Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz: of unknown origin in a strange wood without leaves

Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz

This year’s George Theiner Prize, which honours people who have helped to promote Czech literature abroad, went to Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz. At the University of British Columbia she has devoted decades to promoting, translating and writing about modern Czech literature. It was also thanks to Markéta that many Czech playwrights, banned back home, managed to have their work performed on stages in Canada during the 1970s and ‘80s. She has worked just as hard to promote interest in the rich legacy of German writing from what is now the Czech Republic. Markéta’s own fascinating life story in many ways mirrors her interests, as we find out in this week’s Czech Books, with David Vaughan.

Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz in Park Hotel | Photo: David Vaughan,  Radio Prague International
At 89 Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz is still brimming with intellectual energy. She is modest about her achievements, but if you talk to former Czech dissidents, you can be in no doubt as to the huge role she played in keeping interest in Czech literature and theatre alive during the last decades of communism. Markéta was born in Liberec into a bilingual Czech-German family, but during the German occupation was forced to leave school at fourteen. Her father, who was Jewish, survived the Terezín Ghetto north of Prague. During her recent stay in the city to receive the George Theiner Prize, Markéta was confronted with an unexpected reminder of her father’s wartime trauma. The Park Hotel, where she was staying and where we recorded our interview, stands on the spot where in the course of the war tens of thousands of people, quite possibly including her own father, were gathered before being sent to Terezín. I began our conversation by asking her about this coincidence.

“It is a strange feeling, but the strange feeling came when I had already moved in. I came from the airport, they put me here in this hotel because it was near the exhibition grounds where the Prague book fair was going on. So I stayed here for three days without realizing, and then I found out. I also saw a plaque on the wall outside, which is not very easily visible…”

… and you can just about see it from here, across the courtyard of the hotel.

“Only last night I came and I saw the plaque, and I stopped – the sun was already setting – and I realized what had gone on here. I had been staying here in ignorance. They say ‘blissful ignorance’ but I would say rather ‘dark ignorance’. I know it now and I think: what am I doing here, coming from Canada and having a nice room here and walking around getting a big breakfast? And what was going on here all those years ago? Perhaps my father walked along this wall. I still shake when I try to summon memories which I don’t have and yet they are somehow buried in my soul.”

You grew up, as many people did in this country before the Second World War, with two native languages.

“Yes, I grew up with Czech and German. My father was completely bilingual and my mother also, but she had a German mother and a very Czech father. When I say ‘very’ I mean that his name was ‘Hrnčíř’ which is very difficult to pronounce for anyone who isn’t Czech, and my mother still made some mistakes when she spoke Czech.”

Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H13160,  Beim Einmarsch deutscher Truppen in Eger / CC BY-SA-3.0-de
People often talk about the connection between identity and language. As a child did you sometimes feel confused at having two languages or did you feel it as something that was simply there, natural and right?

“Well, I thought it was natural and right. There was no problem for me when I was a child, until my parents went abroad. There was the crisis and my father was a textile engineer and had to work somewhere else, namely in Romania, where there was a huge factory. I was with my grandparents and had to start school. It was a German school. Two years later my parents came back and we moved to Místek na Moravě. Then I wanted to get into the Czech school, and that’s where the confusion started, because my Czech wasn’t that good – I was seven or eight years old – so I was not accepted in the Czech school in Místek. I didn’t know what I really was. Soon came 1939 and a very hard time for our family, and I could not call myself German because I was not really German. The Germans would not have me because of my mixed background…”

… because your father was Jewish.

“Yes, my father was Jewish and I was, as one says in German, a ‘Mischling ersten Grades’.”

It’s a horrible term, defining you as a ‘mongrel’.

“Yes, a mongrel. My father was very upset of course. There was terrible fear, but he was also upset because of me, that I would be resentful or whatever. Not at all. I thought I had the best parents in the world and I would have died for them, even when I was that young. The confusion did not harm my love for my parents and my sense of identity. I thought I belong nowhere or everywhere.”

You’re talking about the time after the annexation of the Sudetenland and then the German occupation. You were rejected by the German state, but German was your language. It must have been a strange feeling.

“It was a strange feeling and I took the rejection as a sign that from now on we had to speak only Czech in the family. That’s what we did. It was an impotent gesture, but then I just spoke Czech and my parents spoke Czech. So the German went, in a way, undercover, because it was there in my childhood but I didn’t use it.”

But this loss of the German language didn’t last. You studied German and Czech literature and it has become part of your academic life.

“Yes it has, and the songs that my mother used to sing when I was a child and the poetry that I read, it comes back. I had suppressed it, but it’s coming back as I get older. I love the German literature and when I started studying Czech literature I read one of Havel’s plays, ‘Temptation’. I realized it was a Faust play, so I went back and read the whole of Faust and I realized how close I am to German literature and German poetry.”

