Part II – Popper
Yossef Popper was Mordechai’s maternal grandfather. He was from the Czech Republic. He was so skilled with his hands that Mordechai remembers the wooden toys Popper made for him. Also, Popper studied the engineering of textile machines, at a time only England and Germany manufactured them and not many people knew how to repair them. So, Popper made a lot of money by repairing those textile machines and when he had saved enough money, he bought, some arid land in Sopotnice located in the north east of the Czech Republic, a piece of land in which a river, the Divoka Orlice, passed through. The name Divoka Orlice means ‘the wild eagle’, and the river was so called because of its strong flow.
An abandoned mill stood on this land, and Popper refurbished everything, and even built a dam in order to increase the flow of the water (from the Divoka Orlice) to the mill. He then built his own textile factory. Thanks to his mill and the water flowing through it he produced so much energy that he became the first independent electricity supplier in the region. He also used his mill to produce flour and to saw wood. In short, not only was he skilled with his hands, but Popper was also an incredibly good businessman and quickly became the main jobs provider of this region.
But the First World War came and Popper, who was a patriot more than anything, left his wife and three young children to fight alongside his comrades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Only voila, during the war everything was in short supply and consequently the army allowed itself to plunder any place they liked. So, some soldiers came to Popper’s factory and stole the leather turbines from the machines, in order to make shoes. Without these turbines, Popper’s wife could no longer do much with her factory, and so she sold the whole business to another Jewish person for less than nothing, given the inflation of the time. Popper returned home after the War and found he had lost everything. He found a job as a machines supervisor in his brother’s business but never rebuilt his own. Also, tragically, during the Second World War, Popper, his wife and two of their children were deported to Auschwitz, and only Mordechai’s aunt survived. Mordechai’s mother was already in Slovakia at that time.
After the fall of Communism in 1989, Mordechai, who then lived in Israel, returned to the Czech Republic and went to visit this place, Sopotnice, which he found beautiful. The factory was still in the hands of the Communists who confiscated it and used it to manufacture aircraft parts. Mordechai met with a factory guard there and when the latter learned that Mordechai was Yossef Popper’s grandson, he asked him to come back two hours later to the same place. When Mordechai returned, he was given a very warm welcome. He was taken on a complete tour of the place and the village. He saw where his mother was born, had grown up, her school etc. He was welcomed as a king, people told him that they had adored Popper, who was generous, whose door was always open for all and who gave work to all the inhabitants of the village, unlike the “rotten Jew” who had then bought the land. Mordechai was told how Popper, like Yaacov Avinu, was full of mercy and compassion. He did not humiliate people, and so when a resident came to him for help, he invented all kinds of jobs (tidying up a room, helping his wife carrying groceries etc.) and then paid the person, so he did not feel indebted to him. Mordechai remembers how they described Popper, who was obviously in a better social status than the villagers, and still sat with them in the café, played cards and drank with them. Like her husband, Mordechai’s grandmother was also gifted with the same kindness: in winter, women were selling all kind of embroidery and even if she did not need them all, she never refused to buy them.
Years later, in 2017, Mordechai came to know the new owner of the land in Prague, the great granddaughter of the man who bought the land from his grandmother. In the early 90’s the land had been returned to her by the new regime and since then she used it only for annual exhibitions of cars and motorcycles. She told Mordechai that her great grandfather was also killed during the Shoah, and his son (her grandfather) was eventually one of the Kindertransport children. Beside the exhibitions, this woman developed a local brewery and restaurant and kind of repaired her family name (which she still bears until now) by developing the local economy.
This story, which may seem like the mundane story of a Jewish family of that time, still has a strong meaning: the two Jewish owners were completely different, and even though they probably shared the same destiny in the end, their memories are commemorated in completely different ways. One was never forgotten because of his generosity to the point where Mordechai told me himself, that “he could have asked for a street to be named in the name of Popper”, while the other was described as “a rotten Jew” and his name was tarnished by those who knew him at that time. All this leads us to think, that the collective history we share as a People, even if tragic, will never be as strong from a personal point of view as our individual history. Because in the end, the history of our people is seen as a whole, it is impersonal, but also, we cannot control our fate. However, since we can control our acts, we will be remembered for them, for what we left behind, each one on his own scale, and it will count more than anything. Even decades later, our actions will be retained, and will still be told, by chance or not, to our descendants.