As we boarded the bus for our trip to Koclířov, I tried to keep my enthusiasm in check, but it was hard. This town, formerly Ketzelsdorf, holds so much enchantment for my Bier family. Thanks to the diaries of the emigrant Valentine Bier family, the town seemed almost palpably real in our collective imaginations. There’d be the ancestral home at number 78, St. Philomena’s Church where Valentine and Catherine had been married and the first seven children baptized, and a magical quality of recognition.
I harbored some additional secret hopes. I hoped for some clues of relatives, pre- or post-Valentine, maybe a few friendly townspeople, a good beer. I know that my Uncle Jim hoped to stride up to the door of 78 and, after flashing his I.D., be invited in for a game of mariáš. But I didn’t dare mention these hopes–better to keep the group’s expectations low.
Our guide, Jana, had a contact in Koclířov, a lady who would let us in the church. In fact, she said that of all the towns that she contacted, Koclířov was the only one that yielded a positive response. However, we were running an hour late, and I anticipated a crabby old church lady when we finally rolled into town.
Imagine my slack-jawed surprised, then, when we were met instead by two people who, quite simply, none of us will ever forget. Hana spoke English and, therefore, did most of the greeting. She is a member of St. Philomena’s parish, a devout Catholic, and works for the other Catholic enterprise in town, the Fatima Center. She welcomed us with unbridled enthusiasm, warmth, and awe. She was amazed that we had traveled so far and repeated in numerous ways how blessed and lucky she felt. It killed me when I had to do something so pedestrian as ask for a toilet!
She also introduced us to Josef, who goes by Pepi. (“Why Pepi?” we wondered. “Because Josef is such a common name.” Something lost in translation there…). Pepi spoke German and was mildly disappointed to discover that none of us did. His mother was one of three Germans allowed to remain in the village following WWII, by virtue of the fact that she married a Czech man. She secretly taught Pepi to speak German, and passed on to him her sorrow over the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans. Indeed, he made her a deathbed promise to mend that rift. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think we helped him fulfill that promise to his mother.
Hana pointed out some of the sites in the town, including the community hall where Pepi had celebrated his 70th birthday the night before. She reiterated the remarkable fact that a town of 700 supports not one but two Catholic institutions–St. James the Elder & Philomena Church and the Fatima Center. This is all the more remarkable in a country in which 80% of the population is atheist. St. James & Philomena is the traditional town church. The Fatima Center is both a parish church and a pilgrimage site / education center / conference center / gathering place that sells amazing pastries for 40 cents. It was built at the site of a former convent.
Hana and Pepi took us into the church and related it’s history, of near total destruction and decay during Communist rule and eventual restoration. This was due to what Hana called a miracle and what I called a little bit of shoddy bookkeeping at the government offices. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble–you’ll have to ask one of us in person!
The cemetery’s German section was protected by destruction by the Communists by Pepi and his people. You could barely hold me back as we entered through the gates.
Holy cow, the place was awash with Biers! And I knew absolutely NONE of them! It was simultaneously exciting and overwhelming. So much work left to do!. Pepi led us from grave to family grave, pausing to shed a few silent tears at the grave of his dear mother. Fear not–the less legible had rubbings taken by the Laning boys. Can you believe all of this unexplored history? My only disappointment was that I didn’t see a single Jiru grave. Fingers crossed that the archives at Zamrsk will prove more fruitful.
Flanking the church and cemetery on either side were a series of niches. These contained a set of restored stations of the cross and additional memorials. The money to restore these came from Koclířov’s former Sudeten Germans. Pepi has organized a series of reunions with 80+ of the Koclířov Germans who were deported. Hana relates that many were very hesitant to return, feeling the place would be “tainted” or “cursed” to them. However, most wept tears of joy on their return, recalling and recognizing the home of their childhood. The expat Koclířov-ians and current population now make yearly alternating visits between the Czech Republic and Germany. Talk about making good on his promise!
Finally we stepped inside the church. Hana gave a touching impromptu speech, led us all in prayer, and then proceeded to sing a song of St. Philomena as requested by Pepi, who softly hummed along to my right. I know that I simply wept in astonishment.
Feeling overwhelmed with it all, we were then led across the street to the Fatima Center for more. We had a brief tour of the beautiful grounds. And note to self: rooms are available to the public for 290 Kč per night (about $12!!!).
Then Pepi brought out the homemade plum brandy. It was his birthday, after all. I didn’t detect any plum, and I’m pretty sure that the 57% alcohol was a low estimate. Oh well, twist our arms, cheers to Pepi!
We had two things left that we hoped for: to see the home at 78 and to see a statue that Pepi mentioned that was commissioned by a Bier. Pepi was sad to inform us that the Bier home was one of 145 razed after the removal of the Germans after WWII. He was able to point out its approximate location, however, which is now the site of a small yellow apartment building. It’s nestled on the banks of the valley, just adjacent to a creek and a 3 minute walk from the church. He also provided me with a hand-drawn map of the town’s layout prior to the destruction of the 145 homes, as drawn from the collective memory of the town.
We didn’t want to the leave the town, but we had to eat. No problem. Hana called in some additional staff for the small restaurant owned by the Fatima Center. They stayed open just for us and the beer and dumplings were sublime. Of course, Pepi, Jana and our intrepid bus driver, Alex, joined us as well (Hana had to get back to work).
Finally, Pepi led us to the statue at the edge of town. It depicts St. Jan Nepomucký, an icon with whom we’d become familiar. A Czech king had thrown him into the Vltava river after he (the saint) refused to rat out the queen’s confession. The site where he went in was said to be identified by five stars. As a result, he’s traditionally depicted with five starts around his head. Ironically, he’s the patron saint of swimmers. The back of the statue did, in fact, include a name “Joseph Bier”–another relative that I didn’t know we had. Seriously, so much work to do . . .
As I write all of this, I still can’t really believe it all happened. The day was simply magical, and I know that we all felt it. And it’s all due to the intervention of three amazing people whom I can never thank enough . . .
Until we meet again, ahoy Koclířov