Years later, when he understood these things, Jan Neuman would see that hazy late-summer day of 1938 as the day his childhood ended forever. He would polish the memories of these days and burnish them with reverie until they glimmered with the unnatural shine of regret, never permitting them to acquire the usual patina of distance and time. He would nurture them in the crowded niches of his mind, and dream of things that might have been but never were. But that was an unforeseeable then, and this was now.
“Hey, you hear what I hear?” Rolling over on his stomach, he nudged Jakub sprawled next to him, strangely self-absorbed.
Jakub’s mouth gaped open. The straw he’d been chewing on fell out of his mouth.
The growl – a sharp staccato of metallic pings and grinding squeals interspersed with booming thuds – became more distinct, growing louder until it burst into a crescendo of low clanking rumble overlaid with the high-pitched whine of powerful, revving engines and booming explosions of open exhausts.
Sprawled atop a moss and lichen-covered ledge that jutted out like a massive jaw from the grizzled face of ancient granite, the two boys gazed intently into the valley spread below them – a giant earthen bowl, with forested flanks dropping steeply toward a quicksilver sliver of a river and a checkerboard of maturing fields. Čekaná, their town. Two hundred or so dwellings and fifteen hundred souls. A cornucopia, out of which spilled all the good things one could wish, or at least all the good things that mattered and made life whole. He caressed it with his eyes, and frowned. The pastoral vision was fouled. A thick mustard-colored cloud rose and drifted above the huddle of pastel- colored stucco houses that blocked his view of the stretch of the main road leading out of town. The sound grated on his nerves. Squinting into a waning sun hanging low in the opalescent sky, he rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and grimaced. “What is that?”
“Can’t see anything yet.” Jakub ran his finger through the unruly strands of his curly black hair, tucked them under his cap, and pulled the brim down to his eyebrows.
The air trembled. One by one, birds stopped singing. The chirping of crickets faded away. Even the goats, absorbed in their foraging among the bushes, raised their heads and cast wary looks in the direction of the noise.
The cloud advanced slowly toward the outskirts of town. Finally an angular shape emerged into plain sight…then another…and another…
“Jesus! Tanks!” Jan shrieked. “Those are tanks!”
Both boys stared into the valley, slack-jawed.
“And trucks too—” Jakub squinted. “Can’t see with all that dust.”
“Never seen one up close. Sure wish we could be—” Unable to hide the welling flood of resentment and envy, Jan glowered at the goats. “Bet all the guys are there, watching it all, and here we are. Wonder where they’re going.”
“My dad said there was some trouble up near the border.” Jakub sighed. “With the Germans. The rabbi told him.”
“Yeah, that must be it. I heard something too…at home…but I didn’t know what they were talking about.”
Resembling a string of animated toys, still trailing clouds of dust and fumes, the convoy lumbered westward deeper into the undulating chain of mountains, deceptively low but densely forested and in places impenetrable—the border of the Republic.
As Jan’s excitement waned, a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach took over—a gut-wrenching, nauseating sense of anticipation. For days now, trains full of soldiers rumbled through the town’s railroad station at odd times without stopping, their whistles blowing, smoke trailing in great horizontal smudges as they sped westward, leaving behind the lung-searing smell of burnt cinders and steam-laced wisps of smoke. At first, their passing barely drew any curiosity from the town folk, but now, their shrill whistles made everybody jumpy.
Things were not right, of that he was sure. It was written in the faces of his mother and father and some of their friends—in their worried looks and terse comments as they hunched over the latest newspapers, usually followed by animated discussions. Words such as “Anschluss” and “Hitler” and “Austria” filled their hushed conversations, along with talk about riots in some of the border towns. They railed about someone named Konrad Henlein, whom they called Hitler’s agent provocateur and whose name his father always prefaced with an obscenity, and of the Germans demanding something called autonomy in the Šumava region they now called Sudetenland.
The boys hiked down a series of switchbacks with the goats trailing close behind, and stopped when they reached a grassy knoll with a stony bench under a stand of birches—their favorite stopping place.
Jan threw himself on the weathered, lichen-covered slab and fixed his gaze on the canopy of birches swaying gently in the breeze, revealing and concealing a mottled patch of the sky, with the sun just kissing the tips of their rustling crowns in a kaleidoscopic display of color. The cool air felt liquid. The nagging feeling vanished. He stretched and gave Jakub a friendly shove. “You coming tomorrow, right? Same time?”
Jakub shrugged and pursed his lips, and shifted his gaze to the toes of his bare feet.
“Hey, you coming, right?” Jan looked at him squarely. “Something wrong?”
Jakub tugged at his shirt and brushed some invisible dirt off his shorts. Finally he shook his head. “Can’t tell you.”
“What do you mean, you can’t tell me? I always tell you everything. You know I do.”
“Dad said, not to tell anybody. Made me promise. Said he’d take the strap to me if I say anything.”
“But I am your friend. Friends don’t keep secrets. You know, I won’t tell. He’ll never know. C’mon.”
