Author Tags: Fiction, War
Like his fellow Czech émigré novelist Josef Skvorecky, Drabek feels obliged to waken North American society from a slumber of innocence with regards to the potential threats of totalitarian or communist regimes. In 2013, Drabek received the Masaryk Prize awarded by the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada. The prize is presented annually to Canadians of Czech or Slovak origin who have in some significant way played a role in bringing freedom to Czechoslovakia or in some way enriched the lives if Czechs and Slovaks in Canada.
Jan Drabek was born in Prague on May 5, 1935. His father, Jaroslav Drabek, was a lawyer-journalist active in the Czech underground during WW II. Drabek Sr., although not Jewish, was sent to Auschwitz in 1943 with “Return Unwanted” stamped on his papers. Jan Drabek has recalled, "In January 1943 Father was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, which he miraculously survived to hide for the rest of the war in a Prague insane asylum. That was just the beginning: after the Communist takeover he led the family to West Germany on skis [in 1948], then brought us into North America [in 1948] where the four of us (my brother Jasha and I besides our parents) established new roots and prospered." Drabek Sr. became chief prosecutor of a Czechoslovak war crimes tribunal and a commentator for “Voice of America.” In 1984, Jan Drabek accompanied his father to Auschwitz for the filming of a 20-minute documentary memoir, Father’s Return to Auschwitz, directed by Czech-born Ivan Horsky.
Jan Drabek was raised in Czechoslovakia, Germany, France and the United States. He served in the U.S. Navy (1956-1958) on a U.S. aircraft carrier and on the editorial staff of the Washington Evening Star (1958-1960). He was also a refugee settlement officer in Vienna (1961), a broadcaster in Munich (1961-1963) and a travel clerk for American Express in New York (1965-1966). He immigrated to Canada in 1965. When Jan Drabek first came to Vancouver, he was originally planning to drive down the West Coast in search of work as a journalist, but his wife’s family was already in Vancouver, as was the Czech botanist who had headed his father’s underground group. Drabek stayed, taught high school in Kitsilano (1966-1976) and wrote a non-fiction book about his experiences called Blackboard Odyssey (1973). It compares European and North American education. Much later he recalled his upbringing in Europe in a memoir called Thirteen (1991).
In the Seventies and Eighties Drabek worked as a travel agent, studied at UBC and SFU, served as the chair of the B.C. Federation of Writers and the B.C. representative on the Caucus of the Writers Union of Canada, and published four novels, Whatever Happened to Wenceslas? (1975), Report on the Death of Rosenkavalier (1977), The Lister Legacy (1980) and The Statement (1982). Report on the Death of Rosenkavalier concerns a Czech named Antonin Klima who returns to Prague from Canada in order to execute a sadistic prison official named Rosenkavalier who is killing political prisoners. The Lister Legacy is a post-war spy thriller that revisits the sabotage of a Nazi germ warfare laboratory. The Statement recounts how a political science professor at UBC engineers a revolution in a fictitious country called New Salisbury. “One of the most difficult points for us English-speaking people to grasp is that we are the aberration,” says Drabek’s radicalized professor, “and that the dictatorships and police states are much more the normal thing in the world.”
Jan Drabek and his wife returned to Prague during the 1990s to teach English at the Foreign Ministry there. He wound up being appointed the Czech Ambassador to Kenya and later to Albania. [Much later he published a satirical e-book about the experiences of a modern Czech ambassador in a fictional African country. See below.] In between those two ambassadorial stints he served as the Chief of the Czech Diplomatic Protocol Department. He returned to Vancouver in 1998 not long after the Czech government failed to adequately respond to his urgent medical requests for his wife during an emergency abroad. The Czech ministry in 1997 required him to sign a statement that he would bear the cost of flying his critically ill wife out of revolutionary Albania. He signed and paid for the transport. Then he resigned from his post in Tirana. A former vice-president of the Czechoslovak Association of Canada, Drabek is fluent in English, Czech and German, with some knowledge of French.
In 2005 Jan Drabek returned to the Czech Republic for the launch of his book Hledani Stesti u Cizaku [Searching for Happiness with Aliens], coincidental with the posthumous publication of his father's novel Podzemi [The Underground]. His memoir His Doubtful Excellency concerns his years as an ambassador for Vaclav Havel and the Czech Republic. In 2007 Jan Drabek was elected President of The Federation of BC Writers at its AGM in Victoria in April.
