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September 27, 2022



Czech foundation established by Olga Havlová recalls what she honored while she lived: Freedom, justice, and respect for others

20.7.2022 9:25
Olga Havlová (PHOTO: Ondřej Němec)
Olga Havlová (PHOTO: Ondřej Němec)

For more than 30 years, the Committee of Good Will – Olga Havlová Foundation (Výbor dobré vůle - Nadace Olgy Havlové) has been aiding people living with disabilities, abandoned children, the chronically ill, senior citizens and those on the outskirts of society with living dignified lives; when it was established in 1990 by Havlová during her time as the First Lady of a democratic Czechoslovakia and the wife of President Václav Havel, it was one of the first charity organizations and meant new hope for many living in difficult situations. "Back then it was a lighthouse in a sea of suffering," says Monika Granja, the director of the organization. 

"People contacted the committee from all over the country who needed aid with the broadest possible range of rough situations. One person might not have access to a wheelchair, another couldn't access medication, somebody else wanted to leave institutional care to live independently, another just needed a coat," Granja recalls. 

"The employees and volunteers of the foundation responded to hundreds of letters every week and found the assistance needed," Granja describes the beginning of its work. Czechoslovaks living outside the country also offered a helping hand in the beginning. 

"Czech citizens living abroad also joined the work of the Committee of Good Will, establishing sister organizations and arranging aid for what was Czechoslovakia at that time," Granja describes the turbulent developments after the Velvet Revolution. Truckloads of wheelchairs, medications, and other health care equipment headed to the country as a result. 

Camps to restore the health of children from North Bohemia were organized, as were seaside vacations for children living with disabilities. The Committee also concentrated on educating physicians, buying medical equipment that was lacking, awarding scholarships to disadvantaged students and educating the public. 

The good angel behind the foundation was the First Lady, Olga Havlová. "She managed to generate an enormous wave of solidarity and many people and enterprises joined her to aid the needy," Granja recalls.

An exceptional figure

27 January 2022 marked the 26th anniversary of Havlová's death at the age of 62 from cancer, and news of the death of the much-loved First Lady in the winter of 1996 touched many hearts. Olga had been born to a family of impoverished workers, and despite never learning any foreign languages, she won admiration and respect through the natural charm of her personality alongside President Václav Havel. 

However, she much preferred her work at the charity, which genuinely fulfilled her, to her obligatory participation at state events. Today the Committee's website features this quote from the now-deceased Dr. Milena Černá, Olga's friend of many years and a former director of the foundation, recalling her funeral: "It was a bitterly cold January that year, and many will remember that endless line of people with flowers who wanted to lay them at the chapel in the south wing of Prague Castle where Olga's remains were laid to rest and to sign the book of condolences." 

"Just one month before that, when Olga was seriously ill, she had spoken with the people from the foundation about basic changes that had to be made," Dr. Černá is quoted as having said. Of the outpouring of respect for his late wife, President Havel said at the time: "They came because their hearts told them to come." 

A girl from Žižkov

Olga Havlová Street in Prague's Žižkov quarter is named in her honor and reminds us where Olga came from and what kind of environment formed her during her childhood and youth. Žižkov was an impoverished neighborhood back then and home to many people of dubious reputation, a place where brawls in the pubs and the streets happened on a daily basis. 

Olga always embraced Žižkov, though, and was proud to be from there. "I grew up mainly on the street, I was wild and disobedient. I recognized no authority. I read what I wanted and I went to see films that were banned. I had to take care of the children of my sister who is 11 years older than me. There were five of them," she is quoted as revealing in the documentary film "Olga", which was produced in 2014 by director Miroslav Janek and is based on interviews she gave over the years.

As a person, Olga was distinctly formed by the backup and the environment provided by the Milíčův dům in Žižkov. That facility served as a shelter for local children from impoverished families who would otherwise have been wandering the streets.  

