Thursday marked the 92nd anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, and as always on that day a group of outstanding figures received the country’s highest honours. This year, President Václav Klaus bestowed medals upon 22 men and women, among them heroes of the Second World War and accomplished individuals from the worlds of science, sports and culture.
The Order of the White Lion is the highest accolade the state can give, and with it the President recognised three army corporals this year for their outstanding service to the nation during the Second World War and the hardship they had endured afterwards. Emil Boček was a highly decorated fighter pilot who escaped the occupation to join the Royal Air Force at the age of only sixteen. Jan Plovajko found himself in a Soviet gulag for three years after the Nazi invasion, a situation he survived only because he was sent to some of the bloodiest battles to fight.
The most remarkable story is that of Marie Lastovecká, whose face hit the world press when she was a deadly 22-year-old sniper. She survived an explosion that broke her back and continued in the war as a rescuer, dragging dozens of wounded soldiers to safety. Today she is 90 years old, and says she feels surprised and touched by the recognition.
The Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk went to four individuals for their outstanding service to the development of democracy, humanity or human rights, namely Dr. Jan Haluza, Julie Hrušková, Jan Janků and Josef Vlček, all of whom had stood up to the communist regime and survived imprisonment, labour camps and torture.
Among the 15 recipients of the Medal of Merit are scientists, doctors and writers, but also some well-known figures of arts and culture, and even sport, most notably hockey legend Jaromír Jágr.
Other individuals of merit were Dr. Eva Zaoralová, who was key in the resurrection of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and its transformation into a world-class event, and the actress Hana Maciuchová, who has been a fixture of Czech theatre and television since the 1960s. There is usually at least one controversial pick for the Award of Merit, however, and there was no doubt in the mind of the artist and National Gallery director Milan Knížák that he was that person this year.
“I am a controversial figure, and as a controversial figure I received this award. And I received it from the controversial President Klaus. Are you satisfied with that?”
Further recognitions included that of conductor Vladimír Válek, who led the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra to world renown, and Liberec fireman Roman Hlinovský, who was cited for his exemplary and timely response during the massive flooding that struck his region earlier this year.