Jana Fraňková (born Jana Vanatová), 1946
Jana Fraňková was born in Prague just after WWII in 1946. Her Slovak-Jewish mother had been in hiding in southern Bohemia during the War, and her cousin (who lived with Jana and her mother) had spent two years in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Jana says that she did not learn of her Jewish heritage until she went to school, as her mother did not bring up the subject. Jana’s mother, who joined the Communist Party, worked in telecommunications for the government. As a result, Jana says that her home had the first television set in the neighborhood. As a young girl, Jana was active in sports and joined a competitive gymnastics club. She attended gymnázium and became interested in philosophy and politics; she began studying philosophy and English literature at Charles University. Jana says that the time of the Prague Spring was very exciting and that she and her friends ‘all believed in it.’ While working as an au pair in Britain during the summer of 1968, Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Her mother convinced her to stay in Britain where she landed an interview at Oxford University and was admitted to Saint Hilda’s College. She received permission from the Czechoslovak government to commence studies there, and graduated with a degree in philosophy and English. Jana returned to Czechoslovakia after three years and finished her degree at Charles University.
Upon graduating, Jana says that she had trouble finding employment and worked a series of temporary jobs. She worked for a construction firm for one year under the auspices of starting a company magazine; however, she says that she did very little actual work as she was given the job by a friend and the company did not actually have money for the project. She then found a job at a publishing house translating Czech language books into English. She quit her position when she was offered promotion with the stipulation that she join the Communist Party. With the help of her uncle, Jana began teaching at a language school. She married Jiří Fraňek, a journalist, and had two children, Jakub and Ruth. Jana says that although many of her friends signed Charter 77, she declined because of the effect she believed it would have on her husband’s job. Instead, she helped the cause by translating various documents relating to the Charter into English, including the Charter itself. Jana says that her dissident activities and refusal to join the Communist Party led to conflict with the headmistress of the language school at which she taught. She was questioned by the secret police, and eventually resigned. She then began working as a freelance translator and interpreter. She was in this position during the Velvet Revolution, when both she and her 15 year old son worked as interpreters for foreign journalists. In more recent years, Jana has accompanied Czech politicians such as Václav Havel and Václav Klaus on foreign visits to English-speaking countries, where she has been their interpreter. She lives in Prague.
Jana’s cousin was sent to a concentration camp during WWII, while her mother went into hiding
“She was telling me that she lived there. They didn’t tell me we were Jews for a long time, because Jewish parents just didn’t usually tell their children because they were afraid; they just didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But she was telling me about the people and, actually, I knew them because we used to go to their place during the summer holidays, so they became like a part of our family – family that we didn’t have anymore because very, very few members of the family survived, and most of those who survived left not only this country, but Europe. They just wanted to be away from Europe, so they went to Canada, to Israel, to Australia. But I knew these people and I thought my mom had a beautiful time because she was telling me only about lovely things.
“My cousin was actually telling me about the concentration camp and only much, much later I found out that I was probably the only person she told, and I suppose she told only me because she thought I didn’t understand – I was little. I knew the word ‘camp’ for summer camps, because bigger children spoke about summer camps, so I thought she went to one of these. And when she was telling me about things that happened, I thought they were games. It was only later, when I went to school and I started hearing about Jews and about concentration camps, I realized what happened, and I realized we were Jews. Even though I didn’t know what it meant, I knew it meant something strange, but that was about all.”
Jana explains the excitement of the Prague Spring
“Imagine something that you really believe in is happening. You are 21. You feel that you, just by going into the street and signing various petitions, can change something. Can you imagine something more exciting? It was fabulous. And we all believed in it. Even though, I remember my mother and her friends talking and sort of worrying that it wouldn’t work which, in the end, it didn’t. But for us it was incredibly exciting. And it was very difficult then to stay in England, especially at the beginning, to stay in England, when you felt that you ought to come and help the country – we didn’t know at that time we actually couldn’t help the country.”
After attending Oxford University in the wake of the Warsaw Pact invasion, Jana returned to Czechoslovakia
“In the end, I got stuck here. I knew it would be difficult, but I didn’t know what it would feel like, getting suddenly stuck. So I finished school, then I couldn’t find a job whatsoever for three years. And at that time there was a law that anyone who was not in school anymore and who was not a married woman had to work. It was an obligation, and if you didn’t work and they found you out, they would charge you with ‘leading a parasitical way of life.’ I don’t know who I would be a parasite to but… So I had to take various odd jobs on temporary contracts.
“Then, a nice good Commie, who was a friend of my mom, was a director of a big firm that built roads, gave me a job. It was the most terrible year of my life because I didn’t have anything to do there. I had to come there every day, spend eight and a half hours there, and there was no job. So I used to help people in other departments. They had to think that I was preparing something like the company magazine, which he told me ‘Look, we really don’t have money for that magazine; we’re not going to produce it, but you are here to get it going.’ So I had to pretend.”
Jana describes her involvement in Charter 77
“Charter 77 came. At the time of Charter 77, I was on maternity leave with my daughter, and lots of my friends were involved and they said ‘Come and sign it.’ I said ‘Look, if it were only my own decision, I would immediately. But my husband – and the father of my children – is a journalist. He would lose his job. I can’t do it. We are in it together.’ So in the end, we agreed that I would do the work for the Charter, but would not be a signatory. So I did lots of translations. I translated the Charter; I translated various texts that went abroad.”
In November 1989, Jana was working as a translator for a seminar for young journalists
“This IOJ had a lovely house which they used for these purposes. So I come there and the students asked me ‘What’s happening?’ And I said ‘Well, history is happening here. The regime is obviously getting dismantled.’ They said ‘Tell us, what’s going on?’ So I told them about hundreds of thousands of people in Prague and they said ‘What should we do?’ I said ‘I can’t tell you what to do, but if I were a journalist and I was at a place where history is in the making, for God’s sake, I wouldn’t sit in a classroom being lectured by the representatives of the regime that is going down the drain!’ They said ‘Do you think so?’ I said ‘Look, so many journalists are trying to get to Prague, trying to gather pictures, trying to gather news. You are here.’ Most of them already worked; they were active journalists – young ones. Okay, the next day I come there, because I had to come there and they said ‘You know, something’s happened. The students just didn’t come to class.’ I said ‘Oh dear. What could have happened to them? I hope they didn’t run into problems.’ ‘Well, we don’t know, but fortunately it’s the end [of the seminar]. Do you think we should report them?’ I said ‘Let it be. They’re probably curious.’ In the evening they rang me up and said ‘The IOJ is going, of course, to pay for the interpreters as agreed in the contract, but we’re afraid we won’t need you anymore.’ So I was paid for going to the demonstrations by the IOJ, and the students all followed my advice. So I thought it was good that I actually managed my last-moment revenge.”
Jana says life during the Communist era in Czechoslovakia was ‘difficult to understand for Western Europeans’
“It was always very difficult to explain – let’s say in the ‘70s or even the ‘60s – to explain to Western Europeans what it is to live in a ‘socialist’ country. Because on one hand, they expected entering almost a prison when they came here, and then they were shocked that people lived normal lives, because they didn’t see underneath. The power the regime exerted on the people was much more subtle. It was through allowing you to go to school, or to study at university or not, to get this or that job, to travel somewhere or not, and that’s not what the visitors see. They can’t see this. And this was difficult to understand for Western Europeans, not to speak about Americans. It must be very difficult to understand for the Americans. It was just life that was seemingly normal, but only seemingly.”
Category: Oral History