Award snub of Canadian Holocaust survivor sparks political firestorm in Czech Republic

The decision by the Czech president to withdraw a state honour for a Czech-born Canadian Holocaust survivor has set off a political firestorm in the country and sparked outrage that the action might be part of an effort to appease China.

Revoking of state honour reportedly linked to nephew, a Czech politician, and his meeting with Dalai Lama

Czech-Canadian Holocaust survivor George (Jiri) Brady might have become collateral damage in a political dispute between his nephew, who is the Czech culture minister, and Czech President Milos Zeman. (Filip Singer/EPA)

The decision by the Czech president to withdraw a state honour for a Czech-born Canadian Holocaust survivor has set off a political firestorm in the country and sparked outrage that the action might have been triggered by an effort to appease China.

It seems that Toronto resident George (Jiri) Brady has become collateral damage in a dispute between the country's Culture Minister Daniel Herman and Czech President Milos Zeman. Zeman is said to have rescinded the honour as political payback against Herman, Brady's nephew, who reportedly angered both Zeman and China by meeting with the Dalai Lama earlier this month. 

Brady, who was to be recognized for his work on Holocaust remembrance, was to receive the prestigious Order of T. G. Masaryk at a ceremony at the Prague Castle on Oct. 28 as part of the celebration of the country's Independence Day.

I've got so many medals that I may have trouble taking them on the airplane.- George Brady, 88, Czech-Canadian Holocaust survivor

The apparent award snub has prompted a deluge of new honours for the 88-year-old Canadian as politicians, institutions and citizens have rallied to support him and expressed outrage over Zeman's actions.

"It's just so unbelievable. I never would have imagined what will happen here," Brady, who was born in what was then Czechoslovakia, said in a phone interview from Prague.

"I've got so many medals that I may have trouble taking them on the airplane," he said. "I'm getting them right and left."

'People stop me on the street'

For days, the controversy has led newscasts and generated headlines across the country. Despite learning he wouldn't be getting the award, Brady and his family still came to Prague, where he has been bombarded with interview requests and has been enjoying his newfound celebrity status.

Photographers snap pictures of Brady at a rally in Prague's Old Town Square, where he received a medal from Palacky University. The 88-year-old has become a local celebrity since being snubbed by the country's president. (Lara Brady)

"People stop me on the street, and they want to shake hands, they want to take pictures," said Brady, whose Holocaust experiences, along with those of his sister, Hana, are detailed in the book and CBC documentary Hana's Suitcase.

In the wake of the snub, Brady has been honoured by everyone from the Prague mayor, who gave him the symbolic key to the city, to the prime minister, who presented him with a medal, to the Czech parliament, which held a special session in his honour.

He accepted one of his awards — a medal from Palacky University — in front of a crowd of thousands in Prague's Old Town Square Friday night who gathered to voice their opposition to the recent actions of their president. 

The rally was intended as an alternative Independence Day celebration to counter the one taking place at Prague Castle.

Thousands of Czechs attended the Old Town Square event, including several MPs and ministers who boycotted the official ceremony at Prague Castle where Brady was to be given his award. (EPA/Filip Singer)

"I'm glad I could help democracy. Because it's not about me; it's about democracy," Brady told the crowd, according to Czech news website iDnes.

"I see that democracy is alive and well, and I look at the Czech Republic with pride. Stay strong and don't give up."

The event, organized by vice-chairman of the parliament Petr Gazdik, was attended by several MPs and ministers who boycotted the official ceremony. Zeman's spokesman Jiri Ovcacek denounced it as a gathering of Prague elites organized to kick off the political campaigns of two of Zeman's critics vying for the presidency in 2018.

Photos of the rally and messages of support for Brady were shared on social media. "Today was quite a party :-)" tweeted photographer Lukas Biba, in Czech.

U.S.-based political scientist Kieran Williams, an expert on Czech politics, went so far as to call for a Brady presidency in the U.S. "I don't care that he's Canadian — I'm voting Jiri Brady for the next president of the USA," he tweeted in Czech.

Nephew warned against meeting Dalai Lama

The saga of Brady's award began earlier this month when he got a call from the head of protocol of the Prague Castle — the seat of the president.

The official said Brady was to receive the Order of T.G. Masaryk — an award similar to the Order of Canada and named after the founding president of Czechoslovakia. 

Czech President Milos Zeman, seen here at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, acknowledged that Brady wouldn't be getting the state honour he was told he would get but denied that it had anything to do with his nephew's meeting with the Dalai Lama. (Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)

However, about a week and a half later, and after plans had been made for Brady and his family to attend the event, Czech media flooded the Brady home in Toronto with calls, asking why he had been cut from the list of those to be honoured.

It all seems to stem from Herman's meeting with the Dalai Lama, who was in Prague to attend the Forum 2000 international conference. 

The president directly told me that if I meet the Dalai Lama, my uncle will be taken out of the list [of honorees]- Daniel Herman, Czech culture minister

The Oct. 18 meeting was against the wishes of Beijing and Zeman, who has strongly pushed for a closer economic relationship with China. (Zeman fought with his own Social Democratic Party, one of three parties that form the Czech government, and created his own political party in 2009. Herman is part of the governing coalition.)

According to Herman, the president had warned him in September about meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader.

"The president directly told me that if I meet the Dalai Lama, my uncle will be taken out of the list [of honorees], and that is what happened," the culture minister told Czech public television. 

But at Friday night's rally, Herman was defiant and said he was proud to have had the honour of welcoming the Dalai Lama.

"I would do it again," he told the crowd, which greeted him with chants of "Long live Herman!" according to reports in Czech media.

Zeman's tough stance against the Dalai Lama is in stark contrast with the position taken by former Czech president Vaclav Havel, a playwright and renowned dissident who had a close and public friendship with the spiritual leader.

Zeman has reportedly acknowledged that plans to award a state medal to Brady had been dropped but denied it had anything to do with Brady's nephew. However, a government official has said that Zeman told Herman he didn't want him meeting with the Dalai Lama. 

On the day of the meeting, the president's spokesman tweeted: "Culture Minister D. Herman and Co. put media glory before the interests of the Czech Republic and its citizens."

Herman told Czech media he received a text message from the head of Prague Castle protocol two days after the meeting saying his uncle's award was "deferred" this year.

Deported to Terezin

Brady and his sister, who lived in the Czech town of Nove Mesto, were deported to the Terezin concentration camp after their parents were arrested by the Nazis in 1941.

Brady was later transported to Auschwitz and survived not only the death camp but also the death march toward Germany, during which he was liberated.

Hana, however, was killed at Auschwitz.

Following the Communist Party takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, Brady left the country and made his way to Canada. Two years later, he and another Holocaust survivor founded a plumbing business. 

'I've got so many medals that I may have trouble taking them on the airplane,' Brady said of the honours he's received in place of the one the Czech president rescinded. (Filip Singer/EPA)

About the Author

Mark Gollom


Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Kazi Stastna and Reuters


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