How to become a Czech in one hour
The Czech actor Tomas Vanek taught a full house at the Czech Embassy ‘How to Become a Czech in One Hour’ in December. It was standing room only for this comic one-man show arranged specially for the BCSA. The show is a collaboration for the Theatre Royal, Vinohrady between Tomas Vanek and Jean-Christophe Gramont, a Frenchman who fell in love with Prague and has made it his home. As the title suggests, the audience was taken on a fast-track survey of those aspects of life that make Czechs unique. The risks of sitting in the front row at such an event were amply demonstrated, with game ‘volunteers’ finding themselves dancing a lively polka, practising the famed Czech ‘nevim’/shrug combination, or being on the receiving end of a massive chlebicek. They were rewarded with bottles of Pilsner. We learned how to adopt the Czech face of approval, a sort of pout coupled with a knowing nod of the head. We were warned of the pitfalls of mistaking common Czech words for foul language in English. We were treated to graphic and noisy demonstrations of how a Czech worker behaves come 5 o’clock, and of the Czech (compared with the Italian) way of making love. What we feared might be a male striptease fortunately turned out to be only a display of the sloppy attire favoured by Czech men. The finale was a spirited rendition of Karel Gott’s classic ‘Lady Karneval’, unlikely to be equalled anywhere on the London stage. The Embassy cinema is an intimate space and the laughter was warm and immediate, as we recognised our own behaviour or that of our Czech friends.
T.G. Masaryk: a reflection by his great-granddaughter
TG Masaryk’s great-granddaughter Charlotta Kotik gave insights into her great ancestor’s life to a full house at the Slovak Embassy in October. Her talk focussed on key players and places in his life and work, and had a special Slovak focus. She was named after her great-grandmother, TGM’s wife Charlotte Garrigue. Charlotta was born in Czechoslovakia, and in Communist times had been discriminated against and her education restricted because of her family connections. She eventually moved to the USA, where people had been most helpful to her in getting her into the art world, where she had made her career. She was humbled by the attention now being paid to TGM in this centenary year of the creation of Czechoslovakia.
That nation owed much for its existence to pressure from Slovaks living in America, she explained. Slovak national feeling had been growing in the 19th and 20th centuries, led by visionaries such as Ludovit Stur. Another leader in the Slovak community in Chicago was Albert Mamatej, a signatory of the Pittsburgh Agreement in 1918, by which Czech, Moravian and Slovak groups agreed on an independent Czechoslovakia. The large and supportive Slovak and Czech communities in Illinois, Ohio, Iowa and Nebraska were instrumental in bringing this about. Had the vision at that time of a more autonomous Slovakia been carried through more fully, perhaps things might have been different after 1989. The Slovak hero General Milan Rastislav Stefanik understood his friend TGM’s need for adventure and for justice. His own death in 1919 was a tragedy for the nascent Czechoslovakia: perhaps he and TGM might have been able to knit the Slovak and Czech lands closer together, creating a Czech and Slovak Republic that might not subsequently have split. He was a Renaissance man, with many interests, ranging from astronomy to climbing Mont Blanc. Stefan Osusky was another key Slovak in the creation of the new nation, working with General Stefanik.
Two British men prominent in the struggle for a free Czechoslovakia during the First World War were RW Seton-Watson and Henry Wickham Steed: the former a rich man who did much to propagate the vision and the latter the editor of the ‘Times’ who did likewise. Among the others she mentioned were Viktor Voska, TGM’s strong man, who influenced Wickham Steed and President Woodrow Wilson, and was thereby instrumental in helping the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia. He was to die in Ruzyne Prison in 1960, aged 85, imprisoned by the Communists. Charles Richard Crane was an influential American friend of TGM, who helped influence President Wilson bring about the reprieve of TGM’s daughter Alice, who had been condemned by the Austro-Hungarians during World War One for hiding TGM’s writings while he was overseas. Edvard Benes was the administrator to TGM’s visionary. TGM regretted that he had not had the time (or perhaps the energy) to achieve all that he wanted as President, becoming President at 65, retiring at 80. TGM had, we learned, in his youth been an energetic man, very keen on physical exercise, in the spirit of the Sokol movement.
Developing that last point, in a full question and answer session Charlotta speculated whether TGM might have been better able to cope with Hitler in the 1930s had he been younger and stronger. Further, she wondered whether he might also have been more proactive in his handling of the German-speaking minority, and with what results. How Slovak did TGM feel, she was asked. He liked to talk of his Slovak connections, and wished he had been able to spend more time in that country. He spoke of its warmth, and preferred wine to beer! He made a point of holidaying every summer between 1923 and 1933 at Topolcianky Castle. The Masaryk family she grew up in did not resent TGM because of the ill-treatment they suffered under the Communists. They were disciplined, and knew not to compromise. They suffered restrictions but were not in prison, and they knew that others were far worse off than them. She believed that her great uncle Jan had not committed suicide, given the circumstances surrounding his death, and he was more gentle and elegant than had been portrayed in a recent film about him.
Cultural and History Quiz
The BCSA organised a novel event that took place at the Czechoslovak National House in West Hampstead and attracted a good crowd. Quiz master Simon Smith set questions about Czech, Slovak and British history and culture that were tackled by teams of eight including one from the Czech Embassy led by Ambassador Libor Secka.
A secret guide to Prague’s fashion scene
During London Fashion Week in September a BCSA audience were entertained by the Director of the Czech Centre in London, Tereza Porybna, with an expert and colourful secret guide to Prague’s fashion scene. It’s a scene that’s thriving, vigorous and innovative. This was proven by the illustrations: clothes, jewellery, shoes; some accessible to all, others for people with deeper pockets; street fashion, often of high quality; luxury fashion, edgy fashion, clothes for celebrities, clothes for all. The volume of the business was now such that there is a shortage of seamstresses in Czechia. In a lively question and answer session Tereza was asked to speculate on the effect of Brexit: that, of course, was hard to predict, though she did observe that for Czech designers the British market was not so easy to penetrate because of the range of world brands already here. Czech men were, when it came to fashion, perhaps more conservative than elsewhere. There was indeed a market for designer clothes for women in the Czech Republic, made up of interested Czech women and tourists, though the size of the country meant that you were unlikely to get very rich in the business. At the other end of the scale, there were charity shops in the Czech Republic, and you could find Yves St Laurent products there, though the sector did not exist to the extent that it did in Britain. Online purchasing was a feature in Czechia as it was in Britain, and some shops there would indeed have to move online.
Anniversary of 1968 invasion remembered
A memorable evening at the Czech Embassy in London on the actual day, 21st August. The oversubscribed event was packed with youngsters who came to learn about the time when many Czechs and Slovaks had most sincerely believed that Dubcek’s Prague Spring was a death knell of Communism. The older participants recollected the emotional events of the Warsaw Pact invasion, among them the writer Nigel Peace, poet Ivan Hartel, Professor Robert Aish, Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, and Dr Ivan Klimes. According to most of the speakers, the tragic events, during which well over a hundred Czechs and Slovaks were killed by the invaders, were a clear reminder that the end of Communism cold only come via the fall of the Soviet Union. Nigel Peace read from his book Broken Sea, a love story about a British student and a Czech girl Eva during the invasion days. Professor Robert Aish, himself a student in 1968, had travelled through Czechoslovakia at the time of invasion shared some of his photographs taken then in streets of Czech towns, mainly Prague, adding his lively comments. Ivan Hartel, a student leader in Prague in 1968, vividly explained how the big dream of a newly found freedom was brutally dashed by the treacherous invasion.
In the debate following the presentations , several participants offered their own reminiscences. Dr. Strakova recollected her shock at the radio news of the invasion when she was on a mushroom picking expedition not far from Moscow. Dr. Ivan Klimes, during the Prague Spring a journalist at the Czechoslovak Academy of Science who helped to draft a new press law that abolished the Communist censorship, shared his tragic experience of the early morning on the invasion day: he saw a desperate Czech lady telling a group of Soviet soldiers in front of the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s headquarters that her son had just been shot dead by one of their comrades. Crying, she was showing the soldiers her Communist Party membership card, pointing out that she had been one of the founding members. A young Soviet officer who listened to her story suddenly took a pistol from his holster and shot himself on the spot.
