Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp, April 11, 1945


On April 11, 1945, American troops liberated Buchnewald Concentration Camp.  It was a large camp housing about 80,000 prisoners, Poles, Slovenians, Frenchmen, Africans, and others.  They were brought there to work in the factories that the Germans built in and around the camp. 

We have a lot of documentation and photos from this liberation because the great American journalist and photographer Margaret Bourke-White was with the US Army when they liberated this camp.  She took photographs that captured the suffering of the men who were in the camp.

Here’s one of her photos.


My father was a prisoner in this camp for four years.  He was just a Polish farm boy, and he was captured when he went into his village to buy a piece of rope one Saturday.  The Germans had surrounded the village and were rounding up men and boys to go to Buchenwald and work in the factories there.

A lot of times when we think of Concentration Camps we imagine the death camps the Germans built in Poland where the primary business was killing large numbers of civilians.  Buchenwald wasn’t a death camp.  Millions did not die there, burned in the ovens, their ashes scattered in ponds where the water is still gray 70 years later.  But they did die there.  About one out four people died each year. 

What did they die of in Buchenwald?

Mainly starvation.  Fifty years later, my dad could still remember the hunger he felt.  He did hard labor 6 and even 7 days a week, 12 and 14 hour days, on a handful of food a day.  I’ve read accounts of what the men ate.  It came to about 600 calories a day. How much is that?  A Big Mac with Cheese is about 700 calories.  A Big Mac without cheese is 600.  But what my dad ate wasn’t a Big Mac.

I asked my dad once how he was able to stay alive.  He shrugged and said he didn’t know.  He said that most of the time the guards gave them a kind of gray gruel made out of some kind of grain and animal bones.  My dad called it “Hitler’s secret weapon.”  It wasn’t enough to keep a man alive, so my dad was always looking for things to stick into his mouth: twigs, pieces of paper, bits of cloth, leather buttons.  Once when he complained about the food, a guard hit him across his head with a club.  He knocked my dad down to the ground, but my dad got up and begged for food.  It was the wrong thing to say.  The guard clubbed my dad unconscious.  When my dad awoke, he was blind in one eye. 

But men didn’t only die of hunger.  People died for simple infractions, annoying the guards by urinating out of turn, slouching in line, standing in the wrong place. 

They died of cruelty too.  My father told me a story about one cold January night when the 400 men in his barracks were called out into the square for a roll call.  The men were dressed in rags, torn pants and shirts.  Some had shoes, others didn’t.  They had almost no protection from the snow and wind.  The guards lined them up in rows and told them they had to check the roster of prisoners, and then the Germans started reading the long lists of names.  As the guards read, men started dropping into the snow, falling to their knees and then keeling over.  And the guards kept reading.  They read through the roster once and then they said, “Oops, we missed a name,” and then they read through the roster again and again and again for six hours while men fell to their knees and died in the snow.  The next morning garbage carts came and collected the dead and took them to the ovens.  

Others died from overwork, hangings, experiments, crucifixions.  One of my father’s friends, an artist from Wilno, was first castrated and then hanged. 

One in every four died like this.  A lot of Margaret Bourke-White’s photos are of the dead, in piles like worthless paper, like rubbish.

But there are also many pictures of those who survived.

And when I look at the photos Margaret Bourke-White took the day the camp was liberated, I look for the face of my dad.  Thin as a shoelace, blind in one eye, with a scar across his skull where the guard beat him and beat him and beat him.  I haven’t found my dad yet, but I know I’ll recognize him when I see him.  

In the Spring the War Ended


For a long time the war was not 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 spring 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.

__________________________________________

The photo above was taken by Margaret Bourke-White.

If you want to know more about my dad and his experiences in the war, you can get a copy of my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues, available at Amazon.  Echoes contains the chapbook Third Winter of War: Buchenwald, about my dad's experiences in that camp.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Easter Poem



My father wasn't an educated man.  He was born on a small farm in western Poland and never attended school.  He used to joke that the German concentration camp he spent 4 years in was his college and university.

He didn't know much about stuff most of us take for granted.  One of the things he didn't know much about was religion.  You couldn't talk to him about things like Moses or the Garden of Eden or the Holy Trinity, even though he was born a Catholic.

But he had a strong faith, and there were things that he believed with a certainty as sure as the turning of the earth.   This is a poem about that.

What My Father Believed 

He didn’t know about the Rock of Ages
or bringing in the sheaves or Jacob’s ladder
or gathering at the beautiful river 
that flows beneath the throne of God.
He’d never heard of the Baltimore Catechism
either, and didn’t know the purpose of life 
was to love and honor and serve God.

He‘d been to the village church as a boy 
in Poland, and knew he was Catholic
because his mother and father were buried 
in a cemetery under wooden crosses. 
His sister Catherine was buried there too. 

