When Czechoslovakian-born Dusan Kralik took his first drive down Bathurst Street after arriving in Toronto in the early 1990s, he saw something pretty familiar to Torontonians but totally foreign to him.
There, wearing clothing that clearly set them apart, were groups of Orthodox Jews walking freely. It got him thinking.
Back in Bratislava, where he was born, he knew there was some family connection to the Jewish people, but he wasn’t entirely sure what it was, or what being Jewish actually meant.
“No one talked about it,” Kralik says.
Raised a Roman Catholic, during Christmas he would receive as a gift what he now realizes was Hanukkah gelt. He recalls his mother keeping two sets of dishes and cutlery and that she cooked matzah balls.
He didn’t think too much about it. He was too busy working on his hockey career, which saw him suit up for the Czech national junior team at the world under-20 championships, facing the likes of Joe Nieuwendyk on Team Canada.
That was followed by a stint in the Czech pro league, and by the time he immigrated to Canada, on his own, he didn’t have much knowledge of a Jewish past.
But the Bathurst Street experience got him thinking. “To me, it was so fascinating,” he said. “I’m not in it, but I had a feeling of belonging.”
In 2007, Kralik, who was already developing a career as a hockey instructor in Toronto, was at the Pavilion ice rink in Vaughan, Ont., when he saw a Team Israel tryout. The players were wearing jerseys with Magen Davids right on the chest. Curious, he asked what was going on and was told he was watching Team Israel.
Kralik knew one of the kids on the team and approached Jean Perron, the ex-Montreal Canadiens head coach who was in charge of Team Israel, asking if he needed help.
“He took me in to help with the tryouts,” Kralik recalled.
Later, Kralik joined the team on a tour of North American cities, and when he heard the Israeli national anthem played in Chicago, with 2,000 spectators present, “I’m totally tearing,” he said.
A few months later the team was in Vienna for the IIHF World Championships, and despite undergoing a hip replacement operation only six weeks before, and despite the dangers of developing a blood clot, Kralik decided to join the team.
“I had to go. I had to be there. It was so close to my heart,” he said.
Once the tournament concluded, Kralik travelled to Bratislava to visit his grandmother. It was a telling visit.
She wanted to know what he was doing there, and when he showed her the Israeli team jersey, with the Star of David on its front, “she started to cry. She told me how the Nazis came in 1939, hunting them down and killing my great-grandfather.
“She said, ‘I’ll never stop hearing the dogs barking and the people yelling and screaming,’” Kralik recounted.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” he asked.
“It’s so dangerous,” he was told. “You have no idea. I tried to protect you.”
After his return, Kralik did more research into his family past, getting information from his grandmother’s best friend, who lived in New York. He learned that other members of his family were victims of the Nazis.
“I needed to find out what was missing in my life, the culture, the spirituality, what my family was not able to do freely,” he said.
Today, he has embraced his Jewish heritage. At the Maccabiah Games in 2013, Kralik took time off from his coaching duties to visit Jerusalem.
“I went to the Kotel and I never had such a feeling. When I went to the Western Wall, I trembled,” he said.