Famous Czechs

By Tracy A. Burns

Tomas Bata (1876 – 1932)

Born April 3, 1876, in the southeastern Moravian town of Zlín, Tomáš Baťa would become a leading entrepreneur in a family that boasted a long and productive history in shoemaking. His family had been making shoes since 1667. In addition to establishing shoe factories around the world, Baťa served as the town’s major from 1923 to 1932 and made Zlín a modern city, building schools, for instance. He accomplished a great deal for the educational system, too. Though Baťa died in a plane crash in 1932, the company Baťa Shoes remains successful to this day.

Edvard Benes (1884 – 1948)

Beneš served as the second president of Czechoslovakia from December 1935 to October of 1938, when he resigned, convinced that the Munich Agreement was unjust. He was elected president of the Second Republic in June of 1946. Arguing that Sudeten Germans were collectively responsible for the destruction of independent Czechoslovakia, he put into effect the Beneš decrees, confiscating the property of Germans, traitors, and collaborators, stripping them of their Czechoslovak citizenship and expelling them from the country. He also became the first Czechoslovak Minister of Foreign Affairs when Czechoslovakia was created in 1918: He also was Prime Minister for a year and a Member of Parliament for some time. Beneš had been very involved in the struggle for Czechoslovak independence during World War I and in resistance activities during the Nazi Occupation.

Pilsen & Pilsner Urquell Brewery Tours from Prague

Karel Havlicek Borovsky (1821 – 1856)

Considered to be the founder of Czech journalism, satire, and literary criticism, Karel Havlíček Borovský was not only a journalist and critic but also a poet, politician, and publisher. His book Pictures from Russia presented the first Czech objective view of life in that country during that particular era. He established the first Czech daily newspaper, Národní noviny, known for its liberal viewpoints. Borovský was not one to mince words when it came to the Habsburgs. He found himself in court several times for his sharp criticism of the monarchy and was even expelled from the Czech lands, deported to the Tyrol, for almost four years. He was a pragmatist, although he supported universal suffrage. For a short time, he served with the Austrian Empire’s Constituent Assembly but then opted to focus on journalism once again. He also translated works by Gogol and Voltaire into Czech. His book Tyrol Laments describes his arrest and subsequent expulsion to Tyrol with humor and satire. He also is known for his poem “King Lavra,” a work rich in allegory and satire.

Petr Brandl (1668 – 1735)

A leading Baroque painter in Bohemia, Petr Jan Brandl employed strong chiaroscuro and created emotional and energetic works that are characterized by a powerful, passionate movement of colors and dramatic tension as well as a distinct tenderness. His more than 60 paintings and numerous drawings are scattered throughout Bohemia from Chyše to Hradec Králové, Prague to Litoměřice, and Kutná Hora to Kuks, among other places. Prague’s National Gallery even has an entire hall filled with his paintings, including his famous “Simeon with the Baby Jesus.”

Josef Capek (1887 – 1945)

Karel Čapek’s older brother, Josef made a name for himself as a painter, writer, journalist, photographer, graphic artist, and book illustrator. He authored books with his brother early in their careers, including the plays From the Life of Insects and R.U.R., for which he coined the word “robot.” Josef also wrote books without his brother, including a mystery and some art-related works. Josef was a Cubist painter who employed simple, geometric shapes and severe lighting contrasts. He was greatly influenced by “primitive” art and often rendered members of the lower class in his artistic creations. A supporter of democracy, he was arrested by the Gestapo on September 1, 1939, and spent six years in concentration camps. He died shortly before the Germans lost the war. His symbolic grave is at Prague’s Vyšehrad Cemetery.

Karel Capek (1890 – 1938)

The most versatile and perhaps most prominent writer in Czech history wore many hats –he was a playwright, novelist, feuilletonist, travel writer, story writer, journalist, children’s author, biographer, essayist, illustrator, photographer, and translator. In the early years, he often collaborated with his brother Josef, an accomplished artist in his own right. Karel Čapek asserted that each person has his or her truth, portrayed many perspectives of reality, and criticized modern society. His works also express fears of Fascism, describe everyday events and warn against the abuse of technology. His writings include Tales from One Pocket and Tales from the Other Pocket, War with the Newts, The Gardener’s Year, The Makropulos Thing, From the Life of Insects, and R.U.R., a play that first used the word “robot.” He is buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad Cemetery.

