Francis J. Smaka and Beth Smaka

Recorded July 24, 2007 Archived July 24, 2007 48:14 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: MBY003038


Frank Smaka tells his daughter Beth about leaving Poland to come to America as a kid, about his family’s history, adjusting to life in America, and how he met Beth’s mother.

Subject Log / Time Code

Being born under German occupation of Poland
Watching his mother and sisters fade into the distance as he was driven away to go to America
Arriving in New York City, staying overnight on the boat, watching the skyline light up, and the celebrations on the boat.
Joyous mayhem on the boat, with everyone celebrating having arrived in America.


  • Francis J. Smaka
  • Beth Smaka

Recording Location

MobileBooth West


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00:03 My name is Beth. Maacah. I'm 38 years old. Today is July 24th, 2007 where in Butte Montana with the storycorps mobile unit, and I'm about to interview my father Frank smaka.

00:18 And my name is Francis. Jason Walker people call me Frank. I am 66 years of age. Today is Tuesday, July 24th 2007.

00:31 Can't wait to see my daughter and her kids and her husband in Butte Montana and course, but this my daughter.

00:43 So I have a lot of questions for your dad, but one of the things I wanted to talk about first was just when you came to America from Poland and I was hoping that you would just kind of talk a little bit about what year it was the village that you lived in in Poland what it kind of felt like two.

01:07 Know that that trip is coming up. And of course what is always resonated in my heart is how it felt to like leave your mom and your sisters go with your dad to America. God just kind of talk about that a little boy. I was born in a small town October 21st 1940, which was in polling. It's the whiskey Paul and it was right after World War started and so at that time pulling was occupied by the German the German Army. I don't remember too much of my formative years. I obviously was quite traumatic.

01:47 The few recollection is that I have a one-night a bomb almost hit our house when they playing in the hole at the bottom with me. I don't remember any other fighting. I guess. I was just too young to understand what was going on. I remember getting bit by a dog. I was coming home from my grandmother's I had been over there and she had fried me up some bacon bits and I ate those and I was going home.

02:24 And this cute little black and white dog was in the little Courtyard by our house.

02:31 I went over to pet it and I spent all my God. So my father had to local blacksmith actually killed the dock. So my dad had to take me to the doctors and luckily the German doctor in town of wood station with the syrup. You know that the Army had the stuff necessary to give me the shot every day in my stomach and my mother the only way I would go as if she made me a boiled egg every day. I don't know. I think I should just didn't want to go so I didn't want to go just threw me over his shoulder took me cuz it was either that or you're not die but

03:31 That's from Poland. I think it was fun.

03:37 As far as coming here.

03:40 The major the most Vivid recollection I can have is if you can Envision the back of a truck with a canvas top like one of your army trucks and they put it in that and I was looking through the sound almost like a tunnel that my mother standing there with my two younger sisters and your grandma and Irene self. My father traumatic for me. Apparently, I bawled my head off so quite a while and you know, it's the story really actually begins with my dad and my grandfather. Both of us Maca pool.

04:31 He like my grandfather boleslav immigrated to this country from Poland from a little town called you get the 1911 came here. I found this out on either. Very recently. As a matter of fact came here on the USS Grant Ulysses S Grant on July 4th 1911.

04:57 I settled in Utica New York where apparently he had some brothers that had come here previously.

05:05 And met another immigrant.

05:09 By the name of Magdalena Lehman, that was my grandmother in it and they got married and Utica New York. My father was born in Utica New York. They then went to swoyersville, Pennsylvania where he worked in the mines and she ran a boarding house. The crazy thing was after World War 1

05:32 1910 I can't get these dates exactly Cox. My dad doesn't really remember the date site because he was just a young man when Mr. When he had the opposite experience of meet his father decide after they accumulated some money to go back to Poland.

05:53 So they immigrated to Poland from the United States and my father never really forgave his father to this day since the fact that he did that. He didn't really talk about that when you refuses to talk about it since the fact it cuz when they went back apparently his father was even though he was a hard worker wasn't a very astute Financial person when he went back to Poland. Can you lint

06:22 Friends into town of get you what you see where he went back to US dollars, but they gave him back polish look these which were useless do they got stuck there? They got stuck there and consequently, you know, he he was he's very bitter about that fact sheet, of course than a whole lot of other things wouldn't have happened if he had stayed here. Obviously, we would have been around and saw it. But so he

06:53 Married, he found out after World War that the US government would lending the money.

