A Little Something to Get the Holiday Season Started
It is one that may renew your faith in humanity and in the powers of healing. Or it might merely make you smile. But that’s enough, don’t you think? A heartfelt smile is certainly more enduring than all the holiday decorations that spring up overnight like tufts of dandelions this time of year.
I’ll start with a little back story.
There’s this woman I knew some years ago. I met her in Prague and her name is Cathy. Like me, she has a pretty extraordinary family history.
Cathy’s Czech grandfather invented the electric tram car and his name is all over Prague. I’m pretty sure he has streets named after him in every major city in the Czech Republic, as a matter of fact. Even a fountain. So, after democracy swept away the Iron Curtain a couple of decades ago, Cathy found herself in Prague managing the restitution process for her family.
(This is the actual fountain named after Cathy’s grandfather.)
Restitution, for those of you who might be scratching your heads, is a lot like it sounds. It’s a process by which the Czech government returned properties stolen by the communists to their original owners. In Cathy’s case, there were run-of-the-mill estate hand-overs – a nice house and such, but also more interesting articles like letters between her grandfather and Thomas Edison that detailed shared best practices as they both endeavored to invent electricity.
Imagine holding one of those and recognizing the handwriting. Kind of takes your breath away, doesn’t it?
Cathy was also trying to secure an art collection that had been languishing in a museum – an institution that was not at all happy about relinquishing some of its most prized pieces and would hold on until the bitter end.
But the law prevailed, the museum acquiesced and Cathy found herself tapping her foot to Czech muzak while she sat in a waiting room of sorts, biding her time while one of the big auction houses appraised her grandfather’s art collection. It was there that Cathy met a man who was also waiting for word on an art collection.
But his story was a little different from hers.
The gentleman sitting next to Cathy was a Czech Jew and the single surviving member of his family. Many like himself had returned home after harrowing months or years in a concentration camp only to have their hopes dashed once again when their country was essentially handed from one tyrant to the next. The Soviets, while not as single-minded about their hatred of the Jews, didn’t exactly treat them well. There were show-trials and gulags and all manner of persecution that often left the remaining members of once large families with little to hold on to.
And when communism fell, the restitution process didn’t have much to offer them either. Most of the looting of Jewish property had been done by the Nazis and in the majority of cases there was neither the will nor the ability to broker those returns.
But this Jewish fellow Cathy had met was apparently not one to wallow too much in self pity. When the laws forbidding free market pursuits were abolished, he and his son started an import/export business that was already in full swing by the time he made Cathy’s acquaintance.
This is where his story gets interesting.
A few weeks earlier, this man and his son were in Germany on business. They were meeting with one of their biggest customers and got invited to the man’s home for dinner. And a lovely home it was.
They were greeted in the foyer and brought into the great room, where they were to have a drink and probably a nibble or two before making their way into the formal dining room.
But the Jewish father couldn’t nibble. Nor could he drink or utter a word beyond the most basic pleasantry. It was not like him. He was a man who struck up conversations easily – the way he had with my friend Cathy – and who was hardly a stranger to the people in whose home he was dining.
His odd behavior continued throughout dinner and dessert, until finally, as he was being ushered out the door, his customer inquired about how he was feeling. Was he ill perhaps?
The Jewish man shook his head, but finally spoke. He explained that when he entered the great room in this fine house, he was faced with gazing upon his own father’s art collection hanging on the walls. These were works the man remembered well – ones that had been stolen from his father after he and his family had been deported to their various death camps.
He left his host speechless, but not without anything to say.
You see, the Jewish man was awakened the next morning by the front desk staff of his hotel. Apparently, a very expensive art collection had been delivered to them at the crack of dawn.
Without a lawyer being called, or an investigation undertaken, or a police officer summoned, the customer had spent all night wrapping each individual work of art in order to return the collection to its rightful owner. It was an exchange as simple as a handshake, and a rarity where this kind of money is involved. Especially since the Jewish man had no way to verify his claim, and the business he did with his German customer couldn’t have been more than a fraction of what the collection was worth.
It was a simple act of faith and reparation between two sons, and one we rarely see portrayed on our various partisan news channels.
But it’s an act we can carry in our hearts as we begin the rigmarole of shopping and putting up trees, parties and eggnog, travel and family entanglements. It’s a way of starting the season off with a spirit of common humanity that shows how grievances – no matter how great – can be bridged in ways that are far less complicated than we often make them out to be.