Pat Sajak’s Letter “D” in Poland

 

On this Labor Day my thoughts are with a laborer I wish I had taken the time to know better:

For much of my life, I carried an extra letter with me. It was a “d.” My name was Patrick Sajdak, S-a-j-d-a-k. It was pronounced as it is today (SAY-JACK), but that silent letter baffled teachers. They inevitably struggled with my name, and my fellow students enjoyed teasing me with the results of those struggles. The pronunciation difficulties followed me through school, the Army and into my adult years. I hated that “d.”

When I began to work in television, I dropped it—unofficially, at least—and viewers were introduced to Pat S-a-j-a-k. Even though the offending letter remained on my driver’s license and credit cards, my TV audience only saw the newer, sleeker version of my name. And, when I was about to marry in the late ’80s, I felt it was time to take the legal steps to finally rid myself of that “d” forever. My wife and my children would never have to deal with it. It was gone for good, and I almost never thought about it.

Then about a year ago, a viewer whose business is genealogy was doing some research for a Polish client when he ran across my name and its old spelling. For some reason, he remembered reading about that “d” in an interview, and he took it upon himself to put together a family tree that stretched back into the 1600s. He sent the information to me (along with photostatic copies of documents relating to marriages, births, deaths and immigration) explaining that he wanted to thank me for years of viewing pleasure. Of course, I wrote to thank him for the very kind thing he had done, but the documents, while interesting, were soon placed in a drawer and largely forgotten.

Recently, however, an opportunity arose for me to travel to Warsaw to help launch a Polish version of Wheel of Fortune called Kolo Fortuny, and I remembered the papers. This time, I looked at them more carefully. It turned out that my father’s father was born in a small town called Laskowa (La-SKOH-va) in southern Poland, as were previous generations dating back at least 400 years. Not only that, but my grandfather, his father, and his father’s father had all been born in the same house, designated as “House #108.” Wouldn’t it be interesting to find that house, I thought. And so it was off to Poland to spin a wheel and, if time permitted, to search for my paternal grandfather’s birthplace.

I wasn’t particularly close to Jozef Sajdak (or Joseph, as he had become in America). My grandfather was a stern man who had been a laborer all his life, had lost a leg to disease, and whose son (my father) was an alcoholic and abusive husband. There was a divorce (much less common in the ’50s) and, inevitably, its attendant unpleasantness. The result was that visits to my grandparents and my father (who had moved in with them) became experiences I didn’t always look forward to.

When my father died in 1961, I pretty much lost contact with my grandparents. In fact, when Grandpa Joe died less than three years later, I didn’t find out about it for several weeks. Even as I grew older, I never developed an interest in exploring my family’s history. Still, there I was, just three days ago, on a train from Warsaw to Krakow, where I was to be met by an interpreter and driven for about an hour to the small village of Laskowa.

The first thing I discovered upon my arrival was that Sajdak was a very common name in those parts. (The Poles pronounce it SIGH-DOCK.) You couldn’t toss a pierogi without hitting a Sajdak. But the commonness of the name made the search more difficult. Grandpa Joe had left for America in 1920, so there was no one there with any memory of him, and no one seemed to have any idea where to find House #108. For all they knew, it was long since gone. The people of Laskowa could not have been more willing to help, and I was sent from one person to another in search of clues, but nothing from personal memories to church records was providing the answer.

Happy, at least, to have seen the family village, I was ready to give up and head back, when we ran into an elderly man who seemed to remember some old houses in the hills outside of town. So up a small winding gravel road we went. After several wrong turns by the driver and shrugged shoulders by the locals, there it was. House #108. Still not positive, we knocked on the door of another small home just up the path. The owners knew all about the Sajdaks, and their oral history perfectly matched the genealogical records I had brought along. It was, indeed, the house we were looking for.

I didn’t expect to be moved by the discovery, but I was, and deeply so. I thought about Jozef and his brothers and sisters living and working and playing on the land. I thought about how difficult life was in post-WWI Poland. And, for the first time, I realized how indebted I am to this man who left the land of his birth to come to America. His life in his adopted country was hard, too. But three generations later, my children—his great-grandchildren—are enjoying the blessings of America thanks to a man who was born and raised in House #108 in Laskowa, Poland.

I wish I had gotten to know him better. I wish I had made an effort to get past his sternness. I wish I had talked to him about the town that I was gazing down on and the home in front of which I stood. But I realized at that moment that I had reclaimed the “d.” It’s not on my driver’s license or credit cards, but it is in my heart, where it has always belonged.

Thank you, Grandpa Joe.

House #108.

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There are 56 comments.

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  1. Member

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing. Life has a way of coming full-circle, doesn’t it?

    • #1
    • September 4, 2017 at 4:08 am
    • 14 likes
  2. Member

    Great history. Thanks for sharing.

    • #2
    • September 4, 2017 at 4:45 am
    • 5 likes
  3. Thatcher

    Wow. Thanks.

