“What A Lemon” – Part 1 of the Adele and Karel Bartos Story


Adele Bartos was born on September 19, 1907 in Czechoslovakia to Daniel Janicek and Renata Benes.  It is not known what type of work Daniel did in the old country, but sometime in 1911, he set off for America to find a new life and a new job.  He left Renata behind with their three children: Adele, David, and Edward, and made his way to Chicago, where he got a job in a foundry as a molder.  He made the forms which the hot steel or iron was poured into to make auto parts and wheels.  Daniel worked constantly, and in one year had saved enough to send for Renata and the children.  They boarded a ship in Bremen, Germany and arrived in America twelve days later.  They then took a train from New York to Chicago, where Daniel was waiting for them.

The train journey took seventeen hours, and though Adele was only five years old, she vividly remembers that it was on that trip that she had her first encounter with a banana.  On the train, a man walked by with a big basket of fruit.  Spying Adele, he handed her a banana.  Adele waited for the man to pass by before attempting to eat her treat.  Not knowing that she had to peel it, she naively bit into the whole thing and quickly decided she didn’t like it.  She set it on the window sill of the train, where it sat all day in the sun.  Later, hungry, she decided to give it another try.  This time, a fellow passenger advised her to peel it first.  But by now, the banana was all mushy, and after another bite, Adele concluded that she didn’t like this strange new food and refused to try a banana again for years!

It just so happened that when the Janiceks arrived in Chicago, it was July 3, 1912, and the city was celebrating Independence Day with fireworks and festivities.  Adele’s family was amazed by it all and managed to ask someone what it was all about.  “That’s how we always greet visitors!” was the reply, and for a long time Adele and her brothers believed it.  Though they missed their home at first, they were in awe of their new country.

In the fall of that year, Daniel and Renata enrolled the children in a Catholic school where the nuns taught in Czech and English.  It didn’t take long for Adele to become fluent in English.  Another baby, Emil, was eventually born to the family, of which Daniel was extremely proud, as this child, he said, was a “real American.”

By the time Adele was going into fourth grade, all the neighborhood children were talking about a new public school that was going to open near them: Chopin Grammar School.  Adele’s neighborhood, which was just south of Humboldt Park and Wicker Park, near the Ukrainian Village, was made up of Czechs, Poles and Ukrainians.  All of the neighborhood children wanted to go to this new school.  Adele asked her parents if they, too, might be allowed to go.   Daniel was willing to let them change schools, as, for one thing, it would be free, as opposed to the Catholic School they were attending, but he was reluctant for them to stop being exposed to the Czech culture they were getting at the Catholic school.  His condition, then, to allowing all of them attend Chopin, was that they had to continue to go to “Czech school” on weekends to continue learning to read and write in Czech as well as to learn the history and culture of their native country.  They were also enrolled in Sokol, which was a Czech physical education/gymnastics organization that provided physical exercise to balance the exercise of the mind.  Many Czech immigrant children in Chicago belonged to Sokol.  So every Sunday from 9 am to 12 pm, the Janicek children attended Czech school, and during the week they attended Chopin.

Adele was very smart and studied hard and was the salutatorian of her 8th grade class.  While at Chopin, Adele met many different children of different nationalities, a fact which Adele loved.  In particular, she met an Italian girl, Maria, who became her best friend and whom Adele was very much influenced by.

While Adele was the oldest in her family, Maria was the youngest.  She had many older siblings who were all intellectual and who greatly influenced and guided Adele and Maria.  Through Maria, Adele learned about opera and theater and classical music and literature.  The girls were always at the library, and Adele read constantly.  A whole new world opened to her through reading and by knowing Maria’s family, and she longed to go to high school to become a teacher.  Without even asking, however, Adele knew this to be “a ridiculous dream” as they were “as poor as church mice.”  Renata could see how much Adele wanted to go on for more schooling and felt bad for her only daughter.  She persuaded Daniel to let her continue, and they then told Adele that she could go for two more years so that she could learn some sort of trade.  “That way,” Renata told Adele, “you won’t have to work as hard as I do.”

Adele was delighted with this decision and was put into a vocational program at the local high school.  She was offered stenography or bookkeeping, and since she hated math, she chose stenography.  The day after her graduation from the trade school, she and some girls from school went to an employment agency to find work.  The very next day, Adele was sent on an interview and got a job at the Wearproof Clothing Company on Wells Street as a stenographer.  She started at $15 a week, but soon got a raise to $17.  She enjoyed her co-workers and her boss, Mr. Belden, but after a while, she wasn’t challenged anymore, especially as the job required more typing, of which she wasn’t fond, than stenography.

