Our mothers didn’t die like this.
Today is the 65th anniversary of the death of a remarkable woman. Milada Horáková was arrested in Prague in 1949 and tried in the 1950 show trial that made the world stand still. She was condemned to death on trumped up charges of treason and being an enemy of the state.
The night before her execution, she was granted 30 minutes with her 16-year old daughter, Jana. After Jana left, Milada was allowed to write three letters: one to her husband, one to her sister, and one to Jana. The letter to Jana never reached her, but it survived. Jana first saw the letter in 1970 when it was published in some kind of underground paper. (I’ve quoted parts of the letter at the end of this blog along with a link to the entire letter.)
After spending the entire night writing her letters, Milada Horáková was brutally executed by hanging (the only woman to be hanged by the communists) in the early hours of June 27, 1950. She was 48 years old.
My connection to this historical figure—this incredibly brave woman, “mother, lawyer, social worker, humanitarian, enemy of dictatorship”—who sacrificed everything for her country, is through a book I’ve written about her colleague and friend who was also condemned to death in the show trials. His sentence was later reduced to 22 years hard labor in the Uranium mines, hence the reason I was able to meet him and write the book about him 50 years later. (The book will be published this fall in Prague, in Czech and English.)
But more important, my connection to her is through my husband’s father and through her only daughter, Jana Horáková Kansky, whom I have the privilege and honor of knowing. She spent many hours telling me the story of her parents, and her own story. The one thing she would not talk about was the content of the visit with her mother that fateful night.
My husband’s father and mother are buried in the Milada Horáková tomb in the National Cemetery in Prague, along with other brave souls who fought for a free Czechoslovakia. No one knows where Milada herself is buried. Jana told me that when she comes to Prague, she visits the tomb and three cemeteries with the hope that she’s visiting her mother.
Having lost my own mother four years ago, this letter reaches more deeply into my soul than I ever imagined. I have no further words; the heartbreak is too profound. Here are some of Milada’s words to her only little girl Jana:
My only little girl Jana,
God blessed my life as a woman with you. As your father wrote in the poem from a German prison, God gave you to us because he loved us. Apart from your father’s magic, amazing love you were the greatest gift I received from fate. However, Providence planned my life in such a way that I could not give you nearly all that my mind and my heart had prepared for you. The reason was not that I loved you little; I love you just as purely and fervently as other mothers love their children.
But I understood that my task here in the world was to do you good by seeing to it that life becomes better, and that all children can live well. And therefore, we often had to be apart for a long time. It is now already for the second time that Fate has torn us apart. Don’t be frightened and sad because I am not coming back any more. Learn, my child, to look at life early as a serious matter. Life is hard, it does not pamper anybody, and for every time it strokes you it gives you ten blows. Become accustomed to that soon, but don’t let it defeat you. Decide to fight. Have courage and clear goals and you will win over life. Much is still unclear to your young mind, and I don’t have time left to explain to you things you would still like to ask me.
…Go through the world with open eyes, and listen not only to your own pains and interests, but also to the pains, interests and longings of others. Don’t ever think of anything as none of your business. No, everything must interest you, and you should reflect about everything, compare, compose individual phenomena. Man doesn’t live in the world alone; in that there is great happiness, but also a tremendous responsibility.
…You have to put down your roots where fate determined for you to live. You have to find your own way. Look for it independently, don’t let anything turn you away from it, not even the memory of your mother and father. If you really love them, you won’t hurt them by seeing them critically—just don’t go on a road which is wrong, dishonest and does not harmonize with life. I have changed my mind many times, rearranged many values, but, what was left as an essential value, without which I cannot imagine my life, is the freedom of my conscience. I would like you, my little girl, to think about whether I was right.
…And don’t forget about love in your life. I am not only thinking of the red blossom which one day will bloom in your heart, and you, if fate favors you, will find a similar one in the heart of another person with whose road yours will merge. I am thinking of love without which one cannot live happily. And don’t ever crumble love—learn to give it whole and really. And learn to love precisely those who encourage love so little—then you won’t usually make a mistake. My little girl Jana, when you will be choosing for whom your maiden heart shall burn and to whom to really give yourself remember your father.
I don’t know if you will meet with such luck as I, I don’t know if you will meet such a beautiful human being, but choose your ideal close to him. Perhaps you, my little one, have already begun to understand, and now perhaps you understand to the point of pain what we have lost in him. What I find hardest to bear is that I am also guilty of that loss.
…Janinko, please take good care of Grandfather Kral and Grandmother Horakova. Their old hearts now need the most consolation. Visit them often and let them tell you about your father’s and mother’s youth, so that you can preserve it in your mind for your children. In that way an individual becomes immortal, and we shall continue in you and in the others of your blood.
…I kiss your hair, eyes and mouth, I stroke you and hold you in my arms (I really held you so little.) I shall always be with you. I am concluding by copying from memory the poem which your father composed for you in jail in 1940…
[There followed a poem written by her husband about the birth of their daughter, and a reading list.]
For the entire letter, here is a link:
For details of Milada Horáková’s incredible life, there are a number of websites. Here are two:
Moved to tears.
Thank you for this!
This moves me so deeply. The letter speaks of the deepest truths…most especially about love…the kind of love that is strength itself. Because my family has been profoundly effected by the Holocaust I knew that I needed to work in Amnesty International as soon as I left UCSC. In those days Vaclav Havel and so many others were in prison, a hundred thousand prisoners of conscience were starving on an island prison in the Far East, the U.S. was giving official training on how to torture to the military in Latin America. And so it continues …We cannot stop caring. In the eyes of a single person one sees the face of God. Grateful to honor with you the memories of Milada and all who who have lived with courage in the midst of enormous pain; their light is our inspiration. Your book is important. Thank you. Please tell Pavel that I wrote him a few months ago … not certain if the email got lost. Just hope you both are well. Dalya (Char)
Thank you for this, it is humbling and awe inspiring.
Thank you for your comment, Jane. I think a lot of people were put off by this post as it’s so tragic and serious. But it’s a part of life and we should never forget the courageous struggles of those (women especially) who came before us.