Legendary gymnast Čáslavská and illustrator Sís among recipients of Gratias Agit Award

Photo: Miloš Turek

At a gala ceremony on Friday, the Czech Foreign Ministry handed out the annual Gratias Agit awards to 16 people, Czech expatriates as well as foreigners, who are promoting the good name of the Czech Republic abroad. This year’s recipients included former gymnast and legendary athlete Věra Čáslavská, Czech-Amercian writer and illustrator Petr Sís, and ballet dancers Jiří and Otto Bubeníček.

Photo: Miloš Turek
The Gratias Agit awards were handed out by Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek at a ceremony in the Great Hall of Czernin Palace – the headquarters of the foreign ministry. Speaking at the event, Mr Zaorálek said it was a great honour for him to meet this year's laureates:

“The recipients of the Gratias Agit award are people who are showing great confidence in the Czech Republic, in our culture, and in the current state of our politics. It is fascinating for me, because I feel that such confidence is showing us a way forward. That’s why I am so devoted to these people, their activities and their efforts to promote the Czech Republic and speak about it in a good way and I think it really present a commitment for the rest of us.”

Among the foreign recipients of the Gratias Agit Award for 2016 was Anca Irina Ionescu, a teacher, translator and promoter of Czech literature in Romania. After the ceremony I asked her how she became involved in the field of Czech studies:

“Well, it’s a very old memory. I fell in love with Czech culture when I was fourteen. It was actually my first trip abroad. At that time, Romania was under the communist regime and we couldn’t travel abroad much. My parents thought I should see some other countries and the first opportunity was Prague.

“Of course the impressions were great and I decided to study Czech. At that moment I already spoke five other languages, but Czech was something very exotic to me at that time. So I enrolled at the Czech department at the University of Bucharest and after that I dedicated a great part of my adult life to Czech studies.”

Lubomír Zaorálek,  Anca Irina Ionescu,  photo: Miloš Turek
Mrs Ionescu has translated 170 books from nine different languages, but she says Czech literature has a very special place on that list. She would like to leave a legacy of the most important works of prominent Czech writers for Romanian readers:

“I started with Karel IV, then I translated the works of Jan Hus and then Comenius and Masaryk. As for literature, I focused on Karel Hynek Mácha, who was not translated into Romanian at that time, and Karolina Světlá, the first Czech author of novels. I also authored a short history of Czech literature. I already issued the first two parts, which end with WWII, and if I have enough time I may write a third part focusing on the interwar period.”

Are Czech studies popular in Romania these days?

“Unfortunately, it’s not very popular, but it doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s one more reason to translate those important books from Czech into Romanian, so that they will be available for Romanian readers. I have recently also managed to translate Heretical Essays by Jan Patočka, whom I consider to be one of the most prominent popular philosophers of the 20th century.”

What does it mean to you receiving the Gratias Agit Award?

“It was a very big surprise to me when two or three months ago your ambassador invited me to the embassy in Bucharest and told me that I was about to receive this award. It was really a great honour and I was very much impressed, and I still am. I think it is even more than I deserved. I hope I will not cry…”

Among the Czech citizens who received the Gratias Agit Award on Friday was Avraham Harshalom, who was born in 1925 into a family of a Jewish government official in what was then Poland. When I asked Mr Harshalom how he ended up having Czech citizenship he told me he was “born again” in Prague while escaping from a concentration camp:

Lubomír Zaorálek,  Avraham Harshalom,  photo: Miloš Turek
“I escaped a transport from a concentration camp, from Buchenwald to Litoměřice, and on the way I hid in a coal train that arrived in Prague’s Holešovice station. We arrived at midnight and in the morning I saw a boy walking past and I asked him: can you help us and bring us some clothes? Because we still had the clothes from the concentration camp.

“He took us to his home, it was the Sobotka family, living in Argentinská street. His mother, Jiřina, cleaned us up in the bathroom and after a few days, they arranged for us to stay in a closed shop. We were hiding there for about two and a half months until the end of the war.”

Mr Harhsalom participated in the Prague uprising in May 1945 and took part in the battles on the barricades. After the war he remained in Czechoslovakia, acquired Czechoslovak citizenship and began his studies at the Czech Technical University. But when the Israeli War of Independence started in 1948, he took flight training in Olomouc and went there as a pilot.

The Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia prevented Mr Harshalom from returning to the country. He stayed in the newly founded State of Israel and did not return to his second homeland until after 1989. Nevertheless he maintained close contacts with his Czech friends and to this day belongs among the most active Czech expatriates in Israel.

“During the Communist regime there were no connections. I tried twice to go and visit but they wouldn’t let me. But after 1989 we established new relationships and I became the president of the Israeli Society of friends of the Czech Republic and I am active in building relations between the Czech Republic and Israel.”

Friday’s ceremony also included a moment of surprise – an unannounced performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Biblical Song by the Chilean singer Javier Arrey, who is a former pupil of Jiří Hanuš Stein, one of this year's recipients of the Gratias Agit Award.

Javier Arrey,  photo: Miloš Turek
Mr Stein, a singer and a music teacher, left Bohemia in 1939 following the German occupation and settled with his family Chile, where he dedicated his whole life to the promotion of Czech music. Mr Stein, who is nearly 90 years old, was clearly moved by his pupils' performance:

“It was a surprise. I never expect these things. And it was a big surprise that my pupil sang here. He has embarked on a great world career.”

Other recipients of the 2016 Gratias Agit awards were Aleš Bárta, a health professional who set up a medical centre in Kenya, the Bubeníček brothers, world famous ballet dancers who established their careers in Germany, legendary gymnast and a seven-time Olympic Champion Věra Čáslavská, Portugal based translator and a head of the Portuguese Czech and Slovaks Club Anna de Almeida.

The award also went to Vladimír Michal, founder of Artforum, one of the most important cultural institutions in Slovakia, Jana Rodriguez, a central figure of the Czech compatriot community in Havana, Petr Řehoř, painter curator and art critic settled in Finland, and Petr Sís, an internationally acclaimed author of children’s books, illustrator, graphic designer and producer of animated films.

The foreign nationals who were recognised with the 2016 Gratias Agit Award included the Prague-based Italian Carlo Capalbo, organiser of three running events in the Czech Republic, including the Prague International Marathon and Suren Tsatsral and Purevjav Tsenguumn, Mongolian entrepreneurs and philanthropists who established cooperation with a number of Czech experts and firms.

Photo: Miloš Turek
Speaking at the end of the ceremony on behalf of all the recipients of this year's Gratias Agit awards was a Czech born Canadian businessman Milan Kroupa, who supports various activities by Czech compatriot organisations and is one of the main sponsors of the Czech Studies Club, which finances student exchange programmes. He told me he regards these activities as a sort of duty:

“I do feel that when somebody is really lucky the way I was and has the ability to make enough money, there is a responsibility that comes with it. And the responsibility comes from the fact that I didn't do all this just by myself. There was lots of help, there are lots of other people who work with me, so I think that I owe this to the society.”