|The Story of a Wondering Synagogue and a Steady Friendship |
Back in the early seventies, and in my second decade of my young life I lived in Romania and during the summers I worked as an international tour guide in the Black Sea vacation resorts. I met lots of interesting people from all over Europe and being fluent in several languages helped me serve well the needs and interests of my tourists, with the additional reward of making many friends, as well.
In those times, under the communist regime, foreign tourists were often targeted by the locals as cheap sources of consumer goods, such as fashion clothing, cosmetics and electronics, quite scarce or unavailable on the home markets. Those transactions were usually awkward and embarrassing and only perpetuated the stereotyping of the country's image as poor and oppressed, and the people miserable and desperate.
I often muse about the reversal of the flow of goods from the times when foreign tourist were pestered to sell something, to the today's well known beach resorts, where the tourists are harassed to buy something.
Beyond that ubiquitous wheeling and dealing with "things" and the appeal of a true hedonistic beach life, there was also a hidden treasure of another kind to be found in that vacation world. Those were people who worshiped the sun and leisure like anybody else, but who also found it gratifying and entertaining to share their knowledge and passion about their culture and language with the right listeners.
I got particularly close to one young couple from the Czech Republic, who came to spend their honeymoon in Mamaia, a superb place, in fact the flagship of the Romanian Black sea resorts at the time. The bride was four months pregnant and the couple was very happy. Pavel, the groom was a refined, sophisticated intellectual, with encyclopedic knowledge of history, music and arts. He was also a professor of Czech history and philosophy and a very fine linguist who took
pride and pleasure in polishing and enriching my Czech during our conversations. We spent many pleasant evenings, with enough wine to relax, but not beyond staying coherent. We forged a solid friendship, based on those common interests, and after their vacation was over we kept in touch by frequent correspondence for over ten years.
In the pre-computer times, writing elaborate letters, by hand was quite an undertaking, and over time, inevitably our writing faded to a mere annual Christmas Card.
By the time I immigrated to Canada in the very early eighties, we lost touch completely. My memory of Pavel and of some of our very interesting conversation remained, nevertheless, as vivid as ever. Another thing that remained etched in my memory, without me even being aware of it at that time, was his mailing addresses that included an easy to remember identical double digit street number and the name of a famous Czech writer.
I believe the repeated writing of that address on the envelope, back in the correspondence years, found a little nook in my brain, ready to come out if and when called upon.
About 30 years passed since I first met Pavel, and on that summer, I and my wife went vacationing to the beautiful Dalmatian coast of Croatia, where my wife is from. In a memorable escape from the hoards of relatives and friends who honestly believed that spending time together was the highlight of our vacation, we managed to take a day trip alone.
This was an organized small bus trip on a spectacular hair pin road to the top of the Biokovo mountain, that overlooks the Makarska Riviera, the pearl of the Dalmatian Adriatic.
There were only four of us on that trip: my wife and I and a younger couple, in their 30's, speaking Czech and sitting just next to us. The landscape was breathtaking but I got distracted by the sound of the language of my childhood that triggered strong emotions and I could not resist the temptation to join our neighbors in their conversation. I first addressed the lady, in Czech, and she responded very friendly asking us where were we from. I said Canada and she asked me how long ago we left the Czech Republic. I felt very flattered to be taken for a Czech native speaker but I knew that would change during a more complex
chat. It was my turn to ask where they were from and she obliged by saying that she was from a small town not far from Prague and they just came for a vacation to Croatia. It was spontaneous, without much preparation, and they only found out about this mountain trip a few hours before they decided to take it. I insisted to know the name of her native town and while she thought I may have not heard of it, she told me anyway that it was Kolin, exactly the town where my old friend Pavel was from.
I was delighted to hear that and lost no time in starting bragging about a good old friend of mine, that used to live in Kolin. She looked at me a little puzzled and I quickly mentioned my friend's name and his address that miraculously come to my mind.
I have never seen such an expression of awe and shock like the one on the young lady's face, and after a deep breath she only said: Pavel is my father and he still lives there, at the same address.
I quickly realized that I have one more opportunity to further impress her and said: "I believe I first new about you when you were already four month in your mother's womb, and that was in Romania, in the resort of Mamaia". The exchange continued with deepening emotions. She asked: "Is your name George?" and I said "yes, it is" . Her name was Ana, and she went on: " My father used to talk often about you and he said that you were one of his most valued and special friends"
The bond was instant, and her companion was also very kind and friendly, and we spend the rest of the trip together.
It turned out that the Czech couple were to stay another month in Croatia and that we would be back to Canada long before their vacation was over, so Ana gave me Pavel's phone number, so I could contact him as soon as we would get back home.