In 2009 he published a book about the Vancouver Olympics in Czech, in the Czech Republic, with Oftis Publishers. Besides providing a list of venues and schedules for the games, the volume includes essays, both humorous and pensive; and photos. Drabek, who writes in both Czech and English, has been a columnist for Xantypa magazine, a Czech equivalent of Vanity Fair.
Drabek followed his biography of Vladimir Krajina in 2012 with a memoir, Up to My Ears in America, released by Donna Ink Publications. It covers Drabek's immigrant experiences as a high school student in New York City and as a college student in the Southern U.S. during the 1950s when the integration of blacks into white society was beginning to be considered. Drabek also describes his experiences as a naval aviation cadet in Florida and later as a Washington newspaper copy boy. Up to My Ears in America records how the Cold War, the McCarthy era and puberty affected the Czech emigre.
Drabek writes, "Up to My Ears in America deals with my twelve years in the country, of which about a fourth (between 1953 and 1956) was spent at Washington and Lee University. As you know, this was the McCarthy era, the time of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka. Ties were worn on the campus and there were no women, though lots of time was spent at Virginia’s girl colleges called Hollins, Sweetbriar and Randolph Macon, Mary Baldwin, and Southern Sem. (Some even went as far as West Virginia’s Greenbrier).
"The French exchange student on W&L (Washington and Lee) was Phillip Labro. Although I knew him only slightly, he merits quite a few pages in the book because he was the romantic Frenchman on campus while I was the screwed-up Slav. Phillip later made the somewhat improbable movie called The Foreign Student about his affair with a black lady. It was filmed in Lexington.
"The book covers my family’s arrival in New York and my High School days there. Following the Washington and Lee days came my questionable contribution to the defense of the US two-year career in the Navy as one of the worst pilot trainees in Pensacola, though I was a bit better later in my position of the editor of the ship’s newspaper The 59er aboard the USS Forrestal."
The book is available on Amazon.com.
Jan Drabek's biography of Vladimir Krajina, the World War Czech Resistance hero and founder of B.C.’s Ecological Reserve Program and holder of both the highest Canadian and Czech decorations, was published in Prague in the Spring of 2016. Published by Ronsdale Press in 2012 as Vladimir Krajina, World War II Hero and Ecology Pioneer, it was re-launched in a Czech version at the Canadian Embassy in Prague as Dva Zivoty Vladimira Krajiny (Two Lives of Vladimir Krajina). The Canadian ambassador Otto Jelinek is a Czech native himself, a former member of Canadian Parliament who won a world championship medal for Canada in pairs figure skating with his sister in 1962. Drabek undertook the translation himself. "Of particular interest for me is the fact that the Canada Council doesn’t provide grants for authors who translate their own works, even if they have as many credits in both languages as I have." The Czech biography of Krajina is Drabek's 22nd volume, five of which he has translated.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Vladimir Krajina: World War II Hero and Ecology Pioneer
Up to My Ears in America (Donna Ink 2014) 978-1-939425-94-2 (ack.pbk)
Vladimir Krajina: World War II Hero and Ecology Pioneer (Ronsdale, 2012) $21.95 978-1-55380-147-4
I Love You British Columbia -- Winter Games in Vancouver (Oftis Publishers, 2009)
HIS DOUBTFUL EXCELLENCY: A Canadian Novelist's Adventures as President Havel's Ambassador in Prague, Ekstasis Editions, 2006.
