Father's Side of the Family
(17th to 21st Century)
People generally believe that while we can choose the friends we wish to associate with, the family we have been born into is ours no matter what, and that we can’t do anything about it. Most people also are of the opinion that it is a matter of chance, which family we will be born into. While I have to agree with the first premise, as indeed there isn’t much we can do about the family that we have, other than accepting or rejecting it, I’m not so sure about the second. The longer I’ve been in this world, the more aware I have become of the roles of “chances” in our lives. I now believe that, ultimately, there are no chances, and everything that happens is a consequence of what had preceded it, as everything has its causes! While something might appear to us to be purely coincidental, the reason for that is that the true causes remain hidden to us.
Příbram, the silver mining town, where much of my father's side ofg the family came from.
The Flooded Mine
I have already mentioned that the silver-mining town Příbram about 60 km south-west of Prague was the place where our family from Father’s side originally came from. They mostly were either technically orientated, in which case they usually had something to do with the mining industry, or they had artistic leanings, and often became musicians. Great Granddad was the technical type, and became a mining engineer at a young age. Together with a colleague of about the same age they went to Prague as part of their duties, and had come to lunch in one of the pubs that was frequented by various administrators from the mining industry.
Former mine in Wieliczka has now become one of the prime tourist sites in Poland. This is a cathedral made out of one of the large underground caves.
Talk was of a disaster that had left the salt mine in the Polish town of Wieliczka flooded with underground water and totally inoperable. The mine was an important one; it had been in existence at least since the middle of the 13th century. Its definite closure was to come only with the end of the 20th century, and it has now become a major tourist attraction. However, in the 1850’s the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was not prepared and probably could not afford to lose such important source of “white gold”, as it was known from the ancient times. Various remedies were being suggested by the debateurs, some had already been tried, and were discarded. The two young engineers listened, and eventually had let themselves be heard that given the free hand they would certainly get over the problem. Part of it may have been due to the arrogance of the youth, part to some experience in the industry that was similar to salt mining; in any case, an important looking man took them aside, invited them to his table, and after finding out more about their background, asked them to come with him to some governmental office or other. Some talks followed, and the two mining experts were on their way to Wielicka the next day.
The two brave men were soon to realise that the task was not going to be as easy as it might have appeared to them. They tried this and that, without success. It might have thus happened that they would have been going home with the tails between their legs, but for the one great idea that saved the situation. Had it come over a plate of bacon and eggs they had ordered for breakfast? Perhaps. In any case they had ordered more bacon; in fact, they ordered tons of it. Eventually, several freight cars full of bacon were on their way from somewhere in Hungary. Out of the blocks of greasy stuff they had built a wall in the most exposed place, which they reinforced with stones or bricks. The water stopped sipping through, and all the water that had accumulated they could now pump away. Using the same method they treated some of the other trouble spots, and in the end they could celebrate victory over the water element. The mining works could resume, and continue for another 150 years!
Their legs were badly damaged from salt, and they both had enough of mining. Fortunately, the rewards they got made it certain for them that they would not have to return to a mine, be it a salt or silver variety. They were offered two positions by the Government, and it was left up to them how they divided them between the two of them. Granddad's colleague took the position of custodian of the Imperial residence in Terst, while my great granddad did not quite escape water, though this time it was without the salt. He became the Protector of the Imperial Waterworks in Prague. That’s what is says on the funeral notice from 1891, which I have hidden somewhere.
The Mayerling Tragedy
The Konopiště Castle
While I am on the subject of family myths, I would like to mention another, this time involving one of my great-great uncles. I have forgotten his name, if I ever knew it, but for the sake of the story, let's call him Joseph. He was destined to become involved in one historical event, which shook the world in the last decade of the 19th century, and which I have heard told several times at various family gatherings, so that it had stuck. As a young boy, Joseph was growing up at the castle of Konopiště, which nowadays belongs to the handful of country’s top tourist attractions. His father was one of the permanent staff there. Around 1880 the castle was the favourite hunting place to the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, who was then in his early twenties. The boy, about ten years younger than the Crown Prince, was breeding rabbits, and the Archduke Rudolf had accidentally shot one of his pets dead. He had apologised to Joseph, compensated him somehow, but he also liked the ways the young fellow was conducting himself. He called in his father, and had made an arrangement with him for the boy to become one of his personal staff as soon as he grew up. Several years later this relative of mine thus became the Archeduke's valet.
