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Why a street is named ‘My Grandad’


Two and a half years ago I graduated from college and was offered several wonderful entry level jobs with room to grow. But just the idea of settling down gave me the heebie-jeebies. I didn’t have many “things” accumulated yet so I packed what I owned into two duffel bags and set off for Prague to live and work. I wanted an adventure, but I picked Prague specifically because that is where my family roots on my mother’s side are from. My mother was the first generation to be born in America and she has worked avidly to keep our heritage alive; my childhood was filled with dinner table stories of my family’s homeland and history, which is actually quite impressive.

My Grandfather’s name was Vaclav Majer. He grew up in a tiny Czech village north of Prague and lived a rural lifestyle starting from his birth, which took place in his house rather than a hospital. His first career was in journalism but that quickly phased into politics. He started out as a representative in congress for the city of Louny but during the years between the Nazi occupation and the Communist occupation he rose to the position of Minister of Food and Agriculture, which at that time was similar to the American title of Vice President; if something should have happened to the President he was the next in line to take control.

During both the Nazi and the Communist occupation my grandfather was wanted dead or alive and there was a bounty on his head with reward money as incentive for his capture. But nevertheless, he stayed in the former Czechoslovakia for as long as he could, helping others escape through the Underground Railroad.

Throughout his precarious time as an “outlaw” in Czechoslovakia there were a number of close calls. My grandfather, Vaclav Majer, had a friend who also had the first name of Vaclav. During the Nazi occupation he and this friend were captured and thrown into a concentration camp. Nazis higher-up in the change of command got wind that my grandfather had finally been captured and went to the camp to find him and kill him. When they arrived they spoke with the guards and told them they were looking for a “Vaclav Majer.” Apparently, the men who had checked in my grandfather and his friend were not familiar with Czech names; they had written him down as Majer Vaclav- putting his first name in the position of last name. They did the same with my grandfather’s friend. So, when the guards scanned the list they did not find a Vaclav Majer! It looked to them like there were two brothers with the last name of Vaclav (my grandfather and his friend) but nobody with that first name! The Nazi men were confused but left, assuming they must have been mistaken. A couple days later my grandfather and his friend got the chance to escape from the camp and they did so with great haste.

When the Nazis realized their error they were furious at being duped; he had escaped right out from under their noses. They sent a soldier to my grandfather’s mother’s house (my great-grandmother) to interrogate her for information. In the war trials that took place after the Nazis were defeated my grandfather was asked to read a transcript of what had transpired that fateful day and then decide whether the soldier who had interrogated his mother should live or die. My grandfather read the transcripts and pardoned the soldier. The soldier had been sent to my great-grandmother’s house with an order to either get information out of her or execute her, and as it turned out he didn’t get any information from her and was forced to kill her. But, the transcripts showed that this was not due to his lack of trying.
Basically, the soldier began with a leading question along the lines of “Mrs. Majer, you don’t know where your son is or what he’s doing, correct?” But my stubborn great-grandmother simply refused to play along.

“Oh yes I do!! I know exactly where my son is, and he’s going to come back here and kick your butt!” she responded.

“No, Mrs. Majer,” pressed the soldier desperately, “I know you are upset, but really you don’t know where your son is, right?”

“Yes I do, and he’s going to come back here and kick all your butts.” She held fast.

This conversation went back and forth for a while; the soldier would try to get my great-grandmother to just say she didn’t know where my grandfather was so that he could thank her for her time and leave, and she’d defiantly shake her head and assure him she did.

She never let up, and in the end he was forced to carry out his duty and execute her. My grandfather was greatly saddened by the loss of his mother, but he recognized that the soldier had worked hard to try to keep her alive. My grandfather knew that if the soldier had not carried out his duties, he himself would have been killed by his superiors.

It has always been hard for me to cope with the things that go on during war time; things that would be considered completely immoral and unacceptable at any other time. Tragically, the gray area between right and wrong is increased as the soldiers’ right to judge for themselves what is morally acceptable is taken away.
My grandfather was a strong, honest and moral politician who, unfortunately for me, died before I was born. But his memory has lived on in my family. My mother has spoken so much about him that I feel as if I knew him personally. I can even imagine what it would have felt like to be hugged in his safe, strong arms, to smell the pipe tobacco on his clothes and to hear his loud, booming laugh. I have always imagined him looking out for me and always wished to make him proud. I returned to the Czech Republic to walk in his footsteps, up the castle gates, around the gardens, and to the overlook of the city. While I stood there I wondered if he had stood in the very same spot years ago, in sadness, as the Nazis or the Communists took over his precious city.

During my cold December in Prague I visited his village of Pochvalov, where his house still stands today with a plaque of remembrance on the exterior wall. I also visited the nearby town of Louny, for which he was the representative in Congress. The largest street in that town is named after him. I was very proud and full of emotions to stand under that sign and hoped my grandfather was looking down on me and was happy that I had come to remember him and everything he had fought for.
I hope he knows that his memory and strong morals have formed who I am today. This story is only a small piece of what he, my entire family, all of the Czechs and most of the residents of Europe went through during the Nazi and Communist invasions. And even so, throughout the wars and at the end of all the horror, he never once took up hate against the Germans or against the Russians. He never once blamed the people of the nations which caused such destruction. He knew it was the governments in power responsible and did not let that prejudice his views of the citizens themselves. Years later when living in America he welcomed all visiting Europeans into his house for dinner- Czechs and Germans equally. That way of life was passed onto my mother and now onto me. It has taught me to be open of all cultures, religions and ways of life around the world. If he can be so forgiving then I can definitely be accepting. Walking in my family’s footsteps has opened my eyes and my mind to the ‘real world’ more than any office job could ever have.

More by this author at her blog at http://i-wanted-an-adventure.blogspot.com/, including a trip to visit “long-lost” Czech relatives, a crazy vacation in Egypt and getting jobs in Prague and in Munich.

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