Ivan Margolius - from child "undesirable" to propagator of Czech culture

In 1952, when Ivan Margolius was five years old, his father Rudolf, a former deputy minister of foreign trade, was found guilty in the notorious Slansky show trials, surely one of the darkest chapters of the Communist era. Rudolf Margolius, who like Ivan's mother Heda had survived the Nazi death camps, was executed. Ivan Margolius left Czechoslovakia in 1966 and is now a successful architect in the UK. When I spoke to him recently, he recalled growing up in the shadow of his father's death.

"My mother protected me really from the knowledge of what happened. I vaguely knew something happened because my mother said my father died abroad and he wouldn't be coming back and he died there. So obviously I knew that it happened that way, but I didn't know the circumstances and the reasons, any details. When I was about 15 my mother one evening told me the whole story in more detail."

What was your reaction when you learned of what had happened?

"Well, obviously that was all news to me and it was quite staggering news but one took it on slowly and absorbed the news and what happened in those days. And ever since then I was trying to learn as many details as I could of what occurred during the 1950s and hopefully I've got a bit more knowledge about the circumstances."

Your mother Heda Margolius Kovaly wrote a book about her experiences - is it painful for you reading that book?

"No, I don't think so, I think it's always a discovery finding out what happened to our family. I always urged her to write this book and update it as much as possible so it would be beneficial for other people to know what happened in the 20th century which is fascinating politically and culturally, in all aspects."

I've read that when you first went to school you were given a pseudonym.

"I had to change my name because obviously Margolius was a name that wasn't favoured in those days. I used to go to nursery before going to school and children were not allowed to play with me. So my mother really requested the authorities so I could change my name, so I wouldn't be recognised at school as the son of Rudolf Margolius."

Was it the teachers who wouldn't let the other kids play with you?

"No, I don't think it was the teachers, I think it was probably the kids who were told don't play with this child because he is not the right the person to play with, and you may, under the circumstances, not benefit from being attached to a person of that name. So my mother knew that this was a problem and the change of name obviously helped because nobody in the new school knew who I was so that sort of detached me from the political situation and therefore I wasn't suffering. And the other problem was my mother didn't want some children or some other people to actually talk to me about the problems because she didn't want me to be affected directly by the situation and she didn't want me to be traumatised at such an early age."

Are you from Prague?

"Yes, I was born in Prague in 1947, in Vinohrady. We lived originally in a very small flat in Premyslovska and then later on when my father got the job at the ministry we moved to a slightly bigger apartment in Veverkova. So I know Prague very well."

What are you abiding memories of growing up in Prague?

"Everything, I mean Prague is such a wonderful city and I always enjoy coming back to it. Being an architect I was always fascinated by architecture and mainly buildings designed and built in the 1930s like the Bata building or the Hotel Julis or the Veletrzni Palac or Elektricke podniky and many others, as well as the work of Plecnik at the Castle. It's such a mine of information, the city, it's such a wonderful place. Having lived since 1966 in London and outside London I always find going back to Prague like coming back home."

How was it for you coming to London in 1966 in the Swinging Sixties from Prague, which must have been relatively dowdy in those days?

"I found it fascinating but I was a very naive person in those days and I knew very little about pop and the Beatles. It was again a learning experience for me to find out what was going on in the west and it was an eye-opener in all aspects really."

When you first came to London did you expect you would stay here for good?

"Yes, I think it was the intention when we were leaving in 1966 that I would stay here for good because I was told in those slightly easier days in the mid-60s that despite the easier times that was the last time I would be getting a Czech passport. And that really was a sort of nail in the coffin because I knew I wouldn't be able to travel again. So that added to the whole decision-making process and I decided to stay in England. And I think it was a good decision because two years later I would have had to get out anyway because of my background. So in a way I had a bit of an advantage on other people who left two years later."

There must have been a huge wave of Czechs who came to London in '68.

"Yes, it suddenly changed enormously. I remember I was on holiday in Cornwall on my own, camping in a farmer's field in August. I didn't have a radio obviously or a television with me, nothing at all. And on the morning of the 21st I went down to St Ives and there was an enormous crowd in front of a television shop in the high street and I just tried to look in there to see what was happening. There was one black and white television on and it just said on the screen 'Czech invasion' and that was the first time I learnt about the invasion and obviously I tried to ring Prague. Then I met lots of people who came here and settled here because that was the only way they could survive the situation at home."

You mentioned earlier 20th century architecture in Prague - you've written a book about that topic.

"Yes, I've written quite a few books but one of them is a guide to Prague's 20th century architecture, which lists over 150 buildings, the main, prime examples of fantastic functionalist and other architecture, which is fascinating for all the visitors."

Is there any degree of nostalgia in your interest in Czech architecture?

"It's always being away from home...and that type of architecture which is found in Prague or in the Czech Republic is nowhere else to be found."

As well as writing about architecture you've also written a couple of books about Czech cars, am I right?

"Yes, I wrote a book on the history of Tatra cars and Skoda cars, and they were first books which were published on these makes in England. When I came here in 1966, because I like books - my mother was a translator so I lived with books all my life, I went to Foyles bookshop and I wanted to see what there was about Czech culture available on the bookshelves. And there was hardly anything, there was maybe a couple of books on Dvorak or Smetana, there was nothing about Czech technology, nothing about Tatra, nothing about Skoda, nothing about architecture. And I thought one of my aims should be to acquaint the western public with Czech culture and the first book which I published in '79 was about Cubism in architecture, which wasn't at all known in those days. And it was quite interesting because obviously I couldn't go back to research the material so I had to ask friends to secretly send me photographs so they could be included in the book."

What kind of car do you drive?

"I drive a Skoda, in fact we've got two Skodas, two Felicias, my partner and I. And I'm having a Tatraplan car which I bought two or three years ago restored in the Czech Republic and hopefully I'll bring it to the UK soon and hopefully show a bit of interesting technology again to people on this side of the border."

You can find out more about Ivan Margolius, his family and his books at www.margolius.co.uk

(Photo: http://www.margolius.co.uk)