Today, June 6, is the anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe. It's a day that means a lot to me.
My parents were two of the 15 million or so people who were swept up by the Nazis and taken to Germany to be slave laborers. My mom spent more than two years in forced labor camps, and my dad spent four years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
Like almost every other Pole living in Europe at that time, they both lost family in the war. My mom's mom, sister and infant niece were killed by the Germans when they came to her village. Later, two of her aunts died with their husbands in Auschwitz.
After the war both my parents lived in refugee camps for six years before they were allowed to come to the US. My sister and I were born in those refugee camps. June 6, 1944 was the day that long process of liberation for all of us began.
I've written a lot about my parents and their experiences, and here are two poems from my book Lightning and Ashes about those experiences. The first poem is about what the war taught my mother; the second is about the spring day in 1945 when the Americans liberated my dad and the camp he was in:
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.
In the Spring the War Ended
For a long time the war was not in the camps.
My father worked in the fields and listened
to the wind moving the grain, or a guard
shouting a command far off, or a man dying.
But in the fall, my father heard the rumbling
whisper of American planes, so high, like
angels, cutting through the sky, a thunder
even God in Heaven would have to listen to.
At last, one day he knew the war was there.
In the door of the barracks stood a soldier,
an American, short like a boy and frightened,
and my father marveled at the miracle of his youth
and took his hands and embraced him and told him
he loved him and his mother and father,
and he would pray for all his children
and even forgive him the sin of taking so long.
The boy soldier in the liberation poem is in part modeled after Michael Calendrillo, my wife's uncle. He was one of the first American soldiers to help liberate a camp. His testimony about what he saw in the camps was filmed for a documentary called Nightmare's End: The Liberation of the Camps. You can see a youtube of him talking about what he saw in that camp by clicking here.
Here's a link to a presentation I gave at St. Francis College about my parents and their experiences in World War II: Just click here.
My daughter Lillian sent me the following link to color photos from before and after D-Day from Life Magazine. The photos are amazing, and a large part of that amazement comes from the color. The color gives me a shock, a good one--it takes away the distance, makes the photos and the people and places in them immediate in a profound way.
Here's the link: Life.