Hopelessness is a peerless feeling. I mean real despondency, the kind of desperation that comes with being lost in the middle of a Slovak village with zero comprehension of the language, no familiarity with the austere "post"-communist surroundings and no prospect of any immediate sanctuary.
In the past half hour, I'd walked up and down the main road a couple of times looking for a house that may or may not still be standing, and my only clue was a piece of paper in my pocket with the words mesky doma - Slovak for city hall - written on it.
Not knowing the bakery from the butcher's, I decided to ask the one man in sight for directions. I hadn't yet thought about how I was going to communicate with this man, whom I took to be about 80 or so, which meant that he probably didn't learn much English growing up communist. I put on my best lost tourist face, and crossed the road. "Mesky doma?" I asked, emphasizing my shrug. He looked right at me, smiled, and called his wife out to have a look at me, something I found strange even in this part of the world. "Amerikansky Scheer," he said to his wife, pointing at me.
Flabbergasted and uplifted, I tried pressing this obvious prophet for more information. Who are you? How do you know who I am? Did you know my family? He waved off my questions for obvious reasons of incomprehension, and laid a calming hand on my shoulder. He pointed to a grey stone building with an old black wooden roof and a stream running alongside the small garden. "Scheer doma," he said - the Scheer house.
Ever since I was a small boy, I had always wanted to go to Czechoslovakia, this exotic and faraway place where my grandfather was born and raised. Even at a young age, I was aware that the former Czechoslovakia was home to the great cities of Prague and Bratislava, that it was a place of rolling hills, lofty mountains, castles, forts and history, pretty much all that is necessary to enchant a young mind. But none of it appealed to me. I had only one motive, a fixation almost, to see where my grandfather, a man for whom I have infinite admiration, had come from.
He hailed from a small hamlet called Mosovce, in the Turiec region of northern Slovakia, nestled up against the Carpathian Mountains. Ironically enough, the closest village, town or city with a recognizable name, is just on the other side of the Slovak-Polish border. That city is Oswiecem, or Auschwitz.
As my grandfather got older, the chance of my going to visit Mosovce while we still had the opportunity to sit down together afterward and compare notes was thinning. So, already being in Europe on assignment, I booked a flight and went.
When I got off the train at the next village over, I was immediately impressed by the fact that communism still lingered in these parts, and that the modernization and other advancements made by most European cities after the war was stagnant here. As I pressed on looking for a bus to Mosovce, I stopped a local for directions. "Excuse me sir, where can I get the bus to Mosovce?" I asked a tad too naively, on tenterhooks that my answer would be in any other language than Slovak. But my wish was not to be. Luckily, sign language is international, and after a point to the east, a 10-minute bus ride later and a whirlwind of emotion brewing up inside of me, I had arrived.
I had originally set out just to see the village, ask a few locals what they remembered about my family and perhaps find my grandfather's old house on the odd chance that it still stood. But as my family got wind of the trip, the correspondence between my grandfather and Prague, where his sister lives, started. From Prague, the cable went to Bratislava, and then on to Mosovce itself. As it turned out, the grandson of the righteous gentiles who saved my grandfather's family lives in Mosovce. I thought it quite fitting that two grandchildren would meet where our grandparents' stories were first forged.
Here I was, fresh off the bus, walking along the main road in Mosovce with a deserved kick in my step. While in some way I did in fact "make it," I was in the middle of rural Slovakia with zero comprehension of the local language and only the name of someone I had never met or seen a picture of. After walking around the village, which took only about 20 minutes or so, my kick began to wane. I decided to hunt for a hundred-year-old house that I had only seen in black-and-white photos, a house that family members had not been able to find on previous journeys back to this tiny village of some 400 people.
Not to worry, I thought. When I asked my grandfather to tell me where the house was, he explained that the village would have probably changed too much to give precise landmarks, so "look for the only house built into the curve of the road." That shouldn't be too hard I thought. Now, walking through the curvy streets of town, every time I came upon a house that hugged the roads' layout, I filled up with joy at standing in front of my grandfathers' house. "Built in 1954," the sign read. "City hall since 1976," another said. Exhausted and feeling somewhat deflated, I went back to my hotel to rethink my game plan for the next day.
My grandfather had mentioned that when he lived there, the street was called Masaryk Street, so I decided to go to the city hall and make a few inquiries. Armed with the phrase "mesky doma," I set out down the main street to ask someone to point me in the right direction. This is when I met Samo Sikura, the man/prophet I now owe a great deal more than I can express.
I don't know how long I stood looking at my grandfather's house, remembering stories of my grandfather feeding the geese or his mother washing their clothes in the stream, but Mr. Sikura obviously felt that it was too long. He pulled me over, and we began to walk down the road. I had no reason to still go to the city hall, and was beginning to wonder where we were going. We walked over to the main square, which consists of a statue of the local poet, Jan Kolar, and an old mansion that once belonged to the village nobility. We then turned down a narrow street, and entered a three-story building built by the Soviets in the early 1960s to house newlyweds.
We climbed to the top floor, and he rapped on the door a few times. From the other side, I could hear scurried movements, dishes clanking and rushed instructions given in Slovak. On the side of the door was the inscription "Rosko," the name of the grandson I was to meet. The door opened, revealing an Eastern European-looking woman who immediately grabbed me and smothered me with kisses. She was Maria Pavlovic, whose parents had saved my family.
