Gratias Agit Award recipients on their special ties to Czech Republic

Gratias Agit Award recipients, photo: Czech Radio - Radio Prague

Hello and welcome to Radio Prague with me, Ruth Fraňková. July 5 is a public holiday in the Czech Republic and on the occasion we are bringing you a special programme, featuring in-depth interviews with two of the recipients of this year’s Gratias Agit awards for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic abroad.

Georgina Sehnoutka Steinsky,  photo: Czech Radio - Radio Prague
Among those who came to Prague to pick up the award was Georgina Sehnoutka Steinsky. Mrs Steinsky, who was the first person of Czech descent and one of the few women to hold the office of deputy minister in the Canadian government, has been involved in supporting Czech Studies at the University of Toronto.

She also supports educational projects in the Czech Republic and volunteers with a foundation created to advance the role of civil society in the country. Mrs Steinsky left the country when she was only three years old. When I met with her, I first asked her if she had any memories of her childhood in Czechoslovakia:

“My only memory of our departure was in the German refugee camp, the feeling of being given lots of needles. It was a United Nations camp for refugees, because we had no passports, so we were what was called displaced persons. Of course they wanted to make sure that everybody had proper inoculations and I remember being given many needles.”

Former textile factory of the family Steinsky-Sehnoutka in Hradec Králové,  photo: Boris-Jelinek,  CC BY-SA 4.0
Your father was on one of the most prominent entrepreneurs in Czechoslovakia before the war. What was it like for him to leave his business behind and start afresh in a new country?

“My father was quite young, he was only in his twenties. It was really my grandfather, Rudolf Steinsky, who was the prominent industrialist. It was very difficult for him. He had managed to get a little bit of money out and luckily he had a friend who had been with him in the textile industry who sponsored us to come to Canada.

“But it’s quite a shock if you had been very wealthy and go to a country with much less money and nobody knows who you are. He had been prominent in a number of boards of different companies. He was well-known in Hradec Králové and had a number of business associates.

“I was lucky in a way, because I became the centre of his attention. As a child, he would tell me all the stories about life in Czechoslovakia. I was also lucky, because he would visit with his former industry friends, some of whom had also lived in Toronto, and I would get taken to these afternoon teas. And while the gentlemen talked and smoked I was able to eat the cakes. So that was very delightful for a child of five or six.”

How did your parents settle down in Canada?

Jiřina Steinská-Sehnoutková,  mother of Georgina Sehnoutka Steinsky
“I think what often happens with the first generation when they come is that they find other people of the same background. And there was quite a large community at that point. There had been people who had come in the 20s and 30s and there was quite a large immigration post-1948, so they became very involved with that community.

“My mother came from an intellectual, academic family, so she became very involved with a number of people. She was editor of the Czech-Canadian newspaper, which was largely in Czech. She was a poet, so she had a number of friends who she shared her poetry with.

“My general memory is that my father worked very hard just to support the family and my mother stayed with us as children, taught us also about or Czech heritage, because she was very proud of it, and also both she and my grandfather taught us the Czech language.

“But I think for most first-generation people they don’t really assimilate into the Canadian society. It really is my generation and gets sent to school and learns proper language and gets more integrated into the broader society.”

Since you left at a very early age, I assume you soon felt more Canadian than Czech.

Toronto,  photo: Christine Wagner,  CC BY 2.0
“Yes, in fact as a child I was always ashamed of being Czech and I wanted to prove that I could be a good Canadian. Of course the school system raised us that way, too. They made us into good little Canadians.

“I and a young Italian immigrant were the only non-English speaking children in the school, which is very different in Canada today where 50 percent of Toronto wasn’t born in Canada. But back then, it was rare that there were immigrant children. So yes, I very much wanted to be a Canadian.”

You yourself have had a very rich career within Canada. Among other things you became the very first person of Czech descent and one of the few women to hold the office of a deputy minister in the Canadian federal government? How did you succeed in reaching this post?

Baťa store in Prague,  photo: BataLTD,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“Well, I think it was largely because my family kept telling me that we came from a good background and I had to achieve something, which meant I always studied hard and I worked hard and also believe that women quite often have to work harder anyway to prove who they are. I think it was just the ambition that was set into me as a child to succeed in the new country.

