By Mike Fuhrmann
Mementoes taken to Canada in 1948 make a return trip for an exhibition in the Czech Republic, bringing a once prominent family back into the spotlight
The little wooden box, its cheerful floral designs now faded with age, was always out somewhere in my parents’ Toronto home. Handy for storing odds and ends on a coffee table — or maybe a fishing lure after it wound up at their northern Ontario cottage.
Recently, however, it found itself in a glass case on display in a museum in the Czech Republic, an unexpected fate for a humble object that has done its share of long-distance travelling.
In 2017 I was contacted by the Low-Beer Villa museum in Brno, the country’s second largest city, and learned to my amazement that it was researching my family history.
Could I shed light on the textile industrialist Moriz Fuhrmann and the company he founded in the 19th century, the museum wondered. And what about his two sons, who took over the firm after Moriz’s death in 1910, and his grandson — my father, Robert Fuhrmann— who ran it from 1945 to ’48. What was their fate?
Once prominent in Brno, the Fuhrmann family was now something of a mystery for the museum, which occupies Moriz Fuhrmann’s former home, a coral-coloured mansion that he built across the street from the city’s main public green space, Luzanky Park. None of his descendants have lived in what is now the Czech Republic for 71 years — not since my father left hurriedly after the 1948 Communist coup.
But with that emailed inquiry, a trove of stories was uncovered.
There’s Moriz, the self-made tycoon who rose from village schoolteacher to the heights of Brno’s textile aristocracy when the Czech lands were still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
There’s the theft of the eponymous Moriz Fuhrmann company during the Second World War under the German occupation, when it was considered Jewish property ripe for the taking.
There are all the family members murdered in the Holocaust.
There’s the restitution of the firm after the war, followed by theft number two — its nationalization by the Czechoslovak Communist state.
And then exile, when my parents jettisoned everything to start all over from scratch. I was born two years after they arrived in Toronto.
The world they left behind has tugged at me since I was a child devouring my grandmother’s knedliky dumplings, but I never imagined anyone else caring much about these stories — least of all a museum in the country my parents fled.
But at a time of historical introspection with the Czech Republic marking the 100th anniversary of the Czechoslovak state in 2018, there has been a renewed interest in Brno’s prewar German-speaking Jewish business class, which had a major influence on the city’s economy and culture, historian Jakub Pernes, a curator at the Low-Beer Villa, told me. Brno was once known as the “Moravian Manchester” for its booming textile sector.
Fuhrmann factories in Brno and Hlinsko, a town west of the city, made oriental-style carpets that were shipped around the world, jersey that was popular with garment manufacturers, and faux fur that trimmed Bata snow boots.
Moriz’s home, a grandiose Art Nouveau villa that was sold by his sons a few years after his death and served as a Gestapo centre during the war, is now a tourist attraction owned by the South Moravian Region. After a major restoration it became a branch of the Museum of the Brno Region in 2015.
Around the time of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989, I began interviewing my father about his past, a process of unveiling and excavation that continued intermittently for several years. When we started he was in his mid-70s, a little older than I am now as I think back on those sessions, straining to visualize what can be visualized in the accumulating fog of time (alas, not enough). I would drive across the city from my place, take the elevator up 18 floors to my parents’ apartment, and settle in his office, a converted bedroom with a window overlooking suburban sprawl that stretched to the horizon. We were so high up that when I sat across from him at his desk all I saw was empty sky through the window behind him. But periodically during our conversations I’d be distracted by an airliner sailing by, from left to right, on its landing approach to nearby Pearson airport. Most often when I arrived I’d find him behind his typewriter, tapping away rapidly with two fingers. No surprise there. As far back as I can remember, he probably spent more time behind a typewriter than at any other single place, and the clackety-clack was the background toccata — at the house, the cottage, the apartment — while the rest of the family went about its mundane business.