HLEDANI STESTI U CIZAKU (Searching for Happiness with Aliens), published by Mlada Fronta in Prague, 2005
PO USI V AMERICE, Knizni Klub, Prague 2003
I LUFF YOU B.C. Self-published, Vancouver, 2002
PO USI V PROTEKTORATU, Knizni Klub, Prague, 2001
PO USI V POSTKOMUNISMU, Knizni Klub, Prague, 2002
PO USI V PROTEKTORATU, Knizni Klub, Prague, 2001
THIRTEEN, Caitlin Press, Prince George, 1991; 2014
THE EXOTIC CANADIANS, Borealis, Ottawa 1990
THE GOLDEN REVOLUTION, Macmillan, Toronto, 1989
THE STATEMENT, General Publishing, Toronto, 1982
THE LISTER LEGACY, General Publishing,Toronto,1980
REPORT ON THE DEATH OF ROSENKAVALIER, McClelland & Stewart,1977
MELVIN THE WEATHERMOOSE, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Toronto, 1976
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO WENCESLAS? Peter Martin, Toronto, 1975
BLACKBOARD ODYSSEY, J.J. Douglas, Vancouver 1973
[LITHIS / BCBW 2015] "Fiction" "War" "Czech"
Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down
Jan Drabek has helped break new ground by translating Zdena Salivarova's Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down for Sixty-Eight Publishers, the CzechCanadian firm managed by Salivarova, the wife of Governor-General Award winning Toronto writer Josef Skvorecky. After reading the novel in Czech, Drabek suggested the book ought to be available in English. Its release marks the birth of Larkwood Books, a separte English language imprint for Sixty-Eight Publishers, a mail order company that has produced 187 titles in Czech for expatriate Czechoslovakians around the world.
[BCBW Spring 1987]
His Doubtful Excellency: A Canadian Novelist’s Adventures As President Havel’s Ambassador in Prague
from Joan Givner
When Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay returned from the Soviet Union in 1981 and proclaimed its virtues in a Vancouver Sun article, it was too much for Jan Drabek, a novelist who had fled Czechoslovakia in 1948, lived in Germany, France, and the United States, then settled in Vancouver in 1965. Drabek wrote a rejoinder that appeared under the heading: “Poet’s Article Shows Her To Be Dupe of Moscow.” Livesay replied scathingly, complaining to the Writers’ Union of Canada that its B.C. representative had maligned her. Livesay also mounted a campaign that unsuccessfully opposed Drabek’s election as president of the Federation of BC Writers—a position that he recently resumed.
At External Affairs, Drabek campaigned tirelessly for human rights in Eastern Europe, and militated against official visits by writers to Communist countries, on the grounds that such visits legitimized the regimes. He also took on Farley Mowat who, in his Sibir: My Discovery of Siberia (1970), had praised the wonderful lives that Soviet writers enjoyed under Communism.
So the author of His Doubtful Excellency: A Canadian Novelist’s Adventures As President Havel’s Ambassador in Prague (Ekstasis Editions $21.95) cannot be dismissed as naïve—which makes the contents of Drabek’s story that much more surprising.
His Doubtful Excellency describes Drabek’s return to Prague at the end of the Communist era, full of optimism for his native land. He planned to be reunited with his extended family and to teach English, but the respect President Vaclav Havel had for Drabek’s father, decorated posthumously as a war hero, soon catapulted Jan Drabek into the ranks of officialdom as Czech ambassador to Kenya and Albania.
Drabek also served as Chief of the Czech Diplomatic Protocol Department, during which time he played host to foreign dignitaries such as Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth, Canada’s Governor General Romeo LeBlanc, the King and Queen of Spain, Hillary Clinton, and former British Prime Minister’s John Major and Margaret Thatcher.
As the Chief of Protocol, Drabek was puzzled by the vague unresponsive smiles of Margaret Thatcher until another diplomat explained to him that she was deaf. Her flamboyant hairdo concealed a hearing aid that worked well in a quiet room, but not in a noisy environment.
With the visit of Governor General Romeo LeBlanc, Drabek soon realized that most Czechs couldn’t understand the Canadian concept of having a head of state who was neither royal, military nor presidential. The papal tour went off smoothly, thanks to the Vatican’s well-tuned operation, but the Queen arrived during her famous annus horribilis, so her entourage was eager for crowd scenes that exuded “the wild adulation of undulating mobs.”
Drabek says the tensions of the Queen’s visit to the Czech Republic were relieved somewhat by the cheerful irreverence of her consort, Prince Philip.
“I know, I know,” Prince Philip told him, when they were shaking hands for the fifth time. “Never have so few shaken the hand of so few so many times to whom they owe nothing. But in this business you have to expect it.”
