Olga Hornickova – Novakova
Even though I’m Czech, in 1922, when I was born – just a year after my sister Vlasta – our family was living in Warsaw. Our father Jaroslav was setting up the Czechoslovak embassy in Poland. At the start of the First World War he left for Russia, graduated their school for officers and then made a name for himself in the newly formed Czechoslovak army. He continued to serve the Republic after the war, this time as a diplomat, until we were forced to flee from the Nazis and leave Warsaw.
My sister was an intellectual – she always read a lot, wrote poems, she was a great student – as for me, I preferred to go swimming or play tennis. And yet, we were inseparable, maybe in part thanks to the age gap between us being so small. We were even in the same year at school, somehow our parents managed to arrange that. The two of us were like twins.
Father, who was a true believer in Masaryk and stayed loyal to the Republic his whole life, got a job offer from the London office of President Beneš.
When we were ten years old we started attending a French lyceé. It was a school for children of embassy employees, but also for well-off intellectual Warsaw families. We grew up surrounded by schoolmates of maybe twenty different nationalities, my best friends were Jewish. Being taught French and meeting so many interesting people from all over the world since I was a child has influenced my whole life.
When the Germans took over our Warsaw embassy in April 1939 and the war seemed imminent, father decided we had to leave Warsaw. I was sixteen years old. I remember us burning various documents all night so they wouldn’t fall into German hands. We went to Dijon and our parents found us a good school that taught both French and Czech. After me and my sister both fairly successfully graduated high school, our parents accepted their friends’ invitation and brought us to Cognac – it was further away from German borders.
Father, who was a true believer in Masaryk and stayed loyal to the Republic his whole life, got a job offer from the London office of President Beneš. We attended a postgraduate class in the meantime that we had to take to be able to go to university.
The piece didn’t last: when the Nazis occupied Paris in June of 1940, it set all of France in motion. We also had to quickly pack the bare basics and leave for the port city Bordeaux; we then crossed the sea to England. We had no choice – Czechoslovaks in exile were traitors to the Germans, they would not treat us as prisoners of war. It was chaos; masses of people, not enough food, false alarms, some places were bombed…
London, naturally, wasn’t spared the bombing. Fortunately we quickly moved to Oxford so my sister and I could continue our studies: I took French and she learnt English; only our father commuted to London.
When we came to Britain, neither my sister of me could speak English, though we knew French. I studied and also got married and had a daughter, Libuška. I was lucky my tutor was very understanding. She gave me a piece of advice I try to follow all my life: “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Yes, I got married! And since my sister and I were just about joined at the hip, our family celebrated a double wedding. We both married soldiers, both from Třebíč; my husband Miloš was an officer with a Czechoslovak Tank Brigade in England, my sister’s husband Staňa was a RAF pilot.
The war ended and all of us looked forward to finally being able to live in Prague. We did come back for a few months and we lived very close to my sister and her family. Miloš got a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in the winter of 1946 they sent him to work in Belgium. He was supposed to come back in three years. But then the Communists took over in February 1948 and we all knew that he couldn’t come back home, having been a soldier in the Western army. I took the children – besides Libuška we also already had Marie and little Jeník – and left to join Miloš. We settled down together in Montreal.
That was the first time in our lives my sister and I had to go separate ways. Vlasta stayed home, she was let go by the Bar Association in the 50’s and only allowed to work jobs such as a tram conductor.
That was the first time in our lives my sister and I had to go separate ways. Vlasta stayed home, she was let go by the Bar Association in the 50’s and only allowed to work jobs such as a tram conductor. I missed her, I missed my parents, but my mom was at least able – unlike my sister – to come visit us in Canada several times in the 60’s. I was twenty-five the last time I saw my dad.
When my husband wanted to visit his father in 1977, he was told he had to “ask the Czechoslovak President for forgiveness for leaving his homeland without permission”. “They should be the ones apologizing to me for destroying my beautiful country!” said Miloš. He didn’t leave, naturally, and he never came back to his homeland, he died in the mid 80’s. Shortly after, by some miracle, I managed to get permission to visit my mother and sister even before the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Olga and Miloš Novákovi were blessed with seven children. They all speak Czech, have visited Czechia and are raising the next generations to be aware of their Czech roots.
Leave a comment