Polish club, born in Camden, marking a milestone

Posted: June 02, 2014

On New Year's Eve, Dan Steiner remembers, "you couldn't move" inside the Polish American Citizens' Club in Whitman Park.

"There were two bands. One upstairs, one down," says Steiner, 72, whose own five-piece group, the Melody Kings, often played at the club.

The boxy brick building at Lowell and Warsaw Streets, a landmark in the frayed neighborhood that once was the vibrant heart of Polish Camden, closed in the late 1980s. It's now the Bonsall School annex.

The PACC moved, first to Oaklyn, then to Runnemede, where it continues to meet. The club will mark its centennial with a party at Paris Caterers, in Blackwood, on June 8.

To the day, that will mark 100 years ( sto lat, in Polish) since the club was founded as a place for immigrants to enjoy the music, food, and fellowship of the old country, while attending the English classes that helped them embrace their new one.

"I don't think our founding fathers could have imagined this," says Steiner, whom I meet - along with fellow PACC stalwarts Walter Piatek and Paul Matyjasik - on an overcast morning last week.

Steiner could be talking about Whitman Park, which has been ravaged by illegal drugs and is often called "Polack Town" by current residents apparently unaware of the ethnic slur embedded in the nickname.

But Steiner, who lives in Mantua, is referring to the PACC's longevity. "Although we no longer have a building, we are still an operating club," the retired Camden tax office clerk says proudly. "And we're still accepting new members."

About 130 people are on the rolls; annual dues are $15. Every year a handful of new members join up - the latest will be sworn in this month - as another handful passes away.

"Nobody ever resigns," says Matyjasik, 60, who lives in Marlton and retired as a battalion chief from the Camden Fire Department in 2009. His son, Curt, 30, is among the youngest members.

"We're basically a social club now," says Berlin Borough resident Piatek, 85, a retired RCA-Camden wireman. "We'll never be what we were again."

When Piatek joined in 1948, annual dues were $3 and the glory days were underway. The Lowell and Warsaw building opened in 1949, and membership would reach more than 1,000 over the next two decades.

There was a ballroom, a library, rooms for poker and pinochle; the club fielded championship softball teams and served, along with St. Joseph's Church and the VFW Post 121, as a touchstone of community.

"Whenever there was a funeral for someone in the neighborhood, people went there for lunch afterward," Matyjasik says. "And everybody had their wedding parties upstairs."

"The club was such a dear part of my life," recalls Stan Bednarcyk, 81, a retired mail carrier who lives in Haddon Heights.

Bednarcyk grew up on the 900 block of Jackson Street and could see the clubhouse from his kitchen window.

"On Friday night, people watched the fights on TV at the club," he says. "Saturday night, there were dances. These were some of the best nights of my life."

"The place meant so much to people," says Joe Paprzycki, the South Camden Theatre Company founder whose play Indoor Picnic was inspired by the club.

"I went there with my buddies and my father was on the other side of the bar, with his buddies," Paprzycki, a Gloucester City resident, says. "The club was huge - and politically influential, too."

Candidates for city, county, state, and national office would stop by on what were called "hot dog nights," Steiner says.

Piatek recalls a visit by Walter Mondale. Steiner notes that Angelo Errichetti, who was elected mayor with the enthusiastic support of the club, was himself an honorary member.

By the late 1970s, the white ethnic exodus to the suburbs was well underway. Club membership dwindled, as did attendance at events.

But the ties remain strong: About 150 people, including some coming from as far as Florida and Georgia, are expected at the June 8 bash.

And the Rick Gazda Band will play the Polish national anthem, Jeszcze Polska Nie Zginela. Which means, "Poland Is Not Yet Lost."


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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