From asylum seeker to UK policeman, a talk by Petr Torak MBE
Born in Liberec in the Czech Republic to Roma parents; after several racially motivated attacks, the family moved to the UK and applied for asylum. He joined the Cambridgeshire Constabulary as a Police Community Support Officer in 2006 and two years later became a Police Officer. In 2010 Torak co-founded a community group COMPAS (see our links page) that provides cultural and educational support for the Czech and Slovak communities in Peterborough. He was awarded an honorary MBE in 2015 “for services to the Roma community”.
Czech & Slovak Tech
Following the formal AGM, Roger Aitken, a Forbes contributor and ex-FT staff journalist, delved into the extent of inventions.
The Czech and Slovak lands could be said to have punched above their weight when it comes to inventors and their inventions. There is even an old adage – Zlate ceske rucicky a chytre ceske hlavicky – meaning “golden Czech hands and clever Czech heads.” From the father of modern genetics, Johann Gregor Mendel, to the invention of the ship’s propeller (despite the nations being landlocked) and the first sugar cube sweetener back in 1843, there are more beside.
Working with Vaclav Havel and Czech culture in New York
Reminiscences of Edward Einhorn, American theatre director and writer
In honour of Vaclav Havel’s 70th birthday, at the time of his residency at Columbia University, Untitled Theater Company #61 and other artists and companies from New York and around the USA came together in 2006 to present, for the first time anywhere, the complete plays of Vaclav Havel.
Edward Einhorn is a playwright, director, translator, librettist, and novelist. He is the artistic director of Untitled Theater Company #61 which has been performing in New York City for over 20 years. Other Czech projects include The Velvet Oratorio, an opera-theatre production retelling the events of The Velvet Revolution; Cabaret in Captivity, songs and sketches from Terezin, performed in January at Goodenough College in London; The Pig, or Vaclav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig, adapted from the work by Vaclav Havel and Vladimir Moravek and original plays Rudolf II and Golem Stories. He is currently working on a filmed version of Karel Svenk’s play,The Last Cyclist, originally written in Terezin.
Gaudeamus – a Slovak novel by Richard
This thriller/ love story reflects – and is critical – of the atmosphere and in particular people’s mindset first in normalized Czechoslovakia and then in post-1989 Slovakia.
The author and the translator, David Short, discussed the book, read out passages in Slovak and English and answered questions. Here are a couple of quotes:
“We hoped that in gratitude for the freedom we’d been given we ‘d all want to be kind and just. But so far, that’s not how it’s looking. Freedom has stirred the worst in us.” “We used to joke that anyone who didn’t steal was robbing his family. We don’t make jokes like that any more. An A+ in thievery is the basic requirement for the successful businessman or politician. It won’t be long before we start consigning freaks who pay their taxes and never exceed the speed limit to the asylum.”
The English translation is published by Jantar.
Is it all about time? Gender equality in Czech law and practice: a talk by Dr Barbara Havelkova.
While EU directives on anti-discrimination law have been transposed into Czech law, their implementation has been overwhelmingly ineffective in promoting the cause of gender equality. Dr Havelkova examines why this should be so in her recently published book Gender Equality in Law: Uncovering the Legacies of State Socialism. Looking back at the history of gender equality in law in the Czech Republic, her work traces the roots of contemporary attitudes to the socialist past, when a degree of equalisation was achieved without however the underlying intellectual grounding or understanding about inequality and its causes. It reveals the widespread belief among current Czech legislators that differences between men and women are natural, that inequality is thus understandable and that the law should not intervene. With no follow-up to ensure that EU member states are actually enforcing the law, it is unsurprising that very few anti-discrimination cases are being won. Dr Havelkova teaches at Lincoln College and the Faculty of Law at Oxford University, where she is the Shaw Foundation Fellow in Law.
A full house at the Slovak Embassy enjoyed an evening of chamber music performed by Diversions. The programme included pieces by the well-known Czech composers Bohuslav Martinu and Antonin Dvorak and Gustav Mahler, born near Jihlava on the border between Bohemia and Moravia. It was also a rare opportunity to hear a work by Erwin Schulhoff, born in Prague to a German-Jewish family who began his musical studies at the Prague Conservatory when he was 10 years old.
BCSA/LSESU Bridging the generations
Different generations, different experiences: the BCSA staged an intergenerational event in conjunction with the Czech and Slovak Society of the London School of Economics Student Union. A full house at the Slovak Embassy heard four speakers talk about their sometimes dangerous journeys from communist Czechoslovakia to Britain, and the kind of welcome they received when they got here. This compared with the experiences of the newer arrivals, who had largely come since the accession of the Czech and Slovak Republics to the EU in 2004.
The four speakers were:
Karel Sling, the son of Otto Sling, who was one of the accused in the Stalinist show trials of the early 1950s and was shot in 1952. Karel signed Charter 77, suffered for it and emigrated to Britain in the 1980s.
Professor Gerta Vrbova who spoke of her discovery when she came to Britain that there were different types of freedom: here she could travel where she liked, make friends with whom she liked, say what she liked, but also as a woman she felt much less free than she had been in Czechoslovakia, where women had many more opportunities. She praised the British for their tolerance, but not for the difficulty of finding childcare so she could work.
Eduard Strouhal escaped across the Austrian border in 1948, with the help of reusable forged ID to get past the Russians, and of Austrian police who (literally) looked the other way. As a refugee he had to take work allocated him by the Ministry of Labour, which included a stint clearing unexploded mines and ammunition from an Army training range on the North Yorkshire moors.
Dr Jana Buresova arrived in Britain in 1952 at the age of two, coming from a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, where her mother had been placed following the 1948 communist coup in her home country. As her mother expected repatriation, Jana’s early childhood was ‘very Czech’. She had always seen herself as Czech, though sometimes she felt that Czechs thought she was English (while the English thought she was Czech).
A common theme was that for many, or even most, of those who came to Britain to escape communist Czechoslovakia, their time here was intended to be temporary. They expected to return home once things changed for the better. But as the years wore on they realised that this was not to be. This found a kind of echo in the contributions from the younger members of the audience. They had come here as students, or for an international experience, or to earn money, and they expected to return home or at least to move on elsewhere before too long.
An illustrated talk by an Anglo-Czech artist
Jan Mladovsky presented his work in the context of contemporary visual art. He studied art at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague and then at the Slade School of Art, University College in London where he has been living since 1968. In addition to the famous Serpentine Gallery and Riverside Studios in London, he has exhibited at venues in Japan, Iceland, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands and in his native Czechoslovakia.
Roughing it in Prague – a talk by Rob Humphreys
Rob’s introduction to things Czech and Slovak was through the children’s games his father (a lecturer in Czech and Russian at Leeds University) brought back from trips behind the Iron Curtain. He was asked in 1988 to write the Rough Guide to Czechoslovakia which was published in 1991 and then followed by the Rough Guide to Prague. Rob described the adventures, mishaps, strange encounters and surprises experienced during the writing of his guidebooks, as well as the changes brought about by the Velvet Revolution and the internet.
Daria Klimentova, prima ballerina – my life and work, an illustrated presentation
Surprising the world of ballet with her appointment as principal dancer with the Prague National Ballet Company at the early age of 18, Daria Klimentova went on to have a stunning international career, including 18 years as principal ballerina with English National Ballet. Since her retirement in 2014 she has devoted herself to the education of new generations of dancers, notably by founding and teaching the International Ballet Master classes at Prague’s Narodni divadlo. Her autobiography Daria Klimentova – Agony and Ecstasy – My Life in Dance was published in 2013.
The renegade count – a talk by Milan Kocourek about Count Franz/Frantisek von Luetzow
Diplomat and member of the Austrian parliament, Count Franz/Frantisek von Luetzow (1849-1916) was that rarity, a German-speaking Bohemian aristocrat whole-heartedly devoted to the Czech national cause. With a British mother, he wrote prolifically in English, attempting almost single-handedly to dispel anglophone ignorance about Bohemian history and the contemporary Czech scene. The talk covered some of Count von Luetzow’s endeavours in the years before 1914 as well as his wartime activities.
