Giving Over the Keys
The Edgewater Beach Apartments are an interesting sight on Chicago’s north side lakefront. Built in 1928, it was part of a complex that housed the famed Edgewater Beach Hotel which was built in 1916. The pink exterior of the building may strike some as gauche, but it was meant to complement the original Edgewater Beach Hotel’s yellow exterior–both reminiscent of the sunrise and the sunset. The Edgewater Beach complex was the site of the “Who’s Who” in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Stars of stage and screen as well as the upper-crust of American and Chicago society were attracted to its lavish and luxurious living. Over the years, other newer and more desirable locales attracted the rich and famous. Like many other things, the elegant hotel was closed and demolished in the 1960’s. The apartments, however, remained and while not as luxurious as they once were, they are a charming reminder of yesteryear.
I recall making a visit to the Edgewater Beach Apartments a number of years ago. It was one of those visits where one is more appreciative of its impact after it was over and with the passing of years than at the actual time of the visit. It is one of the strange and special wonders of man’s creation that, with a recollection (or a by physical reminder that spurs a recollection), one can revisit a place and put himself where he was many years ago. So it was, recently, when I saw a picture of this storied apartment building which recalled this visit.
It was the Spring of 1998 when I visited the grandparents of one of my friends, Mary Frances, at the Edgewater Beach. “Babcia,” (Polish for Grandma) was in her late 80s and “Dziadek” (Polish for Grandpa) was about 102. I had heard intriguing stories about this elderly couple from Mary Frances and was delighted when she asked if I (and another friend) wanted to meet them. I, of course, jumped at the opportunity. Upon entering the Edgewater Beach Apartments, I was not disappointed with the charm of a bygone era. The molding on the walls and the general architectural design was indicative of the 1920s. Yet, for all that, one could tell that the years did not maintain the high-living that was once its hallmark. We took the elevator several floors up to the apartment of Julius and Wanda Szygowski. Upon entering, I was struck by the humility of the place, but there was more there than met the eye and I knew I was in for a treat.
The first thing that struck me was a large painting that seemed to be the centerpiece of the sitting or living room. It was a painting of a young woman in a flattering gown in a seated position. It seemed to me to be in the familiar style that might mark the drawing rooms of the wealthy in the 1920’s or 1930’s. The furnishings of the place would be what one might expect for a centenarian and his octogenarian wife–antique furniture, picture frames of children, grandchildren and relatives, and other older items. An elderly yet very vivacious and–one could tell immediately–“hard-nosed” woman greeted us. This was Wanda (“Babcia” to Mary Frances). Speaking in a heavy Polish accent, she invited us–nay, ordered us–to sit down. In the back bedroom one heard raised voices shouting in Polish. This was Julius, now laboring under significant dementia, yelling at his caretaker, a Polish woman in her sixties who looked the part of a tough barmaid or a woman who could drive railroad spikes into sections of the Napoleonski Track.
Wanda seemed to be oblivious to it all as she took care of a few things and returned to us asking what we wanted to drink. I recall that it was the early afternoon. Not wasting any time and suspecting how this tough old bird might be, I responded: “Whiskey on the rocks.” She didn’t bat an eye. My other friend–a teetotaler–asked for a Coke. This was as wrong an answer as being a teetotaler is. Wanda looked at him as if she was about to throw him out of the house. What canon of good taste and manners was violated, I do not know, but she proceeded to lambast this poor man before begrudgingly slipping away to fetch him his preferred drink. My friend Mary Frances was laughing at the whole scenario as if to welcome us to the “funny farm;” my other friend looked as if he had the wind knocked out of him and he seemed to spend the next hour in uncomfortable silence, embarrassingly sipping his Coke, venturing only a few words and wishing that he was somewhere else.
Wanda reminded me of my Aunt Ann in that formidable old ethnic no-nonsense way, and upon the delivery of my drink I figured that I would converse with her based upon the little I knew of her background. So I began to bring up famous Polish names from the last half-century (not that I knew much about them). One name I recall mentioning was Stefan Wyszyński. I recall her stopping–shocked that I knew that name. She put her cigarette down and her own drink–which I know wasn’t Coke–and asked Mary Frances, “How dos he know Veesheenskee?” She proceeded to tell me her opinions of him and regale us with stories about other Polish personages, peppered with her own unvarnished commentary. Wanda had a lot to say and I’m sorry that I did not stay longer or return more frequently to hear her opinions or to ask of her and Julius’s adventures. For my visit in the Spring of 1998 at the Edgewater Beach Apartments was not just having a couple of laughs with some eccentric old people, it was a brush with heroic and romantic figures who straddled several continents, several wars, and several centuries.
Julius Szygowski was a Polish patriot and one of the great unsung heroes of the Polish people. Born in Poland in 1896, he served Emperors Franz Joseph and Blessed Charles I in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I. One of the curious artifacts on the end table in their Chicago apartment dated from the Great War: a binoculars case. On a reconnaissance mission, Julius was in the mountains spying enemy troop movements when he was shot. Stunned, but not dead, he found that the binoculars case that was around his neck caught the bullet before his chest did–and the bullet hole was there to prove it! This act of Providence, coupled with a brief stay in an Italian POW camp, allowed him to survive the war and seek a law degree from the University of Lvov. After his studies, he put his talents at the service of the Second Polish Republic (Poland having now gained independence after the breakup of the Habsburg Empire) as a foreign diplomat. He served the Polish government as consul in Slovakia, Mexico, Canada and the United States. Along the way, he met and married his bride, Wanda, and they were the toast of Polish diplomatic society in the interwar years: he, the handsome young lawyer, polyglot, and diplomat and his stunning wife–so stunning, in fact, that an artist preserved her beauty for the ages and found its way to that Chicago apartment. But then, 1939.
Julius became part of the Polish Government-in-exile. In 1944, he was assigned as Consul General to the Polish Consulate in Chicago. In 1945, when Poland fell to the communists and the United States–in shamefully handing over the countries of Central Europe to Soviet control–recognized the new government, the Consul General was instructed by the federal government of the United States to turn over the consulate to the new regime. The astute diplomat, legal scholar, veteran, historian, husband and father refused. In an act that not only made headlines, but won for him the love and admiration of the Polish people the world over, Julius locked the doors of the Consulate and refused to turn over the keys. He and his family were left with nothing–stranded in the United States.
Julius and Wanda ultimately did find work and were well connected with other Polish freedom-fighters and those fighting the communist takeover of the country. Their home in Chicago became a refuge for Polish immigrants and both Wanda and Julius welcomed all who sought their help. Indeed, more than providing material assistance, the Szygowskis helped maintain Polish tradition and culture which, in turn, was one of the prime movers in the fall of communism in 1989.
In holding on to the keys–the keys that were rightfully his and the authority he represented–Julius (and Wanda) endured tremendous suffering, suffering that lasted through several generations. Perhaps he might have been tempted to turn the keys over to the new regime. It probably would have been easier and the US government would have looked more favorably upon him. He would probably not have been considered “intransigent” or any of the other words that “the acceptable” use to describe those who will not tow the line. Yet, he refused to hand the keys over to those who had not the legitimate authority to hold them and for whom use of them would be for purposes not in keeping with the common good of the Polish people. Yet, in so doing, Julius kept faith and Poland alive. He stemmed the ultimate takeover of his holy country and did it with courage, endurance, hope, and with the firm conviction of the truth.
Perhaps, the story of Julius and Wanda might be instructive to those in authority in the Church who might be tempted to give over the Keys.
This article, Giving Over the Keys is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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