Miloš Šuchma (CzechFolks.com PLUS)
Jan Drabek is a Canadian writer born in 1935 in Prague. His father was a prominent Prague lawyer arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. After 1945 his father became the chief prosecutor at the trial of K.H. Frank, boss of the Nazi-controlled Czech Protectorate, who was sentenced to death and executed. After the Communist takeover of February 1948 Drabek´s entire family including Jan’s older brother Jaroslav, escaped to Germany. Later they emigrated to the USA.
Jan Drábek has led a colorful life. In Prague he attended the same high school in Křemencova Street as did many years before the famed actors Voskovec and Werich. He also attended a boarding school in Poděbrady with Vaclav Havel, Milos Forman, Ivan Passer and the Masin brothers as his schoolmates. He studied English Literature at the American University in Washington DC, indology in India, where he met his future wife who was returning to Canada from Tanzania. He served with the U.S. Navy, was a Radio Free Europe announcer and later a high school teacher in Vancouver where he lived with his wife and two daughters. Between the years 1990-1992 he taught English at the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Between 1992-1994, he served as the Czech ambassador in Kenya, between 1994-1996 as the chief of diplomatic protocol in Prague and in 1997 he was the Czech Ambassador to Albania. He is the author of 18 books, but their total number is uncertain because some of them have been substantially altered translations: Drabek writes in both Czech and English.
This interview has been prompted primarily by the manuscript of his new book, Vladimir Krajina: Hero of European Resistance and Canadian Wilderness. The book is being published this October by Ronsdale Press in Vancouver.
Jan, I have always thought highly of the fact that in your books as well as in your personal life you have told the truth and were not afraid to express critical views. Nevertheless in an interview with the Czech magazine Týden you have said that you suspect your mother had to sleep with a Gestapo man in order to get your father out of a concentration camp. That must have been meant as a jest because in your book about Krajina you state the opposite — that it was he who arranged the release of your father.
Krajina without a doubt had the lion’s share on my father’s surviving the war. By what he told the Gestapo he succeeded to have father called back from Auschwitz, where he would have almost certainly not survived. No one from his transport did. Of course, then it was necessary to take desperate steps so that father wouldn’t be sent back there. And in the end the Germans even released him from a Prague jail. Here the main role was played by the Gestapo man Gall. By the way, my father wrote a novel about a situation where the wife of a Resistance worker saved the life of her husband that way. It was published in Czech in Toronto and later also in Prague and was called Podzemí (The Underground).
There is no doubt that Vladimír Krajina since 1942 until his arrest on January 31, 1943 sent to London some 20,000 valuable coded messages — about 50 daily on the average — and received 6.000 of them. That’s an unbelievable feat, worthy of our admiration. Especially since at the time he was separated from his family, had to be constantly on the move, changing his hideouts. Is that number realistic?
Yes it is. Krajina actually began sending these messages already in 1939. And he was helped by others in coding and decoding them, including his wife.
You write in the book that Krajina was against the assassination of the Acting Reichsprotektor Heydrich and that he had his doubts about his group, Úvod, working in collaboration with the military group Obrana Národa (Defense of the Nation). Do you think this was because of Krajina´s insistence on secrecy or, as Václav Černý writes in his Pláč koruny české (The Weeping of the Czech Crown), that he had certain authoritative tendencies?
He certainly possessed such tendencies. These also helped him when he had to make quick decisions and in his case they were usually the correct ones. On the other hand while the military men were certainly brave, they often acted less responsibly. I remember reading how one of the famous “Three Kings” among them had asked a Gestapo man on the street for a light and then sent him a postcard informing him about it. And Marie Krajina, Vladimir´s wife, once told me another story. While walking through Prague streets with him and delivering messages from her husband another of the “Three Kings” used to whistle on the barrel of his gun.
When the school principal Hlaváček who had previously hidden Krajina, was arrested he told the Gestapo he was ready to betray Krajina and the parachutists from London in return for a promise that they would not be harmed. Even though the Gestapo was primarily interested in obtaining further information, I was surprised that it would make such a deal. The parachutists all died while Krajina, who was unable to take poison in time, was not harmed. How do you see all this?
The deal was proposed by the Gestapo, not Hlaváček, who even tried to commit suicide when captured. The Gestapo threatened Hlaváček that if he did not accept it, his village would be leveled to the ground like Lidice. Here it´s also important to remember that at the time the Germans were already retreating on all fronts and K.H. Frank — who certainly was no fool – wanted to keep his back door open. And as we know today, he was also something of an admirer of Krajina.
You quote Gestapo men Nachtmann and Leimer who were taking Krajina to the Gestapo headquarters in Prague after his arrest. They told him that “things will be all right now and you´ll soon see your wife who has been released from a concentration camp”. The quotation seems to me almost unbelievable, especially since Frank and the deputy Reichsprotektor Daluege offered Krajina a high position in the protectorate government, something that Krajina refused. But the year before the protectorate premier, general Eliáš had been executed by the Nazis.
Here I am quoting Krajina himself. But the offer came after Krajina arrived in Prague with the two Gestapo men. And Eliáš had been arrested and sentenced to death during the martial law proclaimed by Heydrich. And here my answer to your previous question applies as well: in 1943 the political situation was already quite different.
