Professor Milan Fryščák – serving important Czech émigré organisations for many decades

Milan Fryščák, photo: Ian Willoughby

Professor Milan Fryščák is a leading member of the US-based Czechoslovak Academy of Arts and Sciences and has been closely involved over the years with several other Czech krajan organisations (krajan is a hard to translate word meaning essentially Czech expatriate). After leaving Czechoslovakia in 1957, he ended up in the US, where he still teaches Czech and Russian. At his office at New York University, I asked Professor Fryščák whether, given the languages he was teaching during the Cold War, many of his American students had gone on to become spies.

Milan Fryščák
“(laughs) Well, yes, this happened particularly later on when I was teaching a summer programme in one of the colleges in Vermont.

“There actually was one student who happened to be working for the KGB. He finally defected and committed suicide in the Soviet Union and he insisted on being buried as a colonel of the KGB.

“Apart from that, the majority must have been working for the western services.”

Did you spend spent much time in Czechoslovakia in those years? I know you were there just before the changes in 1989.

“This actually was the first time in 31 years, almost to the day…I was permitted to spend a year in Czechoslovakia.”

Did you feel change in the air? You must have.

“Yes, I felt some change, but the most surprising change was that some of the slogans…this was the beginning of perestroika and it was impossible to get Pravda or Izvestia on some days, the development in Russia was already underway. But in Czechoslovakia it was still Stalinist…but changes there were.

“The most important slogan was missing – the Soviet Union, Our Model – that was nowhere to be seen!”

You’re the president of the New York chapter of the Czechoslovak Academy of Arts and Sciences, the SVU [founded in 1958]. What exactly is that organisation? And what do you do in it?

“We plan cultural events, lectures, concerts, discussions. Now of course we have competition from the Czech Centre and other official organisations, but during that time, before 1989, we were the central organisation, for many years in Washington DC, and regularly – every two years – held a congress.”

In general was there in those days, and is there now, much interest in Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic?

“There was interest during the time of totalitarian regime…You know the regime was very, very clever in projecting an image that for instance could be seen in World Fairs like in Montreal in 1967.

“The exhibition in Montreal was such that after the Vatican, Czechoslovakia was projected as the most religious country…there were art objects and the Bethlehem manger and so on.”

And I guess you were trying to counter-act that false image?

“Definitely one of the roles that the SVU played was to speak about the aspects of the regime that were somehow hidden by the regime. Propaganda was very, very efficient.”

Czechs today who come to America or to New York are coming under very different circumstances. They can go back and forth as they like, they’re very connected to their home country by internet and otherwise. Do you think that young people today have an interest in taking part in krajan organisations, Czech expatriate organizations?

“This is a problem, that the younger generation is not as interested as we would like to see. SVU has to attract the young people who have a limited experience of what things were like 25 years ago.

“Naturally when they come here they are less likely to attend our programmes, which are not so interesting to them.”

Finally, what have you yourself gotten out of the experience, over the years, of being involved in several Czech organisations here in the US?

“I got tremendous satisfaction. I think the content of these activities fulfilled my attitudes, my connection to my native country. I thought that there was a very important role, through acquainting American society at large with the facts.

“And to point out the cultural content, to make Czechoslovakia as it was at that time a place where they would learn about Europe. The country has tremendous cultural interest for many people…I encouraged many, many people, not necessarily students in my classes of Czech, but also private persons who had an interest in some aspect of Czech life – culture, architecture, literature, drama, and so on.

“I worked with them and pointed out they ways that they could utilise and learn to use Czech for their work.”