Mom’s family history

Lorraine Barbara Kalish, high school graduation photo. 1951
Lorraine Barbara Kalish, high school graduation photo. 1951

Adam Malec was 20 years old in 1901. That’s the year he crossed the Atlantic in the zwischendeck, or steerage compartment, of a steamship. Adam had seven years earlier fled the family farm in Poland to get away from a mean stepmother, walking more than 600 miles to Hamburg, Germany. One of his first stop was a cobbler shop, undoubtedly to fix up those shoes. The repair may have involved some barter as Adam stayed in that shop for the entirety of his teen years, working as an apprentice while saving money for passage.

Adam wanted to join his brother Stanley, who had found work in the meat-packing plants in Chicago, a treacherous place where workers were valued little more than the hogs and cattle they butchered, a place made infamous by Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. It’s a classic book of the American literary canon, a must-read, just not while eating.

Adam in fact arrived in Chicago around the time Sinclair was there researching his book. They may have crossed each other on Halsted Street, or in a tavern in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. But Adam didn’t stay long. Stanley directed him 300 miles downstate to East St. Louis, where there were also meatpacking houses and where jobs were said to be more plentiful.

Adam took the advice, went south, and soon got a job at the huge Swift and Company operation.

* * *

Round about 1902, Julia Walczak finally succeeded in convincing her skeptical parents to let her leave Poland for America. A cousin in the navy had told glorious stories about the exciting country where it seemed everyone in Eastern Europe was headed, and also gave her the name of a supposed distant relative living a prosperous life in East St. Louis.

Adam and Julia Malec wedding. 1905
Adam and Julia Malec wedding. 1905

Julia wrote to this woman who sent back a letter urging her to come, going on to say how there was plenty of room in her big house for a member of the family and assuring her parents the teenager would be well cared for. When Julia arrived at the house on 4th Street, she quickly learned the “big house” was an overcrowded boarding house for packinghouse workers. And Julia was expected to pay rent.

With no money to return home and few options, she took a job in the sausage department at Armour’s in order to pay for one of the four beds jammed together in the dining room. Those were for women. In the adjoining living room were four beds for men. One of those men was Adam Malec.

“It’s okay to go out with a man,” Julia would in later years exhort to her daughters and granddaughters. “But don’t let him give you any beer!” This is an actual quote from one of those granddaughters: my mom.

Malec children. 1909.
Malec children. 1909.

Owing to the fateful beer and/or proximate sleeping quarters, Adam and Julia were married in August 1905 and had their first of five children shortly thereafter. Their youngest, Bernice, was my maternal grandmother.

Adam proved to be a dependable provider, thrifty saver, and caring husband and father. Julia proved to be resourceful, strong, and smart. She was also the family disciplinarian. When their son John or daughter Fay arrived home after curfew, Julia would send them out to the chicken shack in the backyard for handfuls of corn (I’m not making this up) in which they were made to kneel (though I wish I were).

When Adam was badly scalded by a tipping vat of boiling bones, unable to work for nearly a year while healing from wounds that nearly cost him his life, Julia hung up her apron and went back to making sausage at Armour’s. Later, once a fulltime homemaker again, Julia continued to bring in money, this time without leaving the house.

Julia had only to open a rear window to hand over a few coins to a bookie running numbers up and down the alleys of East St. Louis, hiding the strips of paper indicating her bet in a turkey pot in the oven. She didn’t make a lot of money gambling, but did have enough spare cash during Depression years to lend money to Kruta’s Bakery next door to their house on 8th Street when they needed a short-term loan to buy sugar or flour.

The connection with Kruta’s Bakery and our family would continue for decades, with their signature cheese and apple strudel a fixture of Sunday dinners well into the 1970s.

* * *

The wedding of Leonard and Mary Krokvica. Austria.
The wedding of Leonard and Mary Krokvica. Austria.

Anna Krokvica was 16 when she left the family farm in a region of Austria-Hungary that would later become Croatia, travelling to East St. Louis with her mother Mary and younger sisters Josefina and Maria. It was 1908.

Five years earlier, Anna’s father Lenhardt Krokvica had deserted his family and taken their life savings with him. The scoundrel didn’t say where he was going; Len figured his wife would never find him in and industrial nowhereville in the middle of America. But somehow word got back to Mary that her husband was living the life of a happy bum in East St. Louis while his wife and kids back home struggled to survive. She promptly sold the farm and used the proceeds to buy passage to America.

Like most immigrant crossings from Europe theirs was a difficult one, with the three girls and mother huddled among masses in the bowels of a ship where disease and sickness ran rampant. All four made it through Ellis Island but only three made it to East St. Louis. Nobody is sure what happened, but when Mary finally caught up with her runaway husband, the first thing he may have learned was that his daughter Maria was dead.

