One on One Otto Jelinek, Part 1: Escape, tragedy and “incredibly emotional” triumph in Prague
Otto Jelinek (75) is in the highly unusual position of being ambassador to the city of his birth. Canada’s envoy to the Czech Republic was born in Prague during WWII but fled with his family after the Communist takeover of 1948. Fourteen years later, he returned to the city as a Canadian – winning gold with his sister Maria at the World Figure Skating Championships in front of a delighted “home crowd”.
“My father was in the bottle stopper business. That doesn’t sound very romantic, but he manufactured corks and aluminum tops for beer here in Prague and distributed them all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Germany and other parts of Europe, and grew it into quite a big business.”
That company still exists, I believe.
“That company was immediately resurrected by my father upon arriving in Canada. And now, this many years later, it’s run by youngest brother; he has a branch here in the Czech Republic as well as other branches around the world.”
Are you from Prague itself?
“Yes, I was born in Prague. My parents were both born in the Brno vicinity, so I can say I have roots in Brno and roots in Prague.”
You were born during WWII and it ended just before your fifth birthday. Have you got any recollections of the war?
“I have a recollection. Not because of my memory, but because our family has talked about it so often.
“Just when the war was ending I had gone downtown to my father’s downtown office on a Saturday. May 5, I think it was.
“It was a habit – every Saturday morning my father took me as a five-year-old boy to his downtown office, because he only spent a few hours there on Saturdays.
“In the middle of that there was sporadic fighting and shooting on the streets of Prague [during events known as the Prague Uprising], which I witnessed from the second floor window of what is now the Czech National Bank.
“Every time we walk past the Czech National Bank and when we have events there, it brings back memories that I actually saw people being killed outside, right between Obecní Dům [the Municipal House] and the Czech National Bank.”
In the years that followed the war the Communists became more powerful and eventually took over [in February 1948]. What was the atmosphere like at your home in those days? Were your parents worried? Were they planning ahead?
“I was very young, so I can’t describe the atmosphere, other than what we obviously discussed at length as a family from that day until the present.
“My father, who was a wealthy industrialist, who owned properties and factories in Czechoslovakia, had everything confiscated.
“Yes, he did see things coming. As a result he did keep some money outside of Czechoslovakia and organised an escape for the whole family.
“The whole family means five children – I have three brothers and a sister – and his wife. It was done in stages, because my oldest brother was already going to school in Switzerland, so that was one less.
“My father organised with… to this day we can’t say which South American diplomat, but with a South American diplomat, to escape in a diplomatic car – which is ironic, me being an ambassador now – across the border into Austria.
“We kids thought we were going on a picnic to Austria and returning the same day. Because we went with no luggage, with no toys.
“We went to a picnic in Vienna, but my father kept driving right through Austria till we got to Switzerland, where we were reunited with the oldest brother, who was going to school in Lausanne. And that was that.
“Then we started crying because we had been told we weren’t going back. We said, I left my bicycle, and my sister left her dolls, and most of all what about our friends? Are they going to come and see us? Are they going to visit us? Of course the answer is probably not.”
You then spent a year living in Switzerland before eventually moving to Canada. What were your first impressions of Canada?
“Canadians at that time didn’t seem to be so tolerant of immigrants, of foreigners. And because we spoke Czech amongst us in Toronto we were sometimes spit at on streetcars.
“We got into some arguments. People said we were DPs [displaced persons], dirty DPs, and what have you.
“Canada has changed dramatically since then, because it’s become a very open society.”
Had you already begun skating before you moved?
“We began skating here in Prague, with my sister. The reason my sister and I skated together was because we were the closest in age.
“Every one of us five children had to do some activities on weekends outside, and I had to look after my sister because she was my younger sister and I was the closest in age.
“So they put us on skates in the one and only stadium, called Štvanice. The ice surface doesn’t exist anymore.
“We held onto each other so we wouldn’t fall and we learned to be able to do that. And somehow some people helped us to improve and it became a natural thing for her and I to skate together. And after the escape we continued of course in Canada.”
