Woman who helped bring Czechoslovak dissident literature to West dies at 95
Translator, writer and tireless promoter of Czech literature Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz passed away at the age of 95 in Vancouver on Sunday. During the 1970s and ‘80s, she became a crucial link for Czechoslovak dissidents with the West, smuggling forbidden books into Czechoslovakia and in turn smuggling dissident literature out of the country, helping to bring it into the Western consciousness.
Born into a Czech-German-Jewish family in the First Republic, Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz lived through the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, World War II, and the Communist takeover in 1948, before she and her parents emigrated to Canada. She was born on 15 February 1927 in Liberec and grew up in a bilingual environment.
“I grew up with Czech and German. My father was completely bilingual and my mother also, but she had a German mother and a very Czech father. When I say ‘very’ I mean that his name was ‘Hrnčíř’ which is very difficult to pronounce for anyone who isn’t Czech.”
Despite her multilingual upbringing, Goetz-Stankiewicz said that during the late 1930s when her family lived in Místek (nowadays part of Frýdek-Místek) in northern Moravia, with tensions rising between the Czech and German communities in Czechoslovakia, she wasn’t quite sure where she fitted in when she was growing up.
“I wanted to get into the Czech school, and that’s where the confusion started, because my Czech wasn’t that good – I was seven or eight years old – so I was not accepted into the Czech school in Místek.
“I took the rejection as a sign that from now on we had to speak only Czech in the family. It was an impotent gesture, but that’s what we did. So the German went, in a way, undercover, because I didn’t use it.
“I didn’t know what I really was. Soon came 1939 and a very hard time for our family, and I could not call myself German because I was not really German.”
Her father was interned in Terezín between 1944 and 1945 but thankfully survived – although the rest of his family: his parents, sister, and cousin – were not so lucky. In September 1948, after the Communist takeover, the family was able to leave Czechoslovakia and eventually they settled in Canada.
“We applied to be able to go to Canada and my father got a passport. They had to give him a passport, because he had survived a concentration camp. But my mother and I just got pieces of paper that said: ‘Markéta Götz – person of unknown origin,’ and my mother had ‘Helen Götz – person of unknown origin, living for a brief time in Czechoslovakia, is permitted to leave the country at these and these dates.' When we got to Canada the customs official said, ‘What the hell is this? Unknown origin?’”
Goetz-Stankiewicz studied literature and history at university in Canada and eventually became professor of German studies and comparative literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. In an interview for Radio Prague in 2016, she talked about regaining her love of German literature.
“I had suppressed it, but it’s coming back as I get older. I love German literature and when I started studying Czech literature, I read one of Havel’s plays, ‘Temptation’. I realized it was a Faust play, so I went back and read the whole of Faust and I realized how close I am to German literature and German poetry.
“I realized that in the ‘20s the great writers, known all over the world, they were here in Bohemia – called the Bohemian Writers – and they wrote in German. That also made me realize how interwoven the roots are here.”
In 1973, she returned to Czechoslovakia with her mother for the first time since the family had emigrated, and from that point on she came to the country regularly. In fact, her “unknown origin” helped her to be able to travel back and forth relatively freely.
“During this time this crazy piece of paper that we had – that we were stateless – helped us, my mother and me. We were always asked whether we were Czech citizens, and we filled in these forms and said, ‘No, we are not Czech citizens.’ So those papers about being of unknown origin opened the door to go back and forth, because we were two innocuous women who were somehow stateless.”
She eventually became a point of connection for Czechoslovak dissidents with the West, smuggling books that were banned under the Communist regime into Czechoslovakia for them and in turn smuggling their work out of the country, helping to bring it to the attention of an English-speaking audience. She edited and translated dissident literature by Czechoslovak authors and playwrights into English, as well as writing about it in the 1979 publication The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights without a Stage.
“I felt that it was great literature and great plays, so I wrote one book that for me was very exciting. It was called ‘The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights without a Stage’, because they really had no stage. And so in Vancouver we put on some Czech plays, the ‘Vaněk plays’ as we called them. There were these three one-acters by Václav Havel, which have in a way really made it right across the world.”
In 2000, she was recognized for her work by then-President Václav Havel, one of the dissidents whom she had been in contact with during Communism, receiving a state award (Medal Second Class) from him for services to Czech literature abroad.
In 2016 she received another award for her work promoting Czech literature abroad, the George Theiner Prize.