A Stranger in an Ancestral Home: Gideon Levy Searches for His Roots in the Czech Republic

Levy takes a journey to the place where his father was born 100 years ago, and realizes that remnants of the past are hard to find in Zatec, a town of illusions.

The name Saatz accompanied me through my childhood. In the days when I was still embarrassed by my father’s name, Heinz ‏(telling people he was called Zvi‏), and my mother’s name, Thea, Saatz too was a name from another world that I didn’t care to know anything about. The place-name Mahrisch Ostrau ‏(Moravska Ostrova in Czech‏) − my mother’s birthplace − and the name of the town where my father was born, Saatz ‏(Saaz in German or Zatec in Czech‏) − these were names that embarrassed me. Just as I was embarrassed when my mother spoke German to me from the balcony, I was also ashamed of the existence of Saatz in my life. We were, after all, the first Israelis, the new sabras, who didn’t want to know anything about the old Jews; at the same time, the old Jews, like my father, never wanted to talk about “there.”

The name Saatz hovered in my childhood because I knew my father came from there. Last Sunday, after a gorgeous trip through the rural landscapes of Bohemia [in the Czech Republic], in two rented Skodas and with one GPS, we arrived at our destination. Suddenly, amid the hop fields destined for the beer industry, we saw a road sign with the word Zatec blazoned upon it.

A shiver passed through my body. My first urge was to get out of the Skoda and kiss the ground; I was embarrassed to do this in front of my family and my brother’s family, who were all with me. In a single moment, Saatz became transformed from a source of hidden shame into a desirable place, an ancient and pretty town, about which I wanted to know everything, at a time when there is no one left to ask.

My father was born here 100 years ago this summer; here he went to school, took his first steps, kissed his first kisses, loved his first loves, and dreamt his childhood dreams − of which very few, if any, came true in his life. My father’s life was ripped apart on the day he was torn from this place to Prague. There remains only an oil painting of a vase of flowers, now hanging on my living room wall. My father had managed to save it and bring it onboard the illegal-immigrant ship Frossoula, on which he spent about half a year on his way to his new country, including detention in Beirut. There was also a Persian rug, which I discarded long ago after it started disintegrating.

A day earlier I had wandered around Prague. I went to the platforms of the city’s old railroad station, the place where my father bid farewell to his parents and his fiancee forever, some time in 1939. I visited the building of the law faculty at Charles University, on the banks of the Vltava River, where ‏(apparently‏) the German university at which he studied was also situated. At the Pinkas Synagogue, in the old part of town, I pored for a long time over the list engraved in tiny letters on the walls − remembering the 80,000 Jews of Bohemia who perished − until I found the two names I was looking for: Zoffie and Hugo Lowy, with the dates of their birth and death. My grandmother and grandfather. Tears choked me.

The entrance to Saatz, whose symbol is hops, and beverage beer, passes through an avenue of rural houses. These gradually give way to town buildings, some of them antique, renovated or abandoned and rickety, and some of them workers’ housing blocks in the best Communist architectural style of the 1950s and ‘60s.

For hundreds of years, German Christians and German Jews lived here, in the heart of the Sudetenland, which my father called Sudeten Deutschland until the German Christians and the German Jews were expelled from it − the Jews in 1939, the Germans in 1945, in the biggest ethnic cleansing of all time. Hardly anything remains of either the Jews or Christians, and therefore my father absolutely refused, until his dying day, to visit here. He always told us he didn’t want to see the world, his world, that had been destroyed. Perhaps he was also afraid to confront his lost past.

As silent testimony to what had been here and no longer is, there are only two or three remnants of signs in German, almost illegible; a locked synagogue − a large building that has been renovated on the outside and is ruined, burned and totally empty inside, as a facade of a world that is extinct, as a memorial to Kristallnacht, when it was set on fire; and the old Jewish cemetery, closed off too, and surrounded by fences and stone walls, to which we will come later.

