By : Hana Dubova, written 2004
"Since I reached the age of reason, I was told over and over again, by my parents and grandparents and other relatives: “Don’t ever do anything to shame the family.”
The family, the family. Who is the family? What do I know about this family? Only that I love them because they are and know that I am loved by them all and feel secure.
Their lives are a mystery to me. I see them as they are now. I cannot imagine what and who they were before, where they came from, and what they like at my young age. I see them only as grown up adults who have authority over me and who are to be respected and obeyed. As the saying went then “Children are to be seen and not heard.” Every time the adults had something to discuss we were sent out of the room. It was a heroic and adventurous (and dangerous) undertaking to sit on top of the steps and eavesdrop.
Both sets of my grandparents lived in Kolín, where they and I myself were born. It is only 100 km from Prague. When I was less than one year old we moved to Prague, where my father opened a store of children’s clothing.
We visited often by train, less than an hour train ride.
My maternal grandparents had a nice house, with a beautiful garden. I was always fascinated by the flowerbeds which were bordered by upside down green bottles, their necks buried in the ground. The sun played many tricks on these glass borders from shimmering light green to almost black. There was a wonderful gazebo where my younger brother Peter (by four years) and several cousins invented all kinds of games.
My mother was one of 6 children. She was the next oldest. There were 5 girls and finally a boy. My grandfather could not remember the name of which daughter he wants to summon. He mixed up their names. Ella, Emily (my mother), Zdena (Denise in English), Wilma, and Helena. So smartly he called out Ellaemilyzdenawilmahelena all in one breath claiming that one of the girls is bound to come. The last one was a son Pavel (Paul), who survived the war as at age 16 he walked from Czechoslovakia, through Poland to Russia, where he enlisted in the Soviet army and came back after the war as a liberator. The saying was that after the son was born my grandfather “closed the shop for good” as no other children followed Pavel. I could never understand why they were saying the shop was closed for good as I often went to his store on the Main Square. He had a general store from tools, materials, notions, and trinkets. His main customers were “Bosnaky”. Bosnak arrives from the Czech word ‘bosy’ which means barefoot. They were not barefoot, but they were peddlers who carried their ware on a huge tray fastened with leather straps around their necks and selling notion, combs and brushes (both for human and horses), hairnets, fashionable combs which the ladies would ornate their hair with and trinkets. They went by foot from village to village selling their goods, which they bought on credit from my grandfather. When they sold their wares or finished a village they came to my grandfather for more and payed him for the previous sales. Some just disappeared with the goods they got on credit. It was a constant battle between my grandmother and my grandfather as she helped out in the store besides have six children to take care of. She was furious that he always gave credit and kept loosing money. Somehow in spite of it, they managed to marry off 5 daughters with a substantial dowry. My grandfather was a short man and a hunchback. We were told that he was dropped as an infant. His name was Emil Fiala (Fiala means violet). His store was named Fialkovy dum (the house of little violet).
When visiting my grandmother Maria, she kept us busy with all kinds of chores, which we loved. In the middle of the garden stood a big old walnut tree, we as children with bags collected them. Then we pried off the outer soft green shell and voila a beautiful shiny perfect shell appeared. We pried the outer skin either with our fingernails or miracle of miracles were allowed to use a knife. Our fingers and palms of our hands turned yellow then brown from the green outer skin and it took weeks to wash the dye off. We were told that from the outer layer ink is made. We believed it, as it took such a long time to get rid of the dye. My grandmother eventually let us use scissors. She kept a big basket with worn out socks and cotton stockings in multi colors. Our assignment was to cut the stockings and socks in narrow strips, going round and round the socks and roll the cuttings in balls. She then crocheted carpets and runners for all her family and friends. My grandmother was a diabetic and we were allowed to watch her give herself shots of insulin, which was so frightening. She went once a year to Karlsbad for a cure, which was fashionable then. She ate the worst fruit I ever tasted and saw for the first time in my life. She cut it into small pieces after peeling and squeezed it, drank the juice and ate the pump. Although we had oranges, bananas, nectarines, and pineapple, we have never seen such a big yellow orange. I asked her if I can taste one and reluctantly she handed me a piece. Uh, uh, what an awful bitter smell. It was a grapefruit. My grandmother’s maiden name was Reich. Her parents lived nearby and so we often paid a visit to our great grandparents. My great grandfather always blessed us, in laying his hands on our bowed heads, reciting a prayer and always finishing with “may God protect you.” When he died, my great grandmother moved to Prague and we saw her often. In my possession is a photograph of my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother and myself at age 4 professionally taken. The picture was even published in Prague’s newspaper with a riddle: 3 mothers, 3 daughters, 2 grandmothers, 2 granddaughters, one great grandmother, one great granddaughter: how many people does it make? I also have a professional photograph of my cousin Otto and myself, -- he four years old and myself three -- at our grandparents silver anniversary.
My mother told me that she, Emilie (whom I named my granddaughter after), although she was nicknamed Milena or diminutive, loving Milenka and my father, Josef, nicknamed Pepa Dub were in love for a long time and wanted to get married. They couldn’t as her old sister Ella was not married yet (they were one year apart and it was not becoming that a younger sister should get married first). She nagged and nagged her parents. Finally they found a suitable husband for her, Jacob Stein. They married and the coast was open for my mother and father. Ella and Jacob had a son by name Otto Stein (my cousin on the silver anniversary photo). He was born the year my parents married. My mother was 19 and my father was 26. I was born on my mother’s 20th birthday. When I was good, most of the time, she always said that I was the best birthday present she ever got. However, if I was bad, then it was the worst birthday present ever.
Ella’s marriage couldn’t have been a happy one. They divorced and she married again and this time to a Gentile by name Kaspar. This was unheard of. What a shame to the family. A divorced daughter with a child. Unheard of. What a tragedy. She was referred to as “The black sheep of the family.” When I saw her years later, she wasn’t black at all. They had a son by name Milos Kaspar and when he was born, the family reconciled.
My aunt Ella must have been very resentful toward my mother, as she was forced to a loveless marriage, in order to pave the road, so her younger sister, my mother, could get married to my father. She must have rebelled later after giving birth to her son, Otto and then divorcing Jacob and marrying out of faith, knowing very well how painful it is to the entire family. In other words she was shaming the family.
Life is full of unexpected fate. Due to Ella being married to a gentile, a mixed marriage, she was sent later in the war to Theresienstadt and never further to extermination camps and Jacob, because he was married to a Jewess, was sent to a labor camp. They both returned after the war. Both Ella’s sons also survived. They settled in my grandparents house, where they lived until their death. She was the only one out of five girls who survived.
Besides doing the fun chores (ex: using knives and scissors), my treat was to be able to go to the store. There was so much to see. All kinds of garden tools, bolts of colorful fabrics, knitting needles in all sizes, wools in different colors, hair clips, ornamental ladies combs, elastics, all kinds of needles and canvases for needle point. I never got enough to explore all. My favorite were five shallow drawers under the counter where hundreds of cheap glass rings were kept. They were all so shiny and glittered in the light. I keep trying on one at a time, although they were too big for me and slid off my fingers. One day I got the courage to steal two rings. I was convinced that the dog saw me and that I would be punished for that. But the temptation was too big. I took the rings and hid them in my shoes. The sad part was that I had no one to show them to. For two nights, I prayed to God to not punish me for my sin. The third day I was practically sick with bad conscience. I begged my grandmother to let me go to the store again. I slipped the rings back into the drawer and felt as if I got a new lease on life.
After all, I didn’t shame the family."