Meet our Grandfathers, a Guest Blog by Karen Bjornland
Originally published in The Daily Gazette, The (Schenectady, NY) - June 19, 2011
From Poland to Buffalo
If you ever travel to Poland, there's a good chance you'll meet a Kaczmarek.
Pronounced "kotch-MA-reck," the name comes from the word for "innkeeper," and it's a common one, especially in west central Poland.
In this country, with 10 million Polish Americans, you'll encounter quite a few, too.
There's actress Jane Kaczmarek from "Malcolm in the Middle," and the new CBS show "The Defenders" has a fictional character named Pete Kaczmarek. And how could we forget Gregory Kaczmarek, the former Schenectady police chief who got in trouble with drugs?
Say "Kaczmarek" in my family and you'll hear some stories, although details have grown fuzzy over time.
My grandfather, Roman Kaczmarek, was born in 1885, reportedly in Warsaw. When he was a boy, his mother died and his father abandoned him.
Roman decided to try his luck in America. He sneaked onto a ship as a stowaway and crossed the Atlantic, a voyage that could take more than a week at the turn of the 20th century.
When the ship docked in Texas, Roman hopped off and entered the United States illegally.
From Texas, the young man who spoke no English somehow made his way to Buffalo, where he had an uncle who was running a meat business.
"My father slept on the floor in the room where they smoked the hams," my 79-year-old mother recalls. "He had to watch the hams. That's how he started in the meat business."
Roman became a butcher. He learned to make sausage and cut the carcasses of pigs and cows into chops, steaks and roasts.
By the late 1920s, when he was in his early 40s, Roman had his own business: Kaczmarek Meats, Stand No. 29, at Buffalo's Broadway Market, where vendors sold vegetables, baked goods, meat and chocolates under one roof.
After Roman's first wife died, he married Wladyslawa, a young woman who had legally emigrated from Poland when she was 3 years old.
Wladyslawa, also known as "Gladys," learned the butcher's trade, too, and for years the couple worked side by side, clad in white aprons, peddling beef, pork, veal and sausages to their Polish-speaking customers.
In less than 25 years, a homeless, illegal orphan from Poland had become a naturalized American citizen and a prosperous, well-respected businessman with a beautiful home in one of the nicest neighborhoods of the city.
In 1947, when Roman was 62, he died of cancer. My mother, Dorothy, was 14, and her sister, Genevieve, was 21. My grandmother ran the meat market for a few years, and then my uncle Henry, Genevieve's husband, kept it going for 35 more years.
"At one time, we were the oldest name on the market," my 88-year-old uncle says.
I was born in 1955, so I never knew my Polish grandfather.
But once in a while, when I go back to Buffalo, I take a trip to the 113-year-old Broadway Market, where another Polish family still sells meat at Stand 29.
I always look for the oldest person behind the old-fashioned white metal counter, stocked with kielbasa and pork chops.
"My grandfather and grandmother were 'Kaczmarek.' They used to sell meat here," I tell the woman behind the counter, taking care to offer my best Polish pronunciation.
"Kaczmarek. Yes, we remember Kaczmarek," she says. "That was a long time ago."
-- Karen Bjornland, granddaughter of Roman Kaczmarek
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