Charlotta Kotik (born Charlotta Poche), 1940
Charlotta Kotik was born in Prague in 1940. Her father Emanuel was an art historian and her mother Herberta was a musician. Charlotta’s maternal great-grandfather was Tomáš G. Masaryk and, as a result, one of her earliest memories is of an SS soldier living in her family’s house during WWII. She also clearly recalls the funeral of Jan Masaryk, her great-uncle. While growing up, Charlotta often spent time in Rybná nad Zdobnicí in eastern Bohemia where her grandmother lived. Following her graduation from high school, Charlotta says that she found it impossible to continue her education due to her background, but was able to get a job as a curatorial assistant at the Jewish Museum in Prague, thanks to a friend of her mother. She was responsible for the photo archives and also worked with children’s drawings from Terezín. After three years, Charlotta began working in the Asian department of the National Gallery. She enrolled at Charles University as an evening student and, in 1968, graduated with a master’s degree in art history. Charlotta also worked for the National Institute for Preservation and Reconstruction of Architectural Landmarks, where she was involved in monument preservation during the building of the Prague subway. In October 1969, Charlotta’s husband Petr left Czechoslovakia to take a job at the University of Buffalo in New York. Although she had reservations about leaving her family and her country, Charlotta and their son Tom (who had been born in May 1969) followed, and they arrived in Buffalo in January 1970.
Charlotta soon found a job at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo where she worked for 13 years. She and Petr had a second son, Jan, in 1972. In 1983, the Kotiks moved to New York City where Charlotta began working at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. She retired from there in 2006 as head of the department of contemporary art. Charlotta says that she did not regularly speak Czech to her sons, which helped her master the English language; however, they both spent one year studying in Prague, and Jan eventually settled there, married, and had two children before his death from cancer in 2007. Today, Charlotta is an independent curator. She visits the Czech Republic several times a year where, in addition to visiting her grandchildren, she works with an organization that supports young artists. She is also a member of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) and is on the advisory board of the Czech Center New York. Now divorced, she lives in Brooklyn.
Charlotta explains why an SS soldier was stationed in her family’s house in Prague
“Because we were closely watched, that’s why. Because Masaryk, as you probably know, was suspect by not only communists, but by fascists. Any kind of dictatorial regime hated President Masaryk and because he was the grandfather of my mother and my aunt and father-in-law of my grandmother, obviously my family was basically in a bad situation, whether it was communism or fascism.”
What was that like, living with an SS man?
“It was not funny obviously, but you have to find ways to survive.”
And what ways did you find?
“We were out in the country a lot where he didn’t accompany us all the time, and you have to find a modus vivendi under any circumstances.”
Charlotta has strong memories of her grandmother
“In 1948, when Jan Masaryk died and we went to the funeral, my grandmother was very upset because she was listening to Klement Gottwald talking about Jan, saying ‘Our friend, Jan’ and all that stuff, and she stood up, because we were in the front row, and she said ‘And now you will just shut up’ – in Czech obviously – ‘because you know that you killed him. And you will not be saying things like this because it’s not true.’ And we all sort of died because we thought ‘Oh my god, this woman is going to be arrested immediately.’ Again, she got away with it, because she always stood up, and she was very tall and very skinny and very monumental in her own way, and she could just tell anybody anything. She was absolutely fearless. Absolutely fearless. And I guess if you are fearless you can do things, because you have the inner power and inner conviction which sort of gets you away from the trouble.”
Charlotta explains how her lineage affected her life in communist Czechoslovakia
“When I was applying for school, for stipends, for travel, for anything, on all the bureaucratic paperwork was always one sentence: ‘Mother of Charlotta Poche (and later Kotík) is Herberta Masaryková!’ and that said it all. So I was not allowed to do anything. I couldn’t find a job, I couldn’t study, I couldn’t join any groups, I was persona non grata, simply. It was as if I had some major disease, if I were a leper. I was totally blacklisted on everything. It was not only the regime or the officials of society; it was people who sometimes were afraid to be friends because they associated me with all these troubles which could spill over on them. So it has been a very difficult situation. It was simply ‘No’ to everything. Every little thing had to be fought for.”
Charlotta remembers the Prague Spring
“We wanted to improve the system because there were a lot of good things in the system. The free education, the free medical care. There were a lot of good things and if you could have political freedom and travel and exchange, then I think the system would have been very good. I didn’t understand why anybody would say no to it, because we didn’t want to declare war on Russia or some stupid thing like that. It was just making decent living conditions, so I didn’t understand. But older people, like my mother, they were saying ‘Oh no, this is not going to work. They will come and crush it.’ I said ‘Mom, you are crazy. Why would they do that? We don’t want to do anything against them. We just want to improve what we already have. But I was wrong, because I am slightly naïve. But I really felt it was a great experiment and people were so nice to each other at the time. It was like the society blossomed. People were just so different. They were so hopeful. They were so nice. It was just amazing.”
In January 1970, Charlotta left Czechoslovakia for the United States
“It was very difficult for me to make the decision of leaving because I was leaving my mother and my father and my aunt there and I felt I was deserting them, and also I felt that I was deserting a country that was in a really difficult situation. It was a little bit like leaving a sick person, and I felt that’s not the right thing to do, but ultimately I joined my husband. I was also thinking about the future of Tom [her son] – at the time it was only Tom, not Jan – because I had so many difficulties, really. It was very difficult and I didn’t want them to have to go through – Tom at the time, and I was hoping to have another child later – so I didn’t want to prepare for them the same life I had. I felt that it’s not right. Since I had a chance to leave, I ultimately decided to do it.”
After Charlotta left the country, her mother faced difficulties back home
“My mother had a lot of problems with it. It was very difficult. She was interrogated all the time. [She was asked] who are we meeting and who we are seeing and what I’m writing to her, and she was very evasive, and so the guy who interrogated her at the secret police headquarters in Prague pulled out the drawer and there were all my letters. She never got my letters or photographs of the children or anything. So it was very difficult for her, obviously, and that’s what I was afraid of when I was making the decision to leave because I felt that I was putting her in a bad situation, and unfortunately I did.”
Category: New York City, Oral History