We are six or fewer steps away, by a way of introduction, from any other person in the world. In 1929, Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote a short story called Chains (Lanczsemek) suggesting this concept. 70 years later the idea has grown into a popular theory called Six Degrees of Separation devoted to studies of social networks and social media.
All my childhood I lived in a traditional multigenerational ‘winemaker estate’ separated from the world by more than just Six Degrees of separation. The description of the estate, its history and purpose do not translate well into English. There simply is no easy equivalent to this peculiar assembly of utility buildings with elaborated facade and grand heavy gate. The key feature of the estate is a deep seated cellar suitable for making and preserving wine. Most importantly, the winemaker’s craft, relying on labour of the close family, is completely hidden away from the main street as is seen on the featured image.
For a long time, my life pretty much evolved around the central yard exploring nothing more than my cousins’ new bikes or skipping ropes. There was, however, one mysterious element to this enclosed existence. Right behind the estate, separated by a small creek, stood a large dilapidated house that my grandfather always referred to casually as the Temple.
I thought the word ‘Temple’ sounded exotic but living in the socialist Czechoslovakia there was little room for exploring religions, let alone those from far away lands. It was in my late teens I understood there used to be a strong presence of Jewish faith in our town before the Second World War. Most importantly, the house we lived in once belonged to a Jewish family overlooking the Temple. The purchase took place long before the forced resettlement of Jewish residents and subsequent Holocaust. Nevertheless, the complete absence of Jews in the town, which I only became aware of in the 1980s, stirred something. I felt urged to write a school essay about a Jewish friend I have never known, a friend that has never been born but whom I would have most likely sang Madonna’s songs with if it wasn’t for the war.
I did not get a particularly good marks for the essay and my obsession with history fluctuated up and down as I settled down to a job and family. A moment of revelation came when I recently visited my home town’s Museum exhibition devoted to Svaty Jur – a Multicultural town. It offered a short history of the Jews and other minorities in the town. It documented the Jewish disapora from the late middle ages and explained its connection with the renowned religious school of Chatam Sofer. I saw photos of Jewish families from before WW2 and was particularly taken by the photo of Erzika and Imrich Sarkany (on the sledges) whose father Mr Sarkany, a known veterinary doctor in his days, sold the house to our great grandfather.
I was moved greatly when I read a book by Viola Kovacova – The Time of Barches who documented snippets of lives of Svaty Jur Jewish families from before the war. The book was based on oral histories told by Viola’s mother and other contemporaries. I realised that Imrich Sarkany, once a classmate of my grand-father, survived the war after moving to Britain. After a short return to Czechoslovakia, following the end of the war and realising his family died in Holocaust, Imrich returned to Britain as a refugee.
At the time of my first visit to UK in 1990s Imrich would have been at the peak of his career as a top dermatologist – with his own practice at Harley Street. I would have spent all those years working with refugees like Imrich only from more contemporary wars and conflicts. It striked me that for 10 years until his death in 2005, we both lived in the same country watching the same BBC news. Or perhaps we took the same tube train or passed each other on a Cambridge boat or a trip to Stonehenge. And if not him, then his sons or his daughter might have done.
When I visit my home town I no longer look at its streets as a resident. I search for the bus stop that’s no longer there, for a sledging slope that’s become a wealthy residence. I search for the child I once was, for the young woman with plans. And now that I read Viola Kovacova’s book I often ponder what Imrich thought when he visited his home town after more than 60 years. He came on the occasion of unveiling the Holocaust Memorial – a poignant, sad occasion one might think. I only hope that amongst the painful memories of the family he once lost to genocide there were many moments of laughter and kindness with his friends including my grandfather. I haven’t had a chance to ask neither of them – my grandfather had died before Imrich revisited.
So there’s me, Imrich and my grandfather all from the same piece of land overlooking the Jewish Temple and there is the theory of 6 Degrees of Separation. Only I still search the imaginary friend from my school essay – or perhaps he or she is already in my life? As David Mitchell famously wrote in his Cloud Atlas: ‘Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to others. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future‘.