Scroll to top
©2018 Barren Magazine. An Alt.Lit Introspective.

Growing Up Polack


by John Guzlowski

My dad spent 4 ½ years in Buchenwald concentration camp in Nazi Germany. My mother spent 2 ½ years as a slave laborer in various camps there. When the war ended, she weighed 125, he weighed 75. After the war they couldn’t return to Poland, so they lived in refugee camps till they got permission to come to the US. They made the trip in June 1951 on the General Taylor, a troop ship.

Recently, I found photos in the New York Times archive of that ship taken the day my parents arrived here. These photographs stopped me.

History had given me a gift. My parents weren’t in the pictures, but they must have brushed against the people who were. They must have stood in line with them, waited for food with them, closed their eyes and prayed with them, worried about what it would be like in America with them.

My parents and the other people on the ship were all Displaced Persons, country-less refugees, who had lost their parents and grandparents, their families and their homes, their churches and their names, everything. It had all been left behind, buried in the great European grave yard that stretched from the English Channel to the Urals and from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean. And here they all were on this former troop ship, coming to start a new life in America. They could not have imagined what they would find and what they would become.

After working in the farms around Buffalo, New York, to pay off the cost of their passage over, my parents settled in Chicago, in the Humboldt Park area with lots of other Poles and DPs, refugees, and survivors. And one of the things they soon found out there was who they were. They weren’t Poles and they definitely weren’t Polish Americans. I never heard those words. What I did hear in the streets, the schools, and the stores was that my parents were Polacks. And so was I.

We were the people who nobody wanted to rent a room to or hire or help. We were the “wretched refuse” of somebody else’s shore, dumped now on the shore of Lake Michigan, and most people we met in America wished we’d go back to where we came from. And that we’d take the rest of the Polacks with us.

So, if anyone had ever asked me when I was growing up, “Say, you want to be a Polish American writer or teacher or doctor or wizard,” I would have told him to take a hike, but not in words so gentle.

Polish Americans, I felt, were losers. They worked in factories when they could get jobs, they were rag-and-bone men leading horse-drawn wagons through the alleys of Chicago, they went door to door selling bits of string and light bulbs, they didn’t know how to drive cars or make phone calls or eat in restaurants. They stood on street corners with pieces of paper in their hands trying to get Americans to help them find the address printed on the paper, mumbling “Prosceh, Pan” (please, sir) or “Prosceh, Pani” (please, lady).

When I was a child, I thought that Poles didn’t know how to do anything while Americans knew how to do everything. They knew how to be happy. They could go to zoos, museums, planetariums, and movies. They could stroll freely through the great American, sunshiny-bright world like so many smiling, charming Bing Crosbys, singing “Pennies from Heaven” as they strolled and believing every word of its chorus: “Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.”

Americans could go to restaurants and order meals and not get into arguments with waiters about the price of a hamburger. They could go on picnics and not lose their children or their children’s balloons. Americans could go to weddings and dance waltzes without ripping their pants, without falling down, without getting into fights.

Americans could laugh at the jokes Milton Berle told on TV and know what they meant. He could deadpan the punch line, “Sure, the lady was from Missouri,” and Americans would roll in the aisles till they busted a gut. They could smile and mean it, show love, concern, happiness, sorrow, sadness. And all at the right times!

Polish Americans, on the other hand, seemed hobbled.

I actually believed there were places we couldn’t go.

When I was a boy growing up in Chicago, I never knew anyone who ever went to a professional ball game. This despite the fact I lived a short bus ride away from Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park. It was as if there were written restrictions. Poles could not go to ballgames. Or museums. Or zoos. Ever! I’m sure now much of this was simply the result of growing up in a working-class neighborhood where even one night at a ballgame was an extravaganza. Who could afford a trip to a ballpark? I realize this now, but at that time I had the feeling that Poles just didn’t do such things. Only Americans did them.

And nothing ever seemed to go right. Washing machines would break down for no reason. Repairmen were always crooks or incompetents. Shirts — even brand new ones — would be stained or missing a button. My father once spent what seemed like a year working on a drain pipe that wouldn’t be mended, no matter how hard he struggled with his mismatched wrenches.