David Cerny (born 1967)

A rebel artist, Černý never fails to spark controversy with his shocking and provocative creations placed in public areas. He has painted a Soviet tank pink and designed male figures that urinate into an enclosure shaped like the Czech Republic, for instance. His 1997 creation “Hanging Man” portrays a 220-centimeter Sigmund Freud hanging by one hand onto a roof of a building on Prague’s Husova Street. In the main passage of the Lucerna Palace in downtown Prague, his 1999 “Horse” depicts Saint Wenceslas on an upside-down horse.

Charles IV (Karel IV) (1316 – 1378)

The First King of Bohemia to become Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV was crowned in 1346 and made Prague his capital, and the city played a significant intellectual and cultural role in Europe. A major patron of Prague, he also had the Charles Bridge built, established the first university in Central Europe, and founded the New Town in the capital city. He had Karlštejn Castle constructed to safeguard the crown jewels.

Jan Amos Comenius (1592 – 1670)

This 17th-century religious and educational reformer was fiercely Protestant, a member of the Unity of the Brethren denomination (also called Unitas Fratrum) and its last bishop. His work and life focus on his relationship with God, and he became a religious refugee on more than one occasion, residing in Sweden, the Holy Roman Empire, England, the Netherlands, and other countries. Jan Amos Comenius (Komenský in Czech) scribed influential textbooks, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and philosophical and theological studies. He even wrote one of the most significant works of Czech literature, the allegorical The Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart. Some of his reforms of the school system are still in use today. Comenius contributed greatly to universal education, and it is no wonder that he is considered a symbol of the Czech nation.

Ema Destinnova (1878 – 1930)

A Czech opera singer born in Prague, she started her career successfully in Berlin and later became a member of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, where she performed in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, and Wagner’s operas, for instance. Because she had connections with the Czech resistance, her Czech passport was revoked in 1914. Two years later, when returning to the Czech lands from the USA, the Austrians accused her of espionage and placed her under house arrest at her chateau in Bohemia. During 1918 she was back in the limelight, singing on Czech stages. Even the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš G. Masaryk, visited her at the chateau she called home. She died at the age of 51 and is buried among great contributors to the Czech nation at Vyšehrad Cemetery in Prague. She also wrote poems, songs, novels, and plays.

Alexander Dubcek (1921 – 1992)

Dubček is best known as the Slovak First Secretary of Czechoslovakia who instigated the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968 when the country experienced more freedoms as it seemed destined to find its own individual identity while remaining a Communist country in what was called “socialism with a human face.” Yet he also was a prominent politician before 1968 and after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. His life ended tragically on November 7, 1992.

Antonin Dvorak (1841 – 1904)

Neo-Romantic composer and head of Prague Conservatory, Dvořák was strongly influenced by Czech, Moravian, and other Slavic folk music. The creator of nine symphonies, he is best known for From the New World, which was inspired by a tour of the United States. His opera Rusalka has achieved worldwide acclaim. Dvořák also composed two sets of Slavonic dances, symphonic poems, songs, choral works, chamber music, and piano music, for instance.

Milos Forman (born 1932)

This film director, screenwriter, and professor greatly influenced the New Wave movement in the 1960s with movies such as Talent Competition, Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde, and The Fireman’s Ball. During this time period, he often focused on reality and everyday life, sometimes using individuals who had no acting experience to play key roles. After the Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring of 1968, he emigrated to the USA, where he experienced more success and often dealt with themes of alienation and craziness. His 1975 hit One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest nabbed five Oscars, and his 1984 creation Amadeus won eight Oscars. He also directed a film version of the musical Hair.

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)

The Austrian creator of psychoanalysis was born in Příbor, which was then a part of the Austrian Empire and today is located in Moravia. Freud spent the first three years of his life there (1856 – 1859) before his family moved to Leipzig and then to Vienna. After that, he emigrated to London. He is the author of many influential books and papers.

Josef Gocar (1880 – 1945)

One of the pioneers of modern Czech architecture, Gočár carried out significant projects in Prague, Pardubice, and Hradec Králové, to name a few places, implementing styles of Cubism, Rondocubism, Functionalism, and Constructivism. His contributions to architecture between the two world wars have distinguished him as one of the most significant personalities in Czech architectural history. From the House of the Black Madonna in Prague to the development plan of modern Hradec Králové to the Grand Hotel in Pardubice, his awe-inspiring creations spectacularly dot the Czech landscape.

George of Podebrady (1420 – 1471)

George (Jiří in Czech) of Poděbrady served as King of Bohemia from 1458 to 1471 and also was the leader of the Ultraquist Hussites, by no means a radical branch of the Hussites who fought each other and foreign armies in the Hussite Wars. He was successful on the battlefield during these wars. He defeated the Austrian troops of King Albert II in one battle and greatly contributed to the demise of the extreme Taborite branch of Hussites in another battle. Though he made many efforts to get the confidence of Pope Pius II, the Pope did not approve of him. He often found himself in conflicts with Rome. Pope Paul II excommunicated him when his nobles revolted against him.

