sometimes i feel especially touched by certain stories i am privileged to hear from locals who share them with me. this is one of them, one woman’s account of what living in prague in the mid-70’s was like. this is another.
i can’t tell it interview style because i don’t remember the back-and-forth quite as well, as it was a bit longer, but i’ll tell you what i remember and what i know.
last week, i shared with J a story about the tragic separation of my landlord’s family from a part of their family who emigrated to the united states after the second world war, which was important because it had to do with having family that live in a different country. (that story, however, is for a different day)
with this tidbit of information, J opened up to me. “i’ve got family that live in another country too. they live in austria.”
he began to tell me this long but fascinating story about how his grandmother, a political prisoner or caught on the wrong side of the law (it was a bit unclear why), married an austrian soldier serving for the reich during the second world war. because of her marriage to this soldier, she was saved from mauthausen concentration camp (in upper austria), where she and the rest of her family were sent. her and her new husband happily settled in upper austria, near linz, the largest city of the region.
in the post-war years, czechoslovakia was sealed off from austria, seemingly for good. after a coup d’etat in 1948, the borders were sealed off from democratic europe. this includes from austria, a veritable sister-country of the past. after all, these two countries were considered one empire for hundreds upon hundreds of years! suddenly, the borders became impassable. friends cut off from friends, families from families. it became harder than ever for the two families to communicate… only a few vague letters could pass between them.
fast-forward to forty years later, when J was just a secondary school student and a star swimmer. he was allowed to visit italy for the purpose of representing czech republic in an international swimming competition. on the train trip back, J realized the train would pass through linz, the city where his grandparents and other family members lived. his family secretly coordinated a short meeting during the very short layover that J had to board the czech-bound train. sure enough, on the platform in front of the train that was to leave in minutes, he reunited with his family. he had never even met them before, only seen photos and heard stories. a big group of them came to greet J and thrust piles of gifts in his arms for himself and his family. his chaperones looked on anxiously and the police guards began to take notice of the situation, so after only a two or three minute meeting, he scrambled onto his train headed back to the homeland.
of course, only a couple years later, the velvet revolution occurred and the families were free to reunite. as they only lived less than a two hour car trip away, J’s family began to make more frequent trips to visit their austrian relatives. J noticed that his grandparents always had them doing tasks for them, which seemed innocent enough as elderly people have a harder time keeping up with landscaping and handywork around the house, but they would always gift them things considered extremely nice and generous, like a brand new TV set, which was still scarce and much too expensive in czechoslovakia at the time. over the years, J and his family began to really notice how much the austrian family seemed to pity them for not being so fortunate to grow up in austria like them, and how they didn’t have quite as nice of belongings and cars as they did. he couldn’t help but notice the way they felt sorry for him, even though they may have tried to hide it.
eventually, the visits with the grandparents grew less and less frequent and they passed away in the mid-nineties. but J and his family only found out several months later, when they came for a visit. sadly, no one bothered to inform them or invite them to the funerals. this is really where the great family rift began. the aunts and children (who were J’s age) seemed to longer be able to relate to their czech family. the grandparents knew what it was like to grow up in a time where austria and czechoslovakia were still very intertwined historically and culturally, but this feeling seemed to be muddled over time and was lost over the years to the new generations.
did no one remember that prague was once the greatest city of central europe? or how škoda was once the most prosperous and prestigious manufacturer of the entire empire? they all grew up in a new country with no czech heart and little memory of the times when they were a family.
the real nail in the coffin came when an aunt actually blamed a drunken driving incident on the czech family, saying it surely was one of them that did it. twenty years passed without the families speaking to each other.
…almost. J told me he had just contacted a long-lost cousin his age through facebook two days before and was awaiting a response. “it’s like, what have you got to lose?” i proffered, hopefully.
“exactly,” he answered with a smile.