Wednesday, May 25, 2011

One Life to Give: A Path to Finding Yourself by Helping Others

I do a lot of presentations and poetry readings about my parents' experiences in the concentration camp system of Nazi Germany, and one question I often get is "What did your parents learn from their experiences?" It's a central question, and a hard one to answer. I think that a lot of my poems and my other writings try to get at an answer (see the note at the end of this entry), but I feel finally that I will never know the answer no matter how much I try.

However, it is important to try to answer such questions, and I was especially interested in One Life to Give: A Path to Finding Yourself by Helping Others by Andrew Bienkowski and Mary Akers (available at Andrew is a Pole whose family was taken to Siberia by the Soviets during World War II. He survived the war, came to the US, and became a psychotherapist.

His perspective on his experiences, as you can imagine, is unique and worth attention.

In One Life to Give: A Path to Finding Yourself by Helping Others, Andrew describes watching his grandfather starve to death on purpose so that he and his younger brother Yurek would have enough food. But rather than dwelling on the horrors, Andrew's book takes the "long view" and examines such experience for what they have taught him about life.

The first chapter discusses the idea of Radical Gratitude, the notion that we can learn to be grateful even for the difficult experiences of our lives because they make us stronger, wiser, and more responsive to the suffering of others. Following chapters talk about hope, faith, perseverance, laughter, and love as tools we can use to see us through the most difficult times. Each chapter is supported by a specific story from his family's time in Siberia, and the book covers the time from their initial deportation, through their survival and eventual escape.

Here's a video of Andrew Bienkowski talking about his book:

Signed Polish copies of the book are available from Mary Akers, Mr. Bienkowski's co-author at her blog.


One of my own poems that tries to understand what my mother learned is "What the War Taught Her."

"What My Father Believed" is one of my poems about what my dad learned.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Artists and Writers: Updates

Sharon Chmielarz's new book of poems, The Sky is Great, The Sky is Blue, is now available from Whistling Shade Press. Here's a poem from this book:

Chopin: Apples

And what country hasn’t he lived in,
his music chilling the listener’s arms?

And when haven’t his glissandos
spilled over history, the colossus

that upsets lives like apple carts?
Apples rolling over cobbles.

God-fall we think,
finding among the bruised,

a handful of sweet apples.
The easy thank you is listening

to someone playing at a window
in Warsaw, turning the rumble

of despair into a mazurka.
“Beloved little corpse,” Sand called Chopin,

sitting beside him at the keyboard.
Her “angel.” His music, his wings.

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Douglas Jacobson's second novel The Katyn Order is now available. The novel deals with the Polish Underground's attempt to locate the Soviet order to kill the 20,000 Polish officers at Katyn.

Here's what Publishers Weekly says about the book: “Jacobson follows his debut, Night of Flames, with another solid WWII thriller. The author makes the bloody fight for Warsaw both exciting and suspenseful.”

You can read my recent blog about Night of Flame by just clicking here.

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Actor/Director/Writer Marek Probosz has recently had his volume of short stories Call Me When They Kill You published in Poland. Also, Director Probosz's recent film Y.M.I., a psychological thriller about teen suicide, is now available from Amazon.

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The latest issue of Poets on Adoption features the work of three Polish American poets: Christina Pacosz, Sharon Mesmer, and Mary Krane Derr.

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Peter and Laura Zeranski have just published a new cookbook of traditional Polish recipes. Find out more about the book at their blog.

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Elisabeth Murawski is featured at the Serving House Books website. The page includes a video of Ms. Murawski reading a poem and a link to an interview.

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The book This Way: Covering/Uncovering Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, edited by John Bertram and Marco Sonzogni, was just published. The book focuses on the recently completed competition to design a cover for Tadeusz Borowski's book on Auschwitz, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman. A website devoted to this project and to Borowski's book is online.

I especially recommend the sample pages from the book. They offer some of the recent covers from the competition along with brief essays about the history of Borowski's great work.

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Grzegorz Wróblewski has recently published one of his paintings, entitled "These Extraordinary People," at The Post-Literate (R)Evolution. website.

Three of his new poems, original Polish versions and English translations (by Agnieszka Pokojska), appear in the current issue of the political journal CounterPunch.

His art will be featured in an exhibit focusing on the word as image until July 2 at the Bury Art Museum, Bury, England.

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Mark Pawlak placed a poem, part of his Lubec, Maine, journal, at Wilderness House Literary Review. It appears in the poetry section.

The new issue of Hanging Loose #98, co-edited by Mark Pawlak, features a number of Polish American writers: Karina Borowicz, Stephen Lewandowski, Sharon Mesmer, Elisabeth Murawksi, and Mark himself.

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Martin Stepek is currently building a personal website which includes, among other things, a number of his fine poems about what happened to Poland during World War II. The site is available at

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Sharon Mesmer's essay on Flarf poetry along with several of her poems appear in the latest issue of the online journal Scream Online. If you haven't read her flarf-ish poems, take a look. They are wild. Here's a piece of one of them:

I Am Now Bringing Everything To The Path

Working class, ethnic, hard-hearted and obscure,
I am the Polish church in anguish.
And that’s why I am now bringing everything to The Path.
Granted, Yale’s musical recruitment you tube video
is ludicrous, but no matter where you are, chances are
you can crack a window and hear a cow moo,
a cow who is bringing everything to The Path, too. . . .

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Mira Rosenthal's translations of Tomasz Rozycki's book Colonies has just been accepted by Zephyr Press. She read some of the poems from this book at a reading with Adam Zagajewski this spring in New York.

Ms. Rosenthal's poems are also something wonderful. Here she is reading two of them at the Cortland Review site.

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Piotr Florczyk's translation of Anna Swir's Building the Barricade and Other Poems of Anna Swir is now available at Amazon. I recentyly posted a blog about the book with several poems from the collection. Click here.

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My poem "What My Father Believed" was re-posted at Tikkun's Network for Spiritual Progressives.

The short personal essay I wrote about the wooden trunk that my parents brought to America from the Displaced Persons Camps in Germany after World War II was the featured essay this last March at Sandra Hurtes' website.

My poems "War Poets" and "My Father Talks about Time and the Camps" appear in the latest issue of the print journal Two Review. You can purchase a copy of the journal by clicking here. (The current issue also contains two fine poems by Oriana Ivy.)


The photo of the Tatra Mountains of Poland is by a photographer who goes by the name Lonelywolf2.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Night of Flames by Douglas Jacobson

Night of Flames is a novel about Polish lovers separated at the outbreak of World War II and their struggle to reunite. The book, available through Amazon, has been very well received, and Homer Hickam (the author of October Sky) describes Mr. Jacobson's book as "historical fiction at its best."

I asked him to tell me about the inspiration for his novel, and here's what he said:

I have always been interested in World War two history. With my Polish-American background (my mother was Polish), I had a particular interest in Poland's experience in the war. But I never imagined I would write a novel about it.

The beginning of Night of Flames goes back to 1993, when my daughter married a young man from Belgium and moved to Europe, setting our family on a course that has forever changed our lives. Over time, while traveling to Europe two or three times a year, we became very close friends with my son-in-law’s parents. They are wonderful, caring people who are several years older than we are. They were young children during the German occupation. Young, but old enough to remember. They didn’t talk about it at first, in fact they still don’t, its over, it happened a long time ago, and they survived. End of story.

But gradually, as they realized I really wanted to know, they began to tell me the stories. They told me about living in the cellar while their city was being bombed, about not having anything to eat for months on end and German snipers shooting at them while they scavenged in the streets for food, about my son-in-law’s grandfather being dragged away from the family home by the Gestapo in 1941. . . then returning five years later when he walked home from Germany.

The experiences of my Belgian in-laws inspired me. It made it real. It also gave me the historical background for blending the stories of courageous people from two countries, Poland and Belgium, into a unique perspective of the war. I spent the next five years writing Night of Flames: A Novel of World War Two.


Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the novel.


Anna Kopernik slept on this hot, muggy night but it was a restless sleep troubled by strange dreams. The sheets were clammy and her thin cotton nightgown clung to her back. A paltry breeze drifted in through the open window with little effect. The still, humid air on this September morning hung over Warsaw like a massive wet blanket.

It was five o’clock and Anna drifted back and forth between consciousness and sleep, the dream flitting in and out of her mind like an annoying gnat. The telephone rang. Then it stopped. She wanted to answer it but couldn’t find it. It rang again but it wasn’t a telephone, it was something else . . . a bell, perhaps, or a horn. Anna kicked at the sticky, twisted sheet and rolled onto her back. She was almost awake but still just below the surface. The noise returned, louder now, a harsh clanging boring into her head. She kicked the sheet completely off, struggling to understand. What was it? A horn…or…a siren.

