Return to Prague: Following in my family’s footsteps
Two years ago I graduated college and wanted something more out of life than an office job. I didn’t have many “things” accumulated yet so I packed what I owned into two duffle bags and set off to Prague to live and work. I wanted an adventure, but I also picked Prague specifically because that is where my family roots on my mother’s side are from. My mother was the first generation to be born in America and during my childhood I learned much about my family’s homeland and history which is actually quite impressive.
My Grandfather was Vaclav Majer. He grew up in a tiny Czech village north of Prague called Pochvalov. He grew up living a rural lifestyle, starting from his birth which took place in his house, not at a hospital. When he got older he went into journalism and then politics. He became the representative in congress for the city of Louny and during the years in between the Nazi occupation and the Communist occupation he grew to be the Minister of Food and Agriculture, which at that time was similar to the American title of Vice President; if something should happen to the President he was the next in line to take control.
During both the Nazi and the Communist occupation there was a bounty on his head with reward money and he was wanted dead or alive. He stayed in what was formerly Czechoslovakia and helped others escape through the Underground Railroad until he was finally forced out in 1949.
While staying In Czechloslovakia during this time there were a number of close calls. During the Nazi occupation he and his friend, who also had the first name of Vaclav, were captured and put in a concentration camp. Nazis higher-up in the change of command got wind that my grandfather had been captured and went to the camp to find him and kill him. When they got there they spoke with the guards and told them they were looking for a “Vaclav Majer.” Apparently, the men who had checked my grandfather and his friend in were not familiar with Czech names and had written him down as Majer Vaclav- putting his first name in the position of last name. So, when the guards looked on the list, of course, they did not find a Vaclav Majer! It looked to them like there were two brothers with the last name of Vaclav (my grandfather and his friend) but nobody with the first name of that! The Nazi men were confused but left assuming they were mistaken. A couple days later my grandfather got the chance to escape from the camp with his friend and they did so with great haste!
When the Nazis found their error and then learned of my grandfather’s escape they were furious at being duped. They sent a soldier to my grandfather’s mother’s house (my great-grandmother) to interrogate her for information. After the Nazis were defeated War Trials took place. During these trials my grandfather was able to read a transcript of what took place when the soldier visited his mother and decide if that soldier should live or die. My grandfather read the transcripts and pardoned the soldier. The transcripts showed that the soldier had arrived at my great-grandmother’s house with no intention of filling out the duty to kill her, if she would simply say she had no idea where my grandfather was. But they also show that she refused to do that. She kept saying something along the lines of, “oh yes I do!! I know exactly where my son is, and he’s going to come back here and kick your butt!”
The soldier would sigh and say something like, “no, Mrs. Majer, I know you are upset, but really you don’t know where your son is, right?” and then my great-grandmother would stubbornly assure him that she did know. This conversation went on for a long time- with the soldier basically kicking my great-grandmother under the table to just say she didn’t know where Vaclav Majer was, and then the soldier could thank her for her time and leave. But she never let up. And, in the end, he was forced to carry out his mission and execute her. My grandfather was greatly saddened about losing his mother, but he also saw that this soldier had worked hard to keep her alive, and that if he had not carried out his duties, he himself would have been killed by his superiors.
It has always been hard for me to cope with the things that go on during war time, which are completely immoral and unacceptable at any other time. Tragically, the gray area between right and wrong is increased as the soldiers’ rights to judge for themselves what is morally acceptable is taken away.
My grandfather was a strong, honest and moral politician who, unfortunately for me, died before I was born. But his memory has lived on in my family. My mother has spoken so much about him that I feel as if I knew him myself. I can even imagine what it would have felt like to be hugged in his safe, strong arms, to smell the pipe tobacco on his clothes and to hear his loud, booming laugh. I have always imagined him looking out for me and always wished to make him proud. I returned to the Czech Republic to walk in his footsteps, up the castle gates, around the gardens, and to the overlook of the city. While I stood there I wondered if he had stood in the very same spot years ago, in sadness, as the Nazis or the Communists took over this precious city.
During my cold December in Prague I visited his village of Pochvalov, where his house still stands today with a plaque of remembrance on the exterior wall. I also visited the nearby town of Louny, for which he was the representative in Congress. The largest street in that town is named after him. I was very proud and full of emotions to stand under that sign and hoped my grandfather was looking down on me and was happy that I had come to remember him and everything he had fought for.
I hope he knows that his memory and strong morals have formed who I am today. These two stories are only a piece of what he, my entire family, all the Czechs and many other residents of Europe went through during the Nazi and Communist invasion. And even so, throughout the wars and at the end of all the horror he never once took up hate against the Germans or against the Russians. He never once blamed the people of the nations which caused such destruction. He knew it was the governments in power responsible and did not let that prejudice his views of the citizens. Years later when living in America he welcomed all visiting Europeans into his house for dinner- Czechs and Germans equally. That way of life was passed onto my mother and now onto me. It has taught me to be open of all cultures, religions and ways of life around the world. If he can be so forgiving then I can definitely be accepting. Walking in my family’s footsteps has opened my eyes and my mind up to the ‘real world’ more than any office job could ever have done.
I am currently still living and traveling around Europe. If you are interested in hearing more please visit: http://i-wanted-an-adventure.blogspot.com/ I have written about many of my adventures, including a trip to visit my “long-lost” Czech relatives, a crazy vacation in Egypt and getting a job in Prague.