Mailbox - Tribute to Olga

Olga Szantova

This week's Mailbox is dedicated to our beloved colleague Olga Szantova, who passed away on August 8, 2003, after fighting a long and hard battle with cancer. The Radio Prague team would like to thank all listeners and friends for the numerous words of sympathy and condolences that were sent to us.

Letter to Olga from Rosie Goldsmith and Max Easterman


Dearest Olga,

It is impossible to imagine our lives without you - personally and professionally - and how can we come to Prague without seeing you? You were our dear friend and our dear colleague. How can we at the BBC make programmes about the Czech Republic - and Slovakia, your birthplace - without your contribution?

I remember the first time I met you: in 1990 the BBC wanted me to find an English-speaking Czechoslovak journalist to make a programme about life the year after the Velvet Revolution. I was told about you by a colleague But because the telephone lines were so bad in those days I couldn't talk to you much before I arrived. I decided to take a chance. We met in a studio at Prague Radio: you were wearing your favourite green, pink, brown and striped dress. Your eyes sparkled always. You were so pretty and elegant. I heard your American accent and heard your remarkable story about how you had - after the Communist years - now been able to come back to work as a journalist, your dream job.

But you were also strong-willed and feisty. You didn't like to be told what to do by me, a young journalist from the BBC: what did I know?! Olga, somehow I made the grade in your eyes, and we made several programmes together after that.

Now, in that first programme you and I examined the possiblities of the Czechs splitting from the Slovaks. Another BBC journalist Max Easterman was also there. Max...

MAX: I remember thinking, Olga, at that first meeting, that you didn't quite approve of me...what was it, I wonder? We went up to Prague Castle, with some University students, and talked about how the city was changing - a city that I didn't know at all well, and I got the names of some of the landmarks wrong. You were quite disdainful of me and quite right, too! But we muddled through that time, didn't we? And we parted as almost-friends. The next time we met in 1994, it was very different. I was making several programmes for a special Prague Weekend for BBC Radio 3: we walked round Malastranska, for a report on how the city's architecture was under threat. You were deeply sceptical about how the authorities treated the Czech people and their heritage. So little had really changed since the Communist times: the man in the street still had so few chances to participate. And you got really angry about that - not just the feigned vexation of the cynical journalist, but genuine, personal anger. Then, something quite extraordinary: you told me about what you did in 1968: how you'd been at the microphone in the old radio building on Vinohradska, telling the world about the disaster that was unfolding. Now, as it happened, one of the programmes I was making for the BBC was about '68...a snapshot in radio archives of events as the Soviets negotiated and reneged and their tanks finally rumbled into the city. I played it to you...and you went rigid as it ended, with the crackly, distant voice of a young woman, rolling across the decades, pleading for help and support for Czechoslovakia in its hour of need. And I saw you cry, Olga, as you realised it was your voice we were listening to: as you said...last out of Cesky Rozhlas in 68 - and first back in in '89.

ROSIE: Now as you know Olga, by 1994 Max Easterman and I had also made a professional relationship a personal relationship: it must have been all those trips to Eastern Europe for the BBC! Maybe it was the romance of Prague? And you Olga watched our romance develop like an eagle. Why wasn't Max marrying me, you kept asking?! There is a wonderful photograph of you and me at the Statni opera Olga in that year when you and I dressed up in our finest, and gossiped like teenagers in the interval about families and love and men. I know you would have done anything for me - and I for you. In 1999 we made our final programme together - to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the end of Communism. I wanted to make a programme about the growth of the sex industry in Prague. You didn't bat an eyelid - well into your sixties you were game for anything.

MAX: And as you know, Olga, your chiding of Rosie and me worked: we did get married last year. I think you finally approved! Our deep regret is that you and Jurai were unable to attend the wedding - we missed you then, as we miss you now.

A tribute to Olga by Rick Pikard, an American journalist who works at Radio Free Europe and has been a good friend to Olga for many years:

"Thoughts on Olga... not an easy task that. Think of how you would describe the many different facets of a great jewel. When I think of Olga, the word 'integrity' comes to mind first. That can be followed by other terms like back-bone, conviction and also humanity, but integrity comes to mind first.

She was a person with definite convictions about truth and untruth, and she had the integrity to stand up and say what she believed, although it cost her a job she loved -- and basically reduced her to the level of a social outcast in communist Czechoslovakia. So, here we had someone, who for the sake of truth was willing to forego career, relative prosperity, perspectives for interesting work. She didn't cheat, waffle or muddle through, creep or crawl. She didn't go with the flow "to make sure things don't get worse" like so many.

I think this is especially remarkable given the society, in which Olga was living -- Czechoslovakia -- a country in which self-serving collaboration had been perfected to an art form over the course of generations. All she would have had to have said was she was happy the Soviets had come to liberate Czechoslovakia from counter-revolution, and she would have remained on the air.

Instead, she called a spade a spade, and said it was an illegal occupation. What a remarkable thing to do, and what a heavy price she paid for the right to look herself in the mirror.

