Ivana Edwards (born Ivana Šmejkalová)
Ivana Edwards was born in Prague. Her mother Pavla owned a perfume shop in the city (on Na Příkopě) and her father Eduard (upon arriving in Canada he changed his own name to Samuel and the family name to Edwards) owned a leather manufacturing business. In 1949, Ivana’s father, whom she calls a ‘capitalist at heart,’ decided to leave the country. Ivana’s father falsely claimed Jewish heritage, which allowed him and his family to move to Israel with all their belongings. Ivana attended nursery school in Tel Aviv, where she and her family lived for several months before they received permission to immigrate to Canada. In 1950 Ivana and her parents arrived in Montreal.
Her father quickly found a job working in the Canadair manufacturing plant; later he owned a furniture manufacturing business. Ivana’s mother stayed home and raised Ivana and her three younger siblings, all of whom were born in Canada. Ivana says that her mother spoke less English than the rest of her family and so socialized predominantly in the Czech community where, in particular, she participated in local bazaars. Ivana attended a small private school in Montreal and credits her love of history to one of her high school teachers as well as her birth in Prague, which she calls ‘a very historically valuable city.’ In 1964, she returned to Czechoslovakia for the first time since leaving the country, the first member of her family to do so. She says the trip had a ‘tremendous impact’ on her life, as she reconnected with her relatives and discovered a fascination with Prague.
Ivana studied journalism at Boston University and completed an internship in Rome for the Rome Daily American newspaper during the summer of 1968. Her plans to visit Prague during that time were derailed by the Warsaw Pact invasion on August 21. After her graduation in 1969, Ivana returned to Montreal and began working for theMontreal Gazette where she wrote features and worked on the copy desk. In 1971, Ivana’s mother was killed in a car accident, and she and her siblings moved to Florida to be with their father who had started a business there (and later in Haiti). Ivana worked in a few jobs in Miami, including as an office manager and for Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company. In 1980 she moved to New York City where she stayed on at the bank for a couple of years until she started writing again and found a job as assistant to the editor of Lear’s magazine. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Ivana spent several years traveling between New York and Prague while freelancing. She wrote several pieces for the New York Times and the book Praguewalks, published in 1994, which concentrates on the lesser-known attractions of the city. Currently she is under contract to a New York publisher to complete the second half of a social and cultural history of Prague. Ivana is an active member of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) and has, for many years, been involved on the steering committee of the Dvorak American Heritage Association.
Ivana describes her father’s plan for leaving Czechoslovakia in 1949
“His way out of the city, of the country, in those days, which he embarked on in 1949 when the Communists took over – it was sort of an odd maneuver in some ways, an ironic maneuver. He said he was Jewish, which he wasn’t. He acquired some forged documents and told the authorities that he needed to immigrate to Israel. And this was his way of leaving the country without having to escape or swim across the Vltava [River] or something, with all his property, including the equipment from his workshop which, when we eventually got to Israel, he was able to sell, and so he had a little capital. Actually, his intention wasn’t to immigrate to Israel; it was to immigrate to Canada, but that was his route.”
In Montreal, Ivana spoke mostly English, but communicated to her mother in Czech
“The Czech community in Montreal decided to start Saturday morning Czech lessons – Czech classes – at some school, but I wasn’t too interested in going to school on a Saturday morning. I was in school all week. Who wanted to go to school on Saturday morning? I thought that was very bad timing. They should have had it Saturday afternoon or something. So I kind of dropped out very soon which is too bad actually. So I had to learn Czech on my own. I mean, I had to fill in the gaps on my own. The kind of Czech that one needs beyond childish, household Czech.”
Ivana’s first trip back to Prague was in 1964
“I flew to Prague from London, and I remember having my hair done at a beauty salon in London, because I wanted to look really nice and I had it put up. And there I was met at the airport with this big entourage of grandmothers – they actually got together because I was coming, so that was unusual – and my uncle and I think my cousins were there. And it was very grand. They brought me flowers; it was like visiting royalty or something. So I was so glad I had gone to the hairdresser because I looked very photogenic.”
Ivana explains the lasting effects of this first trip back to her birth country
“It was terribly exciting to be there and to stay in the old apartment. My uncle treated me like a princess. He took me everywhere, and I was just stunned by this beautiful city. I couldn’t believe I was born there. It was so emotional. I guess it was unfamiliar enough that it was new, in a way. But I must have remembered something of it, but I couldn’t tell you what exactly. I do know that it had a tremendous impact on me.
“The city was so old, and the building stones, the buildings, they always sort of spoke to me and they were trying to tell me things about the city and it was so fascinating. I was just transported, in a way, and I wanted to know what it was trying to tell me. It was a great introduction to learning the history, which I proceeded to do by writing about it eventually. It was like a before and after in my life. It was a major milestone for me to go back to Prague. Not just because of the family thing – although that was huge; that was probably half of it – but the other half was being introduced, or reintroduced, to this stunning city where I was born. I had a real connection to that city which was so startling to me.”
Two years later, Ivana returned to Prague and had some trouble with the authorities
“I hadn’t registered with the police. I did the first time. My uncle took me to the police station and we registered, but the second time I think I didn’t. They were furious. The guy at the customs and immigration desk, he treated me like I was a criminal. He was like ‘How dare you defy our laws.’ I don’t remember why we didn’t do it. My uncle, I left him in charge of me because he knew what had to be done. But I was shocked by his treatment of me. It was so uncivil. Here he was, a representative of the government, and he was acting like I was a terrorist or something and he was a prison warden. How dare I defy their rules? I barely got out of there alive, barely got on the plane alive. It made quite an impression, and it sort of illustrated the way communists treated people.”
Ivana discusses why being involved in the New York Czech community is so important to her
“Well, because it’s part of my heritage which, to me, has been very important because I was born there and because the city and its history had such a huge impact on me when I first returned there. I was never the same since. I felt like at least part of me belonged somewhere, and I didn’t seem to have those roots in Canada. I didn’t have them. So I realized where my roots really were, and that’s important to me. It may not be important to everybody, but for some reason it was very important to me. Maybe because of my affinity for history and the study of history.”
Category: New York City, Oral History