Mementoes brought to Canada in 1948 make a return trip for an exhibition in the Czech Republic, bringing a family’s history to light
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 astonishment 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 from the city’s main park. None of his descendants have lived in what is now the Czech Republic for 71 years — not since my father left 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 social elite 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 the epilogue, emigration, when my parents jettisoned everything — heroically, in my mind — 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 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 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 sat down with my father for long talks about his past. A dutiful, prodigiously hard-working man then in his mid-70s, he was unused to such attention. The past had been buried in the effort to make something of himself in Canada. A knitting firm that he started in a small space on Toronto’s downtown College Street went broke after seven tough years. A translation company that he ran much longer at King and Yonge was a modest success. There had been a series of other jobs, many of them simultaneous. 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 looms and skeins and bobbins and shuttles, as if the act of remembering the prosperous enterprise founded by his brilliant grandfather served to validate the interrupted course of his own life.
I wrote down everything he told me. Pernes, a curator at the Low-Beer Villa, 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 Pernes discovered, 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.
Incredibly, after so many years, these things had acquired a new purpose: to return to Brno and tell their stories in this public setting. Or was that their main purpose all along, and only revealed now?
What makes one family’s historical vicissitudes resonate with other people? Or to put it another way: When does the personal become universal?
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 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.
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, who died in 2001, had been there for the occasion.
So how did it feel? It felt like history sometimes, miraculously, plays out as it should. It felt like confirmation that these lives mattered. It felt like this exhibition was a very good thing.
A version of this story was published in the Canadian Jewish News on Dec. 20, 2018.