This is when I have a revelation, a memory of an address on an envelope I found as a child. This is when I Google “Thea” and have an actual last name to end it with. This is when I find her, right?
No. This is when I am in Vienna, where I always knew I would end up. This is where the sadness of the end of an amazing trip sets in and I fully come to terms with knowing this: I will never know who I am named after. And I have to be okay with that.

But I do know a lot more about what my grandpa went through when he was ten years younger than I am now. I know about the horror and thanks to Father Hetzler, I know about the laughter. I understand my grandpa a little better now, I appreciate him even more than I already did, and I really realize how much of an impact he had on my life. Not just in my name, but in everything I became.

I wonder if Grandpa ever thought I would make it here, Vienna, looking for some pieces of his childhood, when I ended up with ‘Thea’ as a name. I wonder what he thought of when he looked at me. I bet at first it was her, but as I became a new person, my own person, he must have seen less and less of the original Thea. I feel a little bad about that, that I took away some part of her as I grew up with her name and made it mine. But maybe that gave him some joy too, witnessing me grow as he could never witness her.  

So this is where I leave her: somewhere outside Vienna in a field, flowers to her waist and a blurry face that appears to be smiling.  



Vienna, the end.  

Whenever asked what places I would be visiting or had already visited these last two months, I have recited: London, Normandy, Provence, Belgium, The Netherlands, Dresden, Lower Bavaria, Prague, Krakow and Vienna. Whenever I have spat this list out to any European, they have smiled quietly, their eyes gloss over with dreams as they say, “Ah, Wien. I love Wien, you will love it there.”  

It is like Paris had a baby with Dresden. There is so much art and music here, you can’t make a turn without tripping over a building Mozart performed in, an apartment Beethoven lived in, or a palace converted to a contemporary art gallery. The whole city is teaming with its rich history and rich present. It is almost overwhelming, the monumental things to see in Vienna — Wien, the city of music.  

Somewhere near here is where Grandpa spent four years after the war during the occupation. He left in 1949 for Boston, where he ended up living in Cambridge and studying at MIT. He met Nana soon after and began a sixty-plus year marriage, had three children and eight grandchildren and a successful business. But before all that, he was a kid living somewhere outside Vienna on an army base. I know that he was outside the city because I found two of his day passes for entering Vienna.  


I also found fishing and hunting permits. This was interesting to me as I recalled in my research, the American soldiers becoming bored with waiting to fight and the monotony of their rationed food. To pass the time and fight the redundancy of their meals, they began illegally hunting boars in the Ardennes.  

Father Hetzler told me that the German prisoners of war didn’t believe that they were being fed the same food as the American soldiers. (According to the Geneva Convention, POW’s had to be treated as well as the soldiers holding them and the civilian population. That meant they would eat the same food as their captors and get paid for any labor they agreed to take on. Of course, not every country adhered to those laws, but America, England and Canada did.) The German POW’s complained, the food was so disgusting, they could not believe the American soldiers were eating it as well. Father Hetzler laughed when he told me that. He said that he would do what he could to trade his friends for their breakfast portions, that was his favorite meal but unfortunately a very popular item: dehydrated eggs.

So I know that Grandpa legally hunt in Austria, outside of Vienna. I know he met Thea in Vienna. That’s pretty much it. But this is where it pays to pay attention to your elders, kids, listen up. When I was a child I asked about the original Thea and Nana said, “I think there was a picture somewhere. I think she was in a field.” I looked all over Nana and Grandpa’s house but couldn’t find the picture. It was a conversation that I never forgot though. It inspired a poem that I wrote in grad school and was published in Runaway Parade a little while later. (Click here for “Waterproofing.”)

So seven years after Grandpa passed, when Nana found that tin full of pictures, day passes and hunting licenses, I found a picture of a girl in a field. There were many different people in that tin — men and women. Nana couldn’t remember which was Thea. But I remembered the comment Nana had made when I was a little kid, and I am pretty sure that I found the original Thea in that container of post-war memories.  


Thea: the original
From there I sorted through the rest of the blurry photos. I could not see a lot of faces clearly but I inferred from body language that Thea was in several pictures. She had a way of hunching her shoulders forward.  If I am correct, I found her in the field but also on the street, with other women, in a shop’s doorway. I thought about what the medium said about meeting her in a daily routine, perhaps a coffee shop. Was this the door to the shop she worked in?

I also found a picture of a street sign, all arrows pointed in one direction: Fulda. Fulda is a city in Germany and the Fulda Gap was a key point during WWII and the Cold War as it is easily traveled lowlands (in fact it was an escape route once used by Napoleon) between East and West Germany. The Allies passed through the Fulda Gap between March and April, 1945. Grandpa must have been somewhere around there during the occupation, but none of those signs lead to Thea, or I should say that I can’t say whether or not they would with any certainty. This is where the trail goes cold.

So I have some cities and some pictures, but I have no last name, no address, no nationality. In a time that was saturated with scattered people from all over Europe, leaving their homes to escape persecution and Nazi rule, Thea could have come from anywhere. And the funniest thing about me being in Austria: no one is familiar with my name. I have had to repeat it to anyone who asks, I even spelled it out for someone today, just like in America. I like this though, I imagine it is something that the original Thea and I have in common, and that’s pretty cool.  

So this is where the story ends. Vienna, the city of music, art and “The Kiss”.  

Vienna, the end.

Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss”

I’m on a Night Train

This isn’t about heroin. This is about a real night train.  

It was my last day in Prague and it would be a weird one. I had to check out at 11am and had an overnight train to Krakow that didn’t leave until 10pm. I checked out even earlier than 11:00, too anxious to sleep late, I got up and showered and had of course already packed the night before. I tried to watch a Thanksgiving episode of Bob’s Burgers to distract me but that just reminded me that in a couple hours, my friends and family would be getting up for Thanksgiving prep, travel, togetherness.  

Fortunately, the hotel not only allowed me to leave my luggage with them, they had a sister hostel across the street where I could sit for as long as I wanted. I went over, drank four cups of coffee and loaded up on fruit, I felt a cold coming on. Then, I took my last walk through Prague.

I started with Old Town, went to visit the astrology clock one last time. I walked through the square and watched people assemble the small, wooden houses for the impending Christmas market. I liked that here, everyone was preparing for Christmas, not Thanksgiving. It made me forget for sparse moments throughout the day what I was missing back home. Then I decided I would go to the Jewish Cemetery and wandered around for about an hour looking for it. Turns out I had passed it several times, I just didn’t realize you couldn’t view it from the street, that you had to pay for a ticket to go in.

There were three tours offered and I asked the woman which I should get. She was old, everyone who worked here was. She pointed a crooked finger to the scratched up plaque to the left of her. I couldn’t read it, there were entire letters and words missing.  

“I’d like to see the cemetery.” I finally said. 

“Tour One or Tour Two,” she said with a thick, Slavic accent.

“Okay, then Two.” I said, seeing that it also allowed me to view several synagogues and a museum.

“Two tickets?”

“No, one ticket for Tour Two.” That was when I noticed a woman standing obscenely close to me, also trying to read the plaque.  

I took my ticket and followed a crowd into a synagogue that had its walls painted with the names of the murdered and missing Jewish Czech citizens between the years 1939 and 1945. It was over 100,000. The names included dates if birthdays and death dates were known. They alternated in red and black font. The effect was dizzying, the font was so small and there were just so many names.

I always find myself searching for my grandpa’s last name when I am in buildings like this. His parents were Russian Jews who moved to Brooklyn to start a family in the early 1900’s. I wonder how many family members he lost that he didn’t even know about. There were no Wolk’s here.

After that I walked in a somber line through the cemetery. The headstones were jagged, shooting up from the ground like sporadic shark’s teeth. Some were green with moss, some had no moss at all. The ones near the roped off path had pebbles balanced on top of them and as I moved further through the crowded plot, I could see that folded prayers were shoved in any crevice of the headstones closest to the path. A small tea candle was lit on top of one.

I did not realize how big the cemetery was and often stopped to look at its magnitude. It was incredible to me how many people were beneath the ground. It was incredible to me how close the headstones were together, how they leaned in every direction like they were all just trying to sleep now.  


After that I needed to be on my own. I put my headphones on and walk towards the Charles Bridge. A man in sailor costume promoting boat tours asked me to get coffee, I lied and said I was on my way to catch my train to Poland soon. There are very few people worth sacrificing my last day in Prague for.

