Olga Hrubá: Supporter of Milada Horáková and campaigner for religious freedom

Olga Hrubá, photo: Barbora Kmentová

Olga Hrubá is today a feisty woman of 85. Way back at the turn of the 1950s she campaigned, from exile in the US, to save the life of her friend Miladá Horáková, a Czechoslovak politician executed by the Communists after a show trial. For the following four decades Olga Hrubá, along with her pastor husband, worked – with some success – to protect the rights of religious believers in Communist states.

Olga Hrubá,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
Olga Hrubá was born Olga Sedláčková – to a Czech father and Slovak mother – in southern Slovakia in 1927. However, her family’s situation became difficult when Slovakia became a Nazi puppet state and they moved to East Bohemia when she was in her early teens. It was there that she spent the war years before moving to Prague to study.

Today Mrs. Hrubá is 85 years old. I had the pleasure of meeting her on a short visit she made to Prague recently – her first in 11 years. She was staying on the city’s Jungmannová St. at the Evangelical Church-run Hus House (named of course after the religious reformer Jan Hus) and was slightly hoarse following a long evening surrounded by admirers after a talk at the Václav Havel Library.

Our conversation was wide ranging. But I first asked Olga Hrubá about her memories of the period surrounding the Munich Crisis of 1938, when the Allies sanctioned Hitler’s takeover of parts of Czechoslovakia.

“I was 11 years old and very patriotic. The Munich Crisis came as a complete shock. It was the first real trauma in my life.”

The following year the war began. What are your strongest memories of the war era?

“First of all, after Munich we had to move, and to start anew really. During the war I had to commute to school and it was very bad. At one time my parents were arrested by the Gestapo, because they were involved in underground activities against the Nazis. We were living on borrowed time, waiting for the war to end.”

What exactly were your parents anti-Nazi activities?

“My father was the director of a labour department in the district. He kept weapons. He organized help for families of prisoners. They were plotting all kinds of actions, but I was not involved in those. I knew really very little then.”

Were other people who worked with your parents caught?

Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 102-04051A / CC-BY-SA
“Oh yes, yes. Some were executed. I should also say that my father was also helping Jews, who were being deported. Most of them perished in the Holocaust.”

A few years after the war you met the man who would become your husband, Blahoslav Hrubý. Could you tell us a bit about him, please. I understand that he had been serving the U.S. army.

“Yes, my husband was a Protestant clergyman. He escaped and had a Czechoslovak church in Paris and organised help for refugees, again primarily Jewish refugees, there.

“He had to leave Paris when the Nazis were coming. He left on a bicycle to Marseilles, organised again, and then went through Spain to Portugal and there again organised action for refugees, helping them emigrate to America.

“Finally, he went to America. He started studying for his theology doctorate at the University of Chicago, but when war came he joined the army and was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, where he had the rank of captain. From Washington he went to London during the Blitzkrieg, as a contact with the Czechoslovak government in exile.”

And he was also involved in the liberation of West Bohemia?

“In 1945 he joined the army and came with General Patton to Pilsen. During the Prague Uprising he was sent to negotiate with the Czech National Council about Patton’s helping Prague. General Patton was ready to go on to Prague, but the Communist international council refused that, and let Prague bleed so the Red Army could come in victoriously.”

You mentioned that your husband was an ordained pastor. Were you also from a Protestant background?

“Yes, I was. My mother was a Lutheran and my father converted to Presbyterianism, so I was brought up a good Christian, very obedient. But at the age of seven I started my heretical life, so there was an irony in that I married a pastor and we had a good marriage for 42 years.”

You studied philosophy and linguistics at Charles University. What was the atmosphere like there between the end of the war and the Communist takeover of February 1948?

February 1948 in Prague,  photo: Czech Television
“I came there in 1946, joined the Academic Club and the National Social Party and was very active. I had visions of some political and academic activity, the future was very rosy, we were very hopeful. We were mostly hungry or undernourished, but the atmosphere was fabulous. Until February 1948.”

You left the country the following year, in the summer of 1949. How long did it take you to decide to leave the country?

“About two seconds. I was in a bad jam, here. Because I was active and I really acted in a silly way sometimes. I provoked the Communists, engaged in long discussions, was sarcastic – so they didn’t exactly like me. My husband came for a visit and proposed on the third meeting. I was ready to go.”

I was reading that you left the country legally. But I also understand that the Communists persecuted your family because you left. Why did they persecute them if you left legally?

“Well, it wasn’t quite legally. Because I did not announce my departure to the police. We were kept at the border for two hours, while the border guards checked with whichever Prague office as to whether they could let us go. When the foreigners on the express train started revolting because of the delay we were let through. That afternoon the police came for us here [at the Hus House], but we were gone, we were already in Nuremberg.

“And about my family, they were anti-Communists. Again they supported prisoners, and also information…they kept sort of underground. It was hard for many years after.”

Did you have contact with your family during those years?

“My father and my brother were not permitted to write to me. But my mother did. She was very foxy. She could put in a letter all kinds of things of information that I understood. I also had contact with many friends, schoolmates, and we could communicate in a way that the censors never caught.”

Milada Horáková,  photo: Czech National Film Archive
While she had been a student at Charles University, Olga Hrubá got to know a fellow member of the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party, Milada Horáková. She had been active in the anti-Nazi resistance and became a member of parliament in the brief period between the war and the Communist takeover of 1948.

In September 1949, she and around a dozen others were arrested on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. They were brought before a Communist court in a show trial reminiscent of those seen in the great Soviet purges – and, on 27 June 1950, Milada Horáková was executed in Prague.

Today, Milada Horáková represents for many Czechs a symbol of the nation’s suffering under the Communists, especially in the 1950s. But what was she like as a person? And how well had Olga Hrubá known her?

