Ivan Zahradka

Bees, bees, Grandmother is dead!

Everything seems so cheerful when one sees those bees flying about so busily all day long. See to them, for every creature is grateful for kindness. When I die – I know my time is near at hand – when I die do not forget to tell it to the bees, so that they shall not die out! Others might forget. (Božena Němcová, The Grandmother, 1855)

My Great-Grandfather crawled out of the trenches of WWI in poor health. In a sense, he was lucky, as from our country alone more than 300,000 men died on the fronts of the Great War that claimed millions of victims. In addition, the war created legions of crippled boys and fathers. My Great-Grandfather added to the countless post-war casualties, though no shell had taken off his leg. Before the Great Depression hit, he died from the effects of kidney failure, leaving behind his beloved wife Mary and eight descendants, the oldest of whom was my Grandmother Julie.

As with the Thirty Years’ War, the Great War’s impact fell most tragically of all on the Bohemians and Moravians. This was the last straw. The system had broken and the rather bigoted Habsburg monarchy finally ended up in the throes of an appalling war. It is fascinating that the ruling monarchs of Vienna, London, Sankt Petersburg and Potsdam, linked by ties of kinship and thus representing one family, were able to impose so much suffering through their mutual hatreds.

To slightly paraphrase a classic: “justice must be done, you stupid boys.” Well, what choice was there but to take it in with our peculiar sense of humor to do justice, once and for all. The Austria-Hungary Emperor became immortally notorious for the rivers of innocent blood shed by my tribe for foreign dynastic interests hostile to the nation exposed at the heart of Europe.

Remember old woman, that every emperor and king thinks only of his own pocket; that’s why they wage war, even if it’s only an old dotard like old Procházka (a nickname for the Austria-Hungary Emperor, ‘the old walker’), whom they can’t let out in case he shits up the whole of Schönbrunn. (Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Švejk, 1921)

It sounds brutal, but the words of a novelist full of despair will be the only thing remembered about the poor monarch. The only thing remaining as a reflection of his entire life, since the great novelist Jaroslav Hašek [read Hashek] wrote his immortal satirical dark comedy novel The Fate of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War, first serialized in a magazine a hundred years ago. The Good Soldier Švejk [read Schvake] is the most translated piece of our literature – translated into 60 languages, a kind of linguistic bible and window into the war-torn soul of the people of the territory always fought over when the going gets tough.

“There are certain paths which place a person (responsible for multitudes of dead) face to face with ridiculous immortality. Naturally, when it comes to immortality, people are not equal. We must distinguish between ‘ridiculous immortality’ (e.g. of inglorious statesmen), ‘great immortality’ (e.g. of a great novelist), and the small earthly immortality – of those who forever remain in the memory of posterity.” (Milan Kundera, Immortality, 1990)

I have many memories of my dearest Grandmother Julie, and if I were to write a book about them, it would be longer than that four-volume epic ‘War and Peace’. It was my grandmother who made me a human being and I can feel her love still radiating through my family today, even though

it was long, long ago, when last I gazed on that dear face, kissed those pale, wrinkled cheeks, and tried to fathom the depths of those blue eyes, containing such goodness and love. Long ago it was when, for the last time, those aged hands blessed me. My Grandmother Julie is no more; for many a year she has slept beneath the cold earth. To me, however, she is not dead. Her image, with its lights and shadows, is imprinted upon my soul, and as long as I live, I shall live through her. (Božena Němcová, The Grandmother, 1855)

Julie was born before the Great War and lived in a lovely Moravian village nestled under the picturesque west facing slopes of the White Carpathians; a rough region, a stone’s throw from the Slovak border, where foxes (as we say) bid you goodnight. As a young woman she had to give up her promising career as a foreman sent across the Big Pond to commission yet another factory of the Czechoslovak entrepreneur and symbol of Czechoslovak capitalism, Tomáš Baťa – founder of the highly successful shoe manufacturer headquartered in the Moravian city of Zlín and still operating worldwide today. How Julie must have felt when she traded her bright future to take care of seven other orphans left behind by her father, for whom her mother, crushed by cruel fate, could not provide. Thus, a beautiful girl sacrificed her life for her family to avert them falling into poverty without prospects.

