Majda Kallab Whitaker
Majda Kallab Whitaker (born Marie Jana Kallabová), 1946
Majda Kallab Whitaker was born in Prague in 1946 to her father, Jiří, and mother, Aloisie. She has two older sisters, Valeriana and Anna. Her father was in New York City at the time of her birth helping re-establish trade ties between Czechoslovakia and the United States. Prior to WWII he had frequently traveled abroad due to his work in international trade for Zbrojvka Brno, an arms manufacturer. In 1939 he was arrested and spent six months in a Nazi prison.
After one year in the United States, Majda’s father briefly returned to Czechoslovakia, and it was decided that the family would move to New York for a trial period; they left Czechoslovakia in November 1947. Three months later, the Communist coup occurred and Majda says that, had he returned, her father would have been jailed quickly; therefore, the Kallabs decided to stay in the United States permanently and eventually settled in Larchmont, New York. Majda’s father began a second career in computer programming and her mother (who had worked in the Brno archives) found employment as a bookkeeper.
Majda graduated from Vassar College in 1968 and returned to Czechoslovakia for the first time the following year. She says that although she was ‘terrified’ because of the timing of her visit (exactly one year after the Warsaw Pact invasion), she enjoyed meeting her cousins and discovering the country. Majda worked as a liaison for the Colombian government in New York City and then as director of public relations for W. & J. Sloane, a furniture company. In the mid-1990s, Majda returned to school and received a master’s degree in decorative arts and design. She says that her trips to Europe and the Czech Republic to enhance her studies also brought her closer to her Czech heritage.
In 2002, Majda put on an exhibit of a Czech printmaker at the Czech Center in New York and, since then, has been active in the Czech community in New York. She is on the board of the Dvorak American Heritage Association and was instrumental in restoring the Dvorak Room in Bohemian National Hall. Majda’s oldest sister returned to the Czech Republic and lives close to their father’s ancestral town, Tišnov. Their great-grandfather was the mayor of Tišnov, and his house is now the town museum. Today Majda lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband Donald.
After WWII, Majda’s father traveled to New York to re-establish consumer good trade ties with Czechoslovakia
“I know what was involved because some of these samples that came into his hands actually ended up with us when the ties were severed with the Communist government, which was nationalizing industries, so his activities came to an almost immediate halt after they took over in February , let’s say over the next six months before he made his final cut, but he wasn’t receiving any pay and I imagine he still had some of the samples on hand. So I actually saw some of them when I was growing up, and they were things like wooden toys, a few glass vases, engraved vases, bentwood furniture, of course, which the Czechs are famous for. They were the ones that were actually manufacturing the Thonet goods during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So we had one or two chairs. These things fascinated me. There were beads, wooden beads, all kinds of beads, made into pocketbooks – a lot of handwork involved in that – and bracelets. Those fell apart quite quickly as I recall, just because over time they were going to do that, but it was a very fashionable good, a good export opportunity, and there were some buttons, quite beautiful, hand-done. I didn’t see this, but I imagine that embroideries and linen were also a major export. I think there were even hockey sticks, violin cases, just a whole range of goods that the Czech did very well and hoping to export to the United States.
“So I became very interested in the decorative arts and design and actually got my masters degree as a more mature student, but I attribute a lot of my interest in this field to actually seeing what good design was through some of these objects, and they were, for a long period, actually my most tangible evidence of the past connection with Czechoslovakia, because they were attractive and interesting and there were stories to be told about them. Some of the wooden toys were quite amazing. Little building blocks, wooden toys. Historically, I think that was an important thing and it’s something, actually, that I hope to write about because I think that what he was doing was just a snapshot of where Czechoslovakia stood just before the communists took over and all that hope that they had to develop a market.”
In November 1947, Majda, her two sisters and her mother joined her father in New York City
“My father had been here [New York] for an extended period, close to a year, and he traveled back [to Czechoslovakia] to see the family – this was much longer than he would have liked to be away – but it was a critical point in developing this export trade that Czechoslovakia was going to depend on, so in a way it was sort of a quasi-governmental position as a trade representative. So he returned to meet with the manufacturers that he was representing and then to decide, with my mother, what was going to happen. Was this going to be the permanent way of life, to be stationed in New York? So mother said yes, she would like to go, but now. So I gather there were just a few days to put together the paperwork that was involved in bringing – this was November 1947 – and mother ran around, the way the story goes, and got all the papers stamped, and she was told this is one of the last exit visas which is going to be given because too many people are leaving the country. I don’t think my father was totally aware of what was coming; I don’t think anybody really knew at that point what was to happen in February of ’48.
