Ilios Yannakakis

* 1931

  • “We landed in Ruzyně. It was raining I remember. I had a leather coat. I thought that socialism means ham growing on one tree, on the other – all the wealth of the world... and what I found was cold and gloomy. Prague was dead, the shops closed, the shop windows empty. There was an old man, no, not old, just some man, and he gestured to me that he wanted my coat. Thank God it was raining. Otherwise as a young romantic I would have given it to him: ‘Here, take it, take my coat.’ But it was raining, so I didn’t give it to him. From there we took a bus, the ordinary CSA, Czechoslovak Airlines bus, to Republic Square, which was the end station at the time. And we only had one address: Hotel Central. Do you know where hotel Central is? Behind Kotva [a communist shopping centre - transl.]. That was a hotel for Greeks. We came there and Maximos welcomed us, he was the boss… and he said ‘Wait.’ So we waited what would happen next. And what first struck me was that people were whispering… all with sour faces. And then they gave us some, meh, we didn’t understand what it was. They were rationing tickets. One hundred grams of meat. One soup per month. I came from Egypt, from affluence, and suddenly 100 grams of meat, raw meat. And my first impression was that the cucumber salad was sweet.”

  • “Another thing, we were completely amazed, especially the Greeks who came from the mountains, by the sexual candour of Czech girls. Because that was a deep emancipation of women. My body is my body. We said that because the Party forbade us getting close with Czech women and we had... I wrote an essay on it, it was, we men would say: ‘Have you solved your democratic problem yet?’ Which meant: ‘Do you have a girl?’ That’s how it is. And that was something very important, because it was a shock, a mental shock. Not for me, but for them. It was a way how to discover something and also learn to speak. You understand? And that was very, very... I spoke about it often with Kundera, and later especially with Škvorecký. And that was a normal phenomenon, yes, with the foreigners. Because that was the great cultural and sexual emancipation of Germany and Austria, that was the impact of Reich, Freud, gymnastics, Sokol [Czech sports movement - transl.] – the Sokol model, to see women in shorts and to have such joy from the body... Because of that it was the same shock as the Arabs had when they saw Jewish women, who came to Palestine from Eastern Europe, saw them work in shorts. And the Arabs said: ‘What is it?’ The Greeks had the same reaction.”

  • “We were waiting to go back to war. We did not come for Prague. In two or three days, I don’t remember, Porfivoyennis came, a member of the Central Committee, and he said: ‘Look, comrade, you’ll be in charge of a children’s home. And you’ll be there until we tell you to carry on to Greece, because at the moment...’ He didn’t say that we’d been defeated, but that ‘we’re waiting for the third round for now.’ So I took my suitcase. I didn’t know a word of Czech. I took the train to Carlsbad. And then from Carlsbad, I don’t remember exactly if they were waiting for us, or not. I was sent to Velký Radošov. There were three children’s homes: Kysibel – Kyselka, Velichov, and like a triangle, Velký Radošov was the biggest point. And the Kyselka flowed downward. And my first impression again: I did not understand what language they are speaking, whether it was Greek. It was a strange language, an absolutely strange language. Those were children, so-called mothers and teachers. And I had a terrible complex. I thought, I only speak French, I only graduated from high school and they as teachers completed teacher’s academy at least. And then I understood that the girls couldn’t even write. Because they were not teachers, you see. I tried to understand what Greek language they were speaking. I saw what they wrote on the boards. I thought maybe it is the new Zachariadis grammar. Lots of mistakes. I didn’t know that they couldn’t write. But the next day the same word was spelled differently. And I said, oh my god, we have a problem. And then I understood that the good girls were also there, because no one else was.”

  • “And there was one complicated situation. They called us suddenly, told us to close the windows, the doors. To close the children inside. Because some parents were going to see their own children without permission. Why didn’t they have permission? Because permission was given only to those who accomplished the factory work plan. And they weren’t able to. Imagine it, farmers from the highlands suddenly thrown into another civilization, an industrial country. Shepherds suddenly standing before machines, in Krnov or in Jeseník or goodness knows where - of course they didn’t accomplish their plan. But what was fantastic was that although they didn’t speak the language, their solidarity was such that they went, alone, against the Party, to see their children. And I was given the order to stop them. I don’t know if you can understand today how inhumane a gesture that was from the Party. It was on the hillside, I remember. I walk up to them, like Zorro, to say ‘Avast ye, Satan!’, and this one priest, orthodox priest, dirty, worn out, they’d just arrived from Greece, right, he falls on his knees, wanting to kiss my feet, saying: ‘Please, son, let me see our children.’ And at that point something within rebelled. I thought, who are you to forbid them, to forbid mothers from seeing their own children? So I opened the gates to them, I gave them food, and even, because it was night time and cold, I let them sleep in the children’s home. The result? What was the result? I was punished and I lost my directorial position. They sent me on to other children’s homes as a teacher.”

  • “In that first generation of old people there is the greatest, I would say, psychological schism. They hoped they would return to Greece, but at the same time they realised they could not return to Greece, because the circumstances would not allow it. Those Greeks, the first generation and the second one too, they didn’t understand which cultural country they lived in. That is, Czech culture was something so remote to them, so illegible, so completely, I would say, as if they were on another planet. And that was something very fundamental for them. Because of this they remained outside of the cultural wave of the Fifties and Sixties. It was all Chinese to them. They never understood the evolution of the communist system. Because they didn’t have, I would say, the instruments necessary to understand the events socially and politically. Forman’s film Loves of a Blonde was incomprehensible to them. Suchý and Šlitr, Matuška, the golden generation of the new wave which liberalised Czech culture - the Greeks were out of touch. Even the third generation, that is the children who spoke Czech better than [Greek], they didn’t have time, I would say, to assume the Czech culture. So that was, in my opinion, one of the great problems at the time. That is, the economic integration was absolute, but the cultural integration was only one fifth of the way.

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    Praha, 03.12.2010

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Look, comrade, you’ll be in charge of the children’s home

Ilios Yannakakis
Ilios Yannakakis
photo: archiv pamětníka

Ilios Yannakakis is a French historian of Greek origin. He was born in Egypt in 1931, to a Greek father and a Russian mother. After the death of both his parents he joined the Greek communist movement. He set out from Egypt to Greece via Western Europe, with a stop in Prague. There he stayed from 1949 until the arrival of the Soviet troops in 1968 when he emigrated to France, where he lives until today. During his life in Czechoslovakia he worked in several children’s homes (Velký Radošov, Zlaté Hory), he then moved to Ostrava where he worked as an educator in the military reserves. He studied and then was also involved in teaching at Palacký University in Olomouc, before moving to Prague. He was in touch with the representatives of the Czech dissent - Havel, Dienstbier, Tigrid. After emigrating to France, he became a professor of history at the University of Lille. He witnessed the Velvet Revolution in Prague.