What’s Behind the Curtain?

Mickey Mouse was forbidden. (Western propaganda.) Indiana Jones was okay. (Harrison Ford fought Nazis.) James Bond was nixed. (Sean Connery zapped Russians). “Some Like It Hot” somehow sizzled by the censors. A Beatles haircut could get a guy arrested.

I’ve been living in Iron Curtain territory. Yes, the drapes were torn down in 1989, but memories of life here in the Czech Republic under Communist rule remain, like hidden scars. But our new acquaintances seem eager to reveal.

As a Jew visiting Europe, I’ve focused on its Holocaust history. I’ve sought out the once vibrant, now vacant synagogues; the monuments testifying to the horrors of the Hitler regime; and the cemeteries offering stories of destroyed Jewish lives. This current trip added two concentration camps to our itinerary: Auschwitz-Birkenau and Terezin. I’ve stumbled upon reminders of Holocaust atrocities almost every step of the way.

But during these months in the Czech Republic, I’ve also collided with historical events beyond the Holocaust. Terms like “Warsaw Pact” “Prague Spring”, and “the Velvet Revolution” have been resurrected from remote outposts of my brain. I’d been too distracted by the Vietnam war to notice the squelched Czech uprising against Communism in 1968. I was focusing on marriage and career the year of playwright’s Václav Havel successful 1989 non-violent overthrow of the regime. It’s time I paid attention.

So, here, I’ve walked in the square that celebrated Havel’s victory and perused Prague’s Museum of Communism and its artifacts, videos, and reconstructed scenes documenting that nightmare period. I’ve realized that this country, as Czechoslovakia, was divvied up like a pie, with slices served to Hitler; then it became part of Stalin’s goody bag post-WWII. Communist authorities arrested more than 200,000 Czech nationals and executed almost 250 after mock trials. Thousands prisoners died in jail. About 170,000 people were driven into exile, with hundreds killed trying to flee.

But it’s the personal stories and not statistics that knock me down with the force of thecruelty. And it all started with Max.

* * *

“That’s a NATO base,” Max, Paul’s young colleague pointed out. We are en route to the Czech highlands for a day of hiking early in our semester sojourn in Hradec Kralove. I glimpsed only a blur of flags set back from the highway, splotches of color against a gray late summer sky.

“NATO keeps the Russians away,” he added, his hands gripped firmly on the steering wheel. Was he taunting us, his anti-Trump visitors? In spite of the distance from home, we couldn’t withdraw from our daily dose of CNN or whine about the Russian investigation.

“If the Russians ever come back, I’ve got to leave my country,” Max continued, in a tone more serious than playful. What? He and his wife were born in the Czech Republic; they have two kids. He’d really leave? What had those Communists done? Even before knowing the details behind his words, I wanted to package Max’s testimonial and ship it to the White House with an all caps note:  “SEE THE RUSSIANS ARE VERY VERY BAD PEOPLE!”   Additional validation for my Trump distress.

Max has been our self-assigned concierge, host, and tour guide; the guardian angel who shepherded us through Czech supermarkets, fitness centers, and the Kafkaesque immigration bureau. That day he was introducing us to the range of low mountains and meadows dividing Bohemia and Moravia; he promised castles, a 17th century Jewish cemetery, and a pub at trek’s end.   But Max gave us much more; his personal story allowed us a peek behind the curtain.

We’d been hiking for about an hour and the conversation had turned to the current immigration crisis, when Max proclaimed. “I spent a whole summer in a refugee camp; no one should live like that,” he proclaimed.   For a few seconds the only sound was the thud of our boots on the dusty soil, as Paul and I absorbed his words. I tried to give an orderly shape to my questions, but could only blurt, “Why? Where? When?”

Max’s family had escaped communist Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1983; he was ten and his brother eight. They crossed by foot into Austria, an independent country liberated in 1955, when all postwar occupation troops had withdrawn. To Czechs, the country offered freedom from Communist domination. Max’s family had made it, despite the fact that many were killed during such attempts. Yet the four returned to Czechoslovakia when his paternal grandmother became severely distraught by their absence. As punishment, his father lost his job and went to prison. Bad enough, but Max and his brother were placed in what the Soviets labeled schools for the mentally disabled. What?! I imagined minimum education and maximum discipline.