Just as the revolution had come as a complete surprise, I doubt he ever expected to be called upon to summon up the contours of a world that once surrounded him — that personal space of things and people and events that was his, and his alone. The past had been buried in the effort to make something of himself in Canada. It was not a topic of discussion around the dinner table, or anywhere else, when I was growing up in an Etobicoke subdivision of modern brick bungalows that had sprung out the ground newly formed, like mushrooms in the acres of freshly laid sod after a rainstorm, and seemed to foster in its middle-class residents zero curiosity about anything that predated it. It was a place for everything new — new families, new prosperity, new shocks to established culture. The driveways in front of each house showcased the new cars that appeared with regularity up and down our street — the neighbourhood’s universal and most conspicuous objects of admiration. Basement rec rooms were populated with ping-pong tables, pool tables, liquor cabinets and, most alluringly, TV sets — first, the black-and-white models that gave everyone a reason to spend a significant portion of their life below ground level, and then colour TVs, which transformed the slightly older boxes into pathetically primitive technology to be dumped on the neatly mowed front lawns for garbage pickup. We had better things to do than discuss ancient history. It was as if my parents had landed in Toronto on a spaceship from Mars (in reality, it was the passenger liner Aquitania that brought them in steerage from Southampton, England, to Halifax). They didn’t particularly encourage questions about the faraway and rather irrelevant planet they came from.
A few years after arriving in Toronto my father started a knitting firm in a small factory space on downtown College Street, north of the fashion district. Launched with borrowed money and not unreasonable ambition — after all, he was born to make textiles — this turned out to be a sad echo of his stellar heritage. It never had more than two or three employees and struggled for seven years before going broke. What he was born to do no longer applied, and so he switched gears. A translation company that he took over and ran for 21 years in an office building at the corner of King and Yonge was a modest success. There had been a series of other jobs, many of them simultaneous. What drove him on was a prodigious work ethic and the impulse to keep his family afloat. Never had he been given any reason to believe his life merited special consideration.
But he took pleasure in recalling the hum and din of textile machinery, the intricate choreography of looms and skeins and bobbins and shuttles in the Fuhrmann factories. I asked questions that I had prepared in advance, and haltingly, the recollections emerged. He sometimes smiled, as if in surprise at the memory of a piece of machinery or pattern of cloth greeting him like an old friend after a decades-long absence. This never failed to move me. His restraint was ingrained — in truth, I often found it hard to know what he felt about anything — and so a smile always seemed revelatory.
This, finally, was his opportunity to remember what was left behind, to tell all the buried stories. I wanted to hear them.
The fact that I cared at all about anything that happened to him before he and my mother boarded the Aquitania was not a given for someone so non-egocentric. My interest may have come as a pleasant surprise — just how pleasant, I wish I knew. But once I started probing, he did seem to warm to the experience of being transported back to the person he once was before history flipped everything upside down. Especially when it came to the topic of the factories. The details of their operation, the way everything worked, the goods produced, all this he now remembered for what it once was, the warp and weft of his life (an obvious metaphor that nevertheless strikes me as inescapably apt). So what that it had all become irrelevant post-Aquitania? It had been important then and somehow, rather mysteriously, had become important now.
A photo I recently discovered captures a moment in the streets of Prague on the eve of the Second World War: there he is in mid-stride amid a stream of pedestrians, an extraordinarily good-looking young man with thick, wavy black hair and a captivating smile, elegantly attired in a dark jacket, striped tie, sharply creased trousers and gleaming black shoes, purposeful, eyes locked straight ahead on the unknown photographer — and on me, his future son — a lightweight coat slung over one arm. The stream is stilled, the camera interested only in him, a cynosure, the streetscape behind him dissolved in a blur.
He’s clearly pleased about something. I stare and stare, transfixed, losing all sense of my present surroundings, and find myself drawn into the world unveiled in front of me. . . . Why so happy? Where have you just come from, what conquest have you made? And why the smart outfit, what’s the occasion? Who have you been impressing? You’ve sealed a deal, changed history, haven’t you? I’ll walk with you, I have all the time in the world. So, tell me, what’s brought you from Brno to Prague? What’s your secret? . . . I snap back to the present, my questions unanswered.
And now, in my mind, another image just as vivid from a half-century later: the full head of white hair, waves intact, brushed back and neatly parted on the left as usual; the lined face that you just want to reach out and touch; the comfy clothes, the indoor tan moccasins. He sits at his desk in his high-backed green office chair (the one I am sitting in as I write these words), reviewing a sheet of paper that he has just pulled from his typewriter.
