Off Piste: Kin, kinder and kindness

Richard Larschan recalls a genealogical quest and how the generosity of strangers in a foreign land led to unintentional revelations

March 4, 2010

Whether my great-grandfather, Rabbi Moishe, was booted out by his congregation, chose to return to Prague voluntarily, or perhaps was cheated of his life's savings by Bernard Madoff's great-grandfather, the fact remains that in 1885 he packed up his yarmulke, tallith and phylacteries and headed back to the Old Country after just three years in America.

Yet his brief stay in New York had not been altogether for naught, since he had sired my grandmother Mary there. That proved especially useful when, as an American-born citizen, she was able to sponsor her older sister Hermione ("Aunt Minnie") so they could both emigrate, at the turn of the 20th century, for arranged marriages to second cousins. Their mother had died recently, but they were leaving their 66-year-old father in the quite capable hands of his new bride - a young woman in her twenties.

In 1969, I had recently married a woman also in her twenties, and when we decided to honeymoon in Europe it seemed an ideal opportunity to undertake a "roots" search - the sort of thing African-American author Alex Haley would popularise a decade later, but preferably without those dreadful whippings Kunta Kinte suffered.

In late June, departing from San Francisco - I was a Berkeley graduate student at the time - we took an 18-hour flight via Bangor, Maine, on the same charter airline subsequently memorialised by David Lodge in Changing Places. We spent the first few weeks travelling in half a dozen countries, but Czechoslovakia was our ultimate destination, and we set foot in Prague on the very day Neil Armstrong made his "giant leap for mankind".

Yet even euphoria over the Moon landing could not dispel the sense of gloom that pervaded Czechoslovakia following the suppression of the Prague Spring the year before. In fact, our hotel overlooking Wenceslas Square was just across from the very spot where protester Jan Palach had immolated himself precisely a year earlier. American visitors to Czechoslovakia were specifically warned by the US State Department never to engage in political activities - nor to exchange money on the black market.

With visions of Solzhenitsyn's labour camp emblazoned in my imagination, I had taken the precaution against temptation of carrying traveller's cheques rather than banknotes. Also, the Czech Government required tourists to pay for hotels in advance and then prove they had exchanged a specific amount of hard currency each day. However, the dearth of enticing consumer goods additionally mitigated the appeal of such illegal transactions. After all, how many Bohemian-costumed dolls could a childless couple actually use?

Needless to say, with the black market exchange rate running at four, five or even six times the official government rate, I succumbed at the very first opportunity when I found a black marketeer who happily accepted American Express. I may have been a subsistence-level graduate student in California, but in Central Europe I became a fully fledged plutocrat. The sky's the limit: costume dolls for everyone! Only the best French wines! And, of course, first-class train tickets when we finally set out for my ancestral village in southern Bohemia - something that sounded like Potoky or Petrokly or Podmokly, according to 94-year-old Aunt Minnie's best recollection.

She had written that it was "somewhere" in the vicinity of the larger Sudetenland towns, Schuttenhofen and Bergreichenstein, although in an effort to discourage the territorial aspirations of future Reichsfuhrers, these larger towns about 75km southwest of Plzen had been renamed Sušice and Kašperské Hory, respectively. Even with those two co-ordinates, as we boarded a so-called first-class carriage for Plzeñ we had little idea of how to locate - much less actually transport ourselves to - Potoky/Petrokly/Podmokly.

A typically gregarious American, I took the first opportunity to intrude on a nearby passenger, seeking advice on how best to reach our ultimate destination. His measured response made it quite clear that he would prefer that silence prevail for the remainder of the two-hour journey. Yet just as we were about to get off the train, I thought I heard him say in somewhat broken English, "My girlfriend meets me with the Ford motor car bought by brother from Czech-ago. Come with us and we find the village of your ancestors." What?

My own surprise was nothing compared with that of said girlfriend, Marta, when informed that two complete strangers would be joining her and Mikhail on a hitherto unanticipated journey to Who-knows-where. But before that, we would all be spending the night in a charming, Swiss-style mountain chalet reserved for the elite of the Czechoslovak Workers' Paradise. Except that when we arrived, there was no additional room - not even for my ready money, lots of it. Mikhail's solution was to give us their room, and for Marta and him to stay with a friend about 20km away. My protests were futile - especially after he confided to me that it really didn't matter because "Marta was having her monthly"!

The following day we travelled through the Sumava mountains in the general direction of Schuttenhofen/Susice, briefly stopping along the way to harvest - and eat - vast quantities of cherries from an orchard by the roadside. To my query about whether what we were doing was legal, Mikhail declared: "This is the People's orchard - and we are the People!" Observing thirtyish Marta's shapely legs as she stretched for cherries from an upper branch gave added nuance to the notion of forbidden fruit as I gorged myself à la Tom Jones with Mrs Waters at Upton Inn.

From there we gradually made our way through the Bohemian countryside, stopping next by a pristine mountain lake where dozens of holidaymakers were enjoying the temperate summer weather and idyllic scenery, sunbathing, picnicking, strumming guitars - but for some reason none of them was swimming. That last detail had altogether escaped my notice until an armed soldier motioned his weapon menacingly in my direction, ordering us out of the water!

