Jan Antonín Baťa always said he put his people first, says granddaughter Dolores Bata Arambasic

Dolores Bata Arambasic, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

The Baťa family – who built a shoemaking empire in Zlín, Moravia – were perhaps the most important industrialists in interwar Czechoslovakia. One of the best-known members of the family was Jan Antonín Baťa, who headed the firm after the death of Baťa founder Tomáš Baťa, his half-brother. After fleeing the Nazis in 1939, the tycoon eventually settled in Brazil, where he established four new cities. His granddaughter Dolores Bata Arambasic, was born in one of those cities, Batatuba. Today in her late 60s, she is a frequent visitor to the Czech Republic. When we spoke in Prague, I asked what were her strongest recollections of Jan Antonín Baťa.

Dolores Bata Arambasic,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“I have many memories of him. He was very tall. He was strong. He had beautiful blue eyes.

“He was kind of a personality. If he entered some place, you felt he was a personality.

“I never saw my grandfather arrogant. He smiled a lot. He was very kind and gentle.

“At the same time, he was a businessman with a very strong will.

“He was always very interested in teaching us things. For instance, he taught me poetry – how to make a poem.”

Did you speak Czech together?

“Yes, always. I used to live in one of the cities that he built, Batatuba. He built a little factory there that had 1,200 workers.

“At home we spoke Czech. And in my home Czech and Serbian, because my father was Serbian.

“And of course Portuguese, but more when I was at school.”

What kind of things did your grandfather tell you about Czechoslovakia and his life here?

“When the Czech pilots were in England he bought three Spitfires with the Czech lion, to give them pride, that they were flying Czech planes.”

“In our mind, in our feelings, Czechoslovakia was a very healthy and nice place to work.

“He would always say that they were his people and that he did everything he could for his people. They were in first place.”

“One very important thing he did was simply to be silent on some questions, because he was afraid that the Germans would kill his people in Zlín.

“When you read his books you get a sense of what he thought about his country. That they were competent people. That it was a small country but with a very, very, very rich history and very competent people.”

You mentioned the Germans. Is it the case that your grandfather helped to fund the resistance against the Nazis and also helped to fund the Beneš government in exile?

Jan Antonín Baťa,  photo: ČT
“Yes, we have a lot of documents that prove this. He had the factory here in Czechoslovakia, but he also had factories in England, France and Switzerland.

“He ordered them to put aside a certain amount of money to send to London for the Czech resistance.

“He also financed 800 resistance cells in Slovakia against the Nazis.

“Just one example is the amount of six million crowns that he paid to make this happen.

“Also when the Czech pilots were in England he bought three Spitfires with the Czech lion, to give pride to the pilots, that they were flying Czech planes. They served in the Royal Air Force.”

I was reading also that in 1947 your grandfather was sentenced in absentia for “the planned forced transfer of Czechs to Patagonia”. It sounds so bizarre – what does that even mean?

“That’s a lie. Let me explain. That was a mix-up that the Communists did on purpose.

“He was sentenced because he did not support the Czech resistance overseas. But there is no law and there never was a law against this.”

“He was a businessman and he was taught to build things for people. Like old uncle Tomáš. You know the history, and all that.

“So in those days, after the war, there were many, many people around the world without houses, without land – refugees.

“He was always a man who would work on some plan, to solve some situation. In those days there was nobody in Patagonia.

“So it was a possibility, if somebody would like to go there, OK.

“But it was just an idea. It was not a plan. And the Communists took it and twisted it to say so many stupid things about him. That was an awful lie.

“But he was sentenced not because of this. They tried him for 65 crimes and he was found innocent of all of them.

“But you won’t believe what he was sentenced for. We opened the file in 2007. He was sentenced because he did not support the Czech resistance overseas.”

So a total lie?

“A total lie. First because there is no law and there never was a law against this.

Batatuba  (the project 1941-1954)
“There was a Brazilian consul. His name was Dacio Coimbra, from Itamaraty in Brazil, and he was at the hearings and all that. He wrote about it and it’s a fantastic document.

“There was a testimony from one man, a Slovak, who spoke about the six million crowns.

“But what was the purpose? The purpose was that the Baťa companies here were nationalised in 1945. OK. But under the law, the government had to pay compensation.

“And the only way not to pay it was to confiscate his properties. That’s what this trial in 1974 was all about.”

Your grandfather built four cities in Brazil. You grew up in one of them as a girl. How was it growing up in a city built by your own grandfather?

“We felt that we were part of something that was good for people

“Of course I was a child. I left Batatuba when I was 16 to go to Sao Paulo to study. And after that my grandfather died.

“But it was a very pleasant place to live. Peaceful. A normal place.”

The Baťas are famously known as shoe magnates. Was your grandfather involved in the footwear business in Brazil, or in other businesses?

“When he came to Brazil he was invited by the president Getulio Vargas. He told him, Listen Baťa, come to Brazil and let’s make shoes.”

“No, he was first involved in footwear. Batatuba had a factory, as I told you, and they had almost 90 stores. They were making shoes.

“When he came to Brazil he was invited by the president Getulio Vargas. Getulio told him, Listen Baťa, come to Brazil and let’s make shoes. It started like that.

“The business was very good. But it was tough. Because of the blacklist and the lawsuit in Czechoslovakia. He had to make money.

“He had 300,000 hectares for which there was a project but the project couldn’t be executed because of all these problems.

“So on that land, in those places, he built the other three cities.”

I was reading that in 1957 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. What for?

“Because of this project of colonisation, under which many, many people came from outside, refugees and all that.

“He sent affidavits to Europe inviting people, for instance to Batatuba. They would have a place to live. They would have a job.

“In the first group that came there were 4,000 people, from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Belgium, France and Holland.

“These people had a place to stay. Some of them, those that wanted it, were sent to these places as part of this colonisation project.”

I believe you come quite often to the Czech Republic. How is for you being here, and where do you feel most at home in the Czech Republic?

“First of all, I feel at home in the Czech Republic.

“But when I go to Zlín, something happens [laughs]. Because I feel that I know everybody – they are my people, they are my friends.

“I feel like I’ve come back home. And it’s very interesting, because I’m Brazilian. I was not born here.”