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Konstanty ‘Konnie’ Pieczykolan dies; connected family after war

Polish refugee Konstanty "Konnie" J. Pieczykolan built a new life in America and worked to connect relatives around the globe. | Family photo

Konnie Pieczykolan was 6 when Germany invaded his native Poland.

His uncle Jan, thought to be in the Resistance in their town of Huszczka-Duza, was taken away by German authorities. “He just simply disappeared,” said Harriet Jelinski, Mr. Pieczykolan’s sister. “They told my grandmother he had a heart attack. No one believed it. He was just in his 20s. He just never came back.”

And as war began to grind down the Germans, his family was given a choice, said his daughter Jane Szczepaniak. The authorities told the Pieczykolans, “The Russians are coming from the East. You can stay and be slaughtered by the Russians, or you can come to Germany and work.”

The overture had a twisted logic. Germany needed labor, and by moving entire families to its farms, the adult workers were trapped, afraid to flee and leave children behind. “They knew the men could never run away and abandon the family,” Harriet Jelinski said. Soon, “Our family was shipped out to a farmer” in Germany.

Young Konnie Pieczykolan in Europe. | Family photo

The Pieczykolans were liberated by American troops in 1945. “The thing that I remember the most is what they show in the movies,” his sister said. “The American soldier came up, offered me a bar of chocolate.”

Konnie Pieczykolan (right) and buddies in his Army days. | Family photo

The family spent the next six years in displaced persons camps. Konnie, the oldest child, picked up enough English to act as the Pieczykolans’ translator when he was 17, and they headed to a new life in Northwest Indiana on the General W.G. Haan, a former troop transport ship that carried refugees to America.

After the war, Mr. Pieczykolan helped link relatives strewn over Poland, Germany, Canada and England. Drafted at 18 into the U.S. Army and stationed in Germany, he spent his days off socializing with European relatives, bringing them news of the Pieczykolans in America. “When [other soldiers] had leave to go to France or Italy, my father had this sense of obligation that he should spend his free time visiting relatives in Germany,” Jane Szczepaniak said.

Soon, he became a godfather to an infant relative in the state of Bavaria. “He was the godfather to I don’t know how many kids,” said his daughter, Diane Barry.

In his later years, the octogenarian used his computer to stay in touch with relatives around the globe. He would email cousins gossip and news of births, weddings and deaths, Diane Barry said. “That really was the theme of his life — family.” A decade ago, when he was ill and facing surgery, she said he told his daughters, “I want you all to stay together as a family.”

Konnie Pieczykolan and his wife, Alice. | Family photo

Mr. Pieczykolan, 84, died March 23 at his home in Munster, Indiana, from renal failure brought on by multiple myeloma, relatives said.

After his family immigrated to America, his father, Boleslaw, did carpentry in Virginia. The Pieczykolans moved to the Midwest after a relative told his dad, “We have steel mill jobs that pay much more than you earn as a carpenter.” His father worked at American Steel Foundries at Indiana Harbor. And though he had previously done hard labor as a carpenter and on farms, “He never slaved as much as he did at the steel mill,” his daughter said.

Konnie Pieczykolan and his late wife, Christine. | Family photo

Young Konnie wanted a different life. He worked for much of his career as a sales representative for Crescent Electric.

He met his two wives at Polish weddings. In 1961, he married Christine, a fellow refugee. She died of leukemia in 1981. In 1984, he married Alice, a widow and another refugee from Poland. They blended his two daughters, Jane and Diane, with her three girls — Diane Andersen, Victoria Kosin and Jeannette Cairns. To cut down on confusion, they sometimes called his daughter “Diane Sr.” and hers “Diane Jr.”

“Our children gave us their blessing,” Alice Pieczykolan said. “We became a very happy, large family.”

Konnie Pieczykolan loved dogs, often slipping them treats from holiday tables. | Family photo

Mr. Pieczykolan loved order and neatness. “He would mow his lawn in a certain pattern, and reverse the pattern the following week,” Jane Szczepaniak said.

He babied his cars. Even after he owned them for 10 or 15 years, they looked as if they’d just exited the lot. Once, “Alice sewed a special fitted sheet that followed the contour of the car to keep the dust off,” Diane Barry said.

Mr. Pieczykolan babied pets, too. “At all the holiday dinners, all the dogs would want to put their little heads in Konnie’s lap because he would feed them under the table,” Jeannette Cairns said.

He used his immigrant experience to encourage his children, Diane Andersen said, telling them, “When he came to this country he didn’t know the language, and you just have to do it. You can’t second-guess yourself.”

As a ballroom dancer, he seemed to float. He was expert at the foxtrot and Polish dances including the polka and oberek. But Mr. Pieczykolan really excelled at Latin steps. “The tango was his favorite,” his sister said.

Mr. Pieczykolan’s Polish pride came out when he watched the Blackhawks. “Anybody that had a Polish last name, [he thought] they were very good,” Vicki Kosin said.

He is also survived by seven grandchildren. Services have been held.

Konnie Pieczykolan of Munster helped connect relatives in many countries. Here he is (plaid shirt, second row right) at a family reunion in Indiana. | Family photo