I remember one time when my mother went into a dime store and tried to bargain down the price of a Lincoln Log set. Of course, that didn’t work either. Nothing worked. Our Polack fate was hard karma. And there was no one to tell you how to change the hard karma, make it a little softer. Everyone was in the same boat and trying to find some way to survive, keep afloat. The Oleniechaks, the Popowchaks, the Budzas, the Czarneks, the Pitlaks, the Bronowickis, the Stupkas, the Milczareks, the Guzlowskis—all of us on that block of Evergreen Street were drowning in the kind of hard karma that only the DPs, the dumb Polacks, knew.

I started running away from this hard karma, this Polish American stuff, as soon as I could, and for most of my life I’ve been running. Not all the Polish kids I knew were like that, of course. I had a friend who held tight to his Polishness, and to hear us talk about our youth, you’d think we grew up in separate countries with concertina wire between them. He went to Polish School on Saturdays!

I would sooner have worked a 20-hour day at the kind of hard labor my parents knew in the camps in Nazi Germany. I didn’t want anything to do with that Polack stuff—I wanted to be an unmistakable and anonymous American.

Even though my first language was Polish and I spoke it exclusively until I went to kindergarten, I can barely speak a lick of Polish now. I consciously fought to strip all of that away, and I succeeded. When I tried speaking Polish to my aged mother a couple of years ago, she’d always say the same thing. “Johnny, please stop. You’re hurting my ears.”

So why am writing essays and poems about being a Polish American?

The answer isn’t easy.

I think a lot of it comes from who my parents were. If my parents had been Illinois farm people raising soy beans and corn, I don’t think I would be writing about them. I would be like every other poet in America: writing about the weather or what it’s like being driving a big car west or east on I-80. But instead my parents were people who had been struck dumb and quivering by history, by the Second World War, by their lives in the labor and DP camps.

My mom used to like to say, “Slach traffi.”

I don’t know if this is a Polish idiom or what. Literally, I think it means “the truncheon or billy club will find you.” Maybe it’s something the Nazis used to say in the camps when they were beating the prisoners to get them to move faster pushing the cement-filled wheelbarrows. But whatever it means literally, here is what it means to me: shit happens, and not only does shit happen, it will find you no matter what you do, or where you run, and it will not just get in your way, it will cover you and smother you and kill you.

I grew up with people who had seen their families killed, babies bayoneted, friends castrated and then shot to death. My mom saw her sister’s legs ripped apart by broken glass as she struggled through a narrow window to escape from the Nazis.

And no one much cared.

Even if people don’t want to read what I write, I feel that I have to write my poems and essays about my parents just to make sure someone does. 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? They couldn’t write for themselves.

My writing gives my parents and their experiences and the experiences of people like them a voice. My parents had very little education. My father never went to school and could barely write his name. My mother had two years of formal education. I feel that I have to tell the stories they would write themselves if they could. For the last thirty years I have been writing about their lives, and I sometimes think that I am not only writing about their lives, but also about the lives of all those forgotten, voiceless refugees, DP’s, and survivors that the last century produced.

All of history’s Polacks.

(Previously published in Two-Countries: US Daughters and Sons of Immigrant Parents (Red Hen Press, 2017), winner of Ben Franklin poetry award.)

Header photograph © Angie Hedman.

Share This:
  • 677
    Shares

17 comments

  1. The author’s experiences are those of so many who descended from Polish people. My father was second generation Polish, and my mother was Swedish/English. I was proud of her ancestry but had many of the experiences John speaks of. The fifties and sixties were the times of those tedious Polack jokes.

    It wasn’t until I was older that I learned of my grandparents’ real story and then me my family back in Poland. These humble immigrants are still remembered as heroes who kept thirteen families going for many decades with money, medicines, and clothes. Now, I’m so proud to claim my Polish heritage and write about WWII in Poland, travel to Poland, and researching Polish genealogy.

  2. sue knight

    Thank you so much for writing this John – and thank you so much Barren for publishing. And thanks to all who are telling the stories of our parents’ generation.

