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Homolka Hesitates (Part II of IV)

(Part II of IV)

Read part I of Homolka Hesitates here. Read part III here.

Homolka thought Von Kleist’s words were rather strange, but he wasn’t sure if the Austrian had been commenting menacingly on the fact the Greensteins were Jewish.

“Why can’t people all live together in peace?” he thought to himself.

Despite Homolka’s wishes, storm clouds were beginning to form over Prague as the calendar turned to 1937. Czechoslovakia had existed as a liberal republic since the Versailles Treaty of 1919, and its people were adjusting to their newly acquired national identity. No longer were the Czech people legally subject to rule from Vienna and Budapest. That didn’t mean that forces were not at work to reverse Czech independence. Clearly, Germany, now under the harsh rule of the Nazi Party, had expressed designs on the Sudetenland in the west and on, some said, all of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. Homolka of course read the daily papers like everyone else and listened to the ominous-sounding radio broadcasts when he could, but he didn’t have a political bone in his body and felt he could do little anyway to “affect outcomes” as he called it.

On September 30, 1938, after more than a year of threats and negotiations, England, France, Italy and Germany agreed in Munich on the cession of the Sudetenland section of Czechoslovakia to Germany. With this agreement 66 percent of Czechoslovakia’s coal, 70 percent of its iron and steel and 70 percent of its electrical power were given to the Nazi war machine, not to mention three million ethnic Germans. The Czech government and its people were helpless to resist this illegal and immoral action. The Germans, events would show, were not interested in any compromises with the Czechs. Only total domination of the small nation by its much larger neighbor would do. The next year, on March 15, 1939, under direct threat of a bombing raid against Prague, the Czech President, Emil Hacha, granted free passage for German troops into and over the Czech borders. From that moment Czechoslovakia was declared to be a protectorate of Nazi Germany, whereas it really needed to be protected from that evil nation.

The “swift, bloodless conquest of Czechoslovakia” on that March day in 1939 in many ways reflected the Czechs’ general attitude and culture of peaceful relations with their neighbors. Given the Czechs’ desire to live in peace, the German takeover occurred without violence, guerilla warfare or any popular uprising. The native population had to get used to Germans taking up residence in Prague, where they began appropriating whatever they wanted. The Germans viewed Prague and the Czech nation as a whole as an efficient workhouse and profit center for the German Reich. In this regard the German army, the S.S., the Gestapo and Nazi Party officials all sought to enrich themselves at the Czechs’ expense.

For his purposes, Homolka hardly saw a fall off in business from these sad political developments. In times of stress, people actually bought more of his pastries and cakes. Any reduction in local business was more than offset by orders from the new occupiers. Almost immediately though Homolka did notice that the Greenstein sisters, among others, stopped coming in to shop on their regular day. He had heard that the Germans had issued harsh decrees against Czech citizens of the Jewish faith, but as he had little contact with any Jews, he paid little attention to these rumors. Weeks passed and the sisters had not reappeared. Finally, during the early summer, some four months after the occupation began, on a cloudy day just before closing, Katya Greenstein appeared in the store on Wenceslas Square. She approached the side of the display case and weakly signaled to Homolka to come over to where she was standing. Homolka advanced towards her but suddenly stopped when he realized who she was. Her features were so haggard and strained, sharp lines crossing her brow and face. Where previously she had looked attractive, even young for her age, now she was almost unrecognizable and appeared to have aged by years since he had last seen her. “How could this have happened?” Homolka thought to himself.

“Mrs. Greenstein, Katya, what is the matter? We haven’t seen you for weeks. Are you all right? Have you been sick?

“Can I talk to you in your office, where we can be alone? Katya weakly asked.

“Sure,” he responded. “Jan, take over for me for a minute. I have something I must discuss with Mrs. Greenstein. I don’t want to be disturbed.”

Read Part III of Homolka Hesitates in next week’s Jewish Link.

By Joseph Rotenberg

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