Hey everyone, I’m back with the first of our new series “The Arkansans Behind the Flag” series. In this series we will be sitting down with veterans and veteran’s families to discuss their time of service. We will be posting the interviews alongside our blogs.
This week, I had the exciting opportunity to interview Dolores and Nadine Sawak, the only daughters of George Sewak, a marksman who served in the army during the second World War. Calm and collected, the two women shared with me private details of their father’s experience with war and their lives growing up, something that is not easy to do on camera, or in any interview. They helped me understand their fathers character not just through describing his experience in the war, but by telling me stories of what he was like after. As Nadine and Dolores reflected on their childhood, they smiled and laughed at all the idiosyncrasies their father had; I was watching two sisters have a conversation about their lives, rather than interviewing them. This helped me better understand the kind of person George was better than any artifacts of his that he had from the war, which we are thankful to hold for Nadine and Dolores.
George grew up in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, where he was raised by his Czechoslovakian immigrant parents. He was the oldest son, with two older sisters and one younger brother. After his fathers death when he was around 15, George took up the role of being the man of the house. This call to action must’ve inspired him to enroll in the army at 18, after the U.S. declared war on Japan, and our country became officially involved in the war. As a marksman, George served one tour in Germany, where he was captured twice and placed in a POW camp. After being captured, George faced some of the more horrific details of war - lice and starvation. He also suffered from frostbite, since he was held captive in the winter circa 1944 and faced the harsh German winter with no protection against the weather. Attempts were made by George and other POW’s to escape, one of these failed attempts lead to George having to make the tough decision to take the life of the man guarding their escape, something that haunted him for the rest of his life.
He was finally able to return home after spending months in a POW camp, where he moved to New Jersey, and met his wife Sophia, or Soph as she commonly went by. Like George, Sophia is the child of Eastern-European immigrants from Austria-Hungary, so they raised their three children in a community of other Slavic Europeans. George was a devoted family man, spending every weekend with his children, telling them stories and reading them the “Sunday Funnies”, as well as teaching them the essentials of life, like changing a tire. He didn’t let his experiences with war stop the joys of life, as he was always cracking jokes and stories, and pursued many hobbies, including woodworking, cartoon drawing, gardening and fishing. He also kept trinkets from the war; these “treasures” included German memorabilia, crafted utensils, and metalwork (many of these were donated to the museum by Dolores and Nadine, which we are fortunate to hold). George was also a big traveler, and went to places like Key West, Spain, Morocco, and the Czech Republic. Even as a family, the Sawaks would take car trips across the country, and traveled a few times to Mexico.
Despite dropping out of school to join the army, George attained a job as a mason worker, and worked alongside his brother-in-law as his business partner. He was highly intellectual, as he spoke three languages - English, Czech, and Spanish! Although he never taught his children Czech or spoke it in the house, he still prayed in his native language, and kept the values he was taught, whether in the army or at home, in his household, including cleanliness, and always presenting himself as neat and clean shaven. In the 80’s, George and Soph moved to Fayetteville for the VA hospital we have here, and were active in the VFW. George also kept up with some war buddies long after the war ended, most of whom were in the platoon from the Texas and Oklahoma region. He would take trips to visit these long time friends, including one to Stone Mountain. After the death of his wife, Sophia, in 2006, George continued to stay active in the community, and was taken care of by his daughter Nadine. Today, both George and Soph are buried in the National Cemetery in Fayetteville, and are remembered dearly by the lives they touched.
George went through hardships most people in this country are fortunate enough not to face; living through the Depression, the death of a parent at a young age, serving in a war at 18 and being captured as a POW. Even after living through all of this, George continued to live life to the fullest, and didn’t let it stop him from experiencing all the joys life has to offer. Truly a remarkable man, George Sawak was someone I had the privilege to learn about. I only wish I could have met him in person.