The Polish in me

The Bialczaks on vacation in the Catskills, early 1970s. I must be taking the picture.

The Bialczaks on vacation in the Catskills, early 1970s. I must be taking the picture.

I look at my father’s face in this photo and I’m struck with two lightning bolts of memory.

Frank is happy.

Frank is happy because he’s once again brought his family to the tiny Polish resort in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.

I’m fairly certain I’m the one taking the photo. I think this may be the last of the couple-year stretch in which my father would load us three kids and mom Dolores into his wood-paneled station wagon and off Long Island, over the George Washington Bridge, up the Palisades Parkway and on toward that point exotic.

I wish I could pin down the name of the resort. Somewhere from the back of my memory I have come up with Valley View. I believe that was tagged behind a Polish surname that began with a B.

I have Googled many combinations thereof and come up empty.

I know it hired bands that played polkas at night. The restaurant served Polish foods. (The last year I had a bit of a crush on our waitress. Her real name was Joan, and her nickname was Pookie. I was 14 and she was 16. On a break between lunch and dinners services one afternoon, she swam over and splashed me in the pool, and I blushed. I can remember all that.)

Frank Bialczak was in his glory because of these Polish ties. He was a Baby Boomer American, born in Brooklyn, parents born in Brooklyn, but raised in a neighborhood where you might as well have been back in Warsaw.

Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was called “the end of the pickle” because it lied next to the East River, at one end of the body of land that started across from Manhattan and stretched all the way out to Montauk Point of the fishermen’s Long Island. I thought it was in honor of the Polish dills you could get in every corner market and behind every neighborhood bar. From the many bakeries wafted the sweet smell of punchki, the Polish donut with prune filling.

I lived there until age 5. Our Catholic Church was St. Stan’s. That was short for St. Stanislaus. To get out of Greenpoint, a car had to cross the Kosciuszko Bridge. It was named after Tadeusz Koscisuzsko, a military hero who led Polish and Lithuanian troops against Russia in Europe, and then helped American troops in the Revolutionary War. Car radio reports about traffic always spoke of the Koz-key-az-ko Bridge. In Greenpoint, it was the Kaz-chis-ko Bridge.

I remember my great-grandmother, Rose, calling me by my Polish name only, Marek. She was born in Poland, spoke some English, and hugged me an awful lot. It must have been her maternal instinct. Frank’s mother, my Babci, was one of 10 of Rose’s sons and daughters, all first-generation Americans. His father, my Pop Pop Frank, was born here, but both of his parents were also born in Poland.

My grandmother on my mother’s side, my Nana, also was born in Poland, but she called my Mark and did not like to talk about her life before moving to America. Dolores’ father, my Pop Pop George, was an American of German descent.

My father clung to that Polish heritage. He loved to eat borscht, the purple beet soup, listen to the jumping polka music, hang out with his Polish friends from Greenpoint.

Babci taught my mother how to make homemade pierogi by rolling the dough and mixing the farmer’s cheese and potato filling, how long to boil the fresh kielbasa, how to bake it in the oven with the sauerkraut and onions.

So we ate Polish.

On Saturday mornings, Frank would fiddle with the FM dial until he found the weekly polka show hosted by his friend from Greenpoint, fellow musician Eddie D. That would be Eddie Dmuchowksi to the Greenpoint crowd. Hell, Frank would spin the Eddie D records between Chicago and Frank Sinatra and Chuck Mangione and Fifth Dimension and Trini Lopez and Herb Alpert. Eclectic playlist in our house, it was. On certain weekends, I’d load Frank’s drum set into that wood-paneled station wagon and he’d go play polkas and songs from those other folks at wedding receptions.

So those weeks at the Polish place in the Catskills were a dream come true for Frank, a throwback.

A last gasp, really.

You see, we didn’t speak Polish at home, at all.

When Frank signed me up for a month of accordion lessons, they didn’t take.

The visits with those old friends from Greenpoint were farther and farther apart.

Nobody in my family that was born here, to my knowledge, has ever gone back to visit Poland.

And for me, now, it’s just the food, a trip to hear Fritz’s Polka Band and my friend Fritz Scherz at the Polish Festival downtown, a play of FPB’s “Bialczak’s Polka” on my CD player when I’m feeling particularly wistful.

I remember that my name in Polish is Marek. A few other words I recall, but they do not creep into my vocabulary.

I’m proud that I’m a Polish American. But I have, say, a quarter of Frank’s drive to preserve it.

