By Martina Volfová (University of British Columbia)

Dedicated to Josef

Září, 1914

Moje nejmilejší manželko, dítky a drazí rodiče přijměte ode mne nejmilejších pozdravení a políbení. Píši Vám v posledním okamžiku loučení s Benešovem, milá ženo poroučím Tě do ochrany Boží. Prosím Tě jestli že se nevrátím zachovej památku ve svém srdci na mne a starej se o dítky, připomínej jim vždy mě aby na mne pamatovaly, já také do poslední chvíle na Vás všecky budu myslet a za Vas všecky se modlit.

S Bohem na štastnou schledanou

Do smrti,

Tvůj Josef

 

September 21, 1914

My dearest wife, children, and parents, please accept my heartfelt greetings and a kiss. I am writing to you all in the last moments before our departure from Benešov. My dear wife, I order you under God’s protection. Please, if I don’t return, cherish my memory in your heart, take care of the children, and always remind them of who their father was, so they remember. I too will think of you all and will keep you in my prayers.

God willing, we reunite in happiness

Until death,

Your Josef

 

As I settle in on a creaky chair at an old Bohemian farm table on one winter’s afternoon, in my hands I hold a collection of Field Correspondence Cards from World War I. Tightly wrapped in a piece of an old torn-up butcher’s paper, the package is labeled in neat cursive “Rodinná Památka”—“Family Treasure.” Smelling of a sweet flowery soap, the kind one might find in an old wardrobe, yellowed by age, and worn out in places by the many hands that have held them over the years, the cards are beautifully handwritten by Josef—a young, newly deployed farmer from Southern Bohemia—to his young wife and family. Reading these cards, one senses the young man’s deeply felt devotion to his wife and his children, the youngest boy only a few months old at the time of his deployment. The short but emotional messages reflect his profound faith in God and also his very real fears. Fear for the future of the young family left behind, fear of what might be coming, fear of the very real possibility of him never returning to his beloved Southern Bohemia again. World War I was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, claiming the lives of nearly 37 million people. Many in the rural parts of the country were drafted, resulting in countless villages being completely emptied of young men. Today, the Czech countryside is dotted by memorials, large and small, dedicated to the fallen of World War I.

Josef wrote the above card as he was about to board a train from Benešov, the site of his basic military training, to take him to the war front, where he was to fight for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Southern Bohemia was a part. His writings are at times mundane, mostly summarizing his day’s routine, while other times they are deeply reflective and nostalgic. Sometimes he would write twice in one day, just to let his family know that he was still alive, thinking about them and praying for their eventual reunion. The postal cards became their lifeline. Then, one day in October 1914, the correspondence stopped. Devoid of any news or any official pronouncements of his death, Josef’s young wife, Antonie, and her children, Marie, Františka, and František, waited for him to return, refusing to waver in their conviction that he was still alive, somewhere.

The war went on for four more years and they just kept on waiting. They waited and waited. Years went by and they kept believing that he was still finding his way home, but Josef never returned. In 1933, just as Europe was bracing for yet another war, Antonie finally allowed for Josef to be officially pronounced “a victim of the war,” no longer missing in action, but dead.

The young farmer Josef was my paternal great-grandfather. His wife Antonie was my great-grandmother. And the four-month-old baby boy Frantisek was my grandfather, who at the time of this pronouncement was nineteen years old and in the throes of compulsory military service, facing the very real possibility of eventually serving in the brewing World War II.

In front of the family farmhouse: Josef in the foreground with oxen, Antonie with their children in the back (1914).

My grandfather Frantisek avoided going to the war in large part because his mother Antonie passed away and he, as the only man on the farm, was called back from his military service to tend to his family’s affairs. Frantisek married shortly thereafter, and in December 1939, my father was born. They named him Josef.

My grandmother frequently recalled a vivid memory from this period: she and my grandfather stood by the front window of the old family farmhouse, looking out on the village plaza, watching Nazi convoys going by. She was eight months pregnant and terrified, wondering what kind of world they were bringing their child into. Two more children were born during the war; the last, my aunt, was born in 1945, just as the war was ending. They all survived the war, only to live through more turmoil in the years to come. The so-called Communist Revolution took place in 1948, followed by the gradual and eventual nationalization of the family farm. Everything the family had was taken, turned into the property of the state. My grandfather and grandmother were then forced to become wage laborers on their own land. I remember my grandfather often saying that things would be right again, we would get our land back, we just needed to be patient. It happened, eventually, but unfortunately, my grandfather did not live long enough to witness it.