After Krajina refused this offer he became Frank´s “honorary prisoner” in Terezín. There he lived separately from other prisoners along with Hlaváček until practically the end of the war when the Gestapo man Leimer surrendered himself to Krajina. Even though I realize that the Germans were building an alibi to use after the war, the arrangement seems hard to believe.
I´ll admit that at first glance it isn´t exactly easy to believe. But at that time the Allies had already landed in Normandy and liberated Paris, Stauffenberg had nearly succeeded in assassinating Hitler and Svoboda´s army had entered Czechoslovak territory from the East.
Because of the above reasons after the war Krajina was investigated by a state commission and all the accusations against him were dismissed. Even Frank expressed his admiration for the fact that Krajina did not go against his principles and did not give in. However, some people expressed their doubts because the behaviour of the Gestapo towards Krajina did not have a parallel. Why do you think Krajina had such incredible luck?
I don´t know whom exactly you mean by “some people” except perhaps the Communists (By the way that commission which investigated Krajina had a Communist member on it). Hard to believe it doubtlessly is, but I have never heard the testimony of a single credible witness who was able to present evidence to the contrary.
After the war your father was named chief prosecutor at the trial of K.H. Frank while Krajina became the general secretary of the Czech National Socialist Party. President Beneš accepted the resignation of the non-Communist ministers with the exception of Jan Masaryk who did not resign. This is considered to be a major mistake of the sick president. I am sure you talked about the February 25th 1948 Communist coup with your father. Even though the Communist Party received 40 per cent of the vote, it still lacked a majority. How do you think the situation could have been saved?
Of course, there have been other non-Communist ministers who did not resign, for example the Social Democrat, Václav Majer. But 40 per cent was enough for the Communists to control key ministries like interior, information and defense (the last one led by the crypto Communist Svoboda). On the other hand the non-Communist ministers were not exactly naïve (as they are frequently described by current Czech historians). According to my father they simply played for time, hoping that the West would wake up. And the West did wake up, unfortunately only after the fall of Czechoslovakia. Such things as the Truman Doctrine of help to Greece and Turkey, the Berlin Airlift and the birth of NATO were all a reaction to the loss of Czechoslovakia. A while ago I again studied the whole thing and wrote a series of articles about it for the Nový Polygon magazine. As I see it, there was still a certain chance that democracy could have been saved in the summer of 1947 when Stalin forbade Czechoslovakia to accept the Marshall Plan but this chance was no longer there in February of the following year.
The fact that your father and Krajina went into exile after February 1948 must have been the right decision by which they saved their lives or many years of a Communist prison. My own father didn’t see that far ahead. How much do you value this decision of your parents?
Immensely. Of course father and his friend Krajina had the advantage of knowing what totalitarian prisons were like. Worse off was their friend, the Minister of Justice Drtina, who had spent the war in exile. He had no family and reacted to this national tragedy by trying to commit suicide. Unsuccessfully. Then he spent twelve years in prison.
In your book you describe in detail the life of Vladimir Krajina and his family in Canada. There Krajina became a university professor and his knowledge of botany and forestry are highly valued. What, in your opinion, is professor Krajina´s greatest scientific contribution to Canada and to the world generally?
Krajina is the father of a system of ecological reserves in British Columbia which is today copied throughout the world. This is a province which belongs among the richest in the world when it comes to natural wealth. Today there are 152 such reservations here. One of the largest is on the Haida Gwai island and is named after him. However, before these reservations could be created nature here had to be properly mapped ecologically. That was again mainly the work of Krajina and his students. By the way, as far as the size of British Columbia is concerned, it could contain three Japans.
It must have been a great satisfaction to Vladimir Krajina to have been able to visit his homeland and to receive the high decoration of Order of the White Lion from President Václav Havel. He died in June 1993 at the age of 88. Could you summarize and evaluate the life of this outstanding scientist, politician and Resistance leader with such great luck?
He belonged to the European branch of what the American journalist Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation. They were the ones who had won the most terrible war in history and at the same time made sure that no other world wars could ever be fought.
And in conclusion a question for you personally: You have led a colorful life. What in this life do you consider the greatest source of happiness and satisfaction and also which event in it would you most like to forget?
I see you have left the most difficult question as last. My greatest source of happiness is undoubtedly the fact that I have found an outstanding partner in life. And what I would most like to forget is that when I returned to my native Czechoslovakia to help with its transition among decent societies, through their incompetence they almost killed her. And no one at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so far found it within himself to apologize.
Thank you for your time and all the best with your book.
Jan Drábek je kanadský spisovatel, který se narodil v roce 1935 v Praze, jeho otec Jaroslav byl přední pražský právník, který byl v roce 1943 zatčen a poslán do koncentračního tábora Osvětim. Po roce 1945 se otec stal státním prokurátorem v procesu s K. H. Frankem, který byl odsouzen a popraven. Po únoru 1948 se celé rodině včetně staršího syna Jaroslava podařilo odejít do Německa a později emigrovat do USA.
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