Polish Literature and I have had a stormy relationship. For much of my writing and reading life, I wanted nothing to do with it or any other aspect of Poland’s culture or history. I didn’t want to know anything about Cyprian Kamil Norwid or Henryk Sienkiewicz or Adam Mickiewicz Władysław Reymont or Czesław Miłosz or Wisława Szymborska. What those names represented and what those writers had written meant less than nothing to me. They and the Poland they wrote about represented everything that I wanted to get as far away from as possible. I wanted to say to Poland and its literature what Jesus said to the devil: ‘Get thee hence, Satan’.
Why did I come to feel this way?
Well, let me explain.
I was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1948. My parents were both Polish Catholics who were taken to Germany as slave labourers. My father spent four years there in Buchenwald concentration camp, my mother two and a half in an agricultural camp. After the war, my parents felt they couldn’t return to Poland, and so they spent six years living in Displaced Persons’ (DP) camps in Germany. That’s where my sister and I were born. We finally were able to come here to America in 1951.
When we landed at Ellis Island, we didn’t speak English. We dressed in black and brown wool that had been given to us by a UN relief agency. My mother wore a babushka scarf on her head, my father a cloth wool cap with a broken brim. They both wore their best shoes, leather boots that came to their knees. My mother’s brother stitched and hammered those boots by hand. All our belonging were gathered together in a small steamer trunk my dad built.
Our lives were hard: America then – like now – didn’t much want to see a lot of immigrants coming over and taking American jobs, sharing apartments with two or three other immigrant families, getting into the kinds of trouble immigrants get into. We were regarded as ‘Polacks’ — dirty, dumb, lazy, dishonest, immoral, licentious, and drunken.
I felt hobbled by being a Polack and a DP. It was hard karma.
I started running away from my Polishness as soon as I could, and for much of my life I continued to run. As I started moving into my early teens, I didn’t want anything to do with my Polish parents and their past. I thought of it as all of that ‘Polack’ or immigrant past. It was so old world, so old-fashioned. I had parents who couldn’t speak English, couldn’t talk about baseball or movies like Gone with the Wind, didn’t know anything about Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, couldn’t spend a night without arguing with each other in Polish, the language of misery, poverty, and alienation. I wanted to spend as little time as possible thinking about my parents and their Polishness and what my mother sometimes called ‘that camp shit’.
Literature helped me run away from my Polishness and our past. But it was American literature.
In high school, I started reading and studying American literature: Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau. What I learned was that the mass of men (all of those Americans out there who thought of me as a Polack) led ‘quiet lives of desperation’. I learned if I stayed true to the essential and existential ‘me-ness’ of me, according to Walt Whitman, not only would I be okay, but I would also be downright successful as a human being despite what all those Americans living their quiet lives of desperation thought. I could both shrug off the people who called me a Polack, and I could shrug off my parents’ desire and need for me to be ‘a good Polish boy’.
I could and would be free.
This was great news for me.
This was in the early 1960s, and the writers I started discovering on my own confirmed all of this. They were the Beat writers: The French-Canadian-American Jack Kerouac and the Jewish-American Allen Ginsberg and the Italian-American Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Like me, these Beats were mainly immigrants or the children of immigrants. They were writers who had also read their Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman and figured out how to be free of their ethnicity and free of all those Americans who wouldn’t allow them to be free of their ethnicity.
In all of that time, as I read American Literature and worked my way toward that PhD that I would eventually receive, I never read Czesław Milosz or Zbigniew Herbert or Tadeusz Różewicz or Wisława Szymborska. And I definitely didn’t read anything by Polish-American writers like John Minczeski, Anthony Bukoski, Helen Degen Cohen, or Margaret Szumowski. And don’t even mention Henryk Sienkiewicz. They were all part of that Polish world I wanted to leave behind with my parents and their immigrant sorrows.
Get thee hence, Satan.
So why am I here writing an article about Polish and Polish-American writers and how much they mean to me?
The answer is easy.
A funny thing happened after I got my doctorate in American Literature, and after I started teaching American literature in an American university in the middle of the heart of America.
I was thirty-three years old then, and I got homesick for Poland, a country I had never seen, never lived in except through my parents and their homesickness. I’m not kidding.
I developed this need, a hunger to know about Poland and Polishness and the way they manifested themselves in me and other Polish-Americans here in America. I had gotten so far away from my roots that they were becoming unreal to me. I lived among people who for the most part didn’t know where Poland was, or what it was, or what it had suffered in the war. I remember one day introducing myself to a new class and having a student ask me if my name was Italian or Spanish. When I said it was Polish, he seemed confused as if I had said I was a parrot or a prairie dog.
Of course, I could never know the Poland my parents knew and had to leave because of the Nazis, but I could know the Poland of words and literature, the Poland of sounds and verbal images. And the writers who captured this were readily available in the mid 1980s when my homesickness first developed. So I started reading Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy and Wladyslaw Reymont’s tetralogy Peasants and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s fiction and masses of twentieth-century Polish poetry and Ryszard Kapuściński’s journalistic writings.