Karel Gott (born 1939)

Dubbed the “Golden Voice of Prague” and the “Sinatra of the East,” singer and painter Karel Gott is perhaps best known for his romantic ballads. Yet his success – from 1960 to the present – is largely due to a diverse repertoire that includes operas, classical compositions, jazz, musicals, rock ‘n roll, country, western, and disco music. The most acclaimed singer in the country, he has performed all over the world. Under pressure from the totalitarian government, in 1977 Gott signed the anti-Charter, which supported the Communists and opposed Charter 77, a document that was forged by dissidents calling for human rights and taking a stance against the repressive regime.

Jan Grossman (1925 – 1993)

Grossman’s tenure as artistic director of Prague’s Divadlo Na zábradlí (The Theatre on the Balustrades) from 1961 to 1968 is considered one of the most significant eras of Czech postwar theatre. There, he directed Havel’s The Memorandum and The Garden Party, Jarry’s Ubu The King, and Kafka’s The Trial, to name a few. He was punished by the Communists on numerous occasions. After the February 1948 Communist coup, he was expelled from university, forced to leave his job as a lecturer for the National Theatre, and prohibited to publish for a lengthy period. When he again was able to take up work in the literary sphere, he edited books by significant Czech authors, including František Halas and Miroslav Holub. After the Soviet tanks crushed the 1968 Prague Spring, he was no longer allowed to direct in Czechoslovakia, so he worked abroad. Then, in 1975, the Communists took away his passport, so he had to work as a director outside of Prague. From 1989 to his death in 1993, he was back with Divadlo Na zábradlí, directing Havel’s Largo Desolato and Temptation as well as Moliere’s Don Juan and Bennett’s Kafka’s Dick.

Dominik Hasek (born 1965)

This legendary Czech goaltender was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November of 2014. His career spanned 16 seasons, as he represented the Chicago Blackhawks, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, and Detroit Red Wings. He also tended goals for Czech HC Pardubice and Spartak Moscow. Nicknamed “The Dominator,” he starred in the NHL from the 1990s to the early 2000s. From 1993 to 2001, he nabbed the NHL’s Vezina Trophy six times. He was a key player on the Red Wings when they captured the Stanley Cup in 2002. Hašek holds the distinction of having the highest career save percentage ever in the NHL (0.9223). He was 43 years old when he retired.

Jaroslav Hasek (1883 – 1923)

This writer, journalist, pubgoer, hoaxer, and anarchist is best known for his four-volume epic The Fortunes of the Good Soldier Švejk in the First World War, a picaresque novel focusing on the lovable idiot Josef Švejk, who messes up orders by taking them literally. The book expresses the plight of the common man in the dawn of a new age and is famous for its Czech humor and anecdotes. Hašek also excelled as a story writer – overall, he had about 1,500 stories published. The writer fought in World War I but was captured and placed in a POW camp in Russia. Then he joined the Czech Legion. The former bank clerk and dog seller was no stranger to prison, as he was sometimes jailed for his unruly, bohemian behavior.

Vaclav Havel (1936 – 2011)

The playwright-turned-president led Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic for a total of 13 years, shaping his nation into a Western-style democracy. He was the first President of Czechoslovakia to be elected in a democratic election in 41 years. Under his guidance, the Czech Republic became a member of NATO, and he contributed greatly to the Czech Republic’s acceptance into the European Union. He left the political scene in 2003, and in 2008 his play Leaving had its premiere and later was made into a film. Havel was one of the country’s top writers, scribing plays, essays, letters, poetry, memoirs, and speeches. He worked as a playwright and dramaturg at Prague’s Divadlo Na zábradlí during the 1960s, where his absurd plays such as The Memorandum, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, and The Garden Party were first staged. He helped instigate Charter 77, a document signed by dissidents, promoting human rights and opposing the repressive regime. Havel was incarcerated for his dissident activities under Communism several times. He spent almost four years in prison from 1979 to 1983.

Milada Horakova (1901 – 1950)

A champion of women’s rights and democratic principles, Horáková was executed by the Communists on June 27, 1950. Her opinions and criticism of the regime had made her a target for the Secret Police, who put her in prison on trumped-up charges of conspiring to overthrow the republic. A show trial, reminiscent of those during the Great Purges of the 1930s in the Soviet Union and enforced by Soviet advisors, ensued. She received the death penalty. Horáková’s hanging marked the death of an anti-Nazi and anti-Communist fighter who had fervently fought for democracy and the ideals of first Czechoslovak President Tomáš G. Masaryk.

