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Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz.Lorie Chortyk/UBC Archives

It’s March 14, 1939. In a small town called Mistek in north-eastern Moravia, a region of Czechoslovakia, an 11-year-old girl is looking out the bay window of her family’s apartment at Prokop’s delicatessen where her parents frequently shop. Suddenly, a group of German soldiers with fixed bayonets appears, marching around the corner. At first, the girl thinks it must be part of a play, since there are many amateur theatre groups in town. She asks her father what’s going on. Then, as she remembers it, everything goes dark: Her father has put his hands over her eyes and gently turned her around to spare her the sight. It is the eve of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. “It will become very difficult now,” her father tells her. “We will have to stick together.” The darkness would last another six years.

The girl in the window was Marketa Gotz, later Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, professor emerita of Germanic studies and comparative literature at the University of British Columbia, and champion of Czech literature under siege, who died at her home in Vancouver on Nov. 6 at the age of 95. She was the author of many books and articles on dissident literature, beginning with her magnum opus, The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights Without a Stage, published in 1979. It was a book she later said she had written “hot,” with a certain unacademic passion, while still in the middle of her research forays into Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia during the 1970s and 1980s. Each visit was fraught with danger, both for her and for the writers she met with, since they were all banned from publishing and under constant surveillance by the secret police. But she has also left a less tangible legacy, in the many deep and lasting friendships with people whose lives she touched and changed by her presence.

Marketa Gotz was born on Feb. 15, 1927, in Liberec, a city in North Bohemia. Gustav Gotz, her father, the director of a textile factory, was a secular Jew, and spoke Czech with a German accent. Her mother, Helena, a Czech, spoke German with a Czech accent. Marketa grew up speaking both languages. “I was always a mixed creature,” she said later. “I always felt I was sitting in a special place between the things that mattered most.”

When she was still very young, the family moved to Mistek. She remembers her early childhood as a time suffused with light and joy. From her parents she inherited a love of books and music, and her collection of books and a small record player was especially precious to her. It was in Mistek that her lifelong love of skiing and hiking began, with rambles through the surrounding hills with her father. Like many happy children, she believed the idyll of childhood could go on forever.

Ms. Goetz-Stankiewic with Václav Havel, in Prague, in 2009.Courtesy of Memory of Nations

Then came the Nazi occupation. Nazi officials confiscated their radio and her record player. Her father lost his job and was later sent to Terezin, a concentration camp in north Bohemia, the last stop before Auschwitz and almost certain death. Marketa, now in her early teens, was expelled from school, but found work as an apprentice in a photographer’s studio called Foto Doda that catered to both locals and to young German soldiers who would come in to have their pictures taken before being sent to the killing fields on the Eastern front. Marketa believed she escaped forced labour or worse, deportation, because Doda had told the authorities her studio work was essential.

One winter, the studio floor was wet with melting snow the soldiers had tracked in. Marketa was on her hands and knees, mopping up the mess when a huge boot appeared above her hand, poised as if ready to crush it. She looked up to see a tall German officer, who withdrew his boot, then asked, “Why do you Czechs hate us so much?” Marketa sensed a trap. If she told the truth and said, “Because you torture and kill us, because you have torn our family apart,” Doda, the owner, and she, could find themselves in serious trouble. If she lied and said, “Why, we don’t hate you at all,” she would be humiliated, which was probably the point of the officer’s question. Instead, she found a third way: “What is hate?” she replied. The officer turned and walked out of the shop.

Shortly before the end of the war, Marketa and her mother were summoned to the Gestapo headquarters in Prague where, instead of interrogating her as she expected, they measured her skull, presumably to determine, according to some perverse Nazi metrics, whether or not she was Jewish. They were let go with an order to return home, pack their suitcases, and await further instructions. It was a virtual death sentence.

The instructions never came, and Mistek was soon liberated by Soviet troops, though the liberation was scarcely a happy one. Marketa narrowly escaped death when an artillery shell struck a wall near her as she was rushing through the streets, and later, when a group of Russian soldiers commandeered their flat, the officer in charge ordered her and her mother to sleep with him. They were saved by the officer’s orderly, who plied him with vodka until he fell into a stupor on the couch.

Two weeks later, her father returned from Terezin, having walked home a distance of 400 kilometres. The family was reunited, but Marketa’s grandparents did not survive.