Several years later, after you’d won other championships, you won the World Championships here in Prague in 1962. What are your memories of that experience?
“Those are real memories, because now I was 20, 21 years old and it was just a coincidence that just as we reached our peak in international competition that the World Championships were held in Prague, the city where we were born. A tremendous coincidence.
“My father said, You can’t go. I fought tooth and nail and my father reluctantly agreed as long as we got a guarantee of safe return and the Canadian government was involved, which it was.
“At first the Czechoslovak government wouldn’t give us visas. They were told that they must give all qualified athletes visas, otherwise the International Skating Union would pull the World Championships out of Prague to Vienna.
“So we were granted visas reluctantly and came to Prague not knowing what to expect.
“But as it turned out it was probably the most memorable thing in my life because the people were very, very excited about the fact that a young couple was coming back.
“Coming back to Czechoslovakia was an incredibly emotional situation, because every Czechoslovak knew that we were original Czechs, and that we were coming back from outside.
“Don’t forget, that was the first time that that happened from the time the Iron Curtain went up.
“It was more than a sport now. It was suddenly a breath of freedom or something like that, coming back behind the Iron Curtain.
“People even crowded into the stadiums where we practiced. They gave us little toys that they could afford, and cakes and everything.
“They stood by the hotel, the International Hotel, it’s still here, just a few blocks from where here. They stood there for hours just to see us, to touch us.
“Of course we skated to Czech music: Smetana and Dvořák. When it came to the main performance the stadium was packed. They had standing only so they could fit 19,000 people into the old stadium.
“And the 19,000 people went crazy. We won the gold medal for Canada. But with our hearts we also skated for Czechoslovakia.”
Were there restrictions placed on you? Could you move around your native city?
“The answer is yes. We had to always say where we were going – that was kind of said to be for our security. We didn’t sneak around. We were here to skate, to compete.
“Like every other tourist we had to see Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, Pařížská. We had time to go to one of the castles but I don’t remember which one – it just was a blur of things.
“The pair skating event was the first of the week. So we won that and then the winners of each had to skate in exhibitions the following days. All covered live by Czech Television.
“So Czech people got to see us for five or six days in a row, skating different programmes, skating our exhibition programmes, skating our competitive programme.
“It amazes me that nearly on a daily basis I run into somebody, whether a taxi driver of hanging coats in the theatre, who remembers that.”
Earlier when we were speaking you referred to a plane you missed a year before the World Championships in 1962. Could you tell us about that story?
“The World Championships in Prague were scheduled to be held in 1961. My sister and I had just finished competing in the North American Championships in Philadelphia, which we won.
“We were flying with the American team, who we used to train with in Lake Placid, so they were all our friends.
“We flew with them to New York and we were boarding a Sabena air flight – and had the boarding passes – but our coach, who was with us in Philadelphia, had to fly quickly to Toronto, because his wife was having a baby, and then back to New York.
“He couldn’t get on that Sabena flight, so pulled us off the flight and we flew KLM via Amsterdam to Prague. That was the first time we came to Prague after our escape in 1948.
“My sister knew that the Americans should have been here in Prague earlier. She asked one of the officials at the airport, Where are the Americans? We were nervous anyway as to what was going to happen to us or not.
“And she was told, They’re all dead. The Sabena airplane crashed in Brussels two hours ago and the whole American team… was wiped out, killed.
“It’s very difficult for me to talk about that even now. Because it’s such a tragic thing to have all these young skater, young athletes, their coaches and parents killed in one swoop.
“This championship in ’61 was postponed and then it took place of course in 1962.”
I was reading that you later performed in the show Ice Capades. Were you in at the same time as Ája Vrzáňová, the great Czech figure skater?
“There were two Ice Capades shows and we joined when we skated in all the Canadian cities with Ája.
“It was quite an emotionally charged meeting when we first met. We of course stayed very, very close friends with her, right to her very recent death.”
In the second part of this interview next week, Otto Jelinek discusses his successful business and political careers in Canada and his move back to Prague in the 1990s.