“Well, I knew her from the party, but not closely. She came with my husband’s friend to ask for help, shortly after our wedding. She needed to communicate with her friends abroad. And because my husband was an American citizen, he had access to the Embassy. So he helped her to get her correspondence and documentation across. She used to come here to our little dorm room and discuss the situation.

“She was a marvellous person, personality. She was my role model. I wanted to be like her. And her death was the second biggest trauma – it really changed our lives, my husband’s and mine.”

Was it the case that she came to visit you here at the Hus House?

“Yes, it was. She would come. But here we were already under the surveillance of six secret agents. The super in this building was an agent of the police, and let us know that he was communicating with the police. But he also made it clear that he would accept American products, like cigarettes, coffee, tea and whiskey. So we bribed him. We knew that as long as he derived some benefit from us he would not want to get rid of us. And it worked.”

How was it for you following the trial of Milada Horáková in the States? And what did you do yourself to try to help her at that time?

“We launched a widespread campaign asking people high and low to appeal for her. It didn’t lead to anything, because the Communists were completely immune to compassion.”

Olga Hrubá,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
I read that you even wrote to Gottwald’s wife.

“I wrote to Gottwald’s wife, appealing to her, but she wasn’t a very bright woman, and I doubt she got that letter. We wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, who answered in a way, and to Einstein. It didn’t work. It was a great disappointment that we could not save Dr. Horáková in any way.”

But while those efforts may have been a failure, Olga Hrubá and her husband Blahoslav Hrubý did achieve a lot on other fronts. They worked tirelessly for many years to defend the rights of religious believers in the Eastern Bloc and other parts of the world, publishing the journal Religion in Communist Dominated Areas (RCDA).

When Mr. Hrubý died in 1990, he was the head of the Research Center for Religion and Human Rights in Closed Societies, which monitored Eastern European states and helped persecuted Christians and Jews get visas to leave. The couple also championed Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 and other dissident groups and individuals.

“At first we were active in Czechoslovak circles. But following that campaign for Milada Horáková we realised that the Czechoslovak community abroad would not be able to achieve much.

“So we extended our interest to all Communist countries, and published documentation about their attitudes to laws and human rights, in translation and in full text. If we had comments or explanations, that would be separate, so everybody could compare and form their own opinions.

“Of course, for the Communists it was hard to deny something that Pravda or Izvestia wrote. So in that way we were quite successful. The publications went to 60 countries, to the Third World and elsewhere.

“There was a useful example in Indonesia, I think. There was some political trouble and the reaction from the Communists was very sharp against us personally. So we knew that we were effective.”

Were you involved at all in the circulation of illicit religious texts in Eastern Europe?

“Oh yes. We were sending Bibles and religious literature. But I would like to mention that we did not focus solely on Protestants or Christians We helped Jews and Muslims, for instance Crimean Tatars and Bulgarian Turks – they were wonderful people, they did not ask for jihad. That was very good cooperation.”

How did you maintain contact with people in the Soviet Bloc?

“Well, there were travellers. And once we were known in certain circles it was not that difficult. We were getting materials, sometimes we didn’t know where from. On one occasion we got secret papers from a meeting of the narrow circle of the Supreme Soviet, which we published to their great disappointment…”

Did the Communists ever try to take action against you in the States?

“No, they couldn’t. They didn’t have any base. But they tried… at one time the Czechoslovak Communists at the Consulate, of course they were agents of the StB, tried to persuade us to return, that all was forgiven, they would love us.

“This was at a point when they knew we were in a very tight financial situation after my husband’s open-heart surgery. That was scary.

“We were afraid that they could do something to us, especially to my daughter who was going to school. They knew where she was. We were afraid that she could have an accident, or be harmed somehow. But we survived.”

I believe you spoke to various committees at the US Houses of Congress. Were there cases where your testimonies helped individual people?

“Oh yes. Most of it helped. Because it was published in the Congressional Record, which few people read but the Communists read thoroughly. Of course they had to cover up… they changed their policies to many individuals, some of whom came to us when they got out and told us how it changed their sentence, or whatever.”

You received an award from President Ronald Reagan. Did you meet Reagan?

“Yes. He knew about us and we were in constant contact his office. He took us seriously.”

Reagan of course was a great fighter against communism. I’m sure you must have followed with interest events here in Eastern Europe in the latter half of the 1980s, which concluded with religious freedom returning to this part of the world?

“Oh yes, that was a very exciting time. But I knew from the beginning that communism would eventually collapse, because it is against human nature. But I did not expect to live long enough to see it. In the late 1980s I thought, well, the end may be near but it will be very bloody. So it came as a very happy surprise when everything was resolved relatively rapidly, and so well.”

Tell us about when you met Václav Havel, who had then, in 1990, just become president of Czechoslovakia.

“First a little introduction. In 1977, after the declaration of Charter 77, my husband testified, I don’t know whether it was in Congress or in the Senate, and he appealed for help for Václav Havel and Jiří Lederer. So that was our introduction to Havel – a long distance one.

“Then, the day after our return to Prague in 1990, on the celebration of July 4, we met in person. And a few more times after.”

How was Havel? How did you get on with him?

“We had lots in common, but we didn’t go into the deep stuff. But I was a translator and I translated some of his essays and so on. So there was lots in common.”

Václav Havel,  photo: Filip Jandourek
You were telling me this is your first time back in the Czech Republic in 11 years. How does it feel to be back here now, over 60 years after you left the country?

“Well, it’s surprising. There are lots of new things. There are many things that no longer exist. I am pleased with the development, considering the economic crisis. I see a certain stability. The people seem so relaxed and friendly. I’m enjoying every minute of it here.”