The following information is based around family stories passed down from my grandmother to my mother and myself before her passing in June. Some facts are still foggy, but I am currently in the process of trying to find further documentation about our family history.
In the early 1900s, a young Czech girl name Anna Knapp boarded a ship with one mission: to make it to America. She was alone, leaving her sisters and parents behind for a life much different from the one she led in Czechoslovakia.
Her arrival to the United States is a bit of a mystery. There is little information on her departure or arrival dates, even when searching the Ellis Island registry archives. She was about 16 years old when she arrived. She traded her small hometown of Měšice—a village a little over nine miles from Prague’s city center—for the bustling Midwestern city of Chicago, where she stayed with family relations.
Like many immigrants at the time, Anna found solace in staying close with other Czech natives. In 1923, Stefan Puzier, a familiar face from Měšice arrived in Chicago. Stefan was 35 at the time and twelve years her senior, but that did not stop the two from falling in love. Anna and Stefan wed and decided it was time to move to a place more reminiscent of home. They settled for the farmlands of Watervliet, New York.
In 1925, Anna welcomed her first child into the world; a daughter named Mildred Charlotte Puzier. She was aptly named after a couple who helped both Anna and Stefan settle into the United States, Aunt Millie and Uncle Charlie Watson. Millie was followed years later by a son, Stephen.
Life for Anna was not easy. When at their farmhouse in Watervliet, Stefan and she spoke with their children and each other in Czech to help pass on the language. It also gave them breaks from speaking their second language, English. That ended one day when Millie came home from school in tears.
When asked what was wrong, Millie told Anna about how she was asked to read out loud in front of the class that day. She thought she was doing fine until the other students started to laugh at her. Unsure of what was funny, she stopped while her teacher came to her defense, “Children, now listen. Millie wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was only reading in her native language. Her family is from Czechoslovakia and she was reading to us in Czech.”
From that day forward, Czech wasn’t spoken in the house.
When Anna left Czechoslovakia, she left it for good. She never had the chance to see her parents or sisters after leaving and, in 1946, the Iron Curtain made contacting anyone in Soviet-run countries truly impossible. Memories of home plagued her constantly so she shared them with her daughter and son as a way to ease the mental and physical distance.
Anna’s daughter, Millie, grew up and become the woman I called, “Grandma.” She would often recount stories of gypsy caravans coming through Měšice and her mother’s rare and special trips into Prague where she and her family would roam the capital’s streets.
While there was an undertone of sadness in Anna’s life, it was also very full. Her children gave her five grandchildren, who in turn gave her nine great grandchildren. During the last few years of her life, Anna also witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain. In a conversation remembered by her only granddaughter, my mom, Anna said she never thought she would see that day come.
A little under a century after my great grandmother’s arrival in the United States, I went back to Czechoslovakia, now known as the Czech Republic. I didn’t make it back to Měšice when I went. I was unsure of its exact location and a bit weary because of my lack of knowledge when it comes to the Czech language (I only know the word for “pants,” and that in and of itself is a long story). I did, however, go to Prague. It was the city my great grandmother had painted into my grandma’s head with grandeur. I knew I had to at least make it there while I was in Europe. I thought it might make me feel closer to a generation I never knew. If anything, I would have the chance to show my grandmother pictures of a city she often dreamed about.
When you visit a country your family only left three generations before, it’s amazing how many passersby you see walking down the streets that have family resemblances. I saw a woman with my grandma’s nose and a man with my Uncle Mal’s eyebrows. Even when we sat down for dinner the first night, the slightly closed-off behavior of our waitress didn’t concern me. My grandmother’s own introverted nature had passed down to almost everyone on my mom’s side of the family, so I had a gut feeling the behavior might be a part of Czech culture. Because of the physical and cultural similarities I encountered while in the city, I developed a confidence and appreciation for Prague I didn’t find anywhere else.
As a city center, Prague can only be described as a rolling sea of red. Hills of red roofed buildings fill the city, but calling Prague urban feels a bit unjust. Prague, and the Czech Republic as a whole, seems completely frozen in time. There’s an old world charm to the city with its castle guards and sloping cobble streets. Vendors cook sweet sugar-covered pastries called trdelník on spits similar to the ones used for rotisserie chicken. Whenever you pass one of the stands, it fills the city surrounding you with a warming smell of cinnamon, crystallizing sugar and smoke. There’s a bit of an eeriness to Prague as well. Its deeply rooted connections with the medieval world make parts of the city almost feel paranormal and its attachment to the past made it impossible for Prague to leave its history behind, even if it tried.
My connection to Prague grew as my friends and I explored different crevices of the city. Maybe it was because of the way my grandmother had retold her mother’s stories or maybe it was my own desperate need to feel a part of a place so rooted in my family’s history. Whatever the reason, I felt like I needed to leave a piece of myself somewhere in the city. I did just that when my friends and I found a rod-iron fence covered in locks along the edge of the Vltava.
I had a small lock I had purchased from a hostel we had stayed at weeks before, and I decided then and there that we should add to the fence’s collection. We all put our first initial on the lock and hooked it onto the fence. I kept the key and still have it hanging on the lanyard I use everyday. No matter how tourist-y our little ceremony may seem, it brings me comfort daily that– through that lock–a piece of me is still in Prague.
I doubt my great grandmother ever thought about her great grandchildren venturing back across the Atlantic to visit the place she once called home. It was a country she left—abandoned even—for a better life. She sacrificed relationships and family connections so that her children and her children’s children would grow up knowing a freedom that wasn’t possible in Czechoslovakia. Knowing her story and her bravery is humbling. I see bits of her, especially her adventurous spirit and her ability to look towards the future, in myself. Being her great granddaughter is a privilege. It has shown me how lucky I am to live in a day and age where I can hop on a plane and come and go when I please.
My great grandmother left home knowing she would never go back. I want Anna Puzier’s sacrifices to have been worth it. I think the key in doing that is appreciating where I come from and pursuing my American Dream like she pursued hers. She is a woman I am proud to be related to and I want to live my life to the fullest in honor of her and her memory.