07:03 To bring himself into other people to the United States. So if you ever decide who he was going to bring

07:11 So he left his wife and two children there and brought myself in my other sister, you know Irene here.

07:19 What time you told the story to me about how he would walk to Warsaw found out this situation came up with the US government would front the money. He had to get from store whiskey to work out which is probably about maybe a hundred miles. So he packed a lunch and away he went now he didn't walk the whole way by any stretch of the imagination. He kind of embellishing and we got a ride from a trucker kind of hitchhiking and walked so he would have got to the Embassy though, you know, they have any papers luckily met his mother had kept his birth certificate certificate and if anybody remembers, you know Warsaw,

08:19 During the war and there wasn't a building standing there was no trouble so they were just in a tent you found them and they looked at his papers and they said well, let us verify this and then we'll get back to you. So couple months later. They got to you got a letter saying yeah, we'll talk about it. Then then he tells a story about how he got the second time. He had to go to Warsaw by now. The Russians were in control of Poland. Okay, so he was able to get a ride on the Russian with the offering these guys homemade booze and his buddy where guy gets half plastered and they realize that I was at all, so I guess she was not happy with him for a while.

09:19 When she found out what happened, but you know that that that was a pile.

09:32 Who was a very famous World War II war correspondent was killed in the Pacific and when we met your mother and I were in a while you last year. We went by the cemetery of the word dead in the Pacific and we kind of slowed down and saw the grave of which which was kind of nice for me to see considering that we came over on hit the ship that was named after him after he was killed under this truck and you're into the whiskey and you got on this truck and you've got your dad didn't your older sister there and you're driving away and so to get that kind of like the journey, I think that the trauma of that old thing considering I was only like 7 years old.

10:27 Actually made me block most of that out, right? I do remember being on a train for a while and then being on the ship now the ship to me was neat right now it took us.

10:43 Something like 10 days just a heck of a long time to be to get here. I had my very first Coca-Cola I had was on the ship of the interesting thing is all the kids and stuff to this ship had a number a lot of people on it. And I know there were immigrating to the United States the kids for the most part we were all right, in terms of the voyage the adults who were stuck downstairs in the hold they were all sick of dogs. So the mess hall, I mean at breakfast early myself in a couple of kids that would be at we would get all these days as much as no one else was there to eat it. Remember Captain. They're one of the crewmen taking myself in this other kid that I started to run a lot around with

11:43 The top been showing us around all that ship was running and all that kind of stuff, but then I don't remember a thing until we got to the actual Harbor in New York. We apparently failed in late in the day and they would not take us into Ellis Island.

12:01 So they made us anchor outside the harbor and it was late in the evening and that night. It was probably one of them when the most Vivid memories and most spectacular things that ever happened to me was being in the harbor and then watching the lights of Manhattan and seeing the Statue of Liberty all lit up in her back. Then the torch was lit shirt and people just celebrating unbelievably throwing

12:32 Things overboard that they felt were a part of their life in Poland that they didn't want anymore. So I jumped through the through while y'all and then fill out the next day. We sailed into Ellis Island got process and we're getting a tag put on me and what they did is they tagged all the different people based on which train they were going to stick you want. Okay, I knew where you were going. So we went to Utica New York got to Utica New York and one of my grandfather's brother's sons was my dad's first cousin then

13:12 He took us to his house, but he had his son was back from the the service. His daughters were still held in no place for sure. Nor was there any work in Utica? Stay there like two nights floor?

13:32 And then but the other thing was my mother my grandmother.

13:37 If you have the one that

13:40 That my grandfather had met up in Utica New York and married up there. She had sisters here in one of which was in swoyersville. Somehow. I don't know the total story on this my father got a hold of her and she had room her that she had two sons still in the service. You got a hold of her and she sent her other son up to get us and brought us to a town called squaresville, Pennsylvania, which was a coal mining area. So the fact that my dad couldn't speak English with okay because half of the miners could speak English either so that he was right in there with the rest of them. So you got a job in the mines doctor teacher. She couldn't talk to me. It was an interesting year. Now, you're a fast learner dad, obviously.

