I always found it fitting that when you did a Google image search for my Czech-born stepfather, Boris Andršt, you ended up with page after page of pictures of garlic. Boris, who died in New York last week aged 85, was something of a hobbyhorse throughout his life. There was photography, gadget collecting, motorcycling, cooking, and, of course, growing vegetables. His passion for garlic – finding and cultivating all kinds of varieties, especially Czech ones – evidently became such a hit in the United States that garlic aficionados in places as afar as Wisconsin began describing “garlic from the Czech collection of Dr. Boris Andrst”.
Most people who had the privilege of meeting Boris sensed that he was a remarkable character. Women swooned over his charisma. Guys wanted to be as cool as him. I always thought he looked similar to actor Gene Hackman. He didn’t talk much about his past. I knew there was something about a concentration camp; something about a street in Prague’s Libeň – Andrštová – being named after his father. František Andršt, born in 1907, was a Social Democrat trade unionist. He was also a leading member of the Petiční Výbor Věrni Zůstaneme, or PVVZ, anti-Nazi resistance group. In April of 1941, František was arrested by the Gestapo. On September 27, 1941, the notorious Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich became the effective ruler of the occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Three days later, as part of a merciless wave of repression unleashed by Heydrich, the imprisoned František Andršt was executed. Boris was twelve-years-old when his father disappeared. He continued living with his mother in Chocholouškova Street in Libeň, with mother and son in constant fear of the next knock on the door. A few years later, well before the May, 1945 Prague Uprising, young Boris decided to join with a group of partisans and take some kind of a stand against the Nazi regime, avenging his murdered father. The group was arrested. Records show that on January 26, 1945, the sixteen-year-old was admitted as prisoner number 43890 to Flossenbürg concentration camp, which today lies just a few miles to the west of the Czech-German border. In April, with Germany buckling under the Allied onslaught, the SS began shifting prisoners deeper into Germany. Boris became one of the survivors of a notorious south-west death march to Dachau. En route, thousands of fellow inmates perished. Fortunately, Dachau was liberated by American forces the very same month.
Boris very rarely spoke about his experiences as a Nazi prisoner. That it was extremely, almost unbearably traumatic to this already sensitive soul was obvious to anyone who knew him. Occasionally there was a joke about a goulash that didn’t turn out at least not being as bad as the cardboard-infused swill they ate in the camp. As he made such quips, Boris would both laugh and his eyes would well up. In America, he became a successful ophthalmologist. He married and divorced four times, had three children - two daughters and one son. He had girlfriends well into his eighties, and only gave up motorbiking after part of one of his legs was amputated due to poor circulation, the result of a major heart attack and subsequent triple bypass the once heavy smoker endured in his forties.
“My dad will never become old and crumbly,” his son said to me many years ago as we both shrugged off the idea that Boris could ever morph into the caricature of a frail old man. The last time I saw my stepfather, almost two years ago, he’d become worryingly thin. But proving that he was still the same old Boris, the then 83-year-old confessed to me that he just wasn’t attracted to women of his own age! He also opened up about his experiences immigrating to the US during the 1950s. In the midst of the red scare, he said, the authorities were worried that he might be a communist spy. He remembered being incredulous. Boris wasn’t at all sentimental, yet he could tear-up at the drop of a hat. He wasn’t particularly demonstrative, which could frustrate those closest to him. And he always retained that aura of mystery – a restless soul, forever just slightly apart, never quite at peace. Ron Reagan, son of the former US president, once said of his father: “You're not going to figure him out. That's the first thing you need to know. I don't think he figured himself out. I haven't figured him out. I don't know anybody who has figured him out.” That was Boris too. But those of us who knew him were privileged to at least try.