The incredible story of the girl on the one crown coin

Photo: Czech Television

There were many cases of passive resistance to the communist regime that only came to light years after it collapsed in 1989. Reporters at Czech public television recently uncovered the story of a brave act of defiance that put the face of a young woman jailed for running a Scouts organization on the Czechoslovak crown.

Photo: Czech Television
Bedřiška Synková was an unknown name to the vast majority of Czechs until Czech Television’s reporters revealed that she was the anonymous girl on the old Czechoslovak one-crown coin that was in circulation for close to half a century. Had the truth emerged it would have put the author of the coin in grave danger. Bedřiska, now eighty-years-old and living in Switzerland, told Czech Television, how it all came about.

In 1954 Bedřiška Synková was just nineteen. She was running a Scouts organization in spite of the fact that it had been banned by the communists. They had summer camps, issued their own paper and, as Bedřiška recalls, waited for the time when the communist regime would fall.

“We weren’t doing any harm to anyone, that was not our intention, but we saw no reason to respect the ban on Scouts organizations because it was not clear why it was imposed.”

One day the communist police knocked on their door and led her away. She expected to be back by nightfall, but her life was about to fall apart. The communists charged her with treason and sentenced her to ten years in prison. While she was serving her sentence for treason –unknown to the hard-line communist authorities - her face adorned the country’s newly minted currency, flaunted with pride as a symbol of the success of the communist economy. In 1956 the regime wanted to introduce new banknotes and coins and called a public competition. The proposals flooded in. Among those who tried their luck was a young Czech sculptor – who later authored the famous statue of the Lidice children – Marie Uchytilová-Kučová. As chance would have it, Bedřiška’s mother worked at the school where the artist was employed as a teacher and shared her pain over her daughter’s imprisonment. Years later Bedřiška recalled that putting her on the one crown coin was Marie’s idea.

“She was so angry about what happened to me. She told my mother - bring me her photograph and I will try to get her on the one-crown coin. But nobody must know about it.”

Bedřiška Synková,  photo: Czech Television
Bedřiška’s mother brought the photo and the artist portrayed her in profile, a young girl with her hair plaited down her back, kneeling in the act of planting a linden tree –with the seedling in one hand and a spade in the other. She dared to offer it to the commission making a decision – and hers was one of a hundred proposals put forward. The commission chose a proposal that portrayed a metallurgist, but it was not to be. The then finance minister insisted on having the final word and after spending ten minutes over the proposals pointed a finger at the one picturing Bedriska.

Within a brief space of time the “traitor” of communist Czechoslovakia –who was still doing time in jail - was on the country’s currency, displayed with pride by the communist regime. Historians say that should the truth have come to light the artist would have faced years in prison if not lost her life for “sabotage and provocation”. Bedriška had no knowledge of what was going on at the time but when she was eventually released from prison the artist and the young woman met for the first time. She says it was a very emotional moment for them both.

“I could see that she was close to tears when she hugged me. I thanked her for what she had done and she gave me one of the first newly minted one crown coins from the minting press that she had received. I kept it in my purse, but then it somehow slipped into my regular change and I spent it!"

Thanks to her mother’s bravery Bedřiška did not have to serve her whole sentence –she was released after five years on the order of then communist president Antonin Novotny. Here is how Bedřiška tells the story:

“My mother went to the central committee of the communist party. She didn’t know anyone there but she spoke to some official in party’s administration saying she had brought a request for her daughter’s release. The man said this was not in his competence, but that he would hand it on. And he did –in the end it ended up on the desk of president Novotny himself who signed it, most likely without knowing exactly what he was signing. What worked in our favour was that the party leaders did not trust one another –there was fear of putting a foot wrong and they didn’t know if the person who brought it was somebody important. My mother told me later that she did it on the chance that it might work or again that it might not. And because they feared one another it did – by great good chance.”

At 24 Bedřiška was released from prison, but she was not cowed by her time there. In 1967 she was once again leading a Scouts organization. By then she was married and had a small son. However the Russian led invasion of Czechoslovakia dashed her hopes of a better life in her homeland. Together with her family she fled to Austria and eventually moved to Switzerland.

Marie Uchytilová-Kučová,  photo: Czech Television
The Czechoslovak one-crown coin that she graced remained in circulation until the division of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Its author Marie Uchytilová never lived to see the return of freedom– she died a day before the November 17th Velvet Revolution. For Bedřiška the communist years in Prague are now a distant memory but she says she will always be grateful to Marie and admire her courage for the risk she took for a then unknown person. She says that when they first met the artist had made clear the symbolism involved and why she had portrayed Bedřiška facing West –away from Russia.

“I was determined that the girl –the innocent girl –whom the communists had thrown in jail would be the one who would help build a better world –turned towards the West.”