14:40 So the second year I had this teacher who I absolutely hated. Her name was mrs. Ross Lee and I thought that you was the meanest woman in the world. She made me stay after school every single day right and work with me on learning how to read and write. I mean when I look back at it now, I mean, I'd love to a woman respect for what you did for me, but I'm is a kids all my friends were going home. And this woman was making me stay and I did not appreciate that at the time at all, but actually they found out that I wasn't such a dummy.

15:20 That I didn't have Smart cuz I graduated with honors from high school and I was lucky enough to graduate from high school and I've got played as a pretty good athlete. I play basketball and football got full scholarship in football to go to a major university Temple University degree in math and physics.

15:40 So it's it's been a good life and it's been an interesting life. I'm very proud of my daughter's obviously. I think one of the most traumatic things that happened in my life doll is a lot of my son back that have to talk about I know that left a big hole in the family.

16:09 I think about Frank often. I know that's hard for you to talk about it enough to talk about it.

16:18 Leukemia them in 5 years old.

16:24 Okay, but you guys came on.

16:26 For girls for girl. Wow, you know, it's crazy because I am really sorry Dad funniest things for boys and girls in Sedona with Susan and Susan was born. We just did a hospital and there was an intern there her pediatrician or had called and told her I'm going

17:17 Don't don't rush because I'm going so we can get there it is.

17:28 I ran back out to move my car because I was in a no-parking Zone, you know, I might I might get back in on this Earth. I wanted to see this birthday. I never seen the other ones. Can you wish it wasn't really something that kind of stuff. I can hear the baby crying. I didn't get to the back and he's so it's a boy and I'm looking I'm thinking.

18:04 A funny looking boy missing. What did you do? I only had a boyfriend by 3 seconds.

18:33 Oh poor Susan. Sorry Sue.

18:38 Wow, what? You know, I just really feel like you've been such an inspiration, of course to me in my life. And it's taken me many years to appreciate that. Of course just like you and your teacher in first grade who made you sit at that table after school when your friends were going to play. I definitely felt that way about you at times in my life and I've grown to really appreciate all the things that you taught me in being a teacher Now is really interesting cuz I feel having that in common is something that has been an interesting pathway, you know you and I have had Divergent Pathways in life. And that's one of the things that makes me most proud of you. Is it you or kind of

19:21 Floating around not sure what was happening in your life. And then at a relatively know you were grown you had two children and to decide to go back to college.

19:34 Which which made me happy as the Dickens and then the fact that you graduated summa cum laude and you have a straightforward teaching none the less I am. So proud of you is absolutely unbelievable. You know, I'm proud of all my daughter's but you took the Hard Road if you definitely took the hard way for me to actually

20:04 Oh boy, that's great. Well, you know, I feel like that helps me understand a little bit more about you know, how you were feeling on that journey, and I've always gotten bits and pieces of the story a different times of from Grandpa or from you and it was really important to me that we have that story as one whole piece. Remember when the first time I'd heard you talk about having that Coca-Cola under the under the bridge and I just have such a vivid memory of what you must have looked like and and you I just have this picture right here on Holt his hair when he was not at this darkening up a little bit because what happened to mine, I mean, I don't know if you ever saw a picture of me and maybe 3rd grade white light.

21:04 Can I get a mop look like he does so.

21:12 All the pieces of that story that I think are still missing though, or like just I feel like we I never really was old enough toraware enough to ask Grandma smaka about her story and and how that was for her. I don't really feel like I know a lot about her. I don't know how we're doing for time.

21:31 Okay, but she never really I think first of all, I don't think she really wanted to come to this country. She didn't know.

21:43 Her family

21:46 Oliver family, of course, you know your grandfather's family. We have no close relatives in the United States all are your great aunts and uncles and cousins from both sides both from your grandmother and grandfather on our side or I'm pulling out.

22:08 Let's see almost all of her. She I think Grandma still has one.

