How My Parents Met: A Survivors’ Story
by John Guzlowski
My parents didn’t much talk about their relationship or their love for each other or how they met. To tell the truth, they weren’t a happy couple. In fact, they didn’t much talk about anything to each other. They made sure for years that they had work schedules that conflicted and kept them out of the house when the other one was home. The only time they would really see each other was on the weekends and holidays, and you could always expect a serious fight or argument.
It was a hell of a marriage. They went at it whenever they’d get together, even on Sunday mornings, even on Christmas Day. It got so bad at times when I was a kid that my sister and I would plead with them to get a divorce. What finally stopped them arguing was the death of my dad in 1997.
But I knew the bare bones of how they met. It was during World War II, and sometimes, if my mom wasn’t around and my dad had had a few drinks, he’d start talking about the war, the stuff he saw, the life he led. He’d talk about how he’d been a Polish farm boy when he was captured by the Nazis and taken to Buchenwald Concentration Camp as a slave laborer. He spent more than four years there, doing the work that the Nazis needed done because their own farm boys were out conquering the world. My dad would talk about the work and the hunger, and once in a while he would talk about my mom.
One of the stories he told me was about the day she was captured by the Nazis. They came to her house and killed her mom and my aunt and my aunt’s baby, kicked it to death. My mom was able to save herself by breaking through a window and escaping into a forest. That’s where the Nazis caught her the next day. They shipped her and a bunch of the other girls from her village off to the slave labor camps in Germany. When she got to the camp a week later, she was still crying so much that one of the guards said if she didn’t stop crying he would shoot her.
My dad liked to tell that story about how she was captured and how brave and strong she was when she saw the terrible things that happened to her family, and sometimes he would tell me about when she was freed. It happened near the end of the war when he and some other slave laborers from Buchenwald were being led on a death march. My dad and these other guys were passing the camp where my mom was, and that’s when my dad first met her.
And that’s also pretty much where my dad’s story about what happened and my mom’s story split.
The way my dad told it, the guards prodding the prisoners on this death march came up to the camp my mom was in and found all the Nazi guards gone. It had been deserted by the men who were supposed to watch it. According to my dad, every Nazi in Eastern Germany was trying to put as much distance between himself and the ten million or so invading Russians. There were no guards in my mom’s camp because they had fled before the Reds that were barreling down on Germany. When the Germans who were watching my dad realized this, they split too, leaving my dad and the other prisoners in front of my mom’s camp.
Telling this story, my dad would always throw in at this point the fact that he had been a prisoner for 4 ½ years, and that they were hard years. He has seen his friends beaten, hanged, starved to death, and castrated. The German guards controlling his concentration camp never extended a human touch toward the prisoners, as far as my dad could tell, and he figured it was the same for the women. They had seen their mother’s raped, their sisters’ bayoneted, babies thrown up in the air and shot. When my dad and the other men saw those women standing at the camp gate with their hands on the barbwire looking at them, you can imagine what they thought, what all of them thought.
My dad liked to say about that meeting between the men slaves and the women slaves, “First we had something to eat, and then we got married.”
He always made it sound like some kind of party, a sad party maybe, but a party nonetheless. People in rags eating and falling into each others’ arms like heaven had suddenly sprung up where hell had flourished.
But – he assured me – he was always a gentleman.
That’s the way my dad told it, and that’s the way I understood it for years—until after my dad died, and I asked my mom about what she remembered of that day she met my dad.
I asked her because I was writing a series of poems about them for the book that eventually became Lightning and Ashes, and I wanted to write about that day they met.
When I asked her, she said, “Sure, I’ll tell you. Take out a legal pad.”
She was always doing that, asking me to write things down, if she knew that she was going to tell me something that she wanted me to put in the book I was writing. So I reached for my briefcase and took out the yellow legal pad and sat back to listen.
She told me that she first saw my dad in front of the barracks building she was in. He was walking with a dozen other prisoners, a German soldier behind them prodding them on with some kind of rifle. My father, she said, wasn’t fat like he got to be toward the end of his life. He was skinny then, like two shoelaces tied together. 70 pounds, she said, and he had only one eye. He lost the other when a guard clubbed him because he begged for food.
She wasn’t such a prize after three years in the camps either, she said. When the Americans liberated the camp she was in, they put her on a scale and found she weighed less than 100 pounds. She was wearing woolens on her legs, a grey rag to hide her hair, and a dirty stripped dress.
And here’s what else she said to me:
“And him? Your father? Like I said, skinny, a shoelace, with a bleeding towel across his face from where he lost his eye. Still, he walked up to me, took my hand, and said in Polish, ‘Proszę, pani.’ Yes, that’s what he said, ‘Please, miss,’ and like a proper gentleman, he clicked his heels. I thought he was at least a count, maybe a prince. Then just before your dad had a chance to kiss my hand, the German behind him kicked him in the pants and said, ‘Dumbkopf raus.’ Get moving, dummy.
“Your father was like that. Always putting on airs, even there in the camp talking of Polish honor as if he and Poland shared a soul. Really, he was worthless. I wish he had left me there in the camp. He couldn’t drive a car, he couldn’t fix a leaky roof. After the war when I asked him in the refugee camp to help me pack to come to America, and what do you think? He took a little drink and bundled all the clothes together in a bed spread like America was across the street.
“The fool, I should have kicked him like the German soldier did when I first met him. Instead, I kissed him and wept.”
You’re probably wondering whose story was the true story about that first meeting, my mom’s or my dad’s. I heard both stories first hand. Listened to my dad and my mom, and they both sounded true. I could see it in their eyes, the way they looked at me when they told about that meeting at the camp gate, separated by barbed wire. They probably were both telling the truth. The truth’s never simple. If my parents taught me one thing, that’s it. Different people tell the truth in different ways.