Friday, April 03, 2009

My Czech Treasures

In the operetta, "Cikansky Baron", the protagonist returns home to a ruined estate and, after many adventures, finds a treasure, a trunk of gold coins. I came with my husband when he returned to his ruined estate; we continually have adventures. I found an old trunk his family had used for boots; chickens had been nesting in it. It was not filled with gold coins.

My treasure I found elsewhere. That it was so unexpected intensifies its value for me. My treasure is our relatives. Some my husband knew as a child, with some few we corresponded, and some, even fewer, we met in England & Germany. Of course, many were not born yet when my husband & his parents left.

In April 1990 my husband, our junior high daughter, and I went to Litomerice to see Uncle John and Aunt Irene whom we'd met once in Oxford, England. Uncle John used to send us things - phonograph records: the lovely J.J.Ryba baroque Christmas mass, and a Karel Gott 45; and a Lada calendar and Lada prints for the children. From that April '90 visit I have a wonderful photo of Uncle John showing my husband the surrender papers which had been given him in 1945, and which he had kept hidden for over forty years. Aunt Irene was rushing out to buy ham, cheese, and rolls for us.

In August 1990, I arrived at the Pilsen train station with four of our nearly adult children, and my mother-in-law. We were looking out of the train, to see who was meeting us and wondering if we would know them. Suddenly I realized that almost all the people stretched out along the platform were there for us. There was a little old lady I was certain was someone special. Later, I found out how very special she is. She's my husband's aunt and, with her husband, his uncle, had facilitated their route out of Czechoslovakia. There were 3 of my husband's first cousins, and some spouses; 5 of my children's second cousins. We hardly knew these people existed.

In cars and a farm truck, we were carted off to the village mill which my husband's grandmother had run. I actually had the address in my address book, but had no idea what it meant. We saw the weir island with its ancient huge hollow tree where every year the children put on a play, "fairies" emerging from the hollow tree. We ate and drank, laughed and talked, in a mixture of languages - Czech, English, German. Peter, a second cousin took us to see an ancient castle ruin, which once was a beacon, when fires were lit, on the route to Prague. In the evening we sat around a fireplace & sang. We all learned "The Mill Doesn't Run Any More", "Nemelem nemelem". But my husband's cousin, Joe, was trying: he is producing electricity. One of my daughters went to bed first. She was highly startled when her second cousin walked through, the rooms being interconnected, as typical of a Czech house. "WHY is Leslie (eldest sister) here?!!" "No, she's your second cousin, Katya!"

There's Jane, a loving homebody. Before I learned Czech we communicated just with smiles, and appreciation of her meals. She and Georgiana both like to try new recipes. Another Jane speaks English, and is sensible, outgoing, and, also, caring. Olga is full of enthusiasm, loves adventure and was in the big Sokol parade with Havel. There's Eva, with whom I used a dictionary to speak together in German, hers much better than mine; years later I was her confirmation sponsor. Her husband, Thomas, still later, did a reading at our daughter's wedding. There was Vasek to whose retroactive Charles University medical school graduation we went. Havel instituted these graduations for people who had been thrown out of university in 1949. There was Cousin Irene, very precise, organized, and interested in art.

Cousins Slavoj and Milada scurried around introducing people to each other. IWAP's support of the Zbraslav children's home was a result of Slavoj's introductions because his cousin who worked there asked me for help. There's Hana who was one of the first signers of Charter '77. There's Joe who's a computer genius. There's Margaret who brought her boyfriend, now her husband, for a visit, remembering how our girls took her on a picnic for her namesday, when she, only 8, had been dropped off with us to practice her English! She's now an elegant young woman and the mother of a little girl. There's Kathy, and Peter, Paul, and Katy, who thank us for visiting, as if we, not they, had provided hospitality.

Aunt Hana, who died at age 95 a few years ago, plied us with constant tidbits of the art, history, and architecture of Prague. When young, she listened to Ema Destinova* singing from the Vysehrad while she stood with her family across the Vltava below. 'Her voice was so clear! You know, it was before the days of microphones, but we heard her perfectly.'

I treasure all of these people. Certainly I could use a trunk full of gold coins; oh, yes, I could. However, my Czech treasure is truly of lasting value to me.

*Ema Destinova was a famous and beloved singer and opera star. You may look at her face on the 2000 Kc. note, or read her plaque at the entrance to the National Theater.