A Life Worth Living
This week’s Novel Notes is a special edition! Author, John (Zbigniew) Guzlowski, was gracious enough to share with me the story of his parents’ fierce struggle to survive in war-torn Poland, their almost miraculous meeting, and their subsequent epic journey to these shores in hopes of building a better life.
John’s parents were Jan Guzlowski and Tekla Hanczarek.
Jan was born in December of 1920 in a small village north of Poznan where he and his brother lived with his aunt and uncle, who were farmers. Jan’s parents and little sister had died of tuberculosis, rendering him and his brother orphans until his aunt and uncle took them in to help on the farm. To John’s knowledge, Jan never went to school, but he taught himself to read well enough to follow along in the prayer book, though he never learned to write.
When the Germans invaded Poland, the Nazi’s began pushing from the west in an attempt to remove the Poles from their land so that it could eventually be repopulated by German citizens. Jan and his brother, like 50,000 others, were sent to Buchenwald in East Germany, where they became a slave laborers. John remembers his father’s terrible description of the Buchenwald camp, which was a huge enterprise, consisting of factories, farms and many sub camps. Jan was rotated through various factories and farms in his five years of captivity and was even conscripted towards the end of the war to dig out German citizens from the rubble once the Allies began bombing German cities.
John explains that there were over 800 slave labor camps with an estimated twelve to fifteen million slaves working in them and that one in six Polish people died in the war. His father managed to survive the war, but just barely. Near the end of the war, Jan was alive, but weighed only approximately seventy pounds. As the Allies pushed forward, Germany attempted to empty as many camps as they could in an attempt to destroy any evidence of war crimes, so in April, 1945, a month before the end of the war in Europe, Jan and his fellow prisoners were sent on a death march, headed west.
They didn’t get far, however, before coming upon another camp, which had also been abandoned of any guards. Women prisoners stood along the fence, looking out at the haggard corpses walking by in their striped uniforms. One of these prisoners was John’s mother, Tekla.
Tekla was born in November 1922 in south-eastern Poland, near Lvov, which had once been part of the Ukraine. Her father was a forest warden and her mother cared for their eight children, of which Tekla was one of the youngest. John says that his mother often told him wonderful stories of what it had been like growing up in a little cottage in the woods and how happy they had been in that life.
Living in the portion of Poland claimed by Russia, the war came later to Tekla than it had to Jan, that is until Germany turned on Russia and invaded them, too. The Germans then hired Ukrainian “killing squads” to cleanse eastern Poland as well. Some Ukrainians were directly enlisted into the German army, though a separate Ukrainian SS was also formed. Before long, Tekla’s father and all of her siblings, but one sister, Genja, were taken by the Ukrainians and either killed or sent to a slave camp. Tekla, her mother, Genja, and Genja’s baby managed to somehow to escape this first sweep. They weren’t so lucky the next time, however, when the Ukrainians returned. Tekla broke through a glass window and hid in the woods, watching as soldiers killed her mother, raped and killed Genja, and then kicked Genja’s tiny baby to death. Eventually, they discovered Tekla, too, and after brutally raping her, took her with them to a camp. Like Jan, Tekla was forced to work in the camps for years, witnessing the most horrific brutality and crimes.
As was the case in Buchenwald, towards the end of the war, the guards at her camp also abandoned their post, hoping to escape the country before the Allies inevitably arrived. So when Tekla and her fellow prisoners stood at the fence of their camp watching the skeletal survivors of Buchenwald walk past them on their death march, they feebly called to them and invited them in. The stragglers, including Jan, saw no reason to keep going, knowing they were near death anyway, so they abandoned their walk to meet these tattered, emaciated women.
In later years, Tekla often enjoyed retelling the story of Jan’s approach to her that day. Even in his shrunken seventy-pound state, Jan apparently took her hand and kissed it with such gentle tenderness and profound respect, that she assumed he was some sort of nobility, possibly a prince or a count. John explains that for both of his parents, after the abject suffering and brutality that they had been through, it was a moment of sublime humanity and grace, which sealed them together for the rest of their lives. Jan later described it as follows, “We all had something to eat and then got married.” To an outsider, this makes no sense, but to those living in that awful moment, it was perhaps the most logical thing that could have happened, as if there could be no other ending to that horrific chapter in their lives but a wedding, a coming together of two souls, as if they were the only two souls left.
However it is explained, Jan and Tekla were married and spent the next six years of their life in an Allied refugee camp, during which time they had two children, Donna (Danusa) and John (Zbigniew). They considered returning to Poland, but they were afraid to. The United Nations was trying to get people to go back to their native countries, offering people money to help them start over, but Jan and Tekla had heard terrible stories of people being shot by the Russians when they tried to get off the trains. Also, they had gotten word from Tekla’s brother, Walter, who had also managed to survive the war, that when he tried to return to their village in Poland, the Russians who were waiting there shipped him off to Siberia. Fearing that something like this might happen to them, Jan and Tekla decided to stay in the camp and wait for a sponsor in America.
Finally, when Jan was 31 years old, the Guzlowskis got word that a farmer in New York was willing to sponsor them, and they were eventually allowed to sail for the United States. When the little family arrived, they were taken to a farm just outside of Buffalo, NY where they worked for a year, one of their main jobs being to harvest strawberries. It was hard work, but nothing compared to what they had been through. John says that even though he was only three and his sister five, they were expected to work, too.
