ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE, Rochester, NY
Review: ‘Accidental Hero’ well-crafted and poignant for the season.
This weekend, Patrick Dewane leads Downstairs Cabaret Theatre audience members through The Accidental Hero, a one-man show that utilizes vintage home video, photos and sound clips to backdrop the stunning true story of his grandfather, Lt. Col. Matt Konop.
The stage at 20 Windsor St. location has been transformed into a smoky basement den, a World War II battlefield and a small Czech town in the heart of Europe.
This is the third time Dewane has brought the show here, and a sold-out crowd braved Rochester’s first snowy weather to attend Friday night. The final show this go-around will be at 2 pm Sunday.
“I was a lieutenant colonel in the war, and I don’t like to talk about it. I’m trying to write about it ... before I die.”
Dewane plays his grandfather, grandmother, World War II soldiers, Czech villagers -- and himself, the chief narrator who explains how his family found the writings of his grandfather tucked away on a basement shelf long after his death.
Dewane was 20 years old when his grandfather passed away. He used what he knew of Grandpa Matt -- his Czech accent, penchant for magic tricks and a love for his heritage -- along with a two week trip to Czechoslovakia several years ago to piece together the account of Matt Konop, the accidental war hero.
The story begins after D-Day, June 6, 1944, moving through the carnage of Omaha Beach to the surprise offensive attacks in the Ardennes Forest that launched the Battle of the Bulge. The heroism of Konop escalates quickly, a marvelous mixture of luck and providence that follows the soldier as he (unknowingly) liberates the same Czech towns where his grandparents lived before their immigration to America.
The tale is reminiscent of the stages of the hero’s journey used in literature to develop a character’s call to action, passage into a strange new world, great trial or battle and self-discovery, among other things.
But the most poignant moment of the show comes near the middle of the 90-minute run, when Dewane describes his grandfather’s Christmas letter home to his family in 1945. Behind him on stage, home video of Dewane’s own mother -- still a child, playing in the Wisconsin snow with her siblings -- flickers across a hanging screen. As Bing Crosby’s idyllic voice croons “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Dewane describes the American force’s most miserable winter since Valley Forge. Yet, standing in two inches of icy water in the basement of a bombed out tavern listening to Christmas Eve mass, Konop wrote that he and his troops felt an otherworldly peace.
By next Christmas, he would be home. The blue starred-flag on his family’s window could be tucked away for the next 60 years until it joined Dewane’s cast of props for the show.
As Christmas approaches, the show is a relevant reminder that war can be a great and terrible thing. While stories like Konop’s certainly emerge, there were 19,000 American lives lost in the Battle of the Bulge alone.
American men and women in the armed forces are stationed around the world today, continuing the fight for freedom. There may not be starred-flags hanging in windows as reminders, but many won’t be home for Christmas this year. Perhaps they will join the ranks of Matt Konop someday -- hero, soldier and historian in his own right.
But hopefully, they’ll be home for Christmas next year.
DNES, Prague, Czech Republic (English translation)
The newspaper with the second largest circulation in the Czech Republic
May 2, 1945. Lieutenant Colonel Matt Konop just entered Czechoslovakia. He had gone through bloody Normandy landings on Omaha Beach, hellish Battle of the Bulge, fierce fights in Germany. He could have had a deserved relaxing break smoking cigars triumphally – the war in Europe was about to end, Berlin captured by the Soviets. There were fights only in Bohemia at that time. Konop spoke Czech as well as English thanks to his ancestors. Therefore his war wasn’t over. He got assigned to Chodsko as a Czech specialist.
He decided to explore the country. He had never been there. He had been hearing about Bohemia as a dump site so far – his poor grandfather and grandmother left Domažlice in 1860 because of a better life on the other side of the ocean. But they belonged to rich class neither in Bohemia nor in the U.S. – as well as the majority of Czech immigrants. Rich Irish and Germans made fun of them and called them Bohunk.
When Konop and his driver came to Klenčí, the first Czech village behind the border, the square was deserted. Except one man who was guarding the door of the town hall. „What’s happening there?“ Konop asked him fluently in Czech wearing the American uniform. The man got stuck.
There was a meeting of the Czech resistance – new administrators of Klenčí. Konop entered the house and saluted. "Dobrý den. I’m an American officer of Czech heritage and my division is coming to liberate your country,“ he said and Czechs went mute. When they realized what was happening they exploded into joy and came up and were hugging and kissing Konop – kissing between men surprised him. That was something that gentlemen didn’t do back in Stangelville.
Then he went out with resistance fighters to hunt for Nazis and immediately he witnessed an attempt at revenge. They came across an alleged Nazi collaborator and Czechs wanted him to die. "Settle down,“ Konop yelled and ordered to handle the situation according the U.S. Army protocol. He began his interrogation: "What is your name?“ he asked. The man said that his name was Konop.
