March 26, 2014 - Brandon Twp.- After more than half a century of marriage, Sophie and Jerry Strygulec endured four years of living apart.
Sophie and Jerry Strygulec share a kiss, and a life together, at Nature's Way Adult Foster Care Home. Photo by Susan Bromley. (click for larger version)
Now they are reunited and demonstrating the meaning of devotion, commitment and hope to their fellow residents of Nature's Way Adult Foster Care Home.
The couple's journey to end up together is one that spans not only years, but thousands of miles, three countries, a war, and mental illness.
Both Jerry and Sophie were born in Poland— he on July 13, 1929 in Czestochowa and she on Oct. 30, 1932 in Krakow— but their lives would not intersect for many years, and never in their native country, although their early lives would follow similar paths. In the fall of 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, beginning the occupation of the country during World War II.
Czestochowa at that time had a population of 180,000 and was renowned worldwide as home to the Black Madonna painting, more than 600-years-old and located in a Pauline monastery. In 1941, Jerry's father, a Polish policeman, was shot to death on his way home from work by the Nazis. Jerry, his two brothers and their mother survived with the help of other Polish families, receiving coupons for food. In 1942, Jerry recalls the Nazis coming down Czestochowa streets in trucks and ordering the residents to collect their belongings in one hour. They were then transported by train to Germany, where they were forced into slave labor on a farm.
"You have no excuse, you just do it," says Jerry now. "You had to do this or they would kill you. The German (citizens) were nice people, but they couldn't do anything because Hitler was in power and if you're against him, you're gone."
Around the same time, Sophie, then 7, was also taken, along with her parents and two sisters, from Krakow to Germany, also to work on a farm. One of Sophie's older sisters would have a baby out-of-wedlock there, and when the Germans ordered her back to work when the baby was just 3-weeks-old, she refused. Sophie never saw her again— her sister died in a concentration camp. Sophie's nephew would be raised by her parents.
Jerry and Sophie continued working on the German farms with their surviving families, until the war ended with the liberation of Germany in 1945. In the years that followed, they remained in Germany, unaware of each other, attending school to catch up on educations that were stopped when the war began. Jerry trained to be a tool and die maker, or, as he calls it, "a grease monkey."
Displaced from Poland, both Sophie's family and Jerry's family took advantage of an opportunity to immigrate to the United States. In 1951, Sophie and her family arrived in Alma, Mich., where her mother had signed a contract to be a housekeeper.
Meanwhile, Jerry and his family moved to New Jersey and he began working in a tool and die shop. Two years later, in 1953, Jerry and Sophie's parallel lives would finally collide. She had moved to New York to work in a bookbinding factory and on Memorial Day weekend that year, she and her surviving sister boarded a riverboat for a daylong cruise on the Hudson River. Jerry didn't miss the boat that would begin the voyage of his life.
"I saw her and thought, 'That's the girl for me,'" recalls Jerry.
"I liked him," says Sophie simply. "We started talking and went to dinner and then started going to Polish dances in Manhattan at the Polish National Home."
They danced a lot and in 1956, Jerry proposed.
"It was the happiest day in my life when she said yes," he said. "It was just her, and that's it."
They sealed the deal as partners for life when they married on Aug. 18, 1956 in Brooklyn, N.Y. They moved soon after to Michigan to be near Sophie's family, Jerry took a job with General Motors as a tool and die maker in Saginaw and they built a home in Alma. Several years passed with no children and the couple learned Jerry was infertile.
"I told Sophie, 'Now you have a good reason to divorce me,'" said Jerry, adding with a smile, "She said, 'You are crazy.' We were lucky, we were able to adopt right away."
The pair adopted son Robert when he was just 3-weeks-old in 1965.
"They were very loving and caring and wanted the best for me," said Bob Strygulec, recalling his childhood and memories of his parents. "They themselves didn't have a lot of education and wanted to make sure I went to school and did well. They came to this country with nothing but an attitude of work hard, be honest and you will succeed. Through thick and thin, for better and for worse, you work things out."
Jerry doesn't recall any fights during their long union; indeed, perhaps their biggest challenge would be Sophie's mental illness which went undiagnosed for years due to a language barrier and ultimately led to her needing extra care that Jerry could no longer provide by himself. Bob and his wife, Jennifer, had discussed having his parents live with them, but Sophie needed 24-hour care and professional supervision. She moved into a foster care home in Flint and for the first time in more than 50 years, was no longer living with her husband.
"You love someone and live with them everyday," said Jerry, who cried when leaving his wife after weekend visits. "You are married for better and for worse. It was rough. You can imagine."
Sophie sums up that time in their life in three words: "I felt bad."
Jerry never gave up hope of one day living with his wife again. That dream came true last July when Bob Strygulec arrived on the doorstep of Nature's Way AFC Home located on State Park Road, inquiring whether there were any vacancies. The home had two openings, but for female residents.
Jessica Toutant, manager of Nature's Way, spoke with the other residents and everyone cooperated with a plan to rearrange rooms so Sophie and Jerry could share a room and live together as husband and wife.
"We wanted to show all the other people here the stability of true love and hope," said Toutant. "A lot of our clients have lost their marriages and their families because of their circumstances. Hope can always be alive for everybody. Nothing is impossible."
"He never gave up," said Sophie. "I was really happy. I just love him and that's the way it is."
The way things are now is the way Jerry sees their world as it was meant to be.
"It's natural for two people who love each other to be together," he said. "If you're married, you don't take a bite of the apple and throw it out. You stay together... If you love each other, love conquers everything."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville