On Wednesday, through the kind assistance of Acting Mayor Tomas Hudecek and his staff, I toured Prague’s Karlin and Libeň neighborhoods. These are districts of the city that are among the most affected by the flooding now plaguing Central Europe, including the Czech capital. Fred Malek, the Chairman of the American Friends of the Czech Republic, visited both neighborhoods with me. I want to express my admiration for everyone who worked so hard to save lives and property, by preparing the city for the deluge. Prague’s municipal leaders and emergency responders deserve special recognition. We know that other cities and towns downstream now are coping with flooding as well.
Though flooding has affected Prague’s renowned Kampa museum, named for the jewel of an island on which it lies, the property nearby has largely been spared the damage it endured from the flood of 2002. The reason: Prague’s forward thinking municipal government designed and built an improved flood-wall system, which permits life and property-saving components to be installed in a matter of hours, while preserving the city’s architectural majesty.
In 2002, the American Friends of the Czech Republic raised considerable funds for flood relief from U.S. companies, churches, corporations, and individuals. Fred Malek tells me they are ready to help again, not only Prague, but the many towns and villages iaround Bohemia that are suffering from the effects of extreme flooding. Mr. Malek and I had a very useful meeting with senior officials at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where we explored possible ways the American Friends of the Czech Republic and the Embassy might assist with the flood relief.
If you would like to help flood victims please visit one of the following sites for more information:
- American Friends of the Czech Republic: http://www.afocr.org/
- People in Need: http://old.clovekvtisni.cz/indexen.php
- Adra: www.adra.cz
I recently had the pleasure to visit the Western Bohemian town of Cheb with my colleague Ambassador Jens Eikaas from Norway, the Czech Government’s Human Rights Commissioner Monika Simunkova, and the Director of the Agency for Social Inclusion Martin Simacek. Our main objective in visiting Cheb was to highlight a new housing program for Roma and other, so-called “socially excluded” residents.
The program provides a tiered system of emergency shelter, transitional housing, and permanent provate apartments with twice-weekly visits by social workers. The City of Cheb, the Agency for Social Inclusion, and the NGOs Caritas and Kotec have been cooperating since 2008 and recently launched the new housing program in 2012. The program is mainly funded by the European Union.
Ambassadors Eikaas and I both visited Cheb City Hall, an emergency shelter, two transitional apartments, and a community center. We ended the day with a press briefing. I was quite impressed with the quality of the housing, the innovation of the multi-tiered system, and the fruitful cooperation between the national and municipal government, NGOs, and the local community. The program currently serves fifteen families at the emergency shelter and three at the transitional housing level.
The visit was reported in the regional edition of the daily newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes. I am pleased that our visit helped attract some additional public attention to this important issue and the inventive way it is being addressed in Cheb.
This is only the latest event in our ongoing work on Roma issues.
The sun was shining and children were singing in Prague today as I attended the renaming ceremony of an elementary school in my own backyard. The newly-named “Antonín Čermák Elementary School” is located just blocks from my residence in the Bubenec neighborhood of Prague 6. In attendance at the ceremony today was Marie Kousalíková, Mayor of Prague 6 and a very special guest Anton Cermak Kerner, the grandson of the man honored.
Antonín Čermák is probably the most famous Czech-American politican. In 1931, he was elected as Mayor of the great city of Chicago. The current Mayor of Chicago and my friend Rahm Emanuel sent a taped message to honor the day.
Čermák embodies the idea of the American dream. He was born in Czechoslovakia and his parents immigrated to the United States before his first birthday. He worked in coal mines in Illinois along side his father and even sold firewood from a wagon before building himself into a successful businessman. Čermák has a lot in common with another politician from Chicago, President Barack Obama. They both started their political lives in the Illinois State government, Čermák in 1902 and President Obama 94 years later in 1996.
Today we honored a man, not only for how he lived, but also how he died. Čermák died during an assassination attempt on president elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. His grandson and others celebrate his life and Kerner even provided the school with a unique gift, the only known color photograph of Čermák and then Czechoslovak President Thomas G. Masryk.
I was honored and proud to be a part of this celebration.
On May 6 I was honored to participate for the third time in the Liberation Festival in Pilsen, which marks the entry into the city by the American troops of General Patton’s Third Army in 1945. The city and people of Pilsen have put together this terrific celebration of Czech American friendship every year since the restoration of democracy in 1989. Honored guests included around a dozen American and Belgian veterans of that first Liberation Day sixty-eight years ago.
I had the privilege to speak at the “Thank You, America!” celebration in downtown Pilsen along with a number of distinguished Czech officials. I particularly want to thank Mayor Martin Baxa, his colleagues and all the people of Pilsen for the fantastic reception they gave me and the American veterans. Click here for a copy of my speech as prepared for delivery, as well as some more pictures.
