When you read about history in the history books, it’s all so clear. The numbers make it seem that way. Numbers, people say, don’t lie. A thing begins on a certain date, and it ends on another particular date. You see the beginning of a thing, and you see its end. It all seems neat and clean, but it isn’t really.
The history books, for instance, tell us that World War II began on September 1, 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland from the west, and the same books tell us that the war in Europe ended almost six years later on V-E day, May 8, 1945.
My father Jan Guzlowski was not a student of history. He never had any kind of formal education, never went to school, never could read much beyond what he could read out of a prayer book, but he knew history. He had lived through history. He was a teenager working on his uncle’s farm in Poland when the Nazis invaded and turned his whole world upside down. I guess you can say he learned history from the ground up. He was captured by the Nazis in a roundup in 1940 and sent to Germany. Like a lot of other Poles, he spent the next five years at hard labor in concentration and slave labor camps there.
But for him, the war didn’t end when his camp was liberated sometime at the end of March 1945, and it didn’t end on Victory-in-Europe Day, May 8, 1945, and it certainly didn’t end when my family finally came to the US as refugees, Displaced Persons, in June 1951.
The war was always with him and with my mother Tekla Guzlowski, a woman who spent two years in the slave labor camps in Germany and before that had seen the other women in her family raped and murdered by the Nazis. The trauma of what she had seen never left here. When I was growing up, I could see it in her eyes and the way she held herself together.
My parents carried with them the pain of war and its nightmares every day of their lives. In 1997, 42 years after the war ended, when my father was dying in a hospice, there were times when he wsa sure the doctors and nurses trying to comfort him were the Nazi guards who beat him when he was a prisoner in the concentration camp. There were also times when he couldn’t recognize me and my mother and sister. He looked at us and was frightened. He thought we were there to torture him.
In 2005, toward the end of my mother’s life, I told her that I was going to be giving a poetry reading and that I would be reading poems about her and my dad and their experiences in the war. I asked if there was something she wanted me to say to the audience. “Yes,” she said, “Tell them we weren’t the only ones.”
My parents knew that the war had always been with them, teaching them the hard lessons, teaching them how to suffer grief and pain, how to be patient, how to live without hope or bread, how to survive what would kill a person in the normal course of life.
The war taught them that war has no beginning and no end.