Thanks to the popularity of my last post on the sudden death of Jan Benes I decided to do some more research on him and found this great interview from 2004. I translated it into English but the Czech version is also attached:
Diky popularite meho postu o nahle smrti Jana Benese jsem se rozhodla, ze se po jeho minulosti trochu vice poohlednu a nasla jsem s nim velmi zajimave interview z roku 2004. Rozhovor jsem prelozila do anglictiny, ale original v cestine je tu take prilozeny:
Interview with Jan Benes
Did you leave straight to the United States?
No, first I went to France. After about year and half I finally started having some good luck. Mr. Voskovec once said that the last luck he had in his life was when he got his American visa – I basically feel the same way. The last good luck I had in my life was when I got the permission to legally move to America.
Did you leave with your whole family?
No, I left only with my wife. Unfortunately, they (the communist government) kept our children because we escaped too late. In 1968 one could leave with the whole family; but I thought that since the free press was still going on, then we would still be all right. That’s why I ended up leaving in the middle of the night on October 9th, 1969. This was the last day when one could use your old traveling documents; everyone received brand new ones the next day. Thanks to my friend at the border patrol (I served in the army with him), I caught the open borders literarily 10 minutes before midnight.
That must have been a very dramatic experience…
Yes, it was very dramatic. My wife and I both believed that once we were both out of the country then they would let the kids go as well. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
How long did it take to bring your kids to the US?
It took 10 years. The Bureau for Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes was investigating our case since separation of a family was considered a war crime back then. However, after about 7 years of investigation we were told that what had happened to us wasn’t really a crime because the people were just following their job orders.
Who ended up helping you? The Red Cross?
It was kind of an accident. Our son was grown up enough by that time so he could cross the green border himself. First we had to bribe few people so that he wouldn’t need to join the army and could actually attend the university. Then, via one of his school trips to Romania, he ended up somehow making it (the escape). With our daughter it was different. The Bureau of Internal Affairs refused our already 37th attempt to get her back. Meanwhile I found out that Kennedy was just visiting Moscow and that he got into a dispute with the police there. Of course, the Russians did not like that at all since Kennedy was their “American buddy” – always pushed for friendship with Russia at all causes. On that day I got the one good idea in my whole life. I picked up the phone and called my mother in Prague thinking and hoping that the phone line was wired and the message that I leave with her would be passed on by somebody else. So, I told my mother that at that moment senator Kennedy was talking with Mr. Gromyk about the destiny of our daughter. Of course it was a lie, I was just bluffing and hoping that no one from our government would have the guts to find out the truth by actually going to talk to Mr. Gromyk personally. And indeed, after four days the minister of Internal Affairs did cancel the previous decision and our daughter received her passport and left the country.
What waited for you in exile?
Originally I left for France because French was the only language I could somehow communicate with. We didn’t go to America because we were brainwashed by communism that the country is not meant for Europeans. Even though we didn’t believe in communism it still left some things in us. After a while though, anything sounded better than France so once we left for the USA we found it to be a great country. Although I couldn’t speak a word of English I could still feed myself and my family from the very beginnings of our stay there. I published two books in the US and I obtained respect from people because I wasn’t just sitting on my behind saying: “ feed me, I am a poor Czech writer living in exile”. Once I could speak the language a little I started working at a factory; once my language skills improved even more I went to the University of Harvard. I didn’t like that place too much so I found another job in California and I stuck with it.
You were successful in the United States. What made you come back (to the Czech Republic)?
I was motivated there (USA) to fight against communism. My father was a legionary during World War II and the history was repeating with me. In exile one would fight against the government which had not been elected via democratic means. Once those reasons passed I thought I would be useful to my home country by practicing what I have learned while living abroad. A lot of people thought the same way…
In what year did you return (to the Czech Republic)?
I didn’t return until 1993 because I had some things I had to finish and debts to be paid off. It’s easy to run away when a police man tells you: “I don’t know what your plans are Mr. Benes, but if you don’t leave by dawn, then you will never be able to leave this country”. That was the night when they imprisoned Skutina and Pachman. So I left because I had been put to jail twice already and it had always been very hard on my family. This was not true anymore – there was no reason for me to be put to jail. So I had to finish some of my business abroad first and then I was able to come back.
Were you disappointed after your return to the Czech Republic?
Sure I was disappointed. The goals that we had made after the November revolution were not fulfilled. although enthusiasm is always misleading. I have got to admit it though – it could have been better.
Czech version at: http://krajane.radio.cz/cs/article_detail/985