In Czech Books this week we are looking at a new Czech book "Jsme hrdi na svou zemi?" - 'Are we proud of our country?' written by Petr Majer. The book poses the question: what do Czechs from many different walks of life, from the military to sports, the arts and politics, think about patriotism, and how to they relate to their homeland?
Through his interviews with well-known and less-known citizens, Petr Majer illustrates that homeland and patriotism can mean many things. They may be linked to a physical place - a house, a park, a school, a street, but for many homeland and patriotism are connected to language - especially their mother tongue, and the pride they take in it. Still others focus on historical or national achievements. Petr Majer told me about his motivation for compiling the work:
"The impulse, which started my thoughts on writing this book were the words of the then Defence Minister, Jaroslav Tvrdik, who in 2003 gave a speech and said: 'Patriotism isn't only waving a flag after a hockey match...'. I had already reflected on this question, primarily from the perspective of war veterans. I myself am a former soldier and had thought about the question of how the heroes of the former Czechoslovakia compare to today's heroes; especially since these soldiers left their homeland and their old lives behind. Many of them were heartlessly persecuted in the period after the Communist coup of 1948. They had to leave the republic but they never stopped believing in their homeland."
Petr Majer no doubt has taken on one of the most challenging notions of contemporary life - pride and identity - ideas, which are often associated with nationalism. He warns us not to see his work as anything other than - a series of personal views and impressions of patriotism and homeland. He was quite surprised at the enthusiasm of his interviewees.
"From the beginning I had the impression that it will not be easy to speak to people, especially the well-known personalities in our community, but as it turned out, these citizens seemed to be waiting for someone to pose this question. I talked to over one hundred people and, I did not find even one who did not want to reply nor even one who thought that the question I was asking was something other than a sincere and honest inquiry of their personal opinion on the theme of homeland. That I really treasured."
But more than addressing pride, the book is a collection of life stories. It captures contemporary reflections of history. The first section tells the stories of twenty-six soldiers, notably a number of Czechoslovak pilots, whose lives are portrayed in the successful 2001 film, Tmavomodry svet 'Dark Blue World' - people like Major General Frantisek Elston, who survived the war with horrendous injuries. Like all the other respondents in the book Frantisek Elston answers the questions: 'What does patriotism mean to you? Are you proud of your homeland?'
"Personally, I think that Czech young people actually know almost nothing about us, for them we are only people who played with airplanes a long time ago. What is worse is that no one reminds the young people what was done to us in the post-war years. But as far as the question of patriotism is concerned, I distinguish two patriotisms: a.) mouth and b.) heart. Patriotism of the mouth is like the first love of a youngster. It appears that it is forever but it succumbs to the first temptation. Patriotism of the heart is similar to a mother's love."
Colonel Hugo Mellion, who has lived in England since 1948, wrote:
"During the singing of our national anthem both in school and later in the Czechoslovak Air Force, the words of the anthem filled me with pride, that I am Czechoslovak. Kde domov muj... In 1948 the communists drove me out. Even though I live away from the Czech Republic, I take pride in my homeland."
But the book by no means concentrates just on patriotism in a military context. Here's the view eighty-two-year-old, Prague-born actress Stella Zazvorkova:
"I can say without any shame, that I am a patriot. Yes I am definitely a patriot, and I would say that I am a patriot because I take after the women of our family, even my grandmother was a fighting patriot."
Doctor Jan Cimicky, psychiatrist:
"Home is the place, where we experience our childhood. The word homeland for me means a walk in the park at Vysehrad in October."
I spoke with Czech-Roma journalist Jarmila Balazova, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Romano vod'i 'Romany spirit', and the chairwoman of the coalition ROMEA. She was born in 1972 in Brno. She talks about what it means for her to be part of this book, challenges its readers to see Roma in a different light, and shares what homeland and being a patriot means to her.
"I think it is very important for other people, for all society to read this book. For people to see that Roma people and Vietnamese people are being asked the same question as other people. I think that this is a very good way to encourage integration and to be a more multicultural society. I think that Roma people are more pro Czech people, than other people think because our society always thinks that Roma people are some group that wants to be separate. But I know for example from my family and families of my friends that they are carefully watching for example some champions of the world in hockey or the Olympics. They feel that Czech Republic is their republic too, and I have the same feeling. I think that we know the Czech mentality. We have the same mentality that is why I am very proud to be from the Czech Republic. I was born in the Czech Republic. I know many, many Czech writers, and I love Czech history. I love Czech places. For example in Brno, where I was born and was living until I was eighteen, there are many places that I know very well, and when I did not feel well, I would go to these places."
Vera Milcherova was born in 1924. Her father was Jewish and along with most of his family was killed in the concentration camp Majdanek. Mrs. Milcherova's mother was Sudeten German. After World War II her whole family went to Germany. In 1948 she moved to Israel with her husband where she lived until 1986, since that time she has lived in Prague:
"After a very complicated and difficult life, I cannot reply to the question of patriotism in one way. I love the Czech land, where I was born and lived forty years of my life sincerely and profoundly. I also have a deep connection to Israel where I spend a large part of my life, and where I learned to respect and to love that severely tried country...I am proud of both of these countries, even if I want to say, that the concept of pride is generally foreign to me. But even if I dismiss the concept of pride, all the same I know, whenever someone abroad asked me where I come from I replied with a definite burst of pride all the same, a Jew from Czechoslovakia."
All the people documented the book are living with the exception of one man. Jan Kristofori passed away 24 March 2004, one month after speaking with Colonel Majer. Jan Kristofori was a sculptor. He was born the 17 October 1931 in Ruthenia, which was then part of Czechoslovakia, and now belongs to Ukraine. In the 1950s he was convicted to a ten-year-sentence for subversive activities. He served his sentence in prison working off seven years in uranium mines. In 1969 he emigrated to Norway. He lived and sculpted in Prague, Norway and Switzerland.
"When I went into emigration, I always told all journalists, who interviewed me, that I am a Czech living in this and that land. And I was much more Czech than Czechs, and I raised my son in that spirit. He grew up in the West and speaks perfect Czech and does not have any accent. There is not anything in his accent that would make you think that, he has been living in a foreign country."
Petr Majer shares how he feels about patriotism and homeland. "I am proud of my country, and I always will be."
Petr Majer's book gently addresses the sensitive topic of pride, patriotism, homeland and country as a whole. He illustrates how these words evoke unique images and feelings for each person. By presenting both short biographies juxtaposed to each person's response, Petr Majer's presentation is both intimate and factual.
What I find particularly fascinating is the large section devoted to the memories of former soldiers. These are unheard narratives from men who are nearing their hundredth year of life and represent a generation of people who for many are just history.
The book is sponsored by the Czech Veterans Associations and will be officially released 15 September 2004 by Q-ART. For now - unfortunately - it is only available in Czech.
Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.
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