“It was only for four years,” he responded to our shocked expressions, as though we were the ones that had to be consoled. I mean, I knew the ending was happy: Max completed a doctorate in philosophy, and was on the faculty of the town’s university. But still….what had he endured?

I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s marked by Khrushchev, the Cuban missile crisis, and Sputnik. The Cold War. We’d have routine air raid drills at school, but I’d never really believed the bombs would come. Communism was thousands of miles away, and Uncle Sam would keep it that way. I was more frightened of tornado warnings. But for Max and his wife Margarite, now in their mid-40s, Communist oppression wasn’t something studied in a history book or half listened to on TV news. It painted their childhood and adolescence with a palate of fear.   They endured the secret police; baseless arrests; censorship, prohibitions on travel, or even a stunted elementary education.

I’d come to realize that these Czechs around me – the deli guy who slices the cheeses we like; the wine store owner offering samples of Moravian whites; the nuclear engineer we met at the local jazz club who never thought he’d ever get west of the Brandenburg gate; our Terezin tour guide who still fears the KGB, – all were impacted by life under Soviet rule, the precursor of the Russia that’s infiltrated my country’s politics today.

* * *

It’s November 11, St. Martin’s Feast Day and Max and his family have invited us to celebrate the traditional meal. Dishes of roasted goose, sweet and sour cabbage, and two kinds of dumplings clutter the wooden planked restaurant table. Goblets are brimming with newly harvested red wine, the Czech’s Nouveau Beaujolais. I’m quizzing Max and his wife about life during Communist years, wanting to hear more of the story he’d begun weeks ago.  But now, as we celebrated the Czech holiday, in between telling us about the tanks that would show up now and then, they could shake their heads at the insanity of it all.

“No Mickey Mouse…..!” Max repeated.

“So here’s a joke,” his 16-year-old daughter Adela, pushing strands of blonde-brown hair away from her oval eyes, announced at our St. Martin’s feast. She had grown up with these tales.

“Two men meet in a Soviet prison and one asks the other, ‘so how long are you here?’

‘Two years.’

‘And what are you in for?’

‘I don’t know. Nothing.’

‘Can’t be for nothing!’ the other inmate reacts. ‘Nothing gets you three years!’”

We all laugh. I mean, the Russians aren’t coming back. Right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“A Thick Crust of Lies”

On Friday’s train ride to Prague, I was listening to the last chapter of “What Happened?” and relished the irony when I heard Hillary referencing Vaclav Havel, the writer and dissident who helped lead the Czechs during the nonviolent 1989 “velvet revolution” that overthrew 41 years of one-party Communist rule, and brought democracy to this country. Havel was her inspiration when preparing her 2017 commencement speech to Wellesley graduates, as she searched for a message to bring all those smart and despairing young women. Quoting in her book from his essay “the Power of the Powerless, Hillary cites Havel’s description of the people in Soviet dominated Eastern Europe as living under “a thick crust of lies”. Havel advocated that, no matter, they must continue to hammer out the truth, the weapon against distorted reality. He insisted how we must stand up and say “the emperor is naked.”

As we know, Havel was elected president of the post Soviet democratic Czechslovakia, then Czech Republic. Today, as we grapple with an administration that spews forth alternative facts, and challenges the media, we must keep on hammering out the truth.

Arriving in Prague, I visited Wenceslas Square, where Havel addressed demonstrations and celebrations. I wandered the Xmas markets populating the old square bursting with shoppers and gawkers drinking mulled wine and grog, eating kielbasa and roasted spicy nuts; and even potato pancakes as big as the full moon. Holiday singers entertained on stage, warmed by woolen scarves and outdoor heaters. Walking near the national theater, I encountered a large knit statue of Marilyn Monroe and her seven-year itch billowing skirt. Such is the multi -faceted charm of Prague. I shall miss this place.

I wandered across the Charles bridge, taking in the aura of the Prague Castle and its spires sparkling under the lights. It’s a palace fit for Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. We don’t live in fairy tales, but the story of the re-emergence of freedom here after decades of oppression is real. Sure the gargoyles may try to creep in under the cover of night, but I believe the spirit of Havel will keep them in check.

