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The documents are spread out on my kitchen table. They're 70 years old but look almost pristine, ready to be inspected once again. The ink seems freshly applied. Gingerly, I pick each one up in turn and study the lettering, the stamps, the official signatures.

These are birth and marriage records of my ancestors, and they're in languages I cannot understand - Czech, German, Latin. My father gave them to me in a bundle many years ago when I began asking questions about the family history, trying to learn the names of Old World relatives, where they had lived, their occupations, that sort of thing.

"You might be interested in these," he said in his typically understated manner. Interested? This was a genealogical treasure trove. I asked him to translate the documents - all from my mother's side - and he produced a sheaf of papers.

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Here is the marriage certificate of my great-great-grandparents, Krystof Frencl and Bozena Matiaskova. The paper is tinged honey yellow. It states they were married on Nov. 20, 1866, at the Cathedral of the Lord in Pardubice, a town east of Prague in what was then the Austrian Empire.

The document, however, was issued much later - on Sept. 13, 1939, two weeks after the start of the Second World War. The bilingual certificate, in Czech and German, declares it is an official form of the newly created Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

The other certificates were issued around the same time - a time when bombs were falling in neighbouring Poland. Hitler's invasion of that country on Sept. 1 triggered the war. But five and a half months earlier Germany occupied the western half of Czechoslovakia, calling the region a protectorate.

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My mother tells me a story of an incident that occurred at her home in the Moravian village of Maly Beranov soon after the German occupation. Her parents were entertaining a guest who noticed a decorative rug hanging on a living room wall. He thought it had a Jewish design and, acting as "informer," let the authorities know. They suspected my grandmother of being a Jew and demanded she prove otherwise.

And so she went on a mission to save her family. She scrambled to collect documents from parish offices across Bohemia - the documents now on my kitchen table.

She obtained the marriage certificates of her parents and both sets of grandparents, as well as the birth certificates of her maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother. I check the dates of issue: They range from Sept. 7 to Sept. 22, 1939. All contain the vital fact of religion: Roman Catholic.

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There is a faint smudge on one of them. Is it the thumbprint of the Nazi who accepted the documents as proof of non-Jewish status? Impossible to say, but the thought makes me shudder.

My grandmother was safe. Her daughter too, which meant there could be a new generation in a place far from Maly Beranov.

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Soon after the war ended, my mother, then a striking 18-year-old with long brown hair, met and quickly fell in love with a young man from a Jewish family in the Czech city of Brno. Ilva and Robert were married there in 1946. He had spent the war years serving with Czechoslovak forces organized in Britain, having managed to escape to London in 1939.

Around the time that Ilva's mother was gathering life-saving documents, Robert's father was barred from his business, a prosperous textile firm with factories in Brno and the Bohemian town of Hlinsko. He would later be transported to the Terezin camp and then to Auschwitz, where he perished. Many others in my father's family also died in concentration camps - 20 people in total, according to one family chart: cousins, aunts, uncles, his grandmother.

In 1948, after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, my parents immigrated to Canada, settling in Toronto where my father eventually ran his own translation company in a downtown office.

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When I asked him to translate the old papers he showed no reluctance. By then he was in the late years of his life, a genial, white-haired man who had left behind the horrors of another continent long ago. He didn't mind revisiting them, content to help his Canadian-born son who was struggling to connect with a family history that seemed impossibly alien - as hard to grasp as words on foreign-language certificates.

But how does anyone connect with something as calamitous as the Second World War if all they've known is relative tranquillity?

I place one of my father's translations beside its original counterpart. On the left are words I can understand. On the right is something very different: a tangible piece of history, a sheet of paper that magically transports me back to a fearful past.

And to a calmer time before that, one so distant in every way as to seem almost mythical, when Bozena and Krystof were wed. Looking forward on a day full of promise, they could have had no idea of the role the record of their ceremony would play in a drama involving one of their descendants at the start of a great war.

My grandmother, Pavla Kucerova, brought the documents to this country when she crossed the Atlantic in 1949. They lay in a drawer in her Toronto home for decades, having served their purpose elsewhere. Eventually they emerged, and it seems to me their power has been transformed but is still intact.

Mike Fuhrmann lives in Toronto.

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Illustration by Jens Bonnke.

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