Monday, February 20, 2012

My Best Friend, My Great-Grandfather

Many people never meet their great-grandparents. Others come face-to-face with their great-grands, but the age spread is such that a close relationship does not develop. I was lucky. I not only knew my great-grandfather, but he was my best friend.

Gustav Neumann was a Czech entrepreneur who built a tiny general store in a small village into the largest manufacturer of men’s work clothes and women’s dresses in Central Europe. Although his successes brought him and his family great wealth, he remained a humble, thrifty man. In a restaurant, when rolls or slices of bread were left at the end of dinner, he wrapped them carefully in a napkin and brought them home for a future meal. “Nikdy nevíš” (“You never know”), he used to say.

He may have been thrifty, but he was extremely generous at the same time. He and his sons – my grandfather and great-uncle – donated land for parks and athletic fields to the town, financed cultural events, and performed community service. He is remembered to this day for his generosity during the Great Depression. Despite the fact that business had dried up and customers were not buying, my great-grandfather – whom I called Dědeček – did not lay off a single employee. He paid them while they continued to produce goods which could not be sold.

I grew up in a loving household consisting of my parents and Dědeček and his two sons, Artur and Ota. It was an idyllic life for a little boy who had everything, especially the devotion of his family. Then, suddenly, things changed.

The Germans invaded our country and decided that everyone in our family except for Mother and me had to be removed from the face of the earth. My mother and I were Catholics – all the others were Jews. I knew nothing about this and failed to understand why my father escaped to join the British Army and other family members began to disappear, one-by-one. Soon, no one was left except for Dědeček, Mother, and me. The Germans threw us out of our home, and we went to live on a farm.

Mother worked in the fields from sunrise to sundown, and I was not allowed outside the farm walls. Dědeček and I were one another’s only company. We would talk endlessly, with my great-grandfather regaling me with stories about his world travels and telling me that, someday, things would be better and I would become a world-famous explorer. We would walk around the farm, with Dědeček’s large calloused hand gently holding my pudgy little hand as he would guide me from building to building, animal to animal. We were the best of friends – this 82-year-old patriarch and his six-year-old great-grandson.

Then came April 21, 1942, the most devastating moment of my young life. Dědeček informed me that he was leaving on a trip, but I felt that something was wrong. Something was more than wrong. The Nazis murdered him in the Treblinka death camp a few months later.

In 1945 when the war ended, my father returned a war hero and Mother came back from a slave labor camp. We waited for the rest of our family to return. No one did. I did not know why I had no cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents or great-grandfather.  Trying to protect me from the horrific memories of the Holocaust, my parents shielded me from the truth until I reached adulthood in America. Only then did I discover what had happened to my best friend.

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