Lawyer Josef Cermak is one of the most recognised figures in Toronto, Canada's Czech community: a man involved in Czech-Canadian issues even at 80 an important supporter of Central and East European Studies at Toronto's U of T. Joe is also the author of the well-known "It All Started with Prince Rupert" - a popular history of Czechs and Slovaks in Canada now approaching its 2nd edition. Not too long ago I met with Joe in Toronto to discuss his book and we also talked about his own past: he recalled the rise of communism in his homeland and what it was like coming to Canada himself. Joe Cermak - in One on One.
"I participated in the turbulence of the times and was one of the students who marched to Prague Castle - actually demonstrating left and right. That remained in my blood I think. I was jailed... after that it was [President Edvard] Benes' funeral in September '48. After that I was released and didn't see much future for me there. And so I left. I escaped to Germany, was in several camps, and then eventually made my way to Canada. I was almost 25 years old."
What were your feelings at this time, in fact, having to leave?
"We left - many of us - I think because we were a very idealistic generation. Masaryk's Czechoslovakia: of course that was an extremely idealistic time, one of the highlights of Czechoslovak history, that period between 1918 and 1938. We had our own state. And people didn't expect too much for themselves because they were thinking about their nation and their homeland more than themselves. Of course within a few years that all changed because they were forced to accept that they probably would not be going back and would have to create some sort of fortune for themselves here in Canada. Which I think most of us did."
"We are all sort of fashioned by our times and circumstances of our birth and everything else and this generation was probably one of the best that ever grew up in Czechoslovakia. I remember the mobilisation in 1938. That was something I will never forget and I think that was probably the last time - I felt - that the nation lived to its full potential. Everyone just went and they didn't even have to call them. Everyone was ready to die."
I have encountered those sentiments before, I know one gentleman who is over a hundred who recalls the mobilisation and how he was stationed somewhere at the border, and as you say, was ready to fight. Today he still gets tears in his eyes. And feels regret. Should the Czechs have fought?
"Well, I personally think that they should have fought. At the same time I understand why Benes decided otherwise. There was a recent study in Prague by some military people who were trying to put together a model of what would have happened if they had fought and I think they concluded - whether they knew what they were doing I don't know - that it would have been a disaster for Czechoslovakia."
"There are others who think otherwise. One reason was that many felt that Hitler was not really liked by the Prussian generals and that they were just waiting for an opportunity to get rid of him. Indeed it seems when it was announced that Hitler was going into Prague there was little celebration in Berlin. But, you know... we can not rewrite history."
Now, when Czechs like you came over to Canada there were already some organisations in place at that time bringing Czechs together: which ones were they?
"Sokol was here, as well as the Masaryk Memorial Institute, and there was the Czechoslovak Association of Canada, which came into being in 1939 and was a child of Munich [the Munich Agreement], really. And of course there were already some churches here, so that 'life' was actually already going on. You know the history of Czechs and Slovaks in 'Canada' goes way back to 1570 when someone called Stitny - a poet laureate on a ship called Squirrel - arrived in Newfoundland! Unfortunately on the way back - two weeks later - the ship capsized and they all died."
"But then of course there is 'our' Prince Rupert. Prince Rupert of Bohemia was the son of Frederick V [the Winter King] and his wife, the daughter of the English king. They almost left him at Prague Castle when they were fleeing after the Battle of White Mountain [the decisive battle which Czech forces lost which led to some 300 years of Habsburg rule]. The king sent one of his people to check whether they left anything behind and the guy heard some crying and found a little bundle and that was Prince Rupert."
"As you know Prince Rupert played a much greater role in English history than in any Czech history, since he was only there a few days! But, he was an admiral at one point and he led the cavalry against Cromwell. At one point after some Frenchman returned from Canada describing all the riches and the wildlife he jumped on it and I think it was his cousin Charles, the king at the time, who gave him and the other gentlemen a territory that what was about one-third of Canada (!) and no one quite realised what it was and what it meant. Rupert never came to Canada but he created the Hudson Bay Company, as it's known, and eventually most of the land was bought out by the Crown, but the company still exists and strangely enough today is run by a Czech! Mr [George] Heller. So, you know, life is very, very strange!"
You have of course taken on a monumental task of publishing a book titled "It All Started with Prince Rupert" What was it finally that 'forced' you into that project?
"Actually it came sort of gradually. I was involved with all the organisations like Sokol and the Czechoslovak Association practically all my time in Canada, and since I was for two terms president of the Czechoslovak Association of Canada I really knew a lot, saw a lot of the documentation and books and memoirs and so on. I first wrote the book in Czech - a much shorter version called 'Fragmenty ze zivota Cechu a Slovaku' - Fragments from the Lives of Czechs & Slovaks in Canada'."
"But, then several people came to me saying their children didn't read Czech but English, and that they had friends who would like to read it too, and so on. It should really be published in English. So, I did it. But, I decided after a while to withdraw it from the market and do a new better edition which is now in its final phase. The index now includes 4,500 names! The index of places is about 500. What is incredible to me when I look at the index of the places is how this community spreads! You know, I see connections with Tokyo and Ankara..."
Czechs where you would 'least expect them'!
"It's absolutely incredible! Another story which appeared in the original edition was the story of the people who founded Collingwood - its ski area anyway... There was a man who came from Slovakia, he married a girl from Nymburk [some 60 km east of Prague], and they came to Canada and to Collingwood after a year or so. Those are mountains not particularly large but, you know, pretty nice mountains not very far from Toronto. And there was a little skiing there. But this guy, his name was Jozo Weider, got the idea because he was a great skier and had experiences from Czechoslovakia: he decided that this would be the place to start something 'big'. And he did! Today it's a huge, huge enterprise. It's an incredible story because here you have a man who came somewhere from a little place in Czechoslovakia, he changes a huge area of his new country, his new homeland."
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