Three Old Friends,
This story contains many elements of a fairy tale. Unfortunately however, real life stories, unlike those fanciful tales of legendary deeds, never seem to end the way the Dane, Hans Christian Andersen, nor the German Brothers Grimm would have you believe. Maybe that's why they are called fairy tales. Everything falls into place in the end, as if some tiny, clever, imaginary being in human form, has waved her magic wand to rectify all of the outstanding issues and force everything to end happily ever after.
Indeed my story today does end on a happy note ... but only because I stop the narration where I do. I shan't spoil this by continuing any further.
The two men were friends before the war. They were both from the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia. Both were married with children. Their two families lived in Presov, though one of them originated in Bratislava, today the capital city of Slovakia. The Jews always referred to this city by its German name, Pressberg, renowned for its Yeshiva. Typical for this area, Bratislava also had a third, Hungarian, name, Pozsony. Interestingly Pozsony was the capital of Hungary before Budapest!
The two men returned from their living hell, alone, widowed by the tragedies that befell their people. Their wives and children, and indeed most of their extended families and friends, were brutally murdered by the cursed Germans.
Both remarried soon after the war, to women who had not previously been married, each from different regions of Slovakia. The two couples lived in Prague. One friend was the rabbi of Prague — in fact of all of Czechoslovakia, as he was the only rabbi to return home after the atrocities. His friend was a businessman, now picking up from where he was when he was dragged away by foreign forces who classified him a subhuman.
The two men had a third friend from before the war (they all knew each other through the Zionist youth movements in which they were members), another man who too had lost a wife and daughter, and was now attempting to pick up the pieces. He, however, returned to his original hometown, in Slovakia, to Topolcany, a country town not far from Bratislava. He now managed his uncle's business, in which he had worked before the war. As in all fairy stories, and really just by chance, the Rabbi's new wife was this friend's cousin. It was convenient for him to stay at the Rabbi's house in Prague whenever he was there on business. He flew to Prague every couple of months.
On one of his visits, he met the businessman's wife. This lady was very impressed by the visitor and thought to herself, "this man is so handsome and so polite — he would be perfect for my sister". She however was living five hundred miles away, to the east.
As in all good fairy tales, it so happened that the sister and the handsome visitor were both visiting Prague at the same time. Our scheming wives arranged for the two to meet, over afternoon tea at the good Rabbi's house. Six people for tea. It appeared to be a match made in Heaven. And the sister was definitely interested.
But it was not to be. The visitor was deeply in love with another fair lady, the wife of his murdered cousin. She was waiting for him back in their hometown. They were planning marriage in the very near future. As in all good Grimm fairy tales, our two heroines were just a little too late.
The war was over, but these were still very turbulent times. Europe was changing, sometimes daily. The wedding never took place. The fiancée suddenly decided to seek greener pastures. She sailed for New York City and married a very wealthy local. Her beau remained to brood in Europe, continuing in the family business. Then, almost too late, he realised that Czechoslovakia was now ruled by a communist regime. He fled as fast as he could, to Italy, leaving everything, except for the proverbial shirt on his back, behind. After a few months in Italy, he made his way to Melbourne, Australia.
Not long after, the Rabbi's family too fled Prague, also arriving in Australia. His businessman friend's family arrived in Paris, where they met up with their sister, who also fled the new Czechoslovakian communist rule. Many of their aunts, uncles and cousins gravitated to Paris. The businessman, wife and now daughter, soon after emigrated to Montreal, Canada. In short order, all their relatives moved on.
Two more years elapse and the sister, living alone, but very happily, in Paris, decides to join another sister in Sydney, Australia. Europe was no longer as much fun as it had been immediately after the war. There was too much uncertainty, including a fear that communism would overtake the entire continent, even France. Europe was again changing rapidly.
Our gentleman hero learns that our fair lady is now on an ocean liner, heading for Australia. But alas, to Sydney, nearly six hundred miles to the north. Her ship is to dock in Melbourne for one day, on transit to Sydney.
This is how romantics worked back then. He has a distant relative in Melbourne, who again by fairy story-like chance, had gone to school, in the same class, as his love. He dispatches her to the port, with a gift. In the meantime, he is on the overnight train travelling north. I don't have to tell you who was waiting at the wharf when the boat finally docked in Sydney.
It's the way to a young lady's heart. They were married soon after.
Life isn't always easy, especially when you have no family, no fallback, and have not yet really learned the language. The husband, with all his European business experience and qualifications, works as a house painter. His wife works as milliner with her sister — they had had such a business together in Czechoslovakia after the war.
After fifteen months our romantic couple's first son arrives. In those days it was not possible to work outside the house with an infant at home. So our industrious mother decides to advertise, in the local suburban press, her services as a seamstress, taking in clothes for mending.
On the very day the advertisement is published, a lady phones to make an appointment to come and meet, concerning a large, lucrative job. Our mother is besides herself with the success of just one listing. At the appointed time, two well-dressed ladies arrive at her flat. They start to ask our seamstress questions about her work style, pricing and other important questions. Then one of them requests to see the sewing machine. Our mother takes this lady through to the back of her home, proudly showing off her shiny new Singer special.
She doesn't notice at first that the second lady has remained at the front of the flat. Suddenly something in her brain snaps. She runs back to front of the house. The lady has vanished. And so has her baby, who had been asleep in his crib. Maternal instincts move faster than the speed of light. A minute had not yet elapsed. She runs out into the corridor. It is completely deserted and totally silent.
She yells at the top of her lungs, a piercing shrill that penetrates every door in the stairwell and is fully audible out into the street, reverberating and echoing. A cry which shakes anyone who hears it through to their bones. A scream so powerful that it can only be coming from inside her soul.
A fraction of a second and the corridor is full, people searching, running out into the street. Everyone is frantically screaming, shouting, yelling, shrieking.
The fruiterer, working from his small barrow just outside the building, understands exactly what is happening. With a flying tackle, one of which any Wallaby scum half would be proud, he grabs the kidnapper, now in full flight. He pulls the screaming child from her arms, and returns me back to my sobbing mother.
Menachem Kuchar, 7th November, 2009
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