Email interview: Jan Kavalír interviews Josef Čermák (E-mailový rozhovor: Jan Kavalír zpovídá Josefa Čermáka)

Článek v ČEŠTINĚ dole (Klikněte na “Read the rest …”)

Author: Josef Cermak ( PLUS)


Q.: When did you emigrate to Canada and why? Was it entirely for political reasons? And why Canada?

A. I left Czechoslovakia (on my knees, secretly, “over the hillocks”) with my blacksmith friend Lada Dufek on October 28, 1949 (we were selfishly counting on the police raging in Prague). ‘Our’ ship, ‘U.S.A.T. Le Roy Eltinge’ arrived in Canada (in Halifax) on April 23, 1949. That ship wasn’t completely ‘ours’ but we Czechoslovaks formed a formidable group: 113 people. A ‘volunteer’ historian of the group (and also a Sokol historian – his ‘ Sokol – Small history of a great idea’ is published by his publisher AtelierIM in Luhacovice), Jan Waldauf, fifty years later found addresses of 61 still living 1949 seafarers. Many of them will leave behind a distinct legacy – beside Jan Waldauf, there is, for example, Jiri Brandys, who helped to change the face of Halifax; soldier Jaroslav Kasanda holds the highest military award, the Order of Military Merit; three men (Lub. Kolibac, Antonin Petrasek and David Kroulik) graduated in medicine and Svatopluk Tomanek in dentistry; Jan Matejovic founded a very successful import firm (and is one o the most generous philanthropists), Jaroslav Pouzar built up a prestigious bakery, others opened shops and businesses (Jan Marr, Frantisek Surovec), all lived decently successful lives and none ended in jail.

JUDr. Josef ČermákBut back to your question: I come from a small farm and I know how hard life was in the country, when you didn’t have money to buy insurance and hail destroyed your harvest. But I also remember (as do almost all who lived in that era) how sweetly life tasted in Masaryk ;s Czechoslovakia. I remember the incredible unity of the nation during the mobilization in 1938, at the time when the threat of Hitler’s madness hanged in the air and the allies slipped away into the night. For a while after the war it looked that we might resume Masaryk’s traditions. Unfortunately, the Communist party, a stooge of Moscow (no one denies the immense contribution of the Russian people in the war with Hitler’s Germany) had different plans. Their conception of life was something I couldn’t swallow. I took part in the student anti-Communist demonstrations in Prague in February 1948 as well as the march to the castle. Just before the march I witnessed something I will never forget: Vladimir Krajina’s speech in the Municipal House (the first meeting of the Action Committee of the ‘re-vamped’ National Front took place one storey bellow us): by then it was clear that the Communists had won, that the democrats had lost; but Krajina, one of he most heroic figures of our history, spoke about the victory of freedom, spoke about his face in his nation and captivated his audience (it still chills my spine) as Kennedy did when he asked his people not to ask what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country…Then I witnessed the liquidation of the farm sector and the village – in my view one of the ugliest crimes committed by the Communist party against our nation. In September 1948 I attended with a group of friends from my village Benes’s funeral in Prague. We were all arrested and spent the next couple of weeks at the Pankrac jail. After the release I had two options: flee the country or let them kill me because (in matters which matter), my soul refuses to bend. And so, on October 28, 1948 my friend Lada Dufek and I crossed the border (not everyone was that lucky – they had guns and dogs) to the West Germany. So it probably can be said that I left Czechoslovakia for political reasons. In Germany, I spent some time at several refugee camps: Regensburg, Murnau, Ludwigsburg. In Ludwigsburg, there actually were several camps, and our community even founded there a university.
Pohřeb Edvarda BenešeI met a man there who was to become a good friend of mine, the printer Jaroslav Reichl (prior to the Communist coup d’etat Reichl held the position of the director of a Warnsdorf printing shop, where he printed noble editions of fine books, such as Brezina’s poems, with marvelous illustrations). Reichl (We all called him ‘dad’) found a job as a printer and managed to get a job for me as a helper. In the shop (and all around) I saw the positive qualities of the German people: they worked ten hours a day, often on a diet of a piece of bread. I chose Canada, because Canada was looking for workers on her farms and in the forest and guaranteed the fastest exit from the refugee camp.