Upon our return to Canada, I called Pavel on the phone and he almost instantly recognized my voice and was overwhelmed by emotions. He was still unaware that I met his daughter and I told him the whole story and he simply could not believe that the infinitesimal probability of such an encounter, become a reality that brought us again in touch.
One month later, I and my wife decided to take a trip to Prague and we were able to meet him. Pavel was commuting daily by train from his home town and was teaching arts in a high school in the centre of Prague. We spent a few days together walking in the old town, visiting art museums and exhibitions, enjoying that beautiful city bustling with life. We ended-up watching a show at the unique and original "Spejbl and Hurvinek" Puppet Theatre that I used to go to as a child. The main two characters are a truly benevolent but dumb father who is trying to satisfy the nagging curiosity of his young son, who is incessantly asking questions about almost everything in the world. The father's ineptitude in trying to appear smart leads to hilarious effects and some of those dialogues are now part of the Czech culture and humor. We both remembered many of those lines and had a blast laughing.
One day we strolled through the famous Historical Jewish Ghetto, in the Josefov quarters, the largest in medieval Europe with its famous synagogues and stopped at my favorite, the “Old New Synagogue” the oldest active synagogue in Europe, since the 13th century. Franz Kafka, the famous writer had his Bar-Mitzvah celebrated there. We went on to visit the layered Jewish cemetery where actual filming was made for the “Fiddler on the Roof” movie with Chaim Topol, and later, traced the legend of the Golem. Prague is a deeply romantic and charming city, a perfect ground to rekindle an old friendship, and equally, to overwhelm emotionally anyone with Jewish sensitivity to this city's amazing Judaic history. It was during one of those strolls that my Jewish background come into discussion, something that was missed or forgotten in my previous interaction with Pavel, who was not Jewish. That might have been a touchy subject anyway in those faith oppressive times under communism, but now, paradoxically, our talks become a source of inspiration and even stronger bonding, because Pavel had a deep love, admiration and respect for Jewish history, culture and people, something quite unexpected to me, and only understood later.
Pavel was long separated from his wife and remained sad, with painful memories about their split, but as a generous and kind person by nature, was genuinely capable of enjoying other people's happiness. He looked at us as an ideal couple that brought sunshine in his life and was happy just from witnessing our interaction, that he always thought was possible, but eluded him.
Our visible enjoyment and gratitude for having such a graceful host, guide and friend, did not go unnoticed either and it further cemented our friendship.
The last day before our departure, Pavel showed-up at our hotel with a very special gift, wrapped in an elegant cotton pouch. We opened it carefully and curiously. Inside, there was a beautiful old bronze replica of the famous 13th Century Old-New Synagogue of Prague.
Pavel father’s best friend was a Jewish Rabbi. His most cherished possession was an elaborate piece of art, the Old-New Synagogue bronze replica. This was 350 year old and stayed in his family for over 300 years. Shortly before his death, the rabbi gave the synagogue to Pavel’s father, in an extraordinary gesture of deep friendship and respect to a man outside his faith, as a very precious good luck charm. Shortly before Pavel’s father died he handed over that special gift to his son, for his good fortune in life.
When Pavel, found out about my Jewish roots and saw my passion and knowledge of Jewish history in Prague, decided that I would be the next deserving recipient of this symbolic and enduring art treasure.
So, there it was, in that thick cotton pouch, handed over to me on the day of our departure from Prague, back to Canada. It came with a strong hug, the telling of the family history of the synagogue, and tears in our eyes.
The synagogue, has now its visible spot of honor in my living room, and even more importantly in my heart.
The years went by, and with the ease and popularity of Skype, we continued to chat with Pavel regularly, without time pressure, enjoying great conversations and laughs, as truly good friends can have. Pavel semi-retired, continued his teaching in the art school and kept going to a famous spa, in Carlsbad, to keep healthy. There he met and befriended Vaclav Havel, the former Czech President, who as a private citizen was very low key, and enjoyed talking to other fine intellectuals, like himself.
Pavel also met there a wonderful woman, from former East Germany, with whom he developed a promising relationship and was very happy at the prospect of rebuilding his life with a compatible companion, after being single for very long time.
One day, I received an e-mail from Pavel, with a sad announcement about his father passing away after a brief illness.
I replied promptly with some words of sympathy, mentioning that I too, lost both my parents, and can well relate to his painful loss.
Shortly after that, I received an e-mail from Pavel's daughter, Ana, whom I met in Croatia, the one who helped me reconnect with Pavel.
She wrote: "Dear George, you clearly misunderstood the message. It is not about Pavel's father. It's about my father, and your friend Pavel. Sorry for the confusion, I sent the e-mail from his computer. My father died peacefully and happily. He did have a heart condition. It was found just before you met in Prague. I know that he gave you that beautiful synagogue, he really wanted you to have it. Maybe he had a premonition. I wish you a long and happy life. "
by George Kun 1/25/2013