“The fate of Czechoslovakia on the background of personal stories 1918, 1938, 1948, 1968 and beyond”
The most powerful stories are written by life itself. In order to commemorate the 100 years of the state of Czechoslovakia coming into existence, I decided to dedicate this article not merely to important historical events but to link it to the fates of individuals. As I have not lived through much of the period, I asked Judi Challiner, my dear friend and mentor, to co- write the article. It also serves as the sequel to “My Life as Defined by Two Quotes”, published last year which received many positive reactions as well as requests for Part 2.
Linda: “We concluded our interview one year ago about you applying for Czech citizenship. Let me quickly summarize your story. Your father was a Czechoslovak citizen, and a medical doctor at the clinic of Baťa Shoe Factory in Zlín, before his escape to England in 1938. There he served as a medical doctor in the Czech Airforce and fought alongside the British. Your grandmother together with twenty-five members of your family could not escape and were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. What are the recent updates not only with regards to your request for Czech citizenship, but also your journey to discover more about your Czech roots?
Judi: On February 8, 2017 I remember walking with you, as my (friend) Power of Attorney, to the Prague 1 municipal office. That began a long and a complex journey until I was finally granted Czech Citizenship on October 17 last year! Since then, quite a few British citizens have done the same, in protest against Brexit and to remain EU citizens.
I often say that 8 is my lucky number. Look at the date of the beginning of this process! The address where I was granted Czech citizenship is the Office of Prague 1, Vodičkova 18. Also, the digits of October 17 add up to 8. This was a very happy turning point in my life! Receiving the official papers, I listened to Mrs. Stanislava Sábová, an incredibly helpful and professional Czech official, summarizing the documents of the Zlín archive about my father’s family and my grandmother’s desperate attempts to remain a Czech citizen in 1938. There was even a mention of me, as a three-year old girl, being granted permission to take the journey back to Great Britain with my English mother in spring 1948. A flood of emotions swamped me. What would my grandmother and father have thought of me re-claiming the very citizenship they were forced to renounce? Flying back to Manchester with my proud husband , I thought of my easy life compared with my grandmother and father. For them, 1938 and 1948 completely changed their identities, their belonging to their beloved Czechoslovakia. They became in the words of our Prime Minister, Theresa May ‘Citizens of Nowhere.’ The consequences for them both in those two years were brutal.
Judi: It was Madeleine Albright who said: “Years ending in 8 are of outsize importance in Czech history.” As we are celebrating the centenary of the first Czechoslovak Republic this year, what can you tell me about Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk? I remember from our conversations that thanks to your grandmother, you have many special memories.
Linda: I remember very well my grandmother Rose recalling Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the “little” father of the nation (tatíček), as he was nicknamed. My grandmother was 11 years old when Czechoslovakia declared independence and the spirit of the First Czechoslovak Republic very much determined her values and memories. The same is true for me with the Velvet Revolution. I was only 13, yet it has influenced my life profoundly. But back to my grandma Rose. She taught me about Masaryk and the First Czechoslovak Republic. She always remembered the three principles on which the First Czechoslovak Republic was built. The first one was that daily work, however small and mundane it might seem, if done continuously, can achieve great results overtime. The second part was the high ideals on which the republic was built. The third part was patriotism, not as destructive nationalism as we experience it today but as an attachment and commitment to one’s country; throughout her life my grandmother reminded me to be a proud daughter of a small country that has given so many leading personalities in all spheres to the world.
Linda: I must mention that the fact we can talk about this history without any ideology and any repercussions still means a lot to me. More than ever before, we should recognize how democracy and freedom of speech is precious and should be protected.
