Around the World and Back Again: The Nearly Unbelievable Life and Times of Alek Kozel – Part II
Part II: In which our hero finally finds work as a tailor, nearly dies of a mysterious illness, and has a run-in with the German SS . . .
(To read Part I first, click here.)
After being fired by Mr. Chvatal, Alek went back to Mr. Kratochvil’s boarding house, where he had run up a pretty large debt, not having made enough at the mill to pay for his lodging each week. He searched endlessly for a job until he finally found work several towns over with another tailor, one Mr. Navratil. Mr. Navratil’s shop had an apartment above it, which he rented out to Alek, the only condition being that he had to share it with an old woman who was already living there. Alek gladly took the job and his share of the apartment and began working in earnest. After only a short time, he had saved enough to pay his debt at the boarding house and to buy Mr. Kratochvil many packs of tobacco to repay him for all of his help.
Next followed a rather steady patch in life for Alek. Not since he had lived and worked and trained with his master, Mr. Skalicky, did he feel such contentment. He worked for Mr. Navratil for five years, saving money and making some friends—his first ever, really. His new group of friends were an odd mix of people and included a policeman, a dentist, a pharmacist, a banker, a shoemaker and himself, a tailor. They enjoyed meeting up at the pub each night to play darts, discuss the politics of the day or sometimes just to sing old Bohemian songs together. It was his friend the policeman who encouraged Alek to buy a newspaper each day and try to teach himself to read. Alek took his advice and, after a while, was able to pick out a little bit and even learned to sign his name.
Eventually, however, old Mr. Navratil grew tired of Alek coming home late each night. He feared that Alek was becoming a drunkard and considered evicting him from the apartment. The old woman Alek lived with, however, Mrs. Dubala, had become quite fond of Alek and spoke up for him. She argued to Mr. Navratil that even though it was true that Alek went each night to the pub to drink, he never came home drunk. She described the way his hand was always steady when he lit the lamp late at night after he came home and how he meticulously laid out his clothes each night for the next day’s work. Begrudgingly, then, Mr. Navratil agreed to let him stay.
Not long after this, however, Alek became very ill. He soldiered on working, despite his illness, for about two months before he told Mr. Navratil that he just couldn’t go on. He went upstairs and asked Mrs. Dubala to bring him some water, drank it, and asked for more and then even more. When he started coughing up blood, he finally told her to go and get the doctor. When the doctor arrived (the same doctor, oddly, that had treated his blistered hands in exchange for his golden curls), he merely touched his forehead and told Mrs. Dubala that if Alek was to live, he would have to immediately be taken by ambulance to the hospital in the next town. So the ambulance was called, and Alek lay between death and life for about twelve hours in the hospital before his fever finally broke.
When Alek awoke, he found himself in a long, dark ward and urgently needed to use the bathroom. He crept out of bed, and even now he remembers how icy the floor felt. His fellow ward mates, alarmed that he was awake and out of bed, called for the nurses, who then ran into the ward and scolded Alek, saying how dare he get out of bed after they had worked so hard to save him. They chastised him severely and threatened to tie him to the bed if he didn’t stay there and rest. Alek obeyed and remained in the hospital for over two months.
When he was finally allowed to go home, the doctors told him to eat lots of bacon and drink wine to enrich his “weak blood” and to stay off from work for one more week. Alek tried to follow these directions and also swore off going out with his friends anymore. But after a few weeks, he was soon back to going to the pub with them and singing the old Bohemian songs.
In 1939, however, Alek’s contented, stable life came to an end with the German invasion.
After the Germans took over, Mr. Navatril’s business dwindled to almost nothing. He tried to stretch the work as far as he could, but in the end, he finally had to let Alek go. Alek understood Mr. Navatril’s dilemma and actually felt sorry for him. He hated to leave him and old Mrs. Dubala and the few friends that were still left, but there was no more work in that particular town. He began to search for a new job and happened to see an ad in the newspaper for a steel mill a short distance away that was desperate for workers. He went and applied for a job and was immediately hired to shovel coke into wagons or the furnace.
When he showed up for his first day, his fellow employees snickered at Alek’s scrawny body and made lots of jokes. Though he was small and thin, somehow Alek had retained his upper body strength and proved that he could throw his load farther than anyone. Soon all of the men wanted him on their team, some of them even offering him food from the farms as an incentive to stay with them. The foreman, however, seeing Alek’s skills, made him move around to all the parts of the factory so that all areas could benefit from his strength.
There was one man, however, by the name of Evzen, who continued to tease Alek about his skinny, scrawny body, though he had heard the rumors about his strength. Evzen, an amateur boxer, was hoping to fight him and continued to goad Alek until he agreed to box him. The resultant boxing match was well attended with many bets being placed, and the workers were shocked when Alek not only beat Evzen, but beat him very badly. Enraged, Evzen swore that he would get his brother to fight Alek. Alek replied that he didn’t want to fight anymore and would rather be friends than enemies. Evzen was apparently taken off guard by Alek’s response, and eventually accepted Alek’s hand in friendship.