Hillary ends What Happened, with the message “Keep going.” And per Havel, keep on destroying the lies, by hammering with the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Do You Say “Hold the Onions” in Czech?

Scene: Paul and I try a neighborhood restaurant down the street from our apartment. It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s November. We’re tired. We’re hungry. We’ve just left the gym and have earned a good meal. We sit down at the one available table, unwrap ourselves from coat, scarf and gloves. And then it finally happens.   After more than two months here: the menu is in Czech and so is our waiter. No English subtitles. No English interpreters. Ne. We’re on our own. I’d even left my Czech book (pun intended) at home.

The restaurant is crowded and boisterous. Good sign. Food must be yummy. Or maybe it’s the beer. Paul orders one, a “pivo”; one of the few Czech words in his vocabulary. I request a glass of wine.   Fortunately, ‘chardonnay’ in Czech is ‘chardonnay’.

I try not to play the Ugly American who expects everyone to speak my language. I had a Czech c.d. in my car for months before our trip, but didn’t get beyond “thank you”, “excuse me” and “do you speak English?” It’s a tough language.

Paul and I study the menu as if one of us could do an AlanTuring and break the code. The boyish waiter delivers our beer and wine. Sensing our struggle, he tries to assist.  Pointing to the first group of five dishes, he moos. Yes, moos. Ok, ‘beef”. We’re getting somewhere. Then this cute server moves his finger to the next group of menu items and snorts. Pig. Ah, pork. Not for me, but Paul perks up. Continuing his game of charades, the waiter points to the “specialty” group, and then to his knee.   Uh, pork knee? Pig’s knuckle is a popular Czech dish; Paul had it in Prague and the portion was so large, it had to have been a knee. (Do pigs even have knuckles? Nevermind. I really don’t want to know.)

I decide to ask about duck, a popular dish on most Czech menus. Continuing our form of dialogue, I quack twice. The server shakes his head. Are the other diners staring?

Okay. I get out my IPhone and search for Restaurace Ferdinanda, and discover its website. Luckily Ferdinanda offers free WIFI, (a universal term) so my ATT international package overage doesn’t explode. Its FaceBook page pops up offering photos of its dishes and some translation. Pay dirt!

“Paul, look wild boar stew!” Something he’d like. It even looked good to me. (The stew part, not the boar.) My stomach’s growling. Ok, one meal down. Paul nods, closes his menu, and shows the photo to the waiter as he sets down our much anticipated drinks. This very patient young man shakes his head. “No goulash”. Right, I remember now. Goulash is stew. But no stew for you. Must be an old photo. Back to square one.

We divvy up the menu and try Google translate. We discover chicken with asparagus  as well as four other chicken dishes with mysterious ingredients. We can do this! Then Google offers up “socks” as a translation for an item. Uh, oh. My appetite slows.

We gesture for another beer and glass of wine. Paul decides on a pork dish. Any pork dish. He’s the adventurous eater, except of course when it comes to socks.

The waiter sets down another pint.  I point to the three chicken dishes and shrug my question. He walks away. Have I offended? Is he finally exasperated? But no. He returns with his own phone and translating site. “Popcorn,” he points to the second chicken item. “Popcorn?”   Chicken with popcorn? I daresay its corn; the Czechs eat a lot of corn; even put corn on pizza. I wasn’t in the mood for corn. Popped or otherwise.

My hunger intensifies. Then I recognize “flank stejk”; two kinds. One comes with “pickled onions” per Google. The other? Who knows. Google’s at a loss. I order it anyway, pointing to my selection. I choose to ignore that the waiter responds by pointing to his belly. Is that where the cow’s flank is? Nevermind. I really don’t want to know this either.

“French fries?” the young server asks. Ah, another universal term.

“No.” I shake my head. He looks perplexed. Who refuses French fries, he must be thinking in Czech? The waiter then types into his phone, points to the flank steak, and shows me the word that popped up on his screen: “alone”.   Huh? My flank steak will arrive alone? I envisioned a lonely slab of meat in the middle of a large white plate. Solo. Nothing else. Paul then Google translates mashed potatoes, perhaps not wanting the steak to be lonely, or knowing how much I love them. He shows the Czech results to our new friend.

