Jiri Jes - veteran broadcaster looks back on Czechoslovakia's dark century

Jiri Jes

My guest on this week's One on One is Jiri Jes, a journalist and broadcaster who still appears regularly on Czech Radio at the age of 80. Prevented from writing during the Communist era, Jiri Jes began his journalist career in the early 1990s, when he was already in his sixties. When I met Jiri on a snowy Sunday afternoon in Prague's Bila Hora district, I began by asking him for his memories of childhood in pre-war Czechoslovakia.

"We were quite a happy family, nothing bad happened at that time. My father was an architect; he built a very important part of Prague called Barrandov, which is now home to the film studios. He was a friend of Mr Havel, who was the father of our former president Vaclav Havel. They did many things together, not only in architecture but also in politics."

One of the most memorable moments for many Czechs is Munich, 1938. You were a young man then - what was going through your mind when you heard that the Sudetenland had been ceded to Nazi Germany?

"Of course it was the end of our dream. It was the end of our life which we were used to, and we saw that something terrible would follow. I once spoke to [the late writer and journalist Pavel] Tigrid and we agreed that it was something so terrible, because we lived by our state, by our republic, that we forgot everything that happened immediately after Munich, and only in March 1939 when the Germans really came and occupied our country we could again remember everything that happened."

What are strongest recollections of wartime Czechoslovakia?

Reinhard Heydrich
"Of course it was the so called Heydrichiada, the time after the assassination of the deputy Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich who was assassinated by two Czech parachutists sent from London. What followed - martial law - was something which was more important for my life than my imprisonment during the Communist time. Nothing happened to me, but the atmosphere of terror, of terrible terror, that anyone can be arrested at any moment and two hours later shot with his whole family, it lasted five weeks and was the worst time of my life. I also survived two air raids on Prague, it was very, very unpleasant and the last bombs fell very near our house, but nothing was more terrible than the time after Heydrich's assassination."

I suppose in 1945 your life restarted, after the end of the war. Where were you in your life? Were you a student, were you working?

"In the last year of our studies at the Gynasium I was sent to a factory to work for the victory of the German Reich, and I was there for one year. So immediately after the war I was able to finish school and I enrolled at the School of Economics in Prague. Then I worked very closely with the student movement. It was a political movement at the time, because the Communists started with it and created a political party within the student movement. So we - of the other opinion - did the same and the student elections were held in 1947. And we won the elections then - we were the only part of the population which was against the Communists."

Many people chose to flee Czechoslovakia in 1948 when the Communists came to power. You and your family didn't - why not?

"Yes, we didn't realise. Especially my father didn't want to go. We should have done it, because there was a very great danger and I felt it. Even before I was sent to prison for the first time I was arrested, and released again. Very often I met Milada Horakova, who was later executed by the Communists, and we said to one another that's it better to stay here, that something could happen in the very near future, the third world war perhaps would start, and we must be here to help victory from the inside, and so on. Not everybody could leave, but we should have."

How would you describe conditions inside Communist prisons?

"I think I was lucky enough because I was given the health qualification 'C' - the worst. I was very weak. It was much better than during the German occupation, the Communists took into account that I was not healthy. So I spent all five years under a roof, not in the camps, in better conditions especially in Prague's Pankrac prison and Valdice prison, a special prison here which today is a very hard prison but at that time was for ill prisoners. So my conditions weren't so bad, but psychologically it was perhaps worse, because you had no contact with the outside world, no movement in the nature etc, so you spent the whole time under a roof and in your cell."

You became a journalist after 1989, after the fall of Communism, when you were in your sixties. Was it difficult starting a new career so late in life?

Jiri Jes,  photo: CTK
"No, I can't say it was difficult. Immediately I found some people whom I didn't know before, who were very friendly to me and said - so come with something because they [Czech Radio] needed lots of things in this new time. So I was full of everything, of thinking, of experience, of everything, and I was so diligent! You cannot imagine how hard I worked! I was writing four or five commentaries a week, and some discussions and dialogues and I don't know what else, so really it was a passion. Then of course it was weaker and weaker, but when Radio Free Europe came to Prague, I was invited to work with them and it repeated. And I think there was a very good response from the listeners; there were many, many letters sent to me from all over the country and from outside, from Germany. This station was very well heard, I got some letters from Sweden for example. I heard myself when I was in Scotland - I heard my voice coming from Prague, so it was a very, very nice time. I've had thousands of commentaries, I think, and hundreds of dialogues on the radio in these last fifteen years."