Bohumil Hrabal (1914 – 1997)

This life-long pubgoer had a literary career that spanned six decades. He is noted for his grotesque, absurd, and irreverent humor and anecdotes and often wrote in the Prague dialect. While he is best known for his fiction, he scribed impressive poetry during his early years. Hrabal created the pábitel character, a dreamer living on the outskirts of society who often speaks in meandering, whimsical anecdotes. Hrabal held a myriad of jobs – train dispatcher, trainee lawyer, insurance broker, traveling salesman, paper baler, theatre stagehand, to name a few. He also worked at the Poldi steelworks in Kladno. After the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in August of 1968, the Communists made Hrabal a banned author. On February 3, 1997, he either fell or jumped to his death from a fifth-floor window of the hospital where he was receiving treatment. Hrabal’s works in English include Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, Harlequin’s Millions, Too Loud A Solitude, I Served the King of England, In-House Weddings, and Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, and Closely Watched Trains, which was made into a film by Czech director Jiří Menzel. The movie won an Oscar.

Rudolf Hrusinsky (1920 – 1994)

One of the greatest Czech actors of all time, Hrušinský hailed from a family famous for its contributions to theatre and film. After sojourns with E. F. Burian’s avant-garde D 39 Theatre and Prague’s Municipal Theatre, he became a member of the National Theatre, where he graced the stage from 1960 to 1992. When, in 1968, he signed dissident Ludvík Vaculík’s 2,000 Words, protesting against the totalitarian regime, Hrušinský was severely punished by the Communists: He could no longer teach at the theatre university or act in film or television or take part in radio broadcasts. Later he was permitted to take up acting again. Some of his dazzling performances on stage took place in the plays Ubu The King, Much Ado About Nothing, The Makropulos Thing, and The White Plague. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, he acted in Hrabal’s I Served The King of England along with one of his sons and his grandson. A prominent actor in films as well as in the theatre, he is known for his roles in the movies The Good Soldier Švejk, The Summer of Caprice, My Sweet Little Village, The End of Old Times, The Cremator, The Death of the Beautiful Deer and Larks on a String, to name just a few.

Jan Hus (1370 – 1415)

Hus was a religious reformer, priest, university lecturer, preacher, and Czech nationalist symbol who influenced Martin Luther. Inspired by the works of John Wycliffe, Hus played a major role in the development of Protestantism and stressed the moral weaknesses of the clergy when speaking from the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague’s Old Town. The Pope and Archbishop did not approve of his ideas. In 1414, he was called to defend himself at the Trial of Constance but was arrested immediately. He was burned at the stake as a heretic on July 6, 1415, a day considered the precursor to the Hussite Wars and now commemorated as a Czech national holiday. The Czech Brethren Church is made up of his followers even today. Hus also greatly contributed to the improvement of the Czech language, inventing diacritics. He was a prolific author as well.

Jaromir Jagr (born 1972)

One of the greatest ice hockey players of all time, right-wing Jaromír Jágr helped the Pittsburgh Penguins to Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 and guided the Czech National Team to gold in the Winter Olympics in Nagano in 1998. He has played for the New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars, and Boston Bruins. He also skated in Russia with Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League for three seasons. He served as captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Jágr has won numerous awards in the NHL, including the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer on five occasions.

John of Nepomuk (Saint) (1340/50 – 1393)

This martyr of the Catholic Church and national saint of Bohemia was tortured and drowned in Prague’s Vltava River. Historians argue about the reasons for his terrible fate. One possibility involves his being condemned to death by Bohemian King Wenceslas IV when he refused to divulge the queen’s secret confessions to the king as John of Nepomuk served as the queen’s confessor. Another version claims that King Wenceslas IV and John of Nepomuk disagreed on the appointment of a certain archbishop. He is now considered to be the patron saint against catastrophes, floods, and drowning.

Josef Jungmann (1773 – 1847)

This linguist, translator, and prose writer is considered to have laid the foundations for the modern Czech language, along with Josef Dobrovský. His most valuable work was his five-volume Czech-German dictionary, which includes the basis of modern Czech vocabulary. Jungmann put to use archaic words and borrowed words from other Slavic languages, and they became a part of the modern Czech language. He also authored novels and polemic works. Jungmann translated into Czech from German, French, and English, making the works of Milton, Schiller, and Goethe available to Czech speakers. Emperor Ferdinand presented him with a medal for his dictionary.

Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924)

This German-Jewish writer born and brought up in Prague authored The Trial, The Metamorphosis, The Castle, and In the Penal Colony, to name a few. He worked for many years as an insurance clerk. Kafka’s characters cannot communicate with others and find themselves consumed by anguish in absurd situations they cannot control. Kafka wrote of guilt and despair and satirical bureaucracy. Born next to the Old Town’s St. Nicholas Church, Kafka is buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in the Žižkov district.

Ivan Klima (born 1931)

This versatile writer of prose, plays, essays, feuilletons, and children’s books spent three and a half years in the Terezín concentration camp along with his parents, persecuted for their Jewish origins. Somehow they all survived. After the war, he joined the Communist Party but was expelled in 1967, reinstated in 1968, and expelled again in 1970. From 1970 he was a banned author, having to publish illegally in samizdat. Klíma has won numerous awards for his writing. Some of his books in English are Love and Garbage, My First Loves, My Golden Trades, Judge on Trial, and his autobiography, My Crazy Century.

Milan Kundera (born 1929)

One of the world’s most well-known and most translated Czech authors, Kundera has published poems, plays, prose, and essays. He has resided in France since 1975, and the Communists took away his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979. Under the totalitarian regime, his books were banned. His most significant works include the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), which was inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy, and his first novel, The Joke, which criticizes the totalitarian regime. His writings have been inspired not only by Nietzsche but also by Rabelais, Robert Musil, and Miguel de Cervantes, to name a few. Kundera used to write in Czech but since 1993 has written in French. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times.

Ivan Lendl (born 1960)

Born in Ostrava to two successful tennis players, Lendl continued the family tradition with a flourish, becoming the number one ranked player. He played a significant role in pro tennis during the 1980s and early 1990s and is considered to be one of the best players of all time. He has won eight Grand Slam singles titles while competing in 19 Grand Slam singles finals and nabbed 22 Championship Series titles. Overall he notched 94 singles titles. Lendl moved to the USA in 1981 and became a US citizen in 1992. Lendl retired in 1994 when he was 34 years old. An avid fan of Alphonse Mucha, Lendl owns an almost complete collection of this artist’s posters. An exhibition of his collection took place at Prague’s Municipal House in 2013.

Princess Libuse (pre-9th c.)

She is often revered as the “Mother of Bohemia.” According to legend, clairvoyant Libuše stood on a cliff on Vyšehrad Hill overlooking the Vltava River during the eighth century and predicted that Prague would be founded there. She and plowman Přemysl Oráč established the Přemyslid dynasty, which lasted from the 10th century to 1306.

Arnost Lustig (1926 – 2011)

This prolific Czech Jewish author concentrated on the Holocaust in his novels, short stories, plays, and screenplays. Lustig spent time in three concentration camps during World War II, and in 1945 he escaped and hid in Prague for the rest of the war. After the war, he became a member of the Communist Party, but he relinquished his membership in 1967. He was forced to leave the country after the Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring of liberal reforms in 1968. Lustig settled in the USA, and in the early seventies began teaching at The American University in Washington, D.C. After he retired from the school in 2003, Lustig moved back to Prague. Many of his novels are available in English: A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova, Dita Saxova, Night and Hope, Darkness Casts No Shadow, Lovely Green Eyes, Indecent Dreams, and others. Many of his novels have been adapted for the big screen. In 2008 Lustig was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Karel Hynek Macha (1810 – 1836)

This pioneer of Czech Romanticism died on November 6, 1836, at the tender age of 25. However, in such a short time he managed to found modern Czech poetry and authored works of prose as well. His best-known verse, one of the best poems in Czech literature, is May (Máj), a lyric epic poem about a prisoner about to be executed. It contains motifs of love, nature, and country. Yet his writings did not receive much praise during his lifetime, and May was his only book to be published when he was alive.

Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (1850 – 1937)

This philosopher, professor, and prolific author served as Czechoslovakia’s first president for three terms lasting 17 years. Guiding the government in exile during World War I, he advocated independence rather than autonomy. He believed in giving minorities the right to keep their national identities, freedom of the press, and universal suffrage. Masaryk traveled to Washington, D.C., and received the support of President Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I for a sovereign republic of Czechs and Slovaks, which was established as Czechoslovakia on October 28, 1918. He resigned for health reasons in 1935 and died less than two years later.

