Courtesy of Lydia Mattei
Part of the extended Sobocinski family and also part of the first generation of Polish American children, Wanda Walczak was born in Salem in 1902. In a 1978 interview, she recalled the rapid changes in the Derby Street area in the first decades of the twentieth century. As a small child, she played mostly with Irish children; soon, though, newcomers from the occupied areas of Poland began arriving in large numbers, changing the ethnic composition of the neighborhood. Because the Sobocinskis were already established in the city, they served as a kind of home base for newcomers: "My mother said many times that she didn’t want anybody, but they’d be begging her, just if they could have a place to sleep, even on the floor, just so they could be with their own people, just until they got settled." By the time she was a young woman, "Derby Street was just like a little town" with its own Polish stores, restaurants, clubs, school, and vibrant social and political life.
Wanda was one of a group of five students who formed the second graduating class at Salem's St. John the Baptist School, which was then held in the basement of the original parish church on Herbert Street. She was a member of the House of Seven Gables as a child, and later became very politically active, helping to establish a Polish presence in the city and the region. She was a founding member of the Women's Polish American Citizens Club and served as the head of Salem's United Polish Organizations and on the city's school committee. One of her proudest moments was when she spoke up on behalf of a delegation of Polish Americans who had gone to the State House in the mid-1930s to meet with then-governor James Curley about an issue involving the state’s Industrial Accident Board. When an aide informed them that the group could just leave a message for the governor, Walczak told him sharply, “The time is past when you shut foreigners in a corner,” and was rewarded by being ushered in immediately to the governor’s office, where she received a hearing, a compliment for her forthrightness, and an autographed photo of Curley.
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For more information on this topic, see these pages from In the Heart of Polish Salem: