A memorial plaque to Zdeněk Urbánek, a writer, translator and a close friend of the late Václav Havel, was unveiled at the weekend at his Prague home. Zdeněk Urbánek, who died in 2008, was a significant figure of Czechoslovakia’s the anti-communist opposition, and it was at his house in the Prague district of Střešovice where the human rights manifesto Charter 77 began its journey.
Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, playwright Pavel Kohout, actor Pavel Landovský and several dozens friends unveiled the plaque on Sunday at the building where Zdeněk Urbánek lived and which became part of modern Czech history.
Zdeněk Urbánek, born in 1917, was an essayist, literary critic and the author of several novels. In the 1950s, he started translating English literature into the Czech language; his translation of Hamlet was staged at the National Theatre in Prague for some 15 seasons. He also translated works by James Joyce, John Galsworthy, Theodore Dreiser, and many other English-language authors. In the early 1950s, he also met the young Václav Havel and their friendship lasted until Zdeněk Urbánek’s death.
In January 1977, Zdeněk Urbánek was one of the first signatories of Charter 77. Its authors – Václav Havel, Pavel Kohout, Ludvík Vaculík, and others – were aware that the communist secret police would do all it took to prevent them from publishing the manifesto.
When they set out from Zdeněk Urbánek’s home on January 6, 1977 with copies of the document in sealed envelopes, they knew they would have to outsmart the secret service to mail it to the Czechoslovak government, Parliament as well as foreign newspapers.
“So here I am again, at the place where we set off from. I remember I drove past a telephone booth with a cop inside. Then, we drove very fast towards the centre; the cars that pursued us crashed into each other, and that gave us some time. It was an adventure, that’s what it was. I did not do it for any other reasons. I enjoyed it because it was illegal.”
Václav Havel and his friends eventually managed to mail some 40 envelopes with copies of Charter 77, letting the outside world know of the existence of their opposition group.
One of the guests at Sunday’s unveiling was the playwright Pavel Kohout, who left Czechoslovakia in 1978.
“Zdeněk Urbánek was a great man who was part of the inner dissident circle, and was also to a certain extent Václav Havel’s surrogate father.”
Karel Schwarzenberg, who supported Czech and Slovak dissidents from abroad, said he first met Zdeněk Urbánek during his visit to Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. Today, the foreign minister remains one of the few associates of Václav Havel actively involved in politics, In fact, he last week launched his campaign to become the next Czech president. I asked him if he thought Czechs still cared about Charter 77 and the values it represented.
“Yes, I think the majority does. I think the problem is not that they would not like the ideas of Charter 77. They are just fed up with the economic crisis and with some steps of our government, the austerity measures; all that makes them mad and my campaign will therefore be a bit more difficult.”