Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Czech Mates

Helena and Matej
A few years ago, when my friend, colleague and author Jed Diamond invited me to a party in Willits, California to celebrate completion of his Ph.D. I met his and Carlin's son Aaron. Aaron composed a song in Jed's honor that was such a generous act of love that I asked to hear it again later. At the time, Aaron was engaged to marry a woman from the Czech Republic. Jed emailed Aaron about my trip and I received a lovely email from Aaron full of suggestions and tips for my stay in Prague. Aaron's now married and living in the CR. His wife, Helena is a school teacher and volunteered to play tour guide and take me outside the city on the day her school was closed for a holiday.

Helena is warm and witty and generous with her time. Seven-year-old Matej practiced his English with me. Czech schools begin English instruction in the second grade. Our first stop was a brewery tour to the Staropramen Brewery. I was so impressed with the interactive videos, as good as any I've seen at Disney World.

Multimedia Presentation

We drove out of the city to the former site of the village Lidice. I say site because it looks like this.

Where Lidice once stood

In 1942 the village was mistakenly identified as having an association with one of the men who committed the assassination of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich.  As a collective punishment for the assassination, the village men were lined up and shot. The women were separated from their children and sent to a concentration camp. The children, except for a small number of young children selected to be raised by German families, were kept for several weeks before being transported to a different camp and gassed. The village was set on fire and then destroyed, literally leveled to the ground. The museum on the grounds had photos of everything as it was all documented by the Nazis. Most heart rending were the letters from the children begging relatives to send them food, clothing and essentials. The children were told they were at camp. There was video of a few of the women who survived the camp and children who had been raised in German homes. If their mothers survived the camp, they could not communicate with their children because the children now spoke only German while the mothers spoke Czech. Can you imagine not being able to talk with your own child? The empty fields are haunting. The sculptures of the eighty-two children gassed will tug at my heart for years to come. A new village of Lidice was constructed nearby after the war, but this memorial will forever bear witness to what happened here.

Bronze sculptures of the eighty-two children
To counteract the sadness of Lidice, Helena took me to see two castles. Years earlier, Helena was a tour guide at the first in the village of Nela Hozeves, birthplace of composer Antonin Dvorak. His talent  was first nurtured here.

Nela Hozeves
Antonin Dvorak Statue
The second castle, from the 1800's, was a hunting lodge. The photo of Helena and Matej was taken in the wooded area leading up to the castle.


  On the drive back to the city, Matej began to tell his mother jokes. He would tell one, she would translate, and we would all roar with laughter. It has been a while since I had the pleasure of second grade humor and it was a treat to watch this mother and son interact. I am so grateful to Helena and Matej for their kindness in sharing their beautiful country with me, and to Aaron for sharing his family. The best way to learn to love a country is through its people.

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