  3. Jan

    Its similar to stories told by european Jews in Israel. No one seems to remember that Holocaust wasnt jewish-only tragedy. Poles suffered on similar degree as Jews under Nazi occupation

  4. Gray Jacobik

    So glad to have read this John; it’s so vivid and important. Where I grew up in New York State (Long Island), in the 1950s, the world was divided into Krauts, Guineas, Dagos, Kikes, Japs, Wops, Micks and yes, Polacks (the Italians had 3 slurs!): that was the way my father spoke having been raised in Brooklyn in the 20s and 30s. Although each group was stereotyped in his mind, I didn’t absorb much of that, at least not at the level of belief. Since his parents were from Berlin, I was very ashamed of being a Kraut because we’d fought them and they lost to us. I had little awareness then of the Holocaust. I felt this shame even though my grandparents immigrated before WWI and my grandmother was a German Jew (whose mother was Polish). I was far enough away from it in time to think of myself as only an American. Your article is illuminating because it helps me to imagine such an oppressive cultural atmosphere; and how it must have lived in many of my childhood companions. And here we are in an nation where tribalism seems to be once more on the rise.

    • Gray, thanks for reading this piece. It means a lot to me. I know what you mean by tribalism. I look around and see a world where people are building walls and making it hard to talk to and live with other people who aren’t like them. I hoped we had left that behind.

  5. Valerie

    My mother was born in 1921 and grew up with 14 brothers and sisters on the south side of Chicago. First generation. She escaped the convent and Chicago to work for the US Army in 1943. She married my father and moved to Maryland. She rarely spoke of her childhood but all she could say about it was that it was very “hard”. My father had a chance to visit her parents in the 1960’s. His only recollection of the visit was that her parents only spoke Polish, very little English, and used a coal stove. Coal stove in an apartment building? Yes. She worked in Berlin as a translator after the war and saw the German atrocities first hand. Her entire family that had stayed in Krakow had been murdered by the Germans for hiding a Jewish family. She was so angry she couldn’t talk about that either. She felt so blessed, honored and proud to have been a “Polack from the United States”.

  6. I think American racism, bullying and bigotry is mostly based on economics — i.e., it’s not racial, ethnic or even sexual, but it’s just the opportunity to bully someone that you perceive as weaker. Americans worship money and this is as American as apple pie.

    If you are an educated immigrant with a 6-figure salary, you may never experience this kind of racism.

    But even if you are US-born but a victim of job outsourcing, coal mine shutdowns, etc. (like tens of millions of Americans), you may be harassed, called “Deplorables” by the “elites”, and worse….

  7. I share the sentiments of the others that posted. A lot of people care. I really care. You can find many facts around, but it’s the human interest stories that not only bring those facts to life, but bring in the real humanity (or lack thereof) to a time in history; how you got to be where you are, physically and mentally. You need to keep writing about the real stories of your family. We all need to hear them, to hear the truth, no sugar coating, maybe not even using poetic license. I am 3rd or 4th generation born here, & I long to hear all about my ancestors, but since they hadn’t shared them, not wanting to talk about troubles, I have tried to, at least, connect the dots of a more detailed ancestral tree.

    The younger generation thinks it has such a hard life. They, & I, need that perspective to really know what being a survivor means, what the true definition of a hard childhood or life really could have been! Also, I need to know more about my deep cultural roots. Please keep them coming, maybe gathering a story collection with others !

    • I love the idea of gathering together the stories of other DPs. What a wonderful idea. I’ll see if my the publisher of my book echoes of tattered tongues about my parents is interested

  8. Daniel, thank you for taking the time and care to write this. One of the things I learned from my experience as a DP was to respect people no matter where they came from or how they got here. Not respecting them goes against what I feel this country should be all about.

