this is an extraordinary interview; I heard your readings, read your book, but still there is something new. The war was horror and it is a great thing you do to honor your parents by remembering what they and those around them went through. Thank you for your dedicated, heartfelt work!