Iva Drápalová: AP’s woman in Prague during the normalisation years

Iva Drápalová has lived through, and documented, some of the most important moments of modern Czech history. Cut off from her family at boarding school - and then university - in Britain throughout the Second World War, she picked up the English that led her to the job for which she is now best known. Having returned to her homeland, Iva Drápalová became the Associated Press’s woman in the Czech capital following on from the Prague Spring of 1968. Mrs Drápalová, now in her eighties, has just finished writing her memoirs.

“I was first at a boarding school in the south of England for three years, which was horrible. And then I was at Saint Paul’s in London for one year, which was lovely. And then I came to Scotland, and Scotland was so different – and you know what the difference was? One major difference was that, you wouldn’t realize it, but English people would say ‘oh, you foreigners, you are so clever’, but they know deep inside that they are the best. But Scottish people, they say ‘oh, we are the best in the world’, and then you have to respond ‘no, no WE are the best in the world, you are mistaken’ – and so you are on a level.”

Iva Drápalová lived in Edinburgh for two years, where she studied sociology.

“I had very good digs in the family of Mr Pauline. He was originally a sailor, and he had all sorts of tattoos on his hands, which was very unusual at that time. He had a lovely wife called Violet, and they always quarreled on a Monday. I always wondered why they were so nice to each other all week, and then they quarreled on a Monday. But then I found out that she did the washing on Mondays, which was still done by hand at that time, which was really tiring – and so that is why they argued.”

And how did you end up living with a sailor, because maybe that isn’t the most normal-sounding type of student digs?

“No, no, no. I better explain that my family was pretty close to the Masaryk family, and did quite a lot for them. And when I went to England, I was planning on going to boarding school there for two years. I was expecting to come home for Christmas. And I wasn’t in England a month before the war broke out and I was cut off from everybody. There were no letters, except from time to time, we were allowed twenty lines through the Red Cross.

“So I was there two years, and then the money ran out. The school came to me and asked me what I was going to do. And they would have turned me into a maid, I am sure, in that school.”

… But then Jan Masaryk came to the rescue:

“Then I remembered the last letter which came through which said ‘if anything goes wrong, don’t hesitate to approach Jan Masaryk, because the family has quite a few debts to ask’. So I told the school, and they approached the Czech government in exile. And the government in exile then approached the British Council.

“And in Edinburgh, there was a girl working for the British Council who was charged with putting me up somewhere, and she found me accommodation with her neighbours. So that is how I got into the sailor’s family.”

So was Mrs Drápalová frequently in contact with the Czech government in exile in London during the war? The answer seems to be yes, during her time at Saint Paul’s:

“There was a Czech House in Grosvenor Place, and my landlady didn’t really like me to go there during the blackout, which you can understand, but I did go from time to time. I listened to lectures, and Jan Masaryk was also there sometimes.”

And after the war, you never considered staying in Britain?

“I had all my family here, and I was, and am, very patriotic. When I came back to Czechoslovakia and there were all of these students who, for six years, had been unable to study, I was thrilled. It was such an intellectual climate – people would stay behind after lectures and discuss and so on. Well, that I hadn’t experienced in Edinburgh, I must say.”

You were away for six years, when you came back, had a lot changed?

“No, what really shocked me was when everybody asked me ‘why did you come back?’ People were really scared of the Germans, you wouldn’t believe it, but they were scared of the Germans. They didn’t believe that they wouldn’t come back, and they didn’t believe that they wouldn’t take revenge and so on. And then there were still the Russian soldiers here upon my return. There were Russian soldiers driving German cattle through Czechoslovakia upon my return. You wouldn’t believe it, would you?”

Shortly after Mrs Drápalová returned, what was then Czechoslovakia experienced a Communist coup. What did she make of the events of 1948?

“By then I was married to a professor of chemistry in Prague, who was practically immediately chucked out of the university. But, you know, it was a curious sort of situation we were in, which looks so black and white now, but it wasn’t that black and white for us. Because we still had this fear of Germany, and we still didn’t really trust the West. I mean, we did trust the West, and we didn’t. And we still believed the Russians had liberated us. We felt we were in the Russian camp – we were put there. We didn’t think we belonged in it, but we were put there by the West.

