New book pays tribute to late Radio Prague broadcaster Olga Szantova


For many people, for many years, the Olga Szantova was THE voice of Radio Prague. Almost three and a half years after she passed away, a new book has been published in her honour. It is in Slovak, Czech and English and has the Slovak title Nezila som nadarmo, I Didn't Live in Vain. Radio Prague's former editor-in-chief David Vaughan was a good friend of Olga Szantova's; at its launch, he explained the thinking behind the new publication.

"The book was put together by Olga's husband Juraj. They had 30 years of very devoted marriage and it was his way of honouring Olga and her past, and the things that she'd achieved in her life. Partly I think he felt that there had been a lot of injustice in Olga's life.

"For example her father had died after being put in prison in the 1950s. He was a politician, a Social Democrat politician. And then Olga was thrown out of the Radio after the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968. For twenty years she couldn't work in radio, which must have been agony for Olga, because she was such a natural radio person.

"So there was a lot of pain in Olga's life and a lot of injustice and I think that Juraj wanted to put together something that would really remind people - both people who knew her and people who didn't know her - of what she'd achieved in her life.

"There are interviews with her, for example. There are people talking about, memories of her. There are various biographical episodes written by Juraj about her life. It was a very interesting life; she also lived in Africa for several years, for example."

She was born Olga Benauova in Bratislava in 1932. At the age of six her family had to flee Tiso's Slovakia, escaping to Norway. When that country was occupied by the Nazis, Olga's family fled to Sweden, from where they managed to get to America.

It was there she got her first taste of journalism, writing for Hlas mladeze, The Voice of Youth; it was the magazine of the Slovak National School of New York. Journalism was in her blood: her father Denizer Benau was editor of the New Yorksky Denik newspaper.

In 2001, when she retired as a full-timer at Radio Prague, Olga Szantova recalled her beginnings in broadcast journalism.

"Radio started as a coincidence. When we came back in 1946 my father was again very active on the political scene and got himself arrested in 1951. After that there was no chance of me studying at university. My studies had to be interrupted and there was no idea of my getting into any media, newspapers or radio.

"I was working in something called the Pioneer House. It was a kind of after school centre for children. Jan Dvorak from the American section came there to do an interview, and he discovered that there was somebody there who could speak very good English.

"So he introduced me to the staff. It took a terrible long time before I could start working in radio, because of my father's political problems."

Olga's career at the Radio was interrupted when she spent four years in Africa in the 1950s; her first husband, journalist Miroslav Prchal, was CTK correspondent for Ghana and the whole of English-speaking West Africa. Their marriage finished at the end of the 1960s.

The new book "Nezila som nadarmo" has been put together with great love and care by Olga's second husband, Juraj Szanto. Mr Szanto is himself Slovak and also a journalist.

"It was hard to write the book because I had to deal with the fate of Olga's father. His fate completely shaped the development of Olga's own life, and her personality. It was also difficult because I loved Olga very much and I had to write the book in such a way as not to offend those involved either in the first half of her life, or the second. I tried to write it for both relatives and close friends near to Olga, and total strangers."

One episode recounted in Mr Szanto's book is the 1968 crushing of the Prague Spring movement. Olga was soon afterwards thrown out of the Radio, but nevertheless she had some fond memories of that momentous time.

"Not of the occupation but of the broadcasting that followed. A group of us managed, thanks to the technicians - without them it would have been impossible - to concentrate in one building outside this main Radio building.

"And for practically two weeks we did broadcast from there the true story of what was going on. So that I think was probably the most glorious part of Radio Prague, of my career on it certainly."

There was a large turnout of former colleagues and old friends for the launch of the new book last week. Among those in attendance was Dora Slaba, who herself worked for Radio Prague's British English service for many years.

"We were great friends, because we had similar experiences during the war...different backgrounds but nevertheless somehow we were on the same wavelength. She also did these light programmes, she had a great sense of humour.

"She was a very good friend, a great person in supporting me when I was in trouble and vice versa - when she had a problem I could help her."

I must say I myself sometimes when I think about radio work and communication, and the best way to get ideas across to the listener, I think of Olga. What do you think it was about Olga that made her such a great broadcaster?

"I think it was dedication. She was so interested in what people were doing, and so interested in how to pass on that message to as many people as possible."

And I guess she wasn't afraid of being a bit cheeky sometimes, and asking a difficult question.

"Not at all, no. She lived for that I think. She really enjoyed doing that. And maybe even embarrassing people, especially the politicians."

David Vaughan began working with Olga Szantova after her return to Radio Prague in 1990.

"I worked with Olga for twelve years, we were colleagues in the English section and it was really good fun, in the early days when I first started and Olga came back. It was fun because she was full of energy.

"She was also a bridge to the past. Not only did she seem as young as all the young people who were there, in their 20s, but she also reminded us in some way of the best of the tradition of Radio Prague before the Soviet invasion.

"I just remember how much fun it was. For example when I got married to my wife Katrin, Olga turned up - well she was invited to the wedding - with her microphone. She recorded the wedding and the next week she had a programme, including extracts from our wedding, about the Anglican community in Prague. That was typical Olga, she was always able to make an entertaining and good story out of something."

The last year or more I suppose that Olga was working here at Radio Prague she was quite ill. But she seemed determined to keep working.

"Olga had been suffering from cancer for several years and it had come and gone. In fact it was the reason why just after the fall of communism she didn't become Czechoslovak Radio's correspondent in the United States. It was a great irony that just after the fall of communism here was this wonderful opportunity and she got cancer, just at that time.

"She recovered but eventually the cancer did come back, and she had chemotherapy on several occasions after that. She was one of those people for whom, the cancer was there, it was an irritation and she would not let it defeat her.

"She'd say, right I'm not feeling well this week, I can't come in to work this week, but I'll come in next week and I'll do more. And she'd come in and she'd carry on doing her work. It kept her going.

"At the time my own mother was ill with cancer as well and they became quite good friends, because they got to know each other at my wedding. It was very interesting because my mother had a similar approach to cancer, that it was an irritation, you couldn't do things but you carry on with your life as you can."

And when Olga stopped working full-time she kept going part-time. As if to keep her oar in - actually, not to keep her oar in but because she liked it.

"I think the very last programme she made for Radio Prague was about three weeks before she died. That was when she already knew that she didn't have much time. But she just took it for granted, she was a professional."

Olga Szantova passed away in August 2003. But she will live on in the memory of many - family, friends, colleagues and listeners - for a very long time.