The monster that is gentrification continues to devour Polish Greenpoint. The Wedel candy store on the corner of Manhattan Avenue and Meserole Avenue has offered Polish people, like my wife, a slice of home. When she was a little girl she loved to go to the store and get her favorite chocolates. The store has survived for about twenty years serving the new rapidly declining Polish community in Greenpoint. I heard that Wedel could not pay for the new lease because the new rent was simply exorbitant. Wedel is soon to be a piece of history like so many other area shops. Shops like Wedel, which defined the Polishness or Greenpoint are being replaced by shops of large corporations. When I moved into the area twenty years ago Manhattan Avenue was a quirky combination of mom and pop shops, many of which catered to the Polish community. We will miss the shop. I would always buy her valentine candy there and she loved Ptasie Mleczko (Polish)which is a soft chocolate-covered candy filled with soft meringue (or milk soufflé).
Before Wedel dies lets trace its interesting history. Founded in 1851 by Karol Ernest Wedel (1813-1902), the company and its products became known in most of Central and Eastern Europe. The logo of the company is based on Karol Wedel’s signature. His son Emil Albert Fryderyk Wedel (1841-1919) apprenticed in candy and chocolate factories in Western Europe before inheriting and expanding his father’s business. His descendant Jan Wedel (d. 1960), the last member of the Wedel family to own the company, was considered “the Willy Wonka” of pre-war Poland. In 1894 the company moved its main factory from Szpitalna street in Warsaw. In 1934, during the time of the Great Depression, Jan Wedel opened a second factory in Praga, one of the most modern in the Second Polish Republic. The company was also known for its very generous social welfare policies. As one of the first in Europe, it had its own creche, kindergarten, hospital and cafeteria, and rewarded its best employees with no-interest housing loans; its model was highly acclaimed by the Polish Socialist Party. Hence prior to World War II, Wedel became a successful private company, with shops in London and Paris.
Jan Wedel made plans for World War II, and the company managed to continue production during the first few years of the war; it also started producing basic foodstuffs such as bread for starving Warsaw, and was the site of the underground teaching. Despite the family’s German ancestry Wedel refused to collaborate with the Germans, and did not sign the Volksliste; increasingly this led to him and his employees being persecuted by the Nazis. The war devastated Poland and the company; the buildings at Warsaw were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. After the war, Wedel rebuilt the factory, only to have the communist government nationalize the company. The Wedel plant itself was renamed ’22 Lipca’ (22 July) after the Communist ‘Independence Day’ (PKWN Manifesto), although even the communists chose to retain the Wedel brand name, with products bearing both the new and old logos (particularly as after 10 years of not using the logo, all attempts at exporting proved futile). The company was reprivatized in 1989 after the fall of communism in Poland.