Jakub finally looked up. “I really shouldn’t, but will you promise not to tell anybody if I do? I mean, not even your folks?”
“Sure. So what’s so special you can’t tell me? C’mon—”
Jakub’s lips twisted into a sheepish grin. “Gotta have my picture taken.” He rolled his eyes until they resembled a pair of milky marbles.
“You? A picture?” Jan’s chortle died in his throat under Jakub’s reproachful look.
“It’s not funny. I knew I shouldn’t have told you.” Jakub tugged nervously at his suspenders. “I shouldn’t have—”
“ Aw, c’mon. I don’t understand. What’s so secret about a picture? We take pictures all the time.”
Jakub squirmed. “Not that kind of a picture.”
“Then what? Tell me.”
Jakub shrugged. “Dunno. Some special pictures. We’re all going. Need the pictures for some papers. Dad says we’re going to Switzerland to stay with my uncle for a while, but nobody’s supposed to know.”
“Swit-zer-land? Jesus!” Switzerland was as remote as the moon, but Jan envied Jakub the unexpected adventure. “When?”
“Soon as we get the papers. From Austria somewhere. Some kind of permit or something.”
Jan frowned. “You never said you had an uncle in Swit-zer-land!”
Jakub shrugged. “I didn’t know”
Jan looked at him skeptically.
“Really! I didn’t know, I swear. Dad just told me yesterday.”
“So how long you gonna be gone?”
“Don’t know. Promise you won’t tell?”
“Told you I wouldn’t. We can shake on it, if you want.”
They spat into the palms of their hands, and shook them in a solemn oath to seal their pact.
“Jakub go with you again today?” Mother looked up sternly from her work.
Jan avoided her gaze and fidgeted.
“How come you’re palling with him all of a sudden?”
He felt her flinty grey eyes boring through him and cringed. “I like him.”
“But how come him?”
“You wouldn’t let me play with Zdeněk, and he sits next to me in school. He’s smart. I really like him.” He looked up at her sheepishly.
Mother rolled her eyes, the way he saw the statue of Holy Mary in the church with her eyes perpetually gazing heavenward, and sighed loudly.
Slouched stone-faced next to the radio, beads of sweat glistening on his furrowed brow and prematurely balding head, Jan’s father barely acknowledged him as he entered. Burning perilously close to his fingers, a forgotten cigarette spilled its ashes on the unfinished coat in his lap. The announcer’s grave and sometimes breaking voice filled the room:
“… our fatherland… too. Adolph Hitler promised them help, and his troops are now massing at our borders. His Majesty King George’s envoy, Lord Runciman, whom we believed to be our friend, has left Prague after he sided with Hitler against Czech interests, hoping to gain time for England. This act, combined with the increased tension and riots in the Šumava region, leaves our republic in an extremely difficult position. Therefore, President Beneš has declared a state of general mobilization for all males between the ages of twenty and forty effective immediately. Further instructions will be posted in all towns and villages as soon as they are printed. Pravda Vítězí! Truth always wins!”
Choked with emotion, the announcer’s last words vanished in the muted strains of the national anthem.
“Dad? Mom? What’s going on?” Jan searched their faces.
Mother gave him a blank stare, covered her face with her apron, and burst in tears. Huddled around a large worktable, six young girls – four seasoned seamstresses and two apprentices – stared into their laps.
“Those whores!” Father’s jaws worked as though chewing on the words. The bulging veins on his temples throbbed in rhythm with his heart. “Those fuckin’ whores!”
Mother shot a dark look in his direction and snarled, “Watch your language. The boy’s home.”
“Aw, the boy’s old enough.” Father dismissed her with a toss of his head.
She began to wail. “You never listen to me. He never listens to me!” she cried out to the girls.
“Sorry, boy,” Father finally acknowledged him, “but there’s been trouble up along the border. Riots. Damn Germans! Even in Vimperk…and that’s what, ten kilometers? Practically next door.”
“We saw a convoy. Tanks,” Jan blurted.
Father nodded gravely toward Mother and the girls. “I told you. I knew it. I knew there was going to be trouble, ever since Hitler took Austria. And now even that whore Runciman sides with them.” He wiped his brow with a handkerchief, laid down the coat he was stitching, and patted Jan on the head as he strode methodically past him to an old armoire. After some rummaging, he pulled out his old crumpled sergeant’s uniform. It had been years since he had worn it. He laid it out on the cutting table, lit a cigarette, and without a word, proceeded to slice carefully through the seams.
Mother let out a shriek. “JesusMary, Tomáš, what are you doing!”
“Didn’t you just hear? There’s mobilization!” he shot back, not breaking his rhythm.
“You fool, didn’t you hear? They only want forty-year-olds. You’re almost fifty; you’re too old. You don’t have to go! Oh my God, my God, what’s he doing?” Pleading, she turned to the girls, but they averted their gazes, stone-faced and mum.
“I have to,” Father protested.
“You…fool…you…damned fool…” Gasping for air between sobs, Mother’s face twisted in anger.
