Mary Hrabik Samal: An Agrarian odyssey

14th all-Sokol slet, photo: Linda Mastalir

Last week's 14th all-Sokol slet brought thousands of Czechs who now live abroad back to Prague, some as participants and others as observers of the gymnastics gathering. The daughter of Martin Hrabik, an interwar Agrarian Party member and activist, Mary Hrabik Samal now lives in Detroit, USA, and she was among the observers of the Sokol slet. In this special edition of Talking Point, Mary Hrabik Samal remembers what life was like in the 1940s and 1950s, when the fate of the Agrarian Party of Czechoslovakia was forever changed. When we sat down to talk about her family's history, she began by telling me about her relationship to Sokol.

Mary Hrabik Samal at the Sokol slet Photo: Linda Mastalir
"I come from a very patriotic family, and when I was a child going to Sokol was just as natural as going to school. When we were in the United States—where the Sokol movement is quite strong in Czech communities—I attended Sokol. My mother is very, very proud of the fact that she has a pin which attests to her fifty-year membership in Sokol. She participated in the 1932 slet, so [attending the slet in Prague in 2006] was a part of family heritage, and included a certain joy at the revival of something that is very, very Czech."

You have spent most of your life in the United States—you left Czechoslovakia as a very young child, and you belong to a family that has strong ties to the interwar Agrarian Party. Can you tell me a little about this family history?

"My father was very involved in the Agrarian Party. He comes from a small farm and for him, this was a way of helping his community and his village. He became involved in the Agrarian movement and he was asked by the leadership of the party to head the youth movement (the 'dorost') and he was an Agrarian all his life."

What happened to your father when World War Two broke out in Czechoslovakia?

"This is not well known, but a good part of the Agrarian Party activists went into the underground. My father, who had been the secretary general of the youth movement, had a cover-job: he was employed by some union of cattle farmers. This was very much a front, as he really worked in the underground against the Nazis. One of the Agrarian meetings was betrayed and they were all arrested, including my father. Later he was tried for high treason against the Reich in Berlin. He was very fortunate because not all of his activities were known, and some people in his group were hanged. Though my father had a very clever German lawyer, who said 'let's make him as unimportant as we can.' He received five years, and I must say, he served every last day."

The convention of the Agrarian Party in 1921, photo: CTK
Now when the war ended and he returned to Prague, what do you remember about your father's political activities?

"My father did not go back into politics after 1945. He said that this [immediate post-war] climate was not going to last, and that Czechoslovakia was going to become part of the Soviet empire. He was asked by all political parties, with the exception of the communists, to stand on their list for parliament, but he refused. He said that he had always been an Agrarian and he wanted to stay an Agrarian."

Why was loyalty to the Agrarian Party so important to him even after 1945? This was essentially a party that disappeared.

"Well, it didn't really disappear. It was abolished by the Kosice Program—it was outlawed, and to the end of his life my father carried a sense of injustice over this because the party was branded as a collaborator, but the reality is much more complex. A portion of the party stayed above ground and was part of the Second Republic, but many of its functionaries and its leaders ended up in the Nazi camps. And my father felt that all of this had been a great injustice, and he spent many, many years in exile trying to restore the honour of the Agrarian Party's name."

Let's return to February 1948. What happened to your father and to his close friends and associates?

"Well, my father found out from a gentleman who had been with him in the Nazi camps—and this man was, by the way, a communist—that there was a coup d'état and that my father was on the list of people due to be arrested. My father decided that he had tasted enough of Mr. Hitler's hospitality, so he wasn't going to stay around to taste what Stalin's hospitality had to offer, and he left the country on the day of the coup d'état. Many of his friends also left the country. My father's family comes from the border area, from a village between Domazlice and Klatovy, which is very close to the border, and he had a way of getting out. As a matter of fact, my aunt helped a lot of people to cross the border."

Now you were left behind with your mother and your two younger brothers in February 1948 when your father left for the west. How did you get out of Czechoslovakia?

"My mother managed, via connections with the family who lived in the border area, to find a gentleman who lived close to the border and was a friend of my aunt's. He agreed to take us over the border. My mother drugged my two brothers with sleeping pills, and she carried one of my brothers, the man carried the other, and I got a backpack and I was told to be very quiet, that we were going to see daddy."

You ended up in exile in France for a period of time. We know a lot about the history of the governments in exile during WWII, but very little about the Agrarian Party in exile in the immediate post-1948 years. What was that time like in Paris?

Antonin Svehla
"Again, it was a struggle for the Agrarians, a struggle to undo the injustices of the Kosice Program. There were many arguments with other parties, there was a lot of organizational work, but there was also a sense of trying to liberate Czechoslovakia. We stayed in Paris, France for three years while my father was very busy trying to liberate Czechoslovakia. After three years he decided that Czechoslovakia was not going to be liberated and that the family was going to starve and so we immigrated to the United States."

Let me return for a bit to the associations during the interwar era. The Agrarian Party is of course entirely wound-up around the name of Antonin Svehla, its interwar leader. Did your family have any close connections to the Svehla family?

"Not exactly directly to Antonin Svehla senior because he died during the early 1930s [in 1933], and my father was born in 1904, so he was a very young man. But my father knew the daughter of Antonin Svehla very well—Helena Svehla Cerny. Helena Svehla and her husband continued paying half of my father's salary during WWII while he was in prison, so that my mother would have something to live on. Of course later Dr. Cerny was also the leader of the Agrarian Party in exile, and after his death my father succeeded him, and they were very, very close collaborators."