Drabek had a special interest in Madeleine Albright because they had Washington, D.C. connections through their fathers. Drabek’s father had been active in the Czech underground and was one of the few non-Jews sent to Auschwitz with “Return Unwanted” stamped on his papers. He was a longtime friend of Joseph Korbel, Albright’s father. When President Carter insisted on appointing some non-Jews to the Holocaust Council, Albright suggested the elder Drabek.
Drabek first welcomed Albright to Prague when she was US Ambassador to the United Nations. He expresses surprise at Albright’s claim that she knew nothing of her family’s Jewish background, since everyone else did.
According to Drabek, Hillary Clinton prevailed upon her husband to appoint Madeleine Albright as the first female Secretary of State after the two women befriended one another during their visit to the Czech Republic under his auspices.
His Doubtful Excellency culminates in a disastrous episode that led to Drabek’s estrangement from the Czech regime. With his novelist’s eye for human foibles and a fine ironic style, Drabek describes his hair-raising departure from Albania—at his own expense—when he was forced to air-lift his critically ill wife without adequate support from the Czech government. After Joan Drabek nearly died from peritonitis, a perforated ulcer and appendicitis, the Drabeks returned to Canada.
Jan Drabek went to Prague in the wake of the 1989 euphoria because he wanted to be on hand as the Czech Republic thrived, but after seven years he felt he had witnessed only moral and economic decline.
According to Drabek, half a century of Communist rule is not easily shed, nor can the Czechs face their past honestly—that would expose too much sordidness, and too many moral failures. He concludes that although “the democratic machinery is pretty much all in place in the Czech Republic, there is just this woeful dearth of trained, experienced mechanics.”
Drabek remains convinced that democracy is an acquired trait that takes a long time to develop into a workable form. 1-894800-87-7
--review by Joan Givner
Press Release (2012)
from Jan Drabek
JAN DRABEK TURNS HIS CUTTING WIT ON THE WORLD OF DIPLOMACY
STORY SYNOPSIS: Czech born umbrella salesman Bartolomej Kobylka leaves his thriving business in Washington State to teach English in Prague, only to be conscripted into his ambassadorial role by a post cold war regime desperate for any talent untainted by its communist past. What ensues is a three year stint for Bart and hi glib wife Ginny in the African republic of Grungia. There, an inexperienced and incredulous Bart finesses his way through diplomatic quagmires and exposes corrupt, incompetent and sometimes imbecilic personages for what they rally are…
corrupt and incompetent imbeciles. Grungia is an uplifting satire on many levels targeting the post-Communist landscape, Third World mentalities, and diplomatic foibles, but above all human relationships. Hilarious!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jan Drabek was born in Prague. In 1948 his family escaped on skis from the newly Communist Czechoslovakia, eventually making its way to the United States where he finished his schooling and served in the U.S. Navy. He has called various countries in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa his home while working as a taxi driver, refugee resettlement officer, high school teacher, radio broadcaster and ambassador. Married with two daughters, he is the author of 17 books, both in English and Czech. He conducts seminars on memoir and biography writing, has been the Writer in Residence at the Vancouver Public Library and has served three times as President of the Federation of British Columbia Writers.
Publication Date: April 2012; ISBN 978-1-938360-00-1
Category. Humor.Satire; Price $9.95US: E-book: Kindle, Nook, Adobe;
Print Length: 215 pages (Adobe);
Publisher Aardwolfe Books, http: //www.aardwolfe.com
Retailers/ Distributors: Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Lightning Source
Vladimir Krajina WORLD WAR II HERO AND ECOLOGY PIONEER
Publisher's Promo (2012)
In 1939 the botanist Vladimir Krajina joined the Czech Re~istance
and quickly became one of its leaders. Incredible escapes from the
Gestapo followed while some 20,000 radio messages were sent by his
group to London, among them those about the pending invasion of
the Balkans and of the Soviet Union. As the strongest anti-Communist
Party's general secretary he escaped from the country on skis after the
Communist takeover. Personally thanked for his wartime effort by
Winston Churchill, Krajina came to the University of British Columbia
where as a professor of botany he battled the forest barons and their
practice of clear-cutting and slash burning. He then turned his attention
to saving pristine areas of the province, earning the title of father of
the Ecological Reserve Program, since replicated throughout Canada.
