Reveling in the emptiness of my compartment on the train to Poprad, I willingly welcomed an elderly couple to join me. They had been seeking a seat up and down the corridor. Usually, I am not enthralled with younger men who join me. It usually results in very loud and obnoxious noise emanating from their earphones. On the other hand, travelers many years older than me are agreeable and at the worst, inoffensive.
The older lady asked me in Slovak if the seats were indeed free. I replied in the affirmative in Slovak. This brought on another question, to which I had to admit my ignorance and ask, “Mluvíte anglicky?”
“Yes. I speak English.” Wow. This was uncommon. A women her age functional in English, yet a Slovak, too? She arranged her bags, kissed her husband goodbye and we began to speak. Immediately she indicated that she was a professor of English, German, and Latin at The Institute of Veterinary Sciences, in Košice. Like me, she was on her way to Poprad. She had not spoken English in years. And I had wanted to ask about some current issues in Slovakia, its separation with the Czech Republic, and life here before Communism collapsed. Here was the perfect opportunity for the both of us.
For the past forty years, she has seen Košice grow to a population of 250,000. U.S. Steel is the primary economic engine in the area and jobs are hard to find, when they can be found at all. Compared to Bratislava and the portion of the Danube valley that makes quick stop in Slovakia, the East is far poorer. And it shows as you roll out of Košice’s train station. The factories continue in a line along the rails. But many are abandoned or show just the slightest hint of activity.
Her name was Gertrude, I soon learned. She took mild interest in me, my trip, and the fact we both are involved in academia. But, when I posed a question, it was natural of me to get the reply I sought and fire off of follow-up question. Yet, Gerturde would not stop, you see. She had not finished what she wanted to say. She had so much to say. And she could do it in English. This became a very special chance for her.
“I’m sorry for my English. It has been so long.” My first reaction, of course, is my gratitude to her or anyone else for that matter able to communicate with me in my own language. Yet, so long? She was a professor in the language. It did not make sense. Secondly, the quality of her English bordered on that which you would read out of a textbook. It was absolutely exquisite. She only struggles to pull a precise vocabulary word. This frustrated and embarrassed her. Gertrude’s English was simply a bit rusty, but otherwise she was terribly articulate.
“Why so long?”
Gertrude countered: “I just do not get the opportunity in Košice. I live outside of town. It just does not happen anymore.
“Oh”, I said. When did you last speak English?” I figured it had been a few months.
She did not pause. “Twenty years ago.” I certainly paused. Not possible. But she reassured me and spoke up as she interpreted my silence and a sign that I did not believe her. “I have not spoken English since I retired.” The firmness in her tone convinced me that it had been indeed that long. Wow.
Just to show off, “Du sprichts auch Deutsch?”, I jumped in. Gertrude replied in perfect German, the kind of German not booked-learned. I left that alone and would come back to it later. I had ninety minutes to Poprad and I was going to get as much out of this conversation as I could. The background she had in spoken German was of little significance, I thought. Many here converse in German with foreigners. So what? I had no idea how wrong my conclusion would turn out to be.
I dove in about the Velvet Divorce. “Why? I don’t get it. The concept of Czechoslovakia appeared to us as a complete one. I never understood the division. The languages are the same, if in Prague or Košice, right?”
“More or less. We understand each other. There are very few differences in the written form. We-”, she stopped a moment and reconsidered the start of her sentence. “The Slovaks like to think it is different. But it is not really.”
“And the separation?” I pushed her.
“Most people were happy with Czechoslovakia. It was the politicians who advocated it. Havel remains popular even today in Slovakia. People still like him.”
“Then why?” I pushed again.
“Some people in Slovakia felt that after Communism, they were not independent enough. They wanted to be sure there was no going back to the previous system.”
We entered a tunnel and discontinued our chat until we regained light. Body language and eye contact were essential for us. A few minutes of comfortable silence passed. “And was what is like to teach during the Communist era?” This question was a loaded one for me. Few Eastern Europeans my age can relate to the persecution, oppression, and suffocating grip the Communists inflicted. But Gertrude did. And she taught, of all, things, English.