It was an extraordinary feeling, yet frustrating to be in the presence of people to whom you owed so much and, due to the language barrier, could not even convey your gratitude. For the time being, hugs and smiles sufficed.
As we sat down to coffee and slivovitz, they talked and I returned blank stares. I asked questions about my family, and received equally perplexed looks. As I was about to accept the hopelessness of the situation, the elementary school's English teacher walked in and introduced herself. "I think you will need my help today," she said. "This is the Pavlovic family. They saved your family during the war."
Mr. Sikura, it turned out, was a few years younger than my grandfather, and knew him and his siblings well. He is also something of a town historian, knowing every family's story. Mine, he said, he knows all too well. After discussing the recent family activity, and making sure everyone was in good health, they took me out to see what was left of my family's imprints here.
The first stop was a small clearing between an old barn and a dilapidated house. "In 1943, they started destroying families. Of the four Jewish families, only yours survived," they explained. They told me of how my family had anticipated trouble and had prepared a bunker. "It is still here, we will show it to you."
Mr. Rosko took the lead, pushed past a gate and we entered the back of a farm, revealing a gated space some three meters in length and width. It housed a chicken coop and a couple of stray turkeys, strutting around over a concrete slab, the remains of my family bunker. They stayed here underground for six months, living off the food and water provided by the families who lived in the surrounding houses. "People got in trouble for helping Jews," they explained, "but all the neighbors knew your family was here. It was a big secret."
Once the partisans became a concern for the Germans, troop numbers in the region increased, and my family was forced to flee into the mountains, where another bunker awaited them. This is where one of the partisans from Mosovce, Samo Pavlovic, saved their lives. Unable to leave their hiding place, Samo would bring food and drink to their bunker a few times a week, trekking some 500 meters up the Turiec mountains, a forested area in the Carpathians, engulfed in snow and roaming Nazi patrols. "It was a big job," Maria told me, but it had to be done.
Samo's sister Anna had worked for my family before the war, and the two families had a special relationship. "We all remember as little children coming to your family's store for candy or wool or petrol. Everybody remembers them," Mr. Sikura told me. For eight months, Samo would bring up what he could, "and even when it was only bread and water, they were very appreciative," Maria recalled. "It is not that we were Slovaks, and therefore hated the Germans and the fascists that we helped, but because we loved your family. They couldn't come into the village, so they just waited up there. I can't imagine what it must have been like in the winter, it was a hard life."
A hard life indeed. Growing up, my grandfather would constantly talk about life in prewar Mosovce, and often enough, would talk about his experiences in fleeing the country, or of his brother's and sister's experiences as a doctor in the Russian army or a partisan in the Czechoslovak resistance. But the eight months his mother, brother and sister spent up in the mountains were left aside.
One night, Samo told me, the Germans caught a gypsy in the village, and he told the Germans where in the mountains the partisans were hiding. "The Germans went up there and killed everyone, except Samo Pavlovic - who was in the village getting food for your family." After waiting for nightfall, he walked through the river so as not to leave tracks in the snow for the Germans to find, and went the five hours up into the mountains to bring my family food.
After spending the entire day with me, showing me pieces of my family history, I invited the family out to dinner, but because the village's only restaurant closed at 7 p.m., we had to go to the next village to eat. What I did not know at the time was that this village housed the monument to the partisans who resisted the German occupation. Also, the path that we took up to the hotel where the restaurant was, was the same path that Samo Pavlovic took to get to my family's bunker. Scattered along the forest floor were old munitions, shells and other weaponry now transformed into monuments.
The symbolism impressed upon me a great deal. Here I was, listening to the same birds chirping, the same babbling brook, breathing the same air that a brave partisan did 60-odd years ago.
However, the significance of it all was not felt just by me or the Rosko family. The whole village, it seemed, felt honored that I had come. The mayor personally came to greet me when he heard that I was in town. The townspeople received me openly, they gave me gifts and invitations to dine with them or for a round at the local pub. They showed me old photographs of the village and of my family's old home. They made me feel welcome, and they provided me with a sense of belonging here, a feeling no Scheer had felt in these parts since 1945.
After the war, my family came down the mountain and tried to resume life here. "It was too hard for them," recalled Samo, shaking his head. "We tried to help them regain normalcy, but the family was torn apart. Your grandfather's two younger sisters were on the first transport, and your grandfather, no one knew where he was, only that he tried to go to America before it got bad. We didn't even know if he was still alive."
My grandfather had left Mosovce in 1938, and 69 years later, I told them his story, of how he fled to Italy, and then on to the Dominican Republic.
Going to a place like Mosovce is an inimitable experience. Those of us who have survivors in our families have heard the stories. But that is the problem, they are just stories to us. What does the Warsaw Ghetto really mean to someone living in New York? Lvov, Vodzh and Lublin are just names with a stories attached to them. But to go there, to see, to experience and to honor what the survivors among us have been through is an experience that will stay with you forever. This is what I have learned here, and these are the lessons I leave here with.
As I walked to the train station to go back to the capital and on to Israel, a quirk of fate seemed to appear out of nowhere. I had forgotten to pack a lunch for the long train ride back.
But, as standard practice all those years ago, Mrs. Pavlovic had prepared a meal and had put it into my bag. The significance was far from lost on me, and I smiled my way through a hearty meal, knowing that there are still the likes of Pavlovics making sure that Scheers have something to eat.