“So this was intended as a short-term visit for my mother and the children to sort of see how it all worked out to live in the United States, in New York City, specifically. So mother just grabbed a few family photographs, not very many at all, and what she needed to care for her three children, and we came here and were living in the Gramercy Hotel around Gramercy Park in that period, and a few months later the communists took over. So the choice was to go back or not and, clearly, my father had no desire to go back because of his experience during the War, having been in Nazi prison, and also because of our family’s association with free trade and democratic government and the West, and he knew that he would have a very short period before he would be put in prison. That was predictable; there would be no question.”
Majda says that her name helped her maintain a connection to her heritage
“All through childhood I certainly was aware of being different. Through the very choice of using the name Majda I had to confront my ancestry every time that I gave my name and the spelling of my name, and somebody would say ‘Where does that name come from?’ Well, Majda was a nickname that was given to me. I was named after an aunt who was childless, but my mother really loved her so she gave me her name, Majda. But my father said that I had to have a proper name, so on my birth certificate it was Marie Jana, and it is Marie Jana. But what happened when I went to school – first of all, I was being called at home and by all my closer friends Majda – the first day of kindergarten they called out ‘Marie,’ and I had no idea who that was. That was not me. I was not Marie. I was a Marie Jana if I wasn’t a Majda. But to get somebody to say ‘Marie Jana’ was not an easy thing so, unfortunately, I did go through school and it wasn’t until college that I had control of using the name Majda on all of my documents. But this was something I always had to explain and it interested people and it made me feel special.”
Because of her mother’s baking, Majda had conversations with her peers about Czechoslovakia
“My mother was really a working mother for quite a bit of the time in America because both parents had to earn. So she of course was busy, but she was critical in transmitting the traditions of the home, namely the holidays, Christmas and Easter, and the various foods. She was a wonderful cook. Again, when I was in college and got care packages from home and all these wonderful cookies fell out, kolache, jam cookies, et cetera, this led to conversations about ‘Where do you come from?’ and discussions of Czechoslovakia. I think earlier I mentioned that a lot of people thought of the countries of the Iron Curtain as a bloc; they didn’t really grasp the individual identities of these nations, so to be able to talk about the wonderful period from the foundation of the Republic to WWII was a very important part of conversation always.”
In 1969, Majda took her first trip back to Czechoslovakia
“I was terrified. Now it’s coming back to me exactly; it was August of 1969 which was exactly a year after the tanks rolled in after the Prague Spring, so there was great alarm that there might be some other military activity going on, or protests, on the anniversary. I remember having nightmares that I might get caught there, I might be arrested or… I didn’t feel that it was my country where I wanted to get somehow stuck in some situation there. I was enjoying it, meeting my cousins, et cetera, but just the atmosphere at that point with the hard line coming in was very depressing. So it’s only on subsequent trips that I really felt a little bit more freedom to explore, and really not until after 1989.”
Majda has returned many times to the Czech Republic since the fall of communism
“I know Europe, I think, fairly well by now, and Czechoslovakia, or the Czech Republic, quite well, due to these trips that I took much more intensively in the 1990s. As of the mid-1990s I was pursuing my masters degree in the history of the decorative arts and design and culture, so each trip was sort of designed to explore a different layer whether it was Gothic or to see the Rudolf II exhibit or, much later, the Charles IV exhibit or strictly to explore modernism or cubism in Prague or elsewhere, or in Brno, the Tugendhat house. So each trip was just getting deeper and deeper into the wonderful history in architecture and design. Because my husband is trained as an architect, though not practicing, we shared a lot on that front and it was very rewarding to come in touch with a country that I really felt ‘This was mine’ at that point, seeing everything there. So not just family, but coming in touch with the whole cultural milieu was very important to me.”
Category: New York City, Oral History