Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Polish-American Mother, Slave Laborer, Role Model, Child of the Forest, and Survivor

Teresa Guzlowski

Sometimes I think we Bohunks – Polish-Americans, Slovak-Americans, Lithuanian-Americans, etc, all have the same mother, or the same grandmother.

Get out your handkerchiefs and read poet John Guzlowski's salute to his Polish-American mother. She was a child of the forest, until the Nazis and Ukrainians arrived, killed, and committed unspeakable atrocities John does not detail here.

An excerpt:

"She survived the [Nazi] camps and she survived a life of working on factory assembly lines and in skyscrapers where she cleaned offices from midnight until 8 in the morning taking out other people's garbage and polishing the stains off of their desks.  And she survived the sometimes turbulent relationship she had with my dad and my sister and me.

If you could have seen her when she was dying, you would have seen that same desire to go on, to survive, even when there was little hope that she would ever be able to walk or talk or hear or breathe the way she had before her strokes.  For the last two years, when she and I talked, she would often say, 'Johnny, how can I live without hope?'"

For the full text of this moving salute, go to the Lightning and Ashes blogspot here.


  1. I hope i have just succeeded on posting a comment on the Lightning and Ashes blogspot. In it I have thanked John for this loving memorial to his mother - and hope that she has a wonderful awakening ahead of her when the time comes for the resurrection of the dead. Then she will wake up in an earth ruled by the law of loving-kindness.

    My father too was a country boy. His childhood playgrounds were the fields and forests of Belarus. How strangely it turned out for them.

  2. This is a moving tribute, Dr. Guzlowski.

    Having grown up in a culture in which I often heard that Holocaust survivors are martyrs, and saints, I appreciate your honesty in admitting that the people who survived the war years often had a terrible time raising children.

    Not long ago, an acquaintance of my husband’s told us that his dad, a survivor of Auschwitz, would always leave the house when one of the children started crying. He later told his son that the sound of a child’s tears would always remind him of the crying of starving children in the Ghetto.

    I remember thinking that this was one of the most heartbreaking stories I had ever heard.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Liron, thank you for your kind words. I grew up in a neighborhood of survivors. Some of their children suffered in ways children shouldn't suffer. Your story of the father who left when he heard his children cry reminded me of a father I knew who would not let his children stay in the house with him if he was awake. When he came home from work, around midnight, he would expect the children and their mother to be gone, not to return until he'd eaten and gone to bed.

    1. Dr. Guzlowski,

      Have you ever read anything by the Israeli novelist David Grossman? His "See Under: Love" explores this difficult topic (children born to survivors of the Holocaust)better than any psychological study I've ever read on the subject. I think the book will help explain the lives of the Jews and Poles you grew up with.

      Your post moved me deeply. My grandmother was also born in Poland in 1922, and she, too, had a hard time being affectionate with her daughter; with her son, my father, it was easier. I often wonder why.

      OK, enough. I'll start crying if I keep this up. My grandmother passed away four months ago, and during her last months she often spoke to me in Polish, a language I do not understand. (Had my grandparents been a bit smarter about things, I'd now know Polish, Yiddish, and--from my maternal grandparents, who were Egyptian Jews --Arabic.) Still, I think I understood what she was trying to tell me during those last months.

    2. Liron, I would love it if you would consider writing a guest blog post about your grandmother, and her language, or anything else you would care to write about.

      and please accept our condolences on your recent loss.

    3. Liron, I hope your grandmother is sleeping safe in "the everlasting arms", with a wonderful awakening ahead of her, when the time comes.

      I too wish now that i had learnt to speak Polish.

    4. Thank you, Dr. Goska and Ms. Knight, for the kind words.

      Dr. Goska: I'll certainly think about it. For now, I'll post the link to a song she loved best, and which I played for her again and again during the bad months. The Yiddish song, "Oyfn Pripetchik," sung in this version by the Israeli singer Esther Ofarim--daughter of Syrian Jews!!!--was used in Spielberg's disappointing "Schindler's List." This version is superior.

      I believe that my grandmother, who, although shamelessly proud of being a city girl from Lodz, loved Polish peasant culture, would have appreciated what you are trying to do here.


    5. Liron, please do consider it. I would eagerly read your words.

      I just listened to the song. I find it very sweet and poignant sounding.

      Thank you so much for saying what you said about how your grandmother would appreciate our efforts here. This is very moving to me to read.

    6. This must be the Esther Ofarim of "Esther and Abi Ofarim and Cinderella Rockafella" fame? I remember them. Didn't they enter, and perhaps win, the Eurovision Song Contest once?

  4. I have heard else from a Jewish American-He told me that in Israel, around 65% of all people were atheists. I told him that, ok, I do now several atheists from Israel-still, is that possible?

    He told me that in Israel society is divided in 3 (major) groups- atheists-some moderately religious people-a growing number of Haredim, ultraorthodox (some of whom despise the State of Israel but do not mind being maintained by it)

    (It seems to be true-lately a group, Women of the Wall, was/still is fighting for the right to pray like men at the Wall in Jerusalem. Haredim/orthodox are completely against that-the secular are to disconnected from religion to even care-so they lost that fight)

    I asked him why- He answered- When the survivors of the Holocaust came to Israel they had, mostly, lost their faith in G-d- so they did not teach their children about religion.

    I was wondering that Poland did not suffer the same atheisation.

    Perhaps because Catholic expect that life on earth is no school excursion so they are not that devastated when prooven correct?

    I dont know.

    What I know is that traumatization of parents must just have some effects on the children, perhaps even their children.

    In that sense- the Holocaust is still not really over, perhaps.

    1. Hello Hanna, yes, i think the trauma of these things goes down the generations. My father did not harrow his young children with his experiences, not at all. But both my sister and I had terrible nightmares, so I think you pick it up even when parents try to protect you from doing so. Which is another reason perhaps why our Creator asks us not to keep account of the injury - so we don't hand the trauma on any more than we have to.

      I wonder if many Poles (of all kinds) did lose their faith in Goid after the horrors of WW2 and its aftermath.

      Very sad if so. Doesn't the Bible warn us that 1914 will mark a time of great "woe" for the earth, but also that this is the darkest hour before the dawn - before the daystar rises?

    2. Hanna, remember, the hated Communists attempted to enforce atheism. Being a devout Catholic was a way to resist Soviet occupation.

      but, yes, Catholics do teach that life on earth is not meant to be easy, and that suffering is part of the mix. We are "banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears."

    3. Yes, of course the communist regime would have encouraged everyone to put their faith in the party and the current Big Brother and to forget their Creator. But I would imagine that the oppressive nature of the communist regime might have pushed some/many(?) Poles in the opposite direction.

      But, thank God, the creation can speak louder than words. I once studied the Bible with a Chinese girl who had grown up in China under communism. And, of course, I asked her why she wanted to study the Bible, and how she had come to know there was a God, given she had been brought up as an atheist.

      If you ask me how I came to know, you will get a very misty account of the tender beauty of an Autumn day in the North of England, along with a poem. But she is a very practical lady - a geologist - and she said briskly: "When we studied the fossil record, I knew"

      She saw that it just did not fit the Evolutionary pattern that she had been taught.

      So the creation spoke to both of us, and told us about its Grand Creator. My Chinese friend had no problem with the communist party as such, by the way, but they had moved, along with their son, to live in the U.S.A., and had come out as expats on the American contract.


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