Major online celebration honouring Czech-Canadian friendship in WWII planned for this October 28
Major online celebration honouring Czech-Canadian friendship in WWII planned for this October 28
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On the occasion of Czechoslovak independence day, the Czech Embassy in Canada is hosting a major online celebration this October 28. The event, which pays tribute to the Canadians and Czech Canadians who helped save Czechoslovakia in the Second World War, will feature several high ranking state representatives, celebrities and musicians from both countries. To find out more about the event and the shared Czech-Canadian history it is celebrating, I spoke to Czech Ambassador in Canada Bořek Lizec and began by asking him if it was true that Canada was the first power to recognize the Czechoslovak government in exile during the war.
“Yes. This is absolutely right. This was a time when Canada and Czech Canadians wrote, I believe, one of the most impressive stories of our mutual friendship.
“The prime minister of Canada (William Lyon Mackenzie King) was already critical of the Munich Agreement [that saw Germany annex the Sudetenland]. In March 1939, when the Germans had just occupied Bohemia and Moravia, Edvard Beneš was in Chicago and called on our diplomatic missions, embassies and consulates not to surrender their offices to the Germans. Our consul general in Canda, František Pavlásek, honoured this call. He was backed by the Canadian government and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, together with the local branch of Sokol, defended our consulate. That was the real beginning of the story I would say.
“The Czech Canadians then helped raise funds. They volunteered and served in the Czechoslovak army, as well as the Canadian army and helped us find support both from the Canadian government and the wider public.”
You were talking about the Sokols. I understand there was a relatively sizable community in Canada already by that time. Let us not forget that there is a settlement called Prague in Alberta. There were also more than 90 local Czech communities that supported President Benes when he was in Chicago. Could you tell us what the story of the Czech and Slovak community in Canada is? Did it get established already in the nineteenth century, or later?
“The community was created a little later than in the United States, simply because Canada was being populated a little later than the US. It began towards the end of the 1800s when the first wave of imigration arrived in the rural communities of Alberta. This is also, as you mentioned, how Prague in Alberta got founded in the prairies. Interestingly enough, and we will also talk about this in our programme, it was not founded by Czechs from Prague in Bohemia, but by people coming from Prague in Oklahoma in the United States. These were Czechs who originally founded a town there and then some of them moved to Canada and created this city.
“Actually this city’s story illustrates quite nicely that the Czechs coming into Canada were still very patriotic about their heritage, because even though their ancestors arrived decades ago to North America, they supported Edvard Beneš, fought in the First World War and did it all again in the next war. The Czech community in Canada grew significantly in the inter-war era, so the participation of Czech Canadians in World War Two was actually larger than during the first war.
“You mentioned the Czech communities. The local Czechs at that time created the so-called Czechoslovak National Alliance of Canada. The organisation grew from the first days of the occupation to 91 branches, which is quite impressive, it was created just two months after the Nazi occupation of Czehcoslovakia.”
I want to talk about the Second World War, but first I want to get to that one point you mentioned - the support for the creation of Czechoslovakia during the First World War. If I read correctly, there were actually members of the later President Edvard Beneš’s own family who were active in Canada at the time. Is that true?
“Yes. Actually, this is also quite interesting in terms of the Beneš family descendants, a story that spans over several generations. But back to your question.
“The brother of Edvard Beneš, Vojtěch Beneš, was very important for our statehood during both world wars. He was first sent by professor Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his brother to Canada during the First World War with the mission to secure Czech support for the creation of Czechoslovakia. He travelled from village to village, town to town and tried to explain the situation.
“During the Second World War, he packed his things and did it for his brother again. He visited all of the 91 branches across Canada. That would be one descendent who played quite a role and we actually show some unique footage of him from the time of the Third Exile (after the usurpation of power by the Communists) in our documentary, which is premiering as part of our programme during the celebrations. He was also one of the founders of Masaryktown in Toronto, Canada (Masaryk Memorial Institution), one of the great Czech institutions. I would say the Czech centre in Canada today.
“The other relative who was very important was the nephew of President Beneš, called Bohouš Beneš. He was his personal secretary and traveled with him, but also separately, to Canada. A note in this respect, which may be interesting to your listeners, his granddaughter's name is Mika Brzezinsky and she is a famous co-host of the Morning Joe show on MSNBC.”
We were talking about World War Two and it is important to note that it was not just support on the official level, but also practical support that the Canadians offered the Czechoslovaks. For example, Czehcoslovak pilots trained in Canada during the war. Could you tell us a bit about the support on the practical level that Canadians supplied to the Czechs and Slovaks during World War Two?
“This is actually a very good example of the big support that we got. Czechoslovak pilots were training in Canada with the RAF and then took part in the Battle of Britain and in other operations across Europe. We have some wonderful footage of these pilots here in Canada, as well as photographs of how they visited the local Czech Canadian communities across the country and enjoyed Czech dinner made for them probably by the local Czech women.
“Nevertheless, as you mention, the political support here was very important for the Czechoslovak government in exile. We mentioned that the Consulate General continued to function in Montreal. Canada then agreed to raise our diplomatic relations to the ambassadorial level. What highlights nicely the importance that Canada placed on our diplomatic relationship is that a very
“President Beneš also came to Canada in June 1943 on an official visit. I can say he was cordially received, since I saw the footage of it from the time. The Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King spoke incredibly highly of him in his diaries and we could say that they became personal friends.”
You actually honoured the Czechoslovak pilots earlier this year, by unveiling a commemorative plaque in Vancouver. I read a lot about Czech-Canadian friendship and cooperation from the very informative leaflet on your website that is very nicely designed and resembles a period newspaper. However, I understand that this is not all. You will be celebrating this past on October 28. So tell us, what is on the programme during this very important day in Czech history?
“Of course. I would love to invite your listeners to join us for this special programme which is an online celebration of our national day. On one hand, I am sorry that I will not be able to welcome the guests personally on this occasion, but it could also be an interesting opportunity for us to make the event available for more viewers.
“We will broadcast it live on our special website www.togethertovictory2020.com. The premiere will be on the actual national day, October 28, at 8pm Eastern Time. Therefore, I would perhaps recommend to your listeners in Europe that they join the viewing a day later on October 29.
“We will have fantastic guests. I am very proud that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be part of the programme too. From the Czech side we will have the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Radek Vondráček and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomáš Petříček. There will also be many representatives from the Czech Canadian community. For example, Tomáš Bata III., from the family shoe company whose story in Canada we will be celebrating and retelling. I would also like to mention the world figure skating champion, as well as very successful Canadian politician and ambassador, Mr. Otto Jelinek.
“I would also like to mention the programme will include Czech and Canadian troops who are currently serving together in Latvia, as well as Czech Canadian organisations across Canada.
“Last but not least, there will also be Czech music starts. I have to stress that I am really impressed with how they approached this project, because they will all be performing songs of the Czech-Canadian musician Jiri Traxler, sometimes for the first time in their careers. The famous Czech rock star, will perform a rock version of one of Mr. Traxler’s songs. Jan Vančura and the Plavci band will perform it in a country style. Ondřej Havelka and Melody Makers will perform it in its original form of the 1930s and Jan Smigmator will perform it in the contemporary swing style. Oh, and we will also have Marta Jandová with us.”
Very interesting. As for my last question I just wanted to ask: If I was a Czech traveling in Canada, are there any Czech cultural hotbeds I could come across in the country today?
“The community is relatively dispersed now, so it is difficult to say. There was a neighbourhood in Toronto which used to be the largest Czech agglomeration in Canada historically. However, there are also many Czech schools across Canada and there are Czech community centres across the country, for example the oldest Czech community hall in Winnipeg, or a camp which dates back to the 1950s in Quebec.
“A place that I would recommend to your listeners is the Masaryktown institute in Toronto, the one I mentioned earlier. We will show Alice Masaryk and Vojtěch Benes visiting this institute in our documentary film. Many dignitaries have visited this place in the past. The surrounding park includes a beautiful memorial to the victims of the communist regime. Finally, there is also a very nice Czech restaurant nearby.”
The online celebration can be viewed on the website www.togethertovictory2020.com The live programme is set to start on October 28, at 8pm Eastern Time.