Celebrating some of the greatest Czechs abroad

Běla Gran Jensen, photo: Milena Štráfeldová/ Czech Radio 7 - Radio Prague

There are more than two million Czechs and their Czech-speaking descendants living outside their homeland, or working abroad indefinitely, and Czech Radio and the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs undertakes a number of activities – partly through Radio Prague – to support those communities, to keep their connections with this country strong and to help them spread knowledge about the Czech Republic.

Běla Gran Jensen,  photo: Milena Štráfeldová/ Czech Radio 7 - Radio Prague
The year, Czech Radio and Czech Television began a joint project to recognise the work of some of the best known of those Czechs abroad, as part of a week-long festival of expat events held in the last week of September. Twenty outstanding individuals were nominated for a survey seeking the greatest Czech Abroad. From a pantheon of names including the likes of director Miloš Forman, author Milan Kundera and sports legends Martina Navratilová and Jaromír Jágr, three people were chosen by television and radio audiences in the Czech Republic. In today’s special programme we will be hearing from each of the winners – former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, plastic surgeon Bohdan Pomahač, and charity organiser Běla Gran Jensen. The stories of all three should be an inspiration to immigrants, and emigrants, everywhere.

The third great émigré in our survey hardly needs any introduction, though many may forget her Czech origin. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was born Marie Korbelová in Prague’s Smíchov district. Before her second birthday though, when Hitler invaded the Sudetenland, her family fled to London, where her father, a Czechoslovak diplomat, served as an advisor to the government in exile. More than a dozen members of her Jewish family died in extermination camps.

Madeleine Albright,  photo: Barbora Kmentová/ Czech Radio 7 - Radio Prague
After the war, the Korbel family returned to Czechoslovakia, but again for less than three years before the Communist Party took power in 1948. This time the family received political asylum in the United States, where half a century later their eldest daughter would become the most influential woman in the country.

The Czech public’s relationship to ‘Madlenka’ has varied over the years. During her tenure as secretary most Czechs were proud to claim her as ‘one of their own’. Later she attracted some public ire when then-president Havel suggested her as his successor at an unpopular period for American policy. Still, as our survey shows, Madame Secretary is vastly respected in the Czech Republic, where she has just released the Czech translation of her book “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War”. That respect is one of the things she said she valued most when we spoke with her about why she still feels she belongs here after a whole life abroad.

“Well everybody is very nice to me here. And I also was kind of literally looking for my roots. I am very proud to be back, and when President Havel became president of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, he kind of exemplified everything that is good and brilliant about the Czech people, so I was very happy to come back, and really celebrate what happened here after the Velvet Revolution. So I do feel very comfortable here. I am an American, Americans are a mixture of everything, but I’m proud to be a Czech-American. So it’s very nice to come back.

Madeleine Albright,  photo: Barbora Kmentová/ Czech Radio 7 - Radio Prague
“I was telling somebody: When I first came here with President Clinton, and there was a ceremony at the castle, and they played the Star Spangled Banner, the “land of the free and he home of the brave” and then they played the Czech anthem, “Where is My Home”, well that always brings me to tears, because they kind of go together.”

You lived in many countries as a child, how do you today view issues of cultural identity and nationalism?

“I do believe that cultural identity is important, what I don’t like is when pride in one’s self curdles into hatred of somebody else – then it undermines that whole aspect. And in many ways, people have to get over their historic differences and realise that we live in a multi-ethnic world. What is so brilliant about America is the diversity. We all have different pasts but in America we all have the same future. So I believe in being proud of your cultural identity but it can’t be translated into hating somebody else’s.”

Can I just ask about your pin today, is there any significance?

“There is! If you look at the cover of the book, it’s of me as a little girl. And so the publishers of the book had this pin made for me. And my name as a little girl was Madlenka, so this is my new little Madlenka. They gave me this present and I just love it, I think it’s so cute.”

Former US Secretary of State and pin aficionado, Madeleine Albright.

The second of our survey’s winners would not have expected to be one of the most respected Czechs abroad just ten years ago. His fantastic potential as a surgeon, though, was clear even then, as his colleagues say. Bohdan Pomahač has become one of the leading figures in the new field of face transplantation.