A Little trip to Czechoslovakia changed into something different
Matt Konop had gone through the half of Europe fighting against Hitler up to the country of his ancestors and the first Nazi who he came across was the guy with his own last name. A little trip to Czechoslovakia suddenly changed into something different and the wargot personal for 38-year old soldier.
Matt Konop threw into jail his namesake. Then he found himself in Domazlice, he walked on the same cobblestones where his own grandfather had begun his journey to America.
In the next days of May 1945 Czechs took Matt Konop on their shoulders, tore the pieces of his uniform as a souvenir and called him "Liberator“. He was an American who spoke their language. When he was on the shoulders of Czechs walking on the cobblestones of Domazlice as a hero, familiar melody was transmitted to loudspeakers: Where’s my home (Kde domov můj).
"The Czechs believed that he liberated them. I think that they liberated him. And I know that his story liberated me. Good night, grandpa.“ Patrick Dewane says goodbye to excited Pilsen audience in the first Friday evening of May, 68 years after the war. Patrick has just performed alone the show about his grandfather. The show was named Accidental Hero. "The first name of the show was 'The Mushroom Picker' but people in America didn’t understand this joke,“ Dewane explained to me.
The war changed Matt Konop profoundly. He discovered his heritage, became friend with many Czechs. He discovered that they were likeable. And they loved Matt. After coming home from the war where he was killing the 'Krauts,' he returned to his house, to his wife Eunice Bauknecht, who was 100 percent German.
"He was different from anyone else in his own house,“ Patrick says sitting in a Pilsen tavern like his grandpa years ago. Nobody from his family understood what had really happened to Matt Konop. He turned to be a somewhat odd man for the members of his family. He bought a cottage in the woods, he liked his large garden and above all he loved mushroom picking. Few in Wisconsin loved this Czech leisure activity. And he refused to talk about the war.
"In 20 years I knew him not once did he talk to me about the war. And I'd beg him: Grandpa, tell me a war story. He just looked at me and said: No, you don’t want to hear about that,“ recalls 50-year old Patrick. Matt Konop had a trauma like the majority of his fellow fighters. When he was young, he had to quit farming because he couldn’t kill a chicken. And then he spent his first day of the war in the sea full of dead bodies on his way to Omaha Beach.
"When my grandfather needed to pick a CB radio nickname I thought he would call himself 'The Colonel.' No. He called himself 'The Mushroom Picker.' It was stupid and embarrassing. If he was a hero, why did he call himself such a ridiculous name?“ Patrick Dewane says.
"Teachers who taught me about the war at school had to imagine what it was like. And I had someone who had gone through it all that but would not speak,“ Patrick adds.
Matt Konop was living his unusual way of life after the war. In fact he was realizing his Czech identity and when picking mushrooms – that typical Czech leisure habit – he was thinking about what he had experienced in the last days of the war. More than 30 years after the end of the war he decided to come back to Czechoslovakia. When he flied to Czechoslovakia in 1979 his family was afraid they would never see him again. They had reasons to be afraid as he was not in good shape. Moreover he smuggled some banned goods and most importantly: an American who liberated Czechoslovakia was heading back to that country, now under the rule of communists. And these communists did not talk about the American role in liberating southwestern parts of the Czechoslovakia. Fortunately, Matt Konop came back to the States. Four years later he died.
"When I was carrying his casket I thought we were burying with him all his story,“ Patrick tells me at the Memorial of General Patton in Pilsen where he stayed on the stage and played the role of his grandpa just a couple minutes ago.
The forgotten box hiding all the things Patrick wanted to hear about
After 20 years since the death of Matt Konop his granddaughter Jane had found the box in the basement. "There was hidden all I always wanted to hear about: grandpa’s war diary,“ Patrick says in excitement. Then he discovered everything: horrifying description of Normandy landings, heroic shooting at the German tanks during the Battle of the Bulge and especially the coming of his grandpa to the country where he felt like at home. Patrick Dewane (who now lives in Minneapolis) became obsessed with his grandpa’s story. He got an idea how to make the diaries public: to write a one-man show based on his grandpa’s memoirs.
First of all he had to gain insight into what he wrote about: he set off to the Czech Republic. He was looking for details in archives, begged for help and then suddenly discovered a book with a picture of an American soldier on the shoulders of Czech people. That gave him goose bumps. There was the handwriting of his grandpa: „Yes, it is I May 4, 1945. Visit of Chodsko 22/9/1979, Matt Konop.
"In that moment I was asking myself: Did that really happened?“ Patrick remembers. A few years ago he hadn‘t had the faintest idea of his grandpa’s feelings during the war. He hadn’t even known about his corresponding with Czechs after the war.
Patrick Dewane now travels around America with the show about his grandfather, about the incredible story of a soldier who learned his roots thanks to the war. His grandson came with the show also to the Czech Republic. He performed it last week in Pilsen and in Horsovsky Tyn where his grandpa had spent the night in May 1945. "My favourite part of the show is the end. Then people come to me and tell me their own stories. This show gives them the opportunity to speak about the things that remained hidden for years,“ Patrick smiles in a Pilsner pub.