Q.Your beginnings in Canada – how did it go? Was it difficult to get started? How long did it take before you felt in Canada well enough to call her your home?

A. My first job in Canada was on the farm, then in the vegetable garden of the TB sanatorium in London. In winter, I got a job inside the sanatorium as an orderly (maybe because sick people – unless they are totally disgusted by the process of dying -are among the kindest people in the world), seldom in my life did I feel at work so at peace with myself as I did in the London sanatorium. After the end of my first year in Canada I worked for a short period at the office of Karel Buzek, who – particularly during the war – did in Canada an unbelievable amount of excellent work for Czechoslovakia and today a lovely room at the University of Toroto is named after him. It was thanks to him that within a few weeks I got a job as an assistant at the Toronto Public Library, where I worked some four or five years. When I came to the conclusion that a return home in a near future was unlikely, I decided to go back to school. I left Czechoslovakia with the JUC degree (Candidate in law). not very useful in Canada and an equally useless ‘absolutorium’ (a certificate that you practically completed all requirements}, but they did help a little: the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto offered to admit me to the first semester, provided – because I never studied English – that I successfully complete the first year at the Faculty of Arts. And then something happened I still consider one of the deepest mysteries of the last hundred years: I stood first in English in my year at the University College and received a beautifully named award: the ‘Panhellenic Prize’. Partial explanation: the mark is given mainly for essays on English literature and I always loved to read – English literature in Czech translation (we always had exquisite translators or rather interpreters): Vrchlicky, Sladek atd.}. During the summer vacation that followed I worked as a sleeping car porter, and after the vacation, I enrolled at the Faulty of Law (and during the winter and summer vacations I worked at the C.N.R. (o was it C.P.R?). And if until then I suffered from a killing home-sickness ( beautifully described, among others, by Cicero), after commencing my studies I had time for nothing but my studies and work. And before I knew it, I was beginning to feel in Canada if not fully at home, then at least as a visitor with a favorite aunt.

Q Did you follow the events after February 1948, particularly the faked processes and then the year 1968, the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Warsaw Pact?

Milada Horáková v rozhovoru s prezidentem E. BenešemA. During the first months of the Communist regime I – and I am sure many other people – felt similar to what the protestants must have felt after their White Mountain defeat. The civilizing effort of generations was destroyed in a few days by a horde of Stalin’s hoodlums. We weren’t saved even the worst, something similar to the executions at the Old Square centuries ago: Heliodor Pika (hanged in January 1949), Milada Horakova (hanged on June 22, 1950, unburied)… We, who were already out of the reach of the Communist police, followed Horakova’s trial with horror: could our people really do anything this awful? But we also followed her trial with a humble admiration for the heroism of this woman (and also with a feeling of shame, that we deserted) when she made her final statement: “I believe in freedom and equality for all. Does that make me a traitor? I oppose the so-called Peoples’ Democracy in the Czechoslovak Republic, for I hold it is not democratic.

Milada HorákováI have worked against it. Should a miracle occur and I be released, I should work against it anew.” Among those who followed her trial in a refugee camp in Germany was her husband and Jiri Corn. Every time I subsequently met Dr. Horak I always imagined him listening to the death sentence pronounced against his wife and something in me died. After Jiri Corn came to Toronto, we founded Milada Horakova Club and on July 2, 1953 held a commemorative service at the Museum Theatre. The guest speaker at the srvice, Member of the Canadian Parliament, Margaret Aitken, had this to say: “When this century comes to its close, Dr. Milada Horakova will be a legend and one of the century’s immortal names.” Two years ago, the Centre for European, Russian and Euroasian Studies at the University of Toronto and the Consulate General of the Czech Republic in Toronto, presented a seminar on Dr. Horakova’s trial, addressed by a leading expert on this unforgivable crime, Marek Janac. Mr. Janac was introduced by the Consul General, Mr. Richard Krpac. At the end of the seminar, Dr. Horakova’s dughter, Jana was presented by the Masaryk Prize of the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada, awarded to Dr. Milada Horakova in memoriam.

