1930s-portrait-young-manJan Beranek was born on December 21, 1909 in Slovakia to Kornel Beranek and Hedvika Klimy.  Jan’s father, Kornel, worked as a very successful tailor.  He had large accounts and employed six to eight men at any given time.  When the WWI broke out, however, Kornel was forced to dissolve his tailor shop to become a soldier.  He wasn’t away at the war for long, though, before he became deathly ill and was discharged home.  Kornel spent a long time recovering and then began a concrete company, which was even more successful than the tailoring business.  In total, he employed fifteen to twenty men, and the Beraneks were considered fairly well-off.

Jan’s mother, Hedvika, stayed at home with their six children.  She was apparently very intelligent and had been partially educated.  Her two brothers had studied to become teachers, and Hedvika was just a year into her studies to become a teacher, as well, when her father died.  Hedvika had no choice, then, but to quit so that she could help her mother with her four younger sisters.

Education remained very important to Hedvika, however, as it was with Kornel, so all of their six children were sent to school beyond the grammar school level.  All three of Jan’s sisters went to high school and three years of “industrial school,” where they studied “domestic science.”  Jan went to high school and then to four years at a business academy to study accounting.  In the middle of his training, though, when Jan was just sixteen, Kornel died.  Jan says that his father’s death had a profound effect on him and that he still remembers him with great fondness.

Jan’s first job out of school was working as a bookkeeper for a man whose business was to “buy and sell goods.”  Jan was so efficient that after only a couple of months, the man ran out of work for him to do and thus laid him off.  From there, Jan’s brother-in-law, an engineer, got him a job in a building company, where Jan worked as a timekeeper, a bookkeeper and an assistant surveyor for over eight years.

It was during this time that Jan met the love of his life.  He was twenty-five years old.

He tells the story as follows:  On a warm April day in 1935, Jan got the urge to be outdoors instead of in his stuffy office.  He snuck away from his desk at lunch time and decided to go walking in the fields.  Unable to resist, he laid down in the fresh grass for a quick nap and soon fell into a deep sleep.  He didn’t wake up until 1:30 p.m. – well past his lunch hour; whereupon, he jumped up and rushed back to work.  Luckily, he did not get in trouble, but he developed a terrible cold from lying so long on the damp ground.  The cold persisted for several weeks, so he finally asked permission to leave work to go to a doctor and, upon getting his boss’s approval, took the streetcar into town.

At the doctor’s office, there were about five people waiting ahead of him.  As Jan took his place in line, he saw before him a lovely young girl, idly twirling a French hat.  When she dropped it, Jan bent over and picked it up and handed it back to her.  From there they began talking, and Jan learned that her name was Amalie Laska and that she lived with her uncle, a retired train officer, in town.

Finally Amalie was called in to see the doctor, was examined, and then left, waving goodbye to Jan as she went.  Jan then raced into the doctor’s office and began to ask him for any information on Amalie.  As it happened, Amalie’s brother and the doctor had gone to school together and were very good friends, so he knew all about Amalie.  He didn’t think it right, however, to give Jan her address.

When Jan finally left the doctor’s office, wondering how he could see Amalie again, he found to his surprise that she was standing in the vestibule of the building, trying to avoid the rain that was pouring down.  Jan was delighted to see her, but she turned and reproached him, saying, “Don’t think I waited here for you!”

Rather than be deterred by her comment, however, Jan thought she was even more delightful than he did before.  He offered to help her onto the streetcar, but she vehemently declined, saying that she did not have the money for the streetcar, and likewise refused to let him pay for her.  Thinking quickly, Jan left her for a moment and rushed out into the rain to a nearby shop and bought her a box of chocolates.

When he arrived back in the vestibule, soaked, and handed her the chocolates, she seemed angry at first but then politely accepted them.  The rain let up, then, and they parted, Amalie refusing any help from him.   Sadly, he caught the streetcar back to work, and Amalie walked home, where she hid the chocolates under her pillow so that her uncle, who was extremely strict, wouldn’t see them.

Jan was utterly surprised, then, when upon walking home from his streetcar stop, he happened to look up at a house he was passing and saw Amalie in the window!  It was a house very near his sister and brother-in-law’s home, where he was currently living.  He couldn’t believe his good fortune!  He waved, and to his delight, she waved back.

Because Amalie’s uncle did not approve of her dating anyone at all, she and Jan developed an elaborate set of hand signals to give to each other while he stood in the street beneath her window.  This went on for many weeks until one day when Amalie’s uncle happened to notice Jan in the street making his strange hand gestures.  Amalie’s uncle feared Jan was an insane lunatic and that he was perhaps attempting to intimidate the elderly neighbor woman who lived above them.  Upon closer inspection, however, he realized he was gesturing to Amalie and was furious!

That was the end of Jan and Amalie’s secret relationship.  Jan was hauled into the house and properly introduced and, to the uncle’s surprise and pleasure, then accompanied them to church!  As time went on, Amalie’s uncle’s stiff exterior began to melt a little, and he eventually grew to like and approve of Jan.

