A Stitch in Time: Part 3 – Exile and Return

Olga Szántová

In the third episode of our series looking at the recent past through the eyes of the youngest generation, we hear a story of exile and return. Fourteen-year-old Eva Nováková chose the format of a short radio play to draw us into the world of her great-grandmother, Olga Szántová. Older listeners will remember Olga, who died in 2003. She was a legend of Czechoslovak broadcasting and a good friend to many of us here at the radio.

Eva Nováková | Photo: Radio Prague International

Eva’s play is called The Story of Radio’s Voice, and it takes us back to 1962, when Olga was thirty and her daughter, also Eva, was seven. By that time Olga had already been through more than most of us will experience in a lifetime. As the Nazi grip on Central Europe tightened, she and her parents fled Bratislava and then Prague in 1939, reaching New York via Norway, Sweden, the Soviet Union and Japan.

The family had good reason to fear persecution. They were Jewish and Olga’s father Dezider Benau was a well-known Social Democrat.

Olga Szántová | Photo: archive of Olga Szántová's family

Olga had fond memories of going to school in New York and never lost her East Side accent, which made her voice instantly recognisable on the airwaves. Her nostalgia for the city is a central theme of Eva’s play.

The family returned to Czechoslovakia, but Olga’s father was imprisoned during the purges of the Stalinist years and died shortly afterwards.

Olga Szántová | Photo: Radio Prague International

At the time of the gradual political thaw after the death of Stalin, Olga became a journalist and worked at Radio Prague. This is the period when Eva’s play is set, with Olga telling her daughter about her childhood adventures.

To record the play, Eva came into our studios with her father, Olga’s grandson Ondřej. After a quick rehearsal, we recorded the play in one take, with Eva playing her seven-year-old grandmother, Leah Gaffen playing Olga and Ondřej in the role of the narrator.

As well as the play itself, we hear Eva and Ondřej reflecting on what their family’s history means to them. They talk not just about Olga, but also about the other Eva, Olga’s daughter. In the years after the fall of communism, she became the first head teacher of the Lauder School, the Jewish school in Prague, and she continued in the family political tradition, becoming a member of the Czech parliament for the Social Democrats. Sadly, she died in 2007 at the age of just fifty-four.

Eva never knew her grandmother and great-grandmother, but she feels immensely proud of them both:

“I feel they are really close to me, both of them. I don’t know why, but I feel a connection, maybe because people who knew them, always tell me that I look like them. I feel that we have a lot in common.”

This series was created in cooperation with Class Acts. Special thanks to Leah Gaffen, Tereza Dubsky, Lenka Žižková, Robin Smith and to many others who have helped to make the series happen.

Author: David Vaughan
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  • A Stitch in Time

    I was approached by Leah Gaffen from Class Acts, an initiative that works with bilingual children in Czechia, with a particular focus on drama and writing.