My wonderful daughter Elisabeth makes trips to Utica to buy me fresh kielbasa for the holidays. She knows how I love to cook my version of the special Polish meals. Yet I do not really spot her eating it these days. I know I have told her the tale of how Fritz and his dear dad, Fred Scherz, God rest his soul, composed “Bialczak’s Polka” because they liked the story of the music writer from the big daily whose father played drums in a polka band. I sent that CD down to Frank before he passed, and heard the smile in his voice when he called to say thank you. (Fred Scherz, by the way, was proudly Swiss.)

I do believe that her mother’s side lovingly jokes about Elisabeth being a “Polish Princess.” That’s something.

There are pockets of Polish heritage visible in Syracuse, too, around Sacred Heart Church. A social club stands proudly there on the west side, and Klub Polski is on the east side. I eat at several Polish restaurants, but that’s not really doing anything but eating Polish food.

I do not yearn to search for more reminders or connections.

Is that the way with many third- or fourth-generation Americans, I wonder?

Is there enough Polish in this Polish-American?

How much of your family heritage do you carry in your traditions today? Do you speak the language of your family origin? Have you ever gone to visit the country of your family’s origin?

68 thoughts on “The Polish in me

    • It indeed felt very good to get this out into the world, Ross. Thank you for taking the time for reading it, and for your kind words. The writing did help me pull the rope back in a little bit.

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  1. Here’s an early chapter in “The Blind Pig Found An Acorn.” This Catskills chapter reads like the male version of “Dirty Dancing” to those who’ve never experienced the Catskills. Well, Mark, this can’t be scanned lightly. This is a “meat and potatoes” post that I may just have to print out to glean everything from it. I think in the US we are at a period where these ties to the old world are fading. It raises myriad questions: what is your identity? Is it blood? Is it birthplace? What about adoption?

    Half of me is Scotch-Irish, and I have no connection to that, no relatives that can share that culture. All are long gone. My father’s parents are also passed, but they left Cuba after Castro took over, so there was an enormous sense of loss they carried, not just of a home, a medical career, cars, all possessions, but of friendships and the very idea of home. What should have been a temporary exile was a forever exile. As you say, there are pieces you pick up as a child, even if you don’t learn the language–the familiarity of the cadence, their accents when speaking English, Christmas traditions, a connection to another country you’ve never visited.

    I don’t think you owe it to Poland to be a proud Polish son; your life is your choice. But even if you can’t carry that Polish identity down to your kids/grandkids, just typing this and handing it to them will provide future generations with a sense of what you experienced in your childhood. I know that it doesn’t seem like a grand gesture to “not really be doing anything but eating Polish food,” but as I’ve seen on countless Andrew Zimmern and haughty Anthony Bourdain shows, food is what connects people. Breaking bread is never just breaking bread.

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    • You have savored the acorn indeed, Kerbey.

      These thoughts hit me particularly hard with my old family photos, too, because the older generation has all passed, and it is up to me now to pass this heritage along, if, and how I chose.

      Weighty responsibility not to the ethnicity, but to the future generations to at least have a glimpse at it.

      Thank you for sharing your two sides of the heritage coins. There are so many that make up America. I think those that were forced to flee have passionate ties for many reasons.

      And you are right, food is a powerful social connector.

      Thanks for taking today’s chapter to such a depth, Kerbey.

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  2. For some reason, I’m hungry now. πŸ™‚ I really enjoyed this story about your family Mark. I’m assuming the photo was taken in the 70s, weren’t the clothes just awesome then?

    I am first generation Canadian. My parents grew up in Berlin, Germany. German was my first language and I learned English in school. Some traditions I keep are: celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve and one of my fave meals is rouladen, rot kohl, und kartoffeln.
    Diana xo

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    • Wow, as first generation Canadian, Diana, I would believe your challenge is blending the German and Canadian customs and cultures to find the most pleasing of the two. That sounds like it can present further personal puzzles down the line for Micheala and future generations.

      Yes, the clothes back then were the bomb, weren’t they?

      Thanks for sharing your past on my story about mine.

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  3. Beautifully written! Being a huge family history buff I would love to travel to the places of my family’s origin. It is a dream of mine. It is nice that your family retained it’s heritage and passed that along to you. I was born in Staten Island NY, with British, Irish and Italian ancestory, and have very little connection to it especially my Italian heritage. Most I have learned about my family is from doing my own research.

