In October 2013, Miloš Zeman, in a conversation with Israeli President Shimon Peres, said, “I’m very glad you use the expression Czechia as I do. It sounds much better and not so cold as the Czech Republic.
The land the “great Zionist TGM” (Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk) comes from is called Czechiya in Hebrew. In this country, however, the term “Česko“ is settling in slowly, as if it were a mere half word.
The majority of representative offices abroad publish and distribute printed information adapted from materials coming from headquarters. And so, from the ČTK summaries telexed to us daily in Harare, I often read that Václav Klaus gave lectures here and there, which met with a favorable response from the public. I therefore repeatedly asked Prague headquarters to send us the texts of some of those lectures so we could publish them. In Africa, where people remembered how the reform attempts of t he Pragu e Spring were terminated with violence, the intellectuals were eager to learn which roads we are taking after the “Velvet Revolution,” so that we could also be a model for postcolonial development of societies living below the equator.
I have already had a graphically elegant cover of our press release, “NEWS FROM CZECHIA,” printed, but what I asked for has not come from headquarters. (V. Klaus’ colleague Tomáš Ježek would now probably say that Klaus was a windbag, a wrecker of the nation. At that time and at that African distance, however, we clung to the wisdom of our representatives.)
But anyway, we regularly printed and disseminated news from Česko. I mainly cut it out of the English-language weekly newspaper, “The Prague Post,” which the American journalist Alan Levy had founded in 1991. His articles very aptly described the political and economic turbulences of our ’90s so that a foreign reader would understand them. This was a rewarding source of information and analyses from Czechoslovakia and Česko.
One day, the director of my division flew in from Prague. He chided me for allowing myself to use the term “Czechia” since it hadn’t been authorized. I defended myself by saying that our new state couldn’t have another name. Today I know I was right. And I considered the name “Czech” on hockey uniforms to be absolutely barbaric.
We requested that Prague send us two copies of “The Prague Post.” I somehow got hold of Levy’s book “Rowboat to Prague” in Czech. In it, he professed a love of our capital the way Ilja Erenburg extolled Paris. The book gradually made the rounds of the households of our compatriots.
Alan Levy came to Prague for the first time in 1967 so that, as coauthor of the musical “Anything Can Be Fixed,” he could share in the adaptation of the musical by Jiří Šlitr and Jiří Suchý “Dobře placená procházka” (Levy called it “A Well-Paid Walk”) for American audiences. He, with his wife, Valerie, and their two daughters, Erika and Monica, witnessed August, 19 68, and he reported on the events of the time for American newspapers. In 1971, the whole family was expelled, but they didn’t return to the USA; they exchanged their Prague residence for one in Vienna. There, Alan wrote the book “The Wiesenthal File,” for which he earned a prize from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Not long after that, he appeared in Prague again -- the dust after the Velvet Revolution still hadn’t settled. And he began a new task: the founding of an English-language daily.
During my vacation in Prague, I decided to visit the editor-in-chief of The Prague Post and to compliment him as a reader of his articles in Zimbabwe. I presented myself at office of the secretary of the newspaper, which, at that time, was in the restituted building of the YMCA on Na Poříčí Street. As I was sitting in the waiting room, my doubts kept increasing as to whether I had the right to keep such a distinguished and busy man from his work. In short, about 20 minutes later, I slipped away and continued toward the center of the capital.
My Platonic relationship to Levy still lasted long after I was again working at headquarters. Until once I dared…
On the Novotný Embankment, a short distance from the Charles Bridge, a social gathering to honor Israel was being held. The younger brother of my superior at that time was also there; he was preparing for service in our embassy in Tel Aviv. After the “Velvet Revolution,” people were being hired by the diplomatic corps under the system of “First come, first served” (as, after August 1968, the best specialists were expelled from the Foreign Ministry). I was replaced by a young man who built himself a house and naively presumed that his diplomatic wages would pay for it. At the same time, the best English specialist in the ministry asked us for some tr anslatio n in the journal “Czechoslovak World,” where I had been transferred for a limited time. Besides the mass placement of dissidents and the nepotism, girls intending to make an advantageous marriage applied. They soon returned from the stints disappointed that their male and female colleagues from foreign countries ignored them because they, in contrast to them, were following their career ladders rather than working their way up to being a representative in an office abroad.
I took the arm of that brother, who later discovered that he didn’t enjoy the work in Tel Aviv, and introduced him to Levy. This meeting rather annoyed my colleague, who preferred to settle down with his glass of wine. Yet Alan and I immediately hit it off.
We began to meet. He and his wife were close to me. Although an American, she was interested in knowing European art, particularly Czech, including literature. For example, one Christmas she gave me a book by the writer Eva Hudečková, the wife of the violin virtuoso. She loved both of the Hudečeks.
Alan reminded me of the “frenzied reporter” E. E. Kisch. He was constantly scouting around for something. When J. Dienstbier’s daughter died, he tried to find out from me how many children the minister had fathered. While waiting for an elevator I took the liberty of asking Dienstbier. Unsuccessfully: “Let the journalist search….” Alan and I discussed the fates of Czechs in Africa, particularly those affected by the Holocaust.
