Since 1996 Volume XXI

John Guzlowski

Born in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II, John Guzlowski came to America with his family as a Displaced Person in 1951. His parents had been Polish slave laborers in Nazi Germany during the war. Growing up in the tough immigrant neighborhoods around Humboldt Park in Chicago, he met hardware store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos on their wrists, Polish cavalry officers who still mourned for their dead horses, and women who had walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Russians. In much of his work, Guzlowski remembers and honors the experiences and ultimate strength of these voiceless survivors. His writing appears in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s AlmanacRattle, Ontario Review, North American ReviewSalon.ComCrab Orchard Review, and many other print and online journals here and abroad. His poems and personal essays about his parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany and refugees making a life for themselves in Chicago appear in his memoir in prose and poetry, Echoes of Tattered Tongues (Aquila Polonica), the winner of the 2017 Benjamin Franklin Poetry award also won the Eric Hoffer Montaigne award. His novel Road of Bones about a German soldier lost on the Eastern Front in the winter of 1944 is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press. Of Guzlowski’s writing, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said, “He has an astonishing ability for grasping reality.”

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

Raped her

so she couldn’t stand up

couldn’t lie down

couldn’t talk

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

Here’s what she said years later:

God doesn’t give

you any favors

He doesn’t say

now you’ve seen

this bad thing

but tomorrow

you’ll see this good thing

and when you see it

you’ll be smiling

That’s bullshit


My mother looks at herself

in her dress and striped coat

and knows she is who she is—

bones and skin, and the war

has always been here with her,

like an older brother, not mean

or evil but hard, never soft, teaching

hesitance and patience, teaching her

not to put her hand out to take

the cup of water or touch the bread.

It has always been this way

and will always be this way.

War has no beginning, no end.

War is the god who breeds and kills.


Hunger in the Slave Labor Camp

My father ate what he couldn’t eat,

what his mother taught him not to:

brown grass, small chips of wood, the dirt

beneath his gray dark fingernails.

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

in the normal course of his life:

leather buttons, cloth caps, anything

small enough to get into his mouth.

He ate roots. He ate newspaper.

In his slow clumsy hunger

he did what the birds did, picked

for oats or corn or any kind of seed

in the dry dung left by the cows.

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.

And the other men did the same.


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 only ourselves, our bodies

stiff like frightened ostriches.

We were the children in ragged wool

who shuffled in line to eat or pray

or beg anyone for charity.

Remembering the air and the trees,

the sky above the Polish fields,

we dreamt only of the lives waiting

for us in Chicago and St. Louis

and Superior, Wisconsin

like pennies

in our mouths.

Why My Mother Stayed with My Father

She knew he was worthless the first time

she saw him in the camps: his blind eye,

his small size, the way his clothes carried

the smell of the dead men who wore them before.

In America she learned he couldn’t fix a leak

or drive a nail straight. He knew nothing

about the world, the way the planets moved,

the tides. The moon was just a hole in the sky,

electricity a mystery as great as death.

The first time lightning shorted the fuses,

he fell to his knees and prayed to Blessed Mary

to bring back the miracle of light and lamps.


He was a drunk too. Some Fridays he drank

his check away as soon as he left work.

When she’d see him stagger, she’d knock him down

and kick him till he wept. He wouldn’t crawl away.

He was too embarrassed. Sober, he’d beg

in the bars on Division for food or rent

till even the drunks and bartenders

took pity on this dumb Polack.

My father was like that, but he stayed

with her through her madness in the camps

when she searched among the dead for her sister,

and he stayed when it came back in America.

Maybe this was why my mother stayed.

She knew only a man worthless as mud,

worthless as a broken dog, would suffer

with her through all of her sorrow.

All poems are from John Guzlowski's Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded (Aquila Polonica, 2016)



Mary Barnet


Grace Cavalieri

Joan Gelfand

Janet Brennan