An immigrant of Eastern Europe, Tony Surak made the most of his American Dream

An immigrant of Eastern Europe, Tony Surak made the most of his American Dream

Originally published by The Washington Post

Anatol “Tony” Surak’s death this month came as a shock to his close friends and family, especially since the 90-year-old resident of a Maryland senior living facility had tested negative for the deadly coronavirus twice.

But Surak, who had been diagnosed with pneumonia-like symptoms before testing positive for covid-19 just days later, died of complications that arose from the virus on June 1 at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville. That shock, his family says, has never really worn off.

In addition to taking her uncle’s life, said Alex Hewett, 51, of Baltimore, the coronavirus took from his family the ability to properly mourn.

They said goodbye in a pair of tearful video chats, singing “Amazing Grace” and praying together.

“It was just really sad,” Hewett said. “And then he died, but we couldn’t really say goodbye; you can’t anymore. There was no funeral. He was buried, but no one could really be there.”

It marked an end to the life of an Eastern European immigrant who had made the most of his American Dream, said Tony Surak Jr., his son. The elder Surak had worked for the federal government and took pride in the opportunity it gave him.

He emigrated from war-torn Belarus to a displaced-persons camp in Germany, fleeing Soviet and Nazi occupation during World War II. In 1950, Surak sailed to the United States on the USS General C.C. Ballou as part of a refugee resettlement program in the war’s wake.

His family settled in the South River borough of New Jersey, southwest of Staten Island, a hub for Belarusian immigrants in the postwar years. He graduated from Rutgers University in 1959 with a degree in mechanical engineering and, a year later, married another Eastern European immigrant, Angela Mascicki. The couple remained happily married until Surak’s death more than 60 years later.

Surak worked for a while at the Johns-Manvilleasbestos manufacturing facility in Manville, N.J., and the Singer sewing machine factory in Elizabeth. But Surak Jr. said his father wanted to leave New Jersey, so he took a job with the Library of Congress and moved his young family south to the nation’s capital.

Tony and Angela Surak rented from a small boardinghouse near the Supreme Court before settling in Gaithersburg, Md. He worked on Capitol Hill most of his life, Surak Jr. said, and made the solemn, early-morning commute every day without complaint.

“He slugged through on the Metro every day, first thing in the morning to work on Capitol Hill,” Surak Jr. said. “He would wear his little American flag pin.”

He had a unique gift for language, his son recalled. He was fluent in multiple languages, including Belarusian, German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and English, and he could translate among them.

It was a useful skill at the Library of Congress, where he was part of a team of language experts reading and cataloguing technical books. He was an analyst in science and technology in the library’s air information division. At the height of the space race, the Library of Congress loaned his skills to NASA as it first put men on the moon in 1969. He would go on to help lead delegations of Russian nuclear scientists in the United States before he retired at 74.

Surak was a devout Catholic. In his free time, he would golf and volunteer with the Boy Scouts.

He was a quiet man, not one to talk about himself and probably scarred somewhat by the trauma in his youth, Surak Jr. mused.

“He was a survivor,” his son said.

He and his wife had been living together in the assisted-living facility for a little more than a year when the coronavirus pandemic struck the region.

For now, the family takes solace in the incredible life he lived, the things he did and the people he touched.

He was a hard worker and a humble giver, they say. Hewlett, Surak’s niece and goddaughter, said she doesn’t have many memories of him smiling, and yet he was so full of joy.

“There was this gentleness and kindness,” she said, “that radiated from him and filled the room.”

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