Eleven engineering students bounce in the Wiener Kaffeehaus, and party into the night, making occasional acquaintances with female members of the local society. Next morning, they get up at seven, and tour the largest textile factory of the town. The place is Aš, Western Bohemia, and the year is 1926.
A way of life that seems pretty ordinary for any engineering student, in all places, at all times. What makes this occasion very special is that one of these young men – or boys, at a tender age of twenty-one – was my paternal grandfather. Little did he know how brief a career he had to look forward to: in 1943, he became one of those Jewish forced laborers who were lost as the Hungarian army was failing in the Ukraine.
One of the things my father and I have in common is that neither he nor I have ever met this man, my father’s father. Until a bunch of letters turned up in 2014, giving us a late chance to make a closer acquaintance with him.
The letters are an account of his studies, most of them sent to his parents. The intimate details he shares in them suggest that they were very close.
My father and I now tour the West of the Czech Republic, tracing the footsteps of his father, getting a glimpse of his experiences, imagining to meet him on the streets of places he wrote about.
’Tis a strange feeling: I have always cherished his memory as a long-lost family member, but only now did I start picturing – and wishing for – a chance meeting, a conversation, a glimpse into an engineer’s life before WWII. ’Tis strange to feel so close to someone who perished seventy-two years ago.
I find myself wondering what he would say to me, what he would ask, what things he would marvel at, and what things would disappoint him. What dreams he had of the future that he would look for in this world.
It’s a bit like meeting my younger self, dreading and yearning, crashing into dreams fallen short. ’But dreams get stuck when you are waiting for luck, and all flights out have been grounded’, goes the lyrics of a Kate Havnevik song.
Encounter with a young man. I picture his 1926 person walking up to me in the street, smiling, extending his hand. He’d be less than half my age: he would probably have twice my expectations and enthusiasm.
OK, so here’s a message into the past: when would be a great time to meet up for a coffee?
The featured image shows a thread spinning machine on display in the museum of Aš, and the reason I’m using this picture is that my grandfather was (at the time, training to be) a textile engineer.
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