The best of One on One in 2005


Today we are taking another chance to hear from some of the most interesting guests we met on One on One over the course of the year just ended. They include: musician Zuzana Ruzickova on the horrors of Auschwitz and Professor Tomas Radil on the liberation of the notorious concentration camp; journalist Joe Schlesinger on escaping Czechoslovakia, and returning in 1989; controversial politician Jan Kavan on his English mother's difficult life in Prague; lower house chairman Lubomir Zaoralek on visiting North Korea; and Romany rapper Gipsy on telling it like he sees it.

One of the biggest events of 2005 was the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II; somebody who has strong and moving memories of the war is Zuzana Ruzickova, who lost almost all of her family in the Nazi Holocaust. When Ian Willoughby spoke to her in January Zuzana Ruzickova recalled the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

"I spent in Auschwitz almost half a year, almost six months. I was at the children's home which was something which Freddy Hirsch managed to get from the Nazis, from the SS. In that children's home Freddy Hirsch and all the other pedagogues tried to give the children a feeling of some normality. Of not lying, of not stealing, of being honest citizens, of trying to be clean.

"This was something which saved not only quite a few of the children - some of them of course were not saved - but also quite a few of the pedagogues. Because there was not such despair...There was some sort of, not quite hope because we knew that we would go to the gas-chambers, but a sort of hope for humanity."

How did you find living day to day? Were you full of despair, or did you go about your daily tasks?

"Both, both. One had to go about daily tasks, and one was full of despair. I still feel very guilty because I was...I was not managing my despair very well, so that my mother saw how afraid I was of death - I regret that very much, it must have been terrible for her.

"Of course one was holding on to life and seeing these fires and the chimneys every day was simply...simply...unbearable."

Zuzana Ruzickova has been one of Europe's most renowned harpsichord players for over half a century.

Another Czech who survived Auschwitz is Tomas Radil, now a retired professor of psychology and neurology living in Prague. Tomas Radil was 13 and a half when he was deported from his home town of Parkany - now Sturovo in Slovakia - in the spring of 1944. Most of his relatives were murdered, only his father survived. He was one of several thousand inmates who witnessed the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army on January 27th, 1945. Professor Radil shared his memory of that day with Rob Cameron.

"The 27th was just a usual day. They sent me and another boy to the gate, to watch what was happening outside the camp. There was no information. And the instruction was - there are two of you. One should watch all the time, and if necessary the second will run as a messenger to some other place and tell people what's happening outside.

"And that was in the first building to the left past the main gate of Auschwitz main camp - Arbeit Macht Frei, you know. And on the left, the first building was the building of the orchestra. There used to be an orchestra of the camp, so camp music was playing as all those commanders were marching. It was part of the ritual.

"OK, so we were just playing like little boys with those instruments. And I'm watching from the window - snow everywhere, very flat - and I see a German soldier, running I would say metaphorically towards the West. He was pulling his rifle after him. Carrying a rifle is not easy, so he was pulling the rifle.

"And I even remember that the belt of that rifle was not made of leather, but some sort of textile imitation. I was even sorry for him in a sense. Not very deeply, but...that was like a symbol of the breakdown of the Third Reich."

Joe Schlesinger has for decades been one of Canada's most respected journalists. Born in Czechoslovakia, he escaped the Holocaust when he was sent out of the country, though both his parents were killed. Back in Prague and working for the Associated Press when the Communists came to power, Joe Schlesinger decided it was only a matter of time before he would have to get out.

"They started arresting people at the bureau: so that was the immediate impulse to leave. Whether I would have left without it, I don't know. I mean, there were a lot of people who had thought over the idea at the time, but didn't do it because it was dangerous.

"The other thing is that I didn't have any family left, so there was nothing really to hold me, in that sense. My network of friends had also disappeared. So I really had nobody.

"The first attempt didn't work. I paid a guy who knew his way through Bratislava to Petrzelka on the other side of the Danube... we got across there and we were just about to cross over when we almost ran into a patrol with a dog. We hid and luckily the dog didn't smell us, and we went back to town and couldn't cross that day.

"But, I tried again in February 1950 and again we paid off someone who knew the area and there was a kind of 'forbidden zone' around the border, but somehow we had got a pass to go through that zone to Ceske Velenice, and on the other side of the river it's Gmund, in Austria.

"I went with a girlfriend and walked along the river: this was still early on, so it wasn't as it was later on, but there were machine gun towers that we could see. And, the river was frozen and at some point we just sort of ran across the river and dropped into a ditch on the other side, and we hadn't been seen by anyone in the tower.

"Because, even if they hadn't gunned us down, this was the Russian zone, the Soviet zone of Austria, so they could have reported us to the Russians who would have picked us up. So, that was it."

Almost 40 years later, Joe Schlesinger would return to the eastern bloc as a foreign correspondent - in time to witness the fall of communism in his homeland Czechoslovakia.

"You know, I was there when Gorbachev came to Washington, I was with Reagan in Moscow, and I was there in 1987 when Reagan was in Berlin and made his speech about 'tear down that wall, Mr Gorbachev'. And I remember thinking at the time 'that's not very likely to happen very soon.' And, of course, it did!

"In all that time between the time I left, and the time I came back in '89, Czechoslovakia had a rough, rough time. First the Nazis, then the Communists: finally, I was able to return, and watch that 'era', that tyranny - the last of it - vanish. It was a kind of a personal vindication."

Jan Kavan | Photo: Zdeněk Vališ,  Czech Radio
Jan Kavan has been one of the most interesting and controversial figures in Czech society in recent decades. The son of a Communist politician sentenced to death in a 1950s show trial, he spent many years in the UK as a leading figure in Czech émigré circles. After his return in 1989, Mr Kavan was accused of having collaborated with the secret police but cleared his name and later became foreign minister and was president of the United Nations General Assembly. But it was his early life and family he first discussed back in May.

"My mother was English and she met my father during the War. After the War my father was appointed to the Czechoslovak Embassy in London and therefore myself and my year-younger brother were born in London. And in 1950 when my father was recalled back to Prague by the Czech foreign office the whole family for the first time came to Czechoslovakia.

"From the high position of an important diplomat and a decorated soldier, an officer, he suddenly was accused of a being a traitor, an imperialist, Zionist agent, and imprisoned. And he was sentenced to first to life and then it was commuted to 25 years imprisonment."

In those days there weren't many foreigners here I'm sure, now there are lots of us - I'm curious how your mother Rosemary found adjusting to life in Czechoslovakia in the 50s.

"It was extremely difficult. As you say foreigners are now used to Prague and Praguer are used to seeing many foreigners. In the '50s there were very few. And some of those who came here as wives of Czech soldiers left again when life became very difficult during the Stalinist '50s.

"And a lot of Czechs were afraid, in particular dealing with my mother, who was labelled as the imperialist British wife of a Czech traitor. So she couldn't find a job and eventually worked as a labourer in a factory; even from that she was eventually expelled. So life was extremely difficult for her while her husband, my father, was in prison.

"She had to find a living to keep me and my brother and herself alive. But she was a very strong character and she survived. And I have still thanks to her sense of humour and strength, despite all of these objectively tough conditions of the '50s, I still have relatively warm memories of my childhood."

Jan Kavan's Social Democrat party colleague Lubomir Zaoralek is the chairman of the Czech lower house. In May he led a Czech delegation to North Korea in an attempt to persuade the secretive Communist state to return to international negotiations about their nuclear weapons programme. As Mr Zaoralek told Jan Velinger, certain aspects of his visit were distinctly Orwellian.

"People on the street were not willing to communicate, it was clear they were afraid. When I saw children marching in the streets and training in the streets and the military atmosphere in the schools, it was for me something very suggestive. For example, of [George] Orwell's 1984.

"During this rice mobilisation we saw that all people, whether musicians or teachers or students, had to work in the fields. It was said that it was something like an order from Kim Cong Il that some of the musicians were allowed to return to Pyongyang and perform Smetana's "My Country" for us.

"It was something unbelievable. And, I got the feeling that this mobilisation stopped life in the whole capital, at the universities, and so on. For me it was something like proof that really this state doesn't work, it's like a 'war economy' almost and for me it was terrible to imagine that people are living in such conditions.

"It seems to me that the main result is that we have a commitment to help these people try and return freedom to this country. Fear is the pillar of life in North Korea."

Chad Evans Wyatt
September saw the launch of an exhibition at Prague Castle called "Roma Rising", featuring black and white portraits of middle-class and professional Romanies in Czech society. They were taken by the American photographer Chad Evans Wyatt, who is himself half black. Chad told Rob Cameron he was driven by a desire to draw attention to those Roma who had risen above prejudice to lead "normal lives", and whom - quoting Abraham Lincoln - he describes as "better angels of our nature".

"I accept the notion that the photographs I did are of people who are exceptional, in the sense that they have had to labour against not only the colour of their skin, the prejudice of neighbours, but also the consideration even among those in the educational field who believe that Romani cannot absorb education.

"They have observed, they feel, over time, that there is little sense of responsibility, of tomorrow, among the Romani. This again is analogous to a view held among whites in the US 100 years ago. The blacks who danced and sang and played music could not become doctors and lawyers.

"They have laboured because they felt they must succeed. They laboured against danger, against prejudice, and against even the prejudice in their own community.

"Let us not forget that if you rise above your group in some fashion, you're thought of as suspect as well. Imagine these people out there, alone. I find them extraordinary. Yes, 'better angels of our nature' in that we all wish to succeed, we all wish to strive. And these people did it."

Staying on the subject of the Czech Republic's Roma minority, Gipsy is the stage name of a Romany rapper called Radek Banga. The young musician pulls no punches - he's highly critical of both white society and Romanies themselves, and believes change can only come from within the Roma community. Here Gipsy tells Rob Cameron why he felt he had to tell it like it is.

"The classic image of a gypsy is a thief. Stealing cars, or stealing in a train. You have to be a real thief to be a gypsy. Everyone in the world thinks like that. It's the average, classic view, but it's the real view. And also it's true! Many gypsies are doing this. I don't know why, it's maybe a question of the times, but they do it.

"This is what I was talking about at the beginning. It's very cold, it's very real, but they do it. Because it's happening. It's criminal, so it's bad. But also I'm able to make it funny. Many people, and many gypsies, are trying to say 'yeah we're only good, gypsies are not bad, we're trying' and simply it's not true and everybody knows it. I just wanted to say - this is real, what we are.

"When I'm talking about my community, I'm talking about a problematic community. And we know it. We know it all."

Michal Horacek is one of the Czech Republic's most prominent lyricists, though he is also known as an author, journalist and owner of a successful chain of betting shops. When Jan Velinger met him in June Michal Horacek recalled his youthful dream of going to America, and how a bureaucrat's blind belief in stamps helped that dream come true. The

"I put it on an application. You know a visa was one thing but we had to apply for permission from our own government to travel abroad - and this had to be applied for and there was this Union of the Socialist Youth for young people on their way to the Communist Party. I wasn't a member and they refused to give me support.

"So, I literally took things into my own hands: My grandfather - who lived with us - was the chairman of the entomological society, he loved beetles... and he had this huge rubber stamp with the symbol of a honey bee in the middle of it, this big creature, all those legs and stuff, and it was very difficult not to notice this creature.

"But, I used it anyway! I used the rubber stamp! The fascinating thing is that when an official sees a rubber stamp he doesn't think much further. Well, there was this honey bee but it was such a nice round stamp. In the end, it was enough and I did go on the trip and I did make it to the US, yes.

"I travelled from coast-to-coast, really. I saw all those sites I had only read about previously and saw New York, Washington, San Francisco, L.A., very many sites. I ended up being invited to stay with a family in Salem, Ohio for about a fortnight, going to church on Sunday, stuff like, things I would really have no opportunity to see, so it was very, very important for me."

Fr Piotr Krysztofiak is a Polish priest who has been living here for almost a decade. The prior of Prague's Dominican monastery, he is also parish priest of St Jilij's (St Giles's) church. He is one of a growing number of Polish priests serving in the Czech Republic, where there has been a distinct shortage of vocations in recent year.

"There was a great gap of 40 years when it was practically forbidden to accept new vocations and to form new Dominicans, new branches of the different religious orders, or even diocesan priests. We know that there was one seminary, in Litomerice. But it was not enough, it was controlled by the Communists. It was not enough.

"Of course, religion was repressed and believers were persecuted - that is the reason why here in the Czech Republic there are a great number of very old fathers, very old priests. There is the lack of a middle generation of priests. And of course there are some new vocations but not a lot, they are very few.

"In Poland there are an exceptional number of vocations, so it's quite natural that bishops from the Czech Republic asked bishops in Poland if they could send some priests.

"We very often say that St Wojtech [also known as St Adalbert, a Prague bishop who became the first martyr of the Polish Church] came from Czech to bring the faith, and now it is the time to repay that benefit."