“No“. Our very busy, waiter says. No mashed potatoes. Okay, not bearing the thought of an isolated steak, I ask about a small ‘salat’? (Yes, I figured that one out.) He nods and turns away. I don’t dare try to add, “hold the onions” even though I’m allergic.

I sip my chardonnay. Paul chugs his dark ale. We silence our phones and wait, bracing to accept whatever is served. At least fifteen minutes pass. Are they retaliating for our slowness? Finally, the waiter sets before each of us a wooden platter of food. Paul’s sizable pork knee, (or knuckle) is accompanied by a variety of sauces; and a grouping of crisp red peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Three slices of dark bread complete the dish. Great presentation as they’d say on the Iron Chef.

And mine offers no less. The steak is not alone at all. It’s embraced by of a bordelaise creamy mushroom sauce; the same crisp veggies and bread slices nestle against it. A fresh vegetable salat is at its side.   I take a bite of one of the tenderest pieces of beef I’ve eaten in ages.

Another delicious meal in Hradec. We’ll be back. I wrote down the Czech name; the fourth beef item on the menu, so I’d remember.

Or maybe I’ll just moo.

 

 

Am I Fiddling While California Burns?

While the Sonoma fires were raging, I was traipsing through Prague. As the smoke trailed down to Santa Cruz, I was touring the art galleries of Berlin. When a friend’s Boulder Creek home was at risk from mountain flames, I was on a canal trip in Amsterdam.

I’m eating duck, dumplings and dark chocolate. I’m drinking Moravian reds and German Rieslings.

Am I fiddling while California burns?

My country suffers daily from an incompetent president who attacks military widows and football players, and supports slashing heath care subsidies and taxes.   Shouldn’t I be back home calling representatives? Phoning voters in districts that need to be flipped? Marching with Indivisible?

Have I gone AWOL?

“Very sick and would like to talk to you please” was the subject line of a dear friend’s email last week. I woke up to the news in a Villa in Prague.  It was the middle of the night in St. Louis. I had to wait hours to call. Then I cried.

The next day I learned of the serious illness of another’s daughter.

Fifteen minutes before I boarded my Air France flight from SFO to Prague in early September, a close friend texted the sad news of an unexpected death in her family. What to do? I wanted to dash, catch an UBER, rush back to Santa Cruz to comfort, to console. Let my luggage fly solo. My group was called; my boarding pass scanned. I located my assigned seat.

How can I be of help when I’m thousands of miles away?

I’ve been traveling in Europe for the past six weeks, with another six plus remaining. I’m absorbing the wonders, the history and the culture of this resilient region. I take photos. I post on FB. I blog. Trips to Paris, London and Milan are on the horizon as I join Paul on his lectures, catch up with Santa Cruz friends, and rendezvous with my older daughter Stephanie. I’m lucky. I’m grateful. But I’m feeling a little guilty.

Fortunately, the accessibility and sophistication of technology allow me to send flowers, connect by text, email, or telephone. (Yay What’s App!) Even chicken soup can be delivered. www.grandmaschickensoup.com.   I make online donations to candidates and causes. There’s probably an emoji for every emotion I feel.

Is that almost as good as being there? I sure hope so.

“No guilt, have fun. CA will burn. America will tremble without you this time, and you can relax and enjoy the autumn,” my lovely friend Jenny reassured.

I sent her a virtual hug.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Am I Fiddling While California Burns?

While the Sonoma fires were raging, I was traipsing through Prague. As the smoke trailed down to Santa Cruz, I was touring the art galleries of Berlin. When a friend’s Boulder Creek home was at risk from mountain flames, I was on a canal trip in Amsterdam.

I’m eating duck, dumplings and dark chocolate. I’m drinking Moravian reds and German Rieslings.

Am I fiddling while California burns?

My country suffers daily from an incompetent president who attacks military widows and football players, and supports slashing heath care subsidies and taxes.   Shouldn’t I be back home calling representatives? Phoning voters in districts that need to be flipped? Marching with Indivisible?