On Veletržní Street, across from the National Gallery , was the Globe Bookstore and Coffee House.“ I had come there so I, along with three hundred other interested people, could listen to Levy’s lecture on his first and second stint in Prague. The store was packed – mainly English-speaking young people were interested in the opinion of an American of the changes in the situation here. By the way, we locals on television, in the press and elsewhere also closely follow what the other American analyst, Erik Best, who has been publishing the daily bulletin ”Fleet Street,” thinks about our political developments. Best, unlike Levy, addresses us in polished Czech, which his Czech wife, Dita, and their f our chil dren have perfected. In addition, he came from the USA with a knowledge of Russian and only “switched” to Czech.
The day after the above-mentioned lecture – August 22, 1998 -- my office telephone rang. It was Levy calling to say he had a problem. He was buying an attic apartment in Libeň – or, rather, two apartments. One for himself and the other, right down the hall from it, for his wife. (Their children had already flown the nest and were living abroad.) Alan had the bad habit of talking to everyone mainly about the text he was editing, what he himself was writing or intended to write or what he had just published. With Valerie, too. Although they loved each other, their personalities were auton omous, w hich is why they lived separately. In view of the fact that not all the 26 parties in the house in question had agreed to the additional apartments at the land-registry office, which is a prerequisite for reconstruction, some, for example, because they were abroad, the Levys received, on the day of the 30th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 21, formal notice that they had to leave the republic by August 27. If not, they would be expelled. “What shall I do?” Alan asked me. He expected that, since I worked at the Ministry – and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at that -- I would surely advise him. But every bit of advice was difficult and so I promised him nothing.
On the way to the company canteen, I met, at the reception desk, Josef S, at that time the director of the consular section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I dared to ask him if he would intermediate for Levy to visit him with the head of the Foreign Police. Not gladly, but still, he promised.
At Foreign Police headquarters on Olšanská Street in Žižkov, his director, Colonel Karel Freund, welcomed us. (A year later, Alan wrote that I had accompanied him with the permission of my superior. That was untrue: I had been afraid to ask for such permission.)
My friend learned from Freund that, during “normalization,” he had participated in the underground’s distribution of forbidden books, smuggled in from London by Jan Kavan. And that his current position really didn’t suit him well. He was appointed to it in 1990, right after the “Velvet Revolution,” when exit visa permits and, in many cases, entry visas were revoked. That was easy. There was a law for it. It was worse when the foam-filled leather-covered doors with “Please, wait” and “Do not knock” signs were knocked down and replaced by ple xiglass. The officials could not forget that, and, thus, complaints poured in. How on earth could one eat one’s snack in peace behind a glass window? They did not want to accept the explanation that, thanks to glass, there could not be false complaints of bribe-taking.)
The Levys subsequently received immigration papers which were marked “in the government’s interest.” Generally, immigration politics are still in a sorry state.
When, in May 1999, Alan was awarded a Crystal Globe by the Minister of Foreign Affairs for disseminating the good name of the Czech Republic abroad, we discussed celebrating this event in my little village, Kout na Šumavě. On that occasion, we drove around the whole Chod region: in Újezd we paid tribute to the Jan Kozina monument, above Klenčí to the writer Jindřich Šimon Baar. A little above Kout, I photographed Alan and Valerie at the Gloriet “hat” monument. According to legend, Giulio Cesarini, the future pope, lost his cardinal’s hat on this spot when, in 1431, the Hussites, led by Prokop H olý, put the crusading army to flight only by singing the hymn “Who are you, you warriors of God?” That defeat allegedly convinced the Catholics that their attempt to break the Czech forces was pointless. On our way back to Prague, we stopped at the newly renovated Pilsen synagogue. Finally, we drank Champagne in a Lesser Town wine bar to the awarding of the prize.
Time flowed by. Once I accompanied the Durban University educator Fran Saunders to a famous Prague astrologist and, instead of payment as an interpreter, had him ask the stars if it was time for me to retire. Supposedly only then did my real life begin.
I’m going home and whom don’t I meet -- walking down Loretanská Street was Alan. We had hardly shaken hands when, out of nowhere, he confided in me; he had been going from doctor to doctor and they assured him that he was healthy. A minute after we parted, it occurred to me: “Why is he probably telling me this?” The next days we only exchanged jokes on the Internet. Alan asked me, for example, why the Prague Central Station was renamed Masaryk Station while Prague’s Wilson Station was still called Main Station on the schedule. “For what reason did you have the Thomas Woodrow Wilson sculpture put there?” he kidded me because he knew that I had had a hand in its placement.
The calendar said it was March. It had hardly gone by and the second day of the month of April 2004 Alan died in his seventy-second year. At the memorial ceremony, one of us, a grief-stricken friend from his stay in Vienna, expressed the unrealizable wish of the deceased: “If I am to die in Austria, at least have my ashes scattered from a plane over Prague.”
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