The Masin Gang

Ctirad (1930- 2011) and Josef Masin (born 1932), Milan Paumer (1931 – 2010), Zbynek Janata (1932 – 1955), and Vaclav Sveda (1921 – 1955). The five anti-Communist fighters making up the “Mašín Gang” are remembered for their acts of sabotage in the early 1950s as well as for their 1953 death-defying escape to the West that covered 200 miles in 28 days. The group consisted of brothers Ctirad and Josef Mašín, Milan Paumer, Zbyněk Janata and Václav Šveda. During two raids on police stations to obtain weapons, the group killed two police officers. Then they shot a wages clerk to obtain 846,000 Czechoslovak crowns. During their escape, they were responsible for the death of three East German police officers. Their actions have triggered heated debates about whether they are heroes or villains.

Gregor Johann Mendel (1822 – 1884)

The father of genetics and the laws of heredity often referred to as Mendel’s Laws was a German-speaking Moravian scientist, born in Heinzendorf (now Hynčice, Czech Republic). Mendel was educated at an Augustinian monastery in Brno where he also performed his experiments with plants. He founded the rules of heredity by examining seven characteristics of pea plants.

Jiri Menzel (born 1938)

This world-renowned director’s career in film was launched with his rendition of Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains, which won the 1966 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. My Sweet Little Village was nominated for an Oscar in 1985. Another film that achieved much success was Larks on a String, based on fiction by Hrabal. Other notable films he directed include the Summer of Caprice, The Beggar’s Opera, I Served the King of England, and the End of Old Times. Since the 1970s he has devoted time to directing in the theatre as well, even serving in that capacity abroad. He also made a name for himself as an actor, appearing in Closely Watched Trains, The Cremator, and Summer of Caprice, to name a few.

Alphonse Mucha (1860 – 1939)

The imaginative and passionate creations by legendary Art Nouveau painter and decorative artist Alphonse Mucha are well-known throughout the world, especially the idealized images of Sarah Bernhardt with her poignant, exhilarating gaze. An avid supporter of democratic Czechoslovakia, Mucha is also celebrated for his patriotic and folk art themes that celebrate not only the Czechoslovak nation but also Slav unity. He was certainly prolific, creating posters, books, magazine and book illustrations, stained glass windows, jewelry, theatre sets, costumes, and more. The Mucha style features beautiful, young women exuding optimism and happiness in extravagant, flowing robes designed in pale pastels. Flowers or crescent moons make halos around the bewitching figure’s head. Folk elements that are not only Czech but also Byzantine, Celtic, Rococo, Gothic and Judaic, among others, are characteristic, too. Tourists will not want to miss the opportunity to visit Prague’s Mucha Museum.

Martina Navratilova (born 1956)

Considered one of the best female tennis players of all-time, Martina Navratilová has an impressive list of accomplishments. She nabbed 20 Wimbleton titles and 18 Grand Slam titles. She remains the only player to ever rank first in both singles and doubles for over 200 weeks. She was the number one female in singles from 1982 to 1986. When she was given temporary residence in the USA in 1978 when the Communist government of her homeland took away her Czechoslovak citizenship. She became a US citizen in 1981. She also has made a name for herself as a tennis coach and has authored several books.

Jan Neruda (1834 – 1891)

This prolific writer of the Czech Realism movement was a poet, prose writer, journalist, playwright, literary critic, drama critic, and translator. He hailed from Prague’s Little Quarter, and his collection of short stories, Tales of the Lesser Quarter (1877) are imbued with the special and magical atmosphere of this district. As a journalist, he concentrated mostly on writing feuilletons and contributed greatly to the development of that genre. He wrote about everyday occurrences as well as exceptional events in Prague and its society. His prose also tended to be connected to Prague. As a poet, though, he was pessimistic and skeptical. He also translated poetry, legends, and national songs, for instance. He is buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad Cemetery, and the main street in the Little Quarter is named after him.

Jan Opletal (1915 – 1939)

This Charles University student was shot by German soldiers during the October 28, 1939 demonstrations against the Occupation. The strong believer in democracy died in the hospital on November 11, 1939. His public funeral in Prague, held on November 15, became a spontaneous demonstration and would be the last big demonstration against the Nazis in the Protectorate. As a result, on November 17, German soldiers beat and arrested many students, even executing some and sending others to a concentration camp. As a result of the demonstration at Opletal’s funeral, Hitler closed all Czech universities and dormitories for three years. Now November 17 is considered to be International Students’ Day and is a holiday in the Czech Republic.