We shared your joy whenever we saw the smallest shred of hope and when the spring of 1968 arrived, I was picked (as the youngest and a bachelor to boot) by a group representing various Czechoslovak organizations in Canada to travel to Prague and have a look at that ‘Prague spring’ {as the future proved, that was my only trip home during the 40 years of the Communist regime). First, I travelled to Bratislava to lay a wreath (with Czech and Slovak Association o Canada, Sokol Canada and Masaryk Institute bands) – joined by the father of a well-known Slovak politician living in exile in Canada, Rudolf Frastacky, at the Stefanik monument at Bradlo. Bratislava was full of Russian soldiers – at Cierna nad Tisou Brezhnev was engaged in fateful talks with Dubcek. In Peague, I visited the author of the famous ‘2000 words’ letter, Ludvik Vaculik. Vaculik told me that he had just returned from Cierna and that “it was hanging on a threat”; that Dubcek misled his comrades by insisting that the Soviet Union would not interfere in Czechoslovakia and because he spent large part of his life in the Soviet Union, his comrades took his views very seriously. He also advised me to have fun and not to spend all my time in Prague on politics. Next, I visited Madame Benes in Sezimovo Usti , where I lay a wreath on the grave of her husband. Madame Benes was very optimistic, she didn’t expect a Soviet intevention and had great faith in the young generation (she particularly liked Cestmir Cisar). In Lany I lay a wreath on Masaryk’s grave wirh a band proclaiming, ‘Loyal We Remain’. A few days after my return to Toronto (on August 21 in fact) I was awakened shortly after midnight by Slava, the daughter of Jiri Corn the then secretary-general of the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada). Slava brought me her father’s message that the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia and that in the morning we were going to take the first plane to Ottawa, to meet with members of the Canadian cabinet.

Pierr Elliot TrudeauOn the plane to Ottawa I prepared a short request to Canadian government. It had two main points: that Canada condemns the invasion of Czechoslovakia at the United Nations; and that it accepts the largest possible number of Czechoslovak refugees, who were pouring particularly into Vienna (the Communist government was not trying to stop them-it was getting rid of the most dangerous opposition). I did not attend the meeting with the members of the Canadian cabinet – there were quite a few of us and I didn’t want us look as a pedestrian invasion.

After return to Toronto, we organized a mass protest at the City hall. I was one of the speakers. I ended my remarks with a few rather bitter-sweet woeds: “If we cannot send our tanks against the Soviet tanks, let us at least rededicate ourselves to the high ideals of liberty, let us demand with an ever stronger and more persistent voice freedom for all. For our voice is heard behind the Iron Curtain, and an ever stronger echo is coming back. One day that echo will gather the force of a hurricane, against which Soviet tanks shall not prevail.”

The Canadian cabinet of Pierre Elliot Trudeau fulfilled its promise: it admitted to Canada – within a few months – more than ten thousand of Czechoslovak refugees…

Q.: How do you see the Czech Republic today? Do you think that – more than twenty years after the revolution – the Czech Republic is a truly democratic country?