No memorial or reminder

For an entire day we roamed the streets of the town, on its day of rest. The children of the Gypsies now living here peeked from the ruins of the old houses, peering at us suspiciously. In the two-story German-style houses, similar to those of the Templers in Israel, there were glimpses of the new Czech life flourishing here. There is hardly a person in the town who was here then, and there are not any memorials or reminders. Saatz has become Zatec, a pretty Czech town with a few old-fashioned hotels and pensions that host mainly visitors to the town’s annual hops festival each September.

In the lobby of the fanciest hotel in town, the Cerny Orel, stands a stuffed bear, above which hangs a row of skulls of deer that were hunted here. Beer and hunting − but my father didn’t hunt and was not fond of beer. Having no address, I could only guess which of the houses was his, which street was his. Maybe this one or maybe this one − all in vain.

Where did he walk, where did he go out with friends? Maybe the inn where we sipped Saatz Beer from the keg at lunchtime. Under the brewery logo is an inscription declaring it to be “the finest beer in the Czech Republic.” We also ate the meat dish our mother would make for us, svickova, a braise of pork and cabbage with knedliky, the Czech bread dumplings − a taste my mouth will never forget. At the same time, a group of Czech solders sat down to eat. And not far from here is the Messerschmitt factory that provided the Israel Defense Forces with its first airplanes.

Our father told us nothing, and we asked him nothing. He did not want to tell and we, how horrible, did not want to hear. Thus it happened that, on the day of his 100th birthday, a bit after my 60th birthday, I found myself going around a strange and familiar town, a beloved and alien town, where every stone should bear a memory − and I know nothing about it. From the inn, I phoned my cousin in Gedera, whose mother − my father’s sister − also grew up here, but he didn’t know much, either. When he visited here once, many years ago, communism still prevailed and he aroused the suspicion of the town police, until he had to leave town in a hurry.

An elderly woman with white hair, dining at the inn with her family, attracted my attention. Could she be Andula, my father’s legendary fiancee, from whom he separated forever at the train station in Prague? I called out “Andula” and no one answered. Across from the synagogue, I thought about my father’s bar mitzvah. And in the yard of the elementary school, here since 1880, I tried to imagine him playing with other children. But, damn it, what game would they have played back then? And where is the law office of Dr. Hugo Lowy, my grandfather? And maybe this is the pharmacy, with traces of its name written in German, where my grandfather and grandmother bought the first items for their newborn child, my father, 100 years ago. It’s all illusions.

Then we began looking for the Jewish cemetery. We have an old photograph of two gravestones, my grandmother’s and my grandfather’s. We have no idea who took the picture, when or, above all, where. We don’t even know if these are their graves, or only memorial stones. My father never told us how they died, in the fall of 1942, within about two months of one another; maybe he didn’t know, either.

For about an hour we searched for the cemetery, until my Swedish partner, Catrin, managed to find it deep in the forest. You go off the road onto a hidden dirt track, until you come to an iron gate. Alongside it is a row of dachas − the tiny, modest Soviet summerhouses without electricity or running water, that still serve the inhabitants of the town, who come here for weekends to grill meat and grow potatoes. The local people cast suspicious glances or hostile stares at us, as though saying: Who are those people and what do they want? Yes, we are strangers in our ancestors’ town.

An ancient stone wall surrounds the Jewish cemetery, which is adjacent to the town’s main cemetery. Behind the iron gate, within the cemetery grounds, stands a house where a Czech family lives on weekends − but, as the devil would have it, they aren’t there today. Without them there is no entry to the cemetery.

Beyond the fence, in the midst of the thick vegetation of the cemetery, we were able to discern a few ruined tombstones, black with age. We circumnavigated the graveyard twice, vainly seeking a break in the fence or somewhere to climb over the wall. Finally, my two sons, stronger and more flexible than I, decided to climb the wall and jump from it into the cemetery. For a long while they roamed among the graves, looking in vain for tombstones with the names Zoffie and Hugo Lowy.

However, twilight was near and the departure time of the flight home was also approaching, so we had to leave the place. This image − of my two sons wandering among the ruined graves in the Jewish cemetery of Saatz, looking in vain for the graves of my grandmother and grandfather, ancestors whom they never knew − will stay with me forever.

Gideon Levy