Catering To A Dream

Before the parties and presidents, professional host marcos Sznajderman was a poor refugee's son in search of a better life

September 04, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Scattered around the living room are the photographs that remind Marcos Sznajderman of why he came to America.

Here he is, a swarthy, bearish man standing next to George Bush and his son George W., or smiling with Joe DiMaggio at a baseball game, or cozying up to Liza Minnelli. Presidents, senators, governors, congressmen, CEOs, research scientists, professional athletes, he has been on a first-name basis with them all.

Have you never heard of Marcos? He is a demi-celebrity, at least in the small town/big city melange that is Baltimore. Rarely does a week go by that he isn't stopped on the street, recognized and embraced by someone he may not even recall.

Aren't you Marcos from my daughter's wedding? Marcos from the company picnic? The black-tie party? The bris? The brunch?

He laughs about these moments, but he is proud of them, too. Such is the life of a caterer, a professional host, a gregarious, old-world charmer who talks passionately about serving others - a party giver's party giver, if you will.

But what most people (his fans included) don't know is that the 62-year-old Pikesville family man and caterer to presidents is the son of a Polish refugee who was barred from entering the United States and found refuge in South America.

Or that Marcos fled his native Argentina to this country in 1981 with a wife, two young children, and little more than a dream of a better life. His goal was to fulfill the ambition launched by his father more than 80 years ago.

Or that today is the sixth anniversary of his U.S. citizenship, the day he swore loyalty to his adopted home and took an oath he nervously practiced for hours beforehand so that he wouldn't make a single mistake.

"People I meet here, I'd never imagine I'd meet here," says Marcos, his Spanish accent still rich and mellifluous after 20 years in Baltimore. "I say, `God Bless America.' This is still a land for opportunity. I'm not rich, but I've had a good life. This is my country now."

Born in 1889 and raised in the city of Radom in central Poland, Abraham Sznajderman (pronounced shny-der-man) was desperate to escape his native land. Postwar Poland was an impoverished country. Stories of opportunity in the New World beckoned.

It had to be better than the pogroms - that much was clear long before the rise of the Nazis in neighboring Germany and the first winds of the coming holocaust swept across Poland.

So the Sznajdermans, the compact and muscular Abraham and at least a hundred other relatives, brothers, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews included, sold most of their belongings and booked passage to America in 1921.

Many of the details of that journey are lost now, but this much is clear: When the ship arrived at Ellis Island, its passengers were not permitted entry. The attempt had been ill-timed. New U.S. policy had begun limiting immigration in a way that was particularly restrictive to Eastern Europeans.

The ship ended up in Buenos Aires in Argentina, a country where not one Sznajderman knew a soul or spoke Spanish, the native language.

"They didn't have anything but each other," marvels Ignacio Rain, Marcos' nephew who lives in Owings Mills. "They were diverted from the Promised Land. We can't even imagine that kind of experience."

But it was not an uncommon destination for immigrant Jews. Next to Ellis Island, Buenos Aires was the second most popular destination in the Americas for European Jews - due mostly to the country's then-open immigration policies.

Abraham, a tailor, found work, initially in a clothing factory. In 1937, he sent for a family friend, Dyna Waks, who was living in Germany. Abraham's first wife had died of cancer three years earlier. He wed Dyna on the day she arrived in Buenos Aires. She arrived on one of the last ships to carry Jews out of Nazi Germany.

Marcos was Abraham's seventh and Dyna's only child. By the time he was born, Abraham worked in a family tailor shop, seven days a week, 12 hours a day, taking a one-hour mid-day nap on his worktable. The family was relatively well off - and the country stabilized and prospered under its dictator-general, Juan Peron.

But Marcos' father died in 1954 when Marcos was just 14. His older siblings grown, Marcos hated to leave his mother alone at home when he wasn't at school or working, but she insisted he live his life as a regular teen.

"Go away. Go with your friends. You don't stay with me," he recalls her telling him. "She was a strong, smart person."

After a brief apprenticeship as a jewelry maker, Marcos eventually found work in the catering business. It suited his outgoing personality - and the love of food and companionship that he had inherited from his mother.

In his free time, he would sometimes watch Hollywood movies - Westerns, mostly, since they were full of action and required less translation. Even as a teen, he harbored a desire to travel to the United States. Maybe it was his father's legacy.

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