Monday, 27 March 2017

John Guzlowski - Memory Unfolded

             John Guzlowski - 'Echoes of Tattered Tongues '

At the moment I am meant to be running one website and two blogs related to War Poetry.  All the material has now been merged into one on-line resource and will be available to read soon. 

 And said new website will feature a long interview with John Guzlowski, who uses poetry to retell the experiences of his Polish parents, both as slave labourers for the Third Reich, and then as Polish immigrants to the USA. 

Whilst I am looking forward to publishing a full interview, here is a review of his collection 'Echoes of Tattered Tongues- Memories Unfolded' ; I placed a slightly amended version on Amazon UK.

John also runs an excellent blog titled Lightning and Ashes about the experiences of the Polish people under Nazi Occupation and its aftermath. 

-Michael Bully 

Review of Echoes of Tattered Tongues 

“We came with heavy suitcases
made from wooden boards by brothers
we left behind, came from Buchenwald
and Katowice and before that
Lwow, our mother’s true home

Came with our tongues
in tatters, our teeth in our pockets
hugging on ourselves, our bodies
stiff like frightened ostriches.”


A son of a Polish immigrants , with both parents spending years as labourers in German concentration camps, Professor Guzlowski uses poetry and short pieces of prose to convey their experiences. John Guzlowski was born just after World War 2 in a Displaced Persons camp, and moved with his parents and sister to the USA 1951.

 The writer  initially turned his back on Polish culture and the stigma of being considered a  ‘‘dumb Polack" by those hostile to immigrants, stating that “ I began running from my otherness as soon as I could.” The young John Guzlowski wanted to “ spend as little time as possible thinking about my parents and their Foolishness” along with what his mother called her 'concentration camp shit'. 

As a consequence, he began immersing himself in American Literature, movies and rock n roll. But gives the impression that once he had constructed an American identity, he began to realise
“Really there aren’t a lot of people writing about people like my parents and other DPs” ( displaced persons).

Most of the poems depict the systematic brutality and cruelty of the German occupation and concentration camp life : German soldiers appear in Poland “ like buffaloes , terrible and big” ,

“Soldiers from nowhere
came to my mother’s farm
killed her sister’s baby
with their heels
shot my grandma too

One time in the neck
then for kicks in the face
lots of times…”

-‘My mother was Nineteen’

John Guzlowsi's mother was taken away to be deported to Germany as a concentration camp labourer, whilst other members of the families were killed.

“She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.”

-’What the War Taught Her’

Professor Guzlowski’s father also experience the trauma of the camps, losing an eye in the process:

“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….

“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. “

It’s the starkness of the poetry and it’s lack of romance, along with the economy of language that gives John  Guzlowski’s work such strength. 

Also  the details of concentration life, the fact that his mother faced her first winter in the camps with only the clothes that she was wearing when captured. A guard took her away, raped her, but then left her to live and work with the cattle for warmth.

There’s also a strange enchantment in his work such as in ‘Pigeons’

“My father dreams of pigeons,
their souls, their thin cradles
of bone,but it is their luck

he admires most. A boy in Poznari
in a dawn all orange and pinks,
his hands opened like saint’s “

Professor Guzlowski’s poetry doesn’t offer political or religious explanations let alone solutions to the horrors that his parents and those like them experienced. Just wanting his parents lives recounted in poetry seems to be enough. And he does this so well.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Remember Babi Yar -'Art Destroys Silence'

'Babi Yar' -Yevgeny Yevtushenko (born 1933)

People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko's poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence. 

'Testimony-The Memoirs of Dimitri  Shostakovich,' ( edited by Solomon Volkov) ,1979.

                        Painting of Babi Yar by Shalom Goldberg, Spertus Museum, Chicago, Illinois

During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Babi Yar,  a ravine by Kiev, was the site of  a particular horrendous massacre of  some 33,000 Jews on 29th September -30th September 1941 at the hand of the Nazi killing unit, Einzsatsgruppen: The Babi Yar Memorial Centre maintains that 120,000 people were shot by the Germans and their allies. Those who died included " Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents, mental patients, civilians of Roma, Russian and Ukrainian origin."

The atrocity was immortalised by Shostakovich's 13th symphony in B flat minor, opus 113, completed in 1962, which opened with a musical setting of the poem 'Babi Yar' by Yevgeny Yevtushenko . This poem was first published in Soviet journal ' Literaturania Gazeta' in 1961.

The Soviet Union had seen a wave of anti-Jewish feeling instigated by Stalin in 1952- 1953. Yevtushenko's poem presented the massacre of 29th September -30th September 1941 as the culmination of antisemitism generally, and referenced anti- Jewish feeling amongst Russian people. The poem opens with a protest that
 " No monument stands over Babi Yar/A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone."

Although more cultural expression was permitted under Kruschev , the first performances of the 13th sympathy were placed under immense scrutiny  by the Soviet authorities. Two performances, on 1st December and 3rd December 1962 went ahead at the Moscow conservatory. Yevtushenko soon had to rewrite parts of the poem ( that were being performed as part of the symphony ) as it was felt that not enough emphasis was placed on the non-Jewish people who were killed at Babi Yar. One revised verse read

"I think of Russia's heroic deed
In blocking the way to fascism,
To the smallest dewdrop, she is close to me
In her very being and her fate."

( Source 'The New Shostakovich', Ian MacDonald. 2006 edition)

The combination of the poem and the symphony , particularly as Shostakovich was well known outside the Soviet Union, helped to highlight Babi-Yar. The massacre was also a setting for a scene in the famous 1978 US television series 'Holocaust' . Memorials to the victims have now been placed in different parts of Europe and North America.

The treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union was to remain a major human rights concern during the Cold War, and beyond. Yet the collaboration between Shostakovich and Yevtushenko over 'Babi Yar' has made quite an impact :

"No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.
I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.
I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”
It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.
-“They come!”
-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”
-“They break the door!”
-“No, river ice is breaking…”
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian"
Benjamin Opoknik translation

Babi Yar holocaust memorial centre

Yevgeny Yevtushenko reading Babi Yar in English

Shostakovich 13th Symphony