22:17 Sister, that's a lot k

22:20 And she's an 8. She's presently in England who met her husband. She was here. Once your name. That's her name either. And of course dad his youngest sister. Theresa is still just north of stawiski, which is the town that way you still there. She was here last summer and it's quite a bit of family still in that area is in sandusky's all over the place over there when I went back with your grandfather in 1988. I mean, we just went bought from house to house to house to house for a month and I Landers relative in Warsaw. We are relatives down in called know which is right outside of

23:20 Krakow down there. There's a whole bunch. So there's dirt.

23:30 I've

23:33 Not kept up to I can't read or write polish. If I get into a concert, there are people who are speaking polish. I can hold my own to a certain extent. But again, my vocabulary is very limited because I was only 7 years old when I came here and we were in a very rural area. So I never attended school time until you were eight years old. So I never attended school. So the only thing I needed to know was you know, when will when I was going to get fed. She go to school 3-year education.

24:18 I don't know much about her young life. I mean once they got married.

24:25 The way the situation work time, they're basically serfs what people don't understand is basically a feudal system you had landlords who owned huge tracts of land and they had almost like migrant workers work the land for them. But these were actually they weren't from another country migrant workers. They were their own countrymen and the deal was you had to provide so many workers for the field and if you could provide those they would give you a place to stay with your mom did to one room and that you'll be like there was there was a house that had it was like a double block quote on quote. But each side only had one large rooms and wasn't like there were separate bedrooms the kitchen the bedroom the living room the dining room all were one room.

25:25 And that was for two families one family on one side one family on the other. So I remember

25:34 20 stir a movie dirt floor. So my mother getting some nice clean white sand and putting it on the floor to Spruce the place up a little bit now that that's another thing that's really internal when my when my mother your grandmother.

25:51 I had one of the one of my sisters and the place that my dad worked and she had to work to she had to work in the field because she had to provide to work. Okay when she couldn't work because she was in labor and then had the child her sister.

26:10 Had to come from a town called woman, which was only like about 10 miles away and working her place or we were going to get booted. We were gone time Grandma had another kid, would have more later in the day of a deal that my father was able to make with these landowners. You know, I know when was specific instances that was definitely the case where

26:37 She had to get a substitute sure to do her part of the work or they work they were gone. So they were farming. And anyway, it was almost like sharecropping. It sounds like they were allowed to have Lou gardens near these little houses that they lived in that I lived in and the

26:59 The landowner would give them some so many bushels of potatoes for working the year and so many heads of cabbage and stuff like that. The last basically got to sustain themselves. They did get asked my dad said that he did get a small salary a year salary was enough to buy me a new pair of boots. Wow. So needless to say that wasn't a whole lot. That's why he really resented his father. You really think I'm through that.

27:36 So he and Grandma met in Poland and were together obviously for at least nine ten years before we came of well, Grandpa and I and Irene we came here in 1947. How do you figure Irene was born in 1938? So they probably got married in 1937 36 something like that. So they before and then a year-and-a-half after we came that how long it last year we came here in October of 1947 and in February of 1949 in that time. He was able to work double shift in the mines.

28:30 I paid in order for getting him to get a loan to bring her over here to pay off the money that the government fronted okay to bring us over. So he paid that off and he was

28:47 People I mean again different people came into play in our lives there that people that he met that went out of their way to help him find a lawyer and stuffing what they were really afraid of they were all my mother and the two other girls. We're ready to come here, but they weren't going to come until like maybe summer

29:12 But this was during the. Of time when the cook quote Iron Curtain was getting ready to come down. So they were afraid that the borders would be closed anywhere close. You could not literally leave old is went for a number of a long time after you know right after the war you can leave but then when the Russians really decided to say, hey, we're keeping all this right they were afraid that they were not going to be able to get him out of there. So they scrambled they flew they flew on TWA to youngest sister's.

30:03 With Cracker Jack box. Cracker Jack boxes animal cracker box on your arrival in New York and 40th and they had these little tiny fur coats made for the picat a rabbit Source. I don't know in his little tiny perhaps it's a great and that was it made the national papers that picture and when they when they came through right away. How did that? I don't think she did.

