Jiri Stransky - duty-bound to tell young generation about Communism

Jiri Stransky

Rob Cameron's guest on this week's One on One is the writer, film-maker and chairman of the Czech PEN club Jiri Stransky. Jiri Stransky's family was persecuted by both the Nazis and the Communists - Jiri himself was imprisoned by the Communists on two occasions for speaking out against the totalitarian regime. He's now involved in a project to teach schoolchildren about the injustices of Communism.

You were born in 1931. What are your memories of childhood in 1930s Czechoslovakia?

"I was a member of a very political family - my grandfather was prime minister at the time, and also the president of the National Assembly, and our honorary godfather was Jan Masayrk, he was a very close friend of the family."

It must have been a very unusual childhood, if your grandfather was the prime minister.

"Yes, but on the other hand he was a farmer. And as I loved farming, and as I loved horses, for me he was first of all not the prime minister. For me he was a beloved person who enabled me to communicate with horses on his farm. In a way I felt offended when we met [President] T.G. Masaryk. I was furious, because my grandfather - whom I loved - was a small, fat man, in a way ugly, and Masaryk was a tall, handsome, beautiful man. He wanted to shake hands with me and I refused because I was so offended!"

You were eight when war broke out. What do you remember of the war?

"As the whole of my family had for a long time been against Nazism, I remember feeling that there was a deathly danger around us from Hitler. All the grown-up members of the family were fighting against him. So that atmosphere was touching me terribly."

Czechoslovakia didn't have the chance to enjoy many years of freedom. The Communists came to power in 1948, and your family was again persecuted by a new totalitarian regime. Why was your family targeted?

"Again, it had it roots before the war. My grandfather was a member of a rightist party, and had fighting Communism in its programme. The exile government of Czechoslovakia, all of them were afraid of one party - the Agrarian Republican Party of my grandfather. So they wanted to get rid of this party, because this party could win the elections. They accused my grandfather of collaboration with the Germans, which was very funny, because not only his son-in-law, my father, but also his own son had been condemned to death [by the Nazis] and he had supported the partisans and people hiding [from the Nazis]. But [the Communists] arrested him and tortured him. He died. There was a big trial, which the Communist Party lost. These things they don't forget."

You were also arrested by the Communists and sent to prison - what was your alleged crime?

"My alleged crime was absolutely elaborated, it was absolute fiction. I was working in a nationalised advertising company, and one of the heads of the company wanted to build an illegal organisation. He asked me - as a member of the Stransky family - whether I would support it. But at that time my father was in prison and my brother was in prison because he was a correspondent for United Press, so I refused. They caught him and condemned him to death. He asked for mercy, and they said yes, but you must talk. And their fabricated story was that as a young man with knowledge of German - I was educated bilingually because one of my grandmothers was Austrian, I was sent to West Germany where I was taught to handle transmitters and attended a course in silent killing! But I wasn't aware of any of this of course. So they nearly beat me to death, wanting me to say everything, and I didn't know what. First I had to slowly get something out of them to which I could say yes, because otherwise it would have been the end."

You've often said you're not bitter at the blows life has dealt you - why not?

"Why not? Well, one of my books is called 'Happiness'. And I always had a lot of luck meeting the right people. And one of my first co-prisoners was a famous Czech poet called Jan Zahradnicek, who was a very crippled man but a God in poetry, whom I'd adored since I was a boy. When we met, he saw how full of hatred and lust for revenge I was because of what they did to me...I was just full of it. And he told me something which now, 50 years later, sounds like a phrase or a cliché. 'Jiri,' he told me. 'The sooner you get rid of your hatred and your lust for revenge, the better it will be for you. Otherwise you will be the first victim of it.' It takes time to adopt it, but at the moment you really do adopt it, it's a wonderful relief. And I must say the rest of my prison days were much, much easier."

You're heavily involved in a project by the Czech humanitarian organisation People in Need, called "Stories of Injustice", which is touring primary and secondary schools with films documenting the crimes of Communism and also bringing living victims of the regime like yourself to talk to pupils. Is this country's recent history really so badly taught that an NGO has to do the job the Education Ministry should be doing?

"It's not being taught at all! It's very sad of course. It depends on the teachers. Where they have young teachers, especially men, and that's rather rare, you find traces of some system in teaching that part of history."

What response do you get from touring schools and speaking to schoolchildren?

"There are of course some funny questions. But these questions are always, for me, something I can began with. They see the film, the documentary for example, and one of the first questions is 'Why didn't you do something against it?' And it's a good question because I tell them - 'Now you've proved to me that you're already so free that you can't imagine what it was like'. It's true."

Do you think a writer is better equipped to deal with the trials and tribulations of life, especially in a period as dramatic and traumatic as the 20th century?

"It's a matter of reflection, not a matter of force, or power. I always tell my children - it's also a matter of decision. The moment you have so many materials, even your experience, it makes you express yourself, to spread what you know. And as a writer, who knows better to articulate than others do, it's even your duty."