Czechs have always had somewhat contradictory feelings toward their nobility. One of the country’s leading aristocrats once even bitterly complained that Czechs are either louts or boot-lickers, nothing in between. One of the first laws of the newly independent Czechoslovakia, one hundred years ago, forbade the use of aristocratic titles. On the other hand, today Czechs have developed an avid interest in the lives of their dukes and counts.
In 1941, Nazi Germany turned the centuries-old Czech garrison town of Terezín into a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp. Over the next few years, some 155,000 people were held there in desperate conditions awaiting transport to the death camps further east. And yet, there was a well-documented flourishing of cultural life in the ghetto. Many artists also risked their lives to depict the harsh reality of daily life. But this is a story of the traces left behind by more ordinary people who endured those extraordinary times.
Kurt Taussig is one of the 669 Czech Jewish children who were saved from the Holocaust by Sir Nicholas Winton on the eve of the Second World War. The 95-year-old man, who went on to join the RAF as a fighter pilot, has since lived in Great Britain and, until recently, was unknown to Czech historians. Now, more than 75 years after he left his country, he was granted honorary citizenship in his birth-town of Teplice.
You may be surprised to hear that one of the events to mark the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia was held at the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University in Britain. On October 29 a plaque was unveiled commemorating a secret academic link set up between the university and Czechoslovakia at the height of normalisation in the 1980s. Czech and Slovak students who found themselves unable to go to university because they or their families were out of favour with the communist regime were given the opportunity to study secretly
As a war crimes investigator in former Yugoslavia Vladimír Dzuro took part in the exhumation of a notorious mass grave in which 200 massacred Croats had been dumped. He was later involved in the arrest of one of those responsible, delivering the first European war crimes indictment handed down by an international tribunal since the end of WWII. He has captured his sometimes hair-raising experiences in the book The Investigator: Demons of the Balkan War.
Historian Timothy Snyder is a leading expert on Central and Eastern Europe and has written forcefully about the threat posed by Putin’s Russia and how ordinary people can stand up to tyranny. This week Professor Snyder has been giving lectures in Prague that packed auditoriums. During his visit, Czech Radio’s Lenka Kabrhelová discussed aspects of this country’s history – and present – with Professor Snyder.
In December 1988 Francois Mitterrand had breakfast with leading dissidents in Prague, providing a major shot in the arm to the Czechoslovak opposition. The Czech Foreign Ministry is now reported to be planning similar events on the 30th anniversary of Mitterrand’s gesture to demonstrate the country’s support for human rights.
Taking advantage of relative liberalisation at home, the young Václav Havel visited New York in the spring of 1968 for the US premiere of his second major play, The Memorandum. It was staged by the Public Theater, which had just had a huge hit with Hair and was headed by director Joseph Papp. He and his wife Gail Papp got to know Havel at that time – and later visited the then dissident at his country home in communist Czechoslovakia.
This year the Czech Republic is celebrating many special anniversaries. Yet despite the importance of commemorating a hundred years since the Czechs gained independence, the 50 years since the 1968 invasion and more, there is and always has been one anniversary that overshadows the others in terms of political statement – November 17th.
Former Communist-era secret police lieutenant Ladislav Mácha, ultimately held responsible for the torture and death of Catholic priest Josef Toufar in 1950, died a free man some weeks ago. His passing went largely unnoticed until a makeshift memorial to Mácha’s most famous victim appeared on the pavement outside his Prague home.