Czechs have only one president instantly recognizable by his initials: TGM for Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. He was an icon of the newly-independent Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1935. Venerated by most, denigrated only by some, he has always remained a powerful symbol of the Czech democratic state. I recently met with Charlotta Kotik, the great-granddaughter of the first Czechoslovak president, to talk about her family heritage.
Charlotta Kotik – née Masaryk - grew up in Prague in the post-war years when the country was run by the communists. The regime tried in-vain to denigrate the image of the „capitalist president“ as they labelled him.
Ms. Kotik now lives in New York, but each year spends some time in her native country. On her most recent visit I got the chance to speak to her and ask what it had been like to grow up with the surname “Masaryk” during the time of communist rule?
"It was a fact. And of course it meant that when I was growing up here in then-communist Czechoslovakia the door to any sort of quality education was closed to me. He WAS my great-grandfather, my mother was Herberta Masaryková and bore his second name, so that was it and there was nothing to be done about it. But it also gave me a lot of freedom because when you are marked like that you can basically do anything you want, in a good sense, of course. When you are marked like that it does not make sense to try to change it. You just live with it and that is it.“
But could not the family name “Masaryková”, on the other hand, help open doors at least in some dissident circles, few as they were? Is it not a label of sorts?
"Yes, it is a label, it is like a mark on your forehead. But it actually does not always work as a ‚door-opener‘. Some people understand it differently, like “Oh, she thinks so much about herself, only because she is from the Masaryk family!”. So, it was actually liberating when I later moved to the United States, because nobody really knew about it or cared about it. Who knows about TGM in America? I really enjoyed the fact that I was a totally independent person and did not have that family responsibility.”
Recently there has been speculation – mainly in tabloid press – about TGM’s own parents. His mother was a cook and his father a steward and coachman. Some Czechs still find it difficult to believe that they could have given the world a son who would grow up to be such a prominent figure. And so speculation emerged that his real father might be none other than the Emperor Franz Joseph I. Some historians say that the Austrian ruler actually stayed at the estate where Masaryk’s mother was working at the time so there is a possibility of the young emperor having taken a liking to the pretty young cook.
Some time ago, Czech Television reporters asked experts to perform DNA tests that would either confirm this speculation or put it definitively to rest. Charlotta Kotik, as the closest living relative of the first Czechoslovak president, refused to give permission for the tests to go ahead:
“To me, it was extremely insulting. Maybe not to me, but to the Czech nation. I don’t understand why people here, in this country, come up with such ideas. That a man born to two people not of high heritage could not become so distinguished? I find it utterly offensive. Perhaps even more so that I am living in the United States where nobody cares who was, for example, Lincoln’s father, or the parents of other important historical figures. People respect their work and are proud of them. And I think we too should be proud of the legacy of president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and stop spreading this cheap, low speculation.“