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December 10, 2012

Three found gift of freedom in area in 1940s

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The Daily Star

---- — Probably the greatest gift three area people could think of ever receiving in December 1947 was that of freedom, especially from Nazi slavery during World War II. Two men in Oneonta and one woman in Schenevus had relocated here recently, were doing well and finding this area much to their liking.

Wladyslav and Franciszek Turcza, also known as Walter and Francis, had arrived from Poland just a year earlier and were staying with their maternal uncle, Joseph B. Zarnesky, at 96 River St. The two were actually born in America, in a mining town called Uniontown, Pa., southeast of Pittsburgh.

Their father got word in 1924 that the family back in Poland was beset with ill health, so the boys’ parents took them to their grandfather’s farm near Krakow. Walter was age 6, Francis, 4.

When the Germans advanced into Poland, Walter and Francis Turcza refused to join the Nazi army. They were put into a concentration camp at Otsmark in Bavaria. An uncle in the Polish forces shot and killed a Nazi officer in open warfare. It took the Nazis a long time to learn the uncle’s identity, but four years later got their revenge, burning their grandparents’ home, and those who weren’t burned to death were shot and killed.

Walter and Francis, still in the concentration camp, were put into hard labor, merely by association with the family.

When American forces moved into Bavaria, the boys fled the camp and showed the Americans where the Germans were hiding and where gun placements were located, and gave other valuable information.

When arriving in America, their country of birth, it all seemed foreign to the brothers, as they couldn’t speak a word of English.

The Oneonta Star featured their arrival in December 1946, and followed up on their progress on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 1947.

Regarding the brothers, the Star wrote, “They had the job of adjusting themselves to the strangeness of good food, of warm lodging and friendliness. They had the job of wiping from their memories the horrors of Nazi brutality.”

The Turczas were eager to find employment, but their speech was an obstacle.

Francis went to work in February 1947 as a dishwasher at the Diana Restaurant, then found at 156 Main St. By December, he had become second cook.

“He’s the best worker I ever had in the kitchen,” Harry Lambros, proprietor, said. “He’s never idle a minute. And he has picked up enough English to know the foods and dishes. He’ll make a good chef.”

Walter got a job at the Oneonta Grocery Co., then found at 50 Broad St. His employer, J. Merville Bell, gave equally impressive remarks about Walter’s ambitiousness, and how during every lunch hour, he studied his English.

Ruth Sandman also struggled with her English, but had excelled in recent years while living in Schenevus and attending high school at both Andrew S. Draper Central School and later in Oneonta.

The Star featured Miss Sandman as the winner of the Oneonta American Legion’s oratorical contest in December 1947. Her topic was, “The Right Which We Defend.”

Just as with the Turcza brothers, the Sandman family saw the Nazis come to power. In their case, they were living in Duisburg, Germany. Ruth’s father became a member of the underground, fighting Nazi rule. He was arrested and thrown into prison.

Family and friends got Mr. Sandman released, and the family escaped to France. They were in Paris four years before the Nazis took power in that city. The Sandmans were aboard the last train to leave the city, eventually moving into Spain, where they secured passage on a ship going to America. They lived in New York City for two years, after arriving in 1941. They moved to Schenevus in 1943.

While in New York, Ruth began her education again at the second grade level. After a half day, she was moved to third grade, advancing to fourth grade after three days. The fast track continued. At the Draper school, she completed the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th grades. Because the languages Ruth wanted to learn weren’t taught in Schenevus, she transferred to Oneonta High School. She majored in languages, taking German, Latin and French, and expected to take Spanish the next year.

Ruth planned to enter college after completing high school. Her life’s ambition was to become a foreign correspondent.

The Turczas and Miss Sandman were free, and opportunities awaited.

This weekend: The aforementioned Diana Restaurant was a Main Street Oneonta icon for decades.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.