Sometimes in life you find something you didn’t even know was missing and it changes everything — how you see yourself and the world. But then again, the journey inward is often filled with the profound discovery of the obvious. I was aware of being anxious as I boarded the plane in Detroit, but I had no idea I was embarking on such an inner journey.
Three months earlier, my brother, Chris, e-mailed asking if I wanted to visit my grandpa Tomash’s hometown in Czechoslovakia to look up our relatives. Even though I am the type of person who can obsess about minor decisions, I did not hesitate. My very existence had depended upon Tomash’s gutsy solo voyage across the Atlantic at the age of 14. I owed it to him to take this trip.
Grandpa’s parents and three younger siblings had made the journey to America first. He and his older sister, Marusha, stayed behind to care for their ailing grandmother. Marusha was nine and he was only eight when their parents immigrated. From what I could tell, a strong bond was forged between them as they cared for their babicka. Six years after his parents left, Tomash boarded a crowded passenger steamer en route to Ellis Island. Marusha was to make the journey after their grandmother passed away.
History intervened and Marusha’s story had a different outcome. She was living in Straznice, a small town. Shortly after Tomash left, German tanks rolled into town. Marusha’s plan to reunite with her family had collided first with Hitler’s aggression and then with Stalin’s need for control. She would never be able to leave.
The love of a brother and sister
My grandfather Tomash lived a mile away on our family farm in Elsie, a small town in central Michigan. One of my warmest memories is how he patiently taught Chris and me to cultivate beans. When we could barely reach the clutch and brake pedals on the tractor, and the beans were only a few inches tall, we began pulling a cultivator very slowly down the rows. This was before the widespread use of herbicides; the cultivator removed the weeds and hilled up the small bean plants. As the dust settled on his work clothes, Tomash would patiently walk behind us as the tractors crawled along doing this delicate work. Nikki, his faithful collie, was always a few paces behind him.
After about an hour, one of the parts of the cultivator would need readjusting. Tomash would spend days with us walking behind the tractors and helping us determine which part of the cultivator needed readjusting. Looking back, I now feel like I was the young bean plant and he was carefully tending to me, hilling up some dirt around me to shore me up. He was the cultivator, always knowing what part of himself to readjust in order to have the right influence on my tender stalk.
In 1977, after almost five decades, Tomash traveled back to Straznice to visit Marusha and her family. He was diagnosed with emphysema and knew that he would be living with many restrictions in what time he had left. Although he rarely drank, Tomash brought back a bottle of plum brandy called slivovice. Even though I was only 16 and Chris 14, he poured us a small shot. I can still remember the feeling of this strong liqueur evaporating as it burned down the back of my throat. I wonder if grandpa knew he was planting a seed in us. Twenty-one years later, we would once again drink this national beverage made from plums grown on our family land.
Communism with a human face
After only three hours of sleep on the plane, Chris and I unloaded the luggage in our room and burst onto the streets of early morning Prague. The Golden City was in its full splendor this crisp April morning. I had goose bumps as I crossed the Charles Bridge, which dates back to the 14th century when Prague was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Stopping at the end of the bridge and turning back, I could see the beautiful red tile roofs of the Lesser Quarter and the Castle rising above, majestically standing guard over the city as it has for a millennium. Winding our way through the narrow cobblestone streets, we eventually came to a large clearing, Wenceslaus Square. We each ordered a cappuccino at an outdoor café while my mind drifted to the historical events that unfolded here.
This square dates back to 1000 A.D., when "Good" King Wenceslaus expanded Prague and created this area to serve as a farmers’ market. Over the centuries it has become an important meeting place. In spring 1968, the Warsaw Pact tanks invaded a crowded Wenceslaus Square crushing the attempts at reform. In 1989, during the Velvet Revolution, students openly and defiantly demonstrated against communism as they marched toward Wenceslaus Square, only to be brutally beaten by the police. The public backlash against the beatings — coupled with the changes occurring in the Soviet Union — forced the end of communism. From a balcony on this square, Vaclav Havel addressed the crowds. This formerly imprisoned playwright-poet would soon be elected president.
In January 1998, Wenceslaus Square once again filled with a nationalistic crowd as more than 40,000 people gathered to see the underdog Czech hockey team face the always-dominant Russian hockey team for the Olympic gold medal. It was 3 a.m. on a freezing January morning as the crowd gathered on this hallowed ground to watch the game live on large screen TVs. This was not just a hockey game. The people who had endured domination by a superior force would have a chance for redemption. Men whose fathers and mothers were not allowed to attend church, whose brothers and sisters were barred from certain professions, whose uncles and aunts were forced to work in uranium mines, were able to face their oppressors on a world stage.
When the Soviets drove out the occupying Germans at the end of WWII, they hung large banners in Wenceslaus Square with the Czech word "svoboda," which roughly translates to "liberation" or "liberty of freedom." As the crowds braved the bitter cold on this early January morning, Dominek Hasek shut out the Russians, while Petr Svoboda scored the winning goal. The crowd in Wenceslaus Square erupted and began to shout "svoboda, svoboda, svoboda." Only those with a Czech psyche, who for centuries have used humor and irony to resist oppression, could fully appreciate the double meaning. The ABC sports analysts had no clue. After a bloodless revolution, the country with a poet-president experienced not only poetic justice but true "svoboda."