These writers and others like them gave me a taste of what the country my parents came from was like. Henryk Sienkiewicz’s epic Trilogy (With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe) opened my eyes to Poland’s rich history during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These three novels told me of the patriotism of the Poles, their sacrifices to keep Poland whole as a nation, their heroism and devotion to honour. Reading these novels, I remembered what my father told me about Poland when I was a child, his stories of kings and wars and the importance of standing by your word and protecting the ones you love.
Reymont’s Peasants (Cholpi), a four-volume novel that follows the lives of Polish farmers and villagers across the seasons during one year, told me about the lives my parents’ parents may have lived. Set in the late nineteenth century, the work not only introduced me to the kinds of struggles, passions, and dreams people like my grandparents may have experienced, it taught me about the day-to-day life of people like my people; and it taught be about the traditions and rituals Polish farm people wove into the fabric of their lives, many of which were traditions my parents brought into our home here in America. In Reymont’s book, I read about midnight mass on Christmas Eve, sharing Christmas wafers, the blessing of Easter baskets on Holy Saturday, the cutting of a bride’s hair, pickling cabbage, Śmigus-Dyngus (wet Monday) and more. It took me back to a world and a life that might have been mine if there had been no World War II.
But there was a World War, and the Polish poets that came of age during that war helped me understand the events that shaped my parents’ lives. Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen told me of the life Poles experienced in the death camps and the concentration camps. Anna Swir’s Building the Barricade carried me into the rubble of a Warsaw besieged by the Germans and introduced me to the Poles who fought and died in the rubble. Tadeusz Różewicz ’s poems about the war (poems like ‘Survivor’) taught me how one can live without bread or hope, how one can keep going despite the weight of history and despair.
And the poets who came after – Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, and Zbigniew Herbert – showed me what came after the hope lost in the ruins, the suffering and hunger, the millions of war deaths. These writers wrote about how a person can live when one’s dreams came up against the reality of a Communist takeover and generations of lives spent waiting. These are the poets who spoke for my parents, people who came to America only after leaving behind so many of their friends and family, lost in the cataclysm of war and the shadow of Communism. Szymborska captures for me this moment of despair and hope in her poem the ‘The End and the Beginning’:
The End and the Beginning
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
and bloody rags.
Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
Again we’ll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.
From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass which has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth,
gazing at the clouds.
These Polish writers helped me with my homesickness. They gave me back a past and a homeland I had never personally known, but they weren’t the only ones I reached out to. I came to realize that there must be other immigrant kids like me with a homesickness that was only lessened by listening to the voices left behind in the old country, the stary świat as my father would say. But it wasn’t easy to find them back in 1980. When I turned to Polish-American writing to read about how the immigrant children of Poland shaped this American world into words, I drew a blank. I searched for these Polish-American writers and couldn’t find them. They weren’t listed in the card catalogues of the libraries I searched; they weren’t on the shelves of those libraries either.
I asked my colleagues who I taught American Lit with if they knew of any Polish-American writers.
And what did they say?
For all their considerable knowledge, they couldn’t tell me about any books about the Polish-American experience.
And what did they do then?
As far as my colleagues knew, there was no Polish-American writing.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one who noticed this. In 1988, the great Polish-American scholar Stanislaus A. Blejwas wrote an impassioned essay for Polish American Studies called ‘Voiceless Immigrants’ in which he deplored the absolute lack of Polish-American writers and discussed why this literature ‘does not exist’.
But it did exist.
Somehow I heard about a young poet named John Minczeski up in Minnesota who was putting together a collection of Polish-American writers. It was to be called Concert at Chopin’s House, and it changed the way I looked at literature and the way I saw myself as a writer and as a Polish-American. The collection he edited and the writers he chose for that collection pointed me in a direction I’ve been travelling in ever since. He and those writers have not only given me Poland, but they have also given me America, a Polish America. They have given me the words and images, the ideas and emotions, that have allowed me to feel at home in Poland and in the United States. I no longer feel hobbled being an immigrant.
Concert at Chopin’s House led me to Anthony Bukoski’s Twelve Below Zero and his other great collections of stories about Polish-Americans, to Linda Nemec Foster’s deeply felt and joyful search for her Polish roots in Amber Necklace from Gdansk, to Leonard Kress’s translations of the great Polish poets, to John Minczeski’s Letters from Serafin, his verse memoir of the life of his Polish immigrant family, to Mark Pawlak’s book about growing up in Buffalo (Buffalo Sequence), and on and on and on.
There are so many brother and sister writers writing and singing about Poland and what it means to them that there’s no time to listen to the voice of homesickness.
I could never know the Poland my parents knew and had to leave, but I could know the Poland of words and literature, the Poland of sounds and images. And the Polish writers I read gave that to me—especially Milosz with his rich sense of recent Polish history, the war, the years under Communism, his life as an émigré trying to make sense of a world that he was not born into, a language he never imagined as a small boy growing up.
By John Guzlowski