HOPE AMIDST GRIEF: Finding Gratitude in the Worst Weeks of World War II

A powerful message of hope in a letter from 1945, written by my grandfather to his deceased daughter


On this day, 75 years ago, in a small home ravaged by the strikes of the second World War, my grandfather Frantisek wrote a letter to his only daughter, Jarmilka. It was May 16, 1945 and our village on the outskirts of Brno in former Czechoslovakia just started recovering from the blows of the battlefront sweeping through it only a week earlier. To the relief of millions, the second World War had finally come to an end as Germany capitulated on May 8 — a day now celebrated throughout many European countries as Victory Day.


Although the clouds of war had now passed, this day held a special yet bittersweet meaning for my grandfather. It marked the second anniversary of Jarmilka’s death. After suffering through many illnesses, his bright-eyed young blonde doll had passed away at the tender age of 11. 


My father, Zdenek, only got to meet his sister very briefly. He was 6 months old at the time of her passing. Yet the memory of Jarmilka remained very much alive in the Ondrejka family. Knowing her mostly through the stories that his parents shared, my dad spoke of his beloved sister with great love.

My grandfather’s little black notepad of “Family notes”

Grandfather Frantisek often sat down with his ink pen to jot down notes about major events in the life of our family in his little black notepad. Since Jarmilka’s passing however, the notepad became his medium for sharing his feelings and life experiences with her.


This letter from May 16th, 1945 paints a picture of how an ordinary family managed to survive amidst the worst weeks of the Second World War. 

At the time my family had to flee from their home, my dad was 2 years old. His younger brother Jenicek was only three weeks old. Jenicke later passed away in 1948 at the age of 3, leaving my dad as the only one of four children to make it to adulthood (Milos was born in 1930 and passed away that same year).

Today, 75 years later, I feel called to share my grandfather’s letter with others. Because this is not just my family’s story. It is the story of all of us — of the family we call humanity.

The letter has been translated by me from Czech to English. In order to keep the text as close to the original as possible, much of the sentence structure and punctuation has been left as is. Some words were ineligible, noted by (…).

Legend of Names: Frantisek — my grandfather on my father’s side (1898–1978) Antonie — my grandmother on my father’s side (1903–1956) Jarmilka (the endearing form of Jarmila) — my aunt (1932–1943) Zdenecek (the endearing form of Zdenek) — my father (1942–2011) Jenicek (the endearing form of Jan) — my uncle (1945–1948)  the Karasek family — my grandmother’s side of the family  Legend of Locations: Brno — my hometown, second largest town in the Czech Republic Jehnice — my home village on the northern outskirts of Brno Lelekovice — a village on the other side of the hill across from Jehnice Reckovice — my father’s home village, only one village away from Jehnice

MAY 1945 IN BRNO, CZECHOSLOVAKIA

May 16th, 1945

Today marks the second anniversary, Jarmilka, of the day that God took you back home, and caused us to feel such deep pain. I have written to you of how we have suffered and still suffer, my dearest doll, and although time heals some wounds, and the trust in our reunification with you on the other side helps us bear the cross that God has given us, we could still never forget. Today I would like to write you a little bit about what’s been happening with us since the last time I wrote.


First of all, thank God that I am able to write to you again, my Jarmilka. It has been nearly six weeks and we have gone through a lot. We once again live in the Czechoslovakian Republic, which you have also known, we once again have hope in life, those despised Germans will not cause us to suffer anymore.


We are happy and we should express it more often because this freedom claimed a lot of lives. Once the wounds fully heal, we will be able to be fully joyful about our independence. Over the past week, we have been living in relative peace, while only three weeks before then, the war came to our Brno.


At night they bombarded us, during the day there was also air raids, the battlefront kept getting closer and on Tuesday, April 17th, we too had to flee from it with our Zdenecek and Jenicek as we headed to the Karasek’s family in Jehnice. Jenicek was only three weeks old and already had to go on such a trip.


The first week was ok, the kids were able to go outside, but the second week there were shootings and we had to hide in the basement most of the time, only occasionally able to go to the hallway or porch, especially Zdenecek, he wasn’t happy when he couldn’t go outside, and Jenicek was also not acting very nicely when he couldn’t get fresh air.


We also experienced such intense firings from the cannons that everything in the basement was shaking and we were awaiting the moment when one of those shots would hit even our hiding place, and when it stopped we could breathe a sigh of relief. We thought we would undergo the war days in Jehnice until it fell upon us that we also had to experience a Journey of the Cross. On Thursday, May 3rd, came the order that all of Jehnice had to move out. A sudden hit that we didn’t expect — and now where should we go?


And so we, with our little ones, were getting ready, your dear mom was crying and I wasn’t far from it either and when we were almost outside with the baby strollers and the shots kept firing and we were helpless about what to do next, the courage of Zdenek Karasek all of a sudden came through as he said: “Let’s stay home, not go anywhere” and that resonated and we returned back to the basement.