One thing we do know is that Lenhardt had bad news for his wife: the family money was all gone. He had drank it all. Len was broke, making just enough to get by working at Swift. Mary had no choice but to join him at the packinghouse and she took their daughter Anna with her. Had the expression “this sucks” been around in these days, I’m fairly certain both Mary and Anna would have used it more than once right about this time.

Len’s alcoholism would plague his family for decades. When in later years he worked the night shift at one of the railroads, he was often too drunk to leave the house. So Mary would go. Under the cover of darkness, she used every ounce of body weight to throw the huge levers to switch rails in order that her whiskey-sodden husband wouldn’t lose his job.

It’s a miracle the booze didn’t kill this man at a young age. But Lenhardt and Mary, known later as “Daddo” and “Bobby” to grandchildren, would both live well into their eighties. Go figure.

* * *

Twelve-year-old Louis Kalish stepped off a train in East St. Louis in 1903. Having travelled alone on the month-long journey, from the same region of Austria-Hungary where the Krokvica’s lived, this round-faced kid was no doubt happy to see his sister Annie waiting for him at the Relay Depot.

Stephan and Kata Kalish family. 1906.
Stephan and Kata Kalish family. 1906.

Annie had rocked the family just the year before when she left for America to escape the mean hand of their father Stephen. The elder Kalish was born illiterate in the Slovakian mountains in the 1860s, where he taught himself to read and write. He had used that talent to find work in the more populated Croatian region of Austria-Hungary, ultimately becoming the town notary in the village of Banova Jaruga. It was a powerful position for someone with his background but he unwisely let that power go to his head. And out through his fists.

The packing houses in East St. Louis paid five cents an hour to women and ten cents to men—wages unheard of back in Europe. With their combined incomes, Annie was confident she and Louis could earn enough to send for their four younger siblings and mother Katrina. They didn’t have to.

When his son Louis disappeared, Stephen figured out what was going on and decided to foil his free-spirited daughter’s plan to break up his family. In 1906, he brought the rest of the family to East St. Louis himself. It would not be a permanent reunion. After leaving a position of some respect back in Europe, Stephen Kalish didn’t like being like being looked down upon at the packinghouse.

“I’m no hunkee SOB!” he complained before getting back on the boat. (The ethnic slur “hunkee” came apparently from the earlier “bo-hunk” which referred to a Bohemian from Hungary. The term would later evolve into “honkey,” a slangy term used in the 1960s for a white person.)

Stephen returned to Europe with his wife Kata and daughter Mildred in 1912, just in time for World War I, which no doubt put a damper on their homecoming and may have been a factor in their re-emigration to the US in 1921. Sadly, Kata contracted pneumonia on her second time through Ellis Island and was dead within a couple of weeks.

* * *

Louis and Anna Kalish with son Jimmy.
Louis and Anna Kalish with son Jimmy.

Nobody knows if the Kalish and Krokvica families knew each other back in Austria-Hungary or not. In any event, the families were joined in 1910 when Louis Kalish married Anna Krokvica. Two years later, Louis was offered a huge raise in pay—from ten cents an hour to fifteen—as a packinghouse supervisor. But there was a catch. The job was some 500 miles away. They took it.

Their son Jimmy, my Grandpa Kalish, was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in August 1912. That’s about the time Louis and Anna learned something they hadn’t been told before leaving East St. Louis: The man who held the supervisor’s job before Louis, when he was fired, had vowed to kill anyone who tried to fill his old job. And apparently he tried to make good on the promise.

The death threat, and distance from family and others in their ethnic circle, was enough to convince Louis and Anna that Oklahoma was not OK. They were out of there less than six months.

Back in East St. Louis, Louis Kalish was not happy about his return to a 70-hour workweek at a dime an hour. He was determined to change his young family’s fortune. So my great grandfather did just that, in a big way, by getting out of the hogs and cattle business and into a more lucrative one: liquor and prostitution.

* * *

In the 1880s, East St. Louis began raising its streets in order to keep homes and businesses dry when the Mississippi flooded. The massive project wasn’t quite finished in 1903, when the city found itself under 39 feet of water in one of the worst floods ever recorded. The area around 2nd and 3rd street, between Missouri and St. Louis Avenue, had not yet been raised, so flood water collected there as if in a valley. The name stuck.

Property owners in the area, known for decades thereafter as the Valley, grew tired of waiting for the area to be raised, and simply walked away from their ruined houses on streets of mud. Tavern owners and prostitutes were only too happy to take over the abandoned properties. And they liked the streets that way.

Whenever the city did fill a pothole, bleary eyed working girls would dig it out promptly the next morning, forcing cars to slow down, making it easier for the ladies to hop on the running boards and offer their services.

