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.)