In memoriam: Czech writer, filmmaker and ex-political prisoner Jiří Stránský

‘Doctor of prison studies’, photo: Motto publishing

Celebrated author, screenwriter and documentary filmmaker Jiří Stránský has died, at the age of 87. A former political prisoner, he led the Czech branch of the international PEN club after the fall of communism and later headed the state cinematography fund. He also dedicated himself to educating schoolchildren about the perils of totalitarianism – all the while nurturing an infectious optimism.

Jiří Stránský,  photo: Czech Television
As a writer, Jiří Stránský never had to look too far beyond his own life story, or that of his prominent political family, for inspiration.

During the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, his father was sent to Auschwitz but lived to tell the tale. After the war, his maternal grandfather, a prime minister in the 1930s, was accused by the communists of collaborating with the Nazis, and died not long after being tortured in prison.

Under communism, Jiří Stránský himself was arrested on bogus charges of spying, in 1953, and again in the 1970s, for speaking his mind.

He spent much of his first prison sentence, of eight years, working the uranium mines alongside other victims of Stalinist purges, clandestinely writing down their stories on tiny scraps of paper. A brave civilian smuggled the writings out, Stránský once told Radio Prague.

“The moment they (prison guards) found any writing, it was not only that they destroyed it, but you were terribly punished for it. … I felt as a duty that first of all I must somehow collect all those unbelievable stories and fates of people I met.”

After his release, he was obliged to keep a low profile but managed to start a fruitful career as a scriptwriter and assistant film director.

His collection of stories called “Štěstí” – happiness – was due to appear in 1969. The Soviet invasion scuppered that plan, and by 1974 he was again a persona non grata, and back in prison. Yet Stránský was not a bitter man – far from it. He explained “why not” in another Radio Prague interview.

“Why not? Well, one of my books is called ‘Happiness’. And I always had a lot of luck meeting the right people. And one of my first co-prisoners was the famous poet Jan Zahradníček, who was a very crippled man but a God in poetry, whom I'd adored since I was a boy.

“When we met, he saw how full of hatred I was, what a lust for revenge I had because of what they did to me...I was just full of it.”

“And he told me something which now, some 50 years later, sounds like a cliché. ‘Jiří’, he told me, ‘the sooner you get rid of your hatred and lust for revenge, the better it will be for you. Otherwise you will be the first victim of it’.”

‘Doctor of prison studies’, optimist, tireless educator

‘Doctor of prison studies’,  photo: Motto publishing
Denied the opportunity to study, Stránský liked to joke that he had earned a “doctorate in prison studies”. In fact, one of the many honours he received – the Memory of the Nation award, in 2013 – was for helping collect and preserve the oral histories of victims of communism, including other prisoners.

He also worked hard to educate others. In 2015, in recognition of work with schoolchildren, he was bestowed the Arnošt Lustig prize, awarded to people who had contributed to the nation – through their courage, humanity, or spirit of justice.

Jiří Stránský exhibited an abundance of all three attributes.

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, he took part in a panel discussion of former dissidents and young generations of activists, at Prague’s famous film school FAMU. Asked what needed happen to ensure a thriving democratic Czech Republic, he had this to say:

“Well, don’t ask me – I’m nearly 80, by God! (laughs). But there is a friend of mine who is 96 and he was in prison for 12 years. He was my ‘teacher’ in prison. And he said once, ‘We care about so many things instead of caring about each other.’ And I think that is what I would hope for.”