Šimon Wels: an extraordinary tale of ordinary lives

Photo: Triáda

You might not expect the memoirs of a 19th century Jewish shopkeeper in a small Bohemian town to make for gripping reading, but Šimon Wels, who was born in 1853, was no ordinary shopkeeper. His account of his life and the lives of those around him draws us into a lost world. Not only is Wels a wonderful storyteller, but he also writes with a remarkable literary sophistication. The book is full of humour and local colour, but is also rich in literary references and there are numerous asides, where the author comments on the prejudices and social injustices of the time. In this week’s “Czech Books”, we hear extracts from the memoirs, and David Vaughan talks to the writer’s great grandson, Colin Wels and to Gerry Turner, who has translated the book and thanks to whom the manuscript first came to light after lying in a box in an English suburb for half a century.

Photo: Triáda
The title of the memoirs “U Bernatů” refers to the house in the village of Osek in Western Bohemia where Šimon Wels spent much of his life and where his family had been settled for generations. The house is named after his father Bernard, who was born in 1807 and is a central figure in the book. He had a hard life, even by the standards of the time, selling cloth from door to door, as we find out as we read about the author’s childhood.

When I was about three years old, I used to go with my sister Betty (who was four and a quarter years older than me) to meet my father in the evening on his way home with his wares from “hawking round the houses”. We would stop at the brook on the way to Březina or by the Priest’s Pool and she would give me a wash and comb my hair, something I frequently required, and then we would happily carry on up to the appointed mound where Papa could rest his pack and pick it up again more easily. We would wait there and peer into the distance for the first sight of his approach. And then we would run to meet him and lead him to the place where the poor soul would take the pack off his back and rest, wiping the sweat from his brow.

At home in the evening and at the weekend he would tell the children stories and sing them rhymes, instilling in them a desire to learn.

…we looked forward so much to Friday when Papa would come home two hours earlier than usual so as to have time to shave. He would boil up a bluish-green ointment out of glycerin which he would spread on his face and scrape off with a wooden knife. I expect it stung him dreadfully, poor man, but Jews were not allowed to shave with a razor. After shaving he would prepare the six-branched hanging-lamp, making cotton-wool wicks and filling it with oil. We all washed. Mamma would wash us little ones. We “men” of the family would dress up for the church. When we came home from the service Papa would bless us all, laying both his hands on our heads and saying the Hebrew blessing Yevarekh ekho adonai...” After supper we would all remain at table, and as Papa had had plenty of time to rest on Friday and was no longer tired he would be particularly entertaining that evening, and we would listen to him spellbound. On weekdays, Papa would rise at five o’clock and spend over an hour in prayer, and it was nearly seven o’clock by the time he had finished his breakfast. Then he would prepare his pack and set off from the house. On Saturday, though, when he did not have to rise so early, Betty and I would creep into his bed and listen enraptured to his stories. When one came to an end we would beg him for another and he would go on thinking up more.

Repro from the book 'U Bernatů'
In the mid-19th century Jews in Bohemia still suffered widespread discrimination and opportunities were limited, but Šimon Wels’ father was determined that his children should have all the opportunities available. Gerry Turner picks up the story of Šimon’s childhood.

“He did have a few years at the school in Rokycany, then off he went to Prague as an apprentice in a hardware shop, and getting to Wenceslas Square and a men’s drapers must have been the height of his ambition at that time. And then, to be called back to this little village because of his father’s death to look after this little shop, must have been an awfully traumatic experience for him and he must have felt cut off in many ways.”

But despite the early death of his father, Šimon Wels made a success of his business, as we find out in the course of the book. During his time in Prague, he must have been an untypical apprentice, going to the theatre whenever he could and reading everything he could get his hands on. “The only thing I spent money on was the theatre,” he writes. “How I loved the theatre, and that love has stayed with me all my days.” He may have ended up leading a provincial life back in his home village, but, like his own father before him, it is quite clear that he never lost his sharpness and intellectual curiosity. And Gerry Turner reminds us that also like his father before him, he did his best to give his son Rudolf the best possible start in life:

“Knowing a bit about Czech history of that time and certainly the attitude of latent anti-Semitism that there was in the cities, it is remarkable to find a Jewish writer who chats and has arguments with the village priest and sends his son to the Premonstratensian College in Plzeň, and has the guts to take his son away from it, because he wouldn’t have his son bullied. The fact that a village child had even been accepted into the Premonstratensian College was something very unusual anyway, and yet he took him away from it a put him into the Technical Grammar, which set him on the road to becoming one of the greatest architects in pre-war Prague.”

