12) Ota Pavel’s short stories: bittersweet childhood memories set against the backdrop of WWII

Ota Pavel, photo: Czech Television

Journalist and writer Ota Pavel’s How I Came to Know Fish is a slim volume containing twenty-five short stories from his childhood in the country. The idyllic, peaceful moments with his father and uncle Prošek on the banks of Berounka river are shattered by the Nazi occupation, and Ota Pavel’s recollections of the time are a powerful testimony of the war seen through the eyes of a child who was forced to grow up overnight and who was tormented by those memories for the rest of his life. It is the magic of his early childhood, the carefree days on the river, which bring him comfort in the last tortured years of his life –a time when his best works take shape.

“Man can see the sky. He can stare into the forest, but nobody really sees into a river. Only with a fishing rod can one look there.”

Ota Pavel was born in Prague in 1930, the third and youngest son of a Jewish father, Leo Popper, who was a travelling salesman, and a gentile, Christian mother. The family celebrated both Jewish and Christian holidays and Ota – whose real name was Otto Popper –spent an idyllic childhood in Buštehrad, north of Prague, where his father bought a house by the river.

It is the river which is at the heart of Ota’s childhood memories and something he desperately clings to during the tormented years of his adulthood. His father and uncle had a passion for the outdoors  and Ota, who later discovered his literary talent, masterfully recreated those golden days. He painted a picture of his father down by the riverside, a description that clearly shows that fishing is so much more than the simple act of catching fish.

“Down at the river he slept most of the time, just as many fishermen do.  The water hums, the small waves roll as the clouds float by, and the wife is miles away.  The rods are set so that the fish can almost catch themselves.  Of all the sleep a man can have, the fisherman’s sleep is the sweetest.  It is the greatest of luxuries – sleep and fishing.”

Three main portraits emerge in his stories: Pavel himself, a child enjoying the freedom of a simple life in the country and eager to learn; his indomitable Jewish father, angler, hunter, philanderer and champion vacuum-cleaner salesman; and his uncle, Karel Prošek, ferryman, army veteran, and poacher.

Photo: Supraphon

The real-life stories and escapades they enjoyed or those related by his father would alone have sufficed as great material for memoirs, but those magical years were shattered by the Nazi occupation, changing Ota’s life forever and giving his memories an additional, tragic dimension. The stories are told in simple language, presenting a real and powerful picture of how young Ota’s life changed overnight.

The Czech writer Slávka Kopecká lived next door to the Poppers at the time and went to school with the young Ota.

“The years at Buštehrad were life-forming years for him. I remember when almost all the family were sent to concentration camps –the other children, his father, uncles, grandparents. Only Ota, who was 12 at the time, was allowed to stay with his mother. He was there taking it all in and the trauma he suffered never healed. That’s where life dealt him the first hard blows.”

When Ota’s father and brothers were sent to the Terezín and Mouthausen concentration camps, it was up to Ota to help support his mother –working in a coal mine and using his fishing skills to put food on the table - as he recalls in How I came to Know Fish.

“Mama and I lived alone at that time, for the rest of the family was in a concentration camp.  It was up to me to catch the carp, but it took me some time getting to know them.  I had to learn to tell the difference between their good and bad moods; I had to learn how to tell when they were hungry, when they were full, and when they felt like playing.  I had to recognize where they were likely to swim, and where I would look for them in vain.”

Some of the stories are heart-rending, such as the story called “Long Mile” in which the author reflects on the Nazi’s destruction of the nearby village of Lidice, in retaliation for the assassination of Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich.

"The Lidice fields were all around me. Mama had worked there, and potatoes and small white flowers grew up everywhere. Potatoes even grew on the graves of executed men and boys, and when the women dug them out they resembled human hearts. That was a warning, and nobody took those potatoes home..."

Others contain glints of humour such as the story titled Carp for the Wehrmacht in which Ota recalls how he and his father poached carp from the local frozen pond, the night before he departed for Terezín. When the Nazis drained the pond to harvest the carp for the Wehrmacht there was nothing left for them to net.

"... The carp were to be confiscated by the German armed forces. I stood among the boys on the dam and waited to see how it would end. At the beginning there was a big celebration. A brass band played on the dam nearby, and all looked promising. But there was nothing in the pond, and nobody could explain it. Only I knew that the band was playing in honour of my father, who with David's star on his coat had stolen a march on the Germans."

Photo: Story Line Press

Pavel’s description of the war years is understated, but all the more powerful. His family was more fortunate than most, since his father and brothers all returned home from Terezín and Mouthausen . The hard times were over and the family was reunited, but the horrors of war touched Ota deeply and stayed with him for the rest of his life.

