Wallet Lost in the Czech Republic Travels 7,000km Back to its American Owner

It took an international “constellation of coincidences,” in Steve Hiniker’s words, to bring his lost wallet home to Wisconsin, USA. 

The man lost his wallet in the Czech Republic while traveling by bicycle from Athens to Oslo. It was May 25 and Steve was buying some power bars and other supplies from a grocery market in Litomerice, 70km from Prague.

He paid and then absent-mindedly left the wallet on the counter. He and his wife, Mary Ellen Vollbrecht, who are enjoying lots of biking together in retirement, rode 120 km before Steve discovered the loss.

“I called the police department and they didn’t understand what I was saying and they didn’t speak English. I called the visitor’s bureau and they didn’t speak English. I went back to Google and found that the store wouldn’t be open again until Monday,” which was a couple days away, Steve said.

So they rode on, but with the deflating awareness that the wallet contained debit and credit cards, which they canceled, his driver’s license and more than $300 in Euros and Czech currency.

“In the back of my head, I thought people are pretty honest. I wouldn’t be surprised if I get home and find this in the mail anyway,” Steve said.

Or maybe not. Was he betting too heavily on the kindness of strangers?

Meanwhile, a Racine woman named Jaruska Karbulka was visiting family and friends in the Czech Republic where she was born and raised. She happened to shop at the very same store in Litomerice.

The Vietnamese shop owner knew from talking to Jaruska over the years that she lived in the United States, though he had no idea her home was in Wisconsin. The man handed her the wallet and asked if she could track down the owner.

Jaruska turned to one of our better ways of finding people these days, Facebook. She typed a message: “Hi Steve, were you recently in the Czech Republic?”

By this time, Steve and Mary Ellen were in Sweden. He saw the note and knew instantly what it was about. “Yes,” he replied, “I was in the town of Litomerice and I lost my wallet there.”

Jaruska said she would be home to Wisconsin in mid-July. Steve said he would not be back here until August. When he and his wife returned from Europe, they planned to keep pedaling from Boston to Madison.

Arrangements were made to meet at Jaruska’s store, Racine Antique Mall. She opened the store with her late husband, Jaroslav, in 1993. The two fled Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s following the Soviet invasion there, settling first in a Czech neighborhood of Cicero, Ill., and then in Wisconsin.

Steve and Mary Ellen walked into the store last Saturday to conclude a lost-and-found story that spanned 7,000 km. 

“They brought me beautiful flowers, his wife, and Steve. I gave him the wallet and we have become friends,” Jaruska said. “He trusted me so much. I said to check what’s in there, and he didn’t even open the wallet. I said everything is in there, and he said, ‘I know, I know.’ “

“I spent some time in her store and we talked quite a bit. She was terrific,” Steve said.

This story originally appeared on Journal Sentinel 

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