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    • Thanks for coming by! Our birth places were in the boroughs on NYC, so we are simpatico from the start right there. I do feel fortunate that I had that start about my Polish heritage. My sister has continued chasing more links through the Internet since the entire elder generation has passed, and has found it frustrating. Good luck to you, Upcycle Mom, and I hope you get to take that trip.

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  4. My dad was half Polish. His dad was a pilot in WW2 who came over to London where he met my grandmother. I believe he died during the war before my father was born. I dont even know if they were married. I dont know much more thsn that. I know more about ancient Irish history than I do about a few generations ago of my own family…thats quite shocking, really!

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    • I wonder if the family history will start to interest you more over time, Ali. I think my advancement to the oldest generation in the family tree has something to do with me writing this story today, wondering about my involvement with the heritage. Thanks for stopping by, and by the way, you do well writing about that Irish connection over at your blog.

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      • Well it does Mark, but Im not quite ready to go there yet. You know what families are like, too many skeletons in closets…(well not literally, but you know what I mean!). On the other hand, time is running out for the older generations who can answer all the questions. Some times its easier to let things lie…but Im just so damn curious! Apparrantly I also have an Irish great grandfather I never knew about until I moved to Ireland 12 years ago! I know nothing at all about him!!! I really enjoyed this post. I know you were talking about your dad, but I thought it said a lot about you. I liked that. As I did the one about your mother in law.

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      • Thank you, Ali. I get a lot out of writing these personal posts very much.

        I assume you feel the same way when you write about your baby Carys. I can tell by reading them, so I needn’t really ask.

        Remember while being cautious with the older generation that time can be stolen from us more quickly than we think.

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  5. Hi Mark. I’m a Canadian with a mix of Irish/British/Scottish – most from many generations back. My Mum has lately become interested in the family heritage and has visited County Cork in Ireland to trace birth records in very old churches.I was never introduced to any of my family heritage as it seemed that they struggled to put it behind and become just Canadian. In the early 1900’s immigrants were considered to be a lower class and many would work to put their heritage behind them and try to blend in with their new home country. Nowdays heritage is more treasured and cherished. I honestly would like to know more about my roots – most of which are lost and buried in time.

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    • It is a shame that immigrants were made to feel that in order to be accepted by the new, they had to forgo the old.

      I think there is still a certain amount of those kind of pressures today, too, coming from within the youngest generation of people that arrive in the new land who want to fit in very much with the new surroundings.

      Let me know if you happen to find any interesting tales as your mum investigates the family heritage.

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment.

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  6. Great piece Mark. My family’s heritage is a mixture of German and English, but both my mom and dad’s families had been here for so long that we felt zero influence of ethnicity growing up. But my wife and her family moved to America from Poland in 1984. So now I am living the immigrant/ethnicity experience through them. I can understand some conversational Polish, speak haltingly–and believe me: the food I understand! I think you are right–the closer you are to family that has connection to the old country, the stronger the the identity. American cultural assimilation is relentless. They call it the melting pot for a reason. The Germans used to be the strongest ethnic group in Syracuse. My father showed me a savings account register distributed on the Northside by the old Syracuse Savings Bank, printed bi-lingually in German and English. There were scores of small German restaurants and breweries for beer. They are all gone. The German presence on the Northside is completely gone. I’m thinking that this is an inexorable process.

    But new waves of new immigrants land in Syracuse all the time. I guess the key is to remain open to other cultures and honor your passing allegiances, if only in your memories. PS: Pulaski Meat Market in Utica is the bomb!

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    • It intrigues me that your wife and family moved here from Poland with her family in 1984, Phil. I would like to meet her someday. Perhaps the four of us can rendezvous in Clinton Square to share plates of food and listen to music during Polish Festival this year?

      I remember eating in Webers on the North Side, Court Street, when I moved to Syracuse in 1983, and loving the German restaurant representing that quarter of my ancestry. I was dismayed when it was shuttered.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, Utica has great Polish butchers!

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  7. I am native american and irish, since I am already here I can mark that one off, but I do dream that one day I will be able to travel to Ireland, as does my husband, who is Irish American and was the first one of his family born here.

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      • Yes definitely, our 19 year old and 10 year old are both very interested in their heritage. Since they are more irish than native american, they really gravitate toward anything Irish.

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      • The Native American side is extremely interesting to me. Living in Syracuse, I have many Native American friends, Onondagas, Oneida, Mohawks … This is Iroquois Confederacy territory. The Onondaga Nation is about 10 miles from my house.