Mayerling lodge, where the Archduke Rudolf and the Countess Vetsera had died.
As such, he was also present on the day of the so called Mayerling Tragedy. Mayerling was a hunting lodge at the far end of the Wienna Wood, another favourite place of the Archeduke. To this day it isn't known quite what had happened, and there are many theories, most of them of a conspiratinal character. One thing is certain; the Crown Prince and his fiancé the Countess Vetsera were found dead of gunwounds in the lodge’s main bedchamber. Murder-suicide was one of the possibilities, but since it involved the future Emperor the speculations were endless. The Archduke was a very important figure, and there may have been many parties in Europe interested in his demise. If UFO's had been invented at the time, some press would surely had made them responsible. It is generally believed that it was Rudolf's valet who found the dead couple. Therefore, it could well have been (and probably was) my great-great uncle Joseph. The Emperor himself had made all those present at the lodge on that day come to Wienna, where they had been sworn to the utmost secrecy. I’m not so sure if these days, or in another country, if in similar circumstances, they would have survived. It is more likely that if the state secrets were involved, the secret police would deal with the matter, and not in a kind way.
As it was, they were lucky, in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. They had all been given new jobs or perhaps in some cases even new identities. Joseph, who would have been still quite young at the time, had ended his working life as a rather prosperous public servant; he worked for the internal revenue office in Prague, where he eventually became the director. To his death he apparently never breathed a word about what had happened at Mayerling!
The Church of St Jakub in Zbraslav, where my Grandfather was the Choir Master.
The Choir Master at Zbraslav
I must admit that I don't know a great deal about my Great Grandfather. As I have already said, he was the Protector of Imperial Waterworks, and as such he was based in Prague. I do know however where he lived, and I would have been passing the place almost daily some years later. I have already described how it happened that this ancestor of mine got to get the above job. He stayed with it for the rest of his life.
His son Jaroslav Koreis (1870-1930) was one of those family members born with artistic talent. He was accepted to the studies at the Prague Conservatory, which he would have successfully completed around the year 1890. I'm not even sure which instrument was the main subject of his studies ─ he may even have studied composition, in which case at some stage he could have been under the tutelage of the famous Antonín Dvořák, who was the Director about the same time. But he may have studied any other instrument, because he was able to play practically all of them ─ including the organ, which was over the years to become his main instrument. However, at the time when he was finishing his studies, he was apparently a crack trumpet player. So much so that almost immediately after graduation there was a job offer for him ─ to play the trumpet with the orchestra of the Russian Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg. This, for such a young musician, would have been a fairy tale start to a career! But fate decided otherwise; obviously he was not destined to live through the Russian revolution, which was to come some years later.
What saved my Grandfather from having to flee from the Reds? His insatiable libido, it seems. He had made my grandmother pregnant, even before he could have gone on his way to Russia. Was it a shot gun wedding? Possibly. Or perhaps this my ancestor might have had a high sense of morality, who knows? It was the heights of the Victorian era, and things were not told openly, as they would be now. People still "did it", as did these two, and the result was their first son Rostislav, born in 1892. My Grandmother's maiden name was Löbl, or possibly Lébl, depending on how the name was written. That looks to me suspiciously like a German version of a Jewish name. Does this mean that I have some Jewish blood running in my veins? It's possible. There were quite a few Jewish people around at the time who have converted to Christianity, and her family could have been one of them. The job Grandfather had lined up with the imperial orchestra in St. Petersburg was of course gone, but fortunately there was another offer. Grandfather became the organ player, and the Choir Master in Zbraslav. Perhaps a little history would help here, also to explain the origins of three skulls displayed in the cathedral, which had intrigued me much in childhood.
Towards the end of the 19th century, when Grandfather came to live there, Zbraslav was a relatively small country town, only some 15 km south of Prague. Nowadays it has become a part of Prague, as one of its suburbs. Zbraslav however, has a rich history. The first mention in writing comes from the beginning of 12th century, but the archaeological finds point to there being a Celtic fortified settlement as early as the 6th century BC. King Marobud, the contemporary of Augustus of Rome, may have had his seat there. The Cistercian Monastery that was in Zbraslav from the 13th century was very important, also politically.
