The month after I quit my first job out of college, I packed a backpack and flew to Prague. I planned to travel across Eastern Europe—where my father’s family had lived before they all left one way or another, during or after WWII—seeking stories of my family’s history. (“Left” might not be quite the right word; my grandfather was lucky to escape a Hungarian labor camp, and most of his and my grandmother’s families were deported to death camps.) At the end of my journey, I would visit my grandmother’s first cousin Honza at his home outside London, to track down his story. Family legend had it he’d flown for the Royal Air Force, that he had trained in Rhodesia, that he was still studying to become the oldest Brit ever to receive a PhD.
After a month in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, and Romania, I arrived at Honza’s flat in Richmond, southwest of the city. The next day, we would take the Tube into Central London to see some sights. That afternoon, I’d hoped we might chat.
“I want to hear about your experience of the war,” I said, not a half-hour after I arrived. I was 25, eager to hear a story, asking a question I knew I should hold back. Though my grandparents never talked about their war experiences—my grandmother died after 40 years in the United States never even admitting she was Jewish— from my father I’d learned many of our relatives had been deported: to Terezín, to Auschwitz, to points obscure and distant. Here I was, reaching into his pocket, expecting ashes. I’d mentioned over email I’d hoped to talk with him about the war, and he knew as well as I that when I said “war” I thought of something hopelessly dour. Here in his flat, Honza stared at me, inscrutable. His face was 13 different colors of old age. His unkempt eyebrows seemed to want to touch the world in 17 different directions.
He didn’t even countenance my question.
How had my travels in the Czech Republic been, he asked? And in Hungary? He hadn’t been to either country for years. I told him it had been fine, fine. Now we both said nothing further about it. We talked about other things—family I’d tracked down in my recent European travels, current events. Before bed, Honza could still see questions flickering like a pilot light behind my eyes.
“I know you want war stories,” he said. “I know you want to know about a Jew in Britain during the war. Whatever morbid ideas you have about what happened then. There are things I can talk about and things I can’t. Tonight, read this. Tomorrow I’ll take you to the British Museum.”
He handed me a document. It was 20 pages long. I barely had a chance to glance at it at first.
Now it was time for us to take turns brushing teeth, and all I wanted was to read the pages in my hand. Would they recount the story of a Czech Jew who had flown sorties for the Brits? Dour tales of family he’d lost? My palms were sweaty with impatience while I waited for him to finish flossing.
In bed that night I discovered a very different kind of story. The piece Honza had handed me was titled “Learning Dutch.” It did not contain morbid stories of war. It did not recount unfathomable tales of religious persecution. It was the story of a prostitute Honza had met in Rotterdam, having left his home north of Prague before the outbreak of war. It contained graphic depictions of his first sexual encounters. It contained, to be more specific, detailed descriptions of cunnilingus. Was I suddenly living in a Philip Roth novel? I read the piece, re-read it. I tried to imagine Honza’s life: leaving the comfort of a house on a hill in a northern Czech city, where he was peacefully assimilated, for the biggest port in Europe, where people spoke a language he didn’t know. I myself had felt a kind of anxiety for the past month, traveling from Prague to Vienna, Vienna to Budapest, Budapest to Bucharest, and back west until I’d found my way to London.
For me this was vacation. An adventure. A story I’d hoped to discover that might unveil something about my own history, through family, however distant. But it was Honza’s life. The part he wanted to remember, anyway. I went to sleep that night with images I won’t describe here floating through my confused head.
The next morning, I awoke to find a breakfast of Muesli, heavy cream, and fresh fruit. Honza was reading The Guardian. A different kind of light flickered behind his eyes. There was a story he’d longed to tell. He’d put it to paper. I’d read it. Thin morning light shifted in from the eastern windows of his flat, falling across his face.
“Well, then, Danny,” Honza said. He called me Danny every time we talked, though I’d told him I preferred to be called by my full name. “What did you think?”
I watched as the lines on my cousin’s face drew taut. I was in a flat southwest of London, sitting with my grandmother’s octogenarian first cousin, who I would learn in conversation later that day had trained for the RAF but was injured in training, who six years after my visit to London would, in fact, become the oldest Brit to receive a PhD, who was more full of life at 86 than any memoir could say, and who two summers ago died after a brief illness, at the age of 95. In his flat, the night before, he had wanted me to read a remembrance about a prostitute he’d met. I’d read it. I’d come looking for one kind of shore and had washed up on a very different beach from the one I’d expected. Here was what I’d found. I smiled and now I took my turn, saying, “Let’s head into London, and we’ll talk about it on the way.”
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