Suffield Polish Families – Immigration Stories

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In the early years of the Polish Heritage Society (PHS), many members wrote down the stories of their parent’s immigration to the United States. A strong supporter of the PHS, Bernice (Karakla) Sobinski, wrote her parents’ accounts in 2009, and Jim Turek interviewed her at a PHS meeting in September 2018. The following article combines information from her stories with some additional editing: some comments highlight Polish immigrants’ characteristics and customs.

Michael Zukowski, one of the earliest Polish settlers in Suffield, sponsored Bernice’s father, Izydor Kierkla, to come to America about 1900 when he was about 20 years old. He had escaped from Poland (then Russia) to avoid conscription into the Tsar’s Imperial Army. Izydor paid the Jewish underground 40 Russian rubles (about $20) for transportation to Germany. When he got to Ellis Island, he converted his remaining rubles into approximately $7. Izydor worked for Zukowski and, ultimately, acquired land in Feeding Hills, Mass. He became a tobacco farmer just across the Suffield line off Halladay Avenue.

Like so many other Polish immigrants, Izydor changed his difficult-to-pronounce surname to Karakla before marrying Dominika Bochwinska in 1907. She had been born about 1888 and immigrated to America when she was about 17. It was typical that Polish immigrants did not know their exact birthdate, but they often chose a date that was somehow associated with Catholicism. Dominika chose June 29, which would have been the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1888. When she came to Suffield, she initially worked as a domestic servant for two long-standing families, first for the Sikes’ then for the Remingtons.’

Izydor was known to have sponsored at least eight others to come to America. (This writer’s research into the Suffield Polish community indicates that it is likely that the people he vouched for were fellow parishioners who attended Mass at the Catholic church in the town of Suchawola, Poland.) These new arrivals boarded with and worked for the Karaklas. Most of them remained in Suffield.

Izydor and Dominika had three daughters who married sons of other Polish immigrants and lived in Suffield. Coincidentally (or not?) Valeria, the first-born, married one of Michael Zukowski’s sons, Francis. Helen became the wife of Frank Zera, and Bernice married Adam Sobinski. Those couples produced the 2nd generation Polish-Americans.

Francis and Valeria Zukowski’s daughter, Dorothy, married Kyle Thresher, remained in Suffield, and had seven 3rd generation Polish American children. Only one of them, Stephen, has stayed in Suffield and has two children. Another Thresher son is the grandfather of the 5th generation Polish Americans that started with the Zukowskis and Karaklas, but they do not reside in Suffield.

When meetings resume, the PHS will miss Bernice’s presence. She was one of the remaining few 1st generation Polish American citizens of Suffield when she passed away on January 14, 2021, at the age of 97 years. She was a cultural inspiration. 

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