BUCKTOWN — She’s a fixture on the streets and in the alleys of one of the city’s most trendy neighborhoods, toting plastic garbage bags in each arm and feeding the pigeons.
After suffering two heart attacks and a stroke, Marcella Juszynski, 90, has been known to approach young professionals on the streets of Bucktown, her blue eyes twinkling, and advise them, “Don’t get old!”
But few of the new families that have moved to the neighborhood for its restaurants and expensive homes even know the name of the labor camp survivor, let alone the dramatic tale that brought her to the near Northwest Side decades ago. Nor do they know how much she did to welcome new Polish immigrants to the neighborhood, which was once dominated by factories and working class housing.
“She is the original fabric of Bucktown and represents what Bucktown once was,” said Chicago Police Department officer David Uting, who now works the beat and often sees Juszynski strolling through the neighborhood. “There aren’t many people like her left here."
For her part, Juszynski said she has seen the face of the neighborhood change dramatically while walking the streets of her adopted neighborhood in her adopted hometown.
“Bucktown was one of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago,” she said. “Now it’s one of the best. There are homes on my street selling for $1.3 million” — more than 100 times what she paid for her first home when she moved to the area almost 60 years ago.
She walks constantly on the advice of her doctor. When he told her to carry weights, she figured bags of garbage from her house would work just fine.
“I walk every day to North Avenue, but I hold [the] fence and [a] cane. I carry bags always because they say to carry at least five pounds in your hand,” she said.
“I know some people that when they don’t get up and walk for a few days that was their goodbye.”
While some neighbors might frown on her feeding pigeons premium-quality dog food — she’s even brought some into her home to nurse them back to health — she traces her need to do so back to her childhood in Dubno, Poland. There she helped care for animals as the daughter of a government forestry worker — before World War II changed everything.
In the winter of 1940 the two along with her mother and brother were awoken by the Russian army in the middle of the night and deported to a labor camp in the northern Russian city of Zaruba.
"The Russians hated anyone that worked for the government. My father … was a threat” to them, she said.
The working and living conditions were treacherous, she said, although her family survived the camp. They weren’t freed until 1942 when the Germans invaded the camp. Thousands of prisoners were forced to walk 266 miles to a train station in Kotlas.
“So many died on the walk. We were eating grass, and when there was no grass we ate roots from the grass,” she said.
Just a few months after arriving to Uzbekistan by train from Kotlas, her father died of typhus. She still can recall the image of her father's body being buried in a pit with at least 80 other bodies.
“Anyone wearing even a scrap of clothing, it was removed so the living could wear it and keep warm,” she said.
Then her brother, who’d been forced to join the Russian military, when their camp was overtaken, died while marching.
She caught Typhus and spent in month in a Red Cross hospital.
"I donate to the Red Cross today. When I was in Siberia I told myself that if I ever get out, and if I have bread, I will share it with others," she said.
She later moved with her mother to Iran, where she met her husband Jan in Tehran in 1944, just months after he'd fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino, which claimed the lives of thousands of Poles.
They had a son and moved Chicago in 1951, and settled near Ashland and Chicago avenues before buying a home in Bucktown in 1954 for $11,000.
“They called it Near Northwest, not Bucktown. It was very poor, and so many black people lived here. They could afford it. They were nice, no trouble,” she recalled. Many working class “can’t afford to live here” now, she said.
Juszynski worked for 31 years at a YMCA hotel on the southwest corner of Ashland and Division, on a lot soon to become an 11-story planned development. Her husband worked at a steel foundry at Clybourn and North.
Juszynski also served as a resource for Poles in her neighborhood and across the city.
“When [Bucktown] used to be all Polish, she worked all the time, always doing so much for everyone else,” said her son Tony Juszynski, 68, of Belmont-Cragin. “People, they came from Poland and I don't know how, but they would all find her, and she would take them to the Embassy to get their papers straightened out.”
She’s more than lived up to her pledge to help others, looking after countless older neighbors, and even once sending food up to a homebound senior via a rope out a window, recalled her granddaughter, Kim Juszynski, 40, who lives down the block. Marcella Juszynski also has found stolen purses in the trash and returned them to the police.
Her favorite food? Rye bread, a remnant of when she could even get that as a labor camp prisoner.
"Bread is big for her,” said Tony Juszynski, who brings his mother groceries from Avondale’s Kurawski’s Deli. “It is because of all that she’s been through, losing everything in Poland, going to Siberia and making it to the United States.”