Bohdan Pomahač,  photo: Kristýna Maková/ Czech Radio 7 - Radio Prague
It is really only since the advent of face transplantation – only in the last few years – that the general public has seen with their own eyes the devastation that a person can suffer to their face; when there was no treatment, such cases received no media attention. It’s not that the frequency of accidents to the face has recently increased, as one could sense from the media, but that answers to such catastrophes are here now thanks to scientists and a few, singularly capable surgeons.

After years leading a burn trauma centre in Boston, Massachusetts, in 2009 Bohdan Pomahač led the team performing the seventh-ever partial transplant on a man whose face had been destroyed after a fall onto an electrified subway rail. Last year, in 2011, he performed the third-ever full transplant on a benefactor who had been left essentially faceless, also due to a high-voltage accident.

Equally amazing to the skill of Bohdan Pomahač (whose name incidentally means ‘helper’ in Czech) is his perseverance, having worked up to 120 hours a week and offering his services for free when he came to America in 1996, in order to gain experience. We had the pleasure of sitting down with him for the following interview.

What exactly were to obstacles to doing a face transplant before, and why is it possible only now?

“Well there are a number of obstacles, mostly ethical, surgical, technical, and logistical – just creating the infrastructure for such a big undertaking. I think probably for decades the ethical questions have been a subject of people’s imaginations, and criticism, as well as positive attitudes. So there have been mood swings, so to speak, from very negative to very positive. But ultimately somebody had to come and pretty much create the operation from scratch – practice it, create it and ultimately find the right patient to perform it on.”

In terms of the ethical considerations, has the enormous success of these operations not wiped away many of the complaints?

Bohdan Pomahač,  photo: Kristýna Maková/ Czech Radio 7 - Radio Prague
“Definitely. Actually we just recently wrote a review article looking at both the frequency and the overall message of articles dealing with ethical considerations. And out of several hundred articles, over a period of time, it not only dropped but has been generally converted to purely positive reactions. So I think the concerns have been pretty much unsubstantiated, and there is no longer any ethical concern in my mind.”

And in terms of technical capabilities, what was impossible 20 years ago that is possible now? The face is a critical part of a person’s identity, but it’s also a toolbox of the senses. How can one person or even a small team of people know so much to be able to perform something like that?

“Well first of all, the facial recovery of tissue has to be performed in such a fashion that you can reconnect it and re-establish blood flow. The face is very well vascularised, and what was not known before was how many vessels do you really need to keep it alive, how many nerves would you need to connect in order to not only maintain bloody supply, but also to provide function and re-integrate it into one’s functional face again. The face is so well vascularised that you could make the operation almost impossible due to the complexity of the blood supply, if you wanted to connect every single large vessel. And ‘I think that’s where our team’s contribution has been. We have simplified the concept to probably the most efficient but also flexible design of facial recovery. And it works very well both for full-face and partial-face transplants. So that’s one aspect of it.

“The second is we always consider the function of the face so critical that the patient not only has a living face that functions as a mask, looking human again, but that rather provides sensation and motor function. We have always integrated all the major nerves that provide motion, but also that provide feeling – not only on the skin, forehead, cheeks, but also inside of the mouth. So it’s completely reintegrated just like your or my face is.”

How did you reach the decision to work in this field?

“Ever since I started residency in plastic surgery I was fascinated by facial reanimation and reconstruction. And so when I started in my own practice I had a large number of patients who I intentionally chose who had problems with head and neck reconstruction. And that’s where I found the major limitations associated with conventional techniques of reconstruction. And over several years I became really frustrated with how far we could get, because we were still limited to transplanting, or reconstructing patients’ faces utilising skin or tissues from other parts of their own bodies, which don’t resemble the face, doesn’t function like the face, doesn’t have the texture or colour of the face. And so when the first face transplant was performed in France – and I have to give them full credit for really perfecting the operation from all sides – that really opened the door, silenced the critics, and allowed me to build a programme in the United States that has been quite successful.”

Běla Gran Jensen,  photo: Milena Štráfeldová/ Czech Radio 7 - Radio Prague
Many of the people who were nominated for Czech Radio’s distinction as the greatest Czech abroad are not well-known names. Fourth to seventh place are taken by Czechs who have made a tremendous impression and name internationally, namely Hollywood director Miloš Forman, who needs no introduction, Jaromír Jágr, considered one of the best hockey players or all time, architectural wizard, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Eva Jiřičná, and of course another name that needs no introduction, Milan Kundera, who has kept a relative distance from his country of birth.

Wherever you follow the news, the name Běla Gran Jensen may not ring any bell, but she is the person that Czechs themselves singled out as the most important countryman abroad in Czech Radio’s survey, needless to say for great merit. The organisation Stonožka, or Centipede, which she founded in Norway after the fall of communism in her homeland, is about teaching children how they can lift up other children less advantaged than themselves. While Czech children were originally the beneficiaries of the programme, through Centipede they are now raising money for children in war-torn and impoverished parts of the world. Běla Gran Jensen tells her story, starting with her fleeing Czechoslovakia to Norway in 1969, after the Soviet invasion.

“I was studying at the Philosophical Faculty in Prague, and after the occupation, everyone in our group was working with some journalists, because we were very naive and thought we might mobilise the whole world to help us against the Russians. So somebody was studying Italian and had contacts with the Italian Journalists and somebody with the French, and nobody wanted to work with Scandinavia. So I said okay, I’m going to study Norwegian. Because no one else wanted to.”

All your life you seem to have had this can-do attitude, that if you go somewhere any try something then you’ll manage somehow to pull it off.

“Yes, I was very fortunate with my education at home, and if you have to do something then you have to do it. I know the word ‘must’, and if I must, then I must. So this has helped me and saved me many times in my life. And I’m very grateful to my parents for teaching me this.”

How did the Stonožka, or Centipede organisation come about?

Běla Gran Jensen | Photo: Milena Štráfeldová,  Radio Prague International
“Well that was not thanks to me, it was probably the Lord’s wish, or destiny, or however you see it, but I was never planning to do it. I was always trying to help wherever I could, and it doesn’t matter where you are, whether in Australia or Norway or Greece, you can always do something positive. So I was always helping but it never crossed my mind to found some movement.

“Since I was a political refugee I was not allowed – or rather I could have gone back but I would be in jail. So I came back for the first time in 1990, after 21 years, and it was an absolutely dreadful experience. In Norway everything had been getting better and better, and when you came here you had the impression that everything had stopped. The corner shop that had been there 20 years ago was still there, but everything was much more grey, much more damaged, and very, very sad. So I was very grateful to only be here for four days, because I thought I would kill some communists.

“So while I was here a woman came from a children’s hospital and gave me some business cards where there was the name of the clinic and a bank account number, and she asked if I would hand them out to people on the streets in Norway. And I didn’t think at all and said ‘of course I’ll do it’, and then I’m flying home and thinking that I’m stupid and foolish, because in those days it was so complicated to send money to Czechoslovakia in those days.

“So I had to do something, because I’d promised, and the hospital did look dreadful. It was dreadful, primitive, and they were stealing sand to make casts for children’s legs – it was unbelievable. And then I was thinking that I’m not very good at begging and I do not believe in begging, I believe you can only help if you teach. So Centipede is an educational movement where children can learn from a very early age that you can make a difference. That’s what it’s all about.

“So I asked the teachers if the children could make some paintings. The first were dreadful – pictures of tractors in fields and factories with smoke coming out of them, you couldn’t imagine more socialistic images. But still, the children painted and I stood in front of some shopping centre in Norway selling those pictures. If I had three and a half Norwegian crowns for the whole day then I was very proud. But Norwegians are probably the most fabulous and generous nation in the world, so they realised that here was somebody who is not begging but trying to get something to help less fortunate children. Suddenly people and hospitals started calling and they were so impressed by these children trying to help each other.

“Another story started in 2000, when there was war in the Balkans, and children wrote me that they would like to help the children in war. And the only thing I could think of that might help was an ambulance. So I asked the children to make some collections and exhibitions, theatre, concerts, the aim being to buy an ambulance. Well the children managed to get the money for four ambulances. It was a miracle. But the problem then was how to get the ambulances to the war-torn countries. So I contacted the Czech Army, and since then we have had the most fantastic cooperation.

“So I’m very proud. The children know they are making a difference, and thousands of children have been on the receiving end of this aid. e have been in the Balkans, in Bosnia and Kosovo, we’ve been in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we have done a lot of good work, sent a lot equipment to hospitals, reconstructed schools, and lastly, thanks to the Czech soldiers, Afghan mothers are writing their names for the first time. We give the money to the soldiers, they start courses, and now we have our first 35 Afghan mothers who can write and read.”