Slovakia’s post-communist economic transition
As guests of the Czech and Slovak Section of the the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and to mark the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the EU, the held a public discussion with two leading players in Slovakia’s post-communist economic transition.
Vazil Hudak, Vice-President of the European Investment Bank, former Slovak Minister of the Economy and the Slovak Presidency’s chief negotiator for the EU budget, Dr Michal Horvath of York University explored the essential ingredients of Slovakia’s success in making the transition – first to statehood, then EU and NATO membership, and most recently adoption of the Euro.
But there have been challenges too: a brain drain of talent to other EU countries, not least the City of London, where Slovaks are thriving in the financial services industry as well as in London’s start-up community; regional economic disparities such as those between Bratislava in the west and Kosice in the east; as well as corruption in public procurement and the situation of the Roma community.
The life and (hard) times of Emil Zatopek – an illustrated talk by Pat Butcher
With close to a score of world records and the hero of the 1952 Olympic Games, Emil Zatopek was the most successful athlete in Czech(oslovak) history, giving his compatriots many reasons to be proud and enthralling and entertaining the rest of the world. His later support for the Prague Spring led to his exclusion from public life and to work as a labourer in a uranium mine, though he was rehabilitated after 1989 and awarded high honours.The Mercurial Emil Zatopek is the latest book by Pat Butcher, one of Britain’s leading athletics writers. Going back to its subject’s time working for Baťa Zlin in the 1940s it draws on many sources, including interviews with Zatopek himself and his Olympic gold medallist wife Dana, with other contemporaries and with his record breaking successors.
The British response to the Slansky trial – new research from Southampton University
In 1952, one of the most notorious of Communist show trials took place in Czechoslovakia, when alleged members of “the anti-state conspiracy centred around Rudolf Slansky” including the hitherto all-powerful General Secretary himself, were accused of a “Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist plot” and sentenced to death. Media interest was intense but reliable information not easy to obtain. The extent to which contemporary British understanding of the trials was accurate has been investigated by a group of postgraduate students at Southampton University. Themes touched on in their work included the trial’s anti-Semitic element, inner-party rivalry, the use of Slansky as a scapegoat for the country’s economic problems, the context of the Cold War and the other show trials of the late Stalin era. The student panel was introduced by Professor Mark Cornwall.
Shakespeare in Czech -a conversation with Professor Martin Hilsky and Susan Reynolds
Charles University Prague’s Professor Hilsky has translated Shakespeare’s entire output into Czech for which he has received numerous awards, including an honorary MBE. Following Susan’s review of the Bard’s reception in the Czech lands, Prof. Hilsky talked about the endless challenges posed by the richness and complexity of Shakespearean English.
The Czechoslovaks in WWI – rebels or loyalists? A panel discussion with Professor Mark Cornwall, Dr Claire Morelon and chaired by Dr Katya Kocourek
Two historians, Dr Claire Morelon (Oxford University) and Professor Mark Cornwall (Southampton University) brought their extensive archival experience to bear in shedding light on this subject which has received considerable attention in the academic press in recent years. Dr Morelon considered the ‘view from below’ with reference to to the food shortages in large towns and cities in the Bohemian Lands during the war. They came to symbolise a growing discontent with the Habsburg Monarchy which by 1918 translated into a general popular acceptance that the ‘state’ had ‘failed’ the Czechs. Professor Cornwall focussed on the 1916 trail of Karel Kramar, sentenced to 15 years hard labour along with Alois Rasin. Despite being granted political amnesty one year later, it solidified his reputation as a leading Czech nationalist.
My life and work – a talk by Professor Jan Marek, cardiologist
A lecturer at University College Hospital London and Charles University Prague, Professor Jan Marek specialises in paediatric and pre-natal cardiology. He has worked at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) since 2005 and collaborates with Prague’s Motol hospital where he used to work. Although a great grandson of Zdenek Nejedly, a communist minister of education, he experienced great difficulty when applying to study medicine in the footsteps of his parents and grandparents.