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from the December 2007 issue

An Odd Story

I glanced at the wreath against the tombstone and was amazed to read my own name on it: TO MY SECOND MOTHER—FROM KAREL HRABĚ.

In our family there had never been anybody by that name.

My father, Abraham Grafi, was the owner of a fairly respectable fabric store located on the oblong main square of a district town near Moravská Ostrava. There my mother, Sarah, spent her days in the cashier's booth. Every crown of the daily gross sales passed through her short fingers. A good many crowns they were, too. We must have been quite well off, or so I believe, though you'd never have guessed just by looking at us. I only recall the promises my father had made to himself how he'd make enough money by 1940 at the latest so that we could move to Poděbrady and begin a new life. I had no idea what life he had in mind, but Poděbrady, in my fantasy, meant everything: a new house, new furniture, a garden, a garage with a navy blue Fiat similar to the one Samuel Mock, our sole Jewish competitor in town, had recently gotten.

The Mocks led a life totally different from ours. They lived in a beautiful apartment. Mrs. Mock had a gorgeous head of raven hair and crimson lips. They had a maid who addressed her mistress as "Madame," and my father used to say that they'd go bankrupt. Once, when they had closed their business for two weeks and had left with their maid and a car full of luggage for a vacation in Dranov Spa, my father remarked, "For all I know, Samuel may not even be a Jewish merchant. A Jew must be modest, deferential and diligent. He must never take offense, even if a customer kicks him in the rear end. Every customer must be led to believe that I am his servant and he is my master. No," he concluded, "Samuel isn't a Jewish merchant, and he will go belly up."

One day, a beautiful flowery dress had shown up in a delivery from Prostějov. Father gave it to Mother, pleading, "Sarah, please wear it inside the house, not in public. What would people say?" So she wore the dress only at the holiday table, and when she'd leave the house she'd put on a wine-colored one, and her black coat over it.

Since Mother's days were spent in the store, our house was kept by Mrs. Hausknecht. Mrs. Hausknecht was German. At that time, a great many Germans lived around here. We were tied to the Germans by language. We spoke German at home, and in the store, German or Czech, depending on the customer. Mrs. Hausknecht spoke to me in her mother tongue, caressed my hair and called me "Karl," a name she had successfully fought for and won for me: a feat she was immensely proud of. Originally, I was to have been named after my father. Mrs. Hausknecht was very pious, and in Mary's Church on the promontory overlooking the town she had a reserved seat, with a plush cushion on both the pew and the prie-dieu. On the pew was a brass plate with the name MARIA HAUSKNECHT engraved on it.

In our house, religion wasn't practiced. And at school I didn't take religion either. The Lord as portrayed in the Old Testament had no appeal for Father. "Killing something that I have created! That doesn't stand to reason!" Father wouldn't have killed even a fly. In summer, he would gaze with compassion at the flypaper that Mrs. Hausknecht hung in profusion around the house. He raised no objection when on Sundays I would accompany Mrs. Hausknecht to her church, pray "Little angel, my guardian…" and drop a coin in the box under Infant Jesus, whose frock changed colors depending on the priestly vestments of the day: sometimes it was white, then green or red, purple. I loved the house of God enormously and prayed with such candor and fervor that after every mass I would earn a gentle stroke on my head from Mr. Müller, a clerk of the district court and the spiritual leader of the acolytes of Marian fellowship that Mrs. Hausknecht scrupulously attended. For her, Hans Müller was the model of a truly pious German. He participated to a great extent in my religious upbringing. His tutelage had yielded such bountiful fruit that in 1932, on Corpus Christi, I was secretly baptized. Secretly? Such an event must have stirred up the whole town! A Jew converted to Christianity! But at home not a word had passed, and Mr. Müller let it be known that nothing was to be said of it, not even to my parents. "The Lord hath laid His eye on thee and taken thee for His own."

This happened at a time when we were still on good terms with the Germans: greetings, a joint ball in the German Cultural Center, Sunday sausage and beer in Waldschlossen, the same bank . . .

