In 1880, Poland was a divided land. Officially, the country of Poland no longer existed. The former Polish Kingdom was partitioned in three stages among Prussia/Germany, Austria, and Russian from 1772-1795. Poland, with its long national history and cultural heritage, became only an idea. The area that was southern Poland now belonged to Austria, while northern and western provinces were governed by the newly formed Germany. Central and eastern Poland was ruled by the Russian Empire.
Along the border between Germany and Russia, just fifteen miles into the new outline of Russia, lay a small village called Komorowo. The village was so small that it did not have its own church. Instead, residents traveled almost two miles away to the larger town of Dobrosołowo for their religious services. Dobrosołowo itself was hardly a large town; in 1827 it was reported as having only 19 houses and 194 residents. But the town had a parish church, Św. Jakóba (St. James), which served as the only parish for surrounding villages.
In this small Polish town or Komorowo on the new border of the Russian Empire, Józef Zawodny was born on January 26, 1880. His father, Wawrzyniec Zawodny, was a 27-year-old farm worker. Józef’s mother was Katarzyna Mariańska, also 27 years old and born in Komorowo. The couple had been married for almost five years before Józef’s birth. Józef was baptized at St. James in Dobrosołowo.
Little is known about Józef’s early life. He had at least two sisters and one brother. Parish registers record the birth of a sister, Aniela, on September 18, 1876, but no additional information is known. Research of the parish records is ongoing, but from U.S. record sources it was determined that Józef’s also had a brother, Stefan, and a sister Mary. By 1902, Józef had met a woman named Wacława Slesinska; he wanted to make her his wife.
Wacława was born on August 29, 1880 to 29-year-old Wincenty Slesinski (also spelled Ślesiński), a blacksmith, and 20-year-old Stanisława Drogowska. She was their first child; the couple had only been married for almost one year. Wacława was born in a larger town, Wilczyn, which was about thirteen miles from Dobrosołowo and less than a mile from the German border. Wilczyn was large enough to be considered an “urban” area with nearly 500 residents. Wacława was the oldest of eight children, and by the time the youngest was born in August, 1901, the Slesinski family was living in Komorowo and attending church at Dobrosołowo, the same towns as Józef.
Józef and Wacława wed on January 29, 1902, one day before Józef’s 22nd birthday. Years later their children would report that Wacława’s parents were very upset by this marriage. Whether they disapproved of Józef or the couple’s plan to immigrate to the United States is not known. But Józef told his children that Wacława’s parents never spoke to her again and letters home were returned unopened. Neither Józef nor Wacława would ever see their parents again. Józef’s father died in 1917; his mother in 1923. Wacława’s parents died two days apart – her mother on December 30, 1918 and her father on January 1, 1919.
On March 23, 1902, only two months after the wedding, Józef boarded the S.S. Graf Waldersee in Hamburg, Germany. He arrived in New York on April 6, 1902, with only the equivalent of $2 in his pockets. His sister Mary’s husband, Piotr Szymanski, met him in New York at Ellis Island. Piotr (Peter) and Mary Szymanski lived at 2830 Ann Street in a neighborhood of Philadelphia known as Port Richmond. While Józef and Wacława would live in many houses over the years, the neighborhood of Port Richmond was always their home.
The Port Richmond section of Philadelphia is an area along the Delaware River that was not only an industrial area, but also had streets with rows of houses for those employed in the various factories. It was, and remains, a “blue collar” neighborhood. At the time, it was a mix of ethnicities including Irish, German, and Polish. The mix is most evident by a lasting landmark on the neighborhood’s primary east-west thoroughfare, Allegheny Avenue – three large Catholic churches were built within a quarter mile. Nativity of the B.V.M. was the first church established in 1882; though built for the German community, it became known as the Irish church. The Germans built their church next, Our Lady Help of Christians, which was finished in 1905. The Polish community’s church, St. Adalbert’s, was founded in 1904 although the building itself was not completed until 1909.
Józef was living with the Szymanski’s in July 1903 when Wacława arrived in the United States. She traveled on the S.S. Westernland from Antwerp, Belgium, which went directly to the Port of Philadelphia.
When Wacława arrived, the couple had been married for eighteen months but had only been together for two. They settled down to raise a family together – a family of American children christened with Polish names living in a Polish section of an American city. In their Polish community, Józef and Wacława’s names remained the same. To Americans, Józef used the English spelling of his name, Joseph. The name Wacława does not have a direct translation into English, so she became known as Laura.
Joseph and Laura began their family almost immediately. Nearly one year after she joined her husband in Philadelphia, their first child was born, a girl, on July 9, 1904. Her name was Janina; later she would be known as “Jennie”, “Jen”, or “Jane”.
