Search for "greatest-ever Czech" gets underway

21-01-2005

A new poll to find out who Czechs feel was the greatest person this country has ever produced has been causing quite a stir here in recent weeks. The ballot is being organized by Czech Television following the same model as that used for similar polls in Germany and Britain last year. The British and German polls generated much excitement in their respective countries, and Czechs are also enthusiastically discussing whom they think was the best ever Czech.

Although, prominent figures in Czech history such as Vaclav Havel and Tomas Masaryk, who is credited with establishing the first Czechoslovak state, are expected to feature strongly in the final reckoning, the poll also gives people a chance to remember the contribution of Czechs who might not have such a high profile.

Indeed, early voting has thrown up a few surprises already with Jaroslav Hasek's fictional character The Good Soldier Svejk seemingly a popular choice for many, even though the poll is meant to be restricted to real people.

Another imaginary Czech who is being touted as a potential winner is Jara Cimrman, a supposedly "great Czech prodigy" created by the writers Zdenek Sverak and Jiri Sebanek. He is usually portrayed as a "jack-of all-trades" type of figure who has lived through many hilarious incarnations as an inventor, opera composer and playwright among other things.

Such surprising choices have only served to spice up the debate and increase interest in the project. Although many people see the poll as an amusing diversion, there are some in the local media who have already begun to dissect the meaning behind people's choices and what it says about Czechs and how they see themselves.

Voting will continue until May, after which Czech TV will produce a documentary on each personality who makes it into the Top 10 before a final selection is made in June.

Until that time, the vote is going to be a major topic of conversation for Czechs as they agonise and argue over just who has made the greatest contribution to Czech life. To get a flavour of what might be going through their minds, We went onto the streets of Prague and asked people who they would choose as the greatest ever Czech.

"I guess Tomas Masaryk because he managed to bring Czechs together and to create the first [Czechoslovak] republic."

"I voted for Vaclav Havel, because he is the symbol of my time. I study political science, and I think I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do that if it hadn't been for him."

"I'm going to say someone purely because I don't think anyone else is going to mention him. [I'm talking about] a guy called Karel Kryl. He is an absolutely fantastic folk singer in the Czech Republic. [In the past] he spent many years being depressed and sad about the situation in the Czech Republic. There's such a pain and a wonder in his voice and his melodies that I really think if he was English or American he would be known as a kind of Bob Dylan type of figure. So my choice is Karel Kryl."

"I haven't voted yet, but I'm going to vote for Jara Cimrman. I think he is a typical Czech personality who is very cosmopolitan and has been everywhere and participated in all these wonderful projects. I adore him. He was the biggest Czech personality ever"

"Jara Cimrman, who was the biggest inventor of all time. He was a bit unlucky, which is why you probably haven't heard of him. [For instance] he invented the light bulb, but didn't manage to get to the patent office in time. He was just very, very good."

You're not the first person to suggest Jara Cimrman. Why do you think Czechs love him so much?

"Because the humour surrounding Jara Cimrman is very clever, black humour. It delves into history and uses a lot of wordplay and stuff. It's really good. You should check it out."

21-01-2005