Gabriel had not met the old man at the University of Continued Education, he was a family acquaintance. That was how he knew things that never made it into oral history. For example, he knew that he came from old, probably Lithuanian lineage, which was later Russianized, and his ancestral nobility had then become poor. He also knew that he had visited the Soviet Union, many years later, taking a special train excursion to recall the Revolutionary Labor Movement. The track led through the town where the man had been born, but the train had not stopped there, and even if it had, foreigners were not allowed to get off. The old man had only been able to look through the window, but even though he still had had good vision at the time, he could not see his mother’s grave. And where his father was resting – maybe, finally, in peace – he had no idea.
Whether it was thanks to his noble roots or because of the way he had been raised, the boy had maintained an unusual sense of dignity in his conduct and behavior all the way into his old age. He was always smoothly shaved and his hair carefully combed. He never spoke in a raised tone, he did not use crude words, he did not like double-faced jokes and when he sat down, he did not cross one leg over the other. His highly-polished manners were probably the only thing that he had left of his family. When he had already been in the new country a while, he was able to trace out his sister with the help of the Red Cross. She was living in Yugoslavia, where she had married and given birth to two children, but in the confusion of World War II, he lost track of her once again and it was not until the end of the 50s, when the cold war was not as frozen, that she finally contacted him one day unexpectedly from New York. Not even the Red Cross knew where fate had blown her brother. According to unconfirmed accounts, he was most likely living in South America.
“At school, we continued along at a fast pace. We could study well, as there were only three students in the class. I made it to the 6th form. A rumor started up in Istanbul that the lycée and high-school which we had there would be moved. One to Belgium and another to some placed called Czechoslovakia. Our entire high-school requested a transfer somewhere, anywhere, and we waited for what would happen. One day, a man showed up who did some testing with us and then went away. Then it was quiet for a long time, until suddenly news came that we were being organized into the twenty-first group and that we were supposed to appear in Istanbul on a certain date. I sold all of the unnecessary things I had, even my blanket from home – it was an excellent one, a stitched quilt – and I set out with this money and the needed gear. In Istanbul, we slept in clean sheets for the first time after a long period. And in the morning, we trudged to the station and had the goods from the American Red Cross with us. We were accompanied by an employee of the Czechoslovak Consulate. We had to call out ‘Nazdar’ [greetings] even thought we did not know what we were calling out. The train cars were outfitted for summer, with no toilets and there was little room. I slept on a narrow bench and was held fast by a belt. We went through Greece and Bulgaria. In Sofia, we were welcomed with speeches, but nothing to eat. Then we went through Yugoslavia. Beograd was a destroyed city, mud up to your knees. There we waited for permission to continue on, but it was Orthodox Christmas at the time and no offices were open. Finally, they furnished us with a postal train car that had no facilities and we moved onward. The main thing was that we were alive. In Subotica, there was a military inspection and the inhabitants made us a dinner. Then we were transferred into two train cars sent to us by the Hungarians. We travelled through Budapest, Bratislava and at one in the morning, we arrived at our destination – Moravská Třebová. There was snow, it was cold and the road was long to the barracks where we would be housed. That was 1922. Thus began my life in Czechoslovakia.”
That was how the boy’s multi-year odyssey ended. When he finished studying to be a geodetic engineer, he settled in the northern corner of Slovakia and spent his entire, long life there. No other person who had even been born there knew that regions so intimately as he, since he had measured its fields and meadows and forests as a land surveyor with his own feet. Soon after his arrival to his new place of work, he founded a family and given his previous experiences in life, it was no miracle that he very much clung to them; they were his only one, he had no other. In his free time, he enjoyed telling his children stories and not only the ones that he made up or the horrifying ones from a book. He continuously told his own life story to Gabriel in all its detail till the end of his life. He probably did not know that it was not real – or maybe he did know and that is exactly why he confided in him, without reservation.
The old man had had the fortune to escape what various colleagues of his from Russia had gone through when the Soviet KGP had carried them off to Siberia after the war to build labor camps, where the prisoners mined diamonds and precious metals. Gabriel had had a tip off for one of them. Engineer K. was in Siberia for ten years, then they returned him to his wife in Slovakia as a useless person. When Gabriel went round to visit him at home, he realized that he was also useless for oral history: his mouth was empty, toothless and wordless. They had numbed him into a shy, incomprehensible smile. Gabriel said that perhaps it was a defense reflex from the camp, but what the heck did he know about the Soviet camps. The man sitting in the armchair motionlessly, seemingly as fragile and breakable as straw, a bit like a salty grissini stick that had already been nibbled at by someone before. He did not look at Gabriel, the whole time he did not take his eyes off his wife, and when she went into the kitchen to brew some coffee, he fidgeted, frightened in his chair, calling “Vierochka!” Then he got up on his fragile feet and off he went after her like a dog.
Vierochka was from Siberia, from a wealthy Irkust family. The young girl had enchanted the well-known Slovak businessman who was working in Russia at the time and after the Revolution, she came with him as his wife to Czechoslovakia where he later held an important function. When he died, she had earned her living as a teacher of Russian. She had not lived a long time with her second husband, Engineer K. Despite that, once they informed her of his code address, she could send him a kilo of sugar or warm underwear once or twice a year. If he actually got the packages, she never knew. One day they told her to pick up her husband at the station on a specific date, and so the heretofore childless Vierochka acquired her first and only child at an advanced age, an immaculate conception Soviet style. She had to take him to school, small and helpless as he was, and whoever she was teaching, there also sat Engineer K. in the corner of the office and trembled in mortal fear of the world, a world in which he could not see as far as his mother-wife. When Gabriel followed the situation, it was the sugar bowl that exemplified it all – Engineer K. scurried around Vierochka’s heels as he waited for her to show him where to put it. It was then that he noticed – as he had been evading the glance of the unknown person – then that he understood that a new chapter of his oral history was not in the making.
Vierochka and her husband were real. Engineer K. was a person who remained alive and could have given testimony of his fate, but he could not find the words nor the strength to speak. They had been shucked from his core and all that remained was a fragile, hollow shell. His rosy skull did not have hair, but child-like, delicate hair. And when Gabriel got up to go, his stirring of the air made them dance.