In 1990, you were engaged by the Baťa company, being responsible for the re-launch of the Baťa company in the Czech Republic. Was that your first return to your homeland?

“I had never been here since I left as a three-year-old.”

What was your first impression of the country?

“Well, you just take in in. I have this impression I use when you come to a new environment: Just go with the flow. And that was my impression. My mother had given me a list of what had been formerly family properties.

“She still had some friends here that she had kept correspondence with. So they were very generous with their time, they took me around and I visited a number of these former family sites. I also travelled with Mr Baťa of course and we visited a number of families and what had been stores of the Baťa company.

Georgina Sehnoutka Steinsky,  photo: Jana Trpišovská,  Czech Radio
“My first impression was the beauty of the architecture. The second impression was that a lot of it looked dirty and grey and that it was a society that was clearly something very different from what I had grown up in and that this would be a challenge.”

Was that something that made you rediscover your Czech roots?

“Yes, certainly I did rediscover my Czech roots and I think it really started with the appreciation of what the family had been. I had been told, but it’s different when you actually see. So I did rediscover my Czech roots.

“The other thing that I found interesting was that there were certain kinds of little habits that I noticed. For example, my grandmother was always very preoccupied with locking things up and making sure she had her right keys with her. And I noticed that a lot people were like that here. So I thought: Oh, this explains my grandmother!”

Source: Groubani,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Upon your return, you have followed in your family’s footsteps and you have been supporting the Czech Canadian community in many ways.

“Well, as a younger person and building my career I wasn’t very involved with the Czech-Canadian community. Now that I am older and I have more time, one of my activities is with the Czech-Canadian community in Toronto.

“I also, because one of my last employments was as the head of a non-profit organisation in Canada, which was taking an interest in the whole non-profit sector in Canada, I also became interested in what is happening in the non-profit sector in the Czech Republic.

Otto Jelinek,  photo: archive of the Embassy of Canada in Prague
“Also, a relative of mine donated his family villa to a foundation here called Nadace pro rozvoj občanské společnosti, Foundation for the Evolution of Civil Society in the Czech Republic.

“So I have become quite involved with them because I think that the civil society plays a very important and often unappreciated role in the society. So I also work with that group here both to make good use of the villa that my relative, who is now deceased, donated, and also because I believe in the importance in the importance of non-profit societies and organisations.”

Among other things, you have also been working on preserving Václav Havel’s legacy in Canada.

“Correct, thanks to the former Canadian ambassador here Otto Jelinek and also working with the Czech ambassador to Canada, Pavel Hrnčíř, we had a bust made in honour Václav Havel’s 80 the birthday there was a bust made and it is now at the University of Winnipeg at a very prominent place.

“So we are very pleased with that, I helped to fundraise and to pay for the bust and to make sure it was installed there. It was a real partnership between the Czech and Canadian embassies and a few Czech-Canadian donor we got together to make sure that Havel’s memory is visible in Canada.”

Havel bust at University of Manitoba in Winnipeg | Photo: University of Manitoba
And would you say Václav Havel’s name still resonates within the Canadian society?

“Yes, I would say to the extent that people have knowledge of international affairs. I would say it would probably be the more educated group of people who would know who Václav Havel was.

“But yes, he is highly respected among Canadians. In fact when the Czech ambassador went to speak to the head of the Museum of Civilisation in Winnipeg, where we started our discussions about the Havel Bust, he told him: You don’t need to persuade me about Václav Havel. I greatly admire the man and I know he was a great figure, let’s just work on getting his bust here.”

How has the Czech community changed over the years? Would you say that it to keep their Czech roots and maintain the language?

“What I am seeing, and my experience right now is the community in the greater Toronto area, is that first of all the community itself was influenced by different ways of immigration and what is today largely the community is the group that came in 1968.

Gratias Agit Award,  photo: Czech Radio - Radio Prague
“But what is also happening is that there children are now adults and have their own children. So there are some of the children who are now regretting that they don’t speak Czech. And there is in fact a Facebook meet-up group in Czech that meets in Toronto and the goal of that group is that they meet socially, they go to a restaurant, have dinner go to a movie, but they have to speak either Czech or Slovak.