The father and son were close. Here is another vivid extract from the book, a dramatic incident from when Rudolf is still a little boy.

They were building a new railway bridge on the way to Chrást near Smečice over the River Klabavka, which flowed at the bottom of a gorge, twenty metres deep. The piles were stone clad as were also the supporting pillars on each bank and I was curious how they intended to shift the ready-made iron bridge onto the stone supports. And of course there was no question of going anywhere without my little friend Rudolf. We set off one Sunday in July 1889 at five in the morning and in three hours we had covered that distance of eleven kilometres. There were already many spectators by eight o’clock. And it was worth coming to see. The immense weight of the iron construction complete with the track started to shift from one bank to the other in total silence. The spectators all held their breath at the sight of the engineers’ skilful work. I was standing in about the third row from the front and all of a sudden the little lad broke away from me and wormed his way through to the front in order to get a better view, but he was unable to keep his balance there on the edge of the chasm and hurtled downwards. We watched in horror as he went head over heels down the sheer slope towards the river. I gripped the person next to me and shut my eyes so as not to see him hit the bottom of the gorge. Then, as if in a dream I heard a cry and the clamour of the people: “The bush has broken his fall!” I looked down. Below me lay the little body and it was not moving. I ran down to the river by a roundabout path in the company of several others. Little Rudolf was just picking himself up. Nothing at all had happened to him. I felt him all over and he had not even been grazed. Only when I got to the bottom did I feel queasy. I could see that just a few feet more and he would have drowned. I took him by the hand and we scrambled back up, helping each other. Back at the top, one woman said to him: “Oh, you confounded little whippersnapper, I could already see your Daddy gathering up your little bones into his hankie!” But he started to brag: “Not at all, ma’am. I’m a good gymnast, I was just doing perfect somersaults and headsprings until I got myself nicely to the bottom.” “You little scallywag,” another woman burst in, “I still haven’t got over it yet.” And another: “Your Papa should give you a good hiding!” He turned and looked at me rather anxiously: “Papa, we shan’t say anything to Mother about it, shall we?”

Colin Wels,  photo: David Vaughan
Šimon Wels’ memoirs cover the period up to 1897, by which time Rudolf was already at the Technical Grammar School in Plzeň. Rudolf’s mother had died and Šimon by this time had two further children from his second marriage. But the story does not end with the end of the memoirs itself. Perhaps watching the new railway bridge being built was a childhood experience that inspired Rudolf to become an architect. He studied in Vienna under Adolf Loos, and went on to be one of the most prolific Czech architects of the 20s and 30s. His elegant 1930s Prague apartment buildings, using modern building techniques and materials like steel, glass, concrete and ceramic, are among the most expressive examples of Czech Functionalism. Šimon, who died in 1922, lived just long enough to see the beginnings of his son’s success.

Rudolf himself had two sons, Tomáš and Martin. When the Germans occupied Prague in March 1939, Tomáš was eighteen. He managed to flee. His son – Rudolf’s grandson and Šimon’s great-grandson – is Colin Wels. He tells us how Tomáš came to reach Britain.

“He felt he had to escape from Czechoslovakia. He begged his parents that he could take his brother with him, but they said no, he was too young. He was fourteen, my father was eighteen. So my father then managed through various underground organizations to escape across Poland and managed to get a boat from Poland across to England. And that’s how he escaped.”

In the meantime, during the war, both his parents and his younger brother perished in the Holocaust.

“There are various bits of documentation to say what actually happened to his parents then. Eventually they were rounded up in 1943 and taken off to Terezín and then to Auschwitz, and murdered.”

During the war, your father served in the Royal Air Force and after the war he came back to Prague.

“Yes, with a friend he drove all the way to Prague and managed to get some of the family’s belongings. His parents had left some of their belongings with some close Protestant friends, so they were kept safe and they could bring a lot of them back to the UK.”

