The following is a vignette from my upcoming book, COWBOY FROM PRAGUE: AN IMMIGRANT’S MEMOIR–
In 2014, I brought our entire family—all seven of us—to my native country. With some trepidation, expecting pushback from three bored grandkids—I planned an itinerary loaded with visits to places of historical importance, to locales where I had both thrived and suffered as a child, to the homes of friends. I was amazed and delighted when eighteen-year-old Sam, fifteen-year-old Sarah, and twelve-year-old Caroline embraced their family’s history and fell in love with the Czech Republic. But, as pleased as I was with the unexpected success of the trip, I was almost brought to my knees by a shocking revelation that would follow our return.
Although three years had passed since the triumphant launch of my Czech-language memoir, Dlouhá cesta domů (Long Journey Home) in Prague, I was still sought out by journalists for interviews during our 2014 visit. Because our program was chockful, and I was not about to interrupt our grandchildren’s learning experience, I declined respectfully—until the day before our departure. On that day, I received a call in our hotel room.
“My name is Michaela Čaňková,” a lady introduced herself in English. “We are compiling stories of famous Czechs who emigrated after the Communist take-over.”
Having had my ego stroked by being called “famous,” I agreed to meet her before our family’s farewell dinner. Now, the pretty, middle-aged lady was sitting across a table from me.
“I’ve read your book, so I know your history. But there is one major gap I’d like to fill in,” she said.
“Fire away, Ms.Čaňková,” I said.
“Please, call me Míša.”
“Thank you, Míša. I’m Charlie.”
“OK. The gap I found concerns your maternal grandmother, Marie Kožušníková. You write that she was a Sudeten German Catholic when your Jewish grandfather met her in Vienna. They never married and, when they had a daughter—your mother, Ilona—Marie had Ilona baptized in a Catholic church in Vienna. Two weeks later, your grandfather adopted your mother and brought her home with him. Your grandmother returned to her home near Ostrava and, as far as you know, she stayed there. After you came into this world, you never met her.”
“I don’t remember ever meeting her,” I said.
“Now, things become interesting—and a bit mysterious,” said Míša. “You write that, after the occupation and the round-up of Jews for death camps, your mother lied in racial court by telling the Nazis that both her parents were Catholics. If the Nazis would buy the story, she would be considered a Christian and both of you would be safe. Since her Jewish father had escaped from Czechoslovakia, your mother needed her mother to corroborate the story. She dispatched her best friend, the lady you called Aunt Aša, to Ostrava, where Aša attempted to persuade Marie to come to Prague and to lie in court. At first, she refused. After Aša’s second visit, she finally agreed to do it.”
“That’s correct,” I said.
“OK—now the mystery,” she said. “Here is what you wrote in your book:”
“…my parents’ silence allowed no discussion of my maternal grandmother, Marie Kožušníková… Since she was a Sudeten German living in Czechoslovakia, I wonder today if she was among the 2.5 million ethnic Germans who were deported after the war. I hope and pray that she was not, and that my father was able to use his influence as a war hero and that my mother was able to testify as to Grandma’s antifascist activities… Sadly, I have been unable to learn her fate.”
“What have you done to try to find out what happened to her?” Míša asked.
“I contacted the municipal authorities in Ostrava and in the small town of Frýdek, where she was born. All I was able to learn was the date of her birth: June 24, 1888, and that she was one of eight children.”
“Is it possible that your mother had close friends in the Czech Republic, in whom she may have confided the story of her mother?”
I took a few minutes to ponder the question, one that had not occurred to me when I researched our family’s story.
“There’s one possibility,” I said finally. “Mother had a close friend, who is also a very good friend of Sue and me, Jitka Thomasová. Since we’ve only known her for the past twenty years, I didn’t use her as a source. But I know that she and Mother had many intimate conversations. Unfortunately, we’re leaving Prague tomorrow, and I won’t be able to speak to Jitka until we get back to the US. I’ll get back to you if I find out anything.”
A few days later, I heard Jitka’s voice from the other side of the Atlantic.
“Charlie, of course I read your book—several times—and I have to tell you that I cringed when I read about your fond feelings for your grandmother. I had no intention of ever speaking to you about this, but you’ve asked. So, I must.”
“I appreciate that, Jitka,” expecting a surprise—but not a bombshell.
“I’m not so sure you’ll appreciate it,” she replied. “But here we go. When your mother’s friend, your Aunt Aša, tried to persuade Marie Kožušníková to testify, the woman refused to even admit that Ilona was her daughter. But apparently, Aša eventually applied some kind of blackmail to force her to come to Prague and to lie to the racial court. So, she wasn’t the kind, brave lady that you thought she was.”
“Why do you suppose she refused at first to admit that Mother was her daughter?” I asked.
“Because she was afraid that her husband would find out. Now, are you ready for this?” Jitka asked, but did not wait for my response. “Her husband was a member of the Waffen SS—the worst kind of murdering Nazi.”
The news was so staggering that I remained speechless for a long time. Politely, Jitka remained silent at the other end of the line. Finally, I thanked her and hung up the phone.
The Waffen SS ran the concentration and extermination camps. They oversaw the murder of more than six million people, twenty-five of whom were members of my family. Now I discovered that my maternal grandmother was married to one of these gangsters! The thought that I may have distant cousins somewhere out there, cousins who have traces of the same blood as I, mixed with the blood of a Nazi murderer, made me ill.
As promised, I rushed off an email to Míša: “I found out about my grandmother,” I wrote. “This is one part of my family story I want to forget.”