Have I gone AWOL?

“Very sick and would like to talk to you please” was the subject line of a dear friend’s email last week. I woke up to the news in a Villa in Prague.  It was the middle of the night in St. Louis. I had to wait hours to call. Then I cried.

The next day I learned of the serious illness of another’s daughter.

Fifteen minutes before I boarded my Air France flight from SFO to Prague in early September, a close friend texted the sad news of an unexpected death in her family. What to do? I wanted to dash, catch an UBER, rush back to Santa Cruz to comfort, to console. Let my luggage fly solo. My group was called; my boarding pass scanned. I located my assigned seat.

How can I be of help when I’m thousands of miles away?

I’ve been traveling in Europe for the past six weeks, with another six plus remaining. I’m absorbing the wonders, the history and the culture of this resilient region. I take photos. I post on FB. I blog. Trips to Paris, London and Milan are on the horizon as I join Paul on his lectures, catch up with Santa Cruz friends, and rendezvous with my older daughter Stephanie. I’m lucky. I’m grateful. But I’m feeling a little guilty.

Fortunately, the accessibility and sophistication of technology allow me to send flowers, connect by text, email, or telephone. (Yay What’s App!) Even chicken soup can be delivered. www.grandmaschickensoup.com.   I make online donations to candidates and causes. There’s probably an emoji for every emotion I feel.

Is that almost as good as being there? I sure hope so.

“No guilt, have fun. CA will burn. America will tremble without you this time, and you can relax and enjoy the autumn,” my lovely friend Jenny reassured.

I sent her a virtual hug.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Little Girls of Krakow

Dressed in skirts of pink tulle, with rose garlands adorning their hair, the little girls resembled a bouquet of young ballet dancers about to perform a recital. Could their small legs plie, pirouette, jump? Or if not dancers, were they a cluster of flower girls ready to toss petals down the aisle? No.  In fact, they were sisters celebrating Rosh Hashanah at the Isaak Synagogue in Krakow, Poland. Unlike me and a smattering of other tourists visiting for the High Holidays, the little girls were at ease in the compact women’s prayer area of the historic 17th century synagogue. Their giggles interrupted the pious quiet of bearded men in tall Cossack hats and dark silk robes passing through to reach the Ark. The youngest toddled, trying to keep up with the others who were skipping to their seats in shiny black patent slippers.

Elsewhere in the Isaak Synagogue a father handed his meandering adolescent son a prayer book; women murmured Hebrew blessings as they lit candles; a baby cried. The rabbi motioned for the congregation to stand. This could have been a scene in any synagogue around the world that night, as Jews were gathering to embrace the New Year, 5778. But we were not in just any synagogue. We were Jews praying in a synagogue that had been raided by the Gestapo over 75 years ago. We were Jews gathering in a synagogue where the Nazis had shot and killed a man for refusing to burn the Torah scrolls. We were Jews celebrating Rosh Hashanah just 90 miles from Auschwitz.

My husband and I had visited the concentration camp the previous day. We wandered by walls of barbed wire; plodded through barren barracks; filed passed mug shots of prisoners in striped garb: name, date of deportation, date of death chronicled beside. The dampness penetrated. The silence weighed. Everywhere were exhibits of personal belongings taken from the over one million men, women and children who had died there: suitcases; hair brushes; eyeglasses; pocket watches. Items of life now testimonials of death. Thousands of shoes were arranged in random heaps or strewn along the floor.   Some would have fit only little girls.

 

 

 

 

Does Amazon Deliver to Hradec Kralove?

Hradec Kralove is 6000 miles from the beaches of Santa Cruz. We’re based in this small Czech city for four months, while Paul is resident professor at the local university. A few years ago we briefly visited  and while my husband spoke philosophy with faculty and students, I navigated the town. By the end of the day I was certain I’d walked every cobblestone and hit every highlight: the wine shop, the art museum; a pub or two. So when my scholar spouse was invited to teach here I panicked. I pouted.  Then, I relented, but warily. What would I possibly do for four months? Who could I talk to? Where would I workout?

