A tale of two once-proud banks for immigrants on Chicago’s Southwest Side

One disappeared in 1982 after 69 honest and scandal-free years. The other appears to have been the victim of a gargantuan loan fraud scheme.

SHARE A tale of two once-proud banks for immigrants on Chicago’s Southwest Side

John F. Gembara, grandson of the founder of Washington Federal Bank for Savings in Bridgeport, was found dead, reportedly of suicide, in a client’s home shortly before the bank was shuttered.

1913 was a good year for European immigrants and their children seeking home ownership on Chicago’s Southwest Side. That year saw the creation of two savings banks just three miles apart, one in Brighton Park and the other in Bridgeport. 

I know about the first one, Grunwald Savings, because it was founded by my grandfather, Edward Obrzut and associates, to bring home ownership to their many striving, industrious fellow immigrants. Obrzut had several other business ventures, including building a number of the solid brick bungalows that still stand stately today on the Southwest Side. My mother grew up in one of those bungalows, with her six siblings, on South Komensky Avenue. I have a single memory of being in that house in about 1949. A year later, in 1950, my parents secured a loan from Grunwald to finance an addition to my boyhood home in Garfield Ridge. 

Obrzut ran Grunwald for some years and was succeeded by his son, my uncle Carl Obrzut. Grunwald Savings thrived, eventually moving to a modern new building at 83rd and Kedzie. But the savings & loan industry collapsed in the early 1980’s, in part from treacherous, mogul owners such as Charles Keating of Lincoln Savings infamy and five complicit U.S. senators, including the revered John McCain. Consolidation ruled and Grunwald disappeared in 1982 after 69 honest and scandal-free years. 

I was reminded of the history of Grunwald Savings as I read the terrible tale, in the Sun-Times, of the other 1913 savings bank that served early 20th century Polish immigrants on the Southwest Side, Washington Federal Bank for Savings. Unlike Grunwald, Washington survived to the third generation, run by the founder’s grandson, John F. Gembara. But after 104 years, Washington collapsed — 12 days after Gembara killed himself in the luxury home of a client as the Feds apparently were closing in. At some point, Washington Savings apparently may have sunk beneath a gargantuan loan fraud scheme. Eight former Washington employees and clients have been indicted.

I’m proud of my Polish heritage, and I’m proud of the financial institution founded by my grandfather to uplift his countrymen. The legacy of Washington Federal is too sorrowful to contemplate. 

Walt Zlotow, Glen Ellyn

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I read with some concern in a recent Sun-Times story that every the family of every Chicago Public School child — as well as the families of millions of other children in Illinois — will be receiving federal food-purchasing cards worth $450, as part of the pandemic relief effort.

The Sun-Times story noted that 76% of CPS’ 355,000 students are “economically disadvantaged,” which means 85,200 (24%) presumably are not. The math here is fairly simply and translates into as much as $38 million in federal funds going to Chicago families who may not need help. Even if up to half of these families find themselves in need as a result of the current pandemic, that still leaves an awful lot of money being misdirected.

I urge these CPS families (and families in all school districts in Illinois) to think of how they could use these food cards for greater good. There are many charities that have been working for the past 12 months — and for most, much longer — to feed those who are truly in need. Pick a charity of your choice — a local food pantry, shelter, a non-profit organization, or any other initiative — and put those dollars where they truly belong.

Erica Salem, Lake View

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