His work space is well organized, with pens and pencils arranged neatly in a tray and stationery in a rack. A plug-in electric calculator sits on his desk, the kind with a paper roll, but he often prefers to use an old slide-rule — an anachronism even then — that he keeps in a drawer. Close at hand are essential supplies of typewriter correction tape and fluid, both of which it is his habit to apply liberally while also cursing himself in a variety of languages and utter disgust at his inexcusable carelessness (“hajzl,” “debil,” “idiot”), the epithets never failing to shock me. The only person ever attacked so viciously is himself; towards others he is invariably mild, genial, respectful (no matter what treatment they may deserve), which makes these eruptions so jarring. A wall of bookshelves is loaded with dictionaries and technical reference books that he consults for his translations; a pre-Second World War edition of Der Grosse Brockhaus, the authoritative, multi-volume German encyclopedia, brought from Czechoslovakia, has a particularly imposing presence and is much relied upon to settle all manner of questions with finality. His mind is agile, his perception sharp. He expresses himself economically with no unnecessary verbiage, and with such clarity that arguing or even disagreeing with him is out of the question.
In his apartment, he conjured up the Czech factories and I inhabited them with him. He remembered the customers — the big manufacturers who bought wholesale; the rural folk who came to the Hlinsko factory to buy a single carpet; the Brno residents who wore Fuhrmann jersey that had been turned into must-have fashion items, like the men’s jackets seen everywhere about town.
To me, much of the production seemed exotic. While many other textile companies in Moravia operated large spinning and weaving mills, the Fuhrmanns specialized in niche products where they faced little competition. Some examples: the company’s plush camel-hair fabric that went into top-of-the-line ladies’ coats; the astrakhan cloth sold to buyers in India to be made into men’s hats; the mottled yarn used for Fuhrmann jersey that appeared green from a distance but up close — and here came another of my father’s heart-melting smiles — revealed a multitude of rainbow colours.
I learned about the Fuhrmanns’ carpet store in Brno. The downtown location was excellent, directly across from one of the city’s main cinemas and close to a popular cafe, with a streetcar stop right at the door. The firm’s Muskabat brand of wool carpets was so popular it was “practically a household word,” my father said. The pride in his voice was unmistakable, and yes, oh yes it had endured, post-Aquitania, through everything that had rendered it utterly irrelevant, even after so long, all the way to this place on the edge of a Canadian city a mile up into the sky.
I was drawn to the romance of the business. But what was for him the memory of a real-life place and time was for me a wholly imaginary world whose loss I seemed to mourn.
Not that he felt the same way. As far as he was concerned, coming to Canada was the best thing he ever did, apart from marrying my mother, the woman to whom he was devoted until his death in 2001 in a Toronto hospital bed, with her at his side.
After the disaster of what communism did to them in 1948, they were forever grateful to Canada for allowing them to start anew.
I wrote down everything my father told me during our sessions. Pernes, the Low-Beer Villa curator, asked to see this information, as well as documents and mementoes that had managed to survive.
Much of what I shipped him, together with archival material that Pernes uncovered, was included in “The Textile Company Moriz Fuhrmann 1918–1948,” a gallery-filling exhibition that ran for four months. Many of the items, including the painted box, have since been added to the museum’s permanent collection.
At the Sept. 6, 2018, opening, I had the surreal experience of seeing museum visitors — strangers — studying objects that until then were of interest only to me: old photos of Fuhrmanns skating, doing office work and clowning around in their luxury cars; my father’s textile school report card from 1933; military ID tags from his wartime service with U.K.-based Czechoslovak expats; a prewar photo of his father, Hans Fuhrmann, looking self-assured in a business suit, oblivious to the terrible fate that awaited him; a newspaper notice placed by my father on his return to Brno in 1945, in which he seeks information on Hans and other missing relatives; and that box, a welcome-home gift to my father from the company’s workers after the war. Soon, with communism on the horizon, the state would make him and other “reactionaries” feel decidedly unwelcome, as “a potential enemy of the state,” he told me.
Incredibly, after so many years, these things had acquired a new purpose: to return to Brno and tell their stories in this public setting, adding threads to the tapestry of historical memory. Or, I couldn’t help wondering, was that their main purpose all along, and only revealed now?