30:43 I don't think she went to work right away.

30:47 I think she was because it looks he married a big she had to hear 1949 Mary Ann was born in 1950 worth it and seen each other for a blast there.

31:03 And then once got finished nursing her I think is when she decided that you went to work into the dress Factory was right up the street from us. Okay, so we get us ready.

31:18 In the morning, She used to get up at 3:40 in the morning do the wash.

31:25 Hanging up on the line outside and then make our lunch or whatever and she's going to work and it was up to us right now. So she and she worked in a different dress factories, you know over the years.

31:46 Panda

31:48 It was always so hard when I was young because she kind of spoke a mix of half polish half English and as a young person it was kind of she was kind of intimidating. It was kind of hard to get close to her. So that's great. I needed more information. You know, she didn't know how to express its right and the language barrier. Obviously, I mean with your mother when she did make a phone call, which was a case you'd say

32:20 Frankie there, even if it was if she had a question for your mother. The question would go through me because you would God tell me the question in broken English Apple hipnation. Then I would translate to question to your mother and then she'd give me the answer and then I would have English half polish. Give it back to my mother over the phone to her mom's feelings so much will you know, you've had such an interesting life and we're at the point now where you're talking about like, you know, you're in the United States and you're talking about Grandma going off to work and you have to get yourself to school and you've always told the wild stories.

33:20 Squaresville that we lived in I mean there were some real cash matter fact, the whole bunch of them. I was one of the only ones who ever graduated from high school or let alone go to college and that was a big help but these guys are all they're all nice guys, and they're all made their way in life, you know doing other things but fuzzy. I mean best memory of fuzzy to things remembered I have a fuzzy was

33:50 Thanksgiving one year we wanted to be

33:56 He and I would make our own bows and arrows he and I made The Little Ships and carved them in all this kite.

34:06 I so wish I wanted you to know that I have a Thanksgiving in the woods, so

34:15 I think grandma gave me a big chunky kielbasy and his mother his mother gave him a turkey leg and up through the woods and we built ourselves a fire. I always cold as you know was he was born probably 25 years too soon. I think he was dyslexic.

34:51 Tremendous artist great with his hands

34:54 He passed his courses because I sat behind them and I would whisper in his ear and tell him exactly what letters to write down and write down and stuff like that. I think the teachers knew it right. I mean he quit school when he was 16 and actually became a real good cabinet maker and right now he's down in Fort Myers Florida, but he was a just a nice guy. He and I got along just great growing up. I would love your stories about budgeting and when I get together, we always talk about real name was Warren if you call them or you got punched in the mouth and I mean quit there was no reaction. You wouldn't say what did you that's what he liked call that he like to be called fuzzy and he nicknamed me herb. I don't know where you got that from.

35:54 City of Norwich herb hanging out together. You never got tonight's Grey's which is where you could start playing football, but he was he was a good athlete but he just couldn't pass just get promoting them because of age basically share. Will you had a lot of motivation and drive behind you two to make it through a lot of my life, especially here in the United States early on

36:33 I have this thing that that you're here with that. Your one sister has don't tell me I can't do that. Buse your sister and I took a lot of abuse greenhorns and I'll dummies what's wrong with you that kind of stuff.

36:57 That must have been really hard it was hard and put it and what was the kids?

37:09 Later on when I was making the honor roll and I was beyond Scholastic football player and I was all this and I was all that and they were still there and they were still dwell not to me to me. Now. They were trying to be my buddy now they were two guys and when I run into the other guys that are sending me two beers. I don't hang around the bars anymore. But if I do run into him, they're the ones that is sending me a beer and these are the guys that you know, I had no real use for bright kids are mean they are and it was right before you graduated that you met mom or right afterwards. I met your mom.

38:01 Let's see basically year later cuz I had dated a girl who call it and I got a Dear John from her the day I graduated and I never forgave her for that. I graduated from college with a Dear John. I was supposed to go to Florida with Sam with Samuel Barber through you now. He backed out the bomb itself. Okay, when I go through you also know who's all that again another buddy of mine. He was dating this girl who was working in, New York.

