Jan Masaryk Awards given to those who have helped to promote the Czech Republic abroad

Jan Pivecka

On Tuesday fifteen individuals and organizations were presented with the Jan Masaryk award, named after the first post-war Czechoslovak Foreign Minister and son of the country's founder Tomas Masaryk. The award is given to those who the Foreign Ministry feels have helped to promote the good name of the Czech Republic abroad, and recipients include both Czechs and others who have worked to support Czech culture and - especially during the days of communism - democracy. David Vaughan was present at the ceremony.

This was the fourth annual ceremony to present the Jan Masaryk awards. Since 1997 the majority of recipients have been people who helped Czechoslovakia from abroad during the twenty years after the Soviet invasion of 1968. Eva Krasnicka is the head of the Foreign Ministry's press department.

"Those people helped our nation in times which were very difficult for us, and we think that just the only thing we can do to say thank you."

Tuesday's ceremony was attended by the current Czech Foreign Minister, Jan Kavan, who himself spent twenty years in exile in London, and was a prominent supporter of Czechoslovak dissidents. It came as no surprise that several recipients this year were people who worked with Mr Kavan, or in similar initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic. One of these was Keitha Sapsin-Fine. In 1980 she set up an endowment in the United States, to support political change and human and civil rights throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

"The work from the outside was a pleasure and part of a life-long commitment. The connections that we were able to maintain between us over the years were extremely important, and the flowering that was then able to occur after 89 and 90, laid the basis for the revival of free Czech culture and free Czech academic life in the last decade, and that's been extraordinarily important."

This year's recipients of the Jan Masaryk awards covered numerous spheres of public and private life, and came from as far afield as Ukraine and the United States. For example, Nathan Karol Steiner has been working for decades in Israel to support Czech and Slovak émigrés to the country, and also to rebuild bridges with the Czech Republic and Slovakia; Larisa Solnceva in Moscow has devoted much of her life to promoting the Czech theatre in Russia. And another fascinating example is the entrepreneur Jan Pivecka. After fifty years abroad he has returned to his native town in Moravia, and although he is now well into his eighties, he has spent the last ten years supporting numerous local charities and initiatives.

"I returned after I had seen how important it is to do something for the future of our young people, because our young people are disillusioned and our young people needed somebody to be an example for them. And I think that such an old man as I am, saying how he lived and how he is optimistic about the future of our country, is important to be here."

The translator Ewald Osers has served the Czech Republic in a very different way. He was given the Jan Masaryk award in acknowledgement of nearly sixty years promoting Czech literature in the English-speaking world. He is one of the foremost translators of 20th century Czech writing - especially poetry.

"I like to think that I, by translating outstanding Czech writers, have done a little to enhance the reputation of the Czech Republic abroad, because Czech literature, especially of the inter-war years, was quite exceptionally important. If these people had been writing in English, they would be world names."

At a time when debate around the planned expansion of the European Union is leading to a gradual growth in mutual suspicion across the two sides of the former Iron Curtain, the Jan Masaryk awards are a timely reminder of all the bridges that exist between the Czech Republic and friends of Czech life and culture around the world.