City officials might have thwarted development of this corridor of unseemly services, but to do so would have cut off their most reliable source of municipal revenue. Many of the major employers of East St. Louis—the stock yards, meat packing operations and factories of all sorts—shrewdly located their operations just outside city limits to avoid paying taxes. Monsanto Chemical and the National City stockyards would go so far as to incorporate their properties, as bogus municipalities, in order to make the scam permanent.

But owners of Valley taverns with back room gambling and prostitution, known euphemistically as “resorts,” had no such options. The wads of cash they handed over for licenses, fees and bribes allowed the struggling city to pay its bills.

As you might expect, details of how Louis Kalish made his fortune in prostitution are not well known—these are not the kind of stories families like to pass down to posterity. His transformation apparently began with the help of his brother Joe and a Model T car, which they used to shuttle prostitutes the hundred miles between East St. Louis and the booming coal-mining town of Zeigler, Illinois. They made $5 dollars a ride and expanded their operation with the purchase of a boardinghouse in Zeigler.

Jimmy Kalish with Steve Walkco, Jr and Ed Walkco. Zeigler, Illinois.
Jimmy Kalish with Steve Walkco, Jr and Ed Walkco. Zeigler, Illinois.

Louis moved Anna and Jimmy to the boardinghouse around 1914, along with Anna’s parents and others relatives who helped run the place. It was very, very successful. They all moved back to East St. Louis around 1919. That’s when Louis paid $50,000—the equivalent of more than half a million 2020 dollars—for the Savoy Hotel at the corner of 2nd and Missouri in the Valley.

The once penniless immigrant Louis Kalish was now, just a few years later, a man of means. And his lucky streak continued. Louis and his hotel were well-positioned when Prohibition went into effect in January 1920. The ground floor tavern became a speakeasy, and there were plenty of rooms upstairs for both family and prostitutes. And his lively place in the red light district was even adopted as the home of the Shelton gang, archenemies of Charlie Birger’s gang in the bloody rivalry for control of the illegal liquor trade.

* * *

Jimmy’s father did not handle his turn of fortune well. This Louis was no saint.

As an alcoholic with easy access to all the booze he could drink, Louis would regularly force Anna and Jimmy to hide beneath the stairs while he trashed the house with a gun in his hand, vowing to kill them both. The terror came to an end in 1926 when cirrhosis of the liver killed the man.

The relief for Jimmy was short-lived. Within months, his mother Anna came down ill and went all the way to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota for treatment. It didn’t help. Anna came home with an infection that only hastened her death, and 14-year old Jimmy soon found himself an orphan.

Louis and Anna Kalish didn’t leave Jimmy with a lot of money, but he did inherit the Savoy hotel and a plot of land on Lake Drive, which his dad had taken from a customer as payment for a gambling debt. He would later appreciate the Lake Drive property but forever despised the hotel and left it to his uncle Joe to run.

And he thanked God he no longer had to live there; his Aunt Josie and Uncle Steve Walko took him in and he enjoyed the following years in a roomy house across the street from Jones Park. He had also taken his mother’s advice to study hard in school, advice he took very seriously, and his cousins took advantage of his ever-willingness to tutor them.

Luck turned again on Jimmy Kalish in 1929. Most people who lost their fortune that year could blame it on the historic stock market crash but Steve Walko had only a gambling addiction to blame. He lost every penny he had, along with his nice house, on a pack of ponies at the new racetrack.

With no place left to turn, the Walko’s, and Jimmy, moved into the Savoy. The young man remained stoic and redoubled his studies, never losing faith in education to get him out of a place he didn’t want to be. He turned as well to physical fitness and could soon do 100 push-ups without breaking a sweat. (He would do those push-ups every night before going to bed, well into his 80s, when his doctor told him to stop.)

* * *

James and Bernice Kalish wedding photo. 1933
James and Bernice Kalish wedding photo. 1933

Jimmy surprised no one when he got into Northeast Missouri State Teachers College in Kirksville. He had enough money to pay for classes but not for transportation. But being from East St. Louis he knew his way around railroads, and there were plenty of freight trains to get him home whenever he wanted.

On one of those visits home he met a delicate young woman named Bernice Malec at a dance. She accepted the impeccably fit college man’s offer of a date—but may have disregarded her mother’s advice about mixing men with beer. In any event, Jimmy soon learned his girlfriend was expecting his child.

As much as he valued education, he valued commitment to family even more. So Jimmy gave up his dreams of being a history teacher and got a job hauling salt bungs at Swift. Bernice moved in with him at the Savoy. Their daughter Lorraine, my mother, was born on December 7, 1933.

