In today’s Special our guest is the charming Eva Jiránková, born in 1921 to a notable Prague family in the early years of the First Republic. As a junior, Jiránková was a competitive skier and as a young woman she graced the covers of popular Czech magazines – something of a charmed life. But that all ended in September 1942 when her husband, Miloš Jiránek, was arrested by the Gestapo, and spent the next years in internment and concentration camps.
Mrs Jiránková, today a spritely 90, recounted their story of hope and survival, first under the Nazis and later the Communists, which saw them – like so many of their fellow compatriots – eventually flee to the West.
The story begins with happier days:
“We lived at a key site in Prague, near Žofín and the National Theatre which was fantastic. As children we grew up and played on Slovanský ostrov, skating in the winter and swimming in the summer. But because my brother, who was four years younger, was a weak child, my father decided that we needed to spend more time in the country and he bought a second house by the woods at Řevnice: a copy of Kokořín Castle called Villa Kokořín and we always moved there at the beginning of May and stayed there until the end of September.
“My mother stayed with us but was not well for most of her life so we had a lot of freedom and played at indians in the woods. My father also started a tennis club in Řevince where Martina Navrátilová learned to play later on and went to the same school 30 years later and we talked about it much later when I met her at Wimbledon.”
As a young girl you were involved competitively in skiing: who taught you to ski?
“My father. He also founded a ski club and in those days we always used to ski in Krkonoše at a place called Medvědí bouda, near Špindlerův Mlýn. I was three-years-old when I started to ski and I knew all the hills by the time I was six or seven when my father dragged me all over the place! At Christmas and other holidays, half-term, my father and many friends would meet there.
“Later I took part in junior tournaments just before the war and was great fun. Of course when I was a kid you had to carry your skis, it was very primitive! There were no ski-lifts and you had to walk with your rucksack and skis and then skied down. We even skied in the Tatras and had to walk up for five hours! So things were very different!”
As a young woman you graced the covers of Czech magazines, correct?
“My friends from when we were young were the great photographer Ladislav Sitenský and also Jan Lukas and as young adults close to Munich and the beginning of the war and we didn’t have cars and we spent weekends bicycling. And they took pictures of us and these ended up being published. I think I made the covers of Ozvěni or Ahoj or List paní a dívek and newspapers. I must have been 16, 17, 18 years old.”
I imagine that you must have been chasing off interested suitors!
“Well (laughs) you know it was never serious, just fun. It was only serious later when I met my husband.”
How in fact did you meet your husband? He was certainly a very dashing man when you see the photographs...
“I met my future husband when he came over to play bridge with my father. And he saw me and at that time I was very miserable for some reason but still he asked me to come to a matinee show at the National Theatre. At the time his girlfriend was a very famous married woman whom I won’t name, who couldn’t go, so he asked me. And I said ‘Yes’. I lost my gloves, I came late, and I looked terrible! Nevertheless afterwards he asked me again!
“At that time he was already a director at Lidové noviny and Zdeněk Němeček was to give a reading from one of his new books at his flat and he invited me to the party but my parents forbid from going unless I went with a chaperone. They still didn’t like it: he had a bad reputation and there were so many ladies around him! But I went and that was how we got to know each other.
“Later he asked me to marry him and at that time I said okay but Christmas came and I had to go race in Austria – this was already after we were occupied by Germany! And he told me I had to choose between him and skiing and I chose skiing! We didn’t see each other for about six months but then we saw each other again and he proposed once more. And I agreed!
“We had a big wedding at the Church of St. Vojtěch. But at three o’clock in the morning on our wedding night the Gestapo came for him. He spent the next years until the end of the war in labour and concentration camps.”
What were the reasons that he was targeted?
“This was not long after the assassination of Heydrich and they were arresting prominent figures. My husband was the nephew of Dr. Stránský and after his arrest he was taken to the Svatobořice internment camp near Kyjov in Moravia. People like sculptor Otakar Španiel were there. Lots of people were persecuted and Svatobořice was where they ended up. The guards there were Czech and I was allowed to go there once to visit him. But because of Stránský’s speeches on the BBC my husband was told he was being transferred to a concentration camp, Gross-Rosen, a German camp in Poland near Breslau. It was a bad camp but not an extermination camp.
“At first I didn’t hear from him for a long time but eventually I got a letter and I tried to always send letters on time and to send some food parcels. In the end he worked as a prisoner in the Krupp factory which had been transferred from Essen so that it would be safe from bombing, and they made weapons there. But he says they tried to sabotage the weapons as much as possible.”
“It was difficult. During the war it was often hard to just get enough food and you had to cycle to the countryside and try to get supplies in the country. But being caught would have meant going to prison or being executed. Just like listening to Churchill’s speeches. One of my very good friends, a student, was executed just like this. So it was true terror. But we were young and, you know, when you are young you don’t think of things as being dangerous - you just do them.”
When did you see your husband again?
“Before Christmas 1944, I decided to get into the camp and took with me 400 cigarettes and a bottle of brandy to give to the commandant. I told him I wanted to see my husband if he was still alive. This was near the end of the war and the Russians were nearing and I gave him the goods and was able to see my husband for about 15 minutes.
“But after Christmas, very soon afterwards, the whole camp was evacuated: my husband and the others were forced to march from Gross-Rosen, near Wroclaw in the terribly cold winter and snow, for two months. Sleeping rough, with very little food and only a few made it: those who couldn’t walk were shot. He arrived first at Dachau and even met the former Austrian premier Kurt Scuschnigg there and later ended up ended up at Flossenburg. He was liberated by the American army in April, not knowing whether I was still alive.”
Did your husband talk with you about this experience?
“We talked about it very rarely: he didn’t want to talk about his experience in the camp. But one thing that repeated itself afterwards each year was that he fell into depression soon after Christmas, sometimes for a month, six weeks or two. And I asked him and he explained: he recalled how he was made to line up with six Polish officers and two Russian officers who they executed in front of him. He expected to be executed himself. He stood there for 12 hours and then they said ‘You can go.’
“My husband said that he really survived where others failed because they gave up after losing contact with their families. I was allowed to write once a month and I tried to keep it up. Of course how he survived walking from Poland to Bavaria I don’t know. And what I really don’t understand is that the guards went with them the whole way! That they didn’t escape or let them go but that they went with them the whole way. It’s beyond my understanding.”
After the Czech lands were liberated, up until 1948, were those positive years?
“Absolutely. We had such hopes and everything began working again. It was the happiest three years of my life. My daughter was born and each year on the 9th of May we celebrated our liberation. It was a great time and a period of great hope but it lasted less than three years before February 1948 and the coming of communism. My husband was sacked from the papers and the Communists took over. And it was a strange thing: all our friends – Drda and Řezáč and all the poets, like Nezval who ignored us in the street and crossed to the other side, – suddenly everyone turned their backs on us and became communists. And my husband, who had spent three years in concentration camps said that he had had enough of camps and we knew that we had to leave.”
It seems like an extremely dark period and I’m struck by... well, for example, I’ve met Americans who were firm believers in socialism who moved here during that terrible period and I have to say I can not understand it.
“For me the worst realisation came when I was in Paris after we escaped, and it was in France that I heard about Milada Horáková. That was for me personally the greatest shock over what people can do to each other over different politics. That was absolutely unbelievable.”
Eventually you made it to Great Britain... and I’ve read you didn’t have much money, and that although you spoke four languages, you didn’t speak English.
“That’s right. But it began in Paris. We lived there for almost three years and we were very, very poor and quite hungry. On the other hand, Paris after the war was a very fascinating place: you could sit at the Café de Flore for hours for just a few centimes and just watch people go by. We walked everywhere and many of our friends were similarly poorly off. We were three in a small room in the cheapest possible student hotel, with little heating, no hot water and a toilet for everyone at the end of the hall. Compared to all the luxuries that people have today, I can’t understand that we never complained. But I think that it was the feeling of freedom. We were free! And we weren’t alone: we had our friends, but otherwise practically nothing!”
When you moved to Britain you would eventually begin a new life and would land a career in fashion...
“Well in life it’s important to be a little lucky and my husband was. He went for an interview and he got a job at the British Foreign Office. It was the Cold War now and my husband was a journalist and spoke languages and they wanted to know what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. He worked there for 25 years.
“As for me, after 10 years at home bringing up our daughter I got a job as a fashion buyer for Liberty in Regent Street, which was fantastic and something I could never have dreamed of! I had never worked in my life and when I went for the interview – which was set up by a friend of mine since I didn’t have the courage – I met Mr Liberty and his managing director – and I told them I had no experience but that I liked fashion, had lived in Paris and spoke the languages.
“This was the time when Kings Road started and Mary Quant and they wanted to change the old-fashioned Liberty store, although it was very luxurious, into something a little more modern. And I got the job and I stayed there for 15 years. The position allowed me to travel to America, to New York, and also Rome and Paris and Zurich, Switzerland, where I escaped again to the mountains. It was luxurious especially compared to how poor we had been in Paris before.”
During your husband’s career at the Foreign Office or the time in England when you would hear about what was going on back in Czechoslovakia, did you ever think that totalitarianism in your homeland would end?
“Not really. Václav Havel, when he was allowed to come to England in 1967 or 1968 he knew my husband was at the Foreign Office and came to see him and asked him whether he would consider returning home if things changed. And Miloš said yes but that it would take some time and that he didn’t expect the Dubček era to last. He couldn’t tell him more, regarding his position at the office, but he told him it would take a while yet.”
You lost your husband when everything was finally changing...
“Yes. He died on his birthday on October 17, 1989 – one month before the Velvet Revolution. Just one month before we could go home so this was a very sad moment for me. Of course we had been excited about what was underway and had hoped that something would happen. The moment it finally came my family said let’s go home. We immediately asked and I had my British passport and I went to pick up my visa at the Czech Embassy in London and that was the moment that I really started to cry. Suddenly I could go home.
“We never thought that would be possible. The Iron Curtain was in place and we never thought we could go back. We thought ‘Here we are and don’t look back’ because we shouldn’t think we could ever come back. It was an unbelievable surprise that things turned out differently. Now I come to Prague about five times per year but I live with my family in England, with my daughter son-in-law and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and we are a very happy family. But we never thought in our life that we would ever be able to come home.”