A brown-skinned turkey, homemade gravy, cucumber salad and all the fixings that made Thanksgiving dinner special were on the dining room table at the Zards’ family home in Illinois.
Arthur Zards always enjoyed holiday celebrations when the whole family gathered together. But he learned something new about his family at a Thanksgiving celebration that took place four or five years ago.
He was enjoying the usual hum of small talk and family stories that continued through coffee and dessert. Arthur’s ears perked up when his father, Andrew, began to unwind a World War II yarn. He always enjoyed his father’s stories, but he didn’t remember hearing this one before.
The tale was about an old Sterling silver place setting. Andrew Zards said he’d owned it for years, but Arthur had never seen or known about until that very moment. The elder Zards said the place setting consisted of a knife, spoon and fork, each piece engraved with a German swastika and the initials “A.H.” for Adolf Hitler. As Arthur listened, he realized that the utensils might well have been used by the brutal Nazi leader himself.
Arthur knew that his grandparents, his father and his father’s sister had escaped from Latvia in the 1940s, near the end of the war. He’d heard how they had boarded one of the last available trains out of Latvia with only what they were able to carry. Everything else had to be left behind.
The train had taken them to the town of Kuchl, Austria, which was only a short distance from Hitler’s famed Eagle’s Nest retreat in Berchtesgaden. After their arrival, the nearly penniless runaways somehow obtained lodging in a small house near an internment camp in East Germany.
Arthur wanted to hear more details about the silverware, and he listened intently as his father continued the story, telling the family about the day Arthur’s grandmother went out for a walk in the town and heard a male voice calling out to her in Latvian. Following the sound of the voice, she saw someone behind a bush. She discovered a young Latvian man asking whether she could hide him.
It turned out that the man was in the German Army and had been a guard at the Eagle’s Nest, but he wanted to leave. He had sneaked away and needed a place to hide until he could get out of the country without being discovered. Arthur’s grandparents kept the man at their little house, well aware that she and her husband were risking their lives by hiding him. In gratitude, the soldier gave his protectors the only valuable thing he had – the single set of silverware he had stolen from Hitler’s mountain retreat house.
His grandparents later got away, packing the silverware along with what little else they had, and made their way to America. They lived in New York City for years and, after they died, the silverware was passed down to Arthur’s father.
“Arthur’s grandparents kept the man at their little house, well aware that [they] were risking their lives by hiding him. In gratitude, the soldier gave his protectors the only valuable thing he had – the single set of silverware he had stolen from Hitler...”
Arthur had to know where the silverware had ended up. When he asked, his mother got up and went to the dining room hutch. He heard the sound of utensils clanking together as she rummaged through the drawer, looking for the old utensils.
At last, she held up a clear plastic baggie. And, sure enough, Arthur could see three pieces of silverware inside the bag. Upon closer examination, Arthur could clearly see the swastikas and the initials of the German leader who had been responsible for such cruelty and so many deaths throughout Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
During the same telephone conversation where Arthur talked about the old German silverware, he also recalled other stories he’d heard about his Latvian heritage. He knew that his grandparents had been able to enter the United States because a Latvian family sponsored them and helped them with the details of getting into the country. Arthur was aware that his grandfather had worked hard all his life. Though he spoke no English when he arrived, he taught himself the new language and supported himself and his family by working as a building superintendent and at many other jobs. His goal was always to make life better for his loved ones.
Arthur also mentioned the parallel story of his mother and father who were children when their parents brought them from Latvia to New York City, one of two major areas where immigrating Latvians usually settled [the other being Eugene, Oregon]. His parents didn’t know each other as children, even though they had lived in the same area of Latvia and each had been together in a group photograph that was taken when they were six and eight years old. They didn’t meet until years later when both attended a Latvian event in New York City.
To Arthur, the silverware his grandparents brought with them to America symbolizes the horrific suffering that took place during the war years under the infamous leadership of Adolf Hitler. Arthur knew that most of the older Latvian people had terrible stories to tell of family members who were killed during and after World War II.
“The silverware is a reminder of a terrible dictator,” he said. Yet, he muses, there is an irony to the juxtaposition of something that once belonged to such a ruthless leader and the freedom the Zards family has enjoyed since coming to America so many years ago.
Bio: Arthur is president and co-founder of XNet.com, an online Internet solutions company which he and Brian Clark established in 1992 in Lisle, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Arthur also hosts the annual Silicon Prairie Social, a networking event for technology-oriented professionals in the western Chicago suburbs. The website of his company is www.Xnet.com
Thank you Arthur, for sharing your Story with us.
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