The Abbott Konrád Zbraslavský (1247–1329), and his deputy and follower, Petr Žitavský (1260–1339), were a pair of extremely good diplomats. After the death of Vaclav II in 1305, probably of tuberculosis, and the assasination of his son Václav III in 1306 (two of the skulls in the cathedral), the male line of the Přemyslid dynasty of the Czech kings was extinct. The Přemyslids had been ruling the country since before any chronicles were written, for about five centuries, thus the early times of their rule are shrouded in dense mist. The earliest chronicle, the so called Chronica Boemorum, written in Latin by the Dean of Prague Chapter named Kosmas, is dated 1119-1125, and contains a list of an early rulers, beginning with the legendary Přemysl Oráč (The Plowman). This cannot be corroborated, as it doesn’t appear anywhere else, and may have well be invented by Kosmas to give, already remarkable European dynasty, an extra hallmark. On the list, Vojen, after whom I was named, is listed as fourth in the line.
The Zbraslav Monastery in the 16th century
After the assasination of Václav III, the Bohemian throne became subject to disputes, and several claimants had been installed and subsequently spurned in the following years. In stepped the Cistercian monks from Zbraslav, who had managed to pursuade the Czech nobility to elect their new king from the Luxembourg dynasty, which though relatively new amongst the European kingship, had reached the very top, with Henry VII (1275-1313) becoming the king of Germany and the Roman Emperor. The main instrument of their diplomatic effort was princess Eliška (Elizabeth, 1292–1330 ─ the third skull displayed in the cathedral), the daughter of Václav II, the only surviving member of the dynasty. The Cistercians had also been able to persuade Henry VII to give in 1310 his son John (later in life known as John the Blind who was eventually to die at the Battle of Crécy in 1346) in marriage to Elizabeth, even though he was only 14, while she was 18. Soon after that John, whose father had meanwhile died, invaded Bohemia and had himself crowned as king. The pair had several children; far the most prominent among them being Karel (Charles) IV, also affectionally known as Father of the Nation, the King of Bohemia, who was also to become the Holy Roman Emperor.
The three last kings of the Přemyslid Dynasty, as in the Zbraslav Chronicle
These were the haydays of Bohemian Kingdom, and also of the Zbraslav Cathedral, attached to the Monastery. It later had burnt down however, and its replacement was nowhere near its former glory. Grandfather played there the organ, practised with the choir, taught various musical instruments, annually conducted the Ryba Czech Christmas Mass, all that in between making children, and playing cards while drinking beer from a keg they were said to have bought together every weekend, with the parish priest and the schoolmaster. If we don’t count some that died in infancy, altogether my grandparents had twelve children, of which my father Dalibor was the fourth. Grandfather stayed at Zbraslav till the end of his life, which wasn't very long. By the time I was born, he’d been conducting the heavenly choirs for thirteen years.
I don't know much about my father’s youth, however I know well the place where he was growing up, having even lived there for several months when I was about ten. Thus I know the garden where he would have played, the way to school, the school itself, even the place where the Koreis children went to swim in the river Vltava. Water in the river would have been warmer though in their times than in mine, as there were no dams up river yet, to release the cold water from the bottom. But the Koreis children had other things to toughen them up, no doubt. Their clothes were handed over from one child to another, and food was scarce ─ especially when the First World War had begun.
With the 91st Regiment
When it began in 1914, Father was still behind a school desk, as he was not quite seventeen. A year later, with his studies of economy at the college in Prague still unfinished (that happened only after the war), he and a number of his schoolmates were called up into the army. He was assigned to the 91st Regiment, later made famous by Jaroslav Hašek and his Good Soldier Švejk. From there he was immediately sent into the course for the future officers. When he returned as a Cadet, the following encounter took place, and it is much like being taken from the pages of this reputedly first true anti-war novel ever written. However, the story I only have second-hand, from my mother.
By the end of November 1916, the news had reached the 91st regiment of the death of the Emperor, Franz Joseph I. Young Cadet Koreis was given the task of informing all the officers about this sad event. In the course of these duties, he entered the tent belonging to the 11th Company of the 91st Regiment, first lieutenant Lukáš, the real Lukáš, who was the model to the second main character in Hašek's book. The Lieutenant was just having an afternoon nap while lying on the field bed. The Cadet was not sure of what to do, but the news of his Majesty's death seemed to override everything else, even the Lieutenant's no doubt well deserved snooze. He stood to attention and reported:
"Cadet Koreis, Sir! I obediently report to you, Sir, that his Majesty, the Emperor Franz Joseph the First, has died!"
