Czech-born author and publisher Marketa Goetz Stankiewicz

Marketa Goetz Stankiewicz

My guest today is Marketa Goetz Stankiewicz, a professor emerita at the University of British Columbia. Born in 1927 in the Czech town of Liberec, Marketa left Czechoslovakia following the communist putsch in 1948. She established herself in Canada as a professor of comparative literature, author and essayist, focusing in particular on publishing samizdat literature, and also writing about the work of Czech playwrights such as Pavel Kohout, Josef Topol, Ivan Klíma, and her friend the former president Václav Havel.

Marketa Goetz Stankiewicz | Photo: Milena Štráfeldová,  Radio Prague International
I began by asking the professor about her early years growing up in Czechoslovakia.

“I came from a small town, Místek na Moravě, in Moravia. I was kicked out of school when I was about fourteen, because I am from a mixed family and my father was Jewish. In 1944-45 he spent many months in Terezín. He was in what was called a ‘mixed marriage’ – my mother was not Jewish and I was a ‘míšenec’ [half-caste] or ‘mischling’ in German.”

How did the Nazis treat people who were mixed? Wasn’t it more that you were just as bad in their eyes, having been “contaminated” by Jewish blood?

“Well, because I lived in a small town, there were neighbours who were afraid to come to our small apartment – we had been kicked out of our bigger apartment. It wasn’t because they disliked us, because Czechs resented Nazi ideology, but rather because they were afraid themselves that they would hear: ‘You went to see the family Goetz!’ So we were rather isolated and before I left school, the children were quite cruel to me, they call it ‘bullying’ today. But I just knew, even at the age of thirteen, fourteen, that my parents were the best people in the world. So I had the strength – and yet we are afraid all of the time.”

And as a teenager under the Nazi occupation you managed to get a job.

“I worked for a photographer as an apprentice. And that meant that I had to be there at seven-thirty, take the ashes out of the little stove, and bring up the coal, and it was seven days a week. Who came to have their pictures taken? Místek was a garrison town, so apart from weddings and Christenings and the like, the soldiers would come to have their pictures taken – German soldiers.”

Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 102-04051A / CC-BY-SA
How did you personally feel about the Nazis?

“I hated them. And they were just boys towards the end of the war. But then every day came heartbreaking letters from small Austrian villages, as a lot of them were Austrians: ‘Our beloved son Johannes has fallen on the eastern front,’ because they all had to have their picture taken before they went to the front, ‘will you please send us twenty-five small pictures and five larger ones and frame them for us?’ And that is what I then did. I looked at them, and here and there remembered some of these images, and thought to myself that they were just kids. And that somehow burnt the hatred out of me.”

You then went to a graphic school in Prague, just as the Nazi occupation was being substituted for the Soviet one. So tell me about that time and why your parents decided to leave the country as soon as the communists came to power.

“From 1945-48 I went to the grafická škola. The world seemed to open up to me and life seemed to be beginning. But my father said that we should go. His words were: ‘We have been on the stage all our lives, during comedy and tragedy, and now we will sit somewhere in the audience, and watch what is going on on-stage.’ We left with ten dollars each. They were very hard beginnings, but I was thrilled to go. It was an adventure for me.”

So you were allowed to emigrate legally. You didn’t have any dramatic escape from Czechoslovakia.

“Well, my father got a passport, because he had been in a concentration camp. But my mother and I had papers, which said: ‘a person of unknown origin, who lives temporarily in Czechoslovakia – is allowed to leave the country’. My mother had exactly the same.”

Did they know that it was a one-way trip?

“Oh, yes.”

So they were happy to get rid of you because you were from a Jewish family and the communists were anti-Semitic too?

“That and also we were a mixed, half-Jewish family and suspect in every way. We were always outsiders or always ‘in trouble’.”

In Canada, you also found work in photography before gaining a scholarship at the University of Toronto. So how did you then end up moving into literary criticism and the Czechoslovak underground scene?

“We had an old friend in Místek and her son had tremendous trouble with his hair. He was scratching and apparently there was a cream [in the West] that he could use. So I went to my nice doctor here and I sent it to them and this boy got healed. Then the friend wrote: ‘What can I send you? I’m so happy!’ so I said, ‘If anything, send us…’ and this was in the early 1970s. In the 60s, during the thaw, 63-68, little paperback books were published; they were called Divadlo. And the playwrights, whom you mentioned in the introduction, were published in Czechoslovakia. Of course, all this finished in 1968, and she sent me a huge package of these books. So I started to read them and thought: ‘This is fantastic stuff! These are wonderful plays!’ Through this, I built up my Czech again, and then by the 1970s, we decided that we would go back. So my mother and I started going back in 1975 and went back every year until 1989.”

“Once, I was walking in Smíchov and thought ‘How could I ever meet any of those people whose works I had read and I happened to meet Pavel Landovský [Czech actor and dissident], who is recognizable anywhere. So I went to him and I said: ‘Mr. Landovský, I know you because you are an actor, and I am from Canada and I am innocuous, but I want to write about the Czech plays that can’t be performed anymore. Will you talk to me?’ That was the beginning and he looked right through me and said: ‘Go down a couple of streets, third house on the left, the door is open. Sit down and I’ll come back and then we can talk.’”

In front of us here we have some of your books: The Vaněk Plays: Four Authors, One Character, Critical Essays on Václav Havel, The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights Without a Stage and Goodbye Samizdat: Twenty Years of Czechoslovak Underground Writing. So tell me how these books came about. What made you decide to write in such depth about the Czech theatre and Czech samizdat movements?

“When I had the good fortune to meet these people – to meet Havel in his Hrádeček, and I met Ivan Klíma and Pavel Kohout and Ludvík Vaculík. I met them and I realized that maybe I can do something for these people, these talented brilliant people, who were…you know, Klíma was selling fish by the Vltava.”

Just to explain that this was because the communist authorities wouldn’t allow them to do the kind of work that they wanted to be doing. So they pretty much humiliated them by forcing them to do manual labour…

“Manual labour, yes. And their writing had to be undertaken secretly, and they never knew whether the police would come. They were hiding their books, their samizdat writings. The police would sometimes come and turn their apartments upside-down looking for subversive materials. But they did not write subversive material. They just wanted to write plays and novels talking about life, as a good writer does, about what life is all about.”

So tell me a little bit about your friendship with the late Václav Havel.

Václav Havel,  Marketa Goetz Stankiewicz,  Ivan Havel,  photo: archive of Marketa Goetz Stankiewicz
“In 1978, they told me that he was in Hrádeček in his country home and that I could go and visit him. Václav had been told that I would be coming. He came out and my heart stopped when I saw him running out of the house, and he threw something at the back of my car. I wondered what it was and he told me to move into the barn, which I did. I looked at the back of the car and he had thrown just an old sackcloth over the back, because there were already people – ‘neighbours’ so to speak, that were watching him and checking who was coming. He gave me some Becherovka and for me it was like a dream. I told him: ‘Look, I have read everything that you have written up to now,’ and I explained a bit who I was. But he already knew that, as the dissidents communicated very quickly amongst each other. He made a wonderful dinner and I stayed overnight, and it is a treasure in my memory for as long as I live.”