I found and climbed some ridiculous stairs up the side of a mountain. Graffiti overtook every inch of the walls, steps, statues. An empty beer bottle sat on the edge of the highest point. I stood next to it and looked out over Prague. To my right, a smaller version of the Eiffel Tower stood atop the neighboring mountain. I walked through the park that lay behind me and then back down the stairs. I wandered over the Charles Bridge again, trying to avoid the fake sailor as I backtracked, and made it back to the astrology clock where I sat and had a big, early dinner.  

I was outside and beneath a space heater, looking out at people on Segway tours. One tourist fell off his, the guides all stifled laughter. Next to me, a Scottish couple argued and smoked together, lovingly. The woman complained that the man was asking everyone for directions to the same place, she complained that her mulled wine was too hot when he tried to cheers with her, and looked over enviously at my hot chocolate, saying she should have gotten what I got. She rambled while he ignored her, coughing up a smoker’s cough periodically. A woman who worked for the restaurant asked to take their picture. They waved her away without saying anything.

The sun was gone now, horses drawing carriages full of tourists trotted by. My last day in Prague was coming to a close. I walked slowly back to the hotel, collected my things and waited in the hostel for a cab.  

The cab charged me a fifth of what the first cab from the same train station had cost me. Oh well. The station was nearly empty but for groups of tired looking travelers, bent under the weight of their backpacks. I stood beneath the sign and waited for my platform to be announced then headed down the dark underground corridor, ascending into a darker night and a completely empty platform.  

An older woman came tearing up the stairs, looked at the sign, looked at me, and walked directly to the left as if there was a train there that I couldn’t see and she knew exactly which car she was supposed to be on.

Turns out, she was right. When the train arrived a minute later, she was in the right place. I followed her lead and looked at the train door, a sign listing various cities I’d never heard of hung from it. No Krakow. But the digital sign overhead clearly said this was the platform for Krakow.

An old man in all black got off the train, I hoped he was an employee and handed him my ticket, asking if this was in fact the train to Krakow.

“No.” He sighed and handed the ticket back to me. “Krakow,” he waved me down to the other end of the platform. “Down.”

Having no idea what that meant, I followed his direction until I got closer to the front of the train. I asked another older man stepping off the train in the same uniform, he said the same thing, sternly and knowingly, he waved me further forward with no more than two words: “No, down.”

Suddenly, the doors had new signs on them, and they said the train would terminate in Krakow. When I boarded my assigned car, I asked a Swedish passenger if this was the train to Krakow. He said yes. I asked about how the other half of the train was going to entirely different cities.

“The train will disconnect,” he said, “I hope!”  

Ha. Ha…

He was astonished that I was American, perhaps I have picked up an accent.  

Then, yet another version of the same stern, older man in a black uniform came down the hall.  

“Is this train going to Krakow?” I asked, handing him my ticket.

“Yes. You are on the right train, in the right car.”  I let out a sigh of relief. That was almost too easy.  “But there has been a mistake.” Shocker. “You have been assigned my bunk. I will give you a new one. One to yourself.” What! That was great news! I was dreading sharing a room with five strangers! “Go down to number two, it’s all yours. I will explain everything.” He took my ticket and walked away, as they always seem to do.

Unlike every other train employee, this man did come back and explain things to me. He showed me how to lock the door properly and warned me to be careful as this train was making multiple stops. When we were thirty minutes away from Krakow he would knock on my door to wake me up and return my ticket. He also brought coffee and a croissant! I never wanted to leave this man.  

But I did, my train pulled into Krakow at 6:45am, just shy of a nine hour trip. I slept for about three of those hours, the rest were spent lying on the shaking train, listening to passengers board and disembark, and the singing of metal against metal as we crossed borders in the night.  

Three: It Might be Romantic; It Might be Stupid – But I’ve Always Wanted to be There

Thea Engst is a poet and bar manager in Somerville, Massachusetts. She is currently tracing the route of her grandfather’s World War II infantry unit abroad. Her stories and adventures will appear periodically on Spiral Bound in the coming months.

That Time I Saw a Medium

There came a time when I started this project, when I hit the first of oh — so many walls. Father Hetzler had never heard of the original Thea, Nana couldn’t find her picture, and I didn’t even really know what I was looking for anyway. I guess at the heart of it all, I just missed my grandpa. Whatever the case was, I didn’t have anywhere to go. So I did what any normal, well-adjusted human would do: I found a medium.

