Natasha Dudinska - A Slovak Jew who swapped Prague for Israel

Jerusalem's Synagogue in Prague

My guest for One on One this week is Natasha Dudinska - a former Prague resident who now lives in Israel, but who recently came back to the Czech capital to do some research on an upcoming documentary on Prague's Jewish cemetery by the academy award-winning filmmaker Allan Miller. Originally from Slovakia with Jewish roots, Natasha first came to Prague in the late 1980s to study at Charles University. Like many students of that era she ended up getting embroiled in the events of the Velvet Revolution. I started by asking her what memories she had of those tumultuous events 15 years ago.

"It was an exciting time. I think you can only experience something like that only once in your life. [It started with] the year 1988. It was a very powerful feeling and we all thought something would happen. This is because in Czechoslovak history, years ending in 8 have always been very meaningful: 1918 saw the establishment of Czechoslovakia. 1938 brought the Munich betrayal. 1948 was the year of the communist putsch and of course 1968 was when the Prague Spring happened. So we were all thinking and hoping something would happen. And then in 1988 there were a lot of demonstrations. I think they started on 21 August on the anniversary of the [Soviet] occupation. After there were more demonstrations in January 1989.

Like so many other people I went to the demonstrations in Wenceslas Square. It was quite violent by our standards. It was only later that I discovered that there were much more violent demonstrations around the world, but it was violent enough for us back then. It was very exciting as well because there was something in the air that suggested we didn't care anymore. Even for people like me - who was not a dissident but just a normal student. Suddenly, I was going to demonstrations with other people who were not dissidents. It was like we felt that now was the time to do this. It was like some barrier had been broken.

So we went to the demonstrations and we were not afraid that we might get beaten or taken by the police. The atmosphere was very exciting in some ways. Of course it was also very frightening in other respects. For more than a year it was like it was boiling over. We knew that something was in the air."

Since the Velvet Revolution Czechs and Slovaks have gone their separate ways. Did you ever think something like that could happen?

"No I didn't think it could happen. Although [looking back] it had already started very early on in the student movement during the revolution. The Slovak students wanted to use a hyphen in the name of the country: Cesko-Slovensko or Czecho-Slovakia. So it was in the air. Maybe because of my Jewish origins or maybe because of how I was brought up. I was brought up as a Czechoslovakian. I never had the desire or need to separate. My identity was fully Czechoslovak. My family also felt like that. I was very unhappy [when it happened]. I felt like half of my body had been cut off. And in a way I also felt like I was now in double exile. As a Jew and as a Slovak living in Prague. It was very upsetting, but in a way it was inevitable. In a way it was like when a child wants its independence in order to prove that he or she can be independent. And then later on he or she can then have a very good relationship with their parents once more. So maybe something like that happened with Slovakia.

There was another disturbing element to the split for me and for a lot of - mostly Jewish - Slovaks in that it reminded them of the Slovak state of 1938, which was a fascist state with the same flag and the same symbols. So Slovak independence also had this other frightening element. We didn't know which way it would go.

I must say that Slovakia eventually proved that it could become a democracy. Because the citizens of Slovakia understood that their fate was in their hands. They realised that they didn't have to cry all the time about having Meciar as their leader and what poor creatures they were and they couldn't do anything about it as this was their destiny. They understood that democracy is about going to vote. When they realised this they went to vote and they got rid of him. But it took a bit of time"

You've since moved to Israel and, as you said, you are Jewish. How strong a role did that play when you were growing up?

"I was always searching. For as long as I can remember I was always looking for what it means to be Jewish, to be Slovak, to be Czechoslovak, and what was my place in the scheme of things, especially as I am from a mixed family - my mother's Jewish, my father's not. So this was always an issue [for me].

Jerusalem's Synagogue in Prague
Today, you know Jewish life is rich [here in the Czech Republic]. It's public and open. It's even become very fashionable. There are lots of young people exploring their Jewish roots. Even those who aren't Jewish have great 'philo-Semitic' leanings, which in today's Europe is very rare. And I think it is an expression of something that was missing in the culture. For 50 years or even longer, something that was an inseparable part of the culture for centuries disappeared. Completely. It was as if there were no Jews. It was as if there was no Jewish culture or no Jewish literature. There was nothing. Synagogues were closed. They were turned into factories and garages in the best cases. In the worst cases, they were destroyed. So in this respect, I can only say good things about the revolution."

This erasure of Jewish culture makes me wonder how a Slovak student living in Prague in 1989 with only a vague sense of her Jewish identity ended up in Israel?

"I didn't know I would end up in Israel. When I went for my first visit after the revolution... I don't know. I had some very powerful feelings on visiting that country. I had the feeling that this was my home. That was enough for me. When I think about it today, it was a totally crazy feeling but I think it was part of my search after the revolution: Where is my place? My country was not what it was because it had separated. I didn't know where I belonged. So many changes happened. It was not easy to digest them. There were very dramatic changes in this country... So this was part of my search and that's probably why I went to Israel. Of course, these things are very complex. I think I will never really resolve this question. Where is my home? Maybe its like the Czech national anthem. Kde je domov muj?[Where is my homeland?] I don't know. Everywhere and nowhere...

My last question is about the fact that you are now taking part in the preparation of a film about the Jewish cemetery. Could you tell me a little bit about the inspiration and story behind this project?

"I was very happy to be involved in this project because that cemetery was a very important part of my being in Prague during my studies. It was a very different place back then. Much more mysterious and powerful. It's still very powerful but it's got a 'Disneyland' element now.

The film is still in its early stages. It can go so many ways because the subject matter is so rich. Just imagine that the cemetery has been there for centuries. There are 12,000 graves there. It played such an important part not only in Jewish history but in Prague history and Czech history as well. So there are so many ways the film can go. In many respects it symbolises the relationship between Czechs and Jews. Czech intellectuals fought to preserve it in the 19th century when the city authorities wanted to destroy it and so on. So there are many aspects to this very special place. We would like to explore them and I hope the film will be interesting for everybody."