“And that is also attracting young students who might be studying in Toronto or young people who have come just for a year of work or a gap year to study. I wouldn’t say it’s a large group. I think that what starts to happen, as it happened with me, is that the children assimilate and they marry non-Czech speaking or non-Slovak speaking partners and then they become Canadians. But quite often they will remember or they have grandmother still here, so it’s a mix.”

How important is it for you to receive this year’s Gratias Agit Award?

“I am very grateful, I am very honoured and I am very humbled. I did a lot of these things simply because I think one should do these kinds of things for one’s society but I think it’s very nice that somebody says you have done a good job. I have always enjoyed making people happy and so if people think that I have done a good job, I am very humbled to receive the price.”

Gratias Agit Award recipients,  photo: Czech Radio - Radio Prague
Georgina Steinsky, one the recipients of this year’s Gratias Agit Award for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic abroad. The Czech Foreign Ministry gave the award to sixteen Czech expatriates and foreigners, including Jiří Bělohlávek, the late conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, or speed skater Martina Sáblíková.

Another recipient of this year’s Gratias Agit Award was Paul Millar, the honorary consul of the Czech Republic in Scotland. Mr Millar was born in Czechoslovakia in 1933 and left the country in 1968. After the Velvet Revolution, he became a member of president Václav Havel’s group of foreign consultants. Along with other volunteers, he has initiated the setting up of a monument to Czechoslovak paratroopers in Arisaig in Scotland. Mr Millar left Czechoslovakia after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 and I first asked him whether it was a difficult decision to make:

Paul Millar  (right),  photo: Czech Radio - Radio Prague
“It was undoubtedly a difficult decision, in my case made slightly easier by the fact that I didn’t have any family in Czechoslovakia, apart from my daughter, my wife and her family. The rest of my family lived in the United Kingdom. My dad lived there and my two half-brothers still live there.

“We weren’t hundred percent sure. We had passports to visit the family, so we left Czechoslovakia quite legally. It wasn’t a dramatic escape over the barbed wire. And then, because I was offered a job in a very prestigious area of my professional capacity. I decided to stay in the UK. We initially stayed for twelve months and then of course I decided that I would return.

“So there wasn’t really any drama in it, but for me, it was an opportunity to work in my profession, which is animal genetic and at that time Edinburgh was the world centre of animal genetics and for me it was really a wonderful opportunity., My wife, who is a pharmacist, retrained as immunologist and she worked in research as well. So for us, it was professional rather than political decision.

Kaufungen,  photo: Herrick,  CC BY-SA 2.0 DE
But in fact it wasn’t the first time you left the country. During WWII you were sent to Germany to be re-educated and your mother was sent to a penal camp after Heydrich’s assassination. Do you actually remember anything from that time?

“O yes, but the memories are not that painful. It was a little town called Kaufungen, which is close to Kassel. There were a lot of armaments in the streets and there was heavy bombing by the allies on the factories. There was a paper mill, which I think they took for one of the armaments factories and destroyed it together with much of the town.

“The people I lived with lost their house as well. They survived, because there wasn’t anywhere I could stay, so they sent me back home. I went back to my granny and stayed with her until my mom returned from the camp. Unfortunately she died rather young, she was only 44. So I lived on my own and I didn’t have any family apart from the people who were in the United Kingdom. So that’s the ties and relations.”

Scots,  illustrative photo: D. Gordon E. Robertson,  CC BY-SA 3.0
You actually have an English sounding name. Where does it come from?

My dad changed his surname when he was in the Royal Air Force. The surname used to be Chmelař. Ch is totally unpronouncable for the English and ř t the end as well. So he took off three letters and what remained was Millar, as simple as that. When I went to Britain I changed my surname so I have the same name as my father and my two brothers.”

How long did it take you to settle down in your new homeland?

“It wasn’t that difficult. I think we are pretty adaptable people and Scots were quite kinds to us. Also what helped was we started working straight away and that was an opportunity to get to know people more closely and they never resented us or anything like that. I think we were accepted quite kindly.

