“Then she spoke, in Polish, slowly. She said, ‘Co teraz?’ What now?”


Born in a refugee camp in Germany, writer John Guzlowski came to America in 1951 with his parents, Jan and Tekla Guzlowski. They were “Displaced Persons”: “When we landed at Ellis Island we were unmistakably foreign… We were regarded as Polacks – dirty, dumb, lazy, dishonest, immoral, licentious, drunken Polacks. I’ve felt hobbled by being a Polack and a DP, Displaced Person,” he wrote. His father had spent five years as a slave laborer in Buchenwald Concentration Camp and came to America with a trunk made from planks from a barrack’s wall. His mother was also in a slave labor camp, but only at the end of her life was she willing to break her long silence, telling the story of how the women in her family were raped and murdered by the Germans. 

In poetry and prose, Guzlowski spent thirty years obsessively writing about his parents’ wartime trauma and its long after-effects in their lives. Here’s “My Father Tells me How he Met My Mother,” from his book, Echoes of Tattered Tongues, retold in his father’s voice. He explains: “The German guards were trying to empty out Buchenwald, the camp he was in. The Germans didn’t want to leave any evidence of the atrocities they had committed. So they sent the men in the camp on a death march hoping that the skeletons the men were would just fall to the ground and die during the march.”

We came upon a small slave camp in the woods, three or four buildings, a fence of barbed wire, a closed gate.

Some of us were dying and fell to our knees right there. Others kept walking and stumbling toward that gate. There was no one around, no German guards, no soldiers. They must have run away because they thought the war was finished and the Americans were near. There were no prisoners either that we could see in the barracks beyond the fence. We thought that maybe the ones who’d been there had been taken like us on a death march.

It was so quiet.

One of the men, a Frenchman, stepped up to the gate and shouted hello. That’s all he said. He said it in German first and then French, but no one answered. It sounded funny in French, “Bonjour, bonjour.”

Jan Guzlowski, on arrival in America in 1951

An army truck stood in front of one of the barracks buildings, and I thought I saw some movement there. Even with only one good eye, I could see it. Someone moving near the back of the truck. I pointed this out to the Frenchman, and he saw it too. And we both shouted then, him in French and me in Polish. I shouted, “Dzien dobry, dzien dobry.” I felt foolish saying, “Good day.” There had not been a good day for a long time.

A woman then came out of one of the barracks. Like us, she was dressed in rags, striped rags. She stumbled to the gate and stopped there. She looked at us, and we looked at her. No one said anything for a while. I could see she was weak. She held the gate so tightly with her hands so she wouldn’t fall.

I couldn’t speak. I had not seen a woman for months and had not talked to one for years. The Germans would kill you for talking to a woman.

Then she spoke, in Polish, slowly. She said, “Co teraz?” What now?

I didn’t know what to say. My tongue was like a rock in my mouth.

She said it again, “Co teraz?” And I still didn’t know what to say, or what would happen, or if the world would end that day or not. I was hungry and spent, and I didn’t know anything.

I looked at her and felt so weak, felt like I was going to fall and join my brothers dying behind me, and your mother pulled the gate open and said, “Proszę wejdź.” Please come in.

And I did.

“A New Year’s Eve party In 1958. My sister Donna is between them. I’m the grumpy one.” – Says John Guzlowski


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