In 1948, in the wake of the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, the family immigrated to Canada, and settled in Toronto. Marketa remembered being impressed by the city’s beautiful tree-lined streets, and by the fact that people would talk freely with each other in public, and by some of its quaint ways: At that time, Eatons ordered all of its big display windows to be curtained on Sundays so as not to distract people from their devotions with thoughts of crass consumption.

Determined to complete her interrupted education, Marketa approached the Toronto school board, where an official, no doubt impressed by her zeal, arranged to get her into Grade 13 at Jarvis Collegiate Institute. She did so well she won a bursary to University College at the University of Toronto, and graduated in 1954 at the top of her class, all the while supporting herself by retouching photographs for firms like Ashley and Crippen, a skill she had picked up from Doda.

She went on to earn an MA in 1955, which paved the way for a year at Columbia University in New York, where she studied literature with Mark van Doren, and drama with the dean of American theatre critics, Eric Bentley. She returned to University College and completed her PhD in 1957 in a relatively new discipline, comparative literature, and was quickly hired by the University of British Columbia, where she remained for the rest of her career.

Ms. Goetz-Stankiewicz with her father in 1932.Courtesy of Memory of Nations

Shortly after she arrived in Vancouver, she was invited to an obligatory meet-and-greet for the new faculty members. Feeling out of her depth among so many experienced teachers, she was quietly eating a cherry tart by the buffet when a man came up to her and introduced himself as Dr. Stankiewicz. “He shook my hand,” Marketa recalled, “and that was the beginning of a new life for me.” They married in 1965, when UBC lifted its ban on intra-faculty marriages. Wladek Stankiewicz went on to become an eminent political philosopher, and after his death in 2006, Marketa oversaw the publication and translation of his work into several languages.

As soon as she could manage, Marketa brought her parents to Vancouver. And once again, fate intervened. One day, her mother got a letter from a friend in Mistek, who asked if she could get a special ointment to treat her son’s eczema. Marketa persuaded her doctor to write a prescription, and they sent the ointment to Czechoslovakia. In return, the friend offered to send her some Czech crystal. Marketa replied, “No, send books instead.” Some weeks later, a parcel arrived full of cheap paperback editions of plays that had been published during the 1960s, a period sometimes referred to as The Thaw, which ended abruptly in 1968 when Soviet troops invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia.

And that’s how Marketa’s love affair with contemporary Czech writing started. She said she was enthralled by what she read, and described the experience as “recapturing her Czech,” a language she still used with her parents, but had lost touch with in a literary sense. She was determined to incorporate her new discoveries into her teaching, and later, in 1973, she decided to go back to Czechoslovakia and “see what it’s all about.”

And so began the next and perhaps the most consequential period of her career. Over the next few years, she and her mother travelled almost annually to Czechoslovakia where, in a series of serendipitous encounters, she gradually met all of the writers whose work she so admired.

It was a risky business, not just for Marketa, but for the people she visited, most of whom were under the watchful eyes of the secret police. She learned how to speak in code over the phone. Very often, when she would go to meet someone under heavy surveillance, like Vaclav Havel, she would tell her mother: “If I don’t come back, go straight to the train station and go to Munich.”

She was frequently stopped by the police, but never arrested, not even after her book on the Czech theatre came out. On the advice of the dissidents, she never smuggled books or documents in or out of the country, but she did bring in money to help support the underground publishing enterprises that kept the writers in touch with their audiences. Above all, her very presence brought them hope and proof that they were not forgotten.

Marketa received many honours, both for her brilliance as a teacher, and for her courageous support of Czech culture. In 2000, Vaclav Havel, the once-banned playwright who was now president of his country, awarded her the Medal of Merit. But the recognition she was most proud of was the Ordo Scriptori Bohemici, the Order of Czech Writers, presented to her in a private, clandestine ceremony in 1988 by the banned writers whose work she championed and whose ideas and writing she helped disseminate in the West. The plaque depicts a golden padlock, the symbol of the largest illegal samizdat publishing venture in the country, Padlock Editions.

Marketa and Wladek never had children, and all of their next of kin have died. And yet Marketa touched so many lives with her charm, her generosity and her sunny presence, that many of her friends consider themselves her virtual next of kin.

Recently, two of her closest Czech friends, the playwright Pavel Kohout, and his wife, Jelena Masinova, wrote this brief tribute from Prague: “We’ve lit a candle here for Marketa, and for the ones she loved. Everyone in Bohemia who was lucky enough to know her, loved her. Marketa was a seagull that announced the approach of freedom. She will live in us as long as we are alive.”