In Focus Alice Masaryková’s charity heritage remembered
This Monday marked exactly 50 years since the death of Alice Masaryková, the first daughter of Czechoslovakia’s first president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his American wife Charlotte. A prominent figure in Czechoslovakia between the wars, Alice Masaryková is mostly remembered today as the founder of the Czechoslovak branch of the International Red Cross.
According to Olga Hájková, a historian from the Masaryk Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, her life was always driven by the desire to help others, despite giving an impression of being rather strict and severe.
Alice Masaryková was born in Vienna in May 1879 as the first child of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his American wife Charlotte and spent the first years of her life in Vienna. In 1882, the family moved to Prague, where her father was appointed professor at the newly opened Czech Charles-Ferdinand University.
Olga Hájková says the upbringing of the Masaryk children, Alice, Herbert, Jan and Olga, was quite unusual for the time:
“Her mother was brought up very strictly, in the Protestant spirit, so she decided to give her own children a lot of freedom and the opportunity of further education. They learned languages, music, but the family also put great emphasis on sports.
“The father was an important figure, someone all the children looked up to. As a father, he was an interesting figure. He would look after them play with them, tell them stories. But when he worked, he kept his distance, and he would only answer their questions if he thought they were to the point, otherwise he would simply ignore them.”
As historian Olga Hájková points out, it wasn’t easy for Alice Masaryková to step out of her father’s shadow. Despite herself being highly educated and emancipated, she often felt inadequate, feeling that she failed to meet his expectations. After receiving a university education in Prague and Berlin in 1903, she spent a year in the United States, completing a post-graduate course on social care. She also assisted Czechoslovak immigrants who were starting a new life in the country. When she returned home, she started her teaching career. Olga Hájková again:
“When she started teaching at secondary schools in České Budějovice and in Holešovice in Prague, she was a very active and enthusiastic teacher. In her lectures she always went beyond the boundaries of the given subject. She would take the girls outside, on trips, to the theatre, and she taught them skiing and skating. She had a very open and individual approach to her students.”
Along with teaching, Alice Masaryková also became involved in the Red Cross Movement, and that involvement intensified with the onset of the First World War. After the war, part of which she spent in an Austrian jail, she established and chaired the Czechoslovak branch of the International Red Cross.
Among other things she founded an annual tradition of holding a three-day political truce in Czechoslovakia, when politicians and journalists would suspend their political disputes. Here she is speaking about it on Czechoslovak Radio’s shortwave broadcasts in April 1938.
“After the Great War, when conditions here were very difficult, the idea came to me that it would help to bring people together if the press of the country put aside party politics and invectives for three days and concentrated on a constructive idea.
“We gained the confidence and cooperation of practically all journalists, so that our ideal of newspapers giving only truthful information, news that was alive but not sensational, was achieved during the three days of the truce. And we do not deny that we hope that what can be achieved in three days will one day become a rule the whole year round.
“We beg you, who are listening, to work with us for our ideals embodied in our truce. A clean and truthful press that brings us nearer to each other, individuals and nations, in a wholehearted reverence for each eternal soul, without difference of nations, religion or race. Let me say the words which will be pronounced by the speaker of our parliament in a few minutes. The peace of the Red Cross has been proclaimed. Let the peace of the Red Cross be maintained.”
Nowadays, Alice Masaryková is remembered as a pioneer in the field of social care and a strict censor of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk’s legacy but her personal life remains somewhat obscured.
Despite being a great teacher and social worker, Alice Masaryková never married and never had children herself. According to Olga Hájková, she put work over her personal life, but there were probably other factors as well.
“Alice was a very emotional person and she was also very self-depreciating. From what we know she fell deeply in love twice. First, before the First World War, with the Vienna-based eye doctor Fröhlich. And then she had a platonic relationship with architect Josip Plečnik. There are beautiful letters they wrote to each other, which have never been published.
“Of course she regretted never getting married and not having children. I think this is why she tried to be so helpful in other fields, such as the Red Cross or the rebuilding of Prague Castle.”
In 1939, with the onset of the Second World War, Alice Masaryková was forced to leave for her first exile in the United States. She was devastated by the turn of events in Czechoslovakia and found her exile difficult to bear. When she came back in 1945, she hoped to spend the rest of her life in her house in the Slovak countryside. But in 1948, she was forced to leave the country again, this time for good.
“She first left for Switzerland where she stayed with her sister Olga. She then spent some time in London before moving to the US. There she stayed for some time in the YWCA residence, supported by Czechoslovak expatriates and also received financial aid from Radio Free Europe. She wrote her memoirs, which were published in the 1950s, but afterwards her health started to deteriorate and she started to lose her eyesight.”
Alice Masaryková died in 1966 but it was not until after the fall of the Communist regime that the Czech Red Cross had her ashes brought home and placed in the Masaryk family grave at the Lány Chateau.