The Cadet was not sure if he had heard correctly. He would have eventually left the tent, but the Lieutenant finally had put together what he had heard while asleep, and what he had said himself, which could have easily passed for an act of high treason. He jumped off the bed, stood himself in attention, and made the Cadet repeat his report for the third time!
The classical novel that Hašek wrote follows the part of 91st Regiment to Galicia (now divided between Poland and Ukraine), and eventually to Russia. Father however was transferred to another regiment, and was blown by the winds of destiny to the Balkans, where he stayed until the end of war. Here too, he contracted malaria, the disease that had bothered him from time to time throughout his life. Eventually, the war ended and the new state of Czechoslovakia was born. Father stayed in the army for a while, and now ranked as a Lieutenant, he was stationed in northern Slovakia, where in the area of river Orava disputes persisted of whether it should belong to Poland or Czechoslovakia. This was the background to the novel named Where are you Going, Mountain Man?, which he later wrote. In it he returns to the time when he was in charge of one of the garrisons on the borderline, which was subject to frequent raides by Polish troops, as well as attempts at sabotage and propagandist activity by the enemy. Because, enemy it was, of that there could be no doubts! Later, after the Second World War, the two countries belonged to the same Communist block, therefore this period of history was virtually dismissed, scratched out of the official annals. Now, nearly a century later, hardly anyone knows about this relatively small episode of the European history, but this doesn't mean that it wasn't a fully fledged war, with fighting, shooting and people dying. The League of Nations, the predecessor to the current United Nations, eventually stepped in and at first ordered a plebiscite. Father was named one of the overseers of the plebiscite; that however was to be called off, while some sort of an agreement about the positioning of the borderline was reached between Poland and Czechoslovakia.
Father stayed in northern Slovakia for about two years. He met his first wife there, who was a teacher in one of the villages. Of their life I don't know much at all, except that my half-sister Lada was born to them in 1930. And that their marriage was over by the mid 1930's, when Father was to meet Mother. Lada studied in Bratislava, and eventually became a medical practitioner in Prague, but I had practically no chance of meeting her, let alone getting to know her, until I came there in 1990. After that we had met each time I visited the country, usually at least twice. We found out that we understood each other very well. I found out one thing, though. The subject of our father leaving her mother was taboo, and had to remain so. From the little that Lada had told me, I had worked out that she either did not know at all about the main reason of her parents’ split, or maybe did not want to know. She blamed Father's oldest sister Jiřina for making him leave her mother, for reasons that Lada had never made clear to me. True, Father went to see aunt Jiřina straight after he found out about his wife's infidelity and his best friend's betrayal, and his sister naturally told him that he had to divorce her. After all, that and nothing else would have been expected of him, especially in the 1930's. He would have been considered a weakling, had he not taken a strong stance.
I had to take into account the fact that Lada could only know her mother's side of the story who, naturally, would not have told a young girl that she had slept with her father's friend. And I don't think Lada would have even imagined that something like that could have happened. She grew up believing that her father was a war hero, fighting against the occupiers of their country. She did not even know that Father had married again (it’s doubtful if even her mother knew), and believed that after the war's end he will return to them and they will once again live as a family. Apparently, it was her mother that had lead her to believe this. Imagine the shock the fifteen-year-old teenager would have had, when her war hero did indeed return, but with his "new" wife of about seven years and a two year old little brother in tow! Lada stayed with us in Prague intermittently, but when she got a place at the medical school in the Slovak capitol Bratislava, she decided to move there. She married a colleague student early while still studying and they had three daughters. Eventually Lada moved with her family to Prague where they both worked as medical practitioners, but when the Soviet invasion came in 1968 he went to Germany where he found a job in a hospital. It was understood that Lada would join him there with their daughters, but instead he had filed for a divorce, as he had found himself a German wife. One of the daughters, also Lada, who was old enough to have a passport, came to live with them in Germany, and the other two grew up in Prague, where their mother continued to work as general practitioner. Her life wasn't easy! During our meetings many years later, once or twice I was on the verge of telling her what I knew and from very reliable sources at that, about our father's split with her mother, but each time I thought better of it. Somehow I sensed that it would not have come down well. Lada died in 2005, without learning the truth. Maybe, she suspected it, who knows?
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