His grandpa had been just a few blocks away from here 68 years ago. Later he noted in his diary: "Just at midnight I was to announce something like this: (no longer remember the exact words as the thrills of the moment erased any memory capabilities): Your country is now liberated from German occupation as Hitler has just capitulated. There was a scream the like of which I never heard before. After much kissing, hand-shaking and crying the leader of the Czechs asked his singing group to sing, for the first time in 5 years, their national anthem. They gathered and sang, they sang again and again.“
MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE, Minneapolis, MN
Powerful multimedia show traces WWII soldier’s journey
Patrick Dewane’s grandfather refused to tell stories about his service in World War II, yet when he died his basement yielded a trove of typewritten accounts, photos and rare film footage. Dewane brings this archival material to glowing life in a one-man, multimedia show that offers an enthralling, humorous and heartwarming tale of miraculous escapes and astonishing coincidences. He takes on a dozen different roles as he powerfully recounts his grandfather’s journey through the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of Czechoslovakia and the poignant re-discovery of his own roots.
MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL, Milwaukee, WI
Plot of one-man play drawn from grandfather's incredible WWII story
Ecstatic Czechs carry Lt. Col. Matt Konop, of Stangelville, Wis., on their shoulders after the Czech-speaking Konop helped liberate the region in Czechoslovakia where his grandparents were born. Czech citizens were amazed to see an American soldier speaking their language.
Matt Konop was the right person in the right place and time.
Of all the American GIs fighting in Europe 70 years ago, the Wisconsin soldier found himself in a unique situation. When he and his driver entered a Czechoslovakian community near the border of Bavaria, the lieutenant colonel began speaking with villagers in their own language.
Not only did Konop speak Czech, but his roots burrowed deep in the village of Klenci.
The Stangelville native had arrived on Omaha Beach a day after the initial invasion, fought across Europe and survived the Battle of the Bulge. In the war's waning days, he was assigned to command the U.S. Army's advance party into Czechoslovakia.
He drove into Klenci and encountered a meeting of local resistance fighters who had never seen an American. Their surprise turned to elation when he told them in their own language they were free. He also revealed that his mother's family had emigrated from their village decades earlier.
Konop, then 38, moved on to other villages in the Chodsko region and met more Czechs who soon learned that, in a way, one of their own had come to liberate them. They carried him on their shoulders as a photographer snapped a photo.
His grandson, Patrick Dewane, knew none of this. Dewane, 52, often asked his grandfather about his war experiences, but Konop declined to talk about them. Dewane was a pallbearer at his grandfather's funeral in 1983 and figured he'd never know his story.
What Dewane didn't know at the time was that his grandfather had told the story. Spurred by the success of the book and miniseries "Roots," Konop wrote his autobiography in the 1970s, pecking away at a typewriter in the basement of his Two Rivers home. The manuscript didn't surface until 2003, when Dewane's sister found it and made copies for the family.
"I was like a little kid who got the best toy and is off in a corner completely ignoring everyone else, turning these pages with absolute fixation on what he had to say," Dewane said in a phone interview from his Edina, Minn., home.
"I would tell the story to friends, bring it up at parties. Invariably someone would say 'They should make a movie' and I said 'Yeah, they should.' Until one day someone said 'What are you waiting for?'" said Dewane, a Manitowoc Roncalli High School graduate whose career has been in the business side of theater.
Dewane created a one-person play based on his grandfather's autobiography called "Accidental Hero," which he's performed more than 100 times throughout the U.S. and in Europe. He has performed the play several times in the Czech Republic, scheduling performances in the communities his grandfather helped liberate.
Last month, Dewane and his mother, Kay, Konop's daughter, traveled to Domazlice for the dedication of a bronze plaque featuring a bas-relief of the photo of Konop being carried on villagers' shoulders. It was unveiled in the town square and, since the unveiling, Dewane has heard that townspeople rub Konop's helmet on the plaque for luck.
Konop's grandparents emigrated from Bohemia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, shortly after the American Civil War. Other Czechs had already settled in the rural Kewaunee County community of Stangelville to farm the land. Konop grew up in a Czech-speaking household in a town where most spoke the language.
He didn't speak English until he was 6. Konop was somewhat ashamed of his Czech heritage and wanted to be known only as an American growing up, said his grandson. But later in life he embraced his roots. He raised seven children in Two Rivers and sold insurance for a living.
When Communists took over Czechoslovakia a few years after World War II, the American role in the country's liberation was scrubbed from history books. In 1975 when he revisited Czechoslovakia with a group of veterans, Konop was sad to see his family's homeland living under oppression.
Now, folks in the Czech Republic who come to see "Accidental Hero" get emotional when they hear the words of a long-dead soldier who helped spread freedom and democracy in his ancestors' homeland.
"I know his story resonates with people. It's just such a joy for me to do it," said Dewane.