The interwar economic miracle of the democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia had its basis in hardworking people. Not born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and stricken by the blows of fate, Julie was used to working like a dog. Even before migrating to Zlín to work in Baťa’s giant shoe factory, in the harsh conditions of the production line, she could withstand every job. She also had green fingers, and when she stuck a rake in the ground, it blossomed.  I well remember her singing while she worked, a constant smile on her face, without complaint about anything, just eager for a good deed.  God was with her, blessed her in many ways, and made her descendants as numerous (shall we say?) as the stars in the sky.

Even so, it remains a mystery to me how my grandmother did and managed it all. She had a kind of personal control over reality, and nobody could fool her by maintaining that Moravian agriculture was thriving when she had so many hungry mouths to feed. She received a pittance for her work, at a time when a better collective tomorrow was being built, and when, two decades later, conditions improved, she retired, of course with a low socialist pension for her efforts. The lying and ideologically obsessed post-WW II regime also prided itself on extensive free care, which was something my profoundly religious grandmother did not get at a critical time, presumably as a last punishment for her boundless sacrifice for others.

Then I opened the window so that the soul might have freedom to fly away. Not tarrying among the weeping, I hastened to the hive, and rapping upon it, called out three times: Bees, bees, Grandmother is dead! Then I sat down upon the bench under the lilacs and sobbed aloud. (Božena Němcová, The Grandmother, 1855)

Literature quoted:

  • Jaroslav HAŠEK: The Fate of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War, a novel first published in 1921 by a son of a teacher of mathematics. The Austrian army’s most loyal Czech soldier, “the good soldier Švejk, this quiet, unassuming, shabbily dressed man, who unlike that stupid fellow of Herostrates did not set fire to the temple of the Goddess in Ephesus just to get himself into the newspaper and school books.”

Could have the Austria-Hungary monarchy survived had the ruling nobility not dragged it out to a bitter collapse at any cost?  The so-called elite did not imagine that its empire would collapse. It was the arrogance of this power with no respect for human life that created the conditions for Nazism and Soviet Communism. The situation today is eerily similar – people seem to be unteachable and today, just a stone’s throw from my own home, hundreds of thousands of people are dying again in trench warfare in Europe.

  • Milan KUNDERA: Immortality, a novel first published in 1990 by an acclaimed Czech novelist, bestselling author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who died this year at the age of 94. In the text quoted imprecisely. The greatest thing about Milan Kundera is that he finally took pity on his fellow Czechs and Moravians and ensured that his later work was translated into his native language as if it had been written in Czech by the author himself. Also, he donated everything material that mattered to him to the public library of his native Moravian town of Brno. The hope that the nation will not perish is not kitsch.
  • Božena NĚMCOVÁ: The Grandmother, a novel first published in 1855 and the most important prose work in Czech literature, by a tireless fighter for social rights, who through her works created modern Czech linguistic norms; her face is immortalized by Oldřich Kulhánek on the current Czech  banknote with a face value of 500 Czech crowns (in the opening picture (own illustrative photo)).


I dedicate this blog as a form of my unconditional support to all families affected by the brutal sadistic terrorist attack of October 7. I hereby pay tribute to all the beloved family members who have fallen while fighting evil.  Others might, but we will never forget!  At the same time, I hereby protest the growing disrespect for the elderly on whose shoulders our civilization stands.

It is written by Solomon, Son of David, King of Israel, that “there are six things, which the LORD hates; yes, seven, which are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood; a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are swift in running to mischief, a false witness who utters lies, and he who sows discord among brothers.” This gives us some hope that justice will be done and that, no matter the hardship, decent people will eventually prevail. May God be with you!

About the Author
Ivan Zahrádka is a citizen of the Czech Republic. He was born and lives in central Bohemia. He graduated as a mathematician from the Charles University of Prague and soon devoted himself to teaching and scientific activities. However, he spent the greater part of his career as an investment management specialist working for a few domestic and foreign private financial institutions at home and abroad. He currently works in Prague as a civil servant in the area of the financial market regulation.
Related Topics
Related Posts