Jan Palach (1948 – 1969)

The 20-year-old Charles University student set fire to himself on Wenceslas Square in Prague on January 16, 1969, protesting the lack of freedoms and passivity of Czech citizens. He died in the hospital from his injuries. Palach’s funeral at Prague’s Olšany Cemetery on January 25 turned into a huge demonstration against the Soviet Occupation. After Palach’s death, the Communists imposed the rigid rules of the normalization era. Commemorating the 20th anniversary of Palach’s sacrifice, Jan Palach Week in 1989 was marked by many demonstrations against the totalitarian regime, and police used brutality in response to the protests. Then dissident Václav Havel was arrested and imprisoned during Jan Palach Week.

Frantisek Palacky (1798 – 1876)

This Czech historian, writer, and politician who greatly influenced the Czech National Revival movement is often called “The Father of the Nation.” His mammoth literary accomplishment, The History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia is one of the most significant books in Czech history and remains an authority to this day. He traveled to archives all over Europe to do research on the work. Palacký, a nationalist and a Protestant, viewed Czech history as a constant battle between Slavs and Germans. He was also very active politically. During the Revolution of 1848 he took an anti-German stance. During the 1860s he joined the Austrian senate as head of a nationalist-federal party called the Old Czechs. He promoted the idea of Czech autonomy with Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia belonging to a Czech kingdom.

Premysl Otakar II (1233 – 1278)

Dubbed The Iron and Golden King, Přemysl Otakar II brought prosperity and prestige to the Czech lands as the fifth Czech leader, ruling from 1253 to 1278. With the exception of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, this energetic and well-educated ruler is the most revered Czech sovereign due to his penchant for promoting trade as well as making legal and other reforms. He created about 50 towns in Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Austria, and Styria and founded Prague’s Little Quarter (Malá Strana). He also had many castles built.

Jaroslav Seifert (1901 – 1986)

The only Czech to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Seifert was not only a poet, though he is best known for his works in this genre. He also worked as a journalist and translator, for instance. He published over 30 collections of poems. Seifert’s first poems appeared in 1921, and during the 1920s he was one of the founders of the influential journal Devětsil. Seifert signed Charter 77, a document calling for human rights and opposing the Communist regime. Even though his relationship with the Communist regime was complex, he was given the title of National Artist and received state prizes.

Emil von Skoda (1839 – 1900)

Thanks to this prominent and industrious Czech entrepreneur, Škoda Works (now Škoda Transportation) became the largest industrial business in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later in Czechoslovakia. At first, the enterprise focused on steel but also manufactured equipment for sugar refineries, malt houses, and breweries. Later it became one of the largest manufacturers of weapons in Europe. Now called Škoda Transportation, the company concentrates on making trams, electric locomotives, and rapid transit train systems.

Josef Skvorecky (1924 – 2012)

Nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1982, Škvorecký was a prolific and prominent writer on the postwar Czech literary scene. He is best known for his novels and stories, but he also wrote essays, translated works by authors such as Faulkner and Hemingway into Czech, and served as a university professor in Toronto, where he settled after fleeing Czechoslovakia during Communism. Along with his wife Zdena Salivarová, he founded one of the most influential publishing houses, specializing in literature by dissidents, ’68 Publishers in Toronto. In his first novel, The Cowards, he introduced the character who would feature in many of his literary creations, Danny Smiřický, a young man with a passion for jazz and girls. The book takes place in a fictional town mirroring Škvorecký’s hometown of Náchod at the end of World War II. In another novel, The Miracle Game, Danny turns up again, this time amidst the political events of the 1950s and 1960s. In The Engineer of Human Souls Danny is a university professor in Toronto. Life as an ex-pat, the trials and tribulations of living under Communist rule, and the magic of jazz are themes often found in Škvorecký’s works. Many of his books have been translated into English, including Miss Silver’s Past, The Swell Season, Dvořák in Love, and The Bass Saxophone. He also wrote a trilogy of mysteries featuring Lieutenant Boruvka. In 1990 Škvorecký received the prestigious Order of the White Lion award from then President of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel.

Bedrich Smetana (1824 – 1884)

An avid supporter of Czech nationalist identity, Smetana created an entirely new genre of Czech opera. He composed eight operas, including The Bartered Bride and Libuše. He examined Czech legends in his six symphonic poems called Má Vlast, and the Vltava movement in the symphony is performed on the opening night of the Prague Spring Music Festival. A museum in Prague honors the composer who strove to express characteristics of the Czech people in his music.

Josef Sudek (1896 – 1976)

Although one of his arms was amputated after he was wounded fighting for the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, Sudek managed to make a name for himself as one of the most renowned avant-garde photographers in the world and one of the most significant Czech photographers to work between the two world wars. Originally a bookbinder, he is best known for his photographs of Prague, including shots of the interior of St. Vitus’ Cathedral and many photographs of the city at night. He also took snapshots of the interior of his studio and of the views from its windows. Still lifes, landscapes, and advertisements also make up the repertoire of his creations. While he worked in the Pictorialist style during the 1920s, his artwork tends to fall into the category of Neo-Romantic.

