Joseph Hurka

Author Joseph Hurka
© Mark Morelli

A son's journey to the heart of his family

In 1993, Joseph Hurka flew to Prague, an ancient city in the heart of Europe. There, he discovered the heart of his family.

Hurka, a lecturer in the English department, went to the Czech Republic to visit the homeland of his father, Josef. His idea, at the time, was to write a magazine travelogue for tourists interested in seeing the country in the wake of the "Velvet Revolution" that had thrown aside Communism.

What emerged instead was Fields of Light: A Son Remembers His Heroic Father (Pushcart Press, 2001), a prize-winning memoir that intertwines the stories of Josef Hurka, who resisted both the Nazis and the Communists in Czechoslovakia, and Joseph Hurka, as he re-visits the scene of his father's struggles some 40 years later.

"As a writer, you are living two lives at once," Joseph Hurka said, during an Author's Talk on November 7 that was sponsored by the Friends of Tufts Libraries at Tisch Library on the Medford/Somerville campus.

"I was really living in two places at once," he said, describing his time in the Czech Republic, where he shadowed his father's past, looking up to see the third-floor window of the prison cell where his father was once held captive, or standing on the bridge where his father once waited for the signal that told him there was a safe place to spend the night.

Life of resistance
Josef Hurka, the father, was born in 1925 in the town of Radnice, not far from Prague. He enjoyed a traditional Czech childhood—playing in the woods outside town; joining a gymnastics troupe; getting into mischief. That all ended in 1938, when Europe allowed Hitler to take first the Sudetenland, then eventually, all of Czechoslovakia.

At 16, Josef was sent to work for the Nazis in the coal mines. There, he was able to smuggle out dynamite for use by the Czech Resistance. It was the beginning of a lifetime devoted to fighting for freedom.

After the war, he joined the military and became a top competitive skier. But he earned enemies by refusing to join the Communist Party or to use his status as a star athlete to preach the Party line to youngsters. He was arrested by the secret police, beaten and tortured, shifted from prison to prison for months—never knowing if one day he'd become one of the many political prisoners headed for execution.

But, "in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, very odd things could happen," Joseph Hurka said, and Josef Hurka was released. He joined a skupina, a cell in the Resistance movement; his main mission was to smuggle the anti-Communist leader Josef Macek and his wife across the border into what was then West Germany.

In 1950, when it became too dangerous for Josef to remain in Czechoslovakia, he, too, escaped. Afterward, he spent about a decade working as a spy for the U.S. government. He eventually married an American-born woman from a Swiss family, became an industrial designer and raised a family in Massachusetts.

The book has not yet been translated into Czech, but Joseph Hurka hopes it will be. "I hope young people in the Czech Republic can be influenced by what Dad did," Hurka said.

Write about your parents
"In this era of memoirs that trace family dysfunction and the wounds children suffered at the hands of their parents, Hurka's tribute to his father is a welcome change," said a starred review of the book in Publisher's Weekly.

"I tell my students, it's important to write about your parents. It's where you are coming from," Hurka said. "You gain a much greater understanding of yourself afterward."

Indeed, Hurka said, writing the book was an extraordinary challenge, both emotionally and professionally.

"I tried writing about Dad and Mira [Josef's sister] in the third person, and that didn't work," Hurka said. "And then I tried writing it as straight history, and that was deadly boring." It was only when Hurka realized that he needed to insert his recent experiences in Prague into the story that he knew he'd found his literary form.

And, at first, the elder Hurka was reluctant to discuss all the details of his sometimes painful past. "Dad didn't want to talk about anything," his son recalled. It wasn't until Josef Hurka was hospitalized following a skiing accident that he agreed to tell the stories he had withheld for so long. "He told me everything—and I'm not so sure it was good for me," Joseph Hurka said. "I had a hard time going through it."

And, he said, it was also difficult to step back and view his father objectively as he was writing about him. "The trouble is as a son, looking at a father, there is this built-in hero worship," he said. "And somehow, I had to get those rose-colored glasses off.

"I'm not sure I succeeded. I could not hide my love."

The mandolin
Hurka's parents were in the audience during his appearance at the Tisch Library; the author also brought along a family heirloom—a mandolin from the Hurka homestead in Czechoslovakia that figures prominently in one section of the book.

The chapter describes the brutal reprisals meted out by the Nazis on the Czechs after the assassination, near Prague, of SS General Reinhard Heydrich. As Wehrmacht soldiers searched from house-to-house for suspects, they came to the Hurka home, with orders to spend at least a half hour.

Josef's father was elderly and infirm and was upstairs in bed. His mother, Barbora, asked that they not disturb the old man. The soldiers complied—then asked if they could play the mandolin, which they noticed hanging on the wall. The family agreed, and the Germans began to play.

"When I think of this time, I often think of how that mandolin was, that day in June, somehow an angel of mercy for my family," Hurka writes. "I think of my grandfather alone in bed, hearing the sounds of the Wehrmacht on Svehlova Street and the pounding at the front door. Then the mandolin music, making him wonder, giving him brief peace. For the moment, his family was all right. I imagine a German soldier singing and laughing with his comrades in the living room below, striking the strings with the pick and the golden color of the instrument against his field gray.

"The mandolin now sits in my parents' home in Vermont and has not been played for years. But when I was a boy, my father played an old Bohemian tune on it for me again and again, as often as I requested."

Open your heart
Fields of Light received the 19th annual Pushcart Editors' Book Award. Hurka, who has taught creative and expository writing at Tufts since 1989, is now at work on a novel, on a subject seemingly far removed from the horrors of Communist Czechoslovakia—a story set in Cambridge, Mass., that revolves around a stalker.

Trying to write from the stalker's perspective and understand the stalker's psyche, Hurka said, is an attempt at discovering what motivates people to become brutal. Hurka said for him, the stalker has "become Hitler."

"I'm trying to understand what creates war," Hurka said. "I'm trying to understand why my family had to go through this, why so many Jewish families had to go through what they did."

Among his literary influences, Hurka cites the late Andre Dubus, whom he calls his "mentor-father." Dubus taught him the value of looking closely at the world and thinking precisely about all that's around. "He opened his heart when he wrote," Hurka said. "When you are writing, you have to concentrate and be the best of which you are capable."

Hurka also draws on the wisdom of Father Vaclav Maly, a Czech priest who had defied the Communist authorities and who had been interrogated by the secret police approximately 250 times. In 1979, Maly was imprisoned with Vaclav Havel, now president of the Czech Republic.

Hurka recounts an interview he conducted with Maly back in Prague. What, Hurka asked the priest, is your definition of courage?

"He laughed a little," Hurka wrote, "Then he thought and said: 'Above all to live a one-faced life. To have something inside and reflect this outside. And not only to reflect the truth in the heart, but to live according to the truth.' "