Daniel Ženatý

* 1954  

  • “They tried to destroy the schools, of course. An example of this was that protestant theology had been part of Charles University until 1948, the way it is again now, after 1989. But back then they immediately excluded it from Charles University and turned it into an independent vocational school of sorts. It was a university catering only to itself. It had no connections. It was very good, the teachers were very good. I think there were two things that helped. One was the constant pressure from abroad. Churches are connected to the whole world. When any kind of discrimination got out, the regime was criticised and forced to respond. That slowed them a bit in their destructive efforts. But they vented their anger on others. On my classmates, whose fathers weren’t parsons but who still wanted to study theology. They gave those a rubbing.”

  • “And then, they wanted to vent their anger on others. On my classmates, whose fathers weren’t parsons but who still wanted to study theology. They gave those a rubbing. I can give you the story of my younger colleague, Jan Nohavica, later a parson in Olomouc, an amazing young man who, alas, has since died. His parents were these nice, authentic people from the Wallachian village of Hošťálková. When Honza [a common Czech nickname for Jan, or John – trans.] declared that he would go study theology, it made the headmistress and the school management so angry that they summoned his dad, who was employed at a factory in Mez [probably Valašské Meziříčí – trans.]. He was such a kind-hearted man, and just the fact that he was called to the headmistress’s office already got him nervous. The headmistress was there with her deputy, and they went at Mr Nohavica in such a manner, with such insults and threats because his son had applied to study theology, that he collapsed and had to be taken away by ambulance. And I think he never quite recovered. He had to go into early retirement. They completely ruined him with those threats and that terrorising.”

  • “And then later he tried to flee West. It was at a time when it was possible to cross the border from Yugoslavia to Italy. Those were strange days, around 1976, 1977. If you got lucky, you could get through. My brother was already a renowned psychologist back then, so he bought a rickety old Simca with the gear stick on the steering wheel. He didn’t say anything about it to anyone. He sewed all his documents into the seat so you couldn’t see anything, and set off from Hungary to Yugoslavia. But they stopped him right there. He didn’t get through. I guess it was a bad shift that checked him. They took his passport, locked him up, and ripped the car apart and pulled out all the documents. They sent him to Budapest, where he was imprisoned for a time, and then they sent him home. He called me in Prague, where I was studying, from the station in Budapest. That I should come pick him up in Budapest, that he had no way of getting home and that he had a car there. I was surprised that he had a car, and he got really worked up, saying I was a dolt for asking him, at a moment when he was running out of money that he was slotting into the phone booth, happy to even have reached me, and I ask him what type of car he has. I still remember how annoyed he was. He managed to tell me to pick him up at the embassy in Budapest, and then he ran out of money. So I travelled to Budapest, got off at the station, and went to the embassy, and we met there. His car was there; they had taken his papers, his driving license, everything. So I took that car, which I had never seen in my life, it was an awful wreck, and I tried to drive it from Budapest to Vsetín.”

  • “When the normalisation came, they fired the teachers who spoke openly with us about politics, or they forced them to change their mind. My greatest shock, which still gives me goose bumps today, was that the people who read Literární listy and talked about it and were glad and took part in demonstrations and who went out with us into the streets to celebrate when we beat the Russians in Stockholm [at the 1969 Ice Hockey World Championships – trans.]... and now suddenly these people are looking aside and saying that it has to be so and that they can’t help it. When the official declaration came in early 1969 that [the events of] 21 August were just the friendly aid of allied forces, I suddenly had the feeling it just couldn’t be possible. As if the Vltava had begun to flow the other way, or the Bečva in Vsetín flowed the other way. Did everyone lose their minds? I mean everyone knew it was an occupation. How can they say it was aid? So the shock of how quickly people can break, bend, or be frightened, that was unpleasant.”

