Volume 7 Number 6
The Bad Liar Who Refused to Sell Her Soul
01 January 1995
When Czechoslovak student protester Jan Palach set himself alight in 1969, Jara Moserova-Davidova was one of the specialists who treated him. Now head of UNESCO in the Czech Republic she has lived under Nazi and communist oppression-and seen both systems collapse. She talks to Mary Lean.
Appropriately enough, the new head of UNESCO (the UN's organization for Education, Science and Culture) in the Czech Republic is a burns specialist, a painter and sculptor, and a playwright.
She has also been a champion downhill skier, an MP (in the immediate post-Velvet Revolution Czech National Council) and her country's Ambassador to Australia. In her spare time she translates Dick Francis's horse-racing thrillers into Czech.
Jara Moserova-Davidova doesn't like to be called a `renaissance woman', though the phrase is hard to resist. She prefers 'universal amateur'. She is disarmingly blunt about herself and uncomfortably clear-eyed about the world around her, a woman of strong views and deep compassion.
Born in 1930, she belongs to the generation which grew up under democracy, lived under both Nazi and communist totalitarianism, and was still young enough to play an active role in the return of democracy in 1989. She denies any suggestion of heroism: `I wasn't one of the dissidents. I was just in passive resistance. And from time to time I said what I thought. That was all.'
As a 15-year-old in 1945, she rejoiced when the Soviet army liberated Czechoslovakia from German occupation. When the communists seized power in 1948 she realized that 'my enemy's enemy is not necessarily a friend'. By then she was at high school in the US, under the American Field Service programme. She was given another year to make up her mind whether to return home, and won a scholarship to art school in New York.
After the years of Nazi occupation, she knew what to expect from a totalitarian regime. `But I decided very early that I would go back. For one thing, it would have defeated the purpose of the scholarship if I'd stayed. For another, I am a homing pigeon.' So she seized her chance to go round the world on a cargo ship, and then headed home. As her train crossed the border from Austria into Czechoslovakia, she was the only passenger on board.
In happier times she might have pursued a career in art. `But I was young and idealistic, and going back to a country in misfortune. I wanted to do something where I would be of use no matter what.' She plumped for medicine, choosing plastic surgery because it required artistic ability.
In 1951, while she was at home in Prague studying, her father disappeared. `No one told us that he was in prison. He simply failed to come home for a year. But we guessed where he was because the day he disappeared, three people came to search the flat. Of course we asked where he was; they wouldn't say anything.' He had been a director in the coal industry. Without his salary, it was a struggle to survive. Eventually, after a year, the phone rang and it was her father. `My mother changed three times before my father got to the flat. It was the first time I realized that love can exist after 50!'
When Dr Moserova graduated, her father's reputation meant that she could not get a job in Prague. Instead she went to Duchcov, a remote town in Northern Bohemia. While she was there, the secret police tried to recruit her as an informer. `It was really frightening. They had been trained by psychologists.' They would ask her questions which made it clear they were watching her family in other towns: `Did your sister enjoy her skiing yesterday?'; `Did your mother like that concert?'
She refused to cooperate, and in the end they left her alone. Two things helped, she believes. One was the fact that she kept scrupulously within the law, and so could not be blackmailed. The other was her congenital inability to lie. `I told him, I am no use to you whatever. If anyone asks me if I am meeting you, I'll say yes. I'm sorry, I believe in God and I am just not a good liar. I can tell a half-truth, but not a straight lie.'
Five years later she took up a post in the plastic surgery department at the Charles University Hospital in Prague. As a newcomer, she was sent to the burns centre and became so engrossed that she never moved on to plastic surgery. She spent 30 years there and was one of the four doctors who cared for the student Jan Palach after he set himself alight in January 1969.
In August 1968, Russian tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia, crushing the hopes of liberalization raised by the Prague Spring. Dr Moserova believes Palach's protest was aimed as much at the apathy of his countrypeople as at the Russians. `People had given up. They had lost their fighting spirit. That is why he did it.'