“It was a silent terror. We learned to speak in another way, especially with our students.”
This raised one of my eyebrows. “Your students? How so?”
“I never knew which of them was acting as an informant. And there was always one you suspected. So, there was no chance to have an open discussion about anything unless the content was accepted by the authorities. Some people even had informants in their own family. So you never spoke about going to the West, or read clandestine literature like American or British magazines. All of this was forbidden.”
“A silent terror, Gerturde.” It was the first I had listened to a first-hand account of such malevolence and injustice. So many questions popped into my head, I had to write them down in my notes, place them in order of importance. I started to wonder quietly if Poprad would be too close a destination, if I could actually finish peppering her with all the questions that were coming to mind.
“Yes. That is how we lived. And the political meetings.”
“Huh? What political meetings?”
She continued, “We had to attend political meetings and all were required to speak. But I told the administration what they wanted to hear, not what was in my heart. It was hard because I believed in none of it. I was very bad at it.”
Then, comes the obvious reply. “Why did you do it, then?”
“It was a job! Please! And if I did not? Then, what? I lose my income. My children would have no home because the authorities would have taken that away from me immediately! I had no choice. I had a family to think about!”
“Where have you traveled, Gertrude?” Her English was tainted with British terms. “How many times have you been to England or the West?”
“Once. For four weeks.” Plain and simple. No more, no less.
OK, then. “When did you go?”
“1965.” Whoa. That was how long ago?
I leaned closer to her. “You mean to tell me that you have been to England only once and that was”, I had to do that math, “forty years ago?”
“Yes. I was never allowed to travel to the West again. Oh, I did spend a few days in Copenhagen.” Gertrude has been to Romania, Hungary, and Poland. As I have heard from others, East Germany impressed her most because it was the “model” Communist nation.
Enough said. Silent terror.
This woman was a goldmine. But it was more than that. Her demure and gaunt face, lined with years of insight, inspired respect. Her voice was firm, yet soft. When she spoke, she commanded unquestioned attention. I stuck to every remark she made. I couldn’t transcribe her words in my notebook fast enough.
Where were you when the uprisings and proclamations began to stir on Wenceslas Square?” I referred to Prague in 1989.
“Oh, in Košice, at home! It was on TV!” She burst out smiling at the recollection. “We were overjoyed. Everyone else, too! We did not have to hide our feelings.” I suppose there are feelings that no words can accurately capture if your own country has held you prisoner for so long.
“And in 1968, in the spring?” This is the year the Soviets ordered tanks to Prague to put down a freedom movement.
“We were in Romania. It was hard to get information about that. After that, being a professor was very hard.” For all of the ‘70’s, she worked and taught in fear.
I can only imagine.
She asked me about my travels in Slovakia.
“I am impressed. I expected worse. It is quite modern. But, I must say, Gertrude, what I really like about this journey is that genuinely Americans are welcome here. I assure you that in the Western countries, this has changed. “Why, Gertrude, do you think I am well received better here as an American than elsewhere?” Of course, I had my own reply, but I wanted hers.
“I don’t know about those people. But we remember what the Americans did. We haven’t forgotten.”
“And they have?” Yes, and so much more.
“Yes. I think so.”
I fell into a monologue that I have been dying to try out on the right person. “Let me tell you why.” She perked up. “Because Western Europeans for two generations now are a spoiled bunch, having gone to bed every night for sixty years knowing that they could sleep safely at night.” I knew she was with me on this. I turned it up a notch. “The Western Europeans in power today and those of my generation have never suffered, never sacrificed, and never died for anything. They have had freedom handed to them, and a welfare state, which takes care of them from cradle to grave. And when it is time to surrender things, which are precious to them for a better good, the Europeans, the Western Europeans, are nowhere to be found.” Save the British, I should have said.