I recently hosted a lunch to introduce the Czech science and technology community to Dr. Mukul Ranjan, our newly-arrived Embassy Science Fellow. He is a branch chief at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the world-famous U.S. National Institutes of Health. Dr. Ranjan is an expert on infectious diseases, genetics and embryonic development and a member of the American Patent Bar. We invited him to Brno from mid-April until the end of May, on account of his intellectual property expertise, to consult with the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC); the South Moravian Innovation Center (JIC); and other Czech partners.
Dr. Ranjan is the Embassy’s second Science Fellow, representing one of many programs which enhance joint Czech and U.S. collaboration on research, development, and innovation. Others include:
The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR). ONR opened a regional presence in Prague in 2010 to advance our shared research and development capacity. ONR sponsors exchange visits and provides seed funding to foster collaboration with Czech scientists on research projects of mutual interest. ONR has funded grants in excess of one million U.S. dollars here in areas such as network intrusion detection, counter-piracy, and image processing.
Major S&T Conferences. Every year the U.S. helps bring together the best minds in both our countries to discuss research and development. The “U.S. – Czech Innovation Conference” held in 2012 in Prague featured prominent scientists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers from both countries, such as Dr. William Colglazier, Science and Technology Adviser to then-Secretary of State Clinton. The event led directly to the “Czech – U.S. Sustainable Energy Conference” also in 2012, which featured a keynote speech from Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and top energy officials, researchers and industry representatives.
Defense-Related Research Agreements. The Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation (RDT&E) Agreement signed in 2010 with the Czech Ministry of Defense established a platform for cooperating on defense-related research. Through this agreement, we are, for example, jointly developing a vaccine against a potential weapon of biological warfare.
Civil-Nuclear Cooperation. The U.S.-Czech partnership on civil nuclear energy places the two countries together at the forefront of this vital 21st century renewable energy source – a fact highlighted by the agreement of President Obama and Prime Minister Nečas to establish a Center for Civil Nuclear Cooperation in Prague and the dynamic cooperation between government and academia to further research and innovation in the nuclear arena. The Center will open later this year.
U.S. Companies. Major American companies such as Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble, and Honeywell work with their Czech partners on research, development, and innovation. For example, the Eaton Center in Roztoky is planning to hire up to 300 engineers by 2017.
The U.S. and the Czech Republic are natural partners in the sphere of research, development, and innovation. The American Embassy is committed to bringing our researchers and innovators closer together, and Dr. Ranjan’s presence in Brno is the latest domonstration of that.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting my friend Wes Anderson on the set of his new movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel” filmed in historic Gorlitz (once a part of Bohemia, now across the German border). It was my first time on a movie set in almost four decades, since I played the part of Teen #2 in “The Lungs and How they Work”, a 1970′s masterpiece produced by Encyclopedia Britannica Films.
Wes is one of the great American filmmakers, so it was a treat to see him ply his trade. I promised not to give anything away, but I can tell you that the look and feel of the film is partially inspired by Wes’ visits to the Czech Republic, including our visit with the “Golden Keys,” the leading hotel concierges of Prague.
I was also flattered that Wes sent Jeff Goldblum my way to soak up inspiration for his character, a lawyer.
You might think that seeing how movies are made would spoil their effect; however, it actually gave me a new appreciation for film. Witnessing how plywood and paint can be turned into a train-car or how an old department store can be converted into a great hotel proves just what an extraordinary craft filmmaking is.
One thing that became quickly apparent is that making movies requires great patience. Wes, star cinematographer Bob D. Yeoman, the producers, cast and crew spend many hours working on what amounts to 1 or 2 minutes on film. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to visit again with Jeff, and also to see renowned actors like Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes in action.
Without giving away the plot, I can say this will be one of the best Wes Anderson films. It has everything — action, mystery, comedy and of course love. It was a thrill to check into the Grand Budapest Hotel for a day and I look forward to seeing the final product.
I had the pleasure on March 12 of helping launch an impressive new initiative to fight corruption in the Czech Republic. This effort, known as REST is remarkable because it represents the work of 50 experts who clearly defined the basic roots of system corruption and identified measures to limit it. These experts have joined forces with NGOs, businesspeople, academics, and journalists to fight for government reform–an effort which offers some valuable lessons for the U.S. and the world.
Here I am (second from the left) with some of the organizers of the initiative. From left to right the others are Stepan Rattay (representing Oživení), Pavel Franc (representing EPS), and David Ondracka (representing TI).
The fact that a broad swathe of civil society has joined forces is terrific. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of REST is that civil society is also building a vigorous partnership with business to find common ground in the fight against corruption.
Our Embassy provides financial and moral support for REST and other Czech-led efforts to fight corruption. I am also proud to share ideas from my White House days and my other reform experiences –and I always end up learning a lot as well. In this case, the broad engagement of civil society and business is exemplary, and we congratulate all the participants.
On February 20th I had the pleasure of a visit to the city of Liberec in Northern Bohemia. There, connected to the town’s library, is an impressive modern building with a stone façade echoing the Wailing Wall: the Synagogue of Liberec.
This stunning modern building is a way for the town to try to right some of the wrongs of history. The Jewish community here dates back to 1582. After centuries of discrimination barred Jewish property ownership in the town, local Jews finally won civil rights in the nineteenth century. In 1889 they consecrated a beautiful synagogue in the presence of town representatives, soldiers, Evangelical and Catholic dignitaries. For a half century, all lived side by side.
Then came the Nazi rise, the appeasement at Munich in 1938, and the shameful abandonment of the Czechs by their European allies. I will never forget my mother’s chilling recollection of the despair she and other Czechoslovaks felt on that black day. The Nazis occupied Czech lands, including Liberec, and the beautiful synagogue was destroyed on “Kristallnacht” in 1938.
For more than half a century the town was without a synagogue. Then in the year 2000, the new synagogue was opened in what is called the “Reconciliation Building,” housing both the town library and the synagogue. This was the site of the original synagogue, and remnants of the original foundation can be seen inside.
I was interested to learn that this beautiful modern structure is the only new synagogue built in the Czech Republic since World War II. Currently there are about 75 people from the local Jewish community who worship here. This is significant because the community was devastated by the Holocaust. In 1930, around 1,400 Jews were registered as citizens of the city of Liberec, but after the war only 37 of its original members survived–less than a 3% survival rate (comparable to the devastation in my mom’s home town, where today no Jews at all can be found).
I congratulate the city of Liberec on finding a way to help restore some of what was lost. It was an honor to visit and I look forward to returning.
The US, Croatia, Slovakia, and the Czechs have just inked a letter of intent to open a Multinational Aviation Training Center in the Czech Republic. The new Center will focus on training, operation and maintenance for Mi-17 and Mi-171 helicopters. These two types of helicopters are heavily used by the American and Czech fleets in NATO missions. For example, when I visited US and Czech troops in Afghanistan, I traded my ambassadorial Cadillac for a Czech Mi which ferried me around the country (see picture).
The Center will enable pilots from NATO member states to jointly train with one another to the same standards, enabling them to operate effectively together in the field. The U.S. and three foreign partners have already signed up, and Hungary and Latvia have also expressed interest in participating. In the future, the Center may expand to include not only helicopters but also planes.
This Czech-led initiative is the very first NATO Tier-1 Smart Defense program which the U.S. has formally signed. Smart Defense is a NATO initiative for members jointly to meet their defense needs. This Center was one of the key Smart Defense initiatives that came to life during the 2012 Chicago NATO Summit, where we and our allies discussed the threats to security we face, as well as ways to keep our populace safe in an era of declining financial resources. Jointly training U.S. and
international partners was one of the decisions we reached, and Czech strategic thinking played an outsized role in getting the helicopter Center on track.
Of course, more work needs to be done. We will have to stretch our dollars and koruna as far as possible in order to give the people of the United States and the Czech Republic the level of security they deserve. But with the common purpose that characterizes out two nations cooperation, I am optimistic we will achieve our goals.
I am sending this from Washington, D.C., where I have the honor of attending the second inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States. Of course, this being January in Washington, it is cold and everyone is almost comically bundled up, because they know they are going to be standing here shivering while watching the proceedings. Here’s a photo.
Along with many others I am struck by the conjunction to the inauguration with a couple of historical anniversaries. This month marks the 150th anniversary of the signing by President Lincoln of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all those held in slavery in the territory occupied by the Confederacy. This was the most sweeping of the various steps taken to eliminate the institution of slavery from the United States. Coincidentally, this year Inauguration Day falls on the federal holiday honoring the birthday of Martin Luther King, who was the most prominent of the civil rights leaders who worked to remove the legacy of discrimination that hindered the progress of the descendants of those freed slaves and other minorities. No one can fail to mark the fact that both anniversaries are intersecting with the second inaugural of America’s first African-American president. We can ponder how far our country has come in a century and a half, while not failing to keep in mind how far we still need to go.
I am looking forward to witnessing another presidential inauguration this March – the first President, directly elected by the people of the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic has also made enormous strides in terms of human liberty since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Of course, just as in America, much remains to be done in Central Europe to integrate minority groups, such as the Roma. Still the conjunction of these various events gives me some reason for optimism about the possibility of human progress when people of good will work together.