John Bok: Eternal rebel who was Havel’s handyman then security chief
Communist-era dissident John Bok has some great stories to tell. His parents met in the UK during the war and his English grandmother joined them in Prague after the conflict ended. Indeed Bok’s first language was English and though his speech is idiosyncratic he still has a noticeable northern English accent. Like his parents, he fell foul of the Communists, especially when he signed Charter 77. In the 1980s John Bok served as Václav Havel’s odd-job man before heading his security team in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. However – perhaps in part due to his life-long rebellious spirit – he soon found himself frozen out of the circle around the democracy leader and was not invited to his inauguration as president in late December 1989. I spoke to John Bok, who is today 77, at our studios in Prague’s Vinohrady.
I’d first like to ask you about your parents. Czech dad, British mother. They met in the UK during the war. What did your dad do in the war?
“My father escaped to Poland when the Nazis occupied this country and he went to Krakow, where there was a Czech legion. On September 1 Poland was attacked by the Germans, so my father couldn’t get through the North Sea to England, because he wanted to go to England straight away, and he went to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union also attacked Poland, so from both sides.
“In any case, they preferred to go to the Soviets than to the Germans and in the war he was one and a half years in the Gulag, in a town called Suzdal, several hundred kilometres from Moscow.
“When the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union, the Soviets and western countries made a pact and in that moment the Czech government, the original Czech government, asked for some boys who were of the age to be in military service [to be released from the Gulag] – so my father went to Africa, by boat through the Bosporus and Dardanelles. And in the war he was fighting at El Alamein.
“Because there was a big need of pilots and so on for the Royal Air Force, my father joined the RAF and he flew with the [Czechoslovak] 311 Squadron until the end of the war.
“Though my mother didn’t work at the same air base as my father they met going to dances and going to pubs.”
“Even though my mother didn’t work at the same air base they met going to dances and going to pubs. In those years mummy was a mechanic working on Spitfires, repairing them.”
And then they came here after the end of the war?
“Yes, after the end of the war. I was started in Scotland. It was the last airport on the eastern coast of Scotland, I can’t remember the name now.”
That’s where you were conceived?
“Yes, outside, at the end of the airport [laughs]. It was cold weather… but they could die any day; life was different. Those war marriages – a lot of them ended in divorce, because it was a special situation with strong emotions. People lived from day to day, even though they didn’t think about that.
“So my father went to see my grandma. They lived in Leeds, with my granddad. And my granddad fell in love with my daddy. When he went with him to the pub for a beer, he introduced him like his son.”
What happened when your folks moved back to Prague? Your mum of course was English – when the Communists came to power in 1948 were they interested in her? Did they abuse him?
“Yes, very quickly. Mammy came a little bit later with me in her belly, because daddy landed on a [military] aeroplane, the Liberator. He then went to Pardubice because his family, my Czech granddad and granny and his brothers, were there. He was one of 10 children. And there they had rented a little house.
“But in the beginning he was living in Prague, the same area where I live now: Karlín. Only I was born in Pardubice, because daddy wanted me to be born in Czechoslovakia.
“After we lived for some time in Pardubice. But from that time, very early, even thought the Communists weren’t yet in power, my father was chucked out of the Czech air force.
“The other boys who flew with him during the whole war, Kudláč and Rybníček, the pilot and captain, had an air crash when they were leaving England on the last flight with Czech and Jewish refugees coming back to Czechoslovakia. Something happened. But my father was saved because they had chucked him out very early.
“Mammy came here in 1945 and I was born here. I had a brother, who was born in Karlovy Vary.”
But your English granny also lived here – is that the case?
“Yes [laughs]. We were with mammy in 1947 in England in Leeds. I remember it even though I was a very small boy. I remember that in Leeds there was a big artificial lake and there were these paddleboats and my granddad took me there.
“After the Communist putsch in 1948, after the changes, mammy was granny’s only daughter, or even child, so she sold everything. She even sold the house in Leeds. And all the money she got – even the pension after granddad – she sent to a Czech bank, and she moved here.”
That’s amazing to me. I think it must have been hard for the wives of the airmen and others, but for your mother’s mother to be here also…
“When my granny she found out in what kind of mess it was here, she closed herself off.”
“It was dreadful. What was funny was she knew only a few Czech words. She didn’t learn Czech. She didn’t want to learn Czech. And when she found out in what kind of – I don’t want to use a stronger word – mess [laughs] it was here, she closed herself off. Most of the time she was with the family. She didn’t have any friends. She was listening to Radio Luxembourg or the BBC.”
Did she use you like her little interpreter?
