Untitled by Zdzisław Beksiński
My Mother Was 19
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
They saw my mother
they didn’t care
she was a virgin
dressed in a blue dress
with tiny white flowers
so she couldn’t stand up
couldn’t lie down
They broke her teeth
when they shoved
the 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
you’ll see this good thing
and when you see it
you’ll be smiling
My mother cried for a week, first in the boxcars
then in the camps. Her friends said, “Tekla,
don’t cry, the Germans will shoot you
and leave you in the field,” but she couldn’t stop.
Even when she had no more tears, she cried,
cried the way a dog will gulp for air
when it’s choking on a stick or some bone
it’s dug up in a garden and swallowed.
The woman in charge gave her a cold look
and knocked her down with her fist like a man,
and then told her if she didn’t stop crying
she would call the guard to stop her crying.
But my mother couldn’t stop. The howling
was something loose in her nothing could stop.
My mother tells me of the beets she dug up
In Germany. They were endless, redder
Than roses gone bad in an early frost,
Redder than a grown man’s kidney or heart.
The first beet she remembers,
She was alone in the field, alone
Without her father or mother near,
No sister even. They were all dead,
Left behind in Lwow. The ground was wet
And cold, but not soft, never soft.
She ate the raw beet, even though
She knew they would beat her.
She says, sometimes she pretended
She was deaf, stupid, crippled,
Or diseased with typhus or cholera,
Even with what the children called
The French disease, anything to avoid
The slap, the whip across her back
The leather fist in her face above her eye.
If she could’ve given them her breasts
To suck, her womb to penetrate
She would have, just so they would not
Hurt her the way they hurt her sister
And her mother and the baby.
She wonders what was her reward
For living in such a world?
It was not love or money..
She wonders if God will remember
Her labors. She wonders if there is a God.
A Life Story
The baby was born
in a concentration camp
in 1944. She was one pound
eight ounces. She was
a leaf of grass. She was lovely.
She was born dreaming
her mother’s dream
of flying like a robin
through the sky and eating
everything that was pure
and good and golden.
And then the women guards
smashed her into the wall
and wrapped her in newspaper
and threw her in the garbage
with the others.
What the War Taught Her
My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.
She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.
She learned that only the young survive
The camps. The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.
She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.
She learned that you don’t pray
Your enemies will not torment you.
You only pray that they will not kill you.
John Guzlowski’s writing appears on Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac and in Rattle, Ontario Review, North American Review, and many other journals here and abroad. His poems and personal essays about his Polish parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany and refugees making a life for themselves in Chicago appear in his memoir Echoes of Tattered Tongues(Aquila Polonica Press). Echoes of Tattered Tongues received the 2017 Benjamin Franklin Poetry Award and the Eric Hoffer Foundation’s Montaigne Award.
For more information and purchase options for Echoes of Tattered Tongues, click here.