38:51 So we should let's go to New York. And I said, okay so you this Peggy introduce me to your mother and then it was crazy because I I met her we always spend two nights there dating an apartment at but she was there and I was worse full teaching and coaching football in the town that I grew up in and

39:22 What happened? Was it about a month later? I somehow I remembered that. She was coming home for a couple of weeks because her mother your grandmother was going to have some kind of surgery so I didn't have a date one night.

39:39 What am I going to do here? Okay. I'll see if I can find out but I know her last name. I knew her name first name and your last name. I know she was in 44th right under the dome no idea which one was the correct one. So, I just thought I'd call and I got a hold is my I think she is mad that she may have picked up the phone. I'm not really certain and I can't remember she probably wouldn't I don't remember and it started the year later. We got married and 41 years later.

40:39 The coaster times but yes, we still love each other and

40:45 Scripture talk in the car and I feel have a solid relationship because of the way I saw you guys being honest with each other when I was growing up. So I'm very thankful for that describe a little more in these people have carried these possessions. What were they all the way from Poland and then throw them away at the last minute possessions that they were throwing away basically were mostly like

41:23 Flo's I remember

41:26 So is being thrown into the water?

41:32 For whatever reason I honestly don't know. Like I said, it was met him on the boat. It was absolute Mayhem and joyous man. I mean people were crying other people that were singing. People dancing and because everybody was so happy that we finally are here. This is America and of course everybody's talking about the fact that we're going to go get our share of gold that the streets are paved because America had Golden Street, everybody has gotten off the boat yet. We're going to find gold in the street represented like that surface cousins kind of Cliff or something. I don't need these I'm going to get American bottom shoes.

42:32 Probably the case. It's pure speculation at work. I do know they were throwing stuff over boys. I mean, you know, it was it was God was one of those group moment somebody starts and and I mean to see that Skyline for the first time is that you of Liberty and even know I mean, I didn't know what the Statue of Liberty meant. It was very impressive because here I am a boy from this

43:13 Little teeny weeny Village in Poland and I mean to see all these huge buildings. Absolutely. No, I've been back to the Statue of Liberty on a number of occasions since then my aunt when she was here last year and I would leave when she was here a number of years ago. We took her before then and to go to Ellis Island stuff. It just brings back from Mendes memories and you know of going through there, but that was some evening that way really some evening and the next day I'm going to defend it was just words of people in line by line. I mean if you go to Ellis Island and you see the pictures of the line, it's amazing how they were.

44:13 That was based of those tags when you get off the boat that tag you with these things and then they do they feel doctors looked at you and stuff because they if you had some kind of communicable disease or something. They would put you in quarantine as matter fact, I remember grandpa saying that he or she was quite ill all the way across that they were going to quarantine her but turned out to be nothing major just the thickness or something or go through that would have been traumatic because that would have been really hard on top of an already hung up.

44:59 I was scared. I think more than anything else coming to this country leaving my mother.

45:07 And coming here not knowing what I was going to what was going to happen to me here was just

45:15 Very traumatic scary

45:20 It's about the only way I can describe it just

45:25 Buck like that night I was and I got caught up in the Jubilation with everybody else. I remember it had jumping up and down and it was traumatic and yet it was exhilarating. It was scary when I put a fun and now I had to Justice to the whole new Society. It was I was not in this little tiny village anymore. That was very difficult and the fact that my father would go to work first thing in the morning.

46:20 And it was up to us to get ourselves up and going to go to school or really I'd like they read was almost a surrogate mom at Forever at a time and I got I was late for school so often I would and we had this principle.

46:38 It seems he was 8 ft tall.

46:48 I was always in front of Mr. Guy he didn't speak Polish. I didn't speak English.

46:54 But there was this boy it by name of Andrew perrilla who just retired from a judge. He was the local magistrate took a 5 point. He could speak Polish his parents and taught him polish. Well, he went to Sunday school and all that stuff every time I got in trouble for Handy what was going on? What the punishment is this? Mr. Callahan?

47:44 Was dr. Campbell it really a couple of the school while your life has been adventurous and you've instilled me with a sense of adventure like it or not do that. Thanks, Dad.

48:11 You're welcome, honey.