“Yes. To be honest, her only friend was my mummy. Mummy had quite a lot of friends. She learned Czech very well. She was an autodidact – nobody taught her.
“At the beginning she had quite a good job, but after, being English so from a capitalist and imperialist country, and my father being a Western airman, we were discriminated against from the beginning as a matter of fact.
“They were moving us from place to place. We started in Pardubice and then we were here in Prague a very short time. After we went to Karlovy Vary, where my brother was born – he’s three and a half years younger than I am. After they pushed us to Ustí nad Labem. From Ustí we went back to Semtín, near Pardubice. After that we were pushed to Tanvald, which was a Sudeten area. And from there we were pushed to Liberec [laughs].
“It was always said in our family that two things got harmed [by constant moving]: our furniture, and our education, because we didn’t find any roots in the places we were. We didn’t have friends for life. Normal children, when they go to a normal school, stay there for a long time.”
Was it the case that your mum was somehow pressured into leaving Czechoslovakia eventually, in the ‘60s?
“It was after all that happened. First of all, my parents got divorced. Like a lot of other Czech-English marriages it broke down, because it started in very funny conditions.
“So she another husband, Jaroslav Odvárka. He was a very easy man, only there was terror at home. One day – I was a little boy, I was nine or 10 – he started beating her and I went to the kitchen and took a knife and stood in front of my mummy and said, If you hit her again, I will kill you.
“He went to court. They wanted to send me to a ‘house for naughty boys’. So mummy took me to this place in Český Dub, which had originally been a monastery. When we were standing there – it was in spring I remember, because the cherry trees were white – suddenly three men were coming from the monastery.
“I said to mummy, I will commit suicide. I was a 10-year-old boy.”
“When they came to us and wanted to take me away I said to mummy, Mummy, I will commit suicide. I was a 10-year-old boy. Mummy just looked at the men and said, I’m taking him home; I don’t care what will happen. But nothing happened – it was so surprising.
“Mummy was an unbelievable person. Afterwards she worked very hard. Menial jobs – very lousy. And so when I joined the army, which was my national service… I didn’t want to go and was in mental hospital twice, but they found me quite not mentally ill [laughs].
“So in the end I went to serve in Žatec. Mammy was working in those days in a chemist’s shop, only washing pots; she couldn’t get a proper job.”
But she did leave Czechoslovakia?
“She left because she was quite fed up of the life here. She divorced from Odvárka, granny died and we were big boys: my brother was living with my father, I was living with mammy.
“When I went to the army… This was ’66 and it was a little bit liberal. I call it the ‘Novotný spring’. In those days Antonín Novotný was the president and a kind of liberalisation started. Movies, good books, little theatres – life started to be much more simple and you could choose what you wanted to do. There wasn’t so much political pressure.
“At that time mammy went to see the family in England, in 1966. She called me and [in the army] they said to me, How come your mother is calling from England? I said, Because she’s gone there on holiday. They said, How does she have the number? I said, Because before she was calling from Králíky. They wanted to accuse me of giving away the secrets of our camp [laughs].
“So mammy asked me if it would matter if she stayed in England – she was fed up with what was happening here. We were grown up. She also believed that if they let her go my brother and I would shortly come to see her. And after a short time she found a job and made some friends. She was happy, and that was that.
“Only she couldn’t come here afterwards, because the court made the situation complicated. They said that mammy had left the country without the permission of the Communist Party and that she had kidnapped her daughter, even though the father didn’t pay the alimony for her – nothing.
“So in this moment I said, Mammy, of course, it’s OK – I will live my life and so will brother, and I hope that soon we will come to see you, and perhaps even stay.
“Then 1968 came and in that moment I could go to see mammy, even though the Soviets had occupied us; I was in Yugoslavia when they arrived.
“Anyway even the next year they let me go and see mammy, and even in 1970 – that was the last time I could go. Then they took my passport and I couldn’t go any more.”
Say in the 1970s, when did the StB, the secret police, start taking an interest in you? When did you have your first conflicts with them?
“Oh, it was even before then, because even mammy was followed by the StB in Králíky. So that was my first contact with the StB. Actually before that, I remember, that my brother and I were living with my father for a very short time in Orlické hory, the Orlické Mountains, and there my father was taken away several times by the StB to Ustí nad Orlicí, which was the local district town. So they were my first kind of experiences.
“Once in front of us, in this village on the street, they attacked him and beat him up. And after they started to be interested in me.”
What form did the interest take? Or what was it about you that made them take an interest?
“When I was living in Ustí nad Labem it wasn’t so dramatic, because it was ’67, ’68 – it was just how it was. Only when I was in the army there was an StB inside the army called VKR, vojenská kontrarozvědka [military counter-intelligence] – that was a military StB.
