When I think of Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz, one word immediately comes to mind. Vivacious.
I only knew her during the second half of her life, so I can only imagine what a vivacious force she must have been when she was younger. One is obliged to use another cliché and say her eyes sparkled. She tended to look directly at the face of the person she was speaking with, without glancing away, so that one immediately found the experience both strange and wonderful.
One sensed Markéta must have had an extraordinarily high I.Q. and yet, there she was, focusing her energies on… YOU. To be the focus of someone who was so highly intelligent, good and kind as Markéta was weirdly invigorating. Here was someone who was a close friend of Vaclav Havel and who had married a brilliant academic and yet, there she was, making YOU feel seemingly important and galvanizing. She had a keen sense of intellectual curiosity but there was also a deep-seated kindness to her. It was not measured. She was generous by instinct. Perhaps another way of trying convey why and how she was a special person is simply this: If you had to be stuck in a crowded lifeboat, drifting in the middle of an ocean, with only a scant chance of rescue, you would choose to be in a lifeboat with her.
An obituary appeared the Vancouver Sun newspaper in November of 2022. The obituary notice is brief but true:
Markéta, Professor Emerita in the Department of Central Eastern and Northern European Studies at UBC, and the author of many seminal books on Czechoslovak dissident literature, died peacefully on November 6, 2022, at her home in Vancouver, in her ninety-sixth year. She will be remembered forever with love and gratitude.
Markéta was many things– an eloquent writer, passionate friend, devoted wife, loving daughter, inspirational teacher, intelligent critic, patron of the arts, and so much more. Perhaps most significantly, she was a heroic champion of the Czech intelligentsia who were banned when the Soviet-backed invasion of Czechoslovakia shut down the famous Prague Spring in 1968.
In 1948, Markéta and her parents emigrated to Toronto, where she attended University College at the University of Toronto.
She spent her teaching career at UBC where she met Wladyslaw Stankiewicz, the Polish-born political theorist and philosopher whom she married in 1965. Wladek died in 2006.
From 1973 until 1989, when the communist regime in the Czech Republic finally collapsed, Markéta and her mother, Helen, made annual visits to Prague where she connected with the dissident writers whose works were banned by the Soviets. She earned the love and respect of these intellectuals and was a guest of honour at the inauguration of Václav Havel, when he became president of the new democracy.
During her long career, she received many honours but the award that meant the most to her was her induction into the Ordo Scriptores Bohemici, The Order of Czech Writers, conferred upon her in a secret ceremony in 1988, by Havel and other dissident writers.
Markéta was also a passionate lover of music, especially opera and an avid skier, hiker and long-distance walker. She delighted in cats and dogs (“sugar bears”) and everything in nature.
It is impossible to overstate the affection that Markéta evoked in so many people. Even as her strength began to fade, she stayed in touch with her multitude of “bestests”.
We are all grateful to Nora Bartolome for her love and devotion in caring for Markéta in the last fourteen months of her life. And we are grateful that Markéta’s passage from this world was gentle and serene. Not gone, just gone ahead.
This obituary does not mention that Markéta was born in Czechoslovakia in 1927. While Vaclav Havel was imprisoned by the Communist Party, she edited The Vanek Plays, Four Authors, One Character (UBC Press 1987), which featured Havel’s fictional Ferdinand Vanek as a dissident playwright. She later edited The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights Without A Stage and Critical Essays on Vaclav Havel (G.K. Hall, 1999). Before she joined the Department of Central Eastern and Northern European Studies at University of British Columbia, she taught at UBC as a professor of Comparative Literature.
I first met Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz back in early 1980s when a young theatre director named Kico Gonzalez-Risso was presenting sophisticated plays by non-English writers at Kits House on 7th Avenue in Kitsilano. I was the theatre critic for Georgia Straight. One of his ambitious presentations was Life is a Dream, the Spanish-language play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca that was first published in 1636. He also presented a play in 1984 called Protest by a Czech playwright I’d never heard of: Václav Havel. Other Czech plays he did were Fire in the Basement (1983) and Permit, both by Pavel Kahout. Markéta facilitated Kohout coming to Vancouver to see the English premiere with an original translation. In 1988, Gonzalez-Risso directed the western Canadian premiere of Hável’s The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, a play that Markéta said was Hável’s favourite of his plays. As the aphorism goes, “Aim high. There’s plenty of room up there.”
Later, my paths crossed with Markéta in the 1990s when I was the publisher/editor of BC BookWorld. Again, I think the connection was Hável. Quite possibly I provided some publicity for a new collection of plays, translated into English, that she had brought to my attention. I have literally written about more than 12,000 authors for a reference site I created called ABCBookworld and I can safely say only one author of those 12,000 people has ever been so graciously appreciative of my attention that they brought me a bottle of very expensive Czechoslovakia liquor, impossible to get in Canadian liquors stores, as a way of saying thank you. It was the national drink, Becherovka, a herbal bitter liqueur also used as a digestive aid. That bottle stayed on a shelf for several years, not because it had such an unusual taste but because I valued it as an unusual gesture.
Most writers presume they are owed attention and are easily peeved when it is not afforded. Markéta was a very different sort of writer. She was someone always far more concerned with human values than her own ego. This struck me once more, about two decades later, beyond the “aughts” (decade 2000 to 2009), when I attended an 80th birthday gathering for a publisher named Ronald Hatch who had had the gumption to produce a large volume of work to honour Markéta’s husband, the world-renowned-but-little-known-in-Canada political scientist Wladyslaw Stankiewicz. They married in 1965. That evening Markéta was a bit smaller in terms of her height, but her vitality was undiminished. She remained genuinely curious about what I was doing; seemingly void of the need for any reciprocal investigation for herself. Because she was someone who was always smiling, her face was deeply rippled with crevices from smiling so much. She made me think of a Buddhist monk.