Brno residents were drawn to the depictions of everyday life in the show, which turned an “exotic” social class about which they knew nothing into “people of flesh and blood,” Pernes told me. “The Fuhrmanns were definitely upper class, but they still lived their lives normally,” he said.
For me, it was more personal.
During the opening, an image of Moriz Fuhrmann, elegant in a tux, dashingly bewhiskered and serene in his lofty station, was projected over a fireplace in the museum’s main foyer — formerly the centre hall of his home — adding to the comforting sensation of family ghosts overseeing the proceedings.
Discovered by Pernes in a business publication, it’s the only photo of him I have ever seen, since none survived in the family. And so finally, after all those questions and answers in my father’s office, all the time-travel from afar and obsessive interest in absorbing who Moriz Fuhrmann was and what he did, I had the chance to encounter my legendary great-grandfather face to face, in his own habitat.
A Czech TV news crew covering the event asked me how I felt about the exhibition — to which I mumbled something about the impact of standing in Moriz’s palatial digs, a storied place in my family history.
But I was unable to adequately describe my rather dazed state of mind at seeing these Fuhrmanns in the spotlight — or to say how much I wished my father had been there for the occasion.
Add to that an unsettling case of impostor syndrome. Standing in as a proxy for ancestors receiving belated recognition brought their bygone world no closer to mine. It felt as elusive as ever.
Still, in that moment it seemed as if history sometimes, miraculously, plays out as it should. I was floating in boundless gratitude.
Instead of forgetting, here was remembering. Remembering and honouring-by-remembering, in the community where this industrious family had made its mark. What would Moriz think? And Hans? And Robert?
As I stood amid the text panels and glass display cases, the sunlit lawn of the villa’s garden — Moriz’s backyard, now a public park — catching my eye outside a gallery window, I felt as if this event was a kind of flowering, momentary and deeply affecting, seemingly impossible and suddenly here, after a long quiescence.
A few days after the opening I travelled to Hlinsko, an hour and a half from Brno, to view the old Fuhrmann factory complex. The buildings, on the main road into town about 150 metres downhill from the train station, appeared to be in good shape, one of them having been extended into the factory yard and another — the largest structure, three-storeys tall — having been renovated, apparently recently, with a new white exterior and a horizontal red stripe painted above each row of windows as a striking decorative flourish. They were occupied by a variety of small and medium-sized businesses, among them an auto parts manufacturer and a building contractor. A short walk away, downhill towards the centre of town, I came upon a kind of open-air museum with handicraft workshops, one of which, with an exterior wall painted sky blue, had a sign to the right of the entrance stating that the products inside were “ruční tkaní s láskou” — hand-woven with love. On entering out of curiosity, I noticed a prominently displayed framed certificate issued by the Czech Ministry of Culture recognizing the owner of the workshop, one Josef Fidler, for his traditional chenille weaving (tkalcovství výroba žinylky). While examining his hand looms with great interest I happened to mention to Mr. Fidler, a tall, thin man with a slight stoop, my family name and he immediately became animated, saying he was well aware of the Fuhrmann company and its prominence, until its nationalization 70 years prior, in Hlinsko’s industrial history. And then he drew my attention to a corner of the workshop where some strips of fabric were hanging on the wall, pointing out one in particular which, he said, was manufactured at the Fuhrmann plant. Astounded, I asked if he was certain, and he said yes, there was no doubt about it.
It was the edge of a carpet — made, perhaps, as a sample — about 20 centimetres wide and a metre long, with three contrasting bands of colour, all soft, warm tones. Innermost was a row of star-burst shapes on a midnight blue background, next to which was a rust-hued geometric design, then an outer band of plain beige, and finally a fringe of twisted white tassels.
Discovering this treasure, entirely by accident — the only Fuhrmann manufactured product I have ever seen — left me momentarily speechless. I absolutely must have this, I thought. I will ask Mr. Fidler if he would be so kind as to let me take it back to Canada. He will certainly see the rightness of that. But after just a short while this conviction completely evaporated, and was replaced by its exact opposite. I will not ask for it, I calmly thought as I prepared to leave the workshop. I’ll let it go. This is where it belongs.
A version of this story was published in the Canadian Jewish News on Dec. 20, 2018.