Ota Pavel, originally Otto Popper, the son of a Jewish travelling salesman, was born in Prague in 1930. The magical memoir of his childhood “How I Came to Know Fish” leads me to a small reflection about what is important in our lives, marking the end of summer holiday and the beginning of the school year, as well as to remind ourselves of the disgraceful Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938 that cleared the way for the Second World War.
Before the WW-2 Ota’s father (Papa) worked for the famous Swedish company of Electrolux. Ota recalls that before Papa joined the company, he “had been selling Tutankhamen fire extinguishers for a local manufacturer. It was common knowledge that several factories burned to the ground while experiencing their prowess. Papa also let it slip out how we had lived at that time, and the news traveled fast through Prague. We had lived in a village in the woods near Marienbad and had eaten salted mushrooms and healthy onions without eggs and bread. But then a miracle occurred. From the moment Mr. Frantisek Koralek (general manager of Electrolux) spoke – ‘So! We accept you as a sales representative!’ – Papa’s lucky star was in its ascent.”
Do not trade more than necessary
In the town of Rokycany near Pilsen where people stubbornly clung to brooms and brushes and in which a vacuum cleaner was considered the devil’s invention and wildly extravagant, Papa had sold thirty-one vacuum cleaners in ten days! His career as a salesman was staggering!
“In Pilsen nobody could believe it. They checked the facts and reeled him in to show him off in Prague as a sacred cow…In the sales of vacuum cleaners and refrigerators Papa surpassed his peers from fifty-five countries, beating out his competition, a man from Buenos Aires…He convinced Prime Minister Malypetr that he must buy a refrigerator, and he sold two of them to Dr Edvard Benes! Papa was crowned world champion in the Alcron Hotel. Company president Venegreen, who flew in from London especially for the occasion, pinned a gold medal on Papa’s lapel himself. The ceremony was filmed by the famous American Fox newsreel company, whose cameraman flew in from the United States. Papa flew in from nowhere, though he did take a tram with Mama. Our Buick was still in the shop.”
What a concert! Just like Kubelik.
Ota’s approach to writing about his Papa and family in 1930s Czechoslovakia predominantly consists of a mix of civility and grace. His main means of expression are plain language full of sincerity, love, and fun that sometimes slightly resembles a kishonian sense of humor. It is the passion for fishing however that makes the central thread, or rather a fishing line, unfolding throughout the whole book. Everything else is circulating around like the fish in deep crystal clear waters.
Picturesque nature alongside the Berounka river with the nearby castle of Křivoklát lost in deep forests make a perfect location for summer holiday. During a vacation there the Popper family become friends with the best fisherman in the whole region of the Central Bohemia, the ferryman Prosek, whom Ota and his two older brothers Hugo and Jirka grow to love as an uncle. Ota recalls the first meeting with his new uncle:
“From under the alder trees all of us were watching Prosek on the far side of the river. He moved across the slippery stones like an otter. His floater flew to the exact spot he aimed at. And the fish? They seemed to jump out of the water – silver chubs with red rudder fins, elegant whiskered barbels, big-bellied roaches from the tide pools, and daces from the swift currents. All of them slipped into his net, their freedom over, their master come, …Papa had immediately taken a liking to Prosek, because he too was a smart fellow. He could silence the stupid as well as Prosek could, and what he could not do Prosek would teach him.”
Another fisherman had been born in Luh-under-Branov
Ota’s passion for his country and people, fishing and countryside, combined with seeing the world as if through the eyes of a preschooler and first grader, lends his stories a special appeal.
One day Ota is at the ferry when uncle Prosek returns from the pub in high spirits. He kisses his Alsatian Holan on the snout and finally has mercy on Ota: “’Come here, Jackass!…I’ll make you a rod,’ he said. ‘I’ve been saving this twig for you a long time.’…I had no idea that it would be the most precious rod that I would ever own, but I know it now. It was my childhood rod, unparalleled even by the advanced American and Japanese models I would covet in later years. Prosek strung a line to it, then added a goose quill and a hook. ‘Near the island,’ he said, ‘you will find perch. Go Jackass, and ruffle their feathers. I will wait for you here.’
A new fisherman had been born, head of his first perch had been nailed on the barn door and Ota got his first kiss on the cheek from a girl. His brothers also decided to accept him at last and life was a carnival. The river was full of fish: the pike with the dark green silhouetted backs, the acrobatic barbel with their powerful fins and cylindrical bodies looking like supersonic jets, the eel not be caught until the moon disappears and the sky fills with clouds and the stars sleep. And the rods were so tall that Ota imagined himself thrusting them skywards to light stars as one might light up gas lamps on the streets of Prague’s Old Town.
“We caught them, and Mama breaded them and cooked them like steaks, or else she marinated them in vinegar with layers of onion slices. They were stored in a stone barrel down in our cold cellar. Delicious. When someone got sick in the village, the sufferer would come to our house for pickled fish. Those who were not sick came also. But those who most often came for pickled fish were pickled themselves – with hangovers! Ah, the fish were plentiful from spring until fall. They grew tender in the stone barrel and their bones got soft. They were cold in the summer and warm in the winter.”
How can a Jew breed carp?
But the children’s carnival was soon to end as bigger events were looming ahead of Europe for quite some time. After the disgraceful Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938 the Wehrmacht marched into Prague on the 15th of March 1939. Betrayed and abandoned by its allies, the democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. Wrapping up what was left of their furniture, the Popper family moved northwest of Prague to the village of Bustehrad to be near Papa’s native soil and his only pond, hoping the signs and consequences of anti-Semitism would be less severe there.
At the beginning of the occupation the pond, on which Papa had drifted in a washtub in his boyhood and his father also manned a washtub on it, as had his grandfather and great-grandfather too, was confiscated. “How can a Jew breed carp?”, one day the mayor asked and announced that they were taking it over, similarly to the official thugs that took away their furniture from their home earlier before the family moved out of Prague.
– the second part of this blog to follow soon –