After the war, during which he briefly worked in a coal-mine to support his mother, he looked for a career in sports. He was a fine hockey player and played on the junior team of HC Sparta Praha, but his hopes for a professional career were dashed by a serious illness. In 1949 Arnošt Lustig, a friend of the family, advised him to concentrate on writing, and helped get him a job as a sports reporter at Czechoslovak Radio. That was when, in 1955, he changed his name to Ota Pavel. Here is how he later recalled his first months at the radio.

“Before I was taken on at the radio, I did whatever I could to earn money - I worked at the coal mine or sold clips for stockings and when Arnošt Lustig, then a good friend of my brother, started visiting us, I was playing hockey and selling fly traps. And Lustig said to my father “You can’t let that boy sell fly traps for the rest of his life. We’ll turn him into a sports reporter and maybe even a writer.”  He knew I loved sports. Every day I would read all the sports columns in all the papers I could get my hands on. But other than that, I wasn’t much of a reader. By the age of 19 I had only read two adventure books Kája Mařík and Tarzan. Not good enough for a journalist, much less a writer. But Arnošt didn’t seem to mind. He persuaded the sports editor-in-chief to take me on and let me run errands and help out for free.

“Sometimes, when I sat at the barred window and fished in my memory, the pain was almost unbearable... When I was slowly dying, I remembered the river I had loved most in my life....”

The first months were pretty hard, but I learned a lot. Hora, one of the editors, had a simple, straightforward style, Koukal’s style was more expansive – when I copied Hora’s style I got hell from Koukal and the other way round. That lasted for three months. That was when Arnošt took me to my first big editorial meeting. He would sit on the floor and I did the same, crawling under the table, to keep out of sight. The room was full of seasoned journalists whom I admired from afar. Then, in the middle of the meeting, Mary – the editor in chief – suddenly barked “Who’s that under the table? Come on out!”  I stood up, my knees shaking. Mary pointed an accusing finger and repeated  “So who’s that?” Unperturbed,  Arnošt replied “Why, that’s our new sports reporter, he’s been here for three months.” The boss winced. I clearly looked more like a fly-trap salesman than a reporter. But the next day I was given my first work contract.”

Ota was quick to learn and was soon contributing to various journals and sports magazines. His work as a journalist took him to the Soviet Union, but it also enabled him to travel to Western countries, including France and Switzerland. In 1962 he visited the United States with the Czech football team Dukla Prague.

During the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck he showed the first signs of the mental illness that would later end his career as a journalist. He was diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis and later described the episode in his collection of stories How I Came to Know Fish.

"I went mad at the winter Olympics in Innsbruck. My brain got cloudy, as if a fog from the Alps had enveloped it. In that condition I came face to face with one gentleman - the Devil. He looked the part! He had hooves, fur, horns, and rotten teeth that looked hundreds of years old. With this figure in my mind I climbed the hills above Innsbruck and torched a farm building. I was convinced that only a brilliant bonfire could burn off that fog. As I was leading the cows and horses from the barn, the Austrian police arrived...

In 1966 Ota Pavel retired and in the following years he was in and out of mental health institutions. Paradoxically writing provided a form of release for his tortured soul and it was during this difficult period in his life that he was at his most creative, producing what many consider to be his best works, including the stories in How I Came to Know Fish. It seemed that memories of his days on the river gave him the solace that treatment failed to bring.

“Finally I have found the right word: Freedom. Fishing is freedom most of all. To walk on and on after the trout, drinking from natural springs, to be alone, if only for an hour, a few days, weeks, months…”

“Sometimes, when I sat at the barred window and fished in my memory, the pain was almost unbearable... When I was slowly dying, I remembered the river I had loved most in my life....'

Pavel himself says that memories of those days helped him regain his sanity after a prolonged breakdown in the 1960s. Fishing, he says, is “the alternative, the natural world where the jerky streetcar of civilization does not threaten to jump its tracks. . . “

“Finally I have found the right word: Freedom. Fishing is freedom most of all. To walk on and on after the trout, drinking from natural springs, to be alone, if only for an hour, a few days, weeks, months, to be free of television, newspapers, radio, the community of men and women..”

In 1973 Ota Pavel died of a massive heart attack. He was 42 years old. He is buried at the New Jewish cemetery in Prague-Žižkov, next to his father.

How I Came to Know Fish was translated into English by Jindriška Bdal and Robert McDowell and published in 1990 by Story Line Press