When someone survives a life-threatening event, it’s not uncommon for the person to reflect, “Why was I saved?” This question persisted in my uncle Tony’s long life, nurtured initially by his family’s storytelling about the saga of his birth.
Ten years ago, at 87, he believed he knew the “why.” His story began a few months after his immigrant parents moved from downtown Norwich to a small farm in Norwichtown. Born Nov. 23, 1922, Anthony Janovicz weighed just 1.5 pounds (on the butter scale). When Dr. Thompson visited to verify the birth, he took my grandfather aside and told him to prepare my grandmother — their new son would likely expire within a few weeks.
My grandparents, Andrzej and Marianna, her father Nikodemas, and their devoted midwife Helena could not accept the doctor’s pronouncement. Instead, they continued to apply determination, problem-solving, and deep faith. They saved my uncle during one of the worst winters of the past century.
The tiny newborn grew into a healthy child. Tony graduated from Norwich Free Academy in 1940, enlisted in the Navy Seabees in 1942, and married the love of his life, Albina Antoniewicz, on Oct.30, 1945. Five years later, the two moved into a house Tony and his brother Mike (my dad) built on family land.
Albina became a violin teacher and Tony a surveyor and civil engineer, responsible for design of roads and bridges. At home, he pursued many interests, including beekeeping, Christmas tree farming, and the Veteran’s History Project (Library of Congress).
My father’s family literally surrounded me during my youth in Norwichtown. We remained close after I moved away.
In 2004, I began to write our family stories, continuing the roles of storytellers Aunt Nellie and my great-grandfather, Nikodemas. One afternoon in 2009, Uncle Tony asked if I knew about his birth story. By the end of our conversation, we’d made a pact. I would fictionalize his birth story, based on facts, family history, and research. He would be my primary adviser.
“Until the Robin Walks on Snow” was published in fall 2012, in time for Uncle Tony’s 90th birthday. He loved it. We like to say it is “the story that might have happened.”
Just as I fictionalized parts of his birth story, piecing it together via analysis and my imagination, Uncle Tony had surveyed the patterns in his long life, and found an answer to his lifelong question, “Why was I saved?”
One day while the book was in progress, he revealed the remarkable experiences behind his conclusion.
The first incident occurred in the late 1930s at Carlson’s (Gagers) Pond in Franklin, when my uncle was 17. Tony watched from shore as his sister, Vee, and his father were swimming in from the raft. His father went under a few times, and then disappeared.
Frantic, Tony ran in, dove toward the spot, and then groped around in the murky water. After a few dives down, he felt his father’s head, and pulled him up by the hair.
By the time they arrived home, his father was ranting that the 10-cent admission price per person was too expensive. My grandfather asked his children not to tell their mother about his near drowning that day; she was deathly afraid of water.
The first threat to her life would occur indoors. My grandmother maintained that the son she helped to save at birth also saved her. Around 1940 during major surgery, a tumor complicated the operation, and a raging infection followed. The needed transfusion contained my uncle’s blood.
During WWII, Uncle Tony was stationed in Hawaii. On a day off, Seabee friends George, Bud, and Tony headed for an Oahu beach. The surf was rough due to a storm the previous day, so they walked in ankle-deep water.
Suddenly, a rip current knocked George down, and before he could get up, dragged him out a hundred feet into deep water. Tony had to decide in a few seconds. Though fearing for his own life, he rushed in after George. The current carried him to his friend, now a thrashing swimmer.
After calming George, Tony cupped his hands around the sides of George’s head to keep it up, and used his legs to float the two. They drifted further out. Once the current dissipated, Tony maneuvered them a tiring distance to shallow water. Meanwhile, Bud had gathered a few other Seabees. The group helped both swimmers out of the water because Tony could not stand up either.
Fortunately, his waist-down paralysis was temporary. Within a few hours the three friends were back at their quarters.
After his WWII service, the Backus Hospital depended on my uncle for blood donations in urgent situations, especially for “blue” babies. He and Aunt Albina lived a short drive away on West Town Street.
One unforgettable day, my uncle heard a loud explosion. Tony and his neighbors raced outside to see flames licking the interior of a nearby house. The concussion had thrown a now dazed young man, while flattening the kitchen’s exterior and interior walls.
Bystanders called the fire department and an ambulance. Tony observed flammable fabrics on fire, but not the house structure. He asked someone to check the upstairs apartment and then he entered the house.
A moan alerted him to a body in a smoky far corner, amidst burning debris. Tony extinguished the flames on the man’s clothing, but the body was still so hot he couldn’t pick the man up. While dragging the man out by his wrists, Tony suffered some burning of his own hands, later soothed by soaking in cool water. That seemed a minor inconvenience when he learned the older man survived after several hours in Backus Hospital’s emergency room — despite head injuries, compound fractures of his arms and legs, and extensive burns.
And finally, Uncle Tony used the Heimlich maneuver to save Aunt Albina during three separate choking incidents later in their lives.
Diane Von Furstenberg, interviewed on a recent episode of the PBS show, “Finding Your Roots,” said, “Even if you save only one life … behind one life there is a dynasty.”
So, in addition to the individual lives saved and expanded by his heroic acts, Uncle Tony has witnessed the growth of his own family to 30 descendants: three children, eight grandchildren, and 19 great-grandchildren.
Thanksgiving-time reminds our extended family of the gratitude we feel for my uncle’s survival at birth, and our pride about the many times he combined his knowledge, extensive skills, and quick thinking with a willingness to help family, friends, and strangers to survive.
My uncle Tony can still hear the voices from his childhood, “You must have been saved for a reason.” Uncle Tony believes now he was saved so that he could save others.
Nearly 98, he’s amazingly clear of mind, reads a lot, and loves to talk with family. More and more, though, his mind and heart look to a future life, in which he reunites with his beloved Albina.
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