“I have to go. I’m going. This is just the beginning, can’t you see? In the end, everybody’ll have to go. Everybody!”
“Oh my God, he’s serious…he really wants to go!” she wailed, looking desperately for support from the young women who remained silent, eyes downcast, embarrassed. “You can’t just walk out on me! You have a business to run! What am I supposed to do here by myself? Oh, my God…Holy Mary…please, help me—”
“I said, I have to go!”
“You always were pigheaded and foolish. Doing stupid things. Promising to change, but never did, like all the other Neumans. You’re all the same! What I ever saw in you I’ll never know! All you give me is grief. You’ll never change! You’ll never change. You’ll never change…” Her last words dissolved into a series of sobs.
Continuing methodically to rip the seams, puffing deeply on his cigarette, Father ignored her.
“And the boy—what about the boy? What about him? He needs you! He needs you home and not gallivanting with your pals, playing soldiers, risking your life and ours…everything we worked for, everything we saved—”
“For chrissake, stop it! Dammit! I have to go, can’t you see? All this will be nothing if the Germans get it, nothing! Don’t you understand? Nothing! I’ve got to go…we all have to go!”
“Oh my God, oh my…God, oh…my…God…” Whimpering softly now, tears tracing glistening rivulets down her cheeks, Mother pulled Jan close to her and buried his head in her bosom until he gasped. Her fingers, hard and calloused from years of stitching, dug into his back. “My boy, my dearest boy, oh my God…go talk to that fool of your father and beg him to stop. Beg him not to go. Beg him not to leave us.” She moaned and stopped to catch her breath.
Listening to her wheezing, feeling the jerky heaving of her bosom and the hard ribs of her corset against his skin, dismayed and embarrassed, Jan looked at her through tears. He had seen his parents argue before, but not like this. He had never been called upon to take sides, never been drawn in. What to do?
“Speak to him!” she ordered, eyes red-rimmed from crying. “Speak to that drudge of a father. Speak to him.”
He’d never seen his mother this way. Ordinarily unassertive, fortyish, but old for her age (he also thought her dour, until he realized that she was merely tired, having to get up before dawn to milk the goats, then fix the daily meals, maintain the house and garden, shop, and help with sewing until late at night, using a pair of scratched ill-fitting glasses no longer fit to correct her declining vision), short and stocky, her two long black braids streaked with grey, normally twisted in a bun at the back of her head but now unraveled down to her waist, she towered over him as she clutched him to her bosom. He felt trapped.
“Speak to him!” She gave him a hard shove.
His insides twisted in a knot. “Dad?” he croaked, feeling his mother’s eyes burning through him like a pair of coals. “Dad? Please?”
Fuming, Father shot an angry look at her. “I’m sorry, Son, but when your country calls you, you go. You must always go when your country needs you. You must always defend your country.”
Mother let out a howl. Her fist flew to her mouth and her plump body shook hysterically as she glared at her husband.
Huddled on a stool in a corner out of everyone’s way and silent until now, Jan’s grandmother stirred. A tiny shriveled figure hidden in untold layers of skirts and a perpetual sweater, with a face wrinkled over wrinkles, she gazed at him compassionately through half-closed sunken eyes. “There’s going to be a war and your father wants to be in it,” she said with a heavy sigh. She fished out a crumpled handkerchief and blew her nose. “They just announced it over the radio. I don’t know what to tell you, boy. I’ve seen it all before. My poor Jeník, your namesake… your uncle…wouldn’t listen, either, and the war took him in Serbia. My poor boy.” She stared vacantly into space and her pale eyes grew shiny with tears. She reached for Jan and pulled him over to her bosom. “I don’t see that you can do anything about it, boy, you know how stubborn he can be.” She nodded weakly in Father’s direction. “Your poor, poor mother.”
Not accustomed to seeing his mother in such distress – she tended to be stoic and tight-lipped when angry, even when crying – Jan found himself flooded with emotion but empty of words. “Mamie, please don’t cry, everything will be all right,” was all he could muster, hugging her tentatively, feeling utterly weak and useless. Something was happening. He knew nothing about war except what he saw in the cigarette-smoke-laced cinema newsreels – surreal herky-jerky black and white snippets of distant places like Spain and China and Ethiopia overlaid by the excited voice of the narrator—enough to stir in him a sense of adventure but insufficient to understand the full meaning of what they really purported to show. All he vaguely sensed was that his – their – life was about to change.
“Dad?” he whimpered.
“Is it true? Is there going to be a war?”
Father’s jaw worked as though he wanted to answer, but no words came out. Finally he looked up at him through misty eyes. He had never seen his father cry. Slowly, deliberately, and without a word, the crusty old man put away the uniform and uncharacteristically, silently but passionately hugged him. The strength of his embrace took Jan’s breath away. Immobilized in the clutch of his father’s sturdy arms, Jan became aware of his sinewy body underneath the thin worn shirt, the oddly sour smell of tobacco and sweat, the sandpaper coarseness of his stubble. It was the first and only time in his memory he had experienced the strength of his father’s embrace.