Beyond Expectations and Our Dreams
Echoes and Reflections from the Millennium SVU World Congress
Speaking as a whole, the Congress was an unqualified success and the organizers' hope that it might be a pivotal event of the historic year 2000 for those interested in the thing Czech or Slovak turned out to be a fulfilled prophecy. There were around 400 registrants, not counting numerous other individuals who sneaked in without paying, making it a record for any SVU Congress held on the American continent.
Only some ten years ago one could hear rumblings among individual SVU members that the Society has done its thing and that the time has come to cease and desist. I doubt there was a single soul at the Congress who would have dared to utter or even contemplate such a thought. What difference ten years make! The vigor and vitality of the Society was self-evident in all of the fifty five scheduled panels. Many a panel was overflowing with listeners so that some of them had to stand or sit on the floor. To be sure, some panels started with a few individuals only but as the time went on they began to fill up, even to capacity. Interestingly enough, even in the less attended panels, as the presentations proceeded, the listeners and the speakers became so engrossed in the proceedings and in intensive discussions that the number of people in the audience did not seem to matter. The people in the audience were not just passive listeners, many of them contributed to discussion, sometimes clarifying points or adding new information. There was something there for everyone and frequently one had to make hard choices of which of the sessions or papers to attend.
The Congress took place in the capital of the US, Washington, DC, where the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) got its start, where the idea of creating the Society was developed, and where the first Society's Congress was held. The present Congress, 20th in number, was organized jointly with the American University where most of the meetings and related activities were held. The Congress was organized under the aegis of both the Czech and Slovak Embassies and Ambassadors Alexandr Vondra and Martin Butora took part personally in a number of events.
The Congress started with a bang - a reception at the Slovak Ambassador's residence in McLean Virginia in the late afternoon of August 8. When I first discussed the idea with Hon. Martin Butora, I had in mind a relatively small group of people attending, 100 at most, considering that it would actually take place the day before the Congress' opening. However, to our amazement, three times as many people actually came, filling every available inch of, otherwise a spacious building. I was told that this was a record attendance for any gathering in the Ambassador's residence. Mrs. Butorova personally graciously welcomed visitors at the door which gave us a feeling of hospitality and warmth. Because of the distance from the city, the Ambassador arranged for transportation from and to American University by bus. The culinary skills of their new chef were evident in the scrumptious food served.
The official opening of the Congress took place at American University Washington College of Law in the elegant Morella Courtroom, patterned after a classical British courtroom. The program started with a musical piece - Dance Suite by Tylman Susato, performed by Annandale Brass, John Wright, conducting. Then followed the national anthems. When the Czech "Kde domov muj" was played, followed by "Nad Tatrou sa blyska," a site unseen and the sound unheard since the painful separation of the two Republics, there was a visible stir in the audience and one could see an honest tear in the eyes of many. The official welcome was given by President of American University Dr. Benjamin Ladner, who commenced and ended his words with the quotation from Comenius, a real gesture from an American, followed by the greetings of the representatives of Washington College of Law and the Wesley Theological Seminary where some of the meetings were held. I then had the pleasure of officially opening the Congress, which occasion I used to acquaint the audience with the aims of SVU and recapitulate key milestones in its history and activities. Then came the presentations by the Czech and Slovak Ambassadors, Alexandr Vondra and Martin Butora, respectively, outlining their views on future cooperation of their governments with Czech and Slovaks in the US.
Following a short intermission came the keynote address by Hon. Vaclav Klaus, Speaker of the House, Czech Parliament, on the perspectives of the Czech Republics in the next continuum, focusing on the economic aspects. His presentation was followed by an address by Hon Pal Csaky, Vice Premier of the Slovak Republic, who discussed his views on the democratization of Slovakia based on tolerance and the rule of law..
After a buffet lunch, hosted jointly by SVU and the American University, there was a plenary session on the theme "Czech and Slovaks Who Made a Difference in the Second Millennium." Selected speakers gave presentation on the contributions of such outstanding personalities as Jan Hus, Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius), Rabbi Chatam Sofer, Antonin Dvorak, Johann G. Mendel, Sigmund Freud, Thomas G. Masaryk, Milan Rastislav Stefanik, Stefan Osusky and Jan Papanek. All speakers were outstanding personalities in their own right, coming from such institutions as the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Charles University, Jewish Museum of Prague, Palacky University, etc.
That evening Congress participants were hosted in a reception at the Czech Embassy which was cosponsored by the SVU Washington DC Chapter. This reception which was very successful was attended by an enormous crowd which made it necessary to open the doors into the garden. There was the customary receiving line and later Ambassador Vondra introduced several distinguished guests from the Czech Republic, i.e., Senator Petr Pithart, Senator Jaroslava Moserova, and the Chief of Staff of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs Martin Vavra.
The next three days were devoted to individual sessions, discussion panels and symposia, organized by subject, discipline, or topic. It is beyond the scope of this article to dwell into detail or even to attempt to summarize proceedings of individual panels. There was such a variety that everybody could find something of interest or to his or her liking. A number of people commented that the proceedings of at least some of the panels should be published and disseminated. The SVU Executive Board will definitely make effort in this direction. Of the various panels I would like to make special reference to the SVU Symposium on the "Future of Planet Earth: Environmental and Sustainable Development in the Czech Republic and Slovakia." This was a carefully planned symposium with the financial assistance of the Trust of Mutual Understanding, and the participation of six leading experts from the Czech and Slovak Republics. The active participants of the Symposium had an opportunity to also meet with the representatives of the National Science Foundation and those of the Environmental Protections Agency and to discus their program and future cooperation with their American counterparts.
Apart from the strictly academic program, there were a variety of cultural and social events the participants could attend. In connection with the SVU special project on the preservation of the Czech and Slovak heritage in America, the SVU staged a historical photo exhibit of Czech and Slovak communities, arranged by States and cultural institutions. It was beautifully done and Pat DeVoe who did most of the work deserves special thanks. Some participants took the advantage of taking part in the arranged and guided tour in the National Gallery of Art. The American University Theater, under the direction of Gail Humphries Mardirosian, staged for the Congress participants an American premiere of Josef Topol's "Hour of Love"(translated by Vera Borkovec). It was an extraordinary play written by the foremost playwright of the Czech Republic. There was also a showing of a remarkable Mican's film "All Loved Ones," depicting the life of the Czech Jewish family at the onset of the World War II .Another film with the Jewish theme from the World War II was shown in the panel on "The Holocaust." One of SVU members, Suzanne Justman produced this very moving. the Emmy-winning, film, entitled "Voices of Children." The Congress program also included an annual meeting of the Society which will be addressed elsewhere.
One of the startling phenomenon of the Congress was the omnipresence of the young people, or more precisely the young folks in their twenties and the middle-aged folks in their thirties and forties. This was not just a happenstance. The Congress organizers planned for that by selecting several young people who organized panels by themselves. Anybody who attended these panels must agree that they did an outstanding job. Another striking feature of the Congress was the number of visitors from the Czech and Slovak Republics who made the discussions more interesting, more genuine, and more realistic. The fact that the top political leaders from the Czech and Slovak Republics, such as Vaclav Klaus and Pal Csaki, actively participated at the Congress, is an indication that not only SVU commends greater respect than ever before in the home countries but also that Czech and Slovaks abroad are being viewed more seriously over there.
A number of greetings were received on the occasion of SVU World congress, including those of President Vaclav Havel, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Kavan, which are reprinted elsewhere. In addition, the Mayor of Washington, Hon. Anthony A. Williams declared August 9, 2000, as "Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences Day" in Washington, DC. The holding of the Congress was also recognized by the remarks of Hon. James P. Morgan, a Representative of Virginia, published in the Congressional Record.
All in all, the Congress more than fulfilled our expectations. Everyone I talked to generally had good time. The overall mood was excellent and good humor prevailed most of the time. Occasional problems, such as looking for taxis, were relatively minor, in comparison to everything else which was overwhelmingly positive, exciting, stimulating, encouraging, and enthralling. There was a feeling of warmth, belonging, and camaraderie among all, be they Czechs or Slovaks or anybody else, the young or the old, professionals, political and community leaders alike, irrespective of what side of the Atlantic one lived on Only meetings like this, unassuming, face to face, individuals of good will without preconceived notions can overcome the existing and imaginary beelines or crowlines separating the Czechs and Slovaks abroad from their compatriots in the home countries.
Tolerance, humanity and good will were the underlying tone of the congress, exquisitely fitting and contemplatively reflecting upon the general theme "Civil Society and Democracy into the New Millennium."