    • #3
    • September 4, 2017 at 4:48 am
    • 4 likes
  4. Reagan

    I really hadn’t anticipated these moist eyes so early in the morning.

    Thank you, Pat Sajdak.

    Your lovely remembrance has strengthened my resolve to dig out those old family records and visit a neglected cemetery today.

    • #4
    • September 4, 2017 at 4:57 am
    • 8 likes
  5. Thatcher

    Incredible story. What a joy to read.

    • #5
    • September 4, 2017 at 5:15 am
    • 7 likes
  6. Thatcher

    I had a name problem growing up, and it still surfaces to this day.

    My biological father died when I was four. My mother remarried, and my stepfather’s last name was the first four letters of my last name. For ages, every time I filled out forms that had me list my parents’ names, they would either 1) Assume I was stupid and add the two missing letters from my last name, or 2) Assume I was stupid and delete the last two letters of my last name. Either way, someone would assume I was stupid and correct the “mistake” to make the last names match. If my mother had married someone with a totally different last name, it would have been obvious there was a remarriage.

    So yes, I understand why you would want to streamline your name. Even though you did, you’ll always have your heritage.

    • #6
    • September 4, 2017 at 5:17 am
    • 8 likes
  7. Member

    Thank you, Pat, for a wonderful story and remembrance.

    To be honest, I was never a big Wheel of Fortune fan, though I did have a manger, a long time ago, who was.

    I think I know you best from the few National Review events you’ve shown up for.

    With those appearances, this story, and your entertaining show all these years, you’ve proven what a truly fine man you are. Thank you for this remembrance, and for the being the kind of man we all strive to be!

    • #7
    • September 4, 2017 at 5:27 am
    • 3 likes
  8. Member

    I loved this. Thank you.

    • #8
    • September 4, 2017 at 5:34 am
    • 3 likes
  9. Member

    My late Father left Poland shortly after WWII started to fight with the Allies (he was only 16). I’d have to drop a lot more letters than “d” to make it user friendly.

    I’m sure I speak for many Poles when we look at our names and say “I’d like to buy a vowel!”

    Great story Pat (you should put that “d” back).

    • #9
    • September 4, 2017 at 5:50 am
    • 21 likes
  10. Member

    Thank you, Mr. Pat Sajdak, for this wonderful and honest story. I wish more of us had your generous and insightful perspective.

    • #10
    • September 4, 2017 at 6:03 am
    • 3 likes
  11. Member

    Welcome to my world!

    • #11
    • September 4, 2017 at 6:09 am
    • 4 likes
  12. Thatcher

    Thanks Pat – great story.

    And you earned that tenacious “d” in traveling all that way and digging in until you found it, then not finding it, then almost accidentally bumping into it. Almost like it was meant to happen that way.

    • #12
    • September 4, 2017 at 6:22 am
    • 3 likes
  13. Contributor

    Thanks, Pat, for your sweet story. So many of us have family that originated in Europe; many of us have no idea from where, but we feel that connection. I love that you found the house.

    • #13
    • September 4, 2017 at 6:25 am
    • 7 likes
  14. Contributor
    Pat Sajak Post author

    Thanks to all my fellow Ricocheters for the nice comments. It’s something I wanted to share with this community. And thanks to my incredibly talented daughter, Maggie, for her invaluable editing and polishing. (Not Polishing!)

    • #14
    • September 4, 2017 at 6:44 am
    • 36 likes
  15. Member

    Good for you for making the extra effort on your trip (we all should find ways of doing more personal discovery when on business travel). Thanks for telling this beautiful story.

    • #15
    • September 4, 2017 at 6:45 am
    • 4 likes
  16. Member

    Being a genealogist I love to share my finds with family and they just don’t care. In addition, they generally avoid me knowing I’m apt to start quoting family history. I am so glad you found and appreciate your heritage.

    • #16
    • September 4, 2017 at 6:45 am
    • 10 likes
  17. Member

    Is Laskowa anywhere near Glembokie? My maternal grandfather emigrated from there sometime around 1900 and fought for the United States in World War I. The story goes that he joined the Army to learn a trade, and spent time before the war defending us from the Canadians.

    • #17
    • September 4, 2017 at 7:16 am
    • 5 likes
  18. Contributor
    Pat Sajak Post author

    John Park (View Comment):
    Is Laskowa anywhere near Glembokie? My maternal grandfather emigrated from there sometime around 1900 and fought for the United States in World War I. The story goes that he joined the Army to learn a trade, and spent time before the war defending us from the Canadians.

    I don’t know. I was lucky to be able to catch the correct train to Krakow!

    • #18
    • September 4, 2017 at 7:38 am
    • 4 likes
  19. Member

    Kay of MT (View Comment):
    Being a genealogist I love to share my finds with family and they just don’t care.

    That’s a shame.

    My dad (and his dad, and his dad, and his dad . . .) were all really into tracking the family history and I love hearing all the stories and seeing all the places my dad knows about as a result. There’s a cemetery in Kansas that is all that’s left of the town that used to stand there. My dad can tell you who just about everybody in there is and how they’re all either directly or distantly related to me. On our last walkthrough a few years ago, he told me about great-great-grandad’s Civil War service . . .