  • “The way it was, what he did: actually, for the first months certainly, we tried not to go outside with him [Alexej Ženatý – ed.] at all, so he was at home. We needed some work for him, so he wouldn’t go bonkers. Back then we used solid fuel for heating. We had a boiler for coke and wood in the cellar, so I showed him how to look after it and keep it going. That was his kingdom afterwards. He would sit there, smoking one cigarette after another, gazing into the fire, slowly healing up and putting himself together. It was a bit of a disadvantage for me because he just loved burning wood – and it heated the house up terribly, we couldn’t sleep at all, and our year’s supply of wood was gone in a fortnight. Things like that. It was hard for him because he came from a completely different background. He was from Kurgan. Kurgan is a city on the Afghan-Chinese border, far far away. I think he didn’t have a very happy childhood; he never thought well of his dad – he spoke badly of him. He probably beat them and was cruel to them. He liked his mum, but he never saw her again. He never returned home because he probably still be tried for desertion, so he can’t go to Russia.”

  • “[Ladislav Kvasnička (1956–2012) and Alexej Ženatý (born 1971)] arrived sometime around half past nine in the evening, because even though they had set out around half past twelve, as Láďa Kvasnička then said, they headed towards Karlovy Vary, then České Budějovice, then Chomutov, and they kept driving around until they were absolutely certain no one was tracking them, no one was following them, and no one could find them. So they came to our place in Nové Město na Moravě, and there it was we met our familial son and brother Lex [Alexej Ženatý]. He probably wouldn’t like what I’m about to say, but he was in a dreadful state. I don’t want to say an animal, that would be exaggerating a bit, but simply an utterly frightened, stressed out, sweaty, and nerve-wrached man in a desolate condition – physically as well. The first thing you noticed was the fingers – you couldn’t tell where they ended and where his fingernails were. They were open wounds. Later I asked: ‘What have you got there, what is it?’ He was a tank mechanic, at the garrison in Mimoň, I think. Gloves or things of that sort were unknown to them. They had to work in the cold and the frost, and they had no disinfectants, so if he was very lucky, they would give him some glue from the battalion HQ, a pot like this, so they’d dip the fingers into this office glue as the only healing salve they had. That was such a striking feature, it was dreadful. He was silent, probably expecting the KGB to jump out at any moment and nab him, or something. We saw there was not much use talking with him, so we showed him where he was to sleep. He had a tiny room that we had found or cleared out for him there. He had a bed, a table, and a lamp. The window was only very small – it probably hadn’t been meant for living in originally – which was a good thing at the time, because no one would see he was there and we wouldn’t have to worry about him switching off his light.”

  • “Then the Germans arrived, and immediately Mrs Šimčíková, as a proud patriot, joined the resistance. They gave her her first task, which was to shelter some teacher from Ostrava, who was to take some message to the West. She hid him in her home for two or three days. She was flustered because he was irresponsible and would go out in the evenings, and she was afraid the Gestapo would find him. But they didn’t. Then when he was supposed to leave, she bought him a ticket for the train from Branky in Moravia. He was supposed to depart from there in the morning. His suitcase was packed, but because he was lazy or something, he got a boy to carry the case for him, and that boy was from a family watched by the Gestapo. So when the Gestapo saw the boy leaving his house at four in the morning, they wanted to know where he was going, and they followed him. They caught the teacher from Ostrava as well, and he told them where he had slept, so they arrested Mrs Šimčíková, too. So she was imprisoned for four and a half years, almost the whole of the war.”

  • “There was the post of district church secretary. Those would be men of generally poor spiritual stock, marked by some previous failure of incompetence, who was authorised by the state to supervise the churches. No doubt most of them worked with the stetsecs [State Security officers - trans.]. They would monitor what was going on in the churches. When I was parson in Valašské Meziříčí from 1980 to 1990 and I wanted, for instance, to switch with my colleague in Střítež one Sunday, so that I would be in Střítež and he in Valašské Meziříčí, I had to write a report ahead of time to the district church secretary. I had to send it to him, or ideally bring it in person, and he would say he’d consider it, and within a few days he would send a response saying either it was allowed, or it wasn’t. If I didn’t do that, I would be stripped of my so-called state permission for the provision of spiritual services. It was so demeaning. So they watched us from all sides, and the main thing was the isolation of education, talent, and so on.”

