Former dissident Dana Němcová dies at age of 89

Dana Němcová

One of the foremost opponents of the former Czechoslovak communist regime, Dana Němcová, passed away early on Tuesday morning at the age of 89. Despite years of persecution by the secret police, she never let up in her quest for freedom.

Dana Němcová  (1952) | Photo: Post Bellum

Dana Němcová was born in January 1934 and, in her own words, came from humble beginnings. Indeed, she had exactly the kind of working-class credentials that might have endeared her to the communist regime, had she not been such a committed supporter of truth and human rights.

“I was born in Most. Both my parents came from mining families – they were Czechs, and they were poor. My mother lost her parents during the First World War and my father was a teacher.”

She studied psychology at Charles University, where she met her husband, Jiří Němec, with whom she went on to have seven children. She and her husband later became two of the first signatories of Charter 77, which criticised the government for failing to implement the human rights provisions mentioned in a number of documents it had signed.

Jiří Němec | Photo: sokoljan,  Wikimedia Commons

In 1976, after members of the underground rock band The Plastic People of the Universe were arrested, she organised a petition in support of them, which was even signed by Nobel-Prize-winning writer and poet Jaroslav Seifert. For this, she lost her job as a psychologist working with children with hearing and speech disabilities, and until the revolution was only allowed to work as a cleaner and housekeeper.

After signing Charter 77 and co-founding the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted, she was imprisoned for half a year in 1979. Despite the dark times she was living through, Němcová maintained a positive outlook.

“In that time, which seems like it was only a time of oppression and evil, there was also something extremely beautiful. We had a rare solidarity with each other. When I was sitting in prison, I had this wonderful feeling that, as we had looked after those who had been unjustly prosecuted before us, now someone would be looking after my family and after me.”

Václav Havel and Dana Němcová | Photo: archive od Dana Němcová/Paměť národa

Towards the end of the 1980s, she also became a spokesperson for Charter 77. After the Velvet Revolution which toppled the Communist regime in 1989, she briefly served as a member of the Federal Assembly, and was finally able to continue her work in defence of human rights.

Dana Němcová | Photo: Vavřinec Menšl,  Paměť národa

She was a founding member of the Committee of Goodwill along with Olga Havlová. In 1992, she also founded the Counselling Centre for Refugees, which provided psychological and legal assistance to displaced people. Six years later she received the Medal of Merit, a state award for service to the country.

She later said that she had never regretted her actions during the Communist era, despite her jail sentence and not being allowed to carry out her profession, because it was better than living a lie.

“I personally have an insatiable need for freedom. And I’m willing to pay for that freedom. That was the starting point for my dissent. It didn’t just shape me – we all shaped each other.”

Authors: Anna Fodor , Anna Horáčková , Kateřina Bečková
run audio