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 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 2005, Jan Drabek returned to the Czech Republic for the launch of his own book, Hledani Stesti u Cizaku [Searching for Happiness with Aliens], coincidental with the posthumous publication of his father's novel Podzemi [The Underground].

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, Vladimir Krajina, who had headed his father's underground group. Although little-known in his adopted country, Krajina, a UBC-based forestry professor, was accorded some of the highest honours provided by both Canada and Czechoslovakia (before it was divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia).

In 1939, the botanist Vladimir Krajina joined the Czech Resistance and quickly became one of its leaders. Various escapes from the Gestapo ensued 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 general secretary of an anti-communist party, 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, having achieved much of what he had set out to do in life.

Jan Drabek stayed in Vancouver where he taught high school in Kitsilano (1966-1976) and wrote a non-fiction book about his experiences called Blackboard Odyssey (1973) comparing European and North American education. He eventually published a biography of Krajina, the World War Czech Resistance hero and founder of B.C.'s Ecological Reserve Program, that was published in Prague in 2016. It was re-issued in English as Vladimir Krajina, World War II Hero and Ecology Pioneer (Ronsdale 2012) and re-launched in a new Czech version at the Canadian Embassy in Prague as Dva Zivoty Vladimira Krajiny (Two Lives of Vladimir Krajina). The re-launch was orchestrated with the assistance of Canada?s ambassador to the Czech Republic, Czech-born Otto Jelinek, a former member of Canadian Parliament who won a world championship for Canada in pairs figure skating with his sister in 1962. Drabek undertook the translation himself, disenchanted with the Canada Council for its policy of not providing grants for authors who translate their own works. The Czech biography of Krajina was Drabek's 22nd volume, five of which he has translated himself in Czech himself.

In the Seventies and Eighties, Jan Drabek worked as a travel agent, studied at UBC and SFU, and 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. In 2007, Drabek was elected President of The Federation of BC Writers. His earlier novels are 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 protagonist professor, "and that the dictatorships and police states are much more the normal thing in the world." Like his fellow Czech emigre 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.

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. 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. Drabek has been a columnist for Xantypa magazine, a Czech equivalent of Vanity Fair. 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.

Jan Drabek recalled his upbringing in Europe in a memoir called Thirteen (1991). His second memoir, His Doubtful Excellency, A Canadian Novelist's Adventures as President Havel's Ambassador in Prague (2006), concerns his years as an ambassador for Vaclav Havel and the Czech Republic. A third memoir, Up to My Ears in America (2012), 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."

In 2013, Drabek received the Masaryk Prize awarded annually by the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada to a Canadian of Czech or Slovak origin who has played a role in bringing freedom to Czechoslovakia, or enriched the lives of Czechs and Slovaks in Canada.

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
Grungia (2012)
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 -- coincidental with publication of his father Jaroslav Drabek's posthumous novel, Podzemi (The Underground), in Czech, 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
MELVIN THE WEATHERMOOSE, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Toronto, 1976
BLACKBOARD ODYSSEY, J.J. Douglas, Vancouver 1973

[BCBW 2020] Alan Twigg / HolocaustLit

Jan Drabek greets Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright in Prague, July 8, 1996.