My wife Linda and I were showing Chicago to her brother Bruce who was visiting from the east. We were driving around the University of Chicago area on the southside of Chicago, and Bruce was saying, "Say this is a pretty campus, what kind of people teach her?"
I was driving and started in, "Well, this is one of the great universities in the world. There are probably more Nobel Laureates teachng here than in any other school in the midwest."
Bruce is a scoffer and he said, "Yeah, like who, any names an average guy would recognize?"
I'm driving around these narrow streets around the school and trying to avoid hitting anybody because it's a Saturday and people are walking to and from shopping.
Bruce thinks I'm ignoring him and he says again, "So name some of these Nobel guys!"
I say, "Well, one of my favorite writers is Saul Bellow and he won the Nobel prize and he teaches here."
And Bruce says, "Yeah? What's he like."
And I slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a guy with two bulging grocery bags who just stepped into the intersection, and I say to Bruce, "That's him. The guy I almost hit. Saul Bellow!"
And Bellow must've heard me call his name because he looked up at me and smiled, and nodded his head.
I felt a blessing descend on me, a connection I'd never forget.
I was the man who did not kill Saul Bellow.
Tens of thousands of Poles in Eastern Poland were killed between 1943 and 1944 by Ukrainian Nationalists working with their German colleagues. July 11 was the day of the worst killing, a day when the Nationalists attacked 100 or so villages. That was seventy-four years ago.
My mother's family was killing during this period by her Ukrainian neighbors. Her mother was murdered, her sister was raped and killed, her sister's baby kicked to death. My mother, a girl of 19 at the time, was able to survive by breaking through a window and running into a forest to hide. She was found a couple days later and taken to a slave labor camp in Germany. She spent the next 2 years in those camps.
My mom and my dad went back to her village in 1988 to see if she could find the graves of her mom and sister and the sister's baby. There were no graves. The men who did the killing didn't take the time to dig graves and put up crosses or markers.
During that trip, my mom made it to her old house, the one where the killing took place. She knocked on the door and when someone answered her knocking, she introduced herself and told them that she had lived in this house when she was a girl, before the killings.
The person who answered the door, a Ukrainian fellow about my mom's age, said that he had been living in the house all his life and he didn't know her and didn't know what she was talking about.
My mom left and never went back.
I haven't written a lot about my mom and her Ukrainian neighbors, but I have written two poems.
The first is called "My Mother was 19," and it's about the day the Nazis and her neighbors came to her house and did their killing.
The second poem is "My Mother's Neighbors." It's a poem of mine that has never been published. It tells about what the killers did after they left my mom's house.My Mother was 19
Soldiers from nowhere
came to my mom’s farm
killed her sister Genja’s baby
with their heels
shot her momma too
One time in the neck
then for kicks in the face
lots of times
They saw my mother
they didn’t care
she was a virgin
dressed in a blue dress
with tiny white flowers
They raped her
so she couldn’t stand up
couldn’t lie down
They broke her teeth
when they shoved
the blue dress
in her mouth
If they had a camera
they would’ve taken her picture
and sent it to her
That’s the kind they were
Let me tell you:
God doesn’t give
you any favors
He doesn’t say
now you’ve seen
this bad thing
and tomorrow you’ll see
this good thing
and when you see it
you’ll be smiling
of the baby and the women they helped the Germans
kill in the barn. But they won’t remember that.
They’ll only remember this walk home, the snow
falling fast around them, muting the clicking trees
and silencing the birds. They will remember
their slow talk, the old men going on about
how the potatoes they gathered this year
could never match the weight of last year’s harvest
the young men trying to hide their joy
by whispering about the village girls
and what they have seen beneath their dresses.
Later they will all be home. Already their wives
And mothers watch for them at the windows,
Afraid the snow will catch them far from home.
I've posted a lot of blogs about my mom over the years. This is a recent one about remembering her on the anniversary of her death: Remembering My Mom
If you want to read more about the massacre, here is a wikipedia piece
If you want to read more about my mom and dad, my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues
is available from Amazon. Just click here.
The First Poem I Wrote about My Parents
I've been writing poems for about 37 years now. I started when I was in grad school at Purdue working on my Ph.D. It was a hot, humid August afternoon, and I was sitting at a desk thinking about Faulkner, trying to make sense of a line of imagery that seemed to thread through all of his novels. I wasn't having any luck.
Out of nowhere, I had this sense of my parents and where they were and what they were doing.
It came as a shock this sense. I hadn't lived at home in almost a decade, seldom saw my parents, tried in fact not to think about them and their lives. I didn't want to know about their worries, their memories of WWII and the slave labor camps and the mess those memories were making of their lives. But suddenly there they were in my head, and for some reason I started writing about them.
I hadn't written a poem in at least a decade either, but there suddenly I was writing a poem. And it wasn't the last. This poem about my parents started me writing poems again, and I've never stopped.
Here's the poem:
Dreams of Poland, September l939
Too many fears
for a summer day
I regulate my thoughts
and my breathing
regard the humidity
Somewhere my parents
are still survivors
living unhurried lives
of unhurried memories:
the unclean sweep of a bayonet
through a young girl's breast,
a body drooping over a rail fence,
the charred lips of the captain of lancers
whispering and steaming
"Where are the horses
where are the horses?"
Death in Poland
like death nowhere else‑‑
cool, gray, breathless
The poem appears in Echoes of Tattered Tongues
The illustration above is by the Polish artist Voytek Luka. It was done as an illustration for my book Third Winter of War: Buchenwald