Jan proposed to Amalie on a Sunday—July 10th, 1935, which happened to be her name-day.  They took the streetcar out into the country for a picnic.  Jan brought flowers and chocolates, and they sat by a creek and had a picnic lunch.  Jan then asked her to marry him.  She accepted, but she cried because she had nothing to offer him.  Jan, needless to say, did not care, so overjoyed was he that she was to be his wife.

They were married on April 4, 1936 at 4:00 pm.  At first, Amalie’s uncle was not crazy about them marrying so young, but when the couple assured him that he could live with them, he rapidly gave his approval.  At the last minute, however, he changed his mind and went to live with his sister instead.

Soon after their marriage, Jan decided that he wasn’t being promoted fast enough in the building department where he worked, so they decided to move to Prague, where he got a job with the city sewer department as a surveyor.  While there, a friend asked him if he wanted to work part-time for the city newspaper.  Jan agreed and soon liked it so much that he began working there full time.  He advanced quickly and was soon the administrator of the whole newspaper by 1945.

Meanwhile, Amalie found work as a seamstress until their daughter Klara was born on August 15, 1939.  Jan simply adored his baby daughter.  He took her for walks in her buggy every Saturday, and the three of them were very happy.  When she was only five years old, however, Klara came down with diphtheria and died.  For Jan, it was the most tragic thing that had ever happened, or ever would happen, to him in his life.  Unfortunately, he and Amalie did not have any more children, as the doctor warned them that it would put Amalie in mortal danger.  Also, they were unwilling to bring another child into the world when their lives were so uncertain due to the WWII and the political unrest around them.

Somehow, Jan and Amalie survived their personal tragedy and the war years as well, but in 1948, Stalin began rounding up all of the intellectuals and leading men of the country.  Jan, as head of a major newspaper, was targeted, so Jan and Amalie decided to flee.  They made their way to an international refugee camp in Germany, where they stayed three months.  From there, they were transferred to a camp in Italy for a year and a half.  They wanted desperately to immigrate to America, but the waiting list was over two years.  Meanwhile, the conditions in the camp were terrible, and Amalie was sick.  They decided, then, to go to Australia instead.

A friend they had met in the camp went with them, and once in Australia, Jan found a job with the government, laying electrical lines.  Amalie was able to again find work as a seamstress.   When Jan’s two-year contract was up for that particular job, they moved to Malvern, where Jan worked for an English factory that made jam.  While there, Jan met a man named Mr. Gregory, who befriended him and invited him to see the observatory where he worked.

The Americans had built an observatory near Malvern, where periscopes for submarines, among other things, were built.  The observatory also contained a 30-meter telescope, which was under the strict control of Greenwich, England.  It was in a very secluded place in a forest on a hill, and Jan was fascinated by the work that went on there.  He spent a lot of his extra time at the observatory and even volunteered some of his surveying skills when needed.

Eventually he managed to persuade Mr. Gregory to let him look through the telescope, which was off limits to all personnel.  So one night, the two men snuck back to the observatory, unlocked the telescope and beheld the night sky.  Jan was in awe.  For him, it remains the most beautiful sight he has ever seen.

As a whole, however, Jan and Amalie did not like Australia, so in 1956, they left for Canada.  They stayed there only a year and a half, however, as Jan could not find work.  They were living only on what Amalie could make as a seamstress, so they decided to go back to Australia.  When they got there, however, they found that things had changed a lot in their short absence, or so it seemed to them.  Unemployment was high, and they found it difficult to make ends meet.

So, once again they decided to leave.  It was 1960, and they were finally accepted into the United States.  They made their way to Chicago, and Jan got a job in a corrugated paper company, where he remained for fifteen years.  Amalie got a job in tailoring at Sears and Roebuck.  They bought a home in Chicago, where they lived for fourteen years before selling it and moving to Cicero.  They remained in Cicero for their last twenty years together.

In 1990, Amalie died of cancer.  Jan has not yet recovered from this blow.  After Amalie’s death, a Mrs. Martinek, a friend of Amalie’s for over thirty years, took Jan in to live with her.  Jan became terribly depressed, however, and in 1993 tried to kill himself.  Mrs. Martinek found him in time, however, and brought him to the hospital.  From there he has been discharged to a nursing home for Czechs and Slovaks, where it is hoped he will make a smooth transition.

Though Jan is a talkative, pleasant, well-mannered, well-groomed, lovely gentleman, he seems inherently sad and harbors a lot of anger, which seems to currently be directed toward Mrs. Martinek, whom, he says, “tricked him” into coming to the nursing home.  And though he does not say it, perhaps he is angry that she foiled his attempt at suicide.  He needs little in the way of medical care, but his depression lingers.  Even if he were to improve, he has no home to go to.  He has yet to make any new relationships with his fellow residents and instead spends most of the day sitting near the nurses’ station, talking to the staff any chance that he gets about the long, amazing life he has led.

(Originally written: December 1994)

If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago:

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