I remember quite vividly grandma proudly showing me Masaryk’s Encyclopedia mentioning my relatives and acknowledging them for their patriotic and economic achievements. By the way, did you know that this Encyclopedia was the second largest encyclopedic volume after Encyclopedia Britannica to be published in 1930’s? I think this illustrates the degree of development of the Czechoslovak society at that time and the values put on education, history and learning. Listening to my grandmother and her accounts was so interesting and so very different from what I learned in school. It was in the early 1980s, before the Gorbachev era, shortly after the martial law had been declared in Poland, a period of a fierce “normalization in the Soviet Bloc”. Naturally, I could not wait to share it with my classmates at school and with my civic and history class teacher. After I bragged about my family history not only to my classmates but to my teacher, who happened to be a zealous communist, my parents were summoned to school. My grandmother was forbidden to share anything with me, my true historical upbringing had to wait until the regime change in 1989.
Linda: The first Czechoslovak Republic was only allowed to prosper for 20 years. The next date to mention is 1938, the year when the so called Second Czechoslovak Republic came to existence. This year also marked the first wave of Czechoslovak immigration abroad in 20th century, which consequently led to the loss of élites, the fact that still can be felt in the Czech society one century later.
Judi: 1938 marked the end of my relatives’ existence as well–liked, respected citizens in Karlovy Vary. My father was working as a young doctor in Zlín, so he was not around when the Nazis marched into his home town and ordered my grandmother, great grandmother, aunt and her young son to get out of the family home. They tried to get registered in Semily but ended up in an over-crowded flat in Prague. My grandmother only thought of the safety of her sons and insisted they leave Czechoslovakia. As for her, she had to look after her mother who was in her 80s and thought nothing would happen to them – they were too old. How many people of a certain age thought that, only to be brutally deceived and murdered? Her life ended in the gas chambers in Auschwitz.
Linda: Your father and your uncle, serving in the Royal Air Force, survived. It took almost 60 years to build a memorial for them. How does visiting the memorial feel?
Judi: When I first came to the memorial of the Winged Lion, it did not take me long to spot the two precious names among 2,500 inscriptions on the bronze tiles listing all the Czech and English personnel who fought for freedom in World War II.
POSNER | Erich Alfred | F/O | 311 | Medical Officer
POSNER | Jan | W/O | 311 | Pilot
There, immortalized forever, were my father and his brother. I wonder what they would have thought of me, bursting with pride, looking at their memorial. Yet I was filled with a huge sadness too. Two decades ago, in 1997, I had stood in the Pinkas Synagogue on the other side of the Vltava river staring at a wall with tens of thousands of names. At eye level I had found my grandmother’s last official record POSNEROVA ANNA 24 X1 1877 18 X11 1943.
In a bizarre way, I, Judi Challiner, born Posner, have paid tribute to them all and carry my Czech citizenship with even more pride because of them.
Linda: “Much as we celebrate the centenary of the Czechoslovak Republic, we should also remember 80 years that marked the event that I remember being lauded in the communist textbooks as a Victorious February of Working Class. In fact, after the nationalization of the property, the communists took away the prestigious pharmacy located at Pohořelec Prague Castle Area from my grandparents. My grandfather, a successful pharmacist and an entrepreneur, never recovered from this loss. Your father, on the other hand, had to escape his fatherland for the second time. It was the second wave of immigration that the country suffered.”
Judi: I completely understand this sense of loss. 70 years ago, my father made his second escape from Czechoslovakia. Again, he was working as a doctor in Bata’s hospital in Zlín but this time he was married and had a three-year old daughter – me! The grim discovery of what had happened to his mother and family haunted him for the rest of his life. Before escaping in 1948, he had returned to the family home Rossini in Karlovy Vary and managed to ship furniture and family possessions which had been hidden in the cellar to England. In England, he became an eminent consultant of chest diseases in Stoke on Trent. He was part of the “Lidice Must Live Working Party” with Sir Barnet Stross, set up a fund for Czechoslovak students at Keele University in 1968, wrote many papers including studies of Johann Gregor Mendel’s work in Brno. Yet unlike many similar Czech naturalized British citizens, he always, always yearned for his beloved Czechoslovakia and like your grandfather never really recovered from the loss of his mother, his home, his country and his life there.
