Laureates of Gratias Agit award on the significance of their Czech heritage

Photo: Barbora Kmentová

Every year in October the Czech Republic honours those who have contributed significantly to promoting the country’s good name abroad. This year, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg bestowed the annual Gratias Agit awards on thirteen personalities from around the world to thank them for their work. On occasion of the country’s national holiday we bring you the thoughts and experiences of three Czechs who live abroad, but who never severed ties with their homeland and are proud of their Czech roots and national heritage.

Raymond J. Snokhous
Raymond J. Snokhous is the Honorary Consul General of the Czech Republic in Texas. For more than two decades he has been working to promote Czech heritage and culture in the United States, cooperating with a number of Czech-American organizations in Texas. He maintains close ties with the Czech Republic.

“My paternal grandparents came from Bohemia, from a place called Lutava near Třeboň and my paternal grandmother came from Magdalena which is near Třeboň. My maternal grandmother came from Ostrava, so we are half Bohemian, and half Moravian. And to tell you how proud we are about our heritage: I lost my wife in 1997 after 45 years of marriage and I met my Clarice two years later and she is very, very Czech. She is also half Moravian and half Bohemian. She is the pride and joy of my life and we got married in the Czech Republic. And this priest you saw me talking to, he was the priest who married us in the little village church in Magdalena where my grandparents were married. We got married on November 20th, 1999. We come back as often as we can and as I say, I feel so at home when I am here.

"And this is the thing that I have always loved about my heritage: the people that came from their country, it was under the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time – the people didn’t have any education but they had a very strong work ethic. They were very, very honest and their morals were extremely strong. And they had a strong belief in God. They were very, very devout Christians. And that’s really all they had going for them because they came into a strange land, the language was new, everything was strange and they had no money. And there were no handouts in those days. So they had to stick together and become very close. They took care of each other and they kept coming and kept coming. And the thing that they got from it was they could own land. In fact we had grants, land grants that they could participate in and own land. That was so unique because when they left the Austro-Hungarian empire, they could not own land, they owned nothing. They worked wherever they were told to work. There they had the freedom to work wherever they wanted to work and work as hard as they wanted to work and make as much money as they can and guess what? Today, they own most of the land in Texas. And that’s the truth!

Gratias Agit award
"They are very well off, their kids are educated, their grandkids are educated. My father who is a kovář(blacksmith), he didn’t have a day of education, he had to work to make a living farming. They had to clear the land, they didn’t have modern equipment. They had mules, everything horse-ridden and so forth. So nothing was easy. But they had resilience. Nobody can compare to the resilience of the Czech people. And to this day they have a reputation in Texas. If you say somebody is Czech, they’ll take a second look. They like them. Because people are always looking for good workers, honest, hardworking, people with good morals and Czechs fit that bill very, very well and they are also very smart people. Czechs are very, very smart. I’m not one of the smart ones, but I’m certainly one of them otherwise and thank God, thank God for that every day.”

Among this year’s laureates of the Gratias Agit award was also the Czech-born British composer and pianist Karel Janovicky, promoter of Czech classical music and former director of the Czechoslovak section of the BBC World Service. Radio Prague asked him whether before 1989 he believed that he would ever be able to come back from exile.

“Seeing what the situation was after so many years of the communist regime I don’t think anybody expected the regime to roll over and give up the ghost. So to answer your question honestly, no, I never thought I would ever go back. And when it happened, it was so sudden that in January 1990, which was barely two months after the collapse of the regime, I took three of my colleagues, in other words, the four of us got into my car and we simply drove here to see what was going on. And since then I’ve been coming back regularly. Of course, I couldn’t before, naturally.”

Karel Janovicky
RP: Is this a country that you like coming back to?

“Well, the first visit was a shock. Because after forty years of forgetting and not thinking of ever coming back, the fact that your memories suddenly come bursting in… I suddenly remembered where I did this and that and I suddenly heard the language spoken all around me. This was a tremendous shock to the system and when I got back after about ten days or so to London, I slept literally for two weeks. I just had a meal and felt drowsy, had to go to sleep and this went on for about two weeks. And then things settled down and since then I’ve been very happy coming back. Which shows that one should not be cut off from one’s own roots artificially. There is something wrong about that. It shows that one should go back and one should keep up with one’s own life. But apart from that – coming back here – of course, it is my country and I have a lot of friends here. It’s just a great pleasure.”

RP: Is Czech heritage something to be proud of?

“Well, absolutely, and it’s not only just that. I think myself and some of the other people who got that Gratias Agit reward today do this as something – it’s a case of giving back something that we received. I still feel that this is my country and I should give back what I got from the country, from my parents, from my family, from my friends.”

Hugo Marom was born in Brno as Hugo Meisl, a descendant of an old Jewish family. As one of “Winton’s Children” he arrived in Great Britain in 1939. He briefly returned to Czechoslovakia after WWII but finally settled in Israel where he served as an officer in the air force. A dual Czech-Israeli citizen, he speaks about the meaning of home.

Karel Schwarzenberg,  Hugo Marom
“A home can be described in two ways, right? One where you live and one where you were either brought up, you were with your family, your parents. It’s a difficult question to answer but I think that basically, I have two homes. A home which belongs to my origin, to the origins of my parents, of my grandparents, of my great grandparents, back to the year 960. My second home is in Israel. Not because of choice. Our entire family moved to America and I have relatives there who come from Albuquerque, they were already born in America, their parents left for America, nobody dreamt of going to Palestine in my family, they were all going west if anything.

"When Hitler came to power, it was a question where we were going to go. My mother said: we have to go because that madman is really going to do what he says in Mein Kampf, right? If anyone knows what Mein Kampf is – it’s a book he wrote about making Europe free of Jews, you know. And my father, on the other hand, who was a reserve officer in the army and knew his history of the Maisels. what does it mean they are going to get rid the Maisels? We have been here longer than most of the other people. So he would have to get rid of 10 or 12 million Czechs, right? So this was the argument until it was too late.

"We went to Israel for six months. We couldn’t come back because of the communists. We didn’t want to come back into a communist regime. My wife escaped from Russia, from Ruthenia. On the border, the Russians shot her mother and her brother in law and they could have gone to America through Hungary, Romania and so forth easily but they came back to Czechoslovakia and that’s where we met in the army and we married in Košice. So we came to Israel for six months and stayed sixty years. So it’s our home, we brought up our children there. We fought in the wars. And we didn’t consider the wars to be wars of religion. We considered them to be wars to attain the same type of democracy that was being lost here for forty years. Getting back to what we were brought up to under Masaryk to understand was a democracy.”

RP: Speaking of religion, earlier you said something very interesting about the separation of state and religion. How important is that?

Oleg Malevič,  Hugo Marom
“I think it’s one of the most important things in any type of community, never mind a state. In any type of community you make friends because you have something in common. And your religion is a personal issue. You are either an atheist, you can be Catholic, it doesn’t matter. We were brought up as semi-religious just like most of the Jews in Moravia and Bohemia. We were not super religious orthodox but we prayed every morning and every evening. And during the whole war I preyed every morning and evening. And we came back and we found no one here. So where is the almighty God? There is no such thing in my opinion. But that’s my personal belief. And if you believe, you’re a Catholic, a Protestant or a Buddhist for that matter or whatever else, that’s your personal matter. The question of belonging to a state is a completely different issue. It’s a country which I am ready to die for. It’s a country which I am working to improve the conditions of. It’s a country that I respected and expected to respect me. It’s a public issue as opposed to a personal, private issue.”

Photo: Barbora Kmentová