My mother’s parents, Karel and Margaret Běhal, built Pevnostní 651 in 1928 to reflect their professional success in the insurance business and as a gathering place where their family and friends would enjoy the many aspects of Prague’s cultural life. My mother lived there until 1938, when she married my father, Andrew Fejér, and went to California, where he had a fellowship to study at California Institute of Technology with Theodore von Kármán, a close family friend from Budapest.
My grandparents emigrated to Canada in 1939. They never returned to their beloved home. It was occupied by the military during WWII, after which, it was rented to the Archbishop of the Czech Orthodox Church. At a subsequent point, it was taken over by the government and the Church kept the ground floor as offices. The upper floors were divided into two apartments. There was also an artist’s studio in the basement. The same tenants have occupied the villa throughout the years.
I visited Prague for the first time in 1963 with my mother and brother. We stood across the street from the house as Mother told us many tales of her life there. It was not possible for us to go inside. Starting in the mid 1980s, my parents returned to Central Europe frequently, as my mother was happiest wandering the streets of her childhood. When President Václav Havel’s government instituted a restitution program following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, my mother eagerly began the application process for Pevnostní 651. Her fondest desire was to return to Prague and spend the rest of her life in her childhood home. Sadly, she died in 1996, without realizing that dream. My father and I continued the legal process, and in 2001 the property was indeed returned to our family.
I have, together with my family, pondered the fate of the villa since it was returned to us. When the artist’s studio in the basement became vacant, I renovated it, creating a small flat for our use. Unfortunately, my father passed away in 2006 and never had a chance to enjoy it. Since my father’s passing, I have given considerable thought to how best to use the property in a manner befitting our family’s legacy and reflecting our values. We feel that the property should serve as a living memorial for my mother, Edith Běhal Fejér, who raised my brothers and me with values that continue to define us.
Edith Běhal Fejér was an intellectual and political being from a young age. She chaperoned students on educational tours throughout Europe. She was a dedicated Red Cross volunteer during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Even after her first application for US citizenship was denied because of questions arising from these volunteer efforts, her belief in democracy never wavered. She eventually became a US citizen and then devoted herself to the study of history and sociology. She became a high school teacher and ultimately, a college professor.
I remember her dedication to civil rights and the importance of education. In the early 1960s, she taught American history at Crane Technical High School on Chicago’s predominantly African-American West Side. However, she was more than a teacher to her students. She was a mentor and role model, working tirelessly to help them realize their dream of escaping the ghetto through higher education. She and I joined forces to create a student exchange program which brought together students from my high school, Oak Park River Forest High School, and Crane Tech. We had urban students from Crane visiting our suburban school and some of us visited Crane. It was a small but successful endeavor. In thinking about it now, I see it was an important tool for teaching tolerance.
My mother was a very early feminist. She also taught us the importance of the fine arts through music appreciation classes, music lessons and art lessons, concerts, operas, and other cultural experiences. A common thread through all of these pursuits was the appreciation of cultural differences and the importance of embracing all of humankind.
When I look at the old Běhal family photos, including little albums of gatherings that Mother’s parents had in the house in Prague, I see that many different kinds of events took place there. One item in particular stands out. There is an invitation in German and Czech announcing an evening with Max Brod as the special guest; he was to talk about the political situation in 1935. From this, I see that my grandparents did more than just entertain on a superficial level. I imagine there were chamber music concerts there as well as B’nai Brith gatherings and weekly Sunday dinners where, besides family and friends, other notables would gather to discuss the important topics of the day. This is the environment I would like to recreate at Pevnostní 651: the establishment of a center for teaching tolerance and furthering peaceful coexistence and understanding through education, and thereby, honoring my family.
Today, the resurgence of polarized views has contributed to increased intolerance throughout the world. In numerous European countries, the Jewish communities, the Roma, gay, and immigrant populations are frequent targets of discrimination and even violence. There are also the global issues of peaceful coexistence, nuclear disarmament, and climate change which must be addressed if the world community is to survive.
These important issues resonate as matters which would be of great concern to my parents if they were living today, and this is the basis for the creation of a center for teaching tolerance: to educate people about all of these issues through the fine arts and academic endeavors at Pevnostní 651.