During the months we had to prepare for the journey, Paul received tons of invites to lecture while in Europe (Prague, London, Milan,) and our bribes of all the Pilsners they could drink lured friends to plan visits. A conference in Krakow was added to the mix. Slowly, I succeeded in whittling down the number of days I’d actually spend in Hradek; like unworthy shavings, I was sweeping them away.

And now here we are at Komenskeho 262, settled into a two-bedroom, one bath second floor apartment with hardwood floors and large windows. BUT no dishwasher, no clothes dryer, and no TV. (Those charming clotheslines one sees hanging all over Europe, trimmed with shirts and socks? Well, they’re not that charming up close and personal.) PLUS, we do not have a car. (I hear your gasps).

But you know what? I’m liking it. This small city. The pace.

No TV? I read. I listen to Hillary telling me just “What Happened”. (I know.) I write and I blog, all to a backdrop of ITunes Mozart concertos. I may post too much on FaceBook. Paul joins me in the living room, working, reading or writing; no third bedroom office beckons. I’m no longer chained to CNN and MSNBC, and still hear as much Trump bluster as anyone needs. Online deliveries of the NY Times, and Washington Post and snippets of Jake Tapper and Rachel Maddow videos on FB suffice. I’ve weaned off 24/7 cable news and the daily crises presented from all vantages and views. How many ways can hash be served up anyway?   Once is enough to moan about the Steph Curry and NFL slams, the newest travel ban, or the health care chess game the Senate is playing and replaying with our lives.

No car? No matter. The concrete steps adjacent to our apartment lead to Old Town and Oz: pubs in spired buildings serve duck confit, grilled veggies, creamy spinach soup; wine bars pour dry reds from Moravia; and restaurants tout grilled trout (HK is at the confluence of two rivers), carrot puree, and chocolate mousse with fresh fruit. With 20 Czech kroners to the dollar, we can afford a splendid dinner out including a bottle of wine most every night. Interspersed are cheese shops, bakeries with loaves of round, brown and seeded breads taunting,  and fruit or cinnamon pastries whose names I can neither pronounce nor remember. Boxes of plums, peaches, cauliflowers, and tomatoes overflow sidewalk bins. And the chocolate shops! Salons may be a more apt descriptor. Language gap? Sure, but we manage. The cheese shop owner offers Google translate; the baker gives free samples. Chocolate is a universal term. (“Cokolada” in Czech. ) If all else fails, we point.

With food being so available and accessible, I was delighted to find a 50 meter multi-lane indoor pool a ten minute walk away. As is a fitness club, a jazz club and  Hradec’s Philharmonic. (Tonight we are seeing Bizet’s Carmen.) Paul’s office is another quick stroll. HK ‘s professional men’s ice hockey team plays in a stadium just down the street. Go Mountfield!

No dishwasher? No worries. We eat out a lot. (See “No Car? No Matter.” section above.)

Thursday is the feast day of St. Wenceslas, a national Czech holiday honoring the patron saint of Bohemia. Hradec is the capital of East Bohemia. (Deep down, I’ve always considered myself a bohemian. Just kept it quiet.) The University will be closed. A colleague of Paul’s is taking us hiking and promises sightings of at least two castles. Can’t wait!

Just hope my socks dry.

 

 

 

Michal’s Story

“My father’s grandmother and great-grandmother died in Auschwitz,”  Michal, the young professor joining us at the  Czech pub announced, after communicating our beer orders to the waitress. I was startled.  Hours earlier,  as he shepherded us to our new apartment, I’d asked about a majestic building bordered with ornate Hebrew letters that I’d glimpsed from the taxi’s window. “Is that the former synagogue, that’s been turned into a library?” Michal confirmed my Fodor’s guidebook info in part. The synagogue had ceased being active in the early ‘40’s; the restored property was now empty and for sale.   I briefly imagined a group of Czech Jews rallying to reclaim it, building fund pledges in hand. But I never would  have imagined that this John-Lennon look alike had a Jewish story to tell.  But tell us he did, while we nibbled on  camembert marinated in oil, a Czech specialty.   My inquiry about the synagogue seemed to have given him permission to speak about his family’s nightmare.  “They took a 92 -year old woman to the camps!” his outrage apparent.  I wanted to hear more. Why hadn’t they taken the entire family? Someone had to have survived, or this Czech native wouldn’t be sitting across from me. “My father’s grandparents, (his great-grandparents) had ‘a mixed marriage,’” Michel offered as the reason others were spared, including the children.  I was surprised  such distinctions were made. Hadn’t the Nazis tarred all members of a family with the same brush?  “They were all secular Jews, but  the culture stuck,” he  added, then took a big gulp of his beer.   Setting his mug on the scarred wooden table, Michel described a local Jewish cemetery that he’d  like to show us. “Members of my family are buried there.”  Did I hear pride in his voice?