Even then we didn’t get to avoid the Journey of the Cross. The next day, on Friday May 4th around one in the afternoon, a German solider with a revolver gun ordered us out and gave us an ultimatum of not even a half hour to move out. And so we started the hard trip to Lelekovice with the kids, Karaseks and the Marholds. We got to Lelekovice and wondered where to go next until father Karasek found us a roof over our heads and we felt some level of relief.


The local residents, especially the guys, were helpful and friendly and helped us in all sort of ways, may God bless them for that. It was a bit calmer in Lelekovice than in Jehnice, even though we experienced some rough moments there, everyone kept saying that the war will be over soon, that Germany capitulated, but the shots kept being fired and seemed to be getting nearer and nearer, especially that last night from Tuesday to Wednesday, May 9th. We were hoping for peace to come at midnight but it didn’t happen — the shots kept firing and your mom and I could barely sleep and at one point when it was really close, we grabbed Zdenecek and Jenicek and laid them down on the ground under the window so they would be protected from the flying glass if it shattered.


We made it until the morning of Wednesday, May 9th, which was a critical one (….) and we were all tucked away in the kitchen by the wall and awaiting our destiny. When it stopped for a moment, we ran to another place of shelter, further into the basement to hide. There it continued; we heard the nearby sounds of shots from rifles and machine guns. While we were hiding and when it paused for a minute, aunt Karaskova went inside to prepare some breakfast and brought it to the basement for all of us, God praise her for that, especially because of the children. Aunt Stefa had such a peaceful and calming presence even in Jehnice, that even I was surprised by it since, us men, were afraid to leave the basement, and she was calmly working in the kitchen.


And so that day, May 9th, we sat in Lelekovice in the basement, almost without any hope; the children were acting up, poor Zdenecek was in a mood and Jenicek was also not acting nice, restless moments; around ten o’clock someone came and told us that we can go out, that they are raising the banners. Uncle Karasek and I did not believe it, wondering if perhaps it is some sort of fraud, and so we remained sitting and kept waiting. About 45 minutes later came another young man, saying that the Romanians are here, so we came out and there was a lot of people everywhere and the banners were raised and we saw some Romanian soldiers.


We felt as if we had been saved from some curse, our hearts felt brighter, the sun was shining beautifully, in short, the despair turned into a great elation and we were overcome with tears of joy. We would have hugged those Romanian soldiers with great joy, we shook their hands and they also returned our Hellos. Then we packed up our stuff, put Zdenecek and Jenicek in their strollers and headed to Jehnice. On the way, we saw Romanian soldiers everywhere, people walking, vehicles, cannons, and all sorts of stuff as if on the battlefront.

We happily arrived in Jehnice, your mom and the kids stayed with the Karaseks, and I went to check on everything back home in Reckovice. Everywhere one looked, it was clear that the war came through; Mokra Hora (village between Jehnice and Reckovice) was a mess, houses destroyed, trees knocked down and in Reckovice even worse, everything broken, in our place there were holes everywhere, pieces of roof shingles, drywall, broken glass, bricks, everything all mixed together, windows broken, and our home looked awful, everything on the floor, lots of glass, trash, pieces of the wall, just a complete junkyard.


my aunt Jarmilka

I went to the cemetery to visit your graveyard and it was also a disaster, your tombstone was broken, my dearest doll, amongst many others. I was trying to find at least a piece of it but couldn’t find anything. I could cry over it all. The war front didn’t even spare you deceased ones. The last time I saw your tombstone was on Wednesday April 25th, at that time you were still smiling at me from your photograph, I said goodbye to you in sort of a sad fashion — I knew that I had to leave you for a little bit Jarmilka, but I didn’t think I would re-unite with you in this way.


Despite it all, we praise God, for granting us another life, and we will re-enact your tombstone once again. That was Wednesday, May 9th, so we couldn’t get to you for 14 days and this is how we have re-united.


On Thursday, May 10th, we moved from Jehnice back to Reckovice, where the work of cleaning up and putting things back in order began so that we could live in our kitchen and home again. Zdenecek and Jenicek have been experiencing the consequences of their long-term stay in the basement, colds, coughing and other unpleasant issues.


Good night Jarmilka.



My grandparents with my dad Zdenek & uncle Jenicek (who passed away in 1948)

3 HOPEFUL REMINDERS OF ESSENTIAL TRUTHS WE OFTEN FORGET


I believe that the story of my family’s trials can serve as a reminder of a few important concepts that we intuitively understand but often forget to apply in our lives. These have the power to shift us from despair to hope and from stress to peace — all with just a slight shift in perspective.


1) We are all one human family…


Underneath the mental constructs of nationalities, cultures, religions, ideologies, or political parties, we are all part of the family of humanity. We are simply earthlings who all long to feel a sense of peace while tasting the wonder of being fully alive.