As one might expect, Adam and Julia Malec didn’t like the idea of their daughter and granddaughter living in a brothel. Shortly after my aunt Jackie was born in 1935, they offered the young family use of a small house they owned on 8th Street, next door to their own.

It was tight quarters—Jim and Bernice used a rollaway in the kitchen and Lorraine and Jackie shared the bedroom—but it was a welcome step up from the Savoy. They got more elbow room when Jim and some friends built a house on his inherited property on Lake Drive, not long before their son Jim was born. And there, at long last, life was good.

East St. Louis blossomed in the late 1940s, four decades after pushing itself out of the hard ground of a rapidly industrializing America. Back when my immigrant ancestors arrived it was said “Only those who must, live in East St. Louis.” In 1913, John Chamberlain was elected mayor after campaigning on the promise to “make East St. Louis a little more like home and a little less than Hell.”

Things had improved dramatically by the time Lorraine Kalish was growing up. Mom and her sister Jackie and brother Jim got good educations at well-equipped schools, spent free time in the giant sand-bottomed swimming pool at Jones Park—said to be the largest inland beach of its kind in America—and took summer “vacations” at Grandma and Grandpa Malec’s house on 8th street where they were showered with attention.

It was a good time indeed for many grandchildren of the Eastern European immigrants who had flooded through Ellis Island at the turn of the century. Life was not so good for the African Americans of East St. Louis.

The national scourge of racial discrimination and bigotry made no exceptions here. Race riots had ravaged the city in 1917, when mobs of excitable and sadly misinformed whites feared the blacks migrating from the South were taking all their jobs. East St. Louis in the 1940s was still hell for those unlucky enough to be born with the wrong color skin. And it would pretty much stay that way.

* * *

James and Bernice Kalish with children Lorraine, Jackie, and Jim.
James and Bernice Kalish with children Lorraine, Jackie, and Jim.

Like most American families, the Kalish’s had to endure the rationing, worry, and other deprivations brought on by World War II. The US reluctantly entered “the Good War” on December 7, 1941, Mom’s birthday, when news of Pearl Harbor came across the Malec’s radio as they sat down for her birthday supper.

Unlike later wars, this one was felt by virtually every household in America due to rationing of everyday goods. Shoes, for example, were limited to one pair per year. Grandpa Malec used his skills from his cobbler days to keep everyone’s shoes in good repair.

The Kalish family could at least count on meat on their table every day. Or nearly so. The packing houses let workers buy meat at a discount and Jim Kalish took advantage of the bargain. He’d bring home whatever cut was made available that day—short ribs, organ meats, pig knuckles—but never hot dogs. Nor bologna nor liverwurst, known then as Braunschweiger.

Grandpa had sworn off processed meat of any kind after one day watching a coworker sweep the grimy packinghouse floor and empty his pan into one of the grinding vats, as was routine. As he peered into the machinery this day, he spotted among the soiled and boot-trodden meat scraps a campaign button. I’m not making this up. “Wendell Willkie for President,” it read.

The powerful grinders reduced the visage of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dark horse opponent to tiny flecks of filler, and Jim could only imagine what else might be going into America’s wieners and franks.

* * *

Mom’s parents provided a great many things to their children, but ethnic identity was not one of them. Like many children of immigrants they took pains to break ties to the old country. They didn’t want to be seen as immigrants, especially during wartime. They were Americans now and felt obligated to reinforce that.

They did things like only speaking English at home, and discouraging their own children from learning any Croatian, Slovakian or Polish, languages Jim and Bernice knew well. And they allowed the consumption of garlic only on Sundays when they were with family—God forbid coworkers and schoolmates should smell garlic on any of their breaths, a sure giveaway of being an immigrant.

One thing that was passed down from generations past was an unbending work ethic. This was a working class family to its genetic core, and every member knew that if you wanted something you worked for it. So when the kids became teenagers and wanted extra money, they got jobs.

Mom found one at Jimmy’s Malt Shop on State Street. There, a very pretty Lorraine Kalish scooped ice cream, wiped down countertops, and, when they needed it, went outside to wash the windows. On one of those occasions a young man she recognized approached.

“Are you Lorraine Kalish?” the nervous guy asked. “Oh you’re Bob Durbin’s brother,” answered Lorraine, catching the sharp-dressed fella off guard. Composing himself, he invited her to the annual Easter Dance coming up soon.

Mom accepted, enjoyed the dance, and accompanied my dad afterward to a road-house called the Chatterbox with a crowd of other couples. She didn’t enjoy that part of the evening as much, because she had never been around so many people drinking alcohol, which is not a surprise given her age.

When my dad learned his date was only fifteen years old, he returned her home and made it clear he had no idea he was four years older than her. Mom wasn’t sure if she’d ever hear from this guy again or not. And she’d wait a long time to find out.