A. From outside, the political life in the Czech Republic looks like chaotic vulgar theatre. That’s the way political life probably looks in every democracy, but in the Czech Republic that impression is particularly strong. If the main distinction of a democracy is a right to elect its government, then the Czech Republic is a democratic state. I don’t know If it really is a democracy because I don’t know how you define democracy. It worries me to hear so many reports of corruption even in the areas where it seldom appears in more developed countries, such as the police and even among judges. I hear that former members of the Communist party are using every means to get back to power and grab every important position. Not surprisingly, to many of us the appointment of a former Communist as the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic only twenty years after the fall of the brutal regime installed by the Communist party, seems almost grotesque. So, my most pessimistic view of the history of my native land since the fall of the Communist regime, looks like this: my country lost one-half of its territory, the crimes and injustices of the regime were forgotten, we managed to keep in place for the Communist party its political base, we joyfully practice scandals (sex scandals – which after all is a popular activity of politicians and other celebrities all over the world – but also other scandalous behavior, such as pilfering national property, enriching ourselves with an assist from our political party, manufacturing doctorates in law.) But when I happen to have enjoyed a good night sleep, I see everything much more favorably: after the fall of the regime, lamp-posts were not adorned with victims of a just wrath; the Slovaks and the Czechs split – be it against their will – quite peacefully and on the whole are managing their affairs no worse than most of the until yesterday brotherly nations (which, while in brotherly union, displayed from time to time a tendency to occupy one or the other of their brothers); our political life is so rich that one of our parties (until the Munich disaster, one of the two most important supporting pillars of the Czechoslovak state, and later – and still? – the most loyal comrade of the Communists), forced the resignation of the government of the other party at a time when that government had a chance to make the country shine in the international fimament; the party which made the country a Soviet vassal, started to plan the next presidential election, which are still three years away…


Rozdělení Československa


And, of course, it’s easy for me to write all this – thousands of miles away.

Q. Do you follow the political and cultural life in the Czech Republic because it interests you or because it is (was) your work?

A. I follow the political and cultural life in the Czech Republic because it interests me – a bad habit I developed when I was a student at the Slany Latin school. If by work you mean a paid occupation, it never was my work but because I participated in Czechoslovak organizations in Canada, my interest continued as a matter of course.

6. How have you perceived the 1968 emigration wave? Do you, personally, see differences between your emigration wave and the emigration wave after 1968?

A. The 1968 emigration wave differed – in my view – quite significantly from ours. In my wave were quite a few older people who were leaving because all they could expect at home was either jail or a poor existence. Abroad – because of their age alone – all they could expect was also a poor existence (in Toronto I saw heads of departments work as cloakroom attendants, what in the end, was a fate much kinder than the destiny woven for himself by Halas) and had to be endured in a tongue not their own, but it was a poor existence in freedom and that for Masaryk’ disciples wasn’t an easy card to trump. University students represented another large group. Many of them left their country hours (and sometimes minutes) before being arrested. And, most understandably, politicians (of the noncommunist variety) some of whom managed to get help from various American organizations and a number of them found jobs at universities. This was, largely, an emigration of men of ideas, rather than of pragmatic people.

The 1968 wave was motivated more by practical considerations than ideas. Most of them didn’t plan their exodus, they left because the Russians and allies invaded their country, which they didn’t like, and also simply because the borders had suddenly and unexpectedly opened and they exploited an unrepeatable opportunity. Some of them simply collected all the goodies they could buy or receive as gifts, and returned home, others became exiles. Among them many professionals – some one hundred medical doctors, engineers and smart people who after coming to Canada discovered that they were gifted entrepreneurs. Some of them told me: their life back home wasn’t bad, they earned good money, had cars and summer cottages. When I asked them why they left, several responded : “We didn’t want our children to grow up in a world of lies.” They left me with this picture of their life before the invasion: the regime allowed the citizens of the country to own cars and cottages and the people let the regime govern as it pleased. Maybe this is another application of the principle that after a while the kidnapped begin to identify themselves with the kidnappers.

Q. How do you see the last wave of immigrants, largely Roma families? Do they have a chance to assimilate into the Canadian lifestyle the way you did? Are they able to respect the local culture?

Emigrace Romů do KanadyA. The first major wave of Romas arrived in Canada in 1997. The main spokesman for the Czech an Slovak community in Canada was the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada, in which in 1997 I had the misfortune of holding the office of the Secretary-General. We were right in the middle of it. The Romas described the Czech Republic as a land of racists, who discriminated against them, beat them up and from time to time killed a few of them. The Czech television station Nova made a film Romas go to heaven, featuring among others the Canadian Roma lawyer , George Kubes and an old Roma lady who towards the end asked Romas in the Czech Republic to come to Canada, where they would have everything and still save. Our people were understandably upset. The Canadians (at least the very kindhearted and Canada has quite a few of those) tended to side with the Romas. The Czech and Slovak Association of Canada sent a letter to the then Minister of Immigration, Lucienne Robillard, in which we mentioned the controversial value of the film, pointed out the questionable interpretation of the term ‘refugee’ and also alluded to George Kubes.


