Sunday, January 29, 2017

Exile

                                  
It must have been twenty years ago my wife and I were driving around Eastern Europe. We rented a car in Prague and set out to explore the newly opened up world that had been locked away behind the Iron Curtain. It was September and tourist season was over which gave us the flexibility to drive, find a hotel and spend the night without worrying about reservations. The trip also had an air of adventure as travel in Eastern Europe was still a rarity and we crossed paths with horses and carts, East German Trabant two-stroke cars and lots of Russian Ladas. Our teal colored Opel ( a super powered Chevy Metro hatchback) stood out like a beacon among the dull brown and gray Communist cars. People stared as we passed. 
We toured Hungary and tasted wine and  crossed Lake Balaton on a ferry. We drove through Slovakia through their new border with the Czech Republic after their recent split. It rained and the roads were muddy. We stopped and changed money, in Poland we were handed bundles of zlotys in different shapes and colors. I was puzzled fearing being duped. No they reassured me new money and old and they were honest and correct. In the Tatras Mountains of Southern Poland we bought matching sweaters and socks it was so cold and we had no winter clothes. We looked like gray fuzzy caterpillars in the uncured wool. It was all an adventure and we hardly knew what we were doing. Budapest confused us and Auschwitz gave us indigestion.
 
This was in the days before the Internet and we ended up in Karlsbad, known nowadays as Carlovy Vary or in English Charles' Baths, It was a spa town with natural hot springs stuck in a narrow river valley, a canyon almost in my memory. We walked the winding streets and felt like we had walk-on parts in Death in Venice so we should have been dressed in Edwardian clothes, starched collars and flounces, instead of modern sloppy wear. We bought crystal glasses as the Czech crown was not a powerful currency against the US dollar. My wife brought them home wrapped in a sheepskin rug (for our dog) and we have the glasses, large for water, medium wine and small for liquor in a  complete set, to this day. We also brought home a slightly more macabre souvenir too.
 
We hiked up the side of the canyon on a wooded trail to some sort of overlook mentioned in the guidebook. I had thoughts of the Reichenbach Falls where Sherlock Holmes met his death but there was no water here, just moss and pine trees and a somber encroaching dusk. We met two women on the trail, one about our age around 35, and her mother, older grayer wiry and walking easily along the narrow path. We all paused to admire the view. "I grew up here," the older woman said as we looked at the little town in the valley. She told us her story.
 
They were German Jews so you know this isn't going to end well, especially when you understand they grew up as Germans in a part of Czechoslovakia populated by ethnic Germans. Hitler annexed the Sudetenland in 1938 and absorbed the ethnic Germans into the Fatherland while expelling the Slavs to the rump of their country. It was to redress a historic wrong, Hitler said, arguing all Germans should be united. Of course that didn't include Jews and the older woman talking to us told how she escaped. Thanks to her father who anticipated the horrors to come she was sent to America never to see her family again. She found their names in a concentration camp ledger and the numbers tattooed on their arms but she also found the record of their murder. 
 
Why just you? I asked my head full of puzzlement. There wasn't enough money to pay the Nazi bribes to get everyone out nor the money to buy the family tickets to America. Her parents had to hope for the best and they wanted their daughter to live. There was no exit for them. We stood looking out over the city and listened to her stories of life in pre-war Karlsbad. Her daughter dropped in comments to her mother about how she had never spoken of this or that. We walked back down the trail and as we strolled back to our hotel our guide pointed out this and that building from her store of memories. The Germans gathered here she said, our friends lived there she said as we walked the narrow streets. We were transported back 50 years. The memories were powerful.
I think of that encounter often these days asking myself what should I do as I watch clouds gather and intolerance and anger grow and fear replace confidence, while trust becomes too high a price to pay for joy. We have collectively forgotten the past and I fear that means we are doomed to relive it. What to do, I wonder and I have no answers. I now stand a very good chance of becoming a victim of my own complacency - "That could never happen here" - and I trust it won't. But it doesn't look good right now.