And the Gratias Agit award goes to: Tireless promoters of the Czech nation

Cyril Svoboda and honoured Antonin Liehm, photo: CTK

Since 1997, the Czech Foreign Ministry has been bestowing the Jan Masaryk Gratias Agit award upon people and institutions in gratitude for their exceptional work in promoting the good name of the Czech Republic abroad.

Cyril Svoboda and honoured Antonin Liehm,  photo: CTK
The Czech Foreign Minister, Cyril Svoboda, there, thanking recipients of this year's Gratias Agit award for their tireless efforts in promoting the best of Czech culture abroad and helping to "put the country on the map".

Many of those honoured on Monday at Prague's Cerninsky Palace, the seat of the Foreign Ministry, were native sons and daughters of the former Czechoslovakia, who fled their homeland under threat of persecution; some from the Nazis, but most from the Communists.

Announcer: "Vilma Abelesova-Iggersova, Germany. Antonin Liehm, France. Frantisek Listopad, Portugal. Robert Burton Pynsent, United Kingdom. Alexandra Sapovalova, Mexico. Monika Zgustova, Spain..."

All have excelled in their chosen fields — as poets and historians, diplomats and human rights activists, journalists and translators — and it was their life's work that was being recognised.

Among the honourees this year was Professor Miroslav Turek, a former diplomat and celebrated humanitarian. Born in 1910, he joined the foreign resistance in France after the Munich crisis left Czechoslovakia under Nazi control. He was later named aide de camp of the Czechoslovak Brigade in England and appointed counsellor by then Czechoslovak foreign minister Jan Masaryk.

Soon after the Communists took power in 1948 Professor Turek went into exile in the United States. For decades he taught international relations and modern European history in New York universities; among his students was Rudolf Giuliani, who would go on to become mayor of New York City.

But like most of those honoured on Monday, Professor Turek was also a stalwart supporter of Czech culture. He helped promote Czech music and young composers in the U.S.; he also ensured that Czech-born composer Rudolf Friml's piano was donated to the National Museum in Prague, and Professor Turek famously prevented Christie's auction house from unwittingly selling off Antonin Dvorak's stolen manuscripts.

Miroslav Turek and his wife Ludmila with art benefactress Meda Mladkova,  photo: CTK
I asked Professor Turek, now aged 93, what receiving the Gratias Agit meant to him.

Turek: "I feel actually that this is the culmination of more than 60 years of work — which I did with love and great interest — representing the old Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. It has been for me a great honour to do it."

RP: And could you recount for us the story of the stolen manuscripts of Dvorak?

Turek: "Oh yes. Well, they were stolen and they were in the library of a Czech composer who was a friend of Antonin Dvorak.

[The couple speaks together in Czech.]

Turekova: "He came to London and interviewed with Christie's and explained to them this was a stolen manuscript of Dvorak and it was subsequently returned to the museum in Brno."

Turek: "And the lady who had taken away those manuscripts was properly..."

Turkeova: "Punished."

Turek: "Yes."

Mr. Turek's wife Ludmila, there, lending a hand with the story.

I also had the chance to speak with another Czech émigré to the U.S., the human rights lawyer and activist Vladimir M. Kubes, now aged 86, who was given the Gratias Agit award for his humanitarian work and for promoting Czech-American relations.

"I've been out of the country since 1948. My main activities were human rights and I've been doing legal work most of the time. But always with one thing in mind: that it was not only my Czech background that was important but also the fact that the whole free world needed to be united in striving to prevent invasions — both mentally and physically — of hostile forces."

"And believe me, while I was 'American' for almost 50 years, I never denied and I always stressed the point that my origins were Czech, despite the fact that I really belong to the world, as a member of the human right family."