Cranbrook’s George Horak (left) is pictured with his memoir

Cranbrook’s George Horak (left) is pictured with his memoir

Iron Curtain memories

Cranbrook man writes about life in Communist Czechoslovakia

George Horak was born into a poor Czech family, educated during the German occupation, and was forced to flee the Communists in Czechoslovakia under the cover of darkness.

From this tumultous early life, Horak’s life moved from one adventure to another, until he found his way to Cranbrook in the 1990s.

Now Horak, 84, has published his enthralling memoirs in a book, called “Witness: Voices and Choices”.

Born in 1929, Horak was only 10 when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.

“Every school classroom had a picture of Hitler on the front wall,” he writes.

He was forced to enter the workforce as an apprentice book-binder at age 14. At the same time, he volunteered to patrol for unexploded bombs in his Czech city of Brno during the American bombing.

“I got involved whenever I could. When most people were hiding in their cellars, I was out days and nights too,” he writes.

Horak had a transformative spiritual experience at a Catholic retreat at age 18, and he set a goal of becoming a priest.

After the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, Horak began to bump heads with the Communist police. As he began his priestly studies, Horak went into hiding. Eventually, after several close calls with arrest, he fled Czechoslovakia in the dead of night, smuggled over a poorly patrolled border into Austria.

As a refugee, life only became harder for Horak. He travelled first to Salzburg, then to Venezuela, and finally to Rome, where he was accepted to study theology at a Czech Catholic college.

After being ordained as a priest in 1958, aged 29, he served a small Italian community, before joining a Jesuit college in Austria. Around this time, he developed a lifelong passion for yoga, which he continues to practice today.

Not long after, Horak was invited to join a Czech Jesuit community in Montreal, and he immigrated to Canada in 1962.

In the corresponding years, he taught religion to high school students, and worked as a chaplain in mental health facilities in Toronto. Horak met his wife Vera during this time, and he made the heart-wrenching decision to marry her in 1969, even though it meant losing his priestly designation.

In 1971 he became a parole and probation officer in Ontario. Health problems forced Horak to retire and move to Cranbrook with Vera in 1994, at age 65.

Horak, who now attends Christ the Servant Parish in Cranbrook, met retired principal Douglas Francis Mitchell three years ago when Mitchell drove Horak to Calgary for a medical appointment. It seems the encounter was fated.

Horak, who speaks Czech, German, Spanish, English, Italian and Latin, began to share some of his life story with Mitchell on that journey. Horak’s deeply spiritual approach to the challenges he has faced touched Mitchell, and he pushed Horak to write them down.

“He pushed me again and again,” Horak told the Townsman. “So I wrote one story and another story, and I said, that’s it, just to shut his mouth,” he laughed.

But after a brush with death soon after, Horak decided that Mitchell had a good point.

“I thought… maybe… I am supposed to do what he is asking me to do. So I recovered and I started to write.”

The process took two years. During this time, Vera passed away. Writing was like therapy, Horak said.

“When you enter the situation you start to relive it, with the joys and the pains, a sense of pride and fairness, everything is stirred up,” he said.

“Once you relive the story, the person comes back to life in your memory.”

Mitchell, who edited Horak’s work, said he was inspired to help because the story is an uncommon one.

“Because his experience was very unusual, he had a different perspective to contribute. I think people could benefit from reading these stories,” he said.

“It has been a learning experience for me also, not just to listen to George’s stories and his wisdom, but also the process of putting it together and trying to get it to be his story.”

Horak’s memoir has something for everyone, Mitchell said.

“I think George’s story would be encouraging to people, to say, look what he’s been through, yet in all that time he has looked at all these things and he’s made his choices and he’s not bitter about it, but he’s lived with it.

“He made those choices, and there were dire consequences for him. But through it all, he didn’t whine or snivel. He went through it.”

“Witness: Voices and Choices” will be launched on Friday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. at Christ the Servant in Cranbrook on 14th Avenue South. There will be readings from the book, a short address by Horak, and signing opportunities.

You can purchase a copy of the book by calling Mitchell at 250-489-3623 or emailing d.pmitchell@shaw.ca.

It is also available at Lotus Books in Cranbrook.