john guzlowski

john guzlowski
Danville, Virginia, USA
June 22
I was born in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II, and came with my Polish Catholic parents Jan and Tekla and my sister Donna to the United States as Displaced Persons in 1951. My parents had been slave laborers in Nazi Germany. Growing up in the immigrant and DP neighborhoods around Humboldt Park in Chicago, I met Jewish hardware store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos on their wrists, Polish cavalry officers who still mourned for their dead horses, and women who walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Russians. I write about these people.


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JUNE 30, 2012 9:58AM

Wooden Trunk from Buchenwald

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 When my parents, my sister and I, finally left the refugee camp in Germany after the war, we were allowed to bring very little, only what would fit into a steamer trunk. The problem was that we couldn't afford to buy one. Not many of the families living in the camps could. You can imagine why that was, so my father did what other people did. He and a friend got together and built a trunk.

Someplace, somehow, they found a hammer and a saw and nails and some metal stripping, and they set to work. Getting the wood wasn’t a problem. They got the wood from the walls of the barracks they were living in. It was one of the old German concentration camps barracks that had been converted to living space for the refugees, the Displaced Persons, and this place didn’t have finished walls of plaster, or anything like that. If you wanted a board, you could just pull it off of the wall, and that’s what my father did.

I don’t think he felt guilty about busting up those walls. He had spent enough time staring at them, so that he probably felt he could do anything he wanted to them, and it would be okay. I think if a man spends enough time staring at a thing, finally it becomes his by a kind of default. I don’t know if that’s what my dad thought. He didn’t say a lot about building that wooden trunk, and he probably didn’t give it much thought.

The trunk my father and his friend built out of those old boards wasn't big. It was maybe four feet wide and three feet tall and three feet deep. The walls of the trunk were about 3/4 of an inch thick. But wood is always heavy, so that even though it wasn’t that big, that trunk generally needed two people to lift it.  My father, of course, could lift it by himself.  He was a small man, a little more than five feet tall, but he had survived four years in Buchenwald as a slave laborer.  That work taught him to do just about any work a man could ask him to do.  My father could dig for beets in frozen mud and drag fallen trees without bread or hope. 

My parents couldn't get much into the trunk, but they put into what they thought they would need in America and what they didn't want to leave in Germany: some letters from Poland, four pillows made of goose feathers, a black skillet, some photographs of their time in Germany, a wooden cross, some clothing, of course, and wool sweaters that my mother knitted for us in case it was cold in America. Somewhere, I’ve got a picture of me wearing one of those sweaters. It looks pretty good. My mother knitted it before her eyes went bad, and she was able to put little reindeer and stars all over that sweater.

When we finally got to America, my parents didn't trash that wooden trunk or break it up, even though there were times when breaking it up and using the wood for a fire would have been a good idea, kept us warm. Instead, they kept it handy for every move they made in the next forty years. They carried it with them when we had to go to the migrant farmers' camp in upstate New York where we worked off the cost of our passage to America. And my parents carried it to Chicago too when they heard from their friend Wenglaz that Chicago was a good place for DPs, for refugees. And they carried that trunk to all the rooming houses and apartment buildings and houses that we lived in in Chicago. I remember in those early days in Chicago that there were times when the only things we owned were the things my mother and father brought with us in that trunk, and the only furniture we had was that trunk. Sometimes it was a table, and sometimes it was a bench, and sometimes it was even a bed for my sister and me.

When we were kids growing up, my sister Donna and I played with the trunk. It had large blocky letters printed on it, the names of the town we came from in Germany, the port we sailed from, and the port we sailed to in America. We would trace the letters with our fingers even before we could read what they said. We imagined that trunk was the boat that brought us to America, and we imagined that it was an airplane and a house. We even imagined that it was a swimming pool, although this got harder to imagine as we got older and bigger.

