58 / 365 – The Living and the Dead

FRED VANEK

There was a mill in town, along the river, and my father ran it. He was like Finn’s father, in that way, one of the important men in town. I don’t know what it was like for a man like that to have a wife who he kept half-hidden. My mother avoided large gatherings, festivals. I do not think she liked the parties or balls they had to attend sometimes. She went to them, many times, at least I remember. But she was most alive on those nights when it was just us, alone in the house, with the blinds drawn. Her family never visited, because she had married outside the community. My father’s family also did not visit. Sometimes on holidays we went to visit them, up in the city, Teplice, up in the mountains. But they did not come to us.

I’ve thought of him often of the years, almost sixty years now. The time I remember most is Friday night, as my mother lit candles for sabbath, my father standing in the doorway, half in shadows, watching us. Just as often he sat with us, never saying the prayers but sitting with us. But more often I think of him standing back and watching, the light of candles dancing on his glasses.

Years later, when I began attending the university in Prague, just before the Germans came, I met my grandparents. They spoke to me in German and then in Hebrew and seemed more interested in testing me, to see what I knew, was I Jewish enough. I had never attended a school or a synagogue. I only knew what we said and read together on the Sabbath. I said a part of a prayer I remembered, I can still remember it now. I guess that was enough. Fortunately they were not like the Germans in the army, who would make you pull down your drawers and check your package to see if a — oh, I forget what my mother called them — a mohel — that’s it — if a mohel had done his work. I didn’t know anything about this when it happened. My mother had never talked about it. I didn’t understand what it was, circumcision. The Germans I knew in the army didn’t know either. They were as full of crazy stories as anyone. I remember one young guy who was an officer, very young, telling all of us that circumcision was cutting off the end of your penis. I wondered how Jews could have so many children. Others were always saying they bred like rabbits so they could take over the world. And I thought back to those Friday nights around the table, in candlelight, and I thought, if the Jews are trying to take over the world they are doing all the wrong things as they go about it.

My grandparents lived in an old Jewish neighborhood near the old synagogue, the one where some people said the golem was hiding, even some Czechs who weren’t Jews. A lot of them knew that story. I wondered how my father, coming down from the north, so very Czech in his ways, could have met and married my mother. It was as if they came from different countries. I asked my father about it once and he said they met on the street near the square — there’s a big beautiful square in the center of the city with big beautiful churches and the town hall. He had seen her on the street there, walking with some friends, but they had looked at each other. And he sought her out. She was also studying at the university, the same university where I was, and he saw her there again, on a warm day when she was crossing a courtyard and he said it was as if she had lit it up. So he said he did what he was never brave enough to do, he walked over to her and said hello. Soon they were meeting, in the library, on the street. They wanted to be married, but back then it was not done so much, Jews marrying non-Jews, Bohemian people marrying Czech Jews. Both of their families said no. His father told him he could not work in the family business. Her family told her they would forget her, she was no longer a part of it. My father told me it was just after the war had ended, the first war, and Czechoslovakia was a new country and people felt like they were lots of new possibilities now. They were very hopeful for the future. And maybe he had been too hopeful, that they could do this now, because things would be different in this new country.

He found work in the little village where I grew up, Terezin, in the country halfway between the town where his family lived and the city in Prague. Halfway in between but a place where no one would visit. Nobody visits you when you’re in the middle. Just look at North Dakota. People live on the edges, on the coasts. Nobody wants to come to the middle. Nobody wanted to see them. They wanted to forget about them, I think.

I think about him standing there in the doorway and I wonder, if he could have forseen all that would happen, how they would be left alone, would he still have walked across that courtyard to finally speak to her? In your life, you meet people, you are drawn to them, but you don’t know their history, all of the history they bring, and you can’t know where it will take you when you decide to carry that history with you too, to join it to yours. To make a family, really, what that is. He can’t have known how lonely it would make him. But when I think about that, when I ask that question, would he have done it had he known, I think the answer must be yes. I like to think that anyway. Maybe I lie to myself, but I have lived through many difficult things, and I needed thoughts like that to keep me going.

It was a beautiful thing, I think, because it was so difficult. And to think that they chose that, because they would choose lover over difficulty. My father was always very kind to my mother, very sweet with her, even when things were most difficult. When I was married to Alena, I often thought about this. Here in North Dakota things weren’t nearly so hard as there, especially the things that happened after the Germans came. So if we fought, Alena and I — yes, hard to believe it, because we were so sweet with each other, especially when others were around — I would think back to my father and think, whatever we are fighting about is not half as bad as most of what my father and mother lived through. They lived through so much, and yet what they stood for each day in the world was love, was kindness. They would not let all of the evil going around in the world in those days stand in the way of love. People like to mock this now, but it was a very strong thing. Strong, even though were not strong people and even though, like nothing, the Germans could just come at dawn and take them away forever, without a trace, without hardly a memory among their old neighbors. All of that living, all of what they did together, just wiped off the Earth.

Or so we think. Because they live on, here today, thousands of miles away, in a place they could never have imagined, a place I could not have imagined. They are here in my memory, and when you and I sit here in this room and talk about them, they are here with us also. Very much alive.

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