Arms swiftly raised well above my head, I immediately complied; Mikhail, on the other hand, matter of factly told the soldier that he first intended to "take a few laps". It was our good fortune that the Good Soldier Schweik was on patrol that day because (as Mikhail subsequently explained) the lake's opposite bank was in West Germany - and thus patrols were necessary to prevent all those West Germans from illegally entering the Workers' Paradise.

By now it was unmistakable that despite his status as a prominent Czech journalist, Mikhail was not exactly a Party man. In his late thirties, over six feet tall and strongly built, Mikhail was enormously energetic, took obvious joy in subverting authority whenever possible and was nearly fearless - except, perhaps, when it came to sex during a woman's "monthly". Marta was somewhat less dynamic but equally good-hearted. They made an attractive pair, so I took great pleasure photographing them walking together, laughing and embracing.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived in what we hoped would be my ancestral village of Podmokly - but would know for certain only if it had the Jewish cemetery Aunt Minnie had mentioned. To call Podmokly a "village" is something of an overstatement. Essentially it was a collective farm consisting of a dozen or so dilapidated buildings, several occupied by humans and the rest by livestock - although which structures were more conducive to creature comforts was hard to say, if only because the one source of running water was a trough in the centre of the village. The nearby public convenience was indeed quite public - what we Boy Scouts used to call a "two-holer".

Quite amazingly, Podmokly was at that very moment hosting another visiting American - a robust 86-year-old staying with his wizened 76-year-old kid brother, whom he had not seen since leaving Czechoslovakia about the same year as my grandmother and her sister had left for New York. Because he spoke English, we got a full history of our surroundings: where the former synagogue had been situated, the schoolhouse he had attended, and especially that all-crucial landmark, the Jewish cemetery roughly a half kilometre away, straight up the hill.

Until then it was rather uncertain that we had located the actual village. Noticing an elderly woman seated on a wooden bench when we first arrived, I had asked Mikhail to inquire about the Jewish cemetery. He translated verbatim her seemingly discouraging response, complete with accompanying distorted facial expression: "No cemetery here," she had responded, "unless you mean for Jews." One small step for Podmokly; one giant leap for anti-Semitism.

Having been fully assured of the cemetery's location, I saw that the time had now come to complete the final stage of our quest by climbing the hillside to the cemetery itself. But just as the gods had avenged themselves on Prometheus for stealing fire, and the Aztec emperor Montezuma regularly avenges himself on unwary visitors to Mexico, the deity of godless communism avenged my gluttony of ingesting large quantities of purloined cherries. Doubled over with abdominal pain, I was barely able even to contemplate the anticipated climb.

Undaunted, however, Mikhail half-carried me, step by step, the entire way. It took somewhat longer still because I dragged myself away to improvise a relief station au naturel. But eventually we reached the graveyard. Largely obscured by a grove of trees and surrounded by a stone fence about one metre high, the cemetery was all but invisible from as close as five metres. Completely overgrown with tall grass and wild shrubs, it was impossible to determine precisely the number of graves - 50? 75? 100? A few markers were upright, but the majority horizontal. I could see why the Nazis had never bothered desecrating the site: time and nature had already done their best to eradicate all memory of this once-vibrant Jewish community.

With characteristic fervour, Mikhail set about determining whether any inscriptions were in Czech or German, rather than Hebrew. For once I regretted succumbing to the easy choice my father had given me as a 12-year-old, between playing baseball with friends or spending endless hours learning Hebrew from an ancient rabbi. Nevertheless, I placed the traditional symbolic stone on one of the graves and said the secular humanist equivalent of a prayer before commencing on my next urgent quest: the wood-frame outdoor public convenience in the centre of the village.

Having now triumphantly accomplished our mission (and mine!), a celebration was definitely in order; so we located the Czech equivalent of a Michelin four-star restaurant and dispensed a good amount of black-market currency on fine dining and still finer wine before leaving late that evening for Marta's flat in Plzen. The following day we bid an emotional farewell to this couple with whom our shared adventures had created an insoluble bond.

Three years later, largely at my urging, my parents visited Mikhail in Prague to deliver some classical records he had requested. Previously by way of thanks I had sent him a number of small gifts and included a sheaf of photographs I took of him with Marta to commemorate our marvellous adventure. Typically, Mikhail insisted on driving my parents the 150km from Prague to Podmokly and then assisted my 67-year-old father's climb to the cemetery - age and geology, not cherries, the main obstacles this time.

On their return to America, of course I heard all about their experience - what a wonderful person Mikhail was, and his charming wife and son. So, apparently, he and Marta had recently married. But their son - "How old was he?" "Oh, around 18 to 20," my mother estimated. "He's studying to be a concert pianist."

I can't recall my precise response, but in today's abbreviational teen-speak it translates to "OMG!" Of course Marta had been surprised that two complete strangers would be sharing their undoubtedly long-anticipated tryst. And double OMG! - I had sent photos of him and Marta in loving embraces to Mikhail's home address!

What a testimonial to the man's - and his wife's - incredible generosity that, despite everything, he extended himself so selflessly for my parents. But at least this time his good deed did go unpunished.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty - mine excepted.

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