When my parents retired in 1990 and moved from Chicago to Sun City, Arizona, they carried that trunk with them. That surprised me because they didn’t take much with them when they went to Arizona. They sold or gave away almost everything that they owned, almost everything that they had accumulated in thirty-eight years of living in America. They got rid of bedroom suites and dining room suites, refrigerators and washing machines, ladders and lawnmowers. My parents were never sentimental, and they didn’t put much stock in stuff. They figured it would be easier to buy new tables and couches when they got to Sun City.
But they kept that trunk and the things they could put in it.
And a TV set.

After my father died in 1997, my mother stayed on in Arizona. She still had the trunk when she died. She kept it in a small, 8 foot x 8 foot utility room off the carport. My parents had tried to pretty it up at some point during their time in Arizona. The original trunk was bare, unpainted wood, and was covered with those big, blocky, white letters I mentioned. But for some reason, my parents had painted the wooden trunk, painted it a sort of dark brown, almost a maroon color; and they had papered the bare wood on the inside of the trunk with wallpaper, a light beige color with little blue flowers.

When my mom died, I was with her. Her dying was long and hard. She had had a stroke and couldn't talk or understand what was said. She couldn't move at all either. When she finally died, I had to make sense of her things. I contacted a real estate agent, and he told me how I could get in touch with a company that would sell off all of my mother's things in an estate sale.

I thought about taking the wooden trunk back home with me to Valdosta, Georgia. I thought about all it meant to my parents and to me, how long it had been with them. How they had carried it with them from the DP camps in Germany to Sun City, Arizona, this desert place so different from anything they had ever known overseas. I knew my sister Donna didn't want the trunk. I called her up, and we talked about the things my mother left behind and the estate sale and the trunk. Donna has spent a lifetime trying to forget the time in the DP camps and what the years in the slave labor camps during the war had cost my parents. But did I want it?

I contacted UPS about shipping it, what it would cost, how I would have to prepare the trunk. They told me it would cost about $150 to ship. But did I want it?

I finally decided to leave it there and to let it get sold off at the estate sale. That wooden trunk had been painted over, and the person buying it wouldn't know anything about what it was and how it got there. It would just be an anonymous, rough-made trunk, painted a dark brown, almost maroon color with some goofy wallpaper inside.

Thinking back on all of this now, I'm not sure I know why I left that trunk there. When I'm doing a poetry reading about my parents and tell people the story of the trunk and read one of my poems about it, people ask me why I left it. It doesn't make any kind of sense to them. And I'm not sure now that it makes any kind of sense to me either. Why did I leave it?

I was pretty much used up by my mom's dying. It had been hard. My mother went into the hospital for a gall bladder operation and had had that stroke, and the stroke left her paralyzed, confused, and weak. She couldn’t talk or move, and the doctor told me that my mother couldn’t even understand what was being said to her.

Her condition got worse, and I put her in a hospice in Sun City. I sat with her there for three weeks, watched her breathing get more and more still. Sometimes, her eyes would open, and she would look around. I would talk to her about things I remembered, her life and my father’s life, my life and my sister’s life. I don’t know if she understood anything. She couldn’t blink or nod, or make sounds with her mouth. I just talked to her about what I remembered, any stupid thing, the bus rides we took, the TV shows she always watched, the oleanders she and my dad liked to grow and plant in the backyard. I didn't think that there was much else I could do for her.

When she died, I didn't want to do anything except get back home to my wife Linda in Georgia. Maybe the extra burden of figuring out how to carry that trunk back to Georgia was more than I could deal with. Or maybe I thought that trunk wasn't the same trunk that my parents had brought from the concentration camp in Germany. It had been painted, changed. Or maybe I just wanted that trunk to slip away into memory the way my mother had slipped away, become a part of my memory, always there but not there.




I've written a lot about my parents and their experiences.  Some of the posts and poems are here at Open Salon.   Here are some links to pieces about the day my mom died, the kind of worker my dad was, and what we can learn from the struggles of our parents and grandparents.  My book of poems about my parents is called Lightning and Ashes.  It's available from Amazon.  Just click here.  The above essay also appears in a Uncommon Boundaries: Stories of Immigration edited by Gregory F. Tague and available at Amazon.