Yeah, a person who talks to the dead. This woman came highly recommended by a colleague of my dear friend. She booked months in advance, I went for it.

It should also be noted that while I was just a girl who missed her grandpa, I had also just recently gotten a promotion with a lot more responsibility and been through what I hope to be the greatest heartache of my life. I was searching desperately for some guidance. I do not believe in a god, I was raised without any religion, the only thing I do truly believe in is that we are pure energy, and energy always goes somewhere, but it never dies.

The medium was a soccer mom who lived in a suburban area of Massachusetts. When I got there, she was in her yard shoveling up dog poop. I was early, she was happy to see me and let me right in. She sat across from me, one leg folded beneath her, on a chair while I sat on a couch. A coffee table with a full box of tissues sat between us.

“Do you have a grandfather who recently passed?” She said. I nodded. She smiled. “He visited me at breakfast to tell me you’d be here to talk to him. They do that sometimes.”

Classic Grandpa! I laughed, I teared up, I cried. And I did not stop crying until hours after my appointment.

“He says he knows you’ve been doing research on him and you have his permission to write about him.” She said, and then of her own accord, “If you’re not a writer, you should be.”  She paused, looked at the ground.

“Sometimes the spirits show me things that I know from my own life. They show me these things because they know I will know details about it and sometimes it helps me tell their loved one something very specific. You grandfather is doing that now so bear with me.” She stared off on the floor, looking a little perplexed, then she nodded. “My daughter used to keep birds, one of them died first. Your grandfather is pointing to the dead bird. It could be its name but it’s not all that common. Does ‘Stanley’ mean anything to you?”

Stanley was his name. Stanley Wolk. Sometimes with an arbitrary middle-initial in between. He thought that initials made people look more professional so he experimented with Stanley J. Wolk, Stanley L. Wolk, and so on. In the end, he settled on Stanley W. Wolk. Never making it legal. It is another twist that has made researching him super fun.

“There’s something with your name. You were named in connection with him but not after him.” She said. I nodded. “He wants you to know that he loved your grandmother very much. This — was just another story.”

This seemed and seems obvious to me but is perhaps not obvious to everyone. Of course we all have different stories, of course we all loved before we loved. We loved greater or less, we loved exactly the same. We loved well or poorly — but we loved. This is one of the great joys of life. It does not reduce any other relationship, it only means that you have more than one story.  

“He met her in a daily routine. A coffee shop or something. They saw each other every day. There were letters when he left. The letters were lost. And he says, he finally met her on the other side.” She paused, staring in a corner on the floor and smiled. “Yes. His father is there too. He has forgiven his father, they are at peace now, he wants you to know.

“He spends his days with you and his other grandchildren. He wants you not to worry about Leeee–ah?” She extended the “Lee” in “Lea” hesitantly and then very quickly said, “or your brother.”

I’d been worried about my sister, Lea, who’d been living in Australia and had been extremely homesick. My brother had been job hunting for months. When I called him after the appointment, he told me he’d been offered a job at a higher salary than the initial posting.  

The medium went on to describe a woman. A different loved one who had very recently passed. As if finishing my thoughts, she said, “Your grandpa wants you to know that he knew you wanted to speak to her, he made sure she was here for you.”

That woman gave me a list of things to do: “Dance more! Hang a picture of me in your room because you isolate yourself when you’re sad and you need to remember that you’re not alone. And my favorite/least favorite: you need to talk to ‘him’ again.” On the contrary, Grandpa said not to. No surprise there. In the end though, I listened to her. Though it took me another year and a half.

The best thing that I took from this medium was this: “Your grandfather says that you will eventually support yourself as a writer. That this job you have is only a job for now. But you won’t succeed at writing unless you really put yourself in it.” This was best advice because even if she was absolutely full of shit with everything that came out of her mouth, she was right about that. If I never went for it, I would never get it.  

Soon after I began planning something, I did not know what yet and honestly, I’m still not sure. At that point it was a novel. A fictitious story based on this Thea: me, and that Thea: her. And somewhere in all that, a world war. I started writing but soon it became clear to me that the contemporary-fictionalized-me would have to go to Europe to investigate the original Thea.  

That’s when it dawned on me: I could do that. So I did and I am.