What you are saying is interesting because in the decades after the Second World War Czechoslovakia was completely cut off from its German-speaking past, but there you were in Canada connecting the two, continuing to keep the connection between Czech and German literature alive.

“I also discovered the great writers of the ‘20s. There was Werfel and Roth and Kafka and various other writers. I realized that in the ‘20s the great writers, known all over the world, they were here in Bohemia – called the Bohemian Writers – and they wrote in German. That also made me realize how interwoven the roots are here. People ask me if my parents were born in Czechoslovakia and I say that they were born in the same town but they were Austro-Hungarians. In those days it was Austria-Hungary.”

It reminds me of one thing that you told me from when you emigrated in 1948 at the time of the communist putsch in Czechoslovakia. In your passport it stated “of unknown origin”, even though your family was from Czechoslovakia and had always been so.

“We applied to be able to go to Canada and my father got a passport. They had to give him a passport, because he had survived a concentration camp. But my mother and I – I was the only child – just got pieces of paper that said: ‘Markéta Götz – person of unknown origin,’ and my mother had ‘Helen Götz – person of unknown origin, living for a brief time in Czechoslovakia, is permitted to leave the country at these and these dates.' When we got to Canada the customs official said, ‘What the hell is this? What kind of piece of paper? Unknown origin?’ Then it was explained and that was that.”

That helps me to understand why it is that you chose to study Czech and German literature. Your country, your homeland, had rejected you, so in a sense, in the form of the literature and the cultural identity, you were taking your home with you to Canada.

Václav Havel,  Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz,  Ivan Havel,  photo: archive of Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz
“It was like that. The University of Toronto had English, French, History and Latin, and I thought, I’ll take German as well, because it was a possibility for me, as you put it, to come back, while Czech was like a lifeboat, thanks to which I passed the exams and got through. The other languages were very difficult because I had to learn them all.”

I’ve realized during your stay here, from talking to people who were dissidents in Czechoslovakia in the ‘70s and ‘80s that you played a very big role in helping to get the work of writers who couldn’t be published in Czechoslovakia out of the country and published abroad, drawing attention to a whole generation of Czech writers and in particular the playwrights, who readers back home in Czechoslovakia weren’t able to read.

“Ï felt that it was great literature and great plays, so I wrote one book that for me was very exciting. It was called ‘The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights without a Stage’, because they really had no stage. And so in Vancouver we put on some Czech plays, the ‘Vaněk plays’ as we called them. There were these three one-acters by Václav Havel, which have in a way really made it right across the world.”

You came numerous times to Czechoslovakia between 1974 and 1989. It’s remarkable that you managed it and they didn’t stop you, because you were going back and forwards, talking to dissident writers, helping them to get their work out of the country.

“During the time this crazy piece of paper that we had – that we were stateless – helped us, my mother and me. We were always asked whether we were Czech citizens, and we filled in these forms and said, ‘No, we were not Czech citizens.’ So those papers about being of unknown origin opened the door to go back and forth, because we were two innocuous women who were somehow stateless. So I was very careful when we came here. I always went to see the writers in the dark. I walked in, came to see them only when it was dark and walked around with a Czech paper, Rudé právo, underneath my arm. That made me a Czech walking around with a paper.”

Have you ever looked in the secret police files to see what they said about you or whether they were keeping an eye on you?

StB Archive | Photo: Czech Television
“It was around 1990 and I went into an office that called itself ‘The Investigation of the Crimes of Communism’, and they asked me what I had been doing. I told them, and the next day I had to go back and pick up a book or take a book there, and they said, ‘So you think you had never been followed here.’ And I said, “No, I don’t think I had been followed. I was walking at night, I took the metro and so on.’ And they said, ‘Ah, that’s what you think. And they gave me copies of five or six pages, where it said things like: ‘Mother left hotel at 11 o’clock. Object (myself) had left the hotel an hour earlier, disappeared into the tube, but emerged again. ‘ I didn’t notice that they said that I’d gone to the Klímas' or anything like that, so maybe they couldn’t find my tracks. The couple who were in this office said, ‘You can go to Pardubice and look into your file,’ but I said, ‘I won’t go. I lived through it. I’m just lucky and grateful that I wasn’t caught and could go on with things.’”

And what does it mean now to be coming back to Prague and to the Czech Republic? Does it feel like a homecoming? Times have changed so much since those strange days of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

“It was never like a homecoming when Prague was grey, because I felt as if I were in a strange wood without leaves. But now it is like a homecoming and I am so grateful for that.”