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I'm usually left speechless John when I read of your parents and their life...your early life.
I do understand however letting go of the trunk. It had become merely a symbol, dwarfed by memories and true essence.
Dear AlsoKnownAs, I go back and forth about that trunk. See leaving it as the right thing, part of the unsentimental side my parents showed. Other times, I wish I had it in my basement, ready for my daughter to use the next time she moves.
The box itself was not as important as the idea of the box that holds memories. Now your stories are the box.
I like that thought. Maybe my next book about my parents will be titled Wooden Trunk.
I understand the state of overwhelm you were in; I have literally walked away from things--physical things as well as emotional things--because I just couldn't deal with one more THING. On one hand, it seems a shame to have let go of the trunk, but on the other hand, the trunk was only an artifact. The memories are what's important.
Dear Susan, yes, the memories are what's really important, and now that I grow older I realize that the memories I always felt so strongly are starting to fade. I want to write more about my parents but there is less and less that I can remember clearly and forcefully.
John, first, this is a great piece. The trunk, well, perhaps it needed to travel more. Maybe it needed to be purchased by someone else who knew nothing about the pain it had witnessed as simple boards as a wall of a building where so much hope was lost. When it was a DP camp, maybe it felt the good fortune that others experienced there as they moved into another life, a new life. If the trunk could speak, what would it say?

"Thank you for painting me, dressing me up, I want to live in a little house filled with the toys of a small child, I want to store the linens of a girl hoping to be a bride, I want to sit in the living room in front of a happy fireplace, holding hot coco on a cold night. I want to continue on, I want to let the past go and the future build, I say good bye to you and I send you my new joy in sunshine."

John, here with this you have the makings of a children's book about the Holocaust. Something which might be understandable for young people and what is understandable for all those seeking hope and rebirth, including some remembrance. I am happy your parents keep that trunk, and even happier that it found itself decorated. That mean something to me, it means life.
Sheila, what a wonderful suggestion--thank you for the gift.
Great piece, John. Thanks...
You know, I can understand you going back and forth on whether you should have kept that trunk. But don't. You went with your gut and left it there to be sold. The first instinct is always the best. My condolences on your mother's death. I think she probably heard everything you said to her and it was a blessing to hear you talk about those memories.
One of the best posts I've ever read. "I think if a man spends enough time staring at a thing, finally it becomes his by a kind of default." and "My father could dig for beets in frozen mud and drag fallen trees without bread or hope. " These and so many other powerful lines that evoke a sense of the experience and the senses vividly. You write like a poet, with all the natural ease of good prose. Need I say how much I loved the way you have told this story?

As for you talking to your mother as she lay immobile and unable to confirm cognizance, in case this is of any value to you - when I was not capable of interaction during my coma, not even capable of retaining memory, I was still capable of registering sound. From all that was recounted to me, it was clear that sound had an impact that was sometimes even stronger then the powerful doses of narcotics given to me. Music was known to still my pain where the narcotics fell short. Voices and touch evoked responses in my vital statistics. I now fully believe what some traditions teach, that hearing is the last sense to go. The voice of a son carries a lifetime of love received and given. What is said is secondary to the feeling behind what is said. I hope it gives you something to know the very strong possibility of the reassurance your presence and voice gave your mother.
After reading this essay, I feel as though I was on that journey with you, your sister and your parents. Simply stunning story and writing. I can't explain it, but I've always felt a deep and abiding love and respect for anyone who endure the horrors of the Holocaust. To this day, I can't resist any movie, book or story about that era. I think the literature and art that has flowed out of that experience has been some of the most important work every created by humans. Thank you for your brutal honesty and reflections about why you left the trunk behind. In our hearts, we are more complex than even we can imagine. I think letting that trunk go was a way to free yourself from your parents' hardships. In the end, it was an act of love. You put all that they had poured into that trunk back into the universe, where it found a new life, and a new purpose. ... Whew. But it would have been great to have seen that trunk in museum, with your beautiful story attached ... R.
I suppose a trunk can be burned, broken, water damaged or bug eaten, but your memories of that trunk can be documented and preserved forever. Well done. R
I can understand wanting to move on. Yours is a story worth telling and you sound as if you were a wonderful son.
I think the time for the trunk was over and you knew that. This essay was a great discovery for me - the benefit of OS. Thank you.
A symbolic letting go? This was very touching, I'm so glad you are here on OS
This is a wonderful piece. As I was reading, I found myself hoping that you had kept the trunk. But as I finished, I decided I was wrong. The trunk represented the struggles your mom and dad went through in giving you and your sister a chance at a new life. They succeeded. Your moving forward in that new life is what they would have wanted.
This is a wonderful story. I can understand you leaving the trunk behind. Makes you wonder about the forgotten histories of abandoned things.. r.
The trunk is in your heart forever. It's in your stories and photos, too.
My mother's family took a bag of jewels out of Russia when they had to leave in 1918, hiding them and papers in my little mother's pants. Then, when they had to leave Germany, they took a bag of jewels again. They lived off selling a jewel whenever necessary. I have some of the few leftover pieces and they mean freedom and security to me. Mostly, they represent continuity in the face of chaos.
What an excellent telling of your family's past -- you really write so well, I felt I could picture your father by your description.
Thanks for sharing this amazing piece about your family, I love this open call and all the tales of our country's people.
I feel like any comment I could make would be trite. You made me feel the conflict. I can understand why you left it.