The family grew quickly. Following Jen’s birth were Helena (Helen) on October 30, 1905, Marianna (known as Mary or Mae) on August 3, 1907, and Stanisław (Stanley) on May 8, 1909. By 1910, the growing Zawodny family lived at 2826 Livingston Street. Another son was born on February 1, 1911, Kazimierz (known as Charley), followed by Bolesław (William) on August 4, 1912.
Tragedy would befall the family for the next few years. On March 8, 1913, Bolesław died from acute gastroenteritis – the stomach flu. He was only seven months old. The burial took place at the nearby St. Peter’s Cemetery.
Another son was born on January 18, 1914, Władisław (Walter). He would also have a short life, dying on March 27, 1915 at the age of 14 months. The cause of death was enteritis and a gum infection from teething complications. He was buried with his brother in St. Peter’s.
Sometime between the two deaths, the family moved to 2618 E. Birch Street. It was there that their last child was born on January 13, 1916, a daughter named Zofia (known as Dorothy).
Joseph supported his large family by working as a boilermaker. He also worked as a file maker for G.H. Barnett Company on Frankford Avenue at Richmond Street.
After Laura’s parents died in 1919, her younger sisters all immigrated to the U.S. Józefa (Josephine), Marianna (Mary), Janina (Jane), and Zofia (Sophie) all moved to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and Laura visited them on occasion.
By 1922, the Zawodny family was living at 2650 E. Birch Street, just down the street from their previous home. On February 20, 1922, Joseph declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen. He entered his Petition for Naturalization on April 26, 1926 and it was finalized on January 7, 1927. Joseph and his wife were now naturalized citizens of the United States.
By 1930, the family had moved to 2512 E. Indiana Street. As with their previous residences, it was within the same Port Richmond neighborhood of Polish immigrants in Philadelphia. Although Laura did not attend church services, Joseph was very active in St. Adalbert’s. His children were baptized at the church, and with most of the children he followed the Polish tradition of naming the child after the “saint’s day” in the Catholic calendar. In 1929, Joseph was even the president of one of the charitable societies at St. Adalbert’s.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Joseph and Laura’s adult children got married and began families of their own. The first to be married was the second oldest child, Helen. In 1923 at the age of 17, she married John Tiernan, a 22-year-old plumber. The next wedding took place in 1925 as the eldest, Jane, married Sigmund E. Galecki at St. Adalbert’s Church. Younger sister Mae served as her maid of honor.
Next to be married was Mae, who married Henry M. Pater on February 1, 1930. Henry and his family lived on the same street as the Zawodny’s — the Pater’s were at 2506 E. Indiana Ave. while the Zawodny’s were at 2512. Henry was only 17, five years younger than Mae, so the couple married in Media, PA where he would not need his parents’ permission. They later had the marriage blessed at Joseph’s Zawodny’s insistence. The blessing took place at St. Adalbert’s in June of the same year.
In 1934, Stanley married Elizabeth Tiernan, the sister of his brother-in-law, John. Next, Charley married Frances Adamczek, who was the daughter of his father’s best friend. Finally, Dorothy married Bennet Rozet.
By 1938, Joseph and Laura lived at 3553 Mercer Street. But Laura was not well. On December 6th of that year, she was admitted to Philadelphia State Hospital, known as Byberry. Her diagnosis was “dementia praecox”, or schizophrenia. Joseph made the long journey to Northeast Philadelphia to visit her on a regular basis, but she would never again return home to live with him.
After Laura was hospitalized, their daughter Mae moved in with her husband Henry and their two young daughters – 6-year-old Joan and 3-year-old Anita. They would live with him until his death. Joseph occasionally argued with his daughter over running the household, but he enjoyed having his granddaughters with him. He especially enjoyed dressing up in their “Sunday best” to visit friends and relatives. Unfortunately for the girls, this meant walking long distances in uncomfortable shoes. But their aunts provided welcome moleskin when they reached their destinations.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Joseph fell ill with pneumonia and pleurisy. He died three days later on June 9 and was buried in New Cathedral Cemetery. He shares his resting place with his wife Laura, who lived until May 20, 1956, as well as his daughter Helen, her husband, their young son, and in-laws.
Four of the six Zawodny children lived into their 70s. One, Charley, died at 58. Dorothy is still living and is now 92 years old. Joseph and Laura Zawodny had seventeen grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.
[See Part 1 for my "original" biographical sketch of my great-grandfather written in 1980. This sketch, Part 2, is based on documented sources. All source information is available upon request. As an endnote, the factual story ends as noted above, however, there is considerable speculation after a mysterious visitor identified himself as the "real" Joseph Zawodny after my great-grandfather's death. See Part 1 for details on the myth. However, if you find this page because you are also descended from a Joseph Zawodny, and you grew up hearing about a man who stole your ancestor's name, contact me!]