One of the curious things about Central Europe is how little people from the various countries of the region know about each other. A recent sociological study suggested that Czechs and Poles have very similar views of the world and similar sets of values. They share a border five hundred miles long, speak languages that are close enough for them to be able to understand each other without too much difficulty, and yet the two nations have a habit of acting as if the other didn’t exist. Even in these days of open borders, assumptions and prejudices are rife. David Vaughan meets a Polish writer who has written a book that turns all sorts of Polish ideas about Czechs and Slovaks on their head.
Mariusz Surosz is a Polish writer, journalist and historian living in Prague. His book “Pepíci“ was originally written with a Polish readership in mind, but it has also been a success in Czech translation, among Czechs interested to see a slightly different perspective on their own country’s recent history. It offers portraits of various well known Czechs and Slovaks whose lives influenced or were influenced by Czechoslovakia’s turbulent history during the 20th century. When I met Mariusz in the Café Liberál, just round the corner from where we both live in Prague 7, I began by asking him about the title “Pepíci”.
“Pepík is a word we use in Polish to describe the kind of person who sits in the pub. History is being made outside, but he doesn’t care, he’s sure that nothing bad is going to happen. He’s a coward and is only interested in his own little world. That’s what they say, but what Polish people forget is that Pepík is a diminutive of the name Josef. People have seen Czech films, where they hear people saying things like, “Pepík, come here,“ and so they’ve come to use the word for the whole Czech nation – and not just them, but for Slovaks too – because Poles know far too little about their neighbours.”
And in the introduction to the book you write that this is very much the stereotype that Poles have of Czechs.
“Yes, it works both ways. Czechs and Slovaks have stereotypes about Poles too. It’s interesting because we’ve been neighbours for over a thousand years, but know so little about each other. But I didn’t write the book to fight against stereotypes, I just felt that if a Pole wants to find out more about his neighbours, then this is an opportunity. I studied history, but I felt that a classic textbook would be too boring, so I wanted to write about something new. Also there are lots of Poles who are keen to find out more, and they told me that many of the things they read in the book came as a real surprise. I was even more surprised, when readers of the Czech translation said they’d found new things there, because I’d wrongly assumed that Czechs knew everything already.”
The structure of the book is very simple. You’ve chosen seventeen famous – or less famous – Czechs and Slovaks from the twentieth century and you’ve written portraits of them, some shorter, some longer. Some of them your readers in Poland will have heard of, others are people who they wouldn’t know at all, or people of whom they would probably have had a very different idea.
“I’ve been asked the question quite often: why, for example, I chose Charlotte Masaryk, the wife of the first Czechoslovak president, or why the prime minister during the wartime occupation, General Eliáš. It was because I wanted to offer a different perspective. For example, if you read the chapter on General Eliáš, you’ll find a letter that he wrote to his wife when he knew the Germans were going to execute him.”
As you can tell, I am in good spirits and I have the feeling that it is a beautiful thing to die for the country that I have loved and continue to love. I am convinced that we shall be victorious. Tell everyone that the last speech I gave was forced out of me and that I am and will remain a good Czech. It is better to end like this. Believe me, I would not have survived prison.
Eliáš was the prime minister of the collaborationist government at the beginning of the German occupation between 1939 and 1941. From the Polish perspective, he would probably be seen as a collaborator, coward and traitor, but the picture that you paint of him is of someone who was far more nuanced than that. All the time he was in contact with the opposition in London, he was trying to organize the resistance and he ended up in 1941 being executed by the Nazis. This is a difference, isn’t it, between the Czech perspective on the Second World War and the Polish perspective?
“Of course that’s true, but we have to think about what would have happened if the Soviet Union and the Third Reich hadn’t agreed to carve up Poland without there being a government set up. There would also have been plenty of collaboration. It’s nonsense to say that one nation is a nation of cowards and another a nation of heroes. Look at other countries too: Slovakia, Hungary, Denmark, France. The conditions were different and the Germans behaved in a different way.”
And from the more recent past, one of the most interesting figures you write about is a Czechoslovak politician who many younger Czechs will themselves not have heard of, František Kriegel. He was the only member of the cabinet, who, after the Soviet occupation in 1968 didn’t sign the so-called Moscow Protocol, approving the invasion.