Adele happened to mention her unhappy situation to a friend, Bea, who in turn told her older sister, Martha, about it.  Martha worked in the statistics department of the Continental and Commercial National Bank and Trust Company, which was situated on LaSalle St., 19th floor.  Martha was able to get Adele an interview for a stenographer position with a Miss Kate Williams.  Adele was excited to be going to such an elegant building downtown and all the way up to the 19th floor to boot!

During the interview, Miss Kate Williams asked Adele just one question: “Miss Janicek, do you know the difference between a stock and a bond?”  Adele took just a moment to think and answered, “I don’t today, but I can learn tomorrow!”  Miss Williams liked her answer so much that she hired Adele on the spot.  Adele, needless to say, was thrilled.

Adele considered it a great privilege and a real step up to work in a bank; it was so elegant, and she was surrounded by so many educated people.  Adele started immediately and loved it.  One afternoon, Adele and Martha happened to be passing through the lobby of the bank on their way to lunch, when Martha bumped into a young man she knew, Denis Bartos, from the accounting department, who was with his younger brother, Karel.  It was obvious that Martha and Denis liked each other, so Adele and Karel politely withdrew and, after initial introductions, stood awkwardly next to each other waiting for Martha and Denis.  Neither had much to say to each other besides small pleasantries.  After what seemed an eternity, Martha excused herself from Denis’s company and the two girls went on their way.

Adele meanwhile threw herself into her work and spent most of her evenings at the library.  She was still very involved in Sokol and sat on many committees and also helped organize all sorts of social events in the neighborhood, including dances and plays.

It was at one such dance that a friend of hers, John Wesley, approached and asked if she knew the Bartos family, pointing to where they stood off in one of the corners.  Adele indeed recognized Mr. Bartos, who was a local amateur actor and with whom Adele had actually been in some neighborhood plays.  Encouraged, John asked if he might do him a favor in regards to the Bartos family.  Intrigued, Adele asked what that would be.  John explained that he was also a friend of the family and that earlier in the night, Mrs. Bartos had pulled him aside and asked if he might ask Adele to ask her son to dance.  Adele was flabbergasted at John’s request.  It was unheard of for a girl to ask a boy to dance!

John explained that the youngest Bartos brother was very shy and that his mother had pleaded with John to ask Adele, whom she saw as being bright and pretty and full of energy.  Adele refused, but John begged her, so, in the end, she agreed, but only for one dance!

Accordingly, John led her over to the Bartos family, whereupon Adele instantly recognized the shy, youngest Bartos brother as Karel Bartos, the boy she had met several months ago in the bank lobby and whom she had awkwardly stood next to.  She dreaded having to spend a whole dance with him, but she resolved to keep her promise to John and asked Karel as politely as she could if he would care to dance.

His reply was a very shocking and loud, “No!” causing his mother and sisters to gasp aloud at his rudeness.  His sisters promptly pushed him onto the dance floor with Adele.  Humiliated, Adele went through with the dance, though the whole time she was thinking, “What a lemon!”   He wasn’t even a good dancer!  When the dance ended, the two of them quickly went their separate ways.

About a month later, Adele and Karel saw each other again at another dance in the neighborhood.  This time, Karel approached Adele and managed to ask her if he could walk her home.  “Oh!” Adele answered, surprised.  “I’m already walking home with John and some of the girls.”  She didn’t wish to be unkind to Karel, knowing ultimately how shy he was, but she likewise didn’t want to be rude to John.  He had brought her to the dance, after all, and she felt obliged to leave with him.

“Maybe the next dance, then?” Karel stammered.  “Maybe I could take you home from that one?”

Adele agreed, and, as promised, went to the next dance accompanied by Karel.  As it turned out, it was the beginning of their courtship, and they were married six months later on August 30, 1930.

(To be continued . . . next week!)

If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago:



Showing 4 comments
  • Donna

    I’m intrigued. Can’t wait to read more

    • Michelle

      Thanks, Donna!

  • Susan l. Bonnet

    Very interesting. Sounds like a good story for a book!

    • Michelle

      That’s what I was thinking! Maybe some day…

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