Letter from a mother to her daughter, in which she tells the story of love and loss in times of war.
Memories for the future
You have asked me many times to tell you my story, to tell you about your dad. You’ll turn 18 in a couple of months, so I believe it’s time that I share a bit of my past.
We were the Instagram-addicted, hipster bearded generation, one who underestimated the power of the O-Tan and the Brown Bear. Obviously, these are “affectionate nicknames” for two of the most powerful men of my times; there is no point in naming them directly. You must have read about them in your History book, as part of the Great Eurasian War.
You might have read in books that the Eurasian War from 2018 started spontaneously. That nobody expected it, that’s a lie. That’s a nice fairytale to numb the consciousness. As a wise man once said, “History is written by the winner.” And such it was.
The truth is that we should have seen it coming. In the end, the global political pot was coming to a boil for a year before the explosion that started Hell. When I moved to Brno, from Eastern Europe in 2012, this once lovely cozy city in the former Czech Republic, I would have never thought that a country with 10 million inhabitants would be the lit fuse that would set fire to Europe. Then again, nobody thought the First World War would start in a city called Sarajevo.
Now the Brno I remember no longer exists. Not many stones from the old Tivoli building stand in their original location. Most of them were scattered by the bombs and bullets. Oh, how much I loved seeing that building, especially at sunrise. If you remember your history lesson, the old town was one of the first to fall victim to the bombings.
I was lucky that after five years of living there I could afford a place of my own in the old center, a 30 m2 hole in the wall located on the famed Masarykova street. Each morning I would take the tram 12 to work, and if the weather were nice, I would walk a few stops on foot, between Grohova and Klusackova.
The summer mornings were the best. Imagine going to work after your first coffee, your heels making that rhythmic sound as they touch the cobblestones of Masarykova street. The occasional delivery truck passing you by, and still sleepy people hurrying to catch one of the trams from the main train station (or Hlavni Nadrazi, as the locals would have called it).
You should have seen the sun rising and painting the city shades of rose and gold. These were like shards of hope for a new day.
It was a shock for the World to see that the O-Tan has been chosen to train the Bald Eagle. Well, the cynics would have said that it’s no surprise there, as the people inhabiting the country of the Eagle had the impression that the poor Bird was dirty and tattered by the “invaders”, “the outsiders”. So it was easy for the O-Tan to win the inhabitants over, even with his poor oratorical skills. The same thing happened approx. 75 years prior, but in a different land. History does have a funny way of repeating itself.
After his people officially chose him, O-Tan revealed his close connections to the Eastern Brown Bear.
I am sure you know his real name. I will not write it, as I feel it is redundant.
The Bear was slowly stirring from his 20-year-old sleep, dreaming of the golden days. He knew that he could not take over his former “subjects”, now independent countries, without help. So he made friends with O-Tan and encouraged him to take greater care of his domestic affairs. However, the Bear’s eyes were gleaming with the cunning desire to visit his neighbors. So he started small, by dividing and invading a country close to him. The World was outraged, ink filled the papers with it for months, but in the end the fear of a confrontation with the Mighty Brown Bear made them take no action.
Across the Big Pond, O-Tan was too busy making his house great again to listen to the pleas of help coming from Europe.
Seeing this, the Bear smiled with glee and continued his permanent visits around Europe. When the dangerous noose was closing in around Austria’s neck, the World woke up. But it was too late. The East was on its way to invade the West.
Meanwhile, sensing danger, Czechia (formerly known as the Czech Republic) started training its military alongside the German one. In Brno, several buildings were evaluated as bomb shelters, and each morning the population received, instead of the Metro newspaper, flyers with instructions on how to prepare an emergency kit.
There were demonstrations against the Bear in Namesti Svobody, in Moravske Namesti and other places around the city.
As the leaves were turning a rusty copper, I stood on the Spilberk hill, watching the city prepare itself for a lost fight. My parents, (your grandparents, Amy,), God rest their souls, had just written me that life under the Eastern occupation is not so hard and that I should not worry, they already had practice from years before. I couldn’t read the rest of the letter because officials had censored it.
Reading their letter, I felt like the wind was trying to dry my face faster, taking the worries with it. I looked at Petrov, that majestic Gothic cathedral marked by centuries past, like on that first day I arrived in Brno. Little did I know that it would not survive another day.
I told myself that the world could not be that mad, it cannot battle itself into extinction.
How wrong I was, my dearest Amy…
So, at first, I didn’t notice that the air-strike alarm test was ringing through the city and that it was not due for another month. I wondered if they triggered it by accident. Streaks of white and red were covering more and more of the city, done by metallic pigeons dropping their deadly seeds. The crash of explosions made the earth shake, and smoke started rising in the distance, followed by ever more sirens blaring.
It was only when one of the pigeon planes released its seed-like bombs over one of Petrov’s towers that I woke up from my stunned stupor and realized that this was my new reality.
It was the first day of September 2017. The beginning of school elsewhere, the beginning of the end in Brno.
Quickly picking up my blanket and backpack, I rushed down Spilberk towards the AZ bomb shelter, praying to God that my friends managed to get there in time and that your father Jan was still alive.
