By Zach Hammack
Even at 105 years old, Mary Mostek had the memory of a book.
That’s how the Lincoln Evening Journal described my great-great-grandmother in a 1958 article commemorating her 78th Thanksgiving dinner in America at a Columbus nursing home.
Years earlier, Mostek lived in the small town of Tarnov, Nebraska, where, up until her 100th birthday, she did her own housekeeping and kept up the lawn, the article said.
As one might expect, my great-great-grandma’s story stretches beyond these simple anecdotes from her later life on the Nebraska plains.
Like many of my maternal ancestors, Mary Mostek, neé Kuta, came to America from Poland in the late 19th century.
But despite coming to a new country unsure of what to expect, my ancestors, like Mostek, still maintained a strong sense of Polish identity – its religion, culture and work ethic. That identity has stayed with our family up to today.
With the help of an aunt who has spent years gathering information about our ancestors, I explored my Polish roots – from a city in Poland called Tarnów, to Tarnov, Nebraska, a Polish settlement in the north-central part of the state named for its Polish counterpart.
Mary Kuta was born in 1855, likely in Tarnów, Poland. In 1883, she married Michael Mostek, according to a Polish marriage license. Just a year later, the couple set off for the United States in search of new opportunity, according to a 1900 census document.
The two initially lived in a Polish settlement in Chicago, according to the Evening Journal article, before settling on a farm near Platte Center, Nebraska. They had eight children, including Dominic, who was born in 1898 and would be my great-grandfather.
After her husband’s death in 1902 at the age of 48, Mary Mostek was tasked with raising a family alone. In 1920, she built her own house in Tarnov, a town settled in 1889 that was founded by settlers from Tarnów, Poland.
Dominic Mostek married Mary Zabawa in that same year at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Tarnov, according to a marriage certificate. Mary Zabawa also came from Poland when she was 3 years old, sailing out of Hamburg, Germany, in 1905 with her sister Anna, according to a shipping manifest.
Dominic and Mary had four children; the second youngest was Leonard Mostek, who was born in 1926 in Loup City and would become my grandfather.
The family lived in various towns in Nebraska, including Sherman, Loup City and Ashton.
My grandfather, Leonard, is the closest link to my ancestors that I knew growing up. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1945 at 18 years old, toward the end of World War II. Four years later, he married Elaine Jarzynka in Ashton, Nebraska.
The two raised their seven children, including my mother, in St. Paul, Nebraska, a town just miles north of Grand Island.
Elaine Jarzynka, my grandmother, comes from a family with a rich Polish history as well, as detailed in a lengthy family history, excerpts of which my aunt emailed me.
John Jarzynka, who would be my great-great grandfather, was born in Poland in 1857 and emigrated to the United States with his parents and siblings in 1879.
The family settled in Paplin, Nebraska, where John worked for the railroad and helped his father run a farm.
In 1882, John married Kathrine Koslicki in a Catholic church in Farwell, Nebraska. Shortly after their marriage, John purchased 160 acres from the C B & Q Railroad Company, according to the family history. He paid $538 in total for the land, where the couple initially lived in a sod house.
As John and Katie would soon learn, life as fledgling immigrants wasn’t easy.
“They had to endure all the hardships of raising a large family, living in a sod house,” a relative wrote. “They went through the snow blizzards that hit the Paplin area around 1890 … they also survived the diphtheria epidemic that broke out in 1892.”
For many Polish immigrants, like my own ancestors, religion served as a link to their European roots. Catholicism, especially, was central to lives of my ancestors.
In 1883, for example, John helped construct Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Paplin.
The couple had 15 children, two of whom died as infants. According to the family history, “the evenings at the home of John and Katie were usually filled with music.”
Most of the children could play instruments, including violins, button accordions and pianos.
Pete Jarzynka, who would be my great-grandfather, once claimed his brother, Tony, was one of the best musicians in the area.
“People used to say that Tony should have been sent to some special school for music because he was so talented,” the history reads.
One thread that ties all these stories together is a sense of pride. My ancestors, while leaving their native land, still saw themselves as Polish.
“John was not a big man,” wrote one of my relatives, “but he was still very proud of his name and of his Polish descent.”