Jana Horakova-Kansky - still proud of mother's "enormous courage"

Jana Horakova-Kansky

This week, we speak to Jana Horakova-Kansky, daughter of one of Czechoslovakia's best known victims of Communist-era oppression, the democratic MP and wartime resistance hero Milada Horakova. Jana, Milada Horakova's only child, was just a teenager when her mother was executed on trumped up charges of treason and espionage in a 1950 show trial. Her father - who was also targeted by the Communist regime - made a daring escape from Czechoslovakia shortly afterwards, leaving Jana in the care of relatives. For years she was denied the opportunity to study, finally finding work as a dental technician. In 1968 she emigrated to the United States, where she's lived ever since.

"I was born in the period before the Second World War, and my parents were both very successful people. My father was a journalist, and my mother was involved in a social post on the Prague Municipal Council. They lived in Smichov, in a residential section there. Since they were successful, we had a housekeeper and I had a nanny. Which ended when the Germans arrested my parents."

During that idyllic period before the war started, was it a happy childhood for you?

"Oh definitely. Definitely a very happy childhood."

Your mother was a campaigning politician, a passionate advocate of women's rights, a resistance hero, a concentration camp survivor, and of course a victim of Czechoslovakia's most infamous show trial. But she was also simply your mother. What was your relationship like?

"She was a very caring person. When her time allowed, she was always present. I remember especially our weekends when my nanny was off, it was like a rule that on Sundays her father and my father's parents came for lunch. Later my aunt - my mother's much younger sister - came to the house too, and after lunch sometimes we'd go for a walk through downtown Prague, for ice cream or sweets and things like that. She tried always to be present. Of course sometimes she wasn't present physically, but mentally she was present 100 percent. So her life was really...now we would say 'stressful'!".

Your mother was arrested by the Communists in September 1949, when you were a fifteen-year-old girl. That must have been pretty hard for a teenager.

"Definitely. Especially when they actually came to our house to arrest her. It was really hard for me, because while they were there my father left the house. He wanted to warn her that they were waiting for her. But it was already too late - she'd been arrested in her office that morning. So I was alone there with the housekeeper, she was a wonderful person. After a while my aunt came. The whole apartment was under heavy surveillance. They started checking all the drawers, all the bookcases, you know. The next day I was allowed to go and live with my aunt and uncle."

Shortly afterwards your father fled Czechoslovakia. That must have been even more difficult for you to face all of this virtually on your own.

"My father unfortunately didn't have the chance to give my mother the warning, so he had no other choice but to stay away. He was helped a lot by my uncle and aunt, and by some close friends. So finally at the end of November [1949] he was able to cross the border to West Germany. He stayed there for four years because he thought it would be possible for us to follow him. He sent several 'walking agents' over the border to bring us over. But it was impossible. So when he realised that this is it, he left for the United States."

Were you allowed to see your mother when she was being kept in custody by the Communists?

"Just once. On the unfortunate date before she was executed. It was very difficult and very hard and...please, that's it."

What was running through your mind?

"What would run through your mind if something like that happened to you? It was sad."

Did the official persecution end there for you, or were you made to feel stigmatised by the Communist authorities for being Milada Horakova's daughter?

"I didn't notice that I was followed. I was followed, permanently. But I didn't notice it, because I simply didn't want to notice it. And my schoolmates, they were really nice. Of course among them there were people who were appointed to give information about how I behaved."

To the secret police.

"Unfortunately, some of them were my schoolmates. I learnt this lately - not at the time...The main problem was that I was not allowed to study."

Have you tried consciously to live your life according to the values that your mother instilled in you as a child?

"Oh sure, but, you know, I was never asked to join the Party or something like that."

You were never tested.

"I was never. Many of my colleagues were asked to join the Party, but I think what had happened was such a big thing that they didn't have enough courage to come and ask me. Of course maybe it was because the personnel in our clinic were so good. They were so many nice people there, that they probably sheltered me from that."

Was it - is it - sometimes difficult living in her shadow?

"I'm not sure if it is difficult. I am very proud of her. I know I would never be able to do the same thing that she did. But I found my own life, which fulfils me greatly."

Your mother will - if all goes well - be the subject of a Hollywood film, which is partly why you've come to Prague. Do you think a Hollywood movie can do justice to her story?

"I don't know if it will do justice, but I think it is definitely very important that the western part of the world knows about her case, about her courage, and about her dignity."

We're sitting in a café on Letna Plain, the park that runs alongside a street called Milada Horakova. How would you like her to be remembered?

"As a very extraordinary woman, with enormous courage, enormous feeling for human beings, and a very bright and light person."