After World War II, my grandparents’ house at 29 Northgate Road was always busy with sending care packages back to what was then Czechoslovakia.
Grandpa Jim Shuss was a tailor, so he would sew dry goods and other food stuffs into old grain bags bought from The Feed Store on Harlem Avenue, just a tad south of the Stevenson Expressway. That way, the family would get material for clothes plus the foodstuffs.
Grandmother “Babi” Frances Shuss would supervise the tight packing of the corrugated boxes from the Riverside A&P, which eventually became Henninger’s Pharmacy, and now a condo conglomerate.
This would all go on with much fuss and flurry on the kitchen table, with everyone having an opinion about what should go where, who should do what and who would get the package.
As word spread about the packages, Frances, especially, became the benefactor of folks in Czechoslovakia who were not even family but who were needy. The women in our family have always been soft touches for people in need, and Frances was no different. And so, packages of food, medicines (especially the hard to get aspirin) and clothing were sent to strangers, often people whom Frances would never hear from again.
But this brings me to my story of the woman from whom we did hear, and why the flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is now a great sadness in our family.
Frances Shuss somehow befriended an elderly, widowed college professor named Frances Zipek (Frantizka Zipkova). She was a beneficiary of Mrs. Shuss’ gift packages. In turn, the “Professorka” would write Babi long letters about herself, her family, the Cold War and politics. This went on for some time as both women aged.
Then, one day, the doll arrived with sepia-colored photos of the Professorka’s family. The doll was hers from childhood and had a bisque head, arms and feet. She was dressed in a fancy Czech costume, not one with which we were familiar. She needed cleaning up, as it was apparent that she had been played with by a little girl somewhere along the line.
The doll had no name that I recall, and we never gave her one. The Professorka feared that she would die alone in a post-war, communist Czechoslovakia, and that communists would take possession of her doll.
To that end, she was sending her doll to safety in America to be with our family. The doll was treasured and kept in a box, hidden away. It was verboten for me to play with her as she was special, a treasure.
Babi Shuss protected her, and then my mother, Lillian Baar, took over her security. I have had the doll for some 45 years, kept under a glass dome. All told, the doll must be well over 100 years old, considering all the women who have watched over her.
Because generations have a tendency to lose track of heritage and history, I felt it was time to give the doll a new home, one where she could be safe and secure, and where the legacy of the Professorka could be maintained.
I also felt that she should be shared with the public at large. And so, about six months ago, she made her final journey to the Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids.
As I watched on the television the flood waters begin to eat away at Cedar Rapids, I sent an e-mail to the museum asking what was happening. The response was brief, because the staff was evacuating the museum.
“We are saving what we can,” they wrote.
Never having been to the museum, I was unaware of how close it may have been to the river or how much damage the river may have done to it no matter where it was. But apparently, the museum is pretty much under water, and one can only imagine what kind of devastation may have occurred.
I do expect that my doll is probably gone forever, although I have the photos I took of her before she went on her final journey. With all of the human suffering going on in Cedar Rapids, I don’t dare ask about her status.
Who knows? Maybe she escaped somehow so that future generations of little girls might see her. But then, nothing is forever.