The day their mother died Catherine took 
to the kitchen corner where the stove sat,
and cried.  She wouldn’t eat or drink, just cried
until she died there, died of a broken heart.
She was three or four years old, he was five.

What he knew about the nature of God 
and religion came from the sermons
the priests told at mass, and this got mixed up
with his own life.  He knew living was hard, 
and that even children are meant to suffer.  
Sometimes, when he was drinking he’d ask,
“Didn’t God send his own son here to suffer?”

My father believed we are here to lift logs
that can’t be lifted, to hammer steel nails
so bent they crack when we hit them.
In the slave labor camps in Germany,
He’d seen men try the impossible and fail.

He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other.  If you see someone 
on a cross, his weight pulling him down 
and breaking his muscles, you should try 
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won’t save him.

_____________________________

The poem is taken from my book about my dad and my mom and their experiences in WWII, Echoes of Tattered Tongues, available from Amazon.

The illustration at the top of the page is by the artist Voytek Luka from my book Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Solitude

Solitude?

Someone should write a history of it.

Think about it. Probably for the first million plus years we were here on earth, we were up to our ears in solitude. We'd watched the sky and the horizon for a bit of smoke, listen for the turning of a clumsy wheel or a whistle coming from some tall grass. Anything that might signal that our solitude was about to end.


At night, we'd sit in a tree or a cave and practice our smiles and handshakes on the off chance we'd meet somebody the next day coming toward us through that grass. We'd also practice our “company’s coming” talk, "Hi, I'm Abel from this tree here, glad to meet you. You just passing through? Like to stop?"

Sometimes you see a bird all alone on a tree, turning his head this way and that, pausing and listening the way birds listen to the sounds in the wind when they're all alone. We were probably like that bird most of the time we were on earth--maybe up to about 15,000 years ago when we learned to hunker down together.

It was probably a good break from the solitude and what was behind it and always coming closer, the loneliness.

A person gets tired of sleeping with his back exposed to the wind and the weather. He wants to have someone behind him keeping his back warm. It was probably that way when he was a baby, his momma pressing his back into her warm belly. You miss that kind of loving and go searching for something that will break the loneliness and the fancy Sunday-dress version of loneliness, solitude.



But then something happens, and we start getting a little too much of that pressing.

Maybe it's the growth of cities or the rise of the merchant class or the start of the industrial revolution with its ugly factories, and all we got then is people pressing into us, some pressing in a loving way but more just pressing, just pressing a little more each day until we start thinking down into our DNA and remembering the solitude we had so much of so long ago, and we start missing it.


(Photos: The first photo of a field in Illinois is by the poet and photographer Michael Healey. The photo of Walden Pond 2007 and the Bellagio Casino/Las Vegas 2007 are by me.)

Saturday, March 24, 2018

My Mother Remembers Her Mother's Death


My Mother stopped speaking.

The memory had caught her.

One-minute she was there in front of me, telling me about the house in the woods in Poland, and then she wasn’t.

She was in the past where her mother was still alive, still loving, still loved, and it was clear from the look of terror on my Mother’s face it was a past she didn’t want to leave because she knew leaving the past meant entering a world where her mother had been murdered by the Germans, shot in the face over and over, and left on the kitchen floor.

My Mother suddenly opened her mouth to say “oh” or “no” or some other word of useless, powerless outrage, but the word never came.  Instead, there was the word that was no word and yet every word.

It was the first word in the language of grief, the dry mother sob that caught in her throat and gave birth to one painful child after another until her throat and her eyes and her mouth filled with tears and a pain she could never escape.

It scared me.  I knew I could not stop it, no one could stop it.  I was as powerless as she was.  A terrible thing had happened, and for my Mother this terrible thing would never end.  An evil had entered the world, and from the moment it entered this evil would frame every other moment of my Mother’s life and touch every other moment and bring it close to an evil that she would never forget, never shake off.

I looked at my mother.

She looked confused, lost, powerless, just as confused, lost, powerless as I was.

I wanted to grab some gun and kill the thing that had entered the room and staked out its claim on my Mother’s soul.  But I knew what my Mother also knew.  No gun or pistol or bullet could ever touch the thing that touched my mother and killed some holy place in her.  No bullet would ever bring my Mother’s mother back.

A hell of a world.

And my Mother’s sobs could do nothing to free her from it.

_________

To read more about my mom just scroll down this blog, or read my book about my mom and dad, Echoes of Tattered Tongues. Available at Amazon.

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.

IN THE SPRING THE WAR ENDED

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

24.

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.

23.

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

22.

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.

21.

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. 

20.

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

19.

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

18.

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

17.

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

16.

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.


15.

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.

14.

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

13.

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.

12.

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.

11.

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.

10.

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.

9.

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.

8.

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.


7.

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


6.

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.

5. 

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.

4.

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

3.

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.

2.

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

1.

THE END

______

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