The first thing I ever read about Walter Sak Playground was in a city report stating it was “a forlorn park in a forlorn neighborhood”. Little evidence of a playground remained when I first rolled by. The surrounding neighborhood was a mixed bag of hope and blight with some new construction and steadfast neighbors just trying to keep it all together.
July 2017 – The ceremonial shovels have turned over the first patch of dirt on the new Kemeny Rec Center. Look for new photos later in the fall.
HARDWORKING, DEDICATED DELRAY FAMILY
As a teen, Charles (Karoly) Kemeny enjoyed playing baseball on Detroit’s sandlots. His relatives tell us his baseball skills were so exceptional the St. Louis Cardinals took interest in signing him to a contract. Alas, he was too young to sign and his grandmother’s disapproval put this dream on the rear burner. Charles worked odd jobs after graduating from Holy Reedmer High School intending to enroll at the Carnegie Institute of Technology for Engineering. He heard the call to serve in WWII and in 1942 he enlisted with his parent’s consent.
Here’s one from the gone file.. when a playground disappears.
20 DAYS IN
Private John Kozdron was born on July 7, 1925. He attended St. Hedwig High School in southwest Detroit graduating with honors in 1943. Like many young men in the 1940’s, Kozdron was active in the Catholic Youth Organization.
A year later, John was inducted into the in US Army 9th Infantry, 6th Armored Division. Basic training was received at Fort Hood, Texas and he shipped out to Europe on January 3, 1945.
Twenty days later on January 23, 1945, Private Kozdron died in the closing of the Battle of the Bulge. Letters indicate he died a hero’s death. He earned the Purple Heart and is buried at the American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg.
A COMMUNITY COMES TOGETHER
John was just 19 at the end of his life. He was recognized as the youngest man from his neighborhood to die in World War II. In 1951, the veteran community united to remember John’s brief life by naming the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) Post 4553 in his honor.
Post member John Czapski [chop-sky / free polish pronunciation lesson; you’re welcome ] built a fine post ‘home’ on the corner of Campbell Street and Plumer located near to Kozdron’s childhood home on Merritt .
In 1956, Czapski along with Post Commander Louis Marmul petitioned the Detroit Department of Parks and Rec to dedicate a small play lot in Kozdron’s name. After an initial denial and subsequent post appeal, the playground came to fruition later the same year. For three decades, the John Kozdron Memorial Play Lot was located across the street from the post and gave neighborhood kids a destination. In the late 1980’s, the playground was deemed underused and a roofing manufacturer accepted the land transfer and built a storage facility on the site.
While the park might be gone, the Kozdron VFW Post 4553 and Ladies Auxiliary are still active within the Southwest Detroit community. With the Suchan brothers leading the way, this post draws in everyone from regulars, neighbors to local politicians for a friendly beer, the occasional wake and camaraderie.
The overarching mission of VFW 4553 is to serve veterans and the surrounding community; members of the Kozdron Post keep this duty close to their hearts. From their yearly fundraising efforts, they are able to send children to Camp Trotter in Grand Rapids; help St. Hedwig Church with financial support for Christmas giving, as well as providing holiday dinners to homeless vets and parties for kids.
The VFW 4553 John Kozdron Post is located at 2501 Campbell Street. Hours: Wednesday – Sunday Open at 3:00pm. It’s off the beaten path and frankly, they prefer it that way. Stop in for a beer and a burger; it keeps John Kozdron’s memory alive and supports the surrounding Southwest Detroit community. The stories are good and the veteran hospitality will exceed expectation.
Thanks so much to the VFW 4553 for allowing me to spontaneously interrupt their Saturday [ i seem to be super good at that ] and for bringing the memories out of storage. Photos used with kind permission from the VFW 4553. Thanks again Suchan!
Yet another story of bravery and sacrifice .. I hope you aren’t tired.. we have a long way to go.. andrea
DETROIT’S ADOPTED SON
Bernard Sasser [1920-1945] was a courageous man; one who exemplified leadership and duty before self. He is honored with a large and well used memorial park nestled between Harper [I-94 service drive] and Lanark Street on Detroit’s east city limits. This park was slated to be closed back in 2013 when funds in Detroit dried up. Sasser Playground was well kept when we visited in the summer of 2014 – baseball games, football practice was in full session and the park was full of kids and parents. Good times.