As Jeff said, it makes one wonder about the things you see at flea markets, in thrift stores. Where did they come from and what did they mean to someone? And why were they left behind?

Do you ever wonder where it ended up?
I think that wooden trunk is still with you, in a sense. You are filling it -steadily and lovingly, it seems - with your stories and poems about your parents. Thank you so much for sharing them with the rest of us!
John, thank you for reposting this here for us. It is really a remarkable story. I understand why you did not need to take the physicial trunk. What it represented is in your heart, and that's the most important thing. RRRR
Congratulations on the EP!
How magnificent. My mother was a Holocaust survivor with not quite such a happy ending. I too have written quite about her experience as a Hidden Child in Belgium and I feel grateful that she never did make her way to the camps.

I love the idea that someone posted below about a children's book waiting to happen. I have an 11-yr old daughter who doesn't know the story of her grandmother, my mother, who ended her life 26 years ago. I'm dreading the day that I have to explain this to her.

I absolutely understand why you didn't keep the trunk, but just now, as I am typing this, it really was a sign of their triumph of the evil they had to face, quite literally, every day.

Thank you so much for this lovely story.
How magnificent. My mother was a Holocaust survivor with not quite such a happy ending. I too have written quite about her experience as a Hidden Child in Belgium and I feel grateful that she never did make her way to the camps.

I love the idea that someone posted below about a children's book waiting to happen. I have an 11-yr old daughter who doesn't know the story of her grandmother, my mother, who ended her life 26 years ago. I'm dreading the day that I have to explain this to her.

I absolutely understand why you didn't keep the trunk, but just now, as I am typing this, it really was a sign of their triumph of the evil they had to face, quite literally, every day.

Thank you so much for this lovely story.
Terrific and moving. It deserves its place on the top of the OS front page.
I'm glad you let it go. Don't think I could have, but I'm glad you did.
Thank you for this beautiful/delicate/powerful post.

"I think if a man spends enough time staring at a thing, finally it becomes his by a kind of default."

"that trunk was the boat that brought us to America, and we imagined that it was an airplane and a house. We even imagined that it was a swimming pool,"