As a Companion of the Order of Canada, he returned triumphantly to
Prague in 1990 to receive the Order of the White Lion, the highest
Czechoslovak award, from President Vaclav Havel. Krajina died
peacefully in Vancouver in 1992 as one of those happy individuals
who had achieved practically everything they had set out to do in life.
Vladimir Krajina: World War II Hero and Ecology Pioneer
I first glimpsed Vladimir Krajina thirty years ago when he stood, somewhat unsteadily, and maybe a little stooped, to dissect a forester who was giving the annual MacMillan Lecture in the old H.R. MacMillan forestry building at the University of British Columbia. I had absolutely no idea who was standing formally and speaking in perfect English, questioning the precepts of the entire lecture with regard to stated and achieved reforestation results. I wish I had known.
Jan Drabek’s book, Vladimir Krajina: World War II Hero and Ecology Pioneer (Ronsdale 2013) has filled the gaps in my own (and, I suspect, many others’) knowledge of this determined, stubborn, intelligent, and brave individual.
To myself and many, many undergraduate and graduate forestry students, Krajina was the icon of ecological knowledge and systematic land-based ecological classification. Drabek articulates his importance to forestry here in the second half of the book. Together with some of his most prominent students, Karel Klinka and Hamish Kimmins among them, Krajina definitively wrote the book of ecological classification, indicator plant species, and prescriptive reforestation practice for British Columbia. In addition, Krajina’s work to establish the ecological reserves program in British Columbia was, and remains, a hugely important part of our natural heritage and scientific database.
What, to many, was unknown was the story — ably captured by Drabek — of Krajina’s life and family before he arrived in Vancouver in 1949 as a political refugee. He came from the recently subjugated country of Czechoslovakia, a country that was released from Nazi occupation only four years previously, but was quickly immersed in what has been shown to be an equally sinister and criminal occupation by Soviet Russia. Drabek chronicles how Krajina was not only a professor of botany in pre-war Czechoslovakia but also fought alongside good friends against the German occupation as a member of the Czech resistance. Krajina lived through the execution of some of these friends — as well as his brother — at the hands of the Gestapo, and was separated from his beloved wife, Marie, for years (two of which she spent in the Ravensbruck concentration camp). In postwar Czechoslovakia, Krajina became an active member of a democratic Czech political party, living among a people steadily undermined by Soviet operators who tortured, imprisoned, terrorized and executed political adversaries. In 1948, along with his wife, mother-in-law, his teenage daughter and infant son, Krajina fled their homeland for the safety of the UK and eventually Canada.
I think that my life and the lives of many of the students around me in that early 1980s lecture hall would have been changed, perhaps forever, if we had known the story of this man’s previous life told by Jan Drabek in Vladimir Krajina: World War II Hero and Ecology Pioneer. Although Krajina was a man known in BC for an almost religious fervor of devotion to sound ecological land management principles, he was also a man who had been a part of — and survived — one of the most tumultuous and violent decades of human history. Drabek refers to Krajina’s generation as the “Greatest Generation,” people who lived through the Great Depression and survived World War II. As a middle-aged parent and participant in the very global community of the “wood business” I reflect that given today’s many regional conflicts and great economic and political uncertainties, we as a people engaged in many layers of societal governance require the stamina, courage and integrity of a “Great Generation” in order to move forward and continue to celebrate the good in our world.
[Reviewer Greg Antle is a hardwood specialist who lives in Fort Langley. This review was first published in British Columbia History, Spring 2013 | Vol. 46 No. 1]
Press Release (2013)
Czech-Canadian Jan Drabek is this year’s recipient of the Masaryk Prize, awarded by the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada. The prize is presented annually to Canadians of Czech or Slovak origin who have in some significant way played a role in bringing freedom to Czechoslovakia or in some way enriched the lives if Czechs and Slovaks in Canada.
Drabek, a former three-time president of Federation of British Columbia Writers, is an author of twenty books both in English and Czech. Among them is the recently published biography of Czech-Canadian botanist and World War II resistance hero Vladimir Krajina and a satirical novel called Grungia.
He is also a former ambassador, taxi driver and high school teacher.
More about him at www.jandrabek.com.