After their year was up, John says his parents were eager to move on, Jan saying that he never wanted to do farm work ever again in his life. It so happened that a friend he had made in Buchenwald was living in Chicago and wrote to Jan, encouraging him to come to Chicago where there were plenty of factory jobs for good wages. Jan and Tekla decided to follow this advice, and headed west for Chicago.
Jan was indeed able to almost immediately get a job in a factory that made string, but finding a place to actually live was harder. When they first arrived in Chicago, the Guzlowskis made their way to Wicker Park and lived in an apartment with four other families. They stayed there for a few weeks and then moved to different apartment with only three families, then one with two families, then even to a storage unit in the basement of an apartment building. John says that in those early years, they moved constantly from apartment to apartment, sometimes only staying in a place for a week or two, always searching for something better.
It was difficult, though, because they were looked down upon because they were “DP’s”—displaced persons—and often faced “No Polish wanted” signs in apartment windows next to “For Rent” signs. John says that he fondly remembers his long walks with his father through the neighborhoods of Wicker Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square, looking for a new place to live. Even the existing Polish population, which had come over in previous generations, tended to shun the DP’s, whom they saw as degenerates and probably corrupt from their years in camps, both under the Germans or the Allies. Likewise, they did not appreciate that the DP’s would work for any wage, thereby threatening the status quo and their own jobs.
Amazingly, after only three years of living in America, Jan and Tekla had saved enough money to buy a five-unit building on Potomac in Humboldt Park. John describes it as a three-unit building separated by a small yard from a two story house in the back. It was a run-down structure, with no central heating, warmed only by kerosene heaters, but they owned it, something of which they were naturally very proud. John remembers that to save money, his parents used to block of all of the rooms in their unit except the kitchen and one bedroom, where they would all sleep together. John also remembers that one particular year he was excited when spring rolled around because it meant that they would soon unblock the front living room and he would be able to watch television again. He was crushed, then, when they found that it had gotten so cold in the front room over the winter that the TV tubes had frozen and shattered.
The Guzlowskis lived in this building from 1954 to 1960, when they sold it and bought a six-unit building on Evergreen where they lived until 1975. The neighborhood then began to get rough at about that time, so they moved to a two-flat on Diversey, near California, and from there to a single family house on Diversey and Rutherford.
Jan continued working in various factories, though he spent the most years at Resonite, which made the hardened, protective cardboard covers for TV and radio tubes. He worked double shifts for most of his life, never taking vacations or holidays off, reveling in the time-and-a-half or double pay that working on such days afforded. Tekla in turn worked night shifts, so that someone was always home with John and Donna. She worked for a time at the Motorola factory on Kimball, and then at the Helene Curtiss factory on North Ave. In the mid 1960’s, she quit factory work and started cleaning office buildings downtown.
John says that his parents’ life was mostly consumed with work and that they had no real hobbies or other interests beyond socializing with other Polish people, most of them DP’s who had shared the same sordid chapter in their lives. Friday and Saturday nights were the big social nights when they would gather with their friends, rotating houses each week, enjoying Polish food and drinks. Jan’s friend, Bruno, from Buchenwald, would often play on his mandolin. But instead of playing perhaps Polish folk tunes, he instead played Country and Western songs, which he had learned from an American soldier while in an Allied camp. John always found it amusing to hear “Red River Valley” sung in Polish to a mandolin.
Besides socializing, his parents spent any free time walking in the Chicago parks, which they loved, particularly Humboldt Park, often bringing a picnic along. Walking down by Lake Michigan or wandering through Lincoln Park Zoo was also a favorite. Though Jan had a fear of water, both he and Tekla loved sitting and watching the lake, and in their later years they went almost every day to Diversey Avenue beach, where they would often meet up with other refugees and talk. They enjoyed watching music shows on TV, such as Lawrence Welk, and Jan eventually took up gardening again, growing beautiful flowers and even bringing some of them into the house over the winter to keep them alive.
Both Jan and Tekla retired in their mid-fifties, their bodies broken from the many years of hard labor they had endured. Jan had severe emphysema, and Tekla had many health problems, including heart trouble and arthritis. Finally, in the mid 1990’s, Jan’s doctor advised them to move to Arizona where it would be easier for him to breathe.
So, once again, Jan and Tekla picked up stakes and moved west to Arizona, where they found an apartment near other Polish people and began to be a part of a whole new community. When Jan died in 1997 at age seventy-seven, John and Donna, both still in Illinois, thought for sure Tekla would return to Chicago and urged her to do so, but she would not. She had formed a new community there and didn’t want to leave. Even after battling two different types of cancers, she was able to live independently, with the help of a cleaning lady and Meals On Wheels, until the very end, when she died at age eighty-three.
Donna still lives in the Chicago suburbs with her family and is the keeper of many of the family stories, and John, living in Charleston, Il. is a retired academic and an author of many books of poetry, non-fiction and fiction, many of them featuring his parents’ story.
Jan and Tekla are not only an amazing example of the human will to survive, but a beautiful testament to human desire to love. May their story, and the stories of thousands of others like them, never be forgotten.
John Guzlowski’s writing appears in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, Rattle, Ontario Review, North American Review, Salon.Com, and many other journals here and abroad. His poems and personal essays about his Polish parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany and refugees making a life for themselves in Chicago appear in his memoir Echoes of Tattered Tongues (Aquila Polonica Press). Echoes of Tattered Tongues is the recipient of the 2017 Benjamin Franklin Poetry Award and the Eric Hoffer Foundation’s Montaigne Award. He is also the author of three novels.
John Guzlowski can be reached as follows: