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Obituary: Elizabeth Ann Cieżzkowski

Elizabeth Ann Cieżzkowski, age 82, of Niles, Illinois, passed away on the morning of October 24, 2019 at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital.

She was born February 8, 1937, in the city of Białystok, Poland, to Kazimierz and Janina Szternal. The daughter of a school teacher and a soldier, Elizabeth was a product of World War II. On September 28th, 1939, just three weeks after the invasion of Poland, Elizabeth's younger sister Martha was born, and their father had already left the family to serve on the Eastern front. Elizabeth would only see her father once over the next eight years of her life. The Szternal family survived occupation in the town of Stary Sacz under both German and Russian rule due to the strength and courage of Elizabeth's mother, Janina. They lived there until 1947, until they finally escaped Poland on foot. The journey had been arranged by her father, by then a decorated veteran who had been living in England for two years after being freed from the German prison camp at Murnau by British forces. After a harrowing journey of sleeping in barns by day, and walking shoeless on gravel roads at night to avoid detection from soldiers, Elizabeth and her family crossed into Czechoslovakia and then reunited with Kazimierz in Germany. From there, Elizabeth and her family moved on to England, where her sister Eva was born in June of 1948. The family of five would live in a one-room apartment over the Polish Records office for the next four years, until they finally immigrated to the United States in 1951. Fittingly, they arrived on the Queen Elizabeth at the docks of New York harbor on July 4th, Independence Day. The trip was funded by the British government in thanks for Kazimierz Szternal's heroic service under British high command during the war.

After a very brief stay in New York, the Szternal family moved on to Chicago, where they would make their permanent home. For Elizabeth, the land of opportunity lived up to its reputation. She attended Notre Dame Catholic High School in Chicago and graduated at the age of 16. She then attended Mundelein College and received an Associate Degree in Commercial Art. In 1955, she married Napoleon Zbyszewski, whom she met at a Polish World War II veterans' event.

She became a naturalized American citizen of the United States on November 20th, 1956, and from her marriage to Napoleon, her daughters Margaret and Renee were born, in 1959 and 1962 respectively, as was her son Paul in 1970. Elizabeth would later divorce in 1977, and was remarried in 1982, to Jacek Cieżkowski.

While taking care of her children, "Ela" (as she was known to her friends and family) worked several part time jobs until finally landing at a travel agency named Falcon Travel on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square in 1967. Little did Ela know then, that she would buy out that very agency in 1970, run it for 41 successful years, and become a paragon of the Polish community in Chicago.

As Falcon Travel grew, so did Ela's scope of community involvement. Clients looked to her for more than just travel needs, and cultural organizations recruited her for leadership. Ela became President of the Society of Polish American Travel Agents, SPATA, the first female owner/member and President of that organization, breaking the glass ceiling at a time when women had difficulty getting bank loans without a man's signature. As a travel agency owner, she traveled the globe, from the North Pole, to the Amazon, to the Pyramids of Egypt, and grew SPATA's membership on an international level. Ela organized tours all across Europe, taking groups to historical places such as Monte Cassino, Italy, the site of a famous battle for the Polish Armed Forces in World War II. She would become head of the Polish Scouts in Chicago, keeping Polish traditions alive, organizing camping trips, national jamborees and charitable events for Polish causes. She would serve on countless boards and was a member of many Polish American organizations including the Polish Museum of America, the Polish National Alliance, the Legion of Young Polish Women, and the Polish Resistance AK Foundation, in honor of her father's service with the AK (Armia Krajowa) during World War II. In the course of her extensive career in travel, two of her greatest highlights included meeting then President of Poland Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II, now a canonized saint.

At the offices of Falcon Travel, Ela relied on her youngest sister Eva Filipowicz and for a time, her daughter Renee, to help clients with a number of tasks that involved more than just booking airline tickets and hotels. Ela opened her doors to Polish immigrants, providing document translations and facilitating packages to Poland in the difficult years before Solidarity. She became a frequent visitor at the Polish Consulate in downtown Chicago, helping clients with the visa process to sponsor relatives from Poland. Ela would also travel to Stary Sacz, Warsaw, and Lodz to visit family, packing her suitcase with goods like aspirin, soap, American jeans, even Nestle's Quick, "luxuries" that were difficult to find or afford in Poland. At times, Elizabeth opened her own home in Chicago to Polish visitors, whether they were related or not. No matter if it was family, friend, business associate, or stranger, Elizabeth turned her back on no one.

All the while, she always carved out time to take care of her parents, especially when their health was failing; she took family summer road trips to Wisconsin and Florida; played bridge with her sisters and cousins; visited her globe-trotting sister Martha in Munich, Tehran, and Seattle; and hosted Christmas Eve dinner for the extended family for decades.

As an accomplished businesswoman, mother of three, grandmother of eight, Ela finally closed the offices of Falcon Travel in 2011. She found new inspiration in babysitting her grandniece Izzy and grandnephew Alejandro, and focused her remaining years on family, friends, church, and bingo. As she often told her children, "I'm so lucky to have lived such a blessed life."

Elizabeth "Ela" A. Cieżkowski "Zbyszewski" nee Szternal is survived by her daughters Margaret (Joseph) Stojak and Renee (David) Rogers; her son Paul (Bryn) Zbyszewski; stepdaughter Joanna (Jorge) Gaytan; and her grandchildren, Tina, Janina, Richie, Haley, Maggie, Ellen, Michael, and Wrigley; her sisters Martha (Ron) Golubiec, and Eva (the late Les) Filipowicz. She was the fond aunt, cousin, and lifelong friend of many. Services were held on Saturday, November 2, 2019 at St. John Brebeuf Church, 8301 N. Harlem Ave., Niles at 12:30 PM. In lieu of flowers, memorials to the Polish Scouting Organization: Dom Harcerski, 6434 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago IL 60634 will be appreciated.


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