Another aspect that comes to mind was her humanity. Her ability to respect other people's positions even when they didn't mesh with her own. I'm a devoutly religious person, for instance. Olga wasn't a religious person. In fact, she'd been raised by a devoutly atheist father. And yet, she accepted the fact that I had different beliefs. She'd point out negative facts about the history of Christianity to me from time to time, surely. However, she was very right with the information, yet didn't ever offend or belittle my faith or the fact that I believe. I think she wanted to make sure that I kept things in perspective, and didn't just swallow what was fed to me.

Personally, I'd prefer an atheist like that over a fundamentalist "Christian" any day of the week.

Especially touching for me was when she knitted me a yarmulka -- the little skullcap worn by religious Jews -- so that I had one when taking part in cultural events at synagogues or in the Jewish Community of Prague. Think about that gesture: She wasn't a religious person herself, but she went out of her way to give me a present with a religious context. I will always treasure that yarmulka.

Olga was also prepared to be critical to herself. One aspect of the history she experienced that we discussed together was the period of the so-called vitezni unor -- February '48. Olga only ever hinted at what she experienced then. She told me honestly, however, that she had supported the communist takeover. She had referred to being young at the time, and I imagine, she felt she had been duped. Obviously, she hadn't foreseen the developments that followed, nor did she agree with them. Nevertheless, her integrity was such that she was capable of self-criticism. And that seems to me to be a real litmus test.

Letter from Geoffrey Hodson, a listener living in Norwich, England, whom Olga visited a few years ago:

Olga's voice and radio personality made an impression on me when I first heard her in the sixties, and I was delighted to hear her again when normal service was resumed after the Velvet Revolution. The English section of Radio Prague has recruited many fine broadcasters over the years, and despite the politics in the country (and probably in the office, too), your broadcasters have usually achieved that unique quality of appearing to be a friend talking to one person - each individual listener.

Olga was a superb broadcaster, a wonderfully warm friendly voice, and a unique accent mainly American with just a touch of Czech. She was very proud of the interviews she had made with prominent world figures over the years, and kept a collection on cassettes at home.

She had great clarity in her writing, always finding the common touch.

She came to stay with us during one of her trips to England, and it was delightful to see her unbounded pleasure in visiting the seaside. One spot on the North Norfolk coast will always mean "Olga" to us. And she was kind enough to invite me to stay with George and herself in Prague, and I had the privilege of seeing the city and the country with her wonderful family.

I hope there is some record of her eventful life: her family's wartime escape to Scandinavia, her schooldays in New York, and at the time of the Russian invasion being thrown out of the radio station and having to make a living selling vegetables.

Olga embodied for me what I admire about Czech people - fiercely independent, a quirky sense of humour, hospitable. I have missed her on the radio, but I know she was delighted that the English section has well and truly built on the work she and others developed in very difficult circumstances.

Goodbye Olga. Thank you for sharing your talents with us to the great credit of yourself and your country.

Geoffrey Hodson

Letter from Aidan Hamilton from England, who worked in Radio Prague in the early and mid 90s. He now lives in Brazil and still has fond memories of Olga:

"I shall miss Olga - and I can say it was truly a privilege to have worked with her. Selflessly she taught us, as 'radio apprentices', much more than we realized at the time. My deepest condolences to Olga's family."

Letter from Wendy Haller (now Drapac), a young Englishwoman (now living in Australia) who worked in Radio Prague in the mid-90s:

Olga was an amazingly determined and strong woman. She was a great character and the sort of person you assumed would live forever. It's a real shock. It must be very hard for her son, daughter and husband. I remember visiting her cottage and the many many lunch times that we shared together at the radio. She was always very nice to me.

Other tributes from Radio Prague listeners:

We must all now say na shledanou to a very courageous lady and enjoy the legacy of her good example. The latter is already apparent in your good self and in your current colleagues. She has survived many difficulties and, indeed, triumphed over much adversity. May her soul rest in peace and her influence prevail.

Bryan Warren

I would like to send my sincere sympathy to all at Radio Prague for the death of your much admired and respected colleague, who died at the age of 71yrs after her battle with cancer. Respectfully yours, Ron. Haynes.

I shan't forget Olga's contribution to your broadcasts over the years. In fact it was probably Olga's team at Radio Prague in 1964 that first attracted my interest in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic and the first letter I received then might even have been written by Olga herself, it was certainly written in her style. It was an answer to a question I asked about a report in the western press that the authorities in ÄSSR were putting a material into woven wollen socks in order to prevent them being unravelled to be reknitted into woolen gloves. I am sure I still have that letter somewhere, I shall have to search it out sometime. It is that attention that has led to an interest I have in CR, to the extent that I am currently trying to learn your language at a summer school in Olomouc. I am sure that there will be many such similar examples around the world that can be attributed to the work of Olga and her colleagues in the 1960's and other times at Radio Prague. She will be a loss to lots of people.

Yours sincerely, David Eldridge, London, UK