Jiří Stránský and others receive awards for perseverance under dictatorial regimes

Jiří Stránský, photo: Czech Television

One of the newer annual events during the commemoration of the Czech day of Democracy and Freedom on 17 November – the Memory of the Nation award ceremony – took place on Sunday. The Post Bellum historical society, which collects historical testimonies from first-hand witnesses of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, gave the award to four people this year.

Jiří Stránský,  photo: Czech Television
A full orchestra on stage at Prague’s Žofin Palác opened the star-studded televised event, to commemorate four people who had shown bravery and perseverance in the face of persecution and often unimaginably difficult circumstances they had to live through under the Communist regime or the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.

This year, a special committee, made up of historians, former dissidents and others, selected four people to receive the Memory of the Nation awards: Felix Kolmer, who as a prisoner in the Nazi ghetto in Theresienstadt helped others escape before being sent to Auschwitz; Dana Němcová, a well known dissident, spokeswoman for Charter 77, who in the face of harsh persecution from authorities continued to defend human rights; Jiří Stránský, a well known writer and the head of the first post-Communist Czech PEN club, who had spent a total of 10 years in prison and labor camps in the 1950s and later in 1970s; And František Wiendl, who helped almost 30 people cross the Czechoslovak border to the West after the Communist coup in 1948, and subsequently spent ten years in prison and working in uranium mines as a political prisoner.

Dana Němcová  (left),  photo: Czech Television
Filip Hrubý from the Post Bellum society says selecting the annual laureates is a difficult task.

“We don’t want to make these awards into a race. We don’t want to say that this witness deserves the award more than that witness, because basically most of the people whose stories we have in our database would actually deserve to be awarded. But, of course, for practical reasons, we can’t award all of them in one year.”

The recipients of the annual Memory of the Nation award are selected from the hundreds of people who were interviewed by members of Post Bellum society that year about their experiences during the dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century. Their testimonies are taped on film and audio mostly by volunteers, and are made available to the public via the society’s website, a mobile application and on a regular Czech Radio show Stories of the 20th Century. Post Bellum’s, Mikuláš Kroupa:

Felix Kolmer,  photo: Czech Television
“Stories of the witnesses of certain historical events or phenomena are an irreplaceable source of information. No other sources can offer the variety of perspective on these events, such as for example, 17th of November 1989. This project is also, in a sense, a mirror, which reveals a lot about our history and also poses one important question: What would we have done in their situation?”

Although the awards may be in a sense only symbolic for the recipients themselves, this annual ceremony, and the Memory of the Nation project are invaluable for the younger generation, especially as the memory of totalitarian regimes recede into history books. Filip Hrubý again:

František Wiendl,  photo: Czech Television
“We are convinced that telling these stories is the best way to educate society and the young generation about our history. Our former president Václav Havel used the motto which said that the society that doesn’t know its own history is doomed to repeat it.”

The full archive of the materials collected by Post Bellum is available in Czech and English at www.pametnaroda.cz