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      • That is really cool, I remember my grandmother who was indian, would always fuss at us kids and say we were wasteful, and how indians aren’t supposed to be wasteful. I got so tired of hearing that, but she passed away about 7 years ago and now I miss hearing her fuss at me.

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  8. Oh, I could go on and on in this comment section, but I will hold back a bit.

    Many cultures and heritages are very similar. All of them, no matter where you come from, coincide. Being half Italian, I can definitely relate. As you described the location of Brooklyn, household and the cultural dynamic, it was easily related. Upon remembering and recalling, the certain smells of the food and living come back to you so easily, as if you were living back in the moment.

    It’s important to embrace one’s culture, and to keep it going. At times, I realize my heritage slipping away due to my being third-generation-American, my grandparents being deceased. When I went to Italy in 2009, my perspective changed greatly to the point where I am almost bitter about not experiencing the old and European vibe on a regular basis. It’s something to be desired, to define oneself, and it helps you stand out positively.

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    • I am glad and a bit envious that you had the chance to taste the origins back in Italy, Chris. It sounds as if that will help you hold on to those Italian traditions, tightly and proudly, my friend!

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  9. this is a fantastic post mark. let’s just begin with the picture. it is a perfect shot of the times and i remember those purses so well and dad’s snappy suit and everyone trying to stand so still for the picture. i think the resort memory is amazing and the family roots coming emerging throughout the years. and the image of marek on accordion – priceless.

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    • I was eager to learn but unable to master the art of reading music, Beth. It happened on various instruments. The transfer from charts to brain to fingers just did not happen for Marek.

      Thanks for enjoying this period piece. You were likely experiencing similar learning curves in Michigan!

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  10. Mark, you touched on a very important (and fading) part of all of our non-native histories in this country. What a memorable and nice tribute by Fritz, to name a polka in your family’s honor. Very cool. You also brought back many memories of my upbringing near the very Irish section of Syracuse, Tipperary Hill, which was basically next door to (or surrounded by) the Polish section. Most of my brother’s friends, and several of mine, were Polish — Kubacki, Wojenski, Burzynski, Kocunik, Prybylski, Kiedyk, Dabrowski, Baraniewicz, et al. I actually learned some Polish in my wayward youth, including “piva,” which I think means beer. I’m not sure if I have that right, but it was close enough to go under my high school yearbook picture! I got away with it because no one knew what it meant.

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    • It is just right and proper that Tipp HIll and Sacred Heart by next to each other, to allow the boys of Ireland and Poland to run together and share the kielbasa and corned beef and various beers and ales.

      I never once heard in my youth a cross word between my father and any of his Irish friends, and he had plenty.

      Thanks, Jim.

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  11. I’m sure there’s more Polish in you than you think. We tend to visit our past more often as we slow down. Well that’s been the case for me. I have crossed the Koscisuzsko bridge hundreds of times and never realize or thought of where the name came from.

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  12. I love watching ‘who do you think you are?’ and this is the beginning of your version. I have so many questions – your two great grandmothers – when did they leave Poland and why did they leave? Do you ever wonder what would have happened if they hadn’t left? So fascinating to read this family history that made you – you.
    Sorry for the nosy questions – it’s just a fascinating past that you have. I feel sort of proud of your dad efforts to keep his Polish self alive in a different culture.

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    • I think war time and oppression were part of the equation of leaving for the old families, Rachel.

      If they hadn’t of left, I would not be here today. Plain and simple.

      That is why family history looms so large over all of us!

      Thanks, my friend. Yes, my father worked hard to keep us aware of our heritage.

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      • They must have been brave and armed with hope to leave so much behind them and go to the New world. I have a lot of respect for the people who did that – often I guess they didn’t benefit as much from the upheaval as their descendants.
        I’d like to think that you’d get to visit Poland one day.

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      • Maybe, Rachel. I received an invitation already today on one of my other social media pages from a Syracuse group that is planning a trip there in 2015 to attend a planning meeting!

        Liked by 1 person

  13. My family could not be more Americanized in every way except the names. No food, no customs. no family heirlooms. It’s weird.

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      • Well, on my mother’s side I get it because I am Jewish and everyone in my family in Europe died during the war. I guess all my cool heirlooms are being enjoyed by someone. Or maybe they were all destroyed. But on my father’s side…who the hell knows what is up with those people.