A facility of that kind was exceptional in those days, not just in Czechoslovakia, but anywhere in Europe. In 1933, which happens to have been the year of Olga's birth, it was established by the humanist and social worker Přemysl Pitter. 

Under the supervision of the tutors there, the children not only attended hobby groups, played sports and did their homework, but were also bathed, clothed and fed if necessary. "The tactful approach of our tutors, who behaved beautifully toward us, distinctly formed our personalities," recalled Mrs. Blanka Sedláčková who, in 1991, was bestowed the Order of T. G. Masaryk on behalf of Přemysl Pitter in memoriam by President Václav Havel.  

Blanka Sedláčková had attended the Milíčův dům herself during the Second World War and its aftermath, became a co-worker of Pitter's as an adult, and had known Olga since childhood. "Back then they had a waiting list for accepting children into the Milíčův dům because there was such demand for it, but Olga - a lively, temperamental, instinctive child - just climbed the fence and was here!" she described their first meeting.    

The journey to the foundation

When President Havel gave the award in memoriam for Přemysl Pitter, he spoke of how much Pitter had influenced Olga and the deep impression of social sensitivity he left with her. As a believing Christian, Pitter also made sure to inculcate the children he cared for with moral values and that, too, fundamentally influenced her.

"During one memorial event for Mrs. Olga Havlová, Bishop Václav Malý said that while she had not been a practicing believer, she was a good Christian. She honored freedom, justice, respect for others, and she had a strong social sensitivity," Granja says. 

"For that reason it is no accident that at the beginning of the 1990s, along with her dissident friends, she established the Committee of Good Will and broadcast a message to the world that she wanted, through such work, to aid with developing humanitarian values in society, to strive for respect for the rights of disadvantaged citizens, and to advocate for changes in the attitudes that are taken toward such people," Granja says. The Přemysl Pitter Church Nursery and Primary School, also associated with that important figure, was considered exemplary by Olga. 

The school is in an excluded locality in Ostrava, and at the beginning of the 1990s it employed assistants of Romani origin and paid attention to inclusive education, which was an almost revolutionary affair at the time. The current principal at that school, Martin Blatoň, is convinced that the direction in which the school headed back then was the right one and is continuing it to this day.

"At our school, the majority of children are Romani, and therefore it is quite advantageous to also have assistants of Romani origin who understand their issues and have close ties to the community," he says. The school also sees to it that the moral principles and the Ten Commandments that it teaches to its pupils are upheld. 

Olga also naturally had great empathy for people living with disabilities because she knew what it was like to live with one that was physical. As an adolescent, she lost four fingers on her left hand while on the job in a shoe workshop trying to fix a jammed press that suddenly restarted on its own.

Post-revolution transformations

"Over the years, other nonprofit organizations sprang up and began to specialize in addressing specific subjects. It was no longer necessary to provide aid everywhere, and the committee was able to concentrate on just a few areas and intensify its assistance in them," Granja describes the changes that happened after the Velvet Revolution.

"However, it continued to be the case that the foundation provided aid where it was most needed. For that reason, the programs assisting senior citizens, the chronically ill, people living with disabilities and those who have ended up on the outskirts of society were preserved," Granja says.

Today these are, for example, the Senior program, which concentrates on aiding senior citizens with having an active, dignified experience of their old age; the Palliative Care program supporting hospice care as well as the family members of either adults or children with incurable diseases; and the Housing First program, which provides aid to homeless people; in addition to its longterm projects, the foundation also always immediately has reacted and continues to react to the acute problems in society, and for that reason joined the assistance efforts to the victims of the destructive floods in 1997 and in 2002; announced it would provide extraordinary help to social service providers during the COVID-19 epidemic; aided the victims of the tornadoes in Moravia; and has also joined the Summer of Mercy debt relief effort. During the entire existence of the committee, support for the Romani minority has permeated the foundation's projects. 

One such program is called Life as Usual, through which nonprofit organizations aid people living "beyond the bounds of life as usual" with rejoining society. The foundation also awards scholarships to disadvantaged youth attending high schools and universities.