My father and I went for a walk recently. We walked on a road past our house, through a small grove of scraggly oak trees and onto the open wintery fields. As we walked up the hill on the faint, grassy two-track road, I asked my father—“Kde přesně byli dědovi pole?” (Where exactly were grandpa’s fields?). My father stopped looked around and said, “Kde jsou naše pole? My na nich přece stojíme” (Where are our fields? We are standing on them.). His use of the present tense struck me! For my father, this land has always been and continues to be ours. He then proceeded to recall how far exactly the fields went, where the hay was always good, where the low, muddy section of the well-worn field road would often trap old wagon wheels, and where small clumps of trees used to be, providing a reliable shelter from the midday heat during harvest time. Through my feet, I, who have spent most of my adult life moving around the world—not particularly attached to my homeland—suddenly felt rooted, at home. I imagined all those who have walked here before me, those who have cultivated this land, including my great-grandfather Josef and his wife Antonie. Suddenly, they were no longer some distant figures from the past, but my ancestors, still very much with us on our land. I started thinking about what it means to belong to a place, to have a deep connection, to be of a place, to feel the land where one’s family history dwells.

Family fields (Spring 2019).
Family fields (Spring 2019).

I get to this point in my life’s journey by reading my great-grandfather’s correspondence cards, imagining his hand, diligently constructing the love-filled messages to his family, asking his wife to keep his memory alive in case he doesn’t return. In times when written correspondence was the only viable way to stay in touch, these cards were a fragile thread of comfort in uncertain and dangerous times that continued to connect them. I never knew my great-grandmother and I really don’t know much about her either, but by keeping these cards, she fulfilled Josef’s wish: she kept his memory alive. My grandfather was the next keeper of this family treasure, and now, it is my aunt, who in turn shared the cards with me. As Josef’s great-granddaughter, I am getting to know him through his carefully written words more than one hundred years later. The fragile thread now connects me too, across time and space. In the process of reading and finding out more about my great-grandfather from others in the family, I am being guided to and through the place where I was born. It is my great-grandfather’s voice, encouraging me to see the land in previously unseen ways, to claim my place in the family’s history. My roots are here; I too belong here.

There have been many places I have called home in the more than twenty-five years since I left the land of my ancestors in Southern Bohemia, but one in particular has left a lasting impression on me, urging me to reflect on what it means to be of a place. It is the traditional territory of the Kaska people in northern Canada, a place I have been fortunate to call home for a number of years.

As a linguistic anthropologist, I have been learning from—and working with—the Kaska people on documenting and revitalizing the Kaska language. In the process of doing this work, I became acutely aware of the fundamental connections between the people, their land, and their language—I was often reminded that “the land is who we are and our language is a part of the land too.” It was easy to fall in love with the beautiful Dene Kēyeh—the People’s Land, but it was only when I personally got to know the stories that I was able to gain a much deeper understanding of the land and the history that dwells there. Visiting particular places I was told about by Elders then took on a whole new meaning—Kaska stories brought the land to life for me and provided a context and a gentle guidance for how to experience it, how to listen to it. These stories too made me think about all those who have walked there before me, whose roots grew deep there. It was there, walking on Dene Kēyeh, I first began seriously thinking about my own rootedness, my place of belonging and how relationships of this sort are forged, in spite of spending most of my adult life wandering, seemingly rootless. For me, my great-grandfather’s correspondence cards became an invitation to continue on my own personal journey of discovery. While undoubtedly, Kaska people’s relationship with the land is different from that of my farming ancestors, I am struck by the durability and resilience of the connections people maintain with their homeland even after the most devastating of ruptures. Be it world wars, political upheaval, or colonial violence and dispossession, peoples’ bonds to their homeland do not break easily, they endure.

It’s been over two months since my arrival in Southern Bohemia, where I came to spend time with my aging father. I am nearing the end of my at times difficult and emotional stay—the date of my return to Canada is quickly approaching. While the Kaska country is still frozen under many feet of snow, springtime has already come to the Bohemian countryside. As I walk through the fields my ancestors had cultivated for generations, smelling the wet earth beneath my feet, I am at peace. I feel strong presence of those who came before me, comforted by the knowledge that I still have much more to learn to really understand. The journey through my homeland continues. The memory of my great-grandfather lives on.

Monument dedicated to my great-grandfather Josef in front of the family farmhouse (Spring 2019).
Monument dedicated to my great-grandfather Josef in front of the family farmhouse (Spring 2019).