Jaroslava Moserova - politician, doctor, writer and translator - dies aged 76

Jaroslava Moserova, photo: CTK

The veteran politician, doctor and literary translator Jaroslava Moserova passed away in the early hours of Friday morning after a long illness. She was 76. Jaroslava Moserova was best known in recent years as a senator, but she also served as an ambassador to Australia, and was also a leading burns specialist - she was the first doctor to treat Jan Palach, the Czech student who set himself alight on Wenceslas Square. Rob Cameron has this look back on a life lived very much to the full.

Jaroslava Moserova made a deep impression on all who met her, not least inexperienced radio reporters taking their first tentative steps into journalism. When I first met her she was standing as an outsider in the 2003 presidential campaign - a female David standing up to two political Goliaths. She beat the first - Milos Zeman - only to be eradicated by the second, Vaclav Klaus. But while she was diminutive in stature she was, for many people, a towering moral authority.

Jaroslava Moserova was something of a renaissance woman. In 1955 she qualified as a surgeon, and spent the following three decades treating people with severe burns. After 1989 she served as an MP, then the Czech ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, then an active member of UNESCO, before finally becoming a senator. She was a writer and illustrator, and also the leading translator of Dick Francis novels - translating almost forty of his detective stories into Czech.

Jaroslava Moserova,  photo: CTK
Her professional and personal life was heavily influenced by the twists and turns of Czechoslovakia's dark century. But the defining moment came in January 1969, when she was working at the burns unit in Prague's Vinohrady hospital. She was called in to treat Jan Palach, a young student who'd suffered terrible injuries after setting himself alight on Wenceslas Square.

"I heard the news when he was actually brought in. And as you know I don't like to talk about it. He was fully conscious and he could talk. The first day he could still talk without great difficulty. And he kept repeating 'tell everyone why I did it' and we did try to tell everyone. And we kept telling him, that what he did was not in vain. It was highly oppressive, the whole situation. The fact that people that were not only giving up but also giving in, and the slow demoralisation was setting in. And that's why he did it - he didn't do it because of the occupation, but because of the demoralisation that was setting in. He wanted to shake the conscience of the nation. And he did - not only in our country, in many others as well."

Jan Palach's death had a profound impact on Czechoslovak society. The paranoid Communist regime tried in vain to erase all traces of him - even removing his remains from the Prague cemetery where he'd been laid to rest. But Jaroslava Moserova - who made the difficult decision not to emigrate from Czechoslovakia after the invasion - was determined to keep Jan Palach's memory alive, and in particular to preserve the motivation for his suicide. She tirelessly corrected the mistaken assumption that his death was "a protest against the Soviet invasion." It was, as we've just heard, a protest against Czech apathy, rather than Soviet brutality.

As someone who'd lived through both the Second World War and four decades of Communism, she was often asked for her view of the changes that followed 1989, when Czechs embraced democracy and the free market. That was a change which produced both winners and losers. Jaroslava Moserova made this eloquent comment about life before and after Communism.

"I usually use the comparison to a zoo. We lived like animals in a zoo, where we were sure of getting enough to eat, enough to drink, of having a roof over our heads, and of being relatively secure. And of course that our space was limited. Now, if you dissolve a zoo, it's always the predators who are the first to use the new freedom, while the more timid, defenceless animals have a tendency to hide in corners, and some of them may even think that it was better behind bars because they forget the stench and the loss of dignity."

Several years ago Jaroslava Moserova wrote the following:

"My credo was always to do what you have to do to the best of your ability, and not tell lies, especially to yourself. Of course there are times when you delude yourself, when you ascribe better motivations to your actions. There were only two occasions when I intentionally lied in response to a direct question, and I haven't forgotten them to this day. I was no hero in the dark days of our history, but I never betrayed my beliefs."