By Gerald Hausman
Bokeelia, FL, USA
The world has lost a great fighter for freedom. I refer to Jan Wiener, my friend of 41 years who recently passed away at the age of 90 in Prague. As a member of the internationally revered Czech Bomber Squadron of Britain's Royal Air Force, Jan was the last of a line, the last, in fact, of a breed of heroes we will not see again.
Much has been said about Jan Wiener's courage during the Second World War - in books, films, and interviews. In Jan's own book The Assassination of Heydrich, he tells the story of how he and his father escaped Czechoslovakia when the Nazis had taken it over. They got as far as Lublyana, Yugoslavia before the high-booted Storm Troopers marched in. "Tonight I will take the only way out," his father said. "I will commit suicide. My mind is made up. But I am worried about leaving you. It would be a great relief to me if you would join me - but the decision is up to you."
As Jan explained, the two played a last game of chess. His father smoked a last cigarette. The endless boots marched beyond the door. "As a young man," Jan said, "I don't think it is natural to accept any situation as hopeless. After my father took his life with lethal white powder that he measured onto a piece of white paper, I realized my own situation. I was little better than a boy, alone in a strange place where the Gestapo were everywhere. I felt completely alone, completely helpless. For a moment, I too considered suicide."
But it was just a fleeting thought, he said. After which he determined to escape by rail. As it turned out, he stowed himself under a train, holding on with his bare hands to the iron stanchions beneath the toilet car where, now and then, there came a waterfall of excrement and urine that soaked him. Over bridges on high mountain passes, Jan held on, and on. It was his life he was holding on to, and his very breath depended on the strength of his hands.
Jan Wiener's narrow escape from the Nazis, and later, several prison camps in Italy is the stuff movies are made of. Therefore, it's not surprising that his life story has been depicted in the award-winning documentary film, Fighter.
When I think of Jan and the years we shared as teachers at the Windsor Mountain School of Lenox, Massachusetts where Jan came to work in the 1960s, I remember, most of all the phrases he used in so many daily occurrences. To be sure I was listening, he would say "Meat?" And I would answer "Bones". This was the code that he used in a woodcutter's cabin in the mountains of Bohemia. He and his companion had stayed in a tiny cabin and after a long day of labor they would tell stories in the dark in their separate bunks. The word meat meant: "Are you awake?" Bones meant: "Yes, go on with your story!"
Meat and bones stories were exchanged by the two of us for many years. Once in Night Flight, a book I wrote about growing up in New Jersey, one of my characters, a man modeled after Jan says, "Jews are not a religion, a name, a nation. They are like a long sometimes lonely river that runs to the great sea, the ocean of humankind. Do you understand what I mean?"
Jan told me when he came to that part of the novel, he had watery eyes because he knew I was quoting something he'd said to me. "We are the same family, the same river," he said on his sunlit porch that day. I described Jan's rugged good looks in another paragraph: "He wore the same old country mustache like the handlebars on a racing bike, the silver hair with the sun coming in through the open roof touching it and making it glisten like alpine snow." For that, he smiled and said, "I am not Romany, like you." He also said, "I am an old fart, but I can still connect." By which he meant, with his fists. To the end, Jan was a brave and indomitable fighter. The size or force of the opposition was nothing to him.
Jan Wiener and Gerald Hausman
He was, in fact, 25 years older than his wife-to-be, the beautiful Zuzana, who was but 13 when they met, and who told her mother that same day, "He's my type." The widowed mother, Wilma, thought the same. He was her type too. But it was Zuzana, some years later, who married him. Wilma said to Jan: "It is all right now, while you are still young, but what will you do when you are old and she is young?" To that, Jan said, "I will get a younger wife." He didn't. There was no need, for Zuzana stayed young and lovely, more so now than ever, after these many years.
Some people inspire in more ways than one. Jan was an inspiration to everyone who knew him. I knew many students at our school who wished not only to sound like Jan, but despite their youth and his age, to look like him as well. I myself had a particular fondness for the way Jan spoke. His measured sentences, like the best prose, had the soft inflection of poetry.
Sometimes, over a glass of red wine, often Bikaver (blood of the bull in Hungarian), he'd recite the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. He spoke the one and two-syllable words, resonantly and methodically, so you could see the soldiers marching, the white dust of the roadbed rising and settling on the leaves of the trees and the coats of the soldiers. I think that by reciting that luminous paragraph, by doing it slowly and with quiet cadence, Jan taught me what it means to be a storyteller. And, saying that, I might add the word, Meat, in case he is listening somewhere and would do me the honor of letting the wind whisper, Bones.
Gerald Hausman - Author & Storyteller
Gerald Hausman's profile at Stay Thirsty Publishing
Gerald Hausman, author and storyteller, calls himself a native of the world. He is the author of 70 books, some of which have been made into films, many of which have been translated into foreign languages. His latest book, The American Storybag, was released by Stay Thirsty Press in October, 2010.