Paul and I visited the empty synagogue in Hradec the next day. It was built in 1905, in the Moorish style of arches, dome, and tile. Sprawled along a well trafficked street, it faces a lush park running the length of a few city blocks, thus occupying a plum city spot.   A Hebrew inscription “Together we come to the House of the Lord”, adorns the front, adjacent to a window poster ironically screaming “MEET-UP.”   But for a  broken side window, the building is a stately, silent reminder of what was.

Approximately 80,000 Czech Jews or about 85%, died in the Holocaust.  A plaque on a  building  at the University where Paul will be teaching designates it as a former “collection center” for the Jews of Hradec, before they were sent to the death camps.  Today  about 4000 Czech Jews live in the Czech Republic, primarily in Prague.  Hradec is not identified as one of the smaller Czech cities with a  Jewish community.   I’m unaware of any rabbis or services here and I’ll be going to Krakow and  then to Prague for the high holidays. There may no longer be any Jews living in Hradec.  But I know now that there are young people like Michal who are eager to share the stories of their Jewish heritage.

Yesterday we received an email from him:      “Please do not hesitate to contact me if you are interested in any information regarding places of Jewish heritage in the region.  My father and grandmother (grandfather is not alive anymore) would be surely delighted to deliver it or to share any memory and knowledge they have.”   

We would be honored to speak with them.

 

 

A Semester Abroad…at last.

This is the post excerpt.

The encounters I’ve experienced in just one week in Hradec Kralove,  Czech Republic, could fill multiple posts. This East Bohemia city of approximately 90,000, will be our home base for four months while Paul teaches at the local University.  I’m embarking on my first blog in hopes of  sharing the stories of the people who welcome us,  the aged buildings that embrace us, and  the local wine, breads and pastries that entice us. (Ok the beer too!) Of course the backdrop to all these stories  is the history of this region, of Central Europe. I am some 6000 miles away from my own country, which is battered by hurricanes and an administration that threatens to erode its democratic values.  As I write my hometown is being rocked by protests over the not guilty verdict of one more policeman charged with murdering a young black man.  Here, in this region that has known calamity and catastrophe that should never again be experienced anywhere, it is quiet, peaceful.  It’s as though after the horrors of the 20th century: the Nazi occupation followed by the Soviet occupation,  these countries could not endure  more. What I’ve learned in just this very brief time is that this history is very much embedded in the young people.

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A Semester Abroad…at last.

This is the post excerpt.

The encounters I’ve experienced in just one week in Hradec Kralove,  Czech Republic, could fill multiple posts. This East Bohemia city of approximately 90,000, will be our home base for four months while Paul teaches at the local University.  I’m embarking on my first blog in hopes of  sharing the stories of the people who welcome us,  the aged buildings that embrace us, and  the local wine, breads and pastries that entice us. (Ok the beer too!) Of course the backdrop to all these stories  is the history of this region, of Central Europe. I am some 6000 miles away from my own country, which is battered by hurricanes and an administration that threatens to erode its democratic values.  As I write my hometown is being rocked by protests over the not guilty verdict of one more policeman charged with murdering a young black man.  Here, in this region that has known calamity and catastrophe that should never again be experienced anywhere, it is quiet, peaceful.  It’s as though after the horrors of the 20th century: the Nazi occupation followed by the Soviet occupation,  these countries could not endure  more. What I’ve learned in just this very brief time is that this history is very much embedded in the young people.   And they seem eager to talk.  I hope you choose to travel along with me. More to come, as I navigate my way through Central Europe, (and the idiosyncrasies of blogging…like just how do I change the image below?!)

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