“You Gertrude, understand evil. You know what it is like. You lived it. You were tormented by it. You know that evil cannot be negotiated with or talked down. It must be destroyed. And you have not forgotten because it is so recent.” She nodded.
The conversation turned to Poprad. I explained that I was headed for the Tatras, with no particular destination in mind, as is always my destination. She, on the other hand, was only going to Poprad for the day.
“I grew up in the Tatras.”
“Really? Are you going to visit family?”
“No. I want to collect some documents.”
OK, I’ll bite. “What sort of documents?”
I want to gather as much as I can about my family, if it is possible.” Then I understood. I attempted to do this in Italy when investigating my family hisory. It is difficult to explain, but there comes a time you want to know things about your background, and have the evidence to support it. It goes to a continuum of sorts, from grandfather, to father, son, grandson, and so on. Before I let her continue, I told her about my time in Abruzzo and the experiences that came about from searching through parochial records and knocking on doors of cottages in tiny villages. It brought about an infectious smile from Gertrude.
“Kind of like that.”
But she is traveling alone. “What about your husband? Why did he not come?”
“Oh, today does not concern him. Anyway he is not well to travel and must look after our dog and grandson.” Mentioning the dog and grandson in the same sentence amused me, as if both could cause equal trouble if left unattended.
“How old is your grandson?”
“He is nineteen. But he lives with us.” OK, I said to myself. There could be numerous reasons why this is. “It has been difficult. He is hyperactive. He gets out of control. He becomes easily angered over little things. Sometimes, he goes out and we do not know where he is. Someone has to watch out for him.” An elderly couple, living on a state pension in Slovakia, should not have to do this. Supporting a grandchild at that age is taxing on Gertrude and her husband.
“Does he have a job?”
“He is a” Here, she paused a long time and finally grasped at the word, “mechanic. But he has no job. There is no work for him. So, he tries to keep busy.” She reminded me of his hyperactivity, as if it were a serious dilemma. We spoke of medications and this uncovered a raw layer of frustration.
“We cannot get the drugs here! And Slovak doctors will not prescribe them. They do not accept as reliable. They are not available!” Yet another burden Gertrude must bear. She knew all about the options, but these options were unknown in Slovakia.
Then came the comment I wish I could take back. “What does his Mom do to -”
Suddenly, Gertrude looked away to the window and sobbed. She turned back to be, in tears and went for a tissue. Her face fell in her lap. OK, what did I say now?
“My daughter died this spring.” I closed my eyes and dropped my head in annoyance at the grief I caused to resurface and then reopened them to see if there was a way I could either hide under my seat or hurl myself out the window. She recomposed herself and apologized, to which I said none was needed. Not only was she raising a difficult young adult, she had just lost her daughter. Ouch. The moment was beyond awkward. But, Gertrude wanted to press on.
“It is a struggle now. We live on very little. His father no longer calls. I have to go back to Košice tonight, you see.”
“Yes, I see.” I could come up with nothing better. “Where will you go in Poprad?” I desperately jerked the discussion away from her personal torment.
“A friend will pick me up with her car. Then we will go to where I grew up.”
Regretfully, I never found out where that was. “Your home?”
“Is it still in the family?”
“No, it was taken over.” Taken over? What did that mean? I was confused. But let it pass.
“But it still stands?”
“Of course.” Gertrude’s grandfather was a furniture maker and spent twenty years in Philadelphia. Upon returning to Moravia, he built the family home. Fascinating.
There in the Tatras, Gertrude grew up a happy girl until grade 8. Then, World War II broke out. After that point, Gertrude’s family was never the same. The Czechs expelled her family because Gertrude and her family were German, you see. Not a German national, but an ethnic German. Many years prior, Germans had been called to the Tatras to work the land. Many Germans lived here and were also used as an excuse for Hitler to annex Czechoslovakia. Gertrude and her family, unintentionally, provided the Nazis with a motivation to move east.
