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Moserova-Davidova, Jaroslava (Jara) (1930–2006)

by John Farquharson

It is hard to go past applying the phrase ‘renaissance woman’ to Dr Jara Moserova, the last ambassador of undivided Czechoslovakia to Australia, who has died in Prague aged 76. She preferred to be called a ‘universal amateur’, but when her convictions were aroused or she was pursuing a cause ‘fiery particle’ might be more apt. She certainly became a strong moral force in her country.

She packed a lot into her 70-odd years, being variously, a burns and plastic surgery specialist, a painter, sculptor, playwright and champion skier, before becoming a politician when she was already aged 60 in 1989. Though she didn’t get into frontline politics until late in life she had been an activist from the time she completed school or as she used to say, ‘Just a passive resister, who from time to time said what I thought’.

Born in 1930, she was always a woman of strong views, deep compassion and humanity. Her early years were spent under Nazi occupation and later under Soviet communist rule. Though she welcomed the Soviet army when it liberated her country from the Nazis, when the communists seized power in 1948 she realised Czechoslovakia would be in for hard times.

She was then completing her last two years of high school in the United States under the American Field Service program. Rather than remain in exile, she returned home in 1949, because the purpose of the scholarship would have been negated had she stayed. She was under no illusion as to what lay ahead and in the train from Austria to Prague she was the only civilian passenger.

Though already an accomplished pianist and painter, she forsook a career path in art for medicine because she wanted to ‘do something useful’. For 30 years she was a burns specialist at the Charles University hospital in Prague where she was a pioneer of xenografting using pig skin to treat burns. There in January 1969, she treated the dissident student Jan Palach after he had doused himself with petrol and set himself alight inWenceslas Square in protest against his countrymen’s apathy towards the Soviet invasion of 1968. The Soviet crackdown suppressed the Prague Spring of political and intellectual liberalisation under President Dubcek.

Palach, who lived for three days, was still fully conscious and kept saying, ‘Tell everyone why I did it’. The doctors could not save him, but kept reassuring him that what he had done would not be in vain. Moserova said later, ‘He didn’t do it because of the occupation but because of the demoralisation that was setting in. He wanted to shake the conscious of the nation. And he did – not only in our country, but in many others as well’.

Drawing on such traumatic experiences, Moserova sought to address issues of conscience, being especially concerned about how the Soviet regime had ‘forced us into hypocrisy and forced us to teach our children to be hypocritical. Truth was suppressed to an unbelievable degree’. Her first play, Such a Nice Boy, a family tragedy written as an allegory about her own country, which the communist censors failed to recognise, won best play award for Czech national radio in 1988. Her second play, Letter to Wollongong, was written in just three days in 1993. She was then based in Canberra where she was Czechoslovakian ambassador to Australia and New Zealand from 1991 to 1993.

Using elements of Jan Palach’s story as a backdrop, the play was presented in Sydney to mark the 25th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 23. She hoped the play would heal the divisions, she had noted as ambassador, between Czechoslovakians who had left their country and those who had stayed at home during the Soviet era. The play was so hard-hitting for those who had experienced it that Moserova was slow to have it performed in her own country. Eventually Prague’s Black Box Theatre Company staged it in 1997 with the American and British ambassadors in the audience. Anglo-Nordic Productions Trust later filmed it in Prague in 2001.

It was outrage over the way riot police crushed a peaceful, and legal, students’ demonstration in Prague in November 1989 that drove her into politics. ‘It was just too much’, she said.  That was when, like others, she became engaged. When the students went on strike, she moved among them handing out coffee and aspirins, as well as working as their driver. She was a childhood friend of Vaclav Havel and chaired his Civic Forum, the opposition movement that led the Velvet Revolution in 1989 when he became president of Czechoslovakia. (Czechs and Slovaks, who came together in 1918 to form Czechoslovakia, split on 1 January 1993 to form separate Czech and Slovak republics).

Moserova was a candidate in the first free elections in 40 years in 1990 and was elected as a member of the Czech National Council (Parliament). She immediately became vice-president of the Council until 1991 when President Haval appointed her ambassador to Australia and New Zealand. One of her first acts as ambassador was to have the high iron fence surrounding the embassy taken down.

After returning to Prague in late 1993, she was elected to the Czech Senate, as a member of the small Civic Democratic Alliance, and was vice-president of the Senate for two years. However, she was probably best known to the Czech people as the translator into Czech of Dick Francis’s horse-racing thrillers, turning him into the Czech Republic’s most popular novelist. When she was one the hustings, Moserova found that people were not all that interested in her achievements, but when she mention that she was the translator of the Dick Francis novels they clapped and cheered her. She also translated other writers such as James Hadley Chase, Erle Stanley Gardiner and John Mortimer. She said this was by way of relaxation as an alternative to crossword puzzles.

In 1991 she became a founder member and vice-president of the International Communications Forum, a think tank on media values and ethics, launched in Caux, Switzerland, that year. She became president of UNESCO in 1996 after having been secretary-general of the Czech National Commission for UNESCO in 1993. She was president of the UNESCO general conference, 1999-2001, including the 31st General Conference held in Paris shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington – the only government-level conference not to be postponed. The conference unanimously condemned terrorism and Moserova believed that UNESCO ‘played a crucial role at a very difficult time’.

Back in Prague, she grabbed the headlines by standing against two former prime ministers in the Czech presidential elections of 2003. Her aim was to demonstrate that ‘an honest person can exist in politics – that you can stay in politics for years without getting soiled’. Radio Prague dubbed her a ‘political David who stood against two Goliaths’. She defeated Milos Zeman in the first round, but did not stand against Vaclav Klaus in the third ballot to avoid a stalemate between the lower house, where Klaus had majority support, and the Senate where she had won a majority.

Noted for her personal integrity, she once wrote, ‘My credo was always to do what you have to do to the best of your ability, and not to tell lies, especially to yourself. …There were only two occasions when I intentionally lied in response to a direct question, and I haven’t forgotten them to this day. I was no hero in the dark days of our history, but I never betrayed my beliefs’.

Dr Moserova married Milan David, a dissenting lawyer who was not allowed to practice for years and whom she described as ‘the greatest blessing God has given to me’. They have a son – ‘who I got ready-made when we married in 1960’ – and three grandchildren.  Her husband, stepson and his family survive her.

Dr Jaroslava Moserova-Davidova, born Prague, 17 January 1930; died Prague, 24 March 2006.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 April 2006
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 April 2006
  • Canberra Times, 19 May 2006

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Moserova-Davidova, Jaroslava (Jara) (1930–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/moserova-davidova-jaroslava-jara-750/text751, accessed 5 June 2020.

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