The children's book waiting to happen.... My mother was an excellent seamstress. She made our clothes when we were growing up. There's one very stylish skirt that she made for me, a Vogue pattern, and as always, she added one funky tweek to it - velcro, in this case, and in my normal American and modern nuttiness/confusion about things and their value, I got rid of it. I wrote poetry about that skirt, and the giving it away, for years. I think that like growing up in The Church and leaving it, the relationship with the thing stays with you, the very struggle morphing into deeper wisdom, understanding, and forgiveness worn soft by repetition. Thank you, your parents, sister and thanks to the box that contains your story. Thank you for sharing your richness. r
Riveting, from the first word to the last. Good memoir-writing takes the reader on the journey along with the author and I felt that is what you did so elegantly with this piece. A well-deserved EP.
I can understand why you would not want to retrieve the trunk, John. It was a connection to a dark past, and maybe too emotionally painful for you to deal with, in light of the fact that you were caretaker to your gravely ill mother. I can relate, as I am in the throes of watching my mother deteriorate with Alzheimer's disease.
Happy belated Birthday,John!
Your post has moved me so much. My grandfather survived the Holocaust and almost never talked about it, and when he did, it was always in response to questions about the camps, and the family members and loved ones he'd lost there. I've always wondered how exactly he got to America afterwards. I think it's a part of the story of so many survivors that gets lost. Thank you for sharing this, for so many reasons - for the story of this trunk, so profound in so many ways, for the story of your brave, strong parents, and for the collective story of Holocaust survivors - and human beings.
"My parents were never sentimental, and they didn’t put much stock in stuff."

I understand that sentence, my parents and I are like that too. I smiled as I read about what your parents were like, though I can never understand their history, I understand a little of what they learned to treasure.

I first encountered your posts in June 2010 and commented on "Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration." I read through some more of your posts and it was a raw spot for me, I had to stay away. Still, I realized from your writings that the reason my parents wouldn't talk about what it was really like when I was growing up, was that they didn't want to think about it. They didn't talk of their lives in Cairo either, it was as if they could only think of when life got better here.

Since reading that post and others of yours I've begun to gently ask my mom about what her life was like in Egypt and what it was like for her after arriving in the US. I've gained great understanding why they seemed so cold and harsh. It has been a long journey and I had also been quite ill. I can't help but think some divine hand directed me to read your blog, though I wanted to forget it, I didn't and I'm grateful for it. I'm closer to my mother because of it.

I don't know why you didn't keep the trunk, maybe one of the good traits you got from your parents is not putting much stock in stuff. Thank you for a wonderful post.
I will never forget this story. I don't know how I've missed reading you before this...~r
22 years ago I walked away from everything I owned including all of my family photos. At the time it didn't matter much to me but all these years later? It's like that trunk of yours. Woulda, shoulda, coulda. Great family story, as usual John, thanks for messaging me.
Dear friends, thank you for reading my blog about my parents and their wooden trunk. Thank you also for your comments. They have given me so much to think about--and so much inspiration to keep writing about my parents.

This is such a moving story, and it so well written. Thank you for sharing it.
John, what a pleasure to read your elegant work again. I know what you mean about to keep or not keep. Some how some things, do not seem to have the same meaning as we are looking at the other end of the periscope.
I especially appreciate this line of yours:

I think if a man spends enough time staring at a thing, finally it becomes his by a kind of default.
Best always,
I recently gave away a grannie afghan that my father's sister made. It covered my Dad until he died. Then I had it dry cleaned and stored it away. A few weeks ago..I decided I didn't want it anymore. It was that simple. I am at an age now where I think it is OK to let go of what was. But I have written about the Aunt who made it. She often appears as Sara in my stories.

I met many of the survivors prior to the building of the Holocaust museum in DC. The event was called the First Gathering.
I cannot know their sorrow...but I know of it. It scrapes at your heart. And the wounds never heal.

Thank you for writing this. I am sure it was not easy to leave the trunk behind. But in fact, your story is its legacy. Worthy of a book...
The story of the wooden trunk.
Your writing is exquisite. Thanks for keeping your parent's memories alive.
The trunk will always be with you, like your parents, in your heart and memories. We can't take everything material with us...sometimes it's best to let things go to create new memories for others. Thank you for your wonderful posts.
What a powerful story, John. Thank you for sharing it with all of us. These stories about our families need to live on. When I first heard from my mother-in-law about her time in a German labor camp during WWII, I was shocked--I didn't know those things existed. As you know, her stories were the basis of my novel, One Amber Bead, and my blog, oneamberblog. Many of the people who have read One Amber Bead also knew nothing about the labor camps and the stories of those who had to live in them. Thanks again for all you do to educate people about those times and the amazing people who endured them.