Ostrava-born Israeli man thanked for life-long dedication to furthering mutual relations

Chanan Rozen, photo: Martina Stejskalova

Chanan Rozen, who is in his late 80s, was the oldest person honoured last week at the Czech Foreign Ministry's annual Gratias Agit awards for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic around the world. For sixty years, Mr Rozen has been working to further relations between his native Czechoslovakia and Israel, where he has lived almost all his life.

Chanan Rozen,  photo: Martina Stejskalova
Chanan Rozen, born Valtr Rosenzweig in 1918, recalled his dramatic journey from Czechoslovakia to Israel two decades later.

"I was born here, in Ostrava. For the first 20 years of my life I lived in Ostrava, and only Ostrava - there was no money for travelling in those days. In 1939 myself and two of my brothers went illegally to the then Palestine, on a pirate ship. We finally got to the coast of Palestine, but we were convinced we were actually on Cyprus or Rhodes, until we found our older brother, who was one of the first pioneers there from Czechoslovakia."

Chanan Rozen's brother had been in Palestine for some years, and had acted as a guide there to the first president of Czechoslovakia.

"He left in 1926 and a year later accompanied Tomas Garrigue Masaryk on his historic visit to Palestine. He was the first head of state to visit the Jewish state that was then being built. That was the rebirth of the Jewish nation."

Czechoslovakia had been founded in 1918, in rather different historical circumstances. But Mr Rozen says he sees some parallels between the two peoples.

"There were symmetries in the fates of the Czech and Jewish nations. The Jews lived for a thousand years on Czech territory and they had good relations with the Czechs. It was especially good in the First Republic under Masaryk. He was the first statesman to recognise Jewish nationality - before that we had to declare ourselves either Czech or German. So, we really have many, many ties."

Not long after the state of Israel was founded in 1948, Mr Rozen set up the Israel-Czechoslovak Friendship League, an organisation which has since changed its name but which he still heads to this day.

"In Israel there are around 65 organisations linking Israel with other nations. And it is no coincidence that ours was the first to be established, by Max Brod and I. That was an expression of the relations between the two states and reflected the great help the Czech nation gave during the hardest days of our fight for independence."

The Max Brod he was talking about there is indeed the same Max Brod who was friends with Franz Kafka, and saved the great writer's works from oblivion.