Central Europeans reflect on life before the fall of the Berlin Wall
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Fedor Gál

Everything is connected to my personal responsibilty

Prague, Czech Republic, 2009
Czech English

Fedor Gál, Sociologist, Filmmaker, Writer, Former Chairman Public Against Violence

The priorities of the Public Against Violence (a political movement, established in Bratislava in November 1989 that played a central role in the Velvet Revolution) were: the cancelling of the leading position of the Communist Party; economic reforms; free elections; drafting a constitution; privatization; and the opening of society to the world. It was our agenda. The nationalists in Slovakia, who advocated for the split from the Czech Republic, are now in power, and now this agenda is in the hands of other people. They harmed Slovakia because they stopped processes that were crucial to the development of the country. But, nationalism is a standard phenomenon in all of the Central European countries. It is very attractive for the post communist mentality.

The people in my generation were 100% amateurs in politics, in business, in science.  Our education, our opinions, all life was connected with a closed society. I was the Chairman of the Public Against Violence, the top position, and I was a complete amateur. We won the first free elections and we made the first steps in building the State.  We built a new educational system, a new government, a new way of doing business. Maybe we made some mistakes, maybe we did a bad job but it was clear, it was without calculation, without corruption, without compromise. It was very, very clean. I am talking about 6 –8 months after the revolution, from November to the first election. After the election in June ’90 we started the normal standard process of making politics and of course this was connected with the normal standard corruption. But the period before this was something like a miracle.

When I was in politics everyone knew me because I was in television, radio, newspapers.  My Judaism started to be a social problem. I was a symbol. My family was in the last transport of Jews out of Slovakia in World War II. My mother was pregnant with me when we arrived in Terezin in December 1944 and I was born in March. My mother didn’t believe that the end of the war was the end of anti-Semitism. She wished to make my brother and me integrate. She didn’t talk with us about religion, about Judisim, about the roots of everyday Jewish life.  

From my young age I remember that sometimes in school, or on the street somebody would say “You Jew!”  I didn’t understand what it was. I didn’t understand how it was that I am a Jew because I didn’t know what it is to be Jewish. So I met anti-Semitism many times before 1989 without knowing what it is to be a Jew. I didn’t start thinking about my Jewish identity until after the revolution, only in this moment could I start to think about this. I am too old to be a religious man, but I understand that I am a Jew. I understand that it is a part of my identity. I understand which part of my identity it is. That it is the same level as my identity as a Slovak, at the same level as my identity as a Middle European. It is not at the top of my identity. To be a Jew in Central Europe is not easy. Anti-Semitism still exists. But the difference between my mother and me is that she did not talk about being Jewish. I am talking about it everyday, in all my books, in all my public speeches, in all the media. With friends and students. Yes, I am a Jew.  

Since the revolution it is a fully new life for me. Fully. Everything is new for me.  Everything. I first went to the West when I was 45 years old. I first started communication in my profession. I was a sociologist, but I never made contact, face-to-face, with Western experts, with Western scientists. After the revolution, I could first read what I want, first write what I want, first talk about what I want. Not only with my family, but also in general. When I wrote a book I published it. It was not necessary to submit it for approval. My children were educated in good schools. Good schools! So, my life totally changed. Totally. Everything is in my hands. All, of my mistakes. All, of my wrong decisions. Everything is connected with me. I was the owner of a publishing house and I published 120 books. Very good books, but the publishing house closed because of bad economical managing. But, it was my responsibility, my personal responsibility. There are many, many positive changes. There are many mistakes and wrong decisions of the past twenty years, but everything is connected with my individual responsibility. This is freedom. I am a happy man. My life is not easy. But I am happy.

This interview was in English
Photo of Fedor Gal by Janeil Engelstad

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