Palach lived for three days, and for the first two he was lucid. Dr Moserova and her colleagues encouraged him with the news of the national and international outrage caused by his self-immolation. Their contact with him marked their careers—'We weren't exactly blacklisted, but we were regarded as suspect.'
The two decades after 1968 were even worse than the two before, she says. She differentiates them as the 'rule of terror' and the 'rule of mediocrity'. In the Fifties and Sixties, the regime tried to terrify people into obedience. But some `outstanding' people managed to hang on in the universities and justice system. And some Party members actually believed in communism.
After 1968, `no one but an idiot could be a believer'. People joined the Party not from conviction but from opportunism. Top jobs were confined to those who toed the line, so `decent people simply weren't ambitious'. People of integrity were gradually replaced by `mediocre, obedient, loyal to the Party, good-for-nothings'. In her 30 years at the university, she never once entered the Dean's office-'I would have felt blemished to be seen with him.'
The generation who had been young and hopeful in 1968 quickly learnt that industry, honesty and knowledge didn't pay. She doubts that they can unlearn these lessons, but pins her hopes on their children. `Our young people are fine,' she says. They rejected the lies and compromises under communism—but still have to learn that `in democracy, compromise is a necessity'.
Like most other people, she believed things would never change. She used to pray not for liberation but for her family's happiness. Her face lights up when she speaks of her husband, Milan David—'the best thing that has happened in my life'. They have a son—'who I got ready-made when we married in 1960'—and three grandchildren.
Politics came to Jara Moserova late in life, when riot police crushed a peaceful, and legal, students' demonstration in Prague in November, 1989. `It was just too much of an outrage,' she says. `That was when we all started being engaged.' When the students went on strike, she put herself at their disposal, dispensing coffee and aspirins, working as their driver. She helped to organize the Civic Forum (a coalition of opposition groups) in her area and, in February 1990, was coopted as Vice-President of the Czech National Council, the parliament of the Czech half of the country.
In the free elections that followed, she stood for Northern Bohemia, the region where she had started work. She addressed all kinds of gatherings-including a rally of 400,000. Each time, she says, her audiences greeted her accomplishments politely until they heard that she was Dick Francis's translator, when they burst into wild applause.
After two hectic years in parliament, `working terrible hours, because everything had to be redone', she went to Australia as Czechoslovakia's Ambassador in 1991. One of the joys of the post was re-establishing contact with those who had emigrated during the years of communist rule.
While she was there, Czechoslovakia split into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. She believes the divorce was inevitable, but owns to a `feeling of loss'. Czechs—and the world at large—overlooked Slovak aspirations, she says. Before the split, a radio interviewer in Australia described her five times in one broadcast as the `Czech Ambassador' instead of the `Czechoslovak Ambassador'. Slovaks were outraged; none of her Czech friends noticed.
Her work with UNESCO covers the same portfolio as the standing committee she chaired in parliament: science, education, culture and the media, plus bioethics and information technology. In spite of UNESCO's political excesses in the past, she believes it has a vital role as the custodian of the world's intellectual property.
A year before the Velvet Revolution, her first play, Such a nice boy, won the best play of the year award on Czech National Radio. It used a family setting to explore an issue at the heart of totalitarianism—what happens when people refuse to face the truth. Over a thousand listeners wrote to her after the broadcast. `Their letters were amazing, like confessions.'
Her second play, Letter to Wollongong, looks at the years since 1968 through the eyes of a woman who nursed Jan Palach. Many of her experiences mirror Dr Moserova's. But there is an all-important difference. Whereas Dr Moserova refused to become an informer, the woman in the play buckles under pressure.
Dr Moserova understands, only too well, why someone might give in. But the woman in the play cannot forgive herself. `If it were me, I wouldn't be able to forgive myself, either,' says her creator. 'One really should not sell one's soul.'
Dr Yara Moserova died on 24 March 2006, aged 76.