Photo: Argo Publishing
“Also of course we provided a training and knowledge and specialisation which was suitable for our job, so no problems at all. Scots are actually different from the English. They are a little bit more reserved but at the same time they are really fair.”

A few years ago, you actually wrote a book called ‘Skotsko po česku’, which could be translated as…

…Czech out Scotland. Not ‘check’ but ‘czech’. It is actually a play of words.

Do you actually see any similarities between the Czech Republic and Scotland?

“This is what I am trying to find out, whether there are any unlikely links which you can find between the two countries, which are quite on the opposite end of Europe. Anyway, I am almost finished with part two, my very kind publishers asked me to write another book about it.”

What about the nature of Czechs and Scots, do you see any similarities there?

   William Hole: Saint Columba converting King Brude of the Picts to Christianity,  photo: Scottish National Portrait Gallery,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“No. Scots are mostly Celt. They are different, although many Celts as we know from genetic studies actually travelled from the Czech basin westward, bringing not only culture, but also their genes.

“The genetic studies, which are now quite considerably in Scotland, show us a surprising variety of various genetic resources of which the Scots are composed. It’s Mediterranean, North African, even Caucasian, Celtic of course from the North and the original Pictish population, we don’t know what origin they were. Picts was the name given to the tribes of Scotland by the Romans.

“So even the Pictish population is represented in the genetic makeup, so it’s quite a composit genetics of people. The image that continentals have of Burly Scots with ginger hair and kilt is not exactly the correct picture. It’s a much greater variety of genetic makeup. That contributes to expression in the behaviour of people. Scots are basically reserved but when you get to know them, they are quite hearty. It’s a good nation.”

A herd of Scottisch cows,  photo: Henk Monster,  CC BY 3.0
What did you most miss about your homeland when you moved to Scotland?

Oh, everything. Well, I can’t say I missed my family, because I don’t have any relatives in the Czech Republic. What I miss, Different culture, I suppose. I love music and I really enjoy Czech music. What I miss most is South Moravia.”

You always kept in touch with this country and after 1989 you actually became a member of Václav Havel’s group of foreign consultants. What was your area of expertise?

“Agriculture. I offered my opinions on several subjects concerning reorganisation of agriculture, which was obviously the change from the collective type or state ownership of farms into the private ownership. My area of interest was animal production.

Paul Millar,  photo: Prokop Havel,  Czech Radio
“I travelled for instance all over the Soviet Union and then Russia as an advisor on milk production. I did that job for the World Bank, which was very interesting. I then realised how horribly disorganised and tremendously backward country Soviet Union was and that convicted me about the fact of politics and I think that nowadays we are going in the right direction.”

In 1999 you were appointed the honorary consul of the Czech Republic in Scotland. What exactly does this job involve?

“The Czech Republic has 171 honorary consuls all over the world. It’s a group of people who give their time, voluntarily and free of charge, for the problems of Czech subjects anywhere in the world.

“In Scotland, I reckon we have around 18,000 Czechs there and their problems are the same as problems anywhere in the world. I think the new Czech national sport is to lose their passports and this is something we have to take care for.

Gratias Agit Award,  photo: Czech Radio - Radio Prague
“People who migrated there for work, and I think Czechs are quite popular as employees in Scotland, because they are hard workers and they don’t cause problems, live there, they get to know each other, or even not marry, but still have children.

“I work as a part-time registrar so we apply for the nationality and for a Czech birth certificate and then eventually for Czech travel documents so people can go home and show the new born baby to the granny in the Czech Republic. So that’s the pleasant part of the job.

“Sometimes the job is even sad, because you get people who die. Currently we have a Czech sailor who is missing, a yachtsman who got lost somewhere in the North Sea without any trace at all. So these things are sad. We have people who transgress against the law so it’s a very varied job and it’s a job which I think would deserve a professional consul. But I guess it’s a matter of finances.”

Finally, you are one of the recipients of this year’s Gratis Agit award. What does it mean for you, receiving the award?

“Firstly what it meant was a tremendous surprise, because I never expected anything like this. It’s a group of people who in various ways of life made a contribution to the knowledge of the Czech Republic in the outside world. So I think for me to be among those 14 people who will get a crystal globe is an honour.”