Vesecky’s Keeps the Bohemian Bakery Alive in Berwyn by Mike Gebert

14 07 2014

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Photo by Mike Gebert

Vesecky’s Keeps the Bohemian Bakery Alive in Berwyn by Mike Gebert Apr 2, 2014

On the wall of Vesecky’s Bakery in Berwyn there’s a framed Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine piece from 1971, by the writer and poet Norbert Blei, who grew up in this area (and died last year in Door County):

Book cover showing Vesecky’s

There are almost as many bakeries along Cermak Road in Cicero and Berwyn as savings and loans… Nobody knows what it is between Bohemians and their bakery. They just never seem to get enough of it… No matter how many housky, or kolacky, or coffeecakes are on the table Saturday morning, someone in the family will usually be told, “Stop at Vesecky’s (or Fingerhut’s or Vales’ or Stetina’s or Minarik’s) for some Bohemian rye… maybe a poppyseed Babovka, too.”

Hardly a word of it remains the case 40 years later. Berwyn and Cicero are increasingly Mexican, all those other bakeries are gone, and the association between savings and loans and Bohemians (aka Czechs and Hungarians) is incomprehensible today. (Bohemians, despite their association with careless Parisian artists thanks to a certain opera, were notoriously the tightest bank customers in Chicago, impossible to sell credit cards or installment loans to; as an officer at the late Talman Federal Savings and Loan once told me, the Bohemian version of buying on time was “If you want a refrigerator, you save for ten years until you have the money to buy it.”)

And yet Vesecky’s Bakery survives. Old Man Vesecky, James Sr., 62 when Blei wrote about him, passed away in 2005 at 97, and the frantic overnight baking scene Blei describes had surely calmed down long before. Today it’s a quiet place, a couple of young female sales assistants serving the customers. But someone who knows the place’s heritage must still be in the back, cranking out both Czech apple srudl with its flat crust:

Surprisingly, it was the simplest thing, houska, that I think proved the most satisfying in the end. It’s basically raisin bread, but with brandy-soaked raisins, I think, and a dough made with milk and egg (close to challah or a less rich brioche). Simple, as befits a people who watched a buck like it was Dillinger planning an escape, yet completely satisfying. As long as you can swing by Vesecky’s for that, Norbert Blei’s world isn’t completely gone.

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Norbert Blei | A Father’s Dilemma, Where Can My Son Grow Up Happy?

14 06 2014
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Norbert Blei with son Christopher Blei and daughter Bridget Buff

A Father’s Dilemma, Where Can My Son Grow Up Happy?

YOU TAKE a kid away from an apartment house on the west-side of Chicago at the age of 5 and plunk him in the middle of 15 acres of woods and fields of Wisconsin and tell yourself, “There, now let nature do it’s work. Let the kid grow green and clean. Give him a boyhood of space and natural wonder that I never had. Save him, 0 Lord, from suburban abundance, a city’s compulsions.”

And in time, you begin to wonder in his wonder. By the age of 8, the kid knows some of the soft green machinery of earth, like the taste and private habitat of wild strawberries and blackberries; the temptation of tea made of wild roses; boiling milkweed ketis for vegetables, an old Menominee Indian secret.

AND HE can tell an English sparrow from a fox sparrow, and identify all manner of birds . . . chickadees, thrashers, towees, rose-breasted grosbeaks, purple finches, nut hatches, hawks, every kind of woodpecker. I could tell a robin from a sparrow, when I was a boy, in Chicago and had heard some talk of a blue jay.

Give him any season, and there’s sure to be something brewing in this earth.

Spring, and the tree swallows come back to nest in the houses on the birch trees out front; the towees take up their secret nesting sights in the bushes in the back. “Do the same birds come back every year? How do they find our house?” I don’t know, I don’t know. They just keep coming back.

SUMMER, and you plant a sunflower seed and see it plow five feet before your eyes, and watch it track the sun. Fall, and you catch black and white and yellow caterpillars on the underside of milkweed leaves, and you put them in a jar, and you watch the caterpillar move to the top, in time, and form a fantastic green house, about himself, and then watch for that house to turn transparent, and watch for the orange wings and old black patterns to glow brighter till the wings are free. And then you open the jar and set a monarch butterly free. Magic.

Winter, you keep the birds alive with sunflower seeds, you see the tracks of deer in a garden now under snow,  you see a red fox move across  a landscape in white  and,  maybe, you never forget a  picture like that. You hold onto that like a painting, ‘Fox in Snow’, the rest of your life.

But In time, you begin to  wonder in the wonder of it all. Is to be a father, to be in doubt? . . . “The  woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to  keep . . .and miles to go  before I sleep. . . .”

The kid can tell a birch from a maple, but does he  know what a corner lot is like, where you set traps and build forts and hold all manner of meetings in secret clubs with all the kids on the block? No. . . The kid knows perch from bass and is a better fisherman than his father ever will be, but does he know the summer games kids play in the dark, after the streetlamps have gone on? No.

DOES HE know how to chant “Ole, Ole, Ocean Free!”? No. Does he know how to lag pennies, play marbles, throw a rubber ball against concrete steps with just himself and a friend and play a whole nine inning ball game? No. Does he know how to win? Does he know how to lose?

And does he know what it means to grow up with a friend, the kid next door or  across the street? To go to school with him, to show with him, to work with him? To know his family as your own? To keep such a friendship [and many of them] alive for over 20 years? No. And very likely he never will. There is just too much distance between friends in the country.He has one or two, about three miles away. And so friendship is not an everyday, ever growing thing in the country.

AND HAS he ever been introduced to alleys? Those cracked concrete [asphalt, brick, or stone] runways that go on and on [north and south usually] and, lead to either more of the same, or great streets of business? No.

Alleys, for playing baseball, football, basketball, ice skating, roller skating, hop scotch, walking, running, chasing, throwing, hiding, junking, climbing trees and telephone poles, climbing fences, climbing garages.

Whatever your fancy, whatever your fantasy… it can be worked out in the alley.

“Do it in the alley!” … a Mother’s last resort.

And so, what for my son? I wonder, I wonder…

I can give him a bike, but I can’t give him a wire basket attached and a newspaper route. I can’t give him ten kids in the alley playing kick-the-can. I can give him a solitary swing tied to a magnificent maple, but I can’t give him a real playground. I can give him an occasional movie [80 miles away, round trip] but I can’t give him a Saturday afternoon matinee at the neighborhood show, fresh popcorn, and a carmel candy bar.

And zoos, museums, concerts, buses, trains, skyscrapers, freight yards, air ports, great bridges, department stores, elevators, escalators, neon lights, uncles, aunts, grandmas, grandpas, hot dog stands, and McDonald burgers are out of the question.

I CAN GIVE him books and music and paints, and everything nature has to offer beyond our kitchen door . . . the geese now flying overhead, the purple asters starred along the roadside, the sugar maples turning radically red by the hour.

I can give him all this, but what will it all add up to for him? And when? I’m afraid he does not know black from white. Is this good? I’m afraid he does not know the machinery of a city, the poetry, and tragedy of streets. Is this bad? He saw poverty once in a camp of migrant cherry pickers and said, “Dad, I don’t like what poor is. Dad, I don’t ever want to be poor.” Is this good?

I can give him a morning so blue and gold he can taste it. I can give him a night with such a moon and so many stars, he can touch them. I can give him all this for the time being, and only hope it will stay with him forever . . . or 20 years from now, when , he may need such luxuries.

I can give him all the time in the world to be alone, in the silence of it all.

But I can’t give him a friend from next door, standing on the sidewalk, calling for him to come out and play. And that is the sound I remember most, and the way it was with me. And I can only wonder how it will be for him.

Chicago Tribune, Sunday, December 10, 1972 BY NORBERT BLEI





Gregg Cebrzynski on Norbert Blei

17 10 2013

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He was one of my favorite writers, and he died on April 23 at the age of 77.

Norbert Blei grew up in my neighborhood of Little Village in Chicago, a neighborhood primarily of Czechs, with a smaller German population and an even smaller Polish population. You wouldn’t believe how wonderful the restaurants and bakeries and butcher shops were.

I met him once, at a book signing he did in 1987 for his collection of essays titled “Neighborhood.” It’s mainly about the town of Cicero, where the Blei family moved to when Norbert was young. Cicero is just west of Chicago, and as a young man I went there often to eat at the Czech restaurants. A lot of my neighbors moved to Cicero when Little Village became dangerous to live in, thanks to the increasing street gangs and their habit of shooting at rival gang members, often missing and killing the innocent.

Norbert moved to Door County, Wisconsin, in 1968, but before that he had been a freelance writer in Chicago for many years. His stories about the city and its famous, and obscure, citizens are examples of writing that when I read them I marveled at his command of the language and how he was able capture a person’s character. There was nothing sentimental about it; Blei was a rare journalist who knew how to tell a story without embellishment, and his subject’s personality would shine through in his or her own words.

He also wrote short-stories, collected in a book titled “The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog.” He wrote books about Door County, my favorites being “Door Steps” and “Door Way.” They were published by Ellis Press. In 1990 he wrote a book about Chicago called “Chi Town,” with chapters on such memorable people as Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, Sydney J. Harris and Bill Mauldin, the famous editorial cartoonist who created the sad-sack GI’s “Willie and Joe” during World War II.

I talked with him at the book signing, about how I grew up in Little Village and was well-acquainted with all the shops and restaurants there that he mentioned in his book, as well as the places in Cicero he wrote about, especially Vasecky’s Bakery. We also talked about the novelist James Jones and how much we both admired his grasp of how people thought and acted on their beliefs, and of course we agreed that Jones was the best writer who depicted World War II and the effect it had on ordinary men, draftees suddenly thrown into battle.

So many of the writers I admired when I was young–Jones, Vonnegut, Styron, Irwin Shaw, Willie Morris, Graham Greene, and now Blei–are gone. It makes me tremendously sad.– Gregg Cebrzynski – May 22, 2013

greggGregg Cebrzynski

I’m the author of “The Champagne Ladies,” a novel. I’m also a long-time journalist who’s won awards for writing, editing and photography. I grew up in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago and now live on the city’s North Side. Despite that, I’m an avid White Sox fan. But I like football more than baseball. Also, pork more than chicken, and I would eat roast beef every day if it wasn’t so expensive. Many people have a personal philosophy, but I do not. However, I go through life remembering the words of Jean Shepherd, who once wrote: “Madness. All is madness.”








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