“Above all, František Kriegel had Polish roots. He was a Galician Jew. He couldn’t study in Poland because only certain numbers of Jews were allowed to go university, so he came to Prague. But look, we tend to see Kriegel as a hero, because of how he behaved in 1968 and afterwards. But beforehand he was a communist through and through. At the time when the communists took power in 1948, he organized the notorious People’s Militias, because he had experience from Spain and China. He’s seen as a hero for refusing to approve the presence of the Soviet army on Czechoslovak territory, but what’s so interesting is the path he followed, how his experience changed his views. He remained a communist till the end of his life and we in Poland see communists as only bad. We tend to see things as black and white, but sometimes situations come up, when you have to decide how to behave, whether to act as a decent person or not. It’s not that he suddenly stopped being a communist, it is simply that he wanted to behave as a decent person, and that was more important that being loyal to the party.”
I should imagine that, as a journalist, you chose these figures with a view to the ways in which they reflect our world today. I’d be interested to know to what extent the portraits that you have in this book shed light not just on Czech-Polish relations but also on today’s Europe in a broader sense.
“The most important thing is that each of us should recognize that life brings its storms. People change and the times they live in change. It can happen that a decent person, when put to the test, disappoints. One example was Emanuel Moravec, who is universally considered a traitor. But if we look at his life before the Second World War, we can be in no doubt that he was a great patriot. So I hope that anyone who reads the book will ask himself: I wonder what might still happen to me, what sort of decisions I’ll still have to face. You might think you’d be a hero, but you really never know until the time comes. That’s all I wanted to say. I didn’t want any ideology.”
Do you have any favourites, any portraits that you particularly identify with?
“Well, every chapter is my baby, but I do have a favourite and that’s the very last portrait in the book, the actress Vlasta Chramostová. Why? Because I know that acting has been the most important thing in her life. When bad times came after the Soviet invasion, she said no, she was not willing to follow her career at any price, and suffered enormously for that decision.”
It was 1973, Vlasta Chramostová was 47 years old and was considered one of the best actresses in Czechoslovakia.
“It never occurred to me that they would ban me from acting. I had the vanity of an actress and simply didn’t admit to such a possibility! It happened gradually, so for a long time I thought it was just a coincidence. Only after several months did I realized that I wouldn’t be getting any more offers from television, radio or film.”
Chramostová was one of 327,000 people thrown out of the Communist Party. One fellow actress, who refused to help her, was given the main role in a serial about a woman working in a shop and became popular throughout the communist bloc; a fellow actor was given the role of a doctor in another serial and became known for catch-phrases like, “If stupidity could fly, then you’d be up there like a pigeon.” Her response was to start organizing theatrical performances in her own flat. The plays were written by people who’d been banned from being published, the actors were people who couldn’t appear in public, the audience was made up of people banned from political life.
“Once I looked out of the window and as well as a secret police car, parked outside, I could see a gathering of people. I counted. Twenty-two of them! All secret policemen. It was clear that the people I’d invited to the performance were being trailed and each of them had been followed by his “guardian angel”.
And you talk about film. Is it true that there’s a Polish saying that when you don’t understand something, you say it’s like a Czech film?
“It’s a bit more complicated than that, because the whole saying goes, ‘A Czech film – nobody knows anything’ [czeski film – nikt nic nie wie]. It’s a way of describing an absurd situation, something that simply can’t happen. People ask me where it comes from and I explain that it was the first Czech film that came to Poland after the war. It was called ‘Nobody Knows Anything’. You can imagine the scene. Warsaw in ruins and a huge poster: ‘Czech film – Nobody Knows Anything’. It was an absurd comedy and also a great success. I don’t think there’s any other country whose film industry has endowed the Polish language with an expression that has come to have a meaning beyond film. We use it to describe a strange, absurd situation and young people, who no longer remember the original film, simply say ‘czeski film’, leaving out the ‘nobody knows anything’ bit.”
Thanks to Mariusz Surosz’s book, many Poles now know a bit more about their neighbour to the south, and Czech readers also have a fresh perspective on the some of the people who shaped Czechoslovak history. But I suspect that the expression ‘czeski film’ will be around for a while longer.
The extracts in this programme were translated by David Vaughan.