That is why when I first spoke German to Gertrude, it was perfect. Better than her Slovak. In her mind, she is and always has been German. Not Czech. Not Slovak. It is a sense of identity you cannot dismiss for something else. Back in 1945, this carried a great deal of importance.
The Czechs confiscated every single possession they had: home, animals, and all their land. There were no legal proceedings. One day, they were forced to leave at gunpoint, and never come back. They were Germans. And the Czechs made it clear no Germans would remain, no matter what.
With only suitcase in hand, the war still going on, they fled to Vienna. Then Prague. Rosenheim, Germany followed. Finally, the ordeal ended in Bratislava. Wherever they went, they were not German nationals in the eyes of others. They held no documents, no passports. They belonged to no country. And no one wanted them. Family helped when they could. But during the war, people had to survive. And little Gertrude did just that. Her story tells like a movie of constantly being one step ahead of police, intrigue, running on and off trains, and taking shelter through the kindness of strangers. Authorities pursued them. They were vagrants, running scared.
While Gertrude recalled her childhood, I stared at her in astonished amazement. Here she was, this woman, relating to me a first-hand account of her childhood, but one I only read about in history books or viewed in those World War II movies of escape and flight: never knowing if you’d see your parents again, days of thirst, cold, terror, and hunger. Right in front of me I had the genuine article.
In our compartment, was a young teenager in a bright orange shirt. He was pretending we didn’t exist. He toyed at his cell phone, unaware of the monumental story being told. I felt sorry for him and his indifference. He will never comprehend what Gertrude went through. And yet, there she was. Right there.
“Is the house occupied?”
“Yes. Foreigners have been living there for years.” How interesting: As far as Gertrude concerned, they are foreigners in that house. This goes to the fact she sees those residents as illegitimately occupying a home rightfully hers. I did not immediately consider this when I wondered aloud to her.
“So, you’ll go inside?”
“No. I will look at the garden. I will see the house from the outside.”
How could you not ask permission to walk around? Surely, the owners would understand. But there is where I was way off. They would not understand. In fact, Gertrude fears that her presence, if her identity were revealed would be a threat to the owners of the home; they and the neighbors would not take too kindly to her snooping around.
Our train began to slow and she thanked me for allowing her to recapture her English. For Gertrude, it was a stroke of luck to have me with her. For me, I told her that she has lived a phenomenal life.
“At my age and with my experience, you see things in a different way. I understand a bigger picture.” I knew what she was trying to say. She can look around and know what is important, and what isn’t.
Slender and delicate, she limped on her feet along the corridor and turned to exit. The platform was quite a drop. I took her arm and helped her down. Even in her physical frailty, Gertrude radiated class, pride and style. She found her friend who had both her hands up in the air to get her attention. With that realization, she extended me her hand to bid me farewell, again thanking me. I gave her a lapel pin and a peck on the cheek, two tokens of my gratitude that will always pale in significance to the gift she bestowed upon me. It is one I will never be able to repay.
“I hope you find what you’re looking for.” She smiled, knowing that there are those memories that haunt you, which will never permit you to reach that sense of satisfaction.
I forgot to race to the departure board and memorize those timetables. I cared nothing to find out my connecting times and platform for the short trip further north. Gertrude grasped her friend’s right arm. With that, the two women slowly walked away and exited the station, and then disappeared out of sight one of the most fascinating and inspiring women I have ever met.
It is often asked of me why I choose to explore such far off destinations, uncommon to mass tourism. Why is it that I languish in cheap hotels and sleep with one eye open in treacherous train stations? Why do I refuse to participate in vacation packages to the Bahamas, Jamaica, or San Francisco and ride in those air-conditioned tour buses? Or even book a hotel room for the next night, not knowing or even caring where I will wind up? Ukraine? Slovakia? What’s the point? It is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and so behind the times.
The point is that because I drift from place to place, I will forever be grateful because I chanced upon Gertrude.
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