Not long after this incident, it was discovered that someone was cutting the train hoses in the steel yard, and somehow Evzen came under suspicion. Alek was one of the few who stood up for Evzen, but in the end Evzen and several others were rounded up and sent to a German prison camp. For a while, Alek was in contact with Evzen, who wrote to Alek, telling him that the Germans were giving the prisoners “shots” to make them stronger. In reality, though, says Alek, these mysterious shots made all the prisoners sick. Evzen was eventually released, but he was forever ill afterward. When Alek eventually left the country several years later, he sought out Evzen before he left and gave him a new pair of gloves—a very good gift, says Alek, at the time. He heard later that Evzen died shortly afterwards.
Meanwhile, Alek had his own problem with the Germans. He recalls that on one particular day, after finishing his usual twelve-hour shift at the steel factory, he was packing up his few things to go home, filthy and exhausted, when there was suddenly a commotion in the factory and several German SS soldiers and dogs appeared. They singled out Alek and commanded him to unload a wagon for them. Alek protested, saying that he had already finished his team’s quota and then some. For his insolence, the SS grabbed him and beat him and threw him out on the street.
Though he had been badly beaten, Alek still turned up the next day for work, but he was told by his foreman that he was fired. Alek protested and accused the foreman of letting him go because he was afraid of the Germans. The foreman did not deny it and remained silent, whereupon, Alek, outraged, grabbed him and threatened to throw him into the furnace if he didn’t let him keep his job. The foreman finally agreed, but reassigned Alek to working outdoors in the yard, though Alek did not have a very thick coat or even proper boots or gloves. When two young boys on Alek’s team tried to stick up for him, the foreman reassigned them to the yard as well. None of them had proper clothing to be working all day outside, but they tried to make the best of it by building little fires from scraps to keep warm.
Several months after this incident, Alek started receiving letters from the main office, three hours away by bicycle, saying that he should report to the office to be reassigned to work in the mines. Alek suspected the interference of the resentful foreman and consequently destroyed the letters. He then discovered that his two young partners were also receiving letters to go to the office to be reassigned. Alek told them they should go if they felt they should, but since they looked to Alek for guidance, they likewise refused to go and destroyed their letters, too.
Finally after Alek had destroyed three such letters, a company officer showed up to interrogate him. He asked Alek about the letters, which Alek denied ever having received. The officer then tried another tactic, imploring him to trust him as he would a father and to tell the truth. Alek, always angered by any reference to his father, then hotly told the officer that he had no father. He admitted, then, however, that not only had he indeed received the letters from the main office but that he had destroyed them. The officer then commanded him to report to the office the next day and to bring the two boys with him. When Alek tried to protest having to bring along two innocent boys, the officer declared that they were now Alek’s responsibility and that he would have to bring them.
Not seeing any way out, Alek decided to go and report to the office the next day with the two boys in tow. There, they were informed that they were going to be sent to Germany to work. Alek, thinking quickly, pretended to laugh and said that in fact he had tried dozens of times to run away to Germany and beyond, but that he had always been stopped at the border because of his American birth certificate, which he always carried on him and which the officer now demanded to see. As Alek showed them the tattered birth certificate, he explained that he was always mistaken for a spy and was thus always denied access. Miraculously, Alek’s plan worked, at least initially, and the three of them were assigned to work in the rail yard instead.
Before long, however, the Russians invaded and took over from where the Germans had left off. Alek decided that working in the steel company’s rail yard was getting much too dangerous and feared that the Russians, who were always hanging about the rail yard, would eventually send him off to work in Siberia. Before that could happen, he again went to the company office and this time informed them that he was quitting and that he wanted his back pay. Their surprising response was that he could not quit. Alek hotly told them that they had no authority over him and demanded his back pay, which they eventually gave him, but not without much stalling and delay.
When the two boys heard he was leaving, they begged him to take them with him. By this point, however, Alek was tired of them constantly clinging to him and of feeling responsible for them. They begged for his help, however, so he finally agreed to help the younger one, David. He gave him a little money for the train ride back to his parents and told him not to come back, that it was too dangerous. The older of the two boys, Dusan, stayed working in the rail yard, and he and Alek became friends and sometimes met up in the pub at night.
Since Alek was out of a job now, he could not get “tickets” from the government for food. His old policeman friend, however, came to his rescue and took him around to some of the farms, where they signed notes saying that he was employed there, which allowed him to still get government food tickets while he looked for a real job.
As it turned out, one night while he was in the pub with Dusan, some Russian soldiers came in. Alek and Dusan began talking with them, and they learned that one of the soldiers was a tailor back in the Ukraine. When Alek revealed that he, too, was a tailor, the young soldier suggested that Alek return with him after the war to set up a shop, especially as they were both Ukrainians. Alek then made the mistake of saying that he didn’t fancy living under Communism. The soldier, offended and drunk now, told Alek to shut his mouth. Alek retorted that he certainly would be leaving Czechoslovakia, but that he wouldn’t be going to Russia or the Ukraine, but to America instead!
It was an idea blurted out in the heat of the moment, but it slowly began to take hold in Alek’s mind. Perhaps he really should go to America, he thought. As time went on, it made more and more sense—he had no job, was in constant danger due to the war, and had no real options or prospects. And so, just like that, he decided to try to make it happen, just as his father, ironically, had fled a generation before for mostly the same reasons.
Next week, read Part III, the exciting conclusion: In which our hero flees to America and begins a whole new life there . . .
If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago: