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.
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