“I was getting in conflicts with officers and military boys, because I had, as we say in Czech, a quick mouth.”
“So it was already there, because I was getting in conflicts with officers and military boys, because I had, as we say in Czech, a quick mouth. So in that moment it started developing.”
I saw an interview with you in which you spoke about the fact that you, unusually, would not let the StB into your apartment, that you had some method of stopping them from searching your place?
“Things started to be much sharper after 1977, when I signed Charter 77.”
“Oh yes. When I saw was happening to with my friends… to come back to your question how it was with the StB, it started to be much sharper after 1977, when I signed Charter 77.
“They chucked me out of my job. I was a postman on the railways. In the moment I started living with my wife – we’ve lived together 46 years and have two daughters and a lot of grandchildren – and I saw what was happening to my friends, how they were breaking down their doors, turning whole flats upside down, going in the underwear of their wives – I said I don’t want to have that.
“So I defended myself. I had a piece of metal and made two holes in the door and I pushed the metal to block it. And after that I put wood on the top and bottom of the door, so there were two sticks.
“And when the StB did come, banging and ringing, I was talking with them through the door. They said, We have the right to come into your flat to do a home search.
“I said, Fine, only I don’t see the paper. They said, You must open the door. I said, I won’t open the door, because I don’t trust you.
“There was this little spy hole. They said, You can look at the paper through that. And I said, I can’t read it properly. So it looked like fun, but it wasn’t fun – it was really serious.
“Then the StB told the SNB, regular police men, to break down the door. But they couldn’t get inside.
“After I offered this service to all my friends, but they said, It’s OK, we will survive. And I said, You love it, you love saying in public and in the West how they are horrible and breaking inside – only I defend myself.
“That’s because my family, my English grandparents, always said, and the English say it normally, My house is my castle. And you must defend your castle.”
You did maintenance work with the Havels, right? You used to help them out with their apartment?
“Yes, I was. For Václav Havel and Olga Havlová, and Ivan [Havel, Václav’s brother], who in those days was also living in that big flat on Rašínovo nábřeží.
“I couldn’t study so I did a lot of jobs. And during those jobs I learned from professional people, so even though I didn’t have an education I’m very clever now; I can build a whole house myself, doing the electric and water installation.
“The Havels knew they could trust me, because if they would hire some plumber, they wouldn’t know if he was an StB man.”
“So I was some kind of practical housekeeper. Because Václav wasn’t so clever. They were happy because they knew they could trust me, because if they would hire some plumber or anybody like that, they wouldn’t know if he was an StB man.
“So yes, I was repairing their things and installing things for Václav and Olga and Ivan and Dáša [Dagmar].”
You also had a perhaps surprising job after the revolution, or during and after the revolution – you were the head of Václav Havel’s security team, and you were unarmed. How did that work?
“That worked very well. When we were still at [early Velvet Revolution hub] U Řečických I was arrested for three days on November 17.
“I was on the demonstration [that sparked the revolution]. We were also on Vyšehrad, where I provoked people to go down to town and not stay there on Vyšehrad. I said we should say what Magor [Ivan Martin Jirous], who was then in prison, said: That is enough, that is enough.
“After they beat us in Vyšehradská St., in front of the Ministry of Justice, which was [laughs] typical. Then I was sent to Ruzyně, where I spent four days, holding a hunger strike. So I didn’t know what would happen later. I thought I would go to prison this time.
“But suddenly I was released. And when I got to Václav Havel on Wenceslas Square, at the Melantrich building, afterwards we would go to the gallery U Řečických; I have a picture of 20 or 25 of us there. I realised that Václav was walking home by himself at night.
“You know, the police and the StB had disappeared suddenly, but still we could meet some old Bolshevik who could meet Václav and start attacking him, because suddenly everybody knew who he was. So I followed him to his home every time and then went on to my home – and from that time I would pick him up in the morning. I was his first bodyguard.
“From that moment I started building more and more. And even though I didn’t have any special training – I had only been in the army – I started picking up people who knew martial arts: people from the university of sport, sportsmen who were doing judo and karate, and students of that school.
“I told them, No weapons. I said that we would defend Václav by pushing ourselves to the front. And that worked. I later told them, If you want to walk through a crowd, be kind; say, Be so kind, we must go.
“It was like if you remember in The Bible, when the Jews were going across the Red Sea, it was the same for us. We just said, Please, and the crowds opened up like the Red Sea [laughs].”
But then, it seems not so long afterwards, you were kind of frozen out of the group of people around Václav Havel. Is that what happened?
“Yes, you can describe it this way, yes. I already felt that something was happening.
