Sunday, February 03, 2002

Return to a Bohemian Past

Many of us who live in the Czech Republic have myriads of guests – the invited, the uninvited, friends, business people, family, seasoned travelers, the curious, the innocent. From time to time I will tell you about some of my guests and experiences I’ve had with them.

Edith is in her 80’s. I’ve known her most of my life, but had not spent many hours with her since she was my Brownie Scout leader. I found her as I’d always thought of her: urbane, direct, kind, perceptive, warm. I learned, while she renewed some of the roots of her childhood.

Old country practices enchanted her. She hastened to snap photos of what I’d also recently considered storybook life. She snapped my helpers, Helenka and Jana and I holding up braided onions and strings of sausages. Edith was again excited when the women grated cabbage and began stomping it into a crock for sauerkraut. Helenka felt Edith was concerned with sanitation. “Tell her Jana’s got plastic bags on her feet! Tell her she’s not barefooted.” But Edith only wanted photos of the ancient process.

Edith’s parents were Czech Jews from Ceske Budejovice and Pisek who had moved to Vejprty in the border regions. Edith grew up speaking German and continued in this language when she met Dr. Hans, her future husband. But when we visited some dear neighbors here, the Czech she’d heard as a tiny child began coming back to her.

She told about the small glove factory her father had with the first telephone in town. Our neighbors told us that all those small knitting industries in Vejprty had been consolidated and moved to our town in Southern Bohemia.

The next day was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We ate breakfast and afterwards went to a nearby town to visit a large empty synagogue and a cemetery. It was a day of mental and physical exploring and of spiritual focusing. During the morning Edith said her Day of Atonement activity would be to write a letter of her experiences to a rabbi friend.

An older woman living beside the synagogue thought it should be torn down before it fell on their houses. A younger one, on crutches, hoped someone would repair it as it would be a pity and a loss if it were torn down. They both pointed out the “Jewish Pastor’s” house on the corner. After the war, another Jew lived there, but then he moved to the USA… or was it Argentina? Edith asked about looking into the synagogue. They said the mayor had the key.

The mayor welcomed us to his office, but said he did not have the key. The owner in another town had it and was about to sell the synagogue to a German who was going to make it into a library and a study center. (editor’s note – 2007- this never came to pass)

He showed us this German’s visiting card and Edith wrote down the particulars. I asked about the Town Chronicle. “Well, I don’t really have all the good Chronicle,” but he found a section which had a page on the “Jewish church” history and made us some copies. It is about 150 years old and on the site of an earlier synagogue. Every third house here had a Jewish family, he said.

We asked about the cemetery. “The Prague Jewish Community owns it and Mrs Omackova on Reka St. has the key.”

Edith and I thanked his Honor and left. “Did you know him?” she asked. “Not before this morning!” I replied.

On the gate to the cemetery was Mrs. Omackova’s house number, but we’d had enough of building relationships with strangers for the morning, and went around to the back, climbed up the bank and over the wall! Then we began exploring. The names on the stones brought memories close to Edith, of this aunt, of that uncle, of her parents. Many stones were standing. A few, the oldest, had aged and sunk. A number had been vandalized, pushed over, long ago. Inscriptions were in Czech, German, Hebrew or a combination. Edith talked about her family and relations.

We emerged from the long ago loves and sufferings we’d shared with each other and those not physically present to return home. It is a life of anomalies. We drove in a Ford Escort to a modernized ancient kitchen where we ate a typical Czech lunch.

In the afternoon before Edith caught her bus back to Prague, we visited another cemetery but it was only a footnote to the intensity of that morning.

“Dumov moi”, (My house) she wrote in our guest book. A hostess can have no greater compliment.

Her grandson has horse chestnuts she gathered under our trees. Helenka, Jana and I have photos of ourselves with onions, sausages and sauerkraut. Back in America, all over my hometown, Edith is talking to other friends and showing the slides of her experiences here.