Archive for the ‘Maria Bauer’ Category

Before moving to Calgary, I had been searching for a copy of Beyond the Chestnut Trees by Maria Bauer for years.  Yes, I could simply have ordered a second-hand copy offline but that is far too simple and takes all the fun out of the hunt.  Besides, I’d never even seen the book – how could I part with my money when I didn’t even know if the book was any good?  But then I moved to Calgary and, wonder of wonders, the library had a copy.  I borrowed it immediately but was never in quite the right mood to read it so back to the library it went.  This cycle has repeated itself more times that I care to count over the last few years but finally, finally!, I was in just the right mood to pick it up and learn about Maria (Kahler) Bauer’s life growing up in Prague, recounted upon her return forty years after leaving. 

A brief warning: a wrote this post in a bit of a rush, wanting to make sure it would be posted on October 28th, the anniversary of the day Czechoslovakia declared its independence from Austria-Hungary.  Timing is everything.  that said, I have so many emotions tied up with this country and topic that any review of this book was going to be a bit muddled no matter how long I took to write it. 

I grew up surrounded by Czechs (commonly referred to as cancelled Czechs by the family wits) who had left either in ’48 or ’68.  The Kahlers, however, left long before that, in the summer of 1939 after the Germans had invaded.  The story of their rather convoluted exodus makes for fascinating reading.  From Prague they went to Paris, where they met up with another refugee, a young Austrian whom Franz Kafka had introduced Maria to at a ball in Prague: Robert Bauer.  When France fell, the Kahlers and Bauer fled to Portugal, where Robert and Maria were married.  From there they sailed for America to begin poorer and definitely less interesting lives (well, the senior Kahlers at least.  Robert pursued a fascinating career in journalism and politics that took him and Maria around the world, though that is only alluded to here).  Happily, Maria doesn’t spend too much time describing her life in America; the focus is mostly on her idyllic youth in Czechoslovakia and then her experiences and impressions on returning in the early 1980s.

I am a hopeless snob in that I prefer to read about people with money as opposed to those without.  You can have Angela’s Ashes, I’ll stick to people who have their own castles.  Admittedly, Czech castles are really just large manor houses but they’re lovely and I’ve been fixated on them since I was five.  And the Kahlers (Maria’s father was Felix von Kahler was a wealthy German-speaking Czech of Jewish ancestry, although the family was non-practicing) had one, as well as a large mansion in the city.  As is inevitable in any refugee story, the family lost all their wealth and most of their possessions when they fled and would never regain anywhere near the kind of affluence they had once enjoyed.  In a particularly upsetting interlude, Maria returns to the family castle as an adult.  While the countryside remains beautiful, the building and grounds have been almost destroyed during years of communist rule.  Again, a familiar story: I remember when my uncle regained his family’s property after the fall of communism and the all the years and effort he and my aunt put into restoring it. 

The most enjoyable parts of the novel are Bauer’s charming recollections of brief scenes from her childhood.  The book is loosing structured, jumping between decades with ease and some frequency, so no particular incident is analysed too closely, just sketched out for the reader to absorb and smile at.  Especially memorable were Bauer’s remembrances of summers en famille in the country – I was jealous enough of the castle but then she introduces her Parisian-dwelling aunt and uncle, which just makes it that much more glamourous! – and the description of a long but chaste relationship with a teacher during her school years.

I think a large part of why I enjoyed this book so much is because, frustratingly, there really aren’t that many books about Czechoslovakia or its refugees.  Everything I know comes from my family and no one was ever willing to go into as much detail or describe their emotional journey as intimately as does Maria Bauer.  Maria was only a few years older than my grandmother.  They grew up in the same country and though my grandmother’s family was nowhere near as wealthy as the Kahlers, they still had a governess and a cook, a driver and a gardener and little children neatly dressed in sailor suits.  So I look for the similarities and I cling to Maria’s descriptions of her return after a forty year absence, searching in her words for a glimmer of my own grandmother’s experience when she went back for the first time, seeing old school mates and relatives, old haunts and homes after a long absence. 

Sometimes it’s difficult for me to remember that not everyone wanted to leave, that the people who got out aren’t necessarily considered the lucky ones by those who remained.  An old acquaintance of Bauer’s gives this other perspective, acknowledging the problems of life under first the Nazis and then the Communists but casting them aside in favour of family, friends, and a city that only grows more dear with time:

…I have no intention of leaving here.  I don’t like the conditions here any better than you.  There is widespread corruption and life is hard and drab, but it’s my home and I am not unhappy.  No regime can hurt the beauty of the country and the city, which I enjoy more the older I get.  And I have my friends who are all in the same boat.  To me, old friendships and roots and family are more important than freedom and prosperity in a foreign country.  When I heard about the way your parents lived in the States, I didn’t feel sorry for them for losing their fortune – I knew they could handle that – but because they were unable to return home.  Who was it that said ‘Blessed are those who can die in the land of their forefathers?’ (p.141)

One thing common to all the memoirs I’ve read (admittedly not many but everything I could get my hands on) and all the people I’ve talked to is how difficult it was for them to leave Prague, which, even in their adult minds, remains the most magical place on earth.  I think a lot has to do with, as Bauer says, growing up in a city that seems to be composed almost as much of myth as reality.  All Czechs, adults and children, seem to have a love of fairy tales and the fantastical that presumably traces back to this.

I think it is hard for any child to accept reality when it starts to filter into its make-believe world.  But in Prague it seemed particularly confusing since nothing in Prague was real.  History, legends, and reality were so intermingled that it was hard to distinguish among them. (p. 16)

All in all, this was a bit of an emotional read for me but one that I enjoyed greatly.  I can heartily recommend it as a wonderful insight into life in Czechoslovakia between the wars and a fascinating description of the flight of refugees.  I’ll certainly be looking for a copy to add to my personal library now. 

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