Each of us may express our humanity differently, but we share far more similarities. Our basic needs are the same — physical safety (food and shelter) and emotional safety (feelings of belonging and acceptance). Our differences are a means for us to help one another meet these needs. As such, they serve to strengthen the ecosystem of our social webs.


Did every soldier in the war — whether of German, Czechoslovak, or Romanian origin not have the same molecules of water, salt, and proteins constituting their red blood cells? Did nature somehow err in composing the DNA of one group of men and not the others? Before it was labeled with the name of a country, was the land that our ancestors walked upon not simply “land”? When did adding a label to a piece of nature or to a set of mental constructs make one group better than another group? Do the bees that pollinate the orange blossoms in Greece feel superior or inferior to the bees that pollinate the orange blossoms in California?


& yet sometimes we forget that cooperation will get us much farther than competition.


We are made of the same essential components — one fabric of life showing up in seven billion unique forms. After millennia of witnessing the suffering that results from closed-mindedness, we are still waking up to the understanding of our interconnectedness and the importance of compassion.


Clinging to the idea that one culture or belief system is better than another only closes us off from the connection we all share. Even that clinging arises out of underlying insecurities. For if a nation, a group, or an institution truly believed in its own power, would it still feel the need to seek power outside of itself? Perhaps every attack is actually a disguised call for help. The need to have power over others constitutes an expression of fear. Authentic empowerment, on the other hand, is the result of cooperation as we share our powers together.


2) We have a limited time on this planet…


We are so afraid of encountering the end of our lives that we have forgotten how to truly live. Instead of fearing death, we can use it as a tool to help us live more fully. All of us will shed our physical bodies at some point. There is nothing left to do with each precious moment of Now than to bring meaning into it by appreciating the good that is present in our lives.


Contemplating our own mortality can stir up a sense of reverence, wonder, and gratitude for this moment. The awareness of the fact that we are all mortal can cultivate a deeper sense of compassions towards others — as well as ourselves. The depths of love that naturally flow between all human beings have been so polluted by our fears that we forget that we all occasionally swim in the river of the exact same fears as our fellow earthlings.


& yet we still let trivialities rob us of our peace.


We take unnecessary stress upon ourselves by worrying about things that do not actually pose a threat to our physical existence. As we cling to expectations and ideas of how things “should be,” we use up precious mental energy at the detriment of our physical and mental well-being. The more we can learn about the power of our mental focus, the more we can consciously redirect it in ways that puts us at peace and propels our growth. We can train ourselves to choose to see the blessings even amidst life’s trials.


It is possible for a woman to calmly make breakfast for her family in a kitchen that could be bombed in any moment. It is just as possible to not let our peace be taken away by the thought of something not going our way. If we can control a situation, we can take the necessary actions. If we can’t, we can change our mind and choose to find peace in the present moment. We can decide to infuse any moment with meaning as we remember that even this moment is temporary.


3) We are lucky to be alive…


We often forget what a precious treasure our own human birth is. Even if we still stand in awe at the birth of a new child or grandchild, we rarely think about the miracle of our own birth.

What were the odds that out of all the children who died so young in the times of the war, my dad would make it to adulthood? What were the odds of him meeting my mom and me being conceived?


What are the odds that I am still here, in this body, to share these words?

Google the odds of you being born. You will likely find two estimates. One states the odds as 1 in 400 trillion (that’s 400,000,000,000,000). That itself is a number our minds find hard to comprehend. But the other estimate makes that number seem minuscule. With all the chemical and biological processes that had to happen, the odds are 1 in 10 to the 2,865,000 power (a 10 with 2,685,000 zeros behind it)!


& yet sometimes we forget what a miracle we are.


Are you a fluke or a miracle of nature? You decide. Your decision shapes your attitude which shapes your personal experience of life.


Everyone has a story of trials and sacrifice similar to my family’s — even if it may go many generations back. We all have stories of loved ones who made it despite the odds — and because of them — we are here. We are alive. One human family on one beautiful planet of green and blue.


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A BRIGHTER WORLD THROUGH A SHIFT OF PERSPECTIVE


The fire in me burns. It burns for Jarmilka and the millions of children who came to this planet, even if only briefly, to remind us of the light that connects us all. 


The fire in my heart burns for humanity to remember its oneness.


We have the power in every instance to shift the way see one another. Ancient wisdom has been reminding us of our unity for millennia. Science has been pointing at the interconnected and interdependent nature of life for decades. Humanity and each of its members have never been separate from this definition of “life.”


We are one stream of electromagnetic potential dancing with subatomic particles with funny names — pretending that the stream is different from the particles. We are the sum-total of the endless collisions of stars, shaped by the earth’s elements into these bodies, powered by photons joyfully emanating from the sun.


Perhaps today, 75 years later, my ancestors would like for us to know that no matter what happens — we are all in this together. And we always have a choice. The choice to see life with fresh eyes of hope and gratitude in every moment of now.


And perhaps, just for today…we can set aside our differences, and see love staring back at us in the form of another human being.

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