Friday, May 22, 2009

Writing for you, Sasha

It’s a year to the day since the death of Hana Pravda, a Czech-born actress who had lived and worked in Britain since the late 1950s. Although not a household name, she appeared in many much-loved British series, and directed plays in the theatre also. However, in recent years, she became better known thanks to an extraordinary diary she had kept during the Second World War, and which was only rediscovered in the 1990s and then published to much acclaim.

Hana was born in 1916 at her grandparents’ house in Prague, into a middle class Jewish family. Her father trained as a lawyer but joined the Austro-Hungarian army; her mother died while she was still at school. Aged only 17 Hana acted in her first film, and she then went to study acting under Alexei Dikii in Leningrad. On returning to Prague, she married Alexander (Sasha) Munk, a student activist at the time, and the two of them moved to a small town in eastern Bohemia where they thought they would be safe from the Nazi persecution of Jews.

In 1942, however, they were captured and interned in various camps. Hana survived the war, but Sasha died at Kraslice, only days before the Germans surrendered in May 1945. Subsequently, Hana returned to acting. She married George Pravda, and they emigrated first to Australia and then to the UK, where she appeared frequently in television dramas, such as Survivors, Danger Man, Z-Cars and Tales of the Unexpected. She also directed many plays at the Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead, and continued to act for radio productions well into her 80s. She died on 22 May 2008, a year ago today, and was recognised by several of the British broadsheets with long obituaries - The Times, for example, and The Guardian.

All the obituaries mention her extraordinary diary, published to great acclaim in 2000 by Oxford-based Day Books - I Was Writing This Diary For You, Sasha. Here is how The Times describes the diary’s reappearance: ‘On Christmas Eve 1995 a parcel arrived at her London flat. It contained her wartime diary, barely legible, in its flimsy red notebook, and a photograph of Sasha. She had had to leave it behind in Prague in 1948. Attempts had been made to send it on, but it had been mislaid and forgotten for decades until a friend who had emigrated to Australia rediscovered it. After hesitating for fear of reviving old wounds she sent it on to Pravda, who initially ‘scrabbled on my hands and knees, reading snatches - I wanted to devour it’. ’

Day Books says: ‘Few diaries can have been written in more extraordinary circumstances than the one which a young Czech actress kept during the last few months of World War II. Not only was she on the run from the Nazis, following her dramatic escape from captivity: she was also searching desperately for her husband, whom she had last seen when they were prisoners together at Auschwitz.’ And it provides this quote from Hana’s diary: ‘One afternoon we saw a group of male prisoners walking past in the distance - too far away to talk to. They were clutching their grey prison blankets round their bodies, and all we could see of their faces were their huge staring eyes. They moved as slowly as ghosts. Would I recognise my Sasha among them? Would he recognise me? I think about him all the time.’

Other extracts can be found on Czech websites, Czech Radio and The Prague Post:

20 November 1945
‘I am in Prague. It’s eight years since you kissed me for the first time, Sasha.
After my show tonight we went to the U Šupů Restaurant, but it was all closed up, and inside it was completely dark. Now I am sitting in our favourite coffeehouse, the Union, at our table in the middle room. I’m warming my hands on a cup of tea, just as I used to in the old days. The street hasn’t changed at all. You’re sitting opposite me. Your mother has just left us. You’re the only person for me in the whole world . . . The only one. The world is empty and I can’t stand it. I want to die.’

30 November 1945 (the diary’s last entry)
‘My dearest. My beloved. Ask God to forgive me. Pray for my soul - the soul I am losing. I don’t want to live with a shattered soul. Please help me to die.’

In recent years, Edward Fenton, who runs Day Books, has given a few snapshots of Hana in his blog - A Publisher’s Diary - on the Day Books website. Here’s a couple of entries:

4 January 2009
‘ ‘I did not succeed in killing myself,’ Holocaust survivor Hana Pravda wrote on 4 January 1996. A few days earlier, her lost diary had been sent to her by a friend in Australia, and memories had come flooding back to her. After the war she had been so distressed that she had seriously considered suicide, and the diary ends on that note. Such despair wasn’t typical of her; she was always a fighter. It was a privilege for me to be able to work with her, and to publish her diary - along with the epilogue which she wrote over 50 years later, on this day 13 years ago.’

1 February 2006
‘To Greek Street for Hana Pravda’s surprise birthday party in a little private room above a place called the Gay Hussar. Hana had been expecting to have a family dinner, and hadn’t known till the very last minute that so many of her friends would be coming to pay tribute to her. Her three granddaughters were there - and her grandson, who’d flown in from the US - and various friends from her long career, including Tom Conti, who was clearly the guest of honour as far as Mrs Pravda was concerned. But tonight she was the star. What an amazing life she’s had - and how amazing that she was there - still.

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