The Three Kings

Josef Balaban (1894 – 1941), Josef Masin (1896 – 1942) and Vaclav Moravek (1904 – 1942). A major player in the Czech resistance movement during the Nazi Occupation, The Three Kings – a code name coined by the Nazis who hunted them – made significant contributions to the Czechoslovak cause from 1939 to 1942. Working for the resistance group Defense of the Nation set up by former army officers, protagonists Josef Balabán, Josef Mašín, and Václav Morávek relayed information about life in the Protectorate to the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London via radio transmitters. News often involved the movement of goods and German transport plus political and economic developments. These resistance fighters also carried out acts of sabotage by staging bomb attacks and setting fire to factories. They collected weapons for the resistance and helped with the publishing and distribution of the underground magazine V boj! as well. In addition, the three-man team helped agents escape from the Protectorate.

Josef Kajetan Tyl (1808 – 1856)

This playwright, journalist, writer, and actor wrote the words for the Czech national anthem, Where is my home? He served as actor, director, and playwright for an amateur group that performed plays in Czech at Prague’s Theatre of the Estates, where most of the performances were staged in German. After he left that theatre in 1846, he experienced the peak of his career as his collected works were published, and he received many awards. A key player in the Czech National Revival, he got embroiled in politics during the revolutionary year of 1848, when the Czechs voiced their desire for independence from the Habsburgs. Many of his 20 plays are still performed today. They basically take up three themes. Some focus on everyday life in Czech society while others describe historical events in the Czech lands. Still, others fall under the category of fairy tales.

Petr Vok of Rozmberk (Rosenberg) (1539 – 1611)

The last of the prominent Rožmberk (sometimes called Rosenberg) dynasty, Petr Vok of Rožmberk created magnificent Renaissance chateaus in Bechyně and Třeboň and influenced the development of Český Krumlov Castle, where he also spent his early childhood. His collection of artifacts and instruments was vast and extremely impressive. A Protestant nobleman during the Catholic Habsburg era of the Holy Roman Empire, he became the non-Catholic authority in the Czech lands.

Wenceslas (Saint) (ca. 907 – 935)

The first Czech saint and the patron saint of the Czech state, Wenceslas (Václav in Czech) served as duke of Bohemia from 921 until his death in 929 or 935. Though he died young, this martyr’s accomplishments were many. He built numerous churches in Bohemia and was deeply respected as a pious, moral, educated, and intelligent man who promoted the Christian faith and took care of the poor, the sick, the widowed, and the orphaned by doing charitable deeds. He even founded the rotunda of Saint Vitus at Prague Castle. He was executed at the site of the present-day city of Stará Boleslav, on the orders of his younger brother, Boleslav, who took over the Bohemian throne. At the top of Prague’s Wenceslas Square is a statue depicting the saint on horseback. It was erected in 1912.

Wenceslas III (1289 – 1306)

When Wenceslas III was murdered on August 4, 1306, it marked the end of the male line of the legendary Přemysl dynasty of rulers of Bohemia, a dynasty that hailed from the ninth century. The house of Luxembourg claimed the Bohemian throne in 1310. The teenage Wenceslas III ruled Hungary, Poland, and Bohemia for a brief period, but his time on the throne was marked by much friction with Hungary and Poland. Who murdered him while he was resting in a former deanery in Olomouc, Moravia is a mystery, but it is known that Wenceslas III had not yet turned 17 at the time of his tragic demise. Over the centuries his skeleton was lost.

Jan Werich (1905 – 1980)

Actor, dramatist, and screenwriter Jan Werich dazzled the public in both film and theatre productions. The comic duo of Werich and Jiří Voskovec transformed Czech avant-garde theatre between world wars while the man with the deep voice, the chubby cheeks, and glowing smile of Santa Claus continued to be a major influence on Czech culture after World War II until his death in 1980.

Jan Zizka of Trocnov (1360 1424)

One of the greatest military leaders of all time, Jan Žižka also holds the distinction of being one of seven military commanders in history to never lose a battle. His Hussite army was the first to use field artillery in battle, as Žižka employed unique and ingenious tactics. He brought armored wagons on which there were cannons and muskets into battles and was very successful. In the Battle of Kutná Hora in 1421 he defeated the Holy Roman Empire and Hungary. He led the Taborites during the Hussite Wars. Even going blind did not hinder him from leading his troops into battle.

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