This isn't an easy post to write... I imagine that a lot of writers are in the same situation, dealing with the loss of friends. Last week, Dr Milan Fryščák, professor emeritus of the Slavic Languages Department of NYU, lost a battle with COVID-19 at the age of eighty-seven. The good professor had an eventful life, having grown up in a Czechoslovakia invaded by first the Nazis and then the Soviets. His life reads like a political thriller, involving jumping ship and navigating his way through refugee camps until he could emigrate to the 'States. He and his wife became pillars of the Czech expatriate community, and I would bet actual folding money that he knew every single member of the Czech-American academic community. After the Velvet Revolution, he began a study abroad program in Prague for NYU students, and triumphantly returned to the Czech Republic on a regular basis.
For me, though, he was primarily a gracious host, a dear family friend. Many summer evenings I spent at the Fryščák home, with the brothers F., the good professor and his brilliant wife (a longtime employee of the CBC who transitioned to NPR when the CBC downsized its New York operations). I can picture him, a bear of a man, with spatula in hand, presiding over the charcoal grill, or seeing this bakers' son beaming beatifically as he pulled a tray of gorgeous, perfectly braided rolls out of the oven. Besides being hospitable, he was a witty man, always ready with a quick quip, even in a conversation in which he was imparting his wisdom concerning weighty international affairs or the mid-to-late twentieth history that had thrown him across an ocean, where he had accomplished great things. Of course, there was also the time when he introduced us to, and got us hooked on, Żubrówka, then ruefully-yet-drolly told us, "You can't get it here, boys." At least Becherovka was readily available as a summer tipple.
One summer, a bunch of us went up for a long weekend at a friend's family's cabin in the Adirondacks. Rather than driving straight home, we took the ferry from Plattsburgh, New York to Burlington, Vermont and drove south through Vermont just so we could have lunch with the professor at Norwich University, where he taught an immersive language class for a few weeks every summer. Professor Fryščák was the sort of person you drive three or four hours out of your way to have lunch with. He was also the sort of person who would effusively greet a bunch of scruffy twenty-somethings who had been bathing in a lake for days.
Condolences to my dear friends, the Good Professor was one-of-a-kind, and I am filled with gratitude for having known him and learned from him.