And did these boxes remain more or less unopened and ignored over the years?

“Well, they were always in a cupboard and as a young child I can remember looking at them, not understanding what they were. A lot of the documents were in Czech or in German, but my father was never willing to talk about them. He never showed us the photographs.”

Do you think it was too painful for him to go back to all that?

“I can only imagine that was the reason. Any information about them I got from my mother, but my father just didn’t talk about it at all. I can’t remember a word that he ever said about his parents or his brother.”

And among all these things from Czechoslovakia, there was this handwritten, bound manuscript. How did you come to realize what it was and its importance?

Gerry Turner,  photo: David Vaughan
“It’s a most beautiful, handwritten book. It’s about ¾ of an inch thick and it’s beautifully bound, and it had the most fantastic drawn picture on the front. And we didn’t know the place shown on the picture. We discovered its importance, because we had a friend who was a Czech translator, and my wife one day was walking with him in Hemel Hempstead High Street and told him that we’d found a book and that it had the name Šimon Wels and that we didn’t know what it meant at all.”

The Czech translator friend was Gerry Turner, at the time also living in the same town just outside London. They brought the book round for Gerry and Gerry’s Czech wife Alice to look at. Gerry recalls the moment.

“There was this magnificent leather-bound book – ‘U Bernatů‘, Šimon Wels – we opened it up and Alice started to read it. I was chatting away to Colin and his wife. And Alice said, ‘This is where I was born.’ The first sentence is: ‘In a little room in house number 15 in Osek on the first floor on 20 April 1853, I came to the world.’ And she said, ‘This is just five miles down the road from where I was born.’ So there was a family connection. We read the story and we were absolutely thrilled, of course.”

Colin asked Gerry if he would translate the book to make it available to the family. Suddenly they had the whole family history, going back five generations.

“Well, families have their family tree, which is a very thin description of what actually families are about. What the book did for us was to make it so colourful – the real lives of people and what actually went on and how they thought and what they did. It’s an unusual thing for a family to have a chronicle like that. And it’s so beautifully written as well.”

And a very moving part of the story is the fact that the reason why the manuscript survives is because it was all transcribed by your grandfather, the architect Rudolf Wels, at a time during the Nazi occupation of Prague when, being Jewish, he wasn’t allowed to work as an architect.

“It was a complaint by him to his wife that he didn’t have anything to do. And his wife Ida said, ‘Why don’t you write out all those bits of paper on which your father wrote all those stories and make it into a book?’”

And another thing that survives from the time – also because he wasn’t able to work, are a lot of drawings and sketches.

“Yes. He did what work he could and he was, in my view, a fantastic artist. A lot of his drawings – charcoal drawings and pen drawings – did survive. They survived while my grandparents didn’t.”

In a sense it makes the horror of what happened to your grandparents seem even greater – the fact that they were a successful Prague family, highly respected, and were suddenly sent into the inferno of the Holocaust. The fact that we have the whole background of the family and the world that they came from preserved through his father’s diary, somehow magnifies still further the horror of what happened. It was not just individual lives that were destroyed, but a whole world.

“It turns the dry fact that people died into a very human fact. One can imagine oneself being in that kind of situation, because the story of their lives is filled in – not just bare facts.”

Repro from the book 'U Bernatů'
Thanks to Gerry and Alice Turner, a copy of the manuscript of U Bernatů reached the Czech Republic. This was still a few years before the fall of communism and on a visit to Prague Alice gave the text to the dissident poet and publisher, Zbyněk Hejda, who was immediately enchanted by what he read. He published the memoirs in samizdat. At that time, from the point of view of the regime, books with a Jewish theme were more or less taboo. Since the fall of communism, the book has been republished several times. It has been extremely well translated by Gerry Turner, who is still looking for a publisher in English. In the meantime, the book continues to bring enormous pleasure to Czech readers and perhaps most of all to Colin Wels and his family:

“I think that what makes it really unusual is that it’s not about kings and queens and important rulers. It’s about everyday very poor folk, but written in a way that one can really relate to. It’s a huge pride, actually, that this person managed to get down what their lives were about. I think there’s a lot of pride in that…”

…a pride that you feel in your great-grandfather.

“Yes. And pride in my grandfather for getting it all written down as well. It feels very special.”