Ted Szmaj

Ted Szmaj’s father, Casimir, was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1928, to a Polish father and German mother.  His mother died when he was nine years old, and his father later remarried.  Casimir spent some time in Germany during his youth, in part because the border kept shifting, but also because he was conscripted into a German labor camp during World War II, after the Germans occupied Poland.  That was a difficult time.  The guards treated the young workers badly, but Ted believes that the experience also cemented his father’s commitment to his faith, as well as has love for music and sports and his appreciation for education.

He ended out pursuing education in engineering in Germany after the war, as part of a special program at the Politeknik in Stuttgard set up especially for Poles.  That inspired him to seek out further education, which at the time meant coming to the United States.  By 1951, he had secured a sponsor in Youngstown, though the family does not know who sponsored Casimir or how they knew each other.  While Polish Catholic churches in the U.S. were actively sponsoring immigrants during that period, Ted speculates that Casimir’s sponsor might have been someone he met through the Politeknik.

Casimir Szmaj came to Youngstown that year, and by 1952, he had started working at Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s Campbell Works, and he was able to arrange for his father, stepmother, brother, two half-brothers, and an adopted sister to join him.  He soon bought a house, on Lincoln Avenue.  He took English classes at St. Stanislaus church, and within a few years, he was able to enroll in Youngstown College, in part with the help of a scholarship from YS&T. That enabled him to leave his job at the steel mill and begin work as an engineer for McKay Engineering, which was later bought out by Wean, where he worked for most of his adult life.

Ted’s mother also emigrated from Poland to Youngstown in the early 1950s.  Her sister and niece were the first in the family to come, in 1952, but the rest of the family followed within a year.  She was 18 years old.  She worked at a variety of jobs before she married Casimir, including cleaning offices and as an elevator operator.  She probably met Casimir through the church, and they married in 1959.  At first, the young couple lived with their extended family and another married couple in the house on Lincoln Avenue, but before long they moved to the south side of Youngstown, to a home on Wilbur Avenue.  Their first child was born later that year, and the more followed over the next 15 years.  Tragically, like Casimir’s own mother, she died in 1983, when Ted was just 15.  Casimir never remarried.

Much of the family’s life centered around St. Stan’s, where Ted’s parents were both involved in the Polanie, a Polish singing and dancing ensemble.  The group rehearsed every week at Krakusy Hall, and they performed regularly in the local community.  A review of one of their performances in the Youngstown Vindicator described how the group re-enacted battlefield scenes from World War II, with “beautiful scenery and lighting effects.”  The Mayor of Cleveland in the early 70s complimented the group as “great Americans and good Poles.”

For Ted and his brothers and sister, that tradition also became part of their lives.  Ted sang and danced in a youth troupe until he was a teenager.  St. Stan’s church and school were central in their lives.  Ted attended the school from first grade through eighth grade, before going to Cardinal Mooney for high school.  Ted was an altar server, and he remembers the emotional impact of Polish songs performed during funerals and other masses at the church.  He remembers going to music and dance rehearsals on Thursdays at Krakusy Hall and hanging out there before and after.  The family also attended picnics at Shady Run, organized by Polish National Alliance.

Perhaps because of the presence of extended family from both parents’ sides, their lives were very family-centered.  They spent holidays together, and Ted remembers spending part of each summer working on a small farm that one of his uncles operated to provide the rest of the family with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Over the past few years, Youngstown’s Polish community has become more visible, largely through the efforts of Polish Youngstown, and Ted has helped with some of their events.  He also recently started singing with the Polanie group and in the church choir, a return to active engagement in that part of Polish life that he says is inspired, in part, by his memory of his father.

The growth of Polish Youngstown is especially important today, as the two local Polish churches are shrinking.  St. Casimir’s, in Brier Hill, which Ted describes as the church that was attended by more of the middle-class, white collar Poles in town, is slated to close, and its members are expected to join the congregation at St. Columba’s, the Cathedral of the Diocese of Youngstown.  St. Stan’s will remain open for the time being, though its population is also aging and shrinking.  Ted notes that the church holds a funeral about once a week, and he often assists as altar server.  Eventually, St. Stan’s will also likely fold into St. Columba’s.  The social and religious institutions that once were the centers of Polish life in Youngstown are closing, making the new organization that much more important.

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