“What the heck did you just order?”
My husband tossed the cardboard mailing package on the kitchen counter, landing with a thud so loud that I jumped. It was indeed a heavy box. I turned the box to read the sender: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archives Department.
“Ah, it must be the Anthony Szymczak papers.”
Anthony “Tony” Syzmczak is my great uncle. I’m not sure if I ever met the man. Though we were both born in Milwaukee and share a December birth month, his was 63 Decembers earlier. He was the eldest of nine children. He didn’t have children of his own. He lived until age 95, dying of natural causes. He was widowed three times, and died only four months after his third wife’s passing.
When you research your family history, you hope to find colorful characters. In Tony Szymczak, I found a bit of a celebrity— at least in my home city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For 32 years, Tony hosted a daily Polish language radio show. He wrote for the Kuryer Polski, the first U.S. Polish-language daily newspaper. He was a frequent speaker for the Polish-American cause.
He had quite the audience. Between 1870 and 1920, 3.5 million Poles left their country for the U.S.; Milwaukee has long been considered the capital city of Polish America.
When Tony began his radio shows, television hadn’t been invented. World War I had long ended, but World War II hadn’t started. Poles worldwide were proud of their country’s independence. Sadly, it lasted only briefly (1918-1939).
Also remarkable was that Tony delivered his radio show in Polish. While it was the language of his Poland-born parents, as a student of Milwaukee public schools, his primary language was English.
I learned these things about Tony Szymczak through many late-night Google searches. When a search in 2014 referenced an Anthony Szymczak file in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee archives, I had to inquire. For a fee, the department would share the file. Naively, I thought they’d send the file electronically. Instead, I was staring at a large cardboard box on my kitchen counter.
I opened the box and started sorting through the stacks of paper. There were photocopies of typed pages in Polish, which I put aside. I sorted through photocopies of black and white photographs, invitations to award dinners, and biographies. I scanned, cropped, and posted them in my Ancestry.com family tree, noting any newly learned facts.
I felt like a child opening gifts at Christmas. It was another late night.
The next day, I went back to the stack of typed pages in Polish. Examining it more closely, I found a thick set of pages in English. They didn’t contain dates. They didn’t have page numbers. But I realized they were radio show transcripts.
I carried the papers to my couch, propped up my feet, placed the stack on my lap and read the first line.
“Just a week ago today, my wife and I were on our way back from Poland.”
I was about to embark on a 100+ page travelogue. I took a sip of water, and dug in.
I learned that Tony and his wife Rae spent five weeks in Poland during the summer of 1966; he spent the next year sharing stories from the trip with his listeners on a weekly radio segment.
On the trip, they visited “cathedrals, castles and other places of historical interest” as well as extended family. Though Poland was then under Soviet communist control, he noted changes in automobile traffic, the availability of retail goods, and fashion compared to his prior two visits in 1959 and 1961.
Peppered in Tony’s tales were historical context. With the exception of references to the Nazi occupation and destruction, his references to religious and political leaders from the Middle Ages, cities with names I couldn’t pronounce, and the Partitions of Poland went right over my head.
I found myself skimming and skipping. I looked for references to our relatives he might have visited. Where did they live? What did they do? However, I sensed that family visits were more with Rae’s relatives than his.
I wasn’t finding much. I put the stack of papers in a folder, and stored it in my closet.
Three years later in 2017, I traveled to Poland for the first time with my husband and mother. We visited multiple cities, visiting cathedrals, castles and other places of historical interest.
The most special part of our visit was meeting extended family from my mom’s side. They opened their homes and their hearts like they’ve known us all their life. To walk the land our great-grandparents walked was nothing short of incredible.
And through a variety of experiences over two weeks, I began to better understand key parts of Poland’s history. I saw the imprints of historical figures, and learned how to pronounce the names of Polish cities. I learned that the Partitions of Poland referred to years in the 18th and 19th centuries when Poland even ceased to even be a country.
On the plane back to the U.S., I turned to my husband. “I have to read the Anthony Szymczak papers again.”
The stack was in my closet where I left them. Suddenly, I was reading a whole new set of transcripts.
The difference was that this time I had context.
I had traveled to the places my great uncle traveled. I understood his historical references; his stories mirrored some of our own. After several consecutive “Oh my goodness, Bob, you have hear this” where I broke from my quiet to read my husband a passage out loud, we decided Bob needed to read the full set of transcripts on his own.
As I approached the end of the stack, one of the last weekly radio transcripts had a date at the top– June 11, 1967.
June 11, 1967. Exactly 50 years ago.
Unknowingly, I traveled to Poland, returning home to reflect and write about my experience exactly 50 years after my great uncle did the same.
Global experiences constantly change my perspective. It’s why I travel. I love connecting global people and ideas, and sharing my insights with others.
So did Tony Szymczak.
What specifically did I learn connecting my great uncle’s experience to my own?
Well, you’ll just have to stay tuned. Perhaps I’ll share more in upcoming weeks.
Because a blog is the 21st century version of a radio show.
For more on my Poland travel, see Forget Paris: Travel Guide Poland.