“In the end most of the people who surrounded Václav had nothing to do with the dissent.”
“In the end most of the people who surrounded Václav had nothing to do with the dissent, with Charter 77. There was only Saša [Alexandr] Vondra, and that was all.
“So suddenly [Jiří] Křižan and all those people were there. Olda [Oldřich] Černý. All those people were from the so-called grey zone, so they were jealous.
“At the beginning, I stayed at Rašínovo nábřeží, where downstairs there was an office for Havel’s letters and so on, with Olga. I must say that I wasn’t paid for all this that I was doing till Václav got to the Castle with those boys; my friends were supporting me.
“During this time when all this happened I arranged… I had crazy ideas sometimes. And I said it would be funny if Václav went to and from the Castle in a Communist bureaucracy Tatra [car].”
It was like a symbol of the Communists?
“Yes. And at that time students came to Prague from Porto, in Portugal, and they brought Czech women roses from Porto, which was amazing. They were giving out roses to women on Wenceslas Square.
“Suddenly they came to Špalíček, which was the centre of Civic Forum, at the bottom of Wenceslas Square, and there I was introduced to them. And nobody was interested in these students. I was, straight away. For me it was unbelievable – they flew here bringing roses.
“They said, What do you need? And I said, If you could find a nice car, dark blue, and if it could be a Citroen, like de Gaulle had [laughs]. They said, We will try our best.
“They flew back to Portugal and they called me and said, We couldn’t find one. All we have is a Renault, and it’s not blue, it’s dark green. I said, Fine.”
“So I sent two of my boys from the security team. Somebody paid for them in Portugal – Czechs living there – and they flew there, had a shower, popped in the car and non-stop came back to Prague, the very morning when Václav went to the Castle.
“So yes, they chucked me out. I didn’t go with Václav to the Castle, though I was in touch with him.
“One day Olga Havlová met me… or met me: Her car was passing us when I was going along Národní třída with my oldest daughter Kristýnka and my wife. Suddenly this BMW stopped and Olga Havlova got out and said, John, you must go to the Ministry of the Interior – they are idiots there, they don’t know anything, and I know you know very much about it, so you must go there.
“I said, I don’t want to go there. She said, You must. Olga was Olga [laughs], so in the end I went there and worked there.
“I was the person who when President Bush, senior, came to Prague for the one-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution… It was on Wenceslas Square and I was sent there by the director of our office because I was the only person who spoke English. We did some kind of service for the security people of the president, who was staying in a big hotel in Dejvice.
“And in that moment I saw the rest of the people were jealous. They didn’t chuck me out clearly. They said that to get rid of old StB people, they had to do a reorganisation. And in the reorganisation they chucked out all of us and afterwards some were received back, even some StB people.
“That’s the kind of thing that happens in a revolution.”
We’re kind of running out of time, though everything you’re saying is so interesting. There’s one more thing I wanted to ask you about. Your kids are actors and your daughter Jenovéfa especially is very successful. Do you take a lot of interest in her career, or their careers?
“First of all I will say I have five children. I have three boys, which I had with three women, before I got married.
“Then I got married to my wife, my only wife, and we have two daughters, Kristýnka and Jenovéfa. From when Jenovéfa was very young she was very into ballet dancing; Kristýnka also, and she’s also an actor now.
“And Jenovéfa, from the age of six, started playing the violin. She went to gymnazium and after to the conservatory and in the end the Academy of Music – and last year she finished.
“So her original profession was music. She loves it, but she doesn’t want to be a soloist, because she knows from her colleagues from the school how hard it is: You get a lot of music, only less of life, because you must have promoters and everything.
“Suddenly she got into movies, because when she was young a student from FAMU saw how she was clever and funny. She was doing an animated movie and used Jenovéfa’s voice. From that time people started noticing her and now she’s quite a famous actress in this country.
“I know why both of my daughters are talented actresses. I had a Czech grandma called Eliška Boková. Her maiden name was Postlová and her grandfather and her daddy and her uncle were the owners of a travelling theatre. There were playing in the pubs, in town halls.
“And when my grandmother met my grandfather, who was a village teacher and doing amateur theater, they fell in love. Granny was so good that she nearly got into the National Theatre, only she met my grandfather. So my daughters are talented after my granny.
“Jenovéfa is now a mammy, a fresh mammy, three months. Elén is her daughter’s name and I forced them to give her the second name Josefína. So I have a granddaughter called Elén Josefína and I hope she will be the same as her mammy, Jenovéfa.”
Since the early 1990s John Bok has devoted most of his energies to Šalomoun (Solomon in English), an organisation that provides assistance to the victims of judicial wrongdoing.