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      • That’s okay. I am pretty used to it by now. The one thing I do have is an amazing oak dining room set built by my great grandfather for my great grandmother. I’ll take it. Plus, when my parents die I’ll get a bunch of their stuff.

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  14. Mark, this is fabulous! I love your stories about family.

    I have been to IReland four times. I could live there and it wouldn’t be enough time there. I don’t speak the language. But we have noticed when I am there that I start to sound more Irish. And though I don’t speak it, I have without actually understanding the words, known what people who were speaking Irish around me, were saying. I think it was a throw back to my soul having been there before. I swear.

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    • I know of your love for Ireland, Colleen, and I believe that your soul has lived their previously and knows the language.

      When my Polish relatives spoke Polish, or had a Polish language radio station on, I knew none of my previous souls had resided in Poland. I only picked up a word here and there along the way. The rest, nothing.

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      • You make me chuckle Mark. Perhaps your soul was galavanting around other countries. I feel very good when I’m “hearing” Irish. It really sounds comfortable in my head.

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  15. First of all I need to get my hands on some Polish food. Danish, especially. Yum!

    I enjoyed smells and laughter on this walk with you, Mark. You tell a fine story. I couldn’t help but think of the movie Dirty Dancing while reading. The resort feel, fun music, cute wait staff. You had it all. Not near enough Polish in your life, Mark.
    Poland suits you.

    My mother is a Scottish woman with the maiden name Wallace. Yes, I think we’ve blocked any history we have out.

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  16. I got nothin’. Can I please borrow some of your exciting family history? πŸ˜€ I wish you could find the name of the place. That’s always frustrating when that happens. The end of the pickle just sounds funny. The pierogies sounds delicious! The prune donuts, not so much. Awesome story! πŸ˜€

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  17. Dear friend, you have inspired so many with this personal post reflecting on family ties. Look at all these warm comments! I’m so glad you are sharing those great photos from way back. When did the Mexican side of the family join in the polka? Frank and Dolores Bieldez look so happy here. Xoxo

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  18. These are great memories. I hope you will continue to enjoy the rich yummy Polish food forever. It is always fantastic – and important – to tell family stories to the kids.

    The problem with keeping the traditions is that the traditions change in the country itself. Poland might not be exactly how the older generations remember. The country went through the Communist-time and are now part of the EU. It would definitely be interesting to visit Poland and compare it to the stories who have heard. Even I would assume the food has not changed much πŸ˜‰

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  19. I’m a pretty well-assimilated mutt. Italian is prominent, little of the food, little of the language, a lot of the temperament, none of the religion πŸ˜‰ But then strong Dutch on that side as well, and some Seminole on the other — somewhere in there is a Melungeon mystery and I’ve been told if I go far enough back, there’s Irish and German as well. But Bennett is a Norman name, yeah?
    Since The Mister, who is also pretty much a mutt — Welsh, German, French, Cherokee — our kids are truly mutts. They’re the most American-American Millennials ever, lol! Imagine what their grandkids will be like?
    Of course, we are all related and we are so pleased by all the interesting cultural exchanges, especially the food πŸ˜‰

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  20. I enjoyed your story and will comment even though it is a post from last year.

    My heritage is very mixed. Some of it is speculative as not everyone left stories to tell. My maiden name is English and my grandmother who I never knew was German. That is on the male parent’s side of the family.
    On my mom’s side, her grandpa came from Sicily as a child through Ellis Island. His wife was English and her family came here soon after that.
    My Sicilian great-grandfather, when he became an adult, nicknamed himself ‘Kelly’ to appear Irish instead of Italian. I find this very telling. I’ve heard Irish say that they weren’t treated well at all when they moved here. But maybe the Italians brought with them their own troubles. I always thought that was odd he did that. He was a fine man and a musician that played for one of John Phillips Sousa’s bands, yet he did not call himself by his own name. My great-grandma called him Kelly for the rest of her days. I have a second cousin that has done some genealogy for our family and he said that they changed their surname when they arrived here also, but to another Italian name. He said there were rumors of something nefarious in their background but there is no proof of that.

    Now, I’m hungry for kielbasa.

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    • I’m sad that your Sicilian great-grandfather thought he had to cloak his heritage in an Irish name, Rose. Oh, tough times, I think.

      I hope you had some kielbasa. I’d serve you some. I’m proud, as you can tell.

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  21. My family also went to Valley View House when I was a kid in the late 60s and early 70s. We are half Polish and spent a few summers there. I was just talking about it today and decided to look it up and found this article.

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