All of which is a prelude to describing my last two meetings with her…
Having decided I must gather as much information as possibly about Rudolf Vrba, and realizing there would soon be nobody left on the planet who knew him at all, I set about interviewing people in Vancouver who knew him. These videos were then edited so that significant statements or anecdotes, etc. could be posted on the new Vrba website at www.rudolfvrba.com. I found eight men and only two women. One was Helen Karsai who was born in the Slovakian border town of Zilina where Vrba and his fellow Auschwitz escapee Alfred Wetzler recorded their whistleblowing testimonies for the Vrba-Wetzler Report. The other was Markéta.
By this time, during the final year of her life, Markéta was still living in an apartment block on West 10th Avenue in Vancouver, within half-a-block of the UBC Gates, aka the entrance to the campus of the University of British Columbia. Although she had a caregiver by this time, she was still capable of making her way on the elevator to the lobby of her building. She was using a walker for safer mobility but she retained her vibrant spirit. Unsurprisingly, she exhibited a complete lack of self-pity for the ravages of time. I told her about my project and she eagerly agreed to be interviewed.
I was delighted. Here was a rare person in Vancouver who had been able to converse with Rudi in his native tongue, someone who had known Rudi as a fellow university professor at UBC for decades, someone who had lived near Rudi and his wife Robin for decades (the two couples socialized) and someone had spent countless hours in private conversation with Rudi when they went on walks together… Better yet, here was a woman who knew him.
Ostensibly, I was going to interview Markéta on the campus so she could show me where Rudolf and Robin had lived. We set a date (as soon as possible because I could see her faculties might soon be failing). Most of the houses on the UBC campus had long since been demolished and I already knew the address where the Vrbas had lived atop an apartment complex, so Markéta’s views of Rudi as a neighbour were not really my primary interest. I wanted to interview Markéta because she was a deeply compassionate, highly perceptive and curious, charming woman. If anyone could tell me about Rudi’s seemingly tragic estrangement from his two daughters, and the heartbreak that arose when Rudi learned his eldest daughter had seemingly committed suicide on the other side of the world, surely that person would be Helen Karsai (who I had already interviewed), Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz or else Robin Vrba. The latter lived in New York and I had yet to meet her.
When the camerawoman and I picked up Markéta from her apartment lobby about a week later, Markéta was perky and keen for a mini-adventure. She apologized when we easily lifted her red walker into our vehicle. She was still capable of walking without it but she was at that stage when an elder does not want to risk another fall. Once the camera was on its tripod, it only took a few minutes to comprehend that Markéta could not remember exactly where on the huge campus she used to live. This was not due solely to fading memories. Vancouver’s extremely competitive real estate market had led to the unnecessary but lucrative demolition of nearly all privately-owned houses. The UBC campus Rudolf Vrba and Markéta knew was a victim of urban renewal.
Even if she wasn’t entirely making sense on camera in every sentence, Markéta was a lively and likeable interview subject. She had “presence” to spare. When she proceeded to describe her unusual friendship with Rudi—how, when she once initially suggested they should walk together, and he said he preferred to walk alone, she had simply opted to not take no for an answer—it became clear that theirs was a frank, multi-faceted and often jovial friendship. Markéta had a brave heart and presumably “it takes one to know one.”
Marketa was not born Jewish, and she had never made a famous escape from a concentration camp, but here was someone who had been lauded as a “heroic champion of Czech intelligentsia.” Vaclav Havel, himself a writer, had secretly inducted her into the Order of Czech Writers in 1988. Markéta had a clear understanding of European history. And they could laugh at the same jokes in their own native languages. Sometimes they also conversed in German.
Rudi’s marriages did not yet concern me. I already had two volumes of autobiography by Gerta Vrbova (the second of which in 2010 was dedicated to Rudi’s eldest daughter, Dr. Helena Vrbova, who was named after Rudi’s mother) and I was hoping to eventually contact Robin Vrba, but only after I was as knowledgeable as possible from my Vancouver contacts, some of whom were Robin’s close friends. Instead, I wanted to ask Markéta about Rudi’s relations with his daughters.
I must have talked to Markéta on camera for at least half-an-hour. The only content I clearly recall months later was Markéta’s response when I asked her about Helena’s suicide. Did they ever discuss it? Having met Rudi, I could sense that he was the sort of man who needed to feel he was the cock of the walk. It was important to never show weakness. But Markéta was a sympathetic, intelligent female – not a male rival. Therefore, if there was anyone, beyond his wife Robin Vrba, who might be able to shed some light on the greatest private tragedy of Rudolf Vrba’s life, it was likely Markéta. Unquestionably, he was a brave and great man who had been able to spill the beans about the greatest human tragedy of the 20th century—or possibly the greatest human tragedy of all-time—but had he been able to bring himself to confide his pain arising from the loss of his daughter to suicide?
He could not. Markéta did bring up the subject of Rudolf’s daughters and she could clearly recall being rebuffed. There was a clarity to her answer that struck me as highly credible. She was not confused. She was not being forgetful. When elders start to lose their memory, it’s generally the most recent stuff that gets jettisoned first. This was an incident that occurred decades before. From Markéta’s interview, I believe Rudolf Vrba was burdened by a personal tragedy that perhaps haunted him as much as Auschwitz. Although Rudolf Vrba had proved himself as an exemplary hero for sharing the truth about Auschwitz with the world-at-large, apparently he had been incapable of sharing his thoughts or feelings on the subject of Helena’s suicide with one of his closest and must trusted friends.
Next: THE VRBA PAPERS