“I always remembered a friend who was a vet at the beginning of the co-operative farms. Now, this was extremely tough on the people involved in it, extremely tough on them personally. And he would say ‘what am I to do? I am against it, but am I to sabotage the screening of cows, to eliminate tuberculosis and brucellosis? Am I to sabotage that, or am I to go with them?’ So it was not that simple for people.”

What then ensued was the period of communist rule which is generally considered here to be one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history. The 1950s in the former Czechoslovakia are often remembered for their political trials and witch-hunts:

“My first husband was thrown out, and he emigrated to England, and then later to Canada. He left me pregnant here. And after five years I remarried. I married into a family where my husband’s father was sentenced to 17 years in jail, and my brother-in-law was in jail for 11 years. But even my mother, when I told her, would ask me ‘well, what did they do?’ We just couldn’t believe that you could be put in jail without doing anything. And so, she would say ‘well, I know that the sentence is ridiculous, but really, he must have done something!’”

August 1968
Come 1968, the climate had changed. Throughout the course of the Prague Spring, the world watched Czechoslovakia push through liberal reforms. Other members of the former Soviet bloc looked on with disapproval, and on August 21, Warsaw Pact Soviet-led tanks rolled in to put a halt to the liberalisation:

“I was happily translating books at the time, and my husband was traveling – it was just right after the invasion – to Brno, and he was sitting beside an AP correspondent. And they got talking. The AP correspondent was complaining that they badly needed someone to translate and to interpret, and that they couldn’t find anybody. My husband said ‘why don’t you approach my wife? She is the vice-president of the interpreters and translators union, she might be able to find you somebody’.

“So, he came to me, and I really tried, but what I discovered was that before the invasion, to work for a western agency – that was the thing. It was a very tight circle, they would not let anybody else in, because it was well paid, and prestigious etc. But after the invasion, these people got scared. A lot of them went with the correspondents to Vienna. The rest of them were holing themselves up in their country cottages, and nobody was willing to do it. And I didn’t want to do it either. When they called me up, I said ‘well, you know, I would help you, but I am really a housewife’ – and I could almost hear at the other end ‘I don’t want any bloody housewife’.

“But, in the end, I said I would go and help them for a week. I went to help them for a week, and I got hooked and stayed for the next 20 years.”

But what made you get hooked? What made you change your mind?

“Again, it was a question of maybe mistaken patriotism. I thought that it was still important that the West was informed.”

Could you, did you, have any idea of what the West was making of the things that you wrote?

“At this stage I wasn’t writing. I was interpreting, and when I read what they wrote, I didn’t want to read it even. Because it was always a little bit off. Whatever an American writes, it is always a tiny bit off-target. And I also had to get used to the different vocabulary, because over the years we came to learn the communist jargon, and even between ourselves, we knew what it meant, and it didn’t matter. But all of a sudden, I was suddenly confronted with this writing which was straightforward, and which called a spade a spade. Like, they would talk about the ‘invasion’, and then later on, people would talk about the ‘events’. So I had to get used to this straightforward talk, but at first I was a bit, not scared exactly, but wary. I had to learn to accept it.”

Eva Drápalová retired from the post of AP correspondent in 1988. But she hasn’t been idling since that time. She has just finished writing her memoirs:

“After I retired, I thought I better start doing something. So I started writing, in English, my memoirs from these years. I wanted to call it originally something like ’20 years with AP’ or ‘From Dubček to Havel’ or something like that. I did it very conscientiously, I took every single file I wrote at AP, and every chapter is based on things that I might not remember now – but things that were there. And on the other hand, I had gone to Pardubice and got my secret police file, which was 1,300 pages long. So, when I was writing, I had that AP file, and that police file, which I sort of put together.”

And why did you choose to write it in English and not in Czech?

“You’ve got to bear in mind that I am now writing these memoirs in Czech and I frequently have to look into the dictionary, because I have been writing in English for so long. And anyway, I had an English audience in mind.”

Iva Drápalová now lives in Prague, where she is in the process of writing her memoirs in Czech.