"One of our scholarship recipients was the very gifted Romani student Tomáš Kačo, now a famous piano virtuoso who is demonstrating through his example that despite conditions that are difficult at the start, one can pursue one's dreams and also inspire others," Granja describes one result of the foundation's scholarship program. The complete list of the activities undertaken by the committee is quite a broad one and is not just about its own programs and projects. 

In 2014, for example, the committee gave its auspices to a new award category within the prestigious Czech Press Photo competition called "My life with a handicap". The winner in that category in 2017 was Michal Babinčák, a photographer from Slovakia who won with a photograph called "Life" taken in an excluded Romani locality in Slovakia. 

The black-and-white photograph shows a newborn and a little girl with polio sleeping side by side in a bed in a simple room inside a prefabricated apartment building. Babinčák spent several years putting together his photographs of the Romani settlement. 

He said he appreciated winning the prize not just because the competition is highly prestigious, but also because it had been awarded under the auspices of the Olga Havlová Foundation. The photographer does his best to capture not just the hard life of the Romani settlements, but also the beauty hidden there. 

"In modern society we have lost some of the freedom we had as children. We are much more cautious and we see the different dangers around us," Babinčák said. 

"In the Romani settlements, people leave their doors open, you can enter their homes and nobody will ask what you are doing there," he described his experience. One year later, the same award was also won by the photographer Petr Zewlakk Vrabec, who collaborates with the editorial board of Romano voďi magazine, for a photograph series called "Evictions of Families with Children from a Residential Hotel in Ústí nad Labem".    

From Hrádeček to Prague Castle 

Olga's memoirs give the impression that the threads of her fate and that of Václav ("Vašek) Havel were already spun together from childhood. "When I was little, I used to go for ice cream to the Barrandov Terraces, which Vašek's father built," we can hear in the excerpts selected from her memoirs for the documentary film "Olga".

"Mama would put on her hat, we all put on our Sunday best and it was beautiful, those Sundays," she is quoted as saying. She and Havel met in Prague's renowned Café Slavia when he was 17 and she was three years older. 

Havel liked her so much that he immediately asked her to go out with him, but she refused, saying he was too young and should wait; he did, and when he asked her again three years later, she agreed. "I said yes, but that it would not be easy to win me over," she later recalled. 

"Eventually it turned out it was even harder to win Václav over," she commented.  It was their love for the theater that had brought them together. 

They both worked at the Divadlo na zábradlí theater in Prague, Olga as an usher and Václav as a stagehand and later as a playwright. In 1968, Czechoslovakia was occupied by Soviet troops, determining their fate. 

Havel made no secret of his opinions, politically, and ended up on the blacklist of the state security forces for writing and signing Charter 77. In those days he was resorting more and more to living at his cottage in a place called Hrádeček in the foothills of the Krkonoše mountains. 

Dissidents gathered there and Olga spent most of the time that Václav was in prison living there. They were followed there the entire time by the state security forces, who set up shop in a small wooden house in a meadow opposite the property. 

After the Velvet Revolution, Olga went from being the Czech dissident movement's "first lady" at Hrádeček (which means "little castle") to becoming the Czechoslovak First Lady. She moved in to Prague Castle, the seat of the presidency. 

Olga never forgot who she was, not even in that new role. "Pride is getting the better of you," they say she used to tell her husband and his co-workers when it seemed to her they were not being humble enough. 

Dr. Černá, speaking years ago in an interview for Radiožurnál, recalled this of Olga:  "She was absolutely truthful. She was a direct person." 

"She told everybody what she thought," Dr. Černá said. "It was not always pleasant, and some people were afraid of her."

"She had blue eyes, and if she looked at you, it was like an X-ray," her lifelong friend described her. They also say Olga had an absolutely easy-to-follow recipe for life: Eat a good breakfast so you have the strength to face the challenges of the day.

First published in Czech in Romano voďi magazine. 


Jana Donovan, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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