Gratias Agit awards 2005

Foto: Martina Hřibová

The Gratias Agit awards are presented every year to those who have helped promote the good name of the Czech Republic around the world. Laureates include Czechs and foreigners, individuals and institutions; this year's recipients range from the renowned businessman Tomas Bata, to Liu Xingcan, a Chinese translator of Czech literature.

Cyril Svoboda
The Gratias Agit awards are presented by the foreign ministry; Minister Cyril Svoboda explains how recipients are chosen.

"It's a little complicated, but we are trying to find representatives of a large range of human activities, and representatives of many countries. It's very difficult because many people are promoting the good name of the Czech Republic, but that's the choice."

This year 15 individuals were selected, while there were four group awards. One recipient who unfortunately could not make it to Thursday's ceremony at Prague's stately Cernin Palace was the poet Viktor Fischl, who is almost 93 and now lives in Israel. But the venue was fitting: Mr Fischl was a close collaborator of Jan Masaryk, foreign minister in the Czechoslovak government in exile during World War II. Indeed the reception after the ceremony was held on a terrace opposite the window from which Jan Masaryk met his death.

Jerry Elzner
Several of this year's laureates are getting on in years, such as Jerry Elzner, who was born in 1925, on a farm in Texas. His parents, who were from south Moravia and apparently never learned English, emigrated there in 1904; the state was a popular destination for Czechs moving to the US. Mr Elzner is very active in Czech expatriate circles in the Lone Star State.

"I do a lot of work in schools, in various clubs. October is Czech Heritage Month and we have 254 counties and every county judge gets a notice to proclaim Czech heritage month, as do 15 bishops and 34 representatives in Washington.

"We have a lot of Czech organisations in Texas, and I think of all the United States we have the most lodges, and just about every week there'll be a dance, a festival, 'muzika', something about Czechs somewhere in Texas.

Jerry Elzner is clearly proud to have been awarded the Gratias Agit, and recalls his surprise when he was first notified about it.

"The Czech Embassy in Washington called me and I said, are you making a joke? They said, no, you're one of the awardees. I said, me?! And I started crying, I cried all day. I couldn't believe it. It's like a Nobel Peace Prize! And I said, my goodness!"

"I live on the Mexican border and there are mostly Mexicans there. They don't know what the Czechs are, so I teach them - jak se mas, kolace, pivo."

Ladislav Hornan: "I am very grateful. I'm also very proud personally; I feel that it's a nice achievement. I'm still a relatively young man and it makes it that much more interesting for me."

Ladislav Hornan, a business consultant based in London, is one of the people behind the revival of a school called The English College in Prague.

"A number of people in Britain after the Velvet Revolution decided that after the history of the school, and it had many well known people going through it before the war, it would be a good idea to start it again.

"And it had more history, because it was opened shortly after the war and then it was closed again under communism, in about 1950. So we thought it was a good idea to start English education and to help the Czech Republic in that way."

Among the non-Czechs made a Gratias Agit laureate is the remarkable John Reeves, maker of over 50 radio programmes about life in Communist Czechoslovakia for Canada's CBC.

"I used to work for the Canadian equivalent of Czech Radio as a radio drama producer. And in the years leading up to the Prague Spring the political sentiment in Czechoslovakia was changing a great deal, and in the forefront of that movement were many journalists and many producers and directors in the Rozhlas.

"And I became very interested in the work that was being done there, and I had many of the important scripts of dramas and documentaries smuggled out, sent to Canada, translated into English and broadcast on the national network."

As well as being a broadcaster, John Reeves, a former long-distance runner, is also a music composer and writer (he set two detective novels in Czechoslovakia). But there's even more.

"I also worked on the board of directors of Josef Skvorecky's 68 Publishers, which as you know was responsible for keeping good Czech literature alive through all those bad years.

Petr Bisek
"And I worked also on the board of the Jan Hus Fund of Canada, which gave moral and financial help to proscribed artists and scholars in Prague and elsewhere in the country.

"So now all these years later I've come back again and I feel very honoured to have my little pieces of work recognised by the Gratias Agit award. And I feel that while maybe some recognition has come to me, a great deal of the credit really belongs to the people in Prague that I worked with and tried to support."

Among other laureates this year: Vera and Petr Bisek, who have lived in the United States since 1965 and began publishing the Czech newspaper Americke listy in 1990. It is the most read Czech language periodical published outside the Czech Republic. Petr Bisek says there are many people in the US doing their bit to promote the good name of the Czech Republic.

"We have several individuals who are making the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, famous. It's not only Milos Forman and Martina Navratilova - there are dozens and dozens of highly educated people in science and the arts and culture who live in the United States and they are well known and respected.

Tomas Bata
"Sometimes they are even better known and respected in the United States than they are in the Czech Republic. For example the composer Karel Husa just came to my mind - he is not too well known here but he is quite well known in the US. Those are the people who represent [the country], and we are trying to inform our readers about these people."

But one man who the readers of Americke listy won't need much introduction to is Tomas Bata, the Zlin-born businessman who's Bata Shoe Company sells 300 million pairs of shoes a year in almost 70 countries. Before we leave this year's Gratias Agit awards, let's hear what the great Tomas Bata has to say about their importance.

"Well it means to me that there is a general feeling of responsibility to people of Czech and Slovak background living in the world. And that they would like to have some continued contact with their old country, and that it's appreciated.

"It's very important that they should be looking out for people who deserve honours, and to take action. I think this is a good start - they've been doing it now for about five years I think, and it's a good, not presumptuous and not opulent, start. And those things are appreciated."

Foto: Martina Hribova