MINDING THE FIELDS
Sasser enlisted to serve in World War II. He was assigned to Army Company G, 222nd Infantry Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division and where he rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant. During a February 1945 watch near Alsace, France, he observed a patrol of US soldiers attempting to cross through a mine field he had previously scouted. Sasser voluntarily guided the group through the field for safe passage. Upon completion the patrol came under heavy enemy fire. He took command and moved to the head of the squad where he was struck by bullets and grenade fragments when attempting to sieze an enemy machine gun. He protected this patrol of soldiers outside of his own company from harm’s way and died while missing in action. Sasser earned the Silver Star posthumously for his gallantry.
Three years before that dark fateful night, he moved to Detroit with his mother Anne settling in on Strasburg Street. A bachelor with few ties to our city, he became an adopted son. A native of Massachusetts, he is buried in St. Bernard’s Cemetery in Fitchburg, MA.
Lifsitz playground has seen some action since I first wrote about it in June 2013. The Canul family in Los Angeles contacted me to say ‘thanks’ for remembering Mortimer. That’s my favorite part .. connecting with the relatives. The old playground equipment was painted last year by a volunteer group; basketball players continue their workout on an antiquated court; it was getting mowed pretty regularly and even had a short commercial filmed there. In 2015, it’s been listed on the ‘for sale / reuse list’ by the city. When the perfect buyer appears, this memorial park will disappear. Mortimer’s memory will live on as an archival file and in the Jewish War Veteran’s Golden Book which features the Jewish Detroiters who were lost in WWII.
Dear Mrs. Lifsitz :
Your son, Private Mortimer N. Lifsitz a member of Company “B”, 116th Infantry Regiment, has been awarded the Silver Star posthumously for his outstanding actions against the enemy.
The citation for his heroic deed follows:
Private Mortimer N. Lifsitz, 116th Inf, U S Army for gallantry in action against the enemy in Germany. On 17 November 1944, the advance of Company ‘B’, 116th Infantry was suddenly halted by decimating enemy fire. Seeing that the majority of its leaders had become casualties, Private Lifsitz attempting to lead assault, jumped to his feet and calling on the men to follow, started forward on the run. While charging toward the enemy positions, Private Lifsitz fell mortally wounded by enemy fire. Private Lifsitz lost his life in this encounter but in doing so displayed such personal courage and tenacity in the face of great danger that he materially influenced the results of the encounter. His actions reflect great credit upon himself and the Military Service.
The officers and men of the 116th Infantry Regiment have lost not only an excellent soldier but a friend as well. It is for the comrades and officers of Private Lifsitz to carry on the fight which certainly must bring ultimate victory over an enemy which has for so long brought misery and destruction upon the world.
Private Lifsitz will not be forgotten, nor will the supreme sacrifice made by him. In all sincerity, the officers and men of the 116th Infantry Regiment extend their most heartfelt sympathy.
Sidney V. Bingham Jr.
Lt. Colonel Infantry Commanding
Mortimer Lifsitz was born on a Wednesday and died on a Friday. He was a Central High School graduate and worked in his father’s furniture business before enlisting. The only child of Max and Sophia. Military records show he was previously wounded twice before he met death in battle. His military decorations include: The Silver Star, Purple Heart and an Oak Leaf Cluster.
I have to check my notes but I do believe that at one point apartments were on the south side of the street and the park was just on the north side side of Gladstone.
SIGNS OF LIFE
The memorial playfield that commemorates Lifsitz’s leadership reaches down both sides of Gladstone Avenue west off Linwood in the heart of Detroit. No signage, fences, or markings remain at this site. The play area is marked by a few pieces of old equipment; a bit of the basketball court, and a makeshift brick bench. While visiting there in late winter/early spring, we ran into a few ring necked pheasants returning to their nest. A good sign. A few years back, neighborhood residents turned this block long park into a giant community garden; a bright spot in a somewhat hard place, just like Morty.
I appreciate your readership. thanks ag
Photo courtesy of Temple Beth El / Franklin Archives. Copyright 2013 – Andrea Gallucci. All Rights Reserved.