  9. Daniel S Barczewski

    Thank you, John, for remembering, and for caring enough to share your story. My parents, both now long deceased, were American born children of Polish immigrants…who had arrived in the US about 50 years prior to your parents. I learned how to be prejudiced from my mother, because she taught us (her children) that we were better than the ‘DP’s’. We were taught to look away from them, to look down on them as outcasts….similarly to how many white Americans in the ’50’s and ’60’s viewed black people.
    Somehow, blacks were somehow higher on my mother’s self-established scale of prejudice than the ‘DP’s’ were. After all, the blacks (my mother always called them Niggers, but with great affection) had preceded her family’s arrival in the US, so that made them somehow closer to equal to her. The ‘DP’s’ were in an entirely different category of terrible.
    Children learn things from their parents, some of which often take years to un-learn…and for some people, the un-learning never comes to pass …and they pass those prejudices along to another generation, and so on. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to graduate from college (the first person in my immediate family) and to have had a life filled with learning opportunities outside and apart from what my parents taught me. If hate is a learned emotion, then it is possible for it to be un-learned.
    My father is remembered to have been more tolerant than my mother, but by not standing up to my mother’s behaviors…words and actions…towards those of us less fortunate than we were, isn’t really much better than she was.
    I say this all to you now, in a public forum, and without knowing you outside of the story you tell; I believe it is important for all people to share their story because it may cause other to reflect on aspects of their own upbringing in such a way that they begin (or continue) their journey towards becoming the best person they can be.
    It is important for me to say that I loved my parents very much; they did many good things for me (and others). They gently taught me to love my family and friends, and shared many admirable values (the power of honesty, and common sense and intelligence, a hard work ethic, a deep sense of protection over us…among others).
    However, as I grew up, and grew out, my viewpoint shifted with my intellect and my growing ability to sift through so many of the half-truths I had been taught early on….to finally discover my own truths. This viewpoint tended to exclude my parents (and some of my siblings and relatives) as I planted my own roots in what often times seemed to be a different world completely.
    Now, as someone now approaching the autumn of my own life, I reflect on my journey with a sense of accomplishment in now viewing people as individuals, and choosing not to judge them before coming to know them personally. And I am proud to have imparted that vision onto my children, and now…grandchildren, too.
    Reading stories such as yours, reminds me both of my bittersweet youth, and of the transformative journey I’ve been on. Rekindling old memories reminds us all of where we’ve been, and still, how far we have yet to go….so thanks again, John.

  10. Thank you very much! People in Poland still have no idea what it really meant to be Polish in the US. Compared to communist reality it could be only viewed as living in a paradise.

  11. Patricia Kowalski King

    I can’t even begin to articulate all the ways this essay resonates with me. It would take another essay! My mother’s family came to Chicago in the 1st decade of the 20th century. They were among the illiterate Polacks who worked in the stockyards, were petty criminals, drank too much, and beat their wives. Few finished high school; none were professionals. Yet they looked at the DPs who came after WWII like they were trash. When criticizing my unacceptable choices in clothing, the worst insult my mother could utter was “You look just like a DP!” and even as a child I knew exactly what she meant by that. My father’s family arrived in the 1st decade of the 20th century, too. But they were educated when they arrived, and they continued to educate their children. When WWI ended, my great-grandparents went back to Poland, to rebuild a free country, taking their 3 youngest sons with them. My grandfather and my great-aunt stayed in the US. One boy came back to America right before WWII, two others survived the labor camps and remained in Poland after the war. My father’s family could not look at the displaced person and say that they were less-than. They looked at them and told us “There but for the grace of God…”

  12. June Huwa

    Thank you so much for writing this John. My paternal grandparents were Germans from Russia in 1914 and had 11 children. When I started school in 1956, there was a boy in my class whose family were DPs from Austria, although I didn’t really understand what that met until much later. My classmate cried in class many times for the full six years of grade school. I remember our teachers telling him to stop crying, to “turn off the water works.” His family lived in an Quanset hut the entire time we were growing up, the only family I knew of who had to live in one.
    I grew up and eventually became a therapist. I finally had some sense of what his family had gone through. The boy had been traumatized and, in my opinion, was clinically depressed. Now he lives in one of the nicest houses in that little rural community. I had the chance to talk briefly with him a few years ago. I didn’t tell him about my adult realizations about him. After reading your piece, I want to contact him and ask him what it was like to grow up as a DP.

Leave a Reply