Blanka RohnováGeorge Kubes sued the Association and its leadership, the President Blanca Rohn, myself, Suchma, Masaryk Institute, the journalists Ales Brezina, Vera Rollerova etc..It never reached the trial stage. But that is a long story. The Canadian newspapers and television joined the scuffle and Blanca Rohn, as president of the Association .was in demand on all sides. Simply a great show. Practically every Roma who asked for asylum got it. Until Canada decided to require visa from all visitors from the Czech Republic. Some months ago, the requirement was discontinued and the Romas fell in love with Canada again. And the visa requirement is back. And the Canadian immigration boards now see things differently and the Romas are having difficult time to be recognized as refugees. There are other factors: more than one-half of them returned to the Czech Republic . There are no doubt Romas capable of assimilation into the Canadian life. The majority not. I was most interested in the interaction between the Roma genes and the Canadian schools (in the areas where the Roma children attend school, most of the kids are colored). I am – looking from the point of view of the Canadian schools – not very optimistic. Nor do I know whether the Romas respect the Canadian culture (what is Canadian culture is a complex question). I think they probably ignore it.

Q. How do you think Canadians perceive people from the Czech Republic? Many interesting, elite people emigrated to Canada, Mr. Bata. Mr Skvorecky and many others. Have they influenced the way our nation is seen? Have they made us more visible?

Josef ŠkvoreckýA. Before I even attempt to answer your question, I must observe that terms like “Canadians”, but also “people from the Czech Republic” are heavily loaded. “Canadians” are simply people who live in Canada. You find here practically every ethnic group – I read somewhere recently that every ethnic group in the world has in Toronto its own restaurant. When I arrived here sixty years ago, Toronto was a white, largely Anglo-Saxon city. Today, not only this city isn’t Anglo-Saxon, but most of the Torontonians are colored people. In Canada, you find tens, hundreds of thousands of Muslims, Jews, black people, Chinese, Poles, Ukrainians, , Indians, most of whom don’t think about the people from the Czech Republic anything mainly because it is not a subject they contemplate. If they meet a person from the Czech Republic, they may form an opinion about him or her.. And that opinion depends on the person from the Czech Republic (and even there you today find different nationalities) they happen to meet. At one time many people knew (and by now probably largely forgot) the name ‘Havel’; as long as the Bata company made shoes in Canada and had a shoe store in every little town, people knew the name ‘Bata’. but not necessarily where he came from; today the company no longer makes shoes in Canada and the name ‘Bata’ disappeared from all stores, only a first-class shoe museum in Toronto bears his name and I believe, an endowment at the York University; Skvorecky is known to elite readers and to the academia. Musicians and singers such as the composer Oskar Morawetz, Karel Ancerl, Jan Rubes live in the memory od their listeners, scientists such as Vladimir Krajina gave name to a piece of Canada (a large forest reserve in British Columbia bears his name). Jozo Weider founded the largest ski centre in Ontario.


A. Karel VelanThe entrepreneurs, the brothers Koerner (Otto, Theodore, Leon and Walter) from Hodonin founded the Alaska Pine Company and their charity changed the face of the University of British Columbia and profoundly enriched the cultural life in Vancouver; A, Karel Velan owns factories on several continents and his industrial valves are used by- among others – the USA Navy. Tens of Czech scientists of famous names teach at Canadian universities, particularly at McGill in Montreal; Czech hockey players are greatly admired. All of them (and thousands of others all over Canada) left their ‘Czech’ imprint on the Canadian landscape, but this imprint is often on the surface, like a newspaper or television ad. The imprint which goes to the marrow is not the fame or success we may have reaped; it is who we are, how we touch other people in their everyday life. I often think that the deepest imprint was left by those who came to Canada in the twenties and thirties of the last century to work on the farms and forests, as housekeepers and nannies, the ‘hungry generation’ , whose traces I have found in many places across Canada. The traces of good, honorable, hard working people.




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