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For Joseph Zalewski, life on a Polish farm near the Russian border was filled with swimming holes, and the sounds of WWII bombs dropping on Warsaw. When he was 18, he was deported with his family to a Siberian work camp. Liberation came two years later, when Dziadek—as he was known—enlisted in the Polish Army 2nd Corp. The military released him from one dark place, but set him into another: the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, with over 20,000 deaths. He didn’t see his mother or twin sister again for 20 years.
But war also brought him his wife of over half a century: a Polish-American, sending care packages from Massachusetts to Polish soldiers. His bunk-mate wasn’t interested in socks and handkerchiefs, so Dziadek wrote her back. Years later, after he’d learned English, his four daughters knew when an argument was brewing, because their parents would suddenly switch back to speaking Polish. One daughter, raised on episodes of "I Love Lucy," thought they were Cuban and speaking Spanish.
Dziadek could replace car brakes or a water boiler, sink a well in the backyard, and into his 80s, crawl under a house to fix pipes. Eventually, he turned his gifted hands and mechanical mind to television repair. His wife sat in the station wagon while he made calls; raising antennae, clambering around on high roofs, close to the sky.
Space fascinated him. He read the Planetary Society Magazine, and watched every shuttle launch. He recorded the 1969 moon landing on reel-to-reel, and loved "Star Trek," because explosions were visually dramatic but soundless, just like in real space.
After his early trauma, Dziadek became a man of habits. He ate the same breakfast—English muffin with bitter marmalade and a slice of Land O' Lakes White American Cheese—and stirred his coffee the same number of times.
But he knew how to loosen up, too; everyone wanted to dance with him at weddings. Dziadek rejoiced that he could send each of his daughters to college and teach them how to replace toilets; he rejoiced to see the end of communist rule in Poland. Joseph Zalewski was 90 years old when he died in Peabody on Aug. 27, and all his life, he’d been amazed to be alive.
Did you know Joseph Zalewski? Share your memories in the comments section.
This segment aired on October 13, 2015.
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