10 octubre, 1933 - 30 octubre, 2018
On October 30th, 2018, Sylvia “Suave” Teresa Thoma (née Slawomira Teresa Motylewska), the toughest woman ever known to us, passed away peacefully. She was 84 or 85 years old. Certainty of her birth year was one of the many casualties of World War II, which began in her homeland of Poland some seventy-nine years earlier when, on September 1st, 1939 Poland was invaded by a joint force led by Germany.
Sylvia never wanted to speak of her life before coming to the United States. Instead, she preferred to focus on her work—caring for her family and working hard at everything she did. She was proud that she had worked from the age of eleven, and that she had never been fired or laid off from any job she ever held, even during difficult economic times when layoffs were frequent. She worked for nearly forty years at a dental instruments manufacturing plant located in Des Plaines, Illinois. She only left that job when she was in her mid-seventies because she had suffered a broken hip that required multiple surgeries to repair.
Not one for hobbies or leisurely activities, her pleasures were simple. She loved to iron clothes—she told her children about how she used to iron her husband, Richard’s, underwear and their bed sheets. She loved to find bargains and then, if the items did not meet her exacting standards, bring them back to the store, sometimes well after the return period expired, in which case she would fight with the store managers until they relented and gave her her money back.
Though these little blisses and victories may seem trivial to those who did not know her, they are significant for how well they demonstrated her meticulousness and fiery spirit, no doubt forged in her early years. She had survived the Nazis and Soviets, and the rest of us were no match for her.
First taken prisoner by the Germans and destined to become ostarbeiters (“Eastern workers”, which was the Nazi designation for foreign slave workers) like so many others of her country, Sylvia and her family soon became unwilling subjects of the Soviet Union who invaded Poland from the east on September 17, 1939. The Germans fell back from the area of Adamówka, where Sylvia and her family lived, in accordance with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact that Germany and the Soviet Union negotiated in secret in August, 1939, and by which they agreed to divvy up Europe, beginning with Poland.
Sylvia, her mother Anna, her father Joachim, sisters Regina, Henryka, Janina and Halina, and brother Marian, were transported to Siberia where they were interred in a forced labor camp. Jadwiga, another sister, was left behind in Poland because she was away at school at the time of the invasion, and she was unable to reunite with her family before they were sent to Siberia. It is estimated that two-thirds of the nearly two million Poles sent to Siberian labor camps had perished there, or on their way there. Sylvia’s sisters Regina and Halina were among them.
In August 1941, Sylvia and her family were granted “amnesty” by the Soviets and freed to go home, but there was no home to which to return. Poland existed from 1939 through at least 1945 as an occupied land, and would not be truly free of Soviet rule until 1989. For the next two years Sylvia and her family, along with approximately 1,400 other Poles who would become known as the Santa Rosa Refugees, were moved at the behest of various governments not their own—the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States—from refugee camps in Palestine*, Iraq, Iran*, and India, as well as on the continent of Africa.
While awaiting resettlement to an undetermined country in Africa (likely one that was a colony of the U.K. at that time), the Mexican government agreed to allow these refugees to wait out the war in an abandoned hacienda near León, Guanajuato, known as Santa Rosa. From India, the refugees traveled to Australia, New Zealand, Bora Bora and the United States to await resettlement in Mexico. While in the United States they were placed in Griffith Park Detention Camp along with Japanese-Americans interred after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Japanese, German and Italian prisoners of war.
On July 4, 1943, Sylvia and her family arrived in Mexico, and were sent to the Polish refugee camp known as Santa Rosa Hacienda. The details of Sylvia’s life in Mexico are unclear. We do know that: Sylvia’s youngest brother, Lesczk “Les” Zygmunt was born in Mexico; her oldest brother, Marian, immigrated from Mexico to the United States in 1947 to attend school; after leaving Santa Rosa the family lived in the Yucatan Peninsula and Mexico City; and Sylvia’s father, Joachim, died suddenly in Mexico.
In January, 1949, Anna left Mexico with Sylvia (then 14 or 15 years old), Janina and Les for a new life in the United States. Henryka stayed behind because she fell in love with, and married, David Franco Espejo, a Mexican citizen, and stayed there with him.
Sylvia and her family were sponsored for residency in the United States by a family in Biggs, California, where they worked under difficult circumstances. Anna advertised for domestic work and obtained a job in Necedah, Wisconsin where she moved with Les, and eventually married Otto Vopelak, a local dairy farmer. Sylvia and her older sister, Janina, were sent to Chicago to work so they could send money home to their mother and Les. Sylvia and Janina lived for a time in a convent on the south side of Chicago but later moved to their own apartment on the north side.
Sylvia met Richard Adamson Thoma while they both worked at Warwick Manufacturing, Co. in Chicago. The company held a beauty contest and Sylvia was named “Miss Warwick”, winning a turntable but, as far as we know, no tiara or sash. Though she was enamored of Richard (who gave her the nickname “Suave”) from the start, Sylvia was reluctant to give up her independence to marry him. Finally, after dating for several years, during which time they would regularly go to concerts of such legends as Louis Armstrong, Richard gave Sylvia an ultimatum—marry him or it was over.
They married in 1957, and for the next nearly sixty years were inseparable. Richard’s gentle demeanor and patience were the perfect antidote to Sylvia’s tumultuous early life, and her intense temperament. Together they formed a solid partnership, and a humble, but sturdy, home for their three children. They could not be more different from each other, but together they were whole.
With Richard as her tutor, Sylvia, who had little formal education, became a citizen of the United States in 1980. Despite his appreciation for formal education and his sharp intellect, Richard relied on Sylvia’s “street smarts”, as he referred to her keen intuition and hard-knock knowledge. Their marriage was a true partnership, to which each of them brought their own, and honored the other’s, gifts.
Together they raised three children, Ned (Jo), Mark (his partner, Alice Krampits), and Michelle (Sean Culver), all of whom survive her. She was preceded in death by her darling Richard. In addition to her children, Sylvia is survived by her cherished grandchildren, Adamson and Jordan, dearly loved step-grandchildren, Jason and Joey, her brother, Les Motylewski, and many nieces and nephews.
In lieu of flowers the family requests that donations in Sylvia’s honor be made to the Cancer Research Institute (cancerresearch.org) or to the Kresy Siberia Foundation (http://kresy-siberia.org). The objectives of the Kresy Siberia Foundation are to inspire, promote and support the worldwide research, remembrance and recognition of Polish citizens’ struggles under occupation and in exile in connection with the Second World War.
Sylvia's Memorial Service will be held Saturday, March 2nd at 10:00 a.m. at St. Peter's United Church of Christ, 125 W. Church Street, Elmhurst, IL. The service will be immediately followed by a luncheon at U Gazdy Restaurant in Wood Dale, IL.
*The names of certain areas as they are recognized today are being used, and may be different than when Sylvia was in these areas.
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|Fecha de nacimiento
||10 octubre, 1933
|Fecha de defunción
||30 octubre, 2018
|Ciudad de origen
||Adamówka, Podkarpackie Voivodeship, PL
||I don't know about you people. (Most often directed to her children)