There were so many different worlds, so many different stories playing out in my head while I was running through the valley of destruction. Pieces of buildings filled the streets, centuries-old history discarded like a child’s building blocks. When I reached the base of the hill, I saw that two trams collided when the first bombs hit, and as a result contorted, burning metal and death had been spilt from the front of the Barcello hotel (now missing its façade) all the way to Pekarska street. The air was filled with a pungent smell of burned metal and flesh. My body froze in the face of horror. It was like Brno was going through a baptism of fire. The bombing had stopped, but the city was in pieces. As I forced myself to move, I could see that other survivors were heading for the same shelter as I am. Their faces were marred with fear and bewilderment. They could not believe that the gates of the Bear’s hell opened in Brno, on such a calm day.
As I was making my way to the shelter, I saw that the two trams created a chain reaction of accidents; cars and trams alive in the pileup. Strangely everything around reminded me of a toy city after a kid’s tantrum.
In my mind’s eye, I could still see Hotel Intercontinental, with its modern communist design, welcoming the guests in both Czech and English. My physical eyes, however, were informing me of the horrible reality: the façade was gone, windows blow off by the explosions, the parking lot a smoldering resting place for many cars and people.
A 5-minute walk to the shelter took five times longer, as people were flooding the streets, looking for shelter or trying to escape the city.
I finally reached the AZ shelter, only to see a big crowd in front of it, fighting its way in through an army entry point set at the gate. As I was fighting my way forward through the desperate crowd, I suddenly felt two strong hands grabbing and pulling me forward, followed by angry shouting in Czech. Although I knew some Czech, my brain was completely shut down, so I didn’t understand what was said. All I felt was this pressure, as my body was dragged and squeezed through the mass of people. When I was close to being suffocated, I opened my eyes and saw that I was inside the gate of the AZ nuclear bomb shelter, being escorted by a Czech soldier. He said something in Czech and then signaled me to follow him inside. His serious, distant attitude disappeared once we turned a corner and we were in a fairly deserted corner. Turning to me, he removed his helmet, and I saw Jan’s worried face. He was examining me closely, looking for any injuries. Apart from a few scratches and bruises, I had gotten along the way; I was fairly fine physically.
He was talking quickly in broken English, saying that Czechia was at war, that Austria and Slovakia fell, and Hungary was struggling to stay alive. He said that the Bear used Germany’s military exercise as an excuse to invade Czechia. His Red Armies entered through fallen Slovakia, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Jan, your father, had a determined look on his face, saying that they were in charge of keeping the enemy at bay around the shelter, while the other units were regrouping. He said that he didn’t have time.
I was so grateful that he was fine, and that he took me to safety. Before he left, I told him that I was expecting you, that he would be a father. His eyes softened, and he hugged me like he wanted us to be one. Like it would be the last embrace he would give me. He took me in the main room again and asked his friend Marek to look after me.
“Now I must go, Julia. To use a cliché, “Duty calls” I will be back. We will raise him or her together. I promise. I was thinking Amelia if it’s a girl and Joseph if it’s a boy,” he said.
He still was smiling, with tears of joy in his eyes when he turned to go back out. It was the last time I saw him. I still remember his smile as he was hugging me.
The country fell in two months. The Bear took it in its iron paws and squeezed the will and resources out of it.
His tyranny lasted for six years. The occupied countries formed the New Eastern Federation, which ran from the Kremlin. It included more than just the countries that were bled dry to feed the ever-growing appetite of the Russian Bear. You might remember those times, my dearest, vague childhood memories singing the communist anthem.
Towards the end of the 6th year, in 2024, O-Tan was finally removed by the people and a new leader was instated. You might have heard of the Black Panther. She was the wind of hope that NEF countries long awaited. The remaining free countries in Europe formulated another plea of help to their former military ally from across the ocean, and this time they were heard. The Panther agreed to send troops to liberate the countries under the Red boot, one by one.
By March 5th, 2025, Czech Republic was finally free, after seven years of occupation. The newly elected Czech president declared Liberation Day as a national holiday. Ten days later he unveiled a monument in Silingrovo Namesti, where Hotel Continental used to be. It was in honor of all the soldiers who fell defending Brno and its people. Your father’s name amongst them.
The Liberation monument was 15 meters tall, with a black marble base and the statues of fighting soldiers.
I still remember that day like it was yesterday. It was your birthday, and you wanted me to retell stories about Jan, your dad. I told you I had a surprise for you and that you needed to get dressed as we were going to go out. That blue polka dot dress looked so beautiful on you. We walked hand in hand towards the monument, in the renamed “Defense Square”. It felt so unreal to see Jan’s name on that black marble monument, knowing that in reality he’s not buried there, playing in my mind his face last time I saw him. Like many years ago, the wind was going through my now graying hair, drying my face.
‘“Mommy, look… J-A-N P-E-T-R L-O-D… his name is like mine. Was he my daddy?”
“Yes, Amelia, he was your dad. He fought to defend the nuclear bomb shelter. The one you see down the street, over there”.
Sadly, my memory is not as good as it was. I will look to see if any of the pictures from that time still survived. I will show you what I find next weekend when you will visit me.