  • "In the village of Rovné there was Mr. Elis, I cannot remember his first name now, and since he did not want to join the unified agricultural cooperative in the 1950s, one night his farm was surrounded and they threw a gun into a heap of dung on his farm. Then they woke him up, conducted a house search and found the gun, and he was arrested."

  • "Whenever Zápotocký – already as the president – was passing through Valašské Meziříčí, he would always stop in Mrs. Šimčíková’s home. Mrs. Šimčíková remembers that he would have liked to make her the minister of education and he had lured her to join the Party, but she would always turn him down with the following words: ´Tony, I will not join you. I got to know you guys in the concentration camp, and you are just the same like the Fascists; I will simply not join you.´"

  • "I was a young inexperienced pastor at that time. On one summer day a man who looked like a foreigner was coming out of the church. I asked him where he was from and he said that his name was Civín and he was from the USA. I further asked him whom he came to visit in Valašské Meziříčí, and he replied that he whom else had he come to see but the last pupil of Ema Destinnová. ´She is a member of your congregation.´ I felt ashamed because I didn't know it - and that’s how I got to know Mrs. Šimčíková. The man also told me that she had been in Ravensbrück. I immediately went to visit her, and that’s how our long-time friendship began. I visited her for the first time in 1982-83, and then I was coming to see her regularly."

  • "There are witnesses who saw that they put barbed wire around Milada Šimčíková’s naked body and hanged her in some hallway with her head downwards and other prisoners had to pass by and look at her... it was meant as an exemplary punishment. There are written records by the people who are shocked to see the teacher hanging there..."

  • "Obviously, on should rather not think about the effectiveness of this work. At the very least, I can help a guy spent the day nicely or help him go to sleep in peace, or unwittingly steer him away from some stupid thing which he otherwise would have done – if this happens, then it's good. But hopefully there is some effect, as there are cases when they really start a different life after their release and do not come back to the prison. And in very exceptional cases, once in a while – that's rather a sweet reward. There are people who accept the punishment, confess openly that they had committed something, they contact those who had been hurt and if possible, they try to make up for the damage they had done. Some of them even see their time in prison as a time of mercy, as one of them told me: in his words it was a mercy from the Lord that he could be there and get the things sorted in his head and understand what life was about and then go out prepared."

  • Full recordings
  • 1

    Praha, 01.12.2011

    (audio)
    duration: 01:16:25
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
  • 2

    Praha, 23.07.2019

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    duration: 02:12:06
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
  • 3

    Praha, 15.12.2020

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    duration: 01:02:47
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
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To live so that you need not be amashed of your life

Daniel Ženatý
Daniel Ženatý
photo: Memory of Nations archives

Daniel Ženatý was born in Moravský Krumlov on 12 December 1954, into the family of the Evangelical pastor Emil Ženatý. He grew up and graduated from secondary school in Vsetín. In 1974 he began studying at the Comenius Faculty of Protestant Theology in Prague. In 1980 he was drafted into compulsory military service in a motorised regiment near Benešov – unlike other students, who were only required to serve one year in the army under Communism, he had to serve the whole two years. From 1980 to 1990 he functioned first as a vicar and then as a parson in Valašské Meziříčí. It was there in 1982 that he met Milada Šimčíková (1900–1989), the last pupil of the famous singer Emmy Destinn, who had been incarcerated in the Ravensbrück concentration camp by the Nazis during World War II. In 1988 the witness made an extensive recording detailing Šimčíková’s life story. A considerable part of his own testimony focuses on her life. Ženatý experienced and actively took part in the Velvet Revolution while in Valašské Meziříčí. From 1990 he served as a parson in Nové Město na Moravě. At the turn of 1990 and 1991 he sheltered a young deserter from the Soviet army, Alexej Ženatý (born 1971). Since 2005 he has functioned as the parson of the Pardubice congregation of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren. For seven years, from 2007 to 2015, he also served as a prison chaplain in Pardubice. Daniel Ženatý continues to be publicly active, has published several books, and has worked with Czech Radio. From 2015 to 2021 he was a synod elder of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, and in 2017 he was elected Chairman of the Ecumenical Council of Churches of the Czech Republic.