As Chris and I left Prague, the anxiety over meeting family members for the first time grew. However, the beautiful rolling hills and picturesque castles along the way soothed my anxious nerves as we approached the place of our ancestors. Within an hour of our arrival, the house was full of Marusha’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. With great pride, we were shown to the wine cellar, a long brick room with a curved, arched ceiling. It was filled with dry, crisp white Moravian wine made from the fruits of the family vineyard, reclaimed after the Velvet Revolution. Just off the wine cellar was the gathering room. It had a fireplace, a long table and most importantly there was no radio or TV. It was an intimate room for tasting wine and having conversation.
Here the questions began back and forth as we began to quench the curiosity between Marusha’s and Tomash’s families. At one point Jan, the eldest son of Marusha, said the only words he spoke to me in English, "Marusha … perfect." As the love for his mother welled up in his eyes, I said, "Tomash … perfect." Looking into each other’s eyes, we comprehended a deeper level of understanding than any language could ever express.
After spending four days with our family touring nearby castles and chateaus, we met at a restaurant on the final night of our stay. As the meal progressed, we began to feel the sadness of the impending separation. In acknowledgment of this moment, Jan stood and the room fell silent. Watching his profile I realized how much he physically resembled Tomash. He paused and exhaled a deep breath exactly like Tomash did before saying something profound.
He raised his glass and proposed a toast in Czech: "Over time may we continue to become better and better friends." The room again fell silent as I realized it was now my turn. Fearful of being overcome with emotion, I simply raised my glass and with a quivering voice said, "To Tomash and Marusha." Every eye, young and old, moistened with tears as we felt the love between a brother and sister spill into our generation.
Later that evening we met in the gathering room for the last time. Marusha’s granddaughter, Helen, asked if it was difficult for Tomash when he arrived in America. He had ethnic epithets hurled at him. He knew the terror the KKK had perfected as they inflicted their hatred on those more vulnerable. He watched as priests were forced to leave town. Tomash trembled as he watched crosses burning at night on his front lawn. But grandpa would have never said a word about any of this to Marusha.
Because I paused in response to Helen’s question, her eyes began to fill with tears. As someone who had experienced oppression, she knew. Chris mentioned the word discrimination. Tears spilled onto her cheeks. I did not have the heart to tell her about the hatred. Just like my mom, Helen knew exactly when to change the conversation if the emotions were too difficult for me to stay with. As our eyes filled with tears, she cracked a joke; we all laughed too hard.
The journey home
One of the central themes of world religions that author Joseph Campbell identified was the Hero’s Journey. In this type of myth (such as The Iliad, the story of Moses, or the Wizard of Oz), the hero embarks upon a journey that becomes transforming and even transcendent in allowing the hero to understand a part of the mystery that lies beyond our existence. In the process of going through the journey, we become forever changed and even find parts of ourselves we never knew were there. As the majestic view of the Golden City began to fade through the plane’s window, some things began to become clearer. I wondered if this is how the Tin Man and Scarecrow felt at the end of their journey.
Somewhere over Europe it became clearer to me why I became a family therapist. I have wondered why I have such a deep passion for working to reconcile cutoffs and to deepen the intimacy in couples and families. It is not that I am driven by some altruistic, Havel-like motivation to tear down the Iron Curtains that exist in families. Maybe in some small way, I am still trying to ease the pain of separation from Marusha that Tomash felt so acutely.
As I listened to the droning of the jet engines, I began to discover the part that had been missing. Earning degrees, obtaining professional accomplishments and acquiring material things did not soothe the something that was lacking inside of me. Drowning in a sea of prosperity, I had become enamored with the American Dream and, like most of my peers, had lost sight of who I was and where I came from.
We have attained what those who sacrificed to get us here wanted us to have. But we have lost what they always had. Living on land taken from another culture, we pursue the American dream and pretend that history began a little over 200 years ago. In the narrow cobblestone streets of Prague and Straznice, I found some of the missing pieces of Tomash’s soul he could not carry across the Atlantic 75 years ago.
As I stared out into the cold darkness over the Atlantic, a warm relaxed feeling enveloped my soul like a well-worn blanket. It was the same feeling I had when grandpa was walking behind my tractor. It was the same feeling I had after sharing the slivovice with him. Even though it had been 10 years since Tomash drew his last labored breath, I felt as close to him now as I did when he was alive.
I realized that in his characteristically patient and subtle way, my dedecek was still completing the job he started almost 40 years ago in the dusty fields outside of Elsie.
Joe Horak ’83 has two master’s degrees — one in clinical social work and one in theological studies — and is completing a Ph.D. in counseling at Western Michigan University. He is a marriage and family therapist in East Grand Rapids, Mich.