Returning Home after a Lengthy Absence
My mother left Czechoslovakia in a bit of a rush, in 1948, just as the Soviet puppet Communists tightened their grip on the country and its government. Before the war, under President Thomas Masaryk, the father of the Czechoslovakian state, a union of the Czech and Slovak peoples following the First World War, Czechoslovakia was probably one of the most liberal and democratic countries in the world, and certainly the freest in all of Europe.
Even after the Second World War, under President Edvard Benes who took over the reins from Masaryk in 1935, (he was president-in-exile from London from 1938 to 1945 and reinstated after the war), the country enjoyed unequalled freedom.
It was with this background in mind that I looked forward to meeting my mother in Kosice in eastern Slovakia in June 2006. We were doing a sort of "roots" trip. My brother, Dennis [Kuchar, a nice Slovak name, like mine], and his wife, Dianne, (whose father also grew up in Kosice) were joining us.
This was my mother's first trip back to her hometown; almost sixty years had elapsed -- a lifetime, more than two generations. She had lived here continuously from her birth, until the Communist takeover -- with an absence of about a year. This she spent, first in Auschwitz, and then as a slave labourer in the Nazi Junkers aircraft factory.
She was a bit apprehensive about the trip. I'm not sure what she expected to find there. Childhood memories: family, school and friends, mixed with the tragedy of wartime experiences, including the murder of her parents, three siblings and many others close to her. The idyllic Czech democratic, free image had been smashed to pieces, into millions of little particles. Anti-semitic Hungarian rule since 1938, augmented by the natural, dormant, Slovak variety -- a new pretext to bring it to the fore. Then the Nazis. The ghetto. The deportations. The final deportation of all the Jews of Kosice and environs, the the Final Solution for the Jews of Hungary, the last stage of the extermination of all European Jewry. With the exception of a few, like my uncle Lippot, hidden deep underground, Kosice was Judenrein, Jeudenfrei -- free of Jews.
But she returned "home" after the war. She picked up those shattered pieces, put her life back on track, sort of picking up again where she left off, if you can image that was really possible. How could they have done it after seeing some much death and destruction, so much hatred?
She started a millinery business with her sister, Rose. They worked hard, but they played hard too. My mother describes their social life with gusto. They would close the shop at the end of the workday, go home, bathe and change into their finest; and parade up and down the main street, coffee at Cafe [Kaviaren] Slavia, ice cream, friends, like any other "kids" in their early twenties, but these making were up for their stolen teenage years.
My mother arrived to Kosice first. I arrived a few hours later by train from Budapest, at about 6 p.m. My mother, while glad to see me (she hadn't seen her oldest son for six months, so I hope she was happy to see me), seemed a bit despondent. What's up? Oh, it's very disappointing.
She'd gone for a walk earlier, in the area around the hotel. Our accommodation was just outside the "old" centre of the city. There was nothing in the area which she could reconise, with which she was familiar from the old days. Had she gone in the opposite direction, she would have found her bearings. The lick of the draw.
I have heard similar experiences from a number of people who returned to their former hometowns after a lengthy post-war absence. The communists "modified" the city. Towns where streets used to be orientated north-south were now east-west. Charming single and double story free standing dwellings were replaced by practical but ugly Russian communist style four storey boxes, everywhere. Only once they saw the Cathedral, which inevitably dominated the old part of the city, were they able to find their way.
In our city, the centre was left untouched. My mother pointed out her shop, and that of friends of the family from before and after the war. Up there on the second floor was where we held our clandestine Betar meetings, learning Hebrew and about Israel.
But back to my first hour in town. I saw my mother's despondence, and suggested we go for a walk together. She was tired -- she wasn't young -- but she reluctantly agreed. I think we were just retracing her earlier steps, again inadvertently avoiding the old town centre. But I pushed her to walk on. Suddenly her eyes brightened. Yes, that's my high school -- she points at a building that still serves the purpose. I asked if she was sure. Yes, she was certain. I told her close her eyes and we were going to walk home together from school, irrespective of how the surroundings appeared. She had walked this path many hundreds of times, sixty-five years earlier.
Of we went, walking home from school. We walked for maybe ten or twelve minutes. Suddenly she says, oh this is useless. We're not getting there. I tell her the streets have changed, the old houses have gone, but the ghosts remain. A lady, at the most a couple of years younger than my mother, is walking towards us, with a lady, perhaps my age, perhaps her daughter. Or are they both really much younger than we, the product years of communism etched deep into their faces.
My mother, in perfect Slovak, asks what was the former name of this street. The other old lady thinks for a moment, looks blankly towards her daughter, I really don't remember -- it's been quite a few years since "they" changed the name. She has lived in this area all her life. "Was it such and such street", my mother asks. The old lady looks more vague. My mother explains that she has not been here for nearly sixty years and is looking for the site of her family house. She tells the old Slovak that she is very disappointed, extremely disappointed. Nothing is here, not even old skeletons. I could feel my mother's pain. I insisted we walk on. We thank the old lady and her daughter and take our leave.
My mother and my aunts have told me many stories about their mother. Certainly everyone idealises their mothers (and rightly so) -- my family is no exception. But my grandmother does seem to have been an exceptional women. Raising ten children with a husband who suffered badly from arthritis following years spent in the trenches, dug in with the Austro-Hungarian army during the Great War, she also effectively ran the home and business. The latter comprised two shops, on either side of the house for which we were now searching. Each shop faced a different street, the house and storefronts running the length of the block.
From 1940 onwards, Europe, including Hungary in which Kosice then found itself, faced food shortages. There was a war going on. My grandmother was worried about a supply of milk for her family and also for the shops. So she did the obvious, she bought a cow. Now where do you keep a cow in a city? They didn't lived to far from the edge of town. My grandmother found a farmer nearby, in what was already the country, to care for her beast. The farmer's fee was the product of the afternoon milking, the morning milk was our family's. My mother and her milliner partner had a daily chore before school each day -- to go to the farmer and bring home the pale of milk.
By now my mother wants to give up, and return to the hotel. It's no good. This street is curved, our street was straight -- all the streets in our area were straight she reminds me again. No, I say, the bloody communists modified them, rebuilt them, remember. I'm loosing control; she's tired, we've been out for a good hour. But it's summertime, and still light outside. My brother is only arriving after midnight, so we were in no rush. I said OK, we'll continue walking down this street for five more minutes, not a second longer, I promise.
Reluctantly she agrees. We walk on in silence. More boring communist era concrete blocks on both sides of the street. The clock ticks on. Almost at the end of the street now . . . .
Suddenly she says, look! At the end of the street I see a grassy knoll, with a narrow path winding up its centre and over the top. It was an idyllic scene.
That's the path on which Rosie and I would bring the milk down to town everyday for our mother.