Without warning, everything changed. The Germans began to shun us. They stopped shopping at our stores, favoring their own kind or going to the Czechs. And then, in the middle of March 1939, we locked ourselves in our apartment while the Wehrmacht, passing through from the western border, rumbled below. Overnight, Mr. Hans Müller became the chief of the Oberlandrat. He was driven in a green Mercedes flying a little flag with a swastika, carefully taut under the celluloid sheath. We were given yellow stars. And I was thrown out of school and my parents from their store. We were hungry and Mrs. Hausknecht would bring me food, enough so I could leave some for my parents. And one rainy morning, with small knapsacks on our backs, we trudged through puddles, under the rifles of the sentries, to the railroad station. On the sidewalk, a sobbing, drenched Mrs. Hausknecht, crazed by fear and terror, scrambled alongside me, screaming at the guards, "Lassen sie ihn! Let him be! He is no Jew! Er ist katholisch! Lassen sie ihn! He is also my child! Ich werde Herrn Müller informieren!" And the sentry mumbled something, clutching his gun.

The railroad station is down the hill from the town. The clearing in front of the building was filled with trucks. At the entrance to the station, near the green Mercedes, flaunting a NSDAP pin in the lapel of his gray leather coat, stood Hans Müller.

Mrs. Hausknecht hurled herself at him, shaking him in her paroxysm of sobs, pulling him toward me, and he turned his face away queasily from the wretched line of shriveled Jews. She hysterically screamed at him, "Why then have you done it? It was your doing, too, you know! You are his godfather. The Mother of God will forsake you and I will damn you forever! Retten sie ihn!" He turned ashen as a ghost, pushed her aside, and disappeared behind a wall of the sentries. He waited for me on the ramp leading to the cattle cars. With awful force, he snatched me from the line. Mother tried to kiss his hand. He backed away. My parents knew what was in store for them. This was the last transport leaving the district. Destination: Auschwitz.

After a few months at Mrs. Hausknecht's, I was shipped to a selection camp at Oderberg. That was the name for Bohumín at the time. There I often watched inmates being sent in both directions. And then, the dreadful shaved heads gazing through the small windows of the cattle cars wreathed in barbed wire. I had struggled through a difficult case of typhoid, but the death transports missed me. At times even a letter would arrive, and parcels from the one I had begun calling from afar: Liebe Mutti.

After the front passed through, a few days before the end of the war, I was back home registering with the Revolutionary District Committee. Kadlčák, the laundryman, received me and offered his hand: "You were lucky to pull it off, Sonny. Not one of you Jews has come back yet. Listen, people with German names have been submitting requests to change them, for Czech ones, you know, so why don't you just fill out the documents and put in . . . let's say 'Karel Hrabě'? Now, where will you be staying? With that German woman?"

She was nearing fifty-eight, wretched, haggard. She welcomed me with tears: "Gott sei dank, Karlchen, Gott sei dank. But it's all over for me. What will the Czechs do to us?"

I didn't know.

One day, just like everybody else, she too received a deportation order. I scurried around from one agency to the next, explaining to the authorities, threatening. To no avail. All I heard was: she is German. During the war, from start to finish, she had been getting food stamps. All of them are responsible.

Then it occurred to me that, actually, I was of Jewish descent, and I took off for Prague. A clerk of the Rabbinate heard me out. His almond-colored eyes showed how deeply he was moved. He made a call, many times repeating her name, domicile, date of birth.

She had returned from Opava. At first, she was scared to leave the house. Only a few Germans remained in the town: the antifascists, a number of master technicians from the textile plants. On Sunday, she went to Mary's Church and came back carrying the small brass plate with MARIA HAUSKNECHT in Gothic letters engraved on it. From then on she'd sit on a side bench. She was one of the few German women who wanted to speak Czech, and asked me to study with her.

My wife's name is Helena. We are doing well. Our children liked Aunt Mary. She never let us leave them in day care. She alone babysat for us.

One Thursday she failed to show up and I found her in bed, stiff and purple. I knew where she had placed her will. She had left everything to our two sons, Peter and Paul. What I'll do with all that stuff I don't know. The poor old spinster. Why then did they always call her "Mrs."? For her funeral she had requested "Silesia, My Home, Silesia, the Sacred Land" to be played at the graveside. She had loved both profoundly, the song and the land.

What an odd story, I think to myself.

TO MY SECOND MOTHER—FROM KAREL HRABĚ. From the ribbon on the large wreath the words stare at me.

In our family, no one had ever had that name.

Read more from the December 2007 issue
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