The communists in 1948, built a dossier of lies about him and his family, which I discovered when applying for my Czech citizenship. They recorded that his mother, and father went to Australia to escape the Holocaust. His date of escape from Czechoslovakia was completely wrong and he was branded as a criminal, even worse, a Jewish criminal. Leaving in 1948 meant that he escaped the infamous Slánský’s trials and almost certain execution.
Linda: “Let us talk about 1968, as we celebrated 50 years since the Prague Spring and your first visit to Czechoslovakia that you remember. You visited Prague once by yourself in April and later with your father, mother and sister in August 1968, just before the Russians invaded again.”
Judi: I returned to Prague in the euphoric days of the Prague Spring. I made contact with my father’s old friends, doctors he had worked with and journalists who had helped him in the dark days of 1948. Wonderful people who were delighted to entertain me with trips to castles, theatres, wine cellars, restaurants, etc. However, all these treats were eclipsed by one afternoon of coffee and cake at Kampa, with none other than Jan Werich. He and my father’s student group were all part of the theatrical milieu in Prague. During the 1960s Jan Werich regularly visited London and whenever he was in town my father would meet him. Going to his flat on beautiful Kampa to have coffee and cake is still etched in my memory. He appeared from his study, wham! Layer upon layer of funny, sad, satirical anecdotes meant the coffee went cold, the very dry sacher-torte was left untouched. Werichova Vila opened in June 2017 for all to enjoy and on Oct 7, my birthday, I went to pay my respects! The goosebumps began when I climbed the stone stairs to the floor which had been his flat. Sitting at his desk looking at photos, I could hear his voice, his laugh, I could see his expressions. I remembered a quote of his that I had written down years ago, “One woman often sees more than five men with binoculars.” I don’t know whether I saw more than those binoculared men, but the pictures which I had in my mind from that visit in 1968 were countless!
After 1968, the pictures stayed in my mind until a short visit in 1997 when I made a promise to the Pinkas Synagogue’s inscription of my grandmother’s name to return more permanently. In 2004, I came back to live and work and move back and forth between Manchester and Prague. 14 years later I am still dividing my time between the two cities.
Linda: Both, you and the country you are now a citizen of, have in common the pattern of events which happened in years ending in 8. So how has your 2018 been so far?
Judi: 2018, has been an extraordinary year for me. At the beginning of January, I wrote to the Jewish Museum in Karlovy Vary to find out more about my Posner family. In a matter of days, I had the address of the house, Rossini on Bulharská 17, photos of my grandfather’s tombstone with the commemoration of his wife underneath and an invitation to go and see the curator Lukáš Svoboda to find out more. In March, my husband secretly booked a hotel two blocks down from Rossini, the hotel manager arranged that we could cross the threshold and go inside my father’s family home and we spent three amazing, educational hours at the Jewish Museum. After that whirlwind, kaleidoscope of events I know this is where my Czech roots are and a bit of me belongs. Later, at the end of June, we had a family party at the Karlovy Vary Film festival. This time my sister, her daughter and I, represented three generations of Posner women, who are proud to be descendants of this great family.
In September, I went with my power of attorney to collect my Czech passport and ID. In October, I finished the book which I am co-writing with you, my friend. The title of my story is ‘Grandmothers are forever’. Although I never met her, Anna Posnerova has led me on a lifelong, pathos filled yet exhilarating journey. When I crossed the threshold of Rossini on March 11, 2018, I walked on the same tiles, held the same wrought iron banisters and looked through the same windows that she did. Then
I knew that years ending in 8 are truly magic.
Whatever happens with the populist lies of the Brexit debacle, I know one thing. I am a citizen of somewhere, where Václav Havel’s eternal quote is still my favorite message for us all. “Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred.”
By Linda Štucbartová