Promoters of good name of Czech Republic thanked at Prague ceremony

Gratias Agit-Preis

Gratias Agit is the name of the award the Czech Foreign Ministry hands out every year to individuals and organisations who promote the good name of the Czech Republic around the world. This year's laureates included everyone from the founder of the Israel-Czechoslovakia Friendship League to a Vietnamese Czech studies specialist.

The venue for the Gratias Agit ceremony was Prague's Cernin Palace, the magnificent home of the Czech Foreign Ministry. The awards were established in 1997 as a way of saying a formal "thank you" to those who work to promote the good name of the Czech Republic.

Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg told the assembled that while ministers and ambassadors did their jobs, the real picture of the Czech state was created by the very people honoured on Tuesday evening.

Chanan Rozen
Among this year's laureates were the late Irena Kirkland, who was born in Prague and worked tirelessly for human rights around the globe. She died in Washington in January.

Another awardee absent on Tuesday was the great film director Milos Forman, who had already received his award in March on his 75th birthday.

The oldest recipient present was Chanan Rozen, who was born in 1918 in north Moravia and has been working to further Czech-Israeli relations for almost six decades.

"I am still the chairman of the Israeli Society of Friends of the Czech Republic [formerly the Israel-Czechoslovakia Friendship League], which I founded. All contact between our two states contributes to the further development of Israeli-Czech relations, co-operation and friendship, which links our two countries and nations."

John Polasek represents the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Centre, one of two organisations to receive the Gratias Agit this year.

Charles Merrill
"It's a great honour...until lately I never was that interested, but we've put in a lot of volunteer time - and all our work is volunteer work, and we do it for our Czech culture. We want to maintain a record of what our grandparents came from."

Charles Merrill was born in 1920 and first came to this country in 1939. A noted philanthropist, Mr Merrill maintained ties with the country over the decades and following the fall of communism established a fund to send Czech students to his native USA. What does receiving this award mean to him?

Karel Schwarzenberg and Kerry Stratton
"I think it's wonderful. Outside of a school I started myself in Boston in '58, which I ran for 23 years...that school and this programme are the two most important things I've ever done. Also the two most expensive."

Kerry Stratton, who is from Canada, received a Gratias Agit for his work conducting Czech orchestras and performing Czech music with other orchestras around the world.

"Recognition, what could be better than recognition? It's not an elaborate answer. It's really touched my heart. And a surprise! A great surprise - I had no idea...I don't even know who nominated me. I don't know who to thank, so I thank the Czech people."

Photo: Martina Stejskalova