    . . . then I got to seen his regiment’s reunion photo when we got home:

    And after leaving the cemetery, we cut through Richmond, where a house that my great-great-granddad built is (just barely) still standing:

    Then I got to see a picture of him, right when he’s fixin’ to build it:

    Yeah, I can’t get enough of that stuff.

    Which is why I love it so much that Pat found #108.

    • #19
    • September 4, 2017 at 7:40 am
    • 24 likes
  20. Member

    Kay of MT (View Comment):
    Being a genealogist I love to share my finds with family and they just don’t care.

    My grandchildren are much more interested than their parents.

    • #20
    • September 4, 2017 at 8:03 am
    • 5 likes
  21. Thatcher

    Thanks Pat for a lovely story. I, too, am hoping to travel to eastern Europe soon to see if I can find the valley in Slovakia that my paternal grandmother’s family migrated from…just across the Tatra mountains from your grandfather. So many came from that area to become machinists and laborers in the manufacturing trades. I’m not sure how my grandmother’s family ended up in Westfield, Massachusetts, but I know he worked in the Indian Motorcycle manufacturing plant.

    I know you treasure all the genealogical material you received. Priceless. My uncle recently posted a 1918 picture of my grandmother, “Mimi” , at age 16. Like you, I was so surprised at how moved I was by seeing this:

    • #21
    • September 4, 2017 at 8:04 am
    • 5 likes
  22. Member

    Congratulations. And have a terrific time with the Polish spinoff!

    • #22
    • September 4, 2017 at 8:12 am
    • 3 likes
  23. Member

    Great story! My husband also went to Poland and hired an interpreter to help find his family. It was the experience of a lifetime for him.

    I’d love to see Kolo Fortuny… hopefully it will show up on YouTube some day.

    • #23
    • September 4, 2017 at 8:33 am
    • 2 likes
  24. Moderator

    Israel P. (View Comment):

    Kay of MT (View Comment):
    Being a genealogist I love to share my finds with family and they just don’t care.

    My grandchildren are much more interested than their parents.

    My mom’s been quite hit with the bug as well. What I appreciate about Mom’s research is that she’s not just interested in names and dates, but in other things like land deeds, enlistment records, and wills. We are finding that the story of our ancestors is truly the story of America as they come over, fight in the Revolution, move west and west and west again, and fight the Civil War. (As of now, we haven’t established whether any of them were shooting at each, but the family tree is split about half and half.

    My goal is to somehow turn this into a narrative work and put together the story told across these historic documents into something cohesive and more descriptive than just a family tree document.

    • #24
    • September 4, 2017 at 8:41 am
    • 8 likes
  25. Thatcher

    Thank you for sharing this journey. This gives me incentive to go look up my father’s family in Lithuania. I’d be looking up the Šlapykas family, much more than a “D” has changed in our name.

    • #25
    • September 4, 2017 at 8:42 am
    • 5 likes
  26. Member

    A couple generations back my name was changed from the German R-o-h-d-e by a country schoolteacher who Americanized it to R-h-o-d-y.

    A decade ago I was mildly annoyed at the dilution of my German heritage. These days I’m proud of the evidence of the melting pot. Germany is in my blood, but America is in my soul.

    • #26
    • September 4, 2017 at 9:08 am
    • 15 likes
  27. Member

    I hope that you’re able to update your volunteer genealogist with this adventure.

    Thanks for the story.

    • #27
    • September 4, 2017 at 9:08 am
    • 4 likes
  28. Member

    Pat Sajak:And, for the first time, I realized how indebted I am to this man who left the land of his birth to come to America. His life in his adopted country was hard, too. But three generations later, my children—his great-grandchildren—are enjoying the blessings of America thanks to a man who was born and raised in House #108 in Laskowa, Poland.

    I wish I had gotten to know him better. I wish I had made an effort to get past his sternness.

    What a blessing that viewer|genealogist was to you. Thank you for sharing that blessing. Your wishes I fear will become even less frequent for those your age and younger. We live in an age where the hoary aphorism has become “The present is prologue”. And in an age where the dots so recently seen and connected by Orwell form a thick line on which we now stand:

    “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984

    • #28
    • September 4, 2017 at 9:15 am
    • 4 likes
  29. Member

    This merits a “thank you for sharing” in addition to a “like.”

    • #29
    • September 4, 2017 at 9:21 am
    • 2 likes
  30. Member

    Thanks for this, Pat! Your story hits home for me because my paternal grandfather emigrated from Sweden in 1886. He also was a stern man who was a laborer. Alas, he died when I was only 15 years old, and I was too thoughtless and timid to ask him about his journey. Now, I finally realize the extent on my indebtedness to him for his emigrating. Oh, how I wish I could talk to him now!

    • #30
    • September 4, 2017 at 9:35 am
    • 6 likes
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