Anna’s eyes snapped open and she sat bolt upright. The shrill sound blasted into her brain, penetrating through the fog of sleep like an icy wind. She blinked and looked around the dark room, trying to focus on shadowy images as the sound wailed on and on.

She ran to the window. It was still dark but the night sky held a hint of gray. An early morning mist shrouded the street lamps casting a gloomy, almost spooky glow along the deserted sidewalk below. The grating noise of the air-raid siren raised the hair on the back of her neck and suddenly she was shivering. Anna crossed her arms over her chest and stared into the dull, charcoal sky. Then she heard another sound.
It came from the west, a deep angry drone like a swarm of giant bees, growing louder by the second. Anna tried to move but her feet didn’t respond. Immobilized, riveted in place, she stared out the open window as the pounding vibration of a hundred propellers enveloped her. The thunderous roar of the bombers drowned out the air raid sirens and the entire building seemed to sway in rhythm with the oscillations.
Anna snapped out of the spell and instinctively reached out to pull the window closed. A flash of light blinded her and an ear-shattering blast threw her backwards amidst a shower of glass and falling plaster. She fell heavily against a small wooden night table and collapsed on the floor.

Another blast rocked the building. Frantic and disoriented, a searing pain in her head and a million lights dancing in her eyes, Anna tried to crawl under the bed, oblivious to the shards of glass that sliced through her hands and knees. Jarring detonations punctuated the deafening thunder of the airplanes.

Then, as abruptly as it started, it was over, the pulsating thump of propellers receding into the distance. Anna lay still, her head under the bed. Seconds passed then a minute and the only sound she heard through the ringing in her ears was the continued wailing of the air raid sirens. She crawled backwards and tried to stand but her legs gave out. She fell against the bed and back onto the floor, this time wincing in pain from the glass and chunks of plaster that littered the floor. Holding the edge of the bed, she struggled to her feet and staggered across the room.
Through the ringing and the sirens Anna heard another sound, someone screaming in the hall. She lurched through the doorway and tripped over Irene, who was crawling on her hands and knees, covered with plaster dust. Anna reached down and helped her friend to her feet.

Irene stared at her with blank eyes then pushed past her. “Justyn!” she screamed. “Oh my God, Justyn!”

They stumbled down the dark hallway to the bedroom at the top of the stairs. The door was split down the middle, hanging from the top hinge. Anna pushed it open and they stepped into the dust-filled room.

Her eyes began to clear and Anna squinted, trying to see through the haze. The small room was completely shattered with a gaping hole in the outside wall. On the left, where the bed had been, she spotted the ten-year-old boy lying still, face down under a pile of wood and plaster.

Irene shrieked and rushed to her son, clawing away at the rubble.
Anna knelt down beside her and they turned the limp boy onto his back. His eyes were closed and his breathing was shallow, blood oozed from a ragged gash on his forehead. Anna spotted a pillow amidst the rubble. She pulled off the pillowcase, shook out the dust and ripped it in half. As Irene held her son’s head, Anna wrapped the makeshift bandage around the wound, tying it tightly to stop the bleeding.

Irene looked up at her and started to say something when Justyn’s voice croaked, “Mama? What . . . ?” The boy flinched in pain, tears welling up in his eyes and Irene cradled him in her arms, rocking him back and forth.

Anna stood up and rubbed her eyes, burning and irritated from the thick dust.

She smelled something.

It was more than dust.


She reached down and grabbed Irene by the arm, yelling over the wailing siren, “We’ve got to get out of here!”

Irene looked up at her, clutching her son, not comprehending.

“The building’s on fire!” Anna screamed, pulling her friend to her feet. She hoisted the boy into Irene’s arms and pushed her out of the room.

The hallway was quickly filling with smoke as they scrambled down the stairs. By the time they reached the ground floor Anna’s eyes were burning and she could barely find her way through the foyer to the front door. She grabbed Irene’s arm, pulled open the heavy wooden door and they burst out, coughing and gagging into the humid pre-dawn air.


Mr. Jacobson's new novel about Poland and the war is entitled The Katyn Order and is also available from Amazon.

I encourage people to visit his website where he posts about Poland and World War II.