Jana Kopelentova-Rehak was born in Sušice in southern Bohemia in 1968. Her mother Jana was a teacher while her father Jaroslav was a photographer for the city. Jana’s paternal grandparents had owned a photography studio in Sušice which was nationalized after the Communist coup in 1948; her father has since reclaimed the property and works with some original family equipment. Jana says that her parents both held anti-communist views and that she was aware of history that wasn’t taught in schools; for example, the liberation of Plzeň and Sušice by the American Army. Exposed to photography from an early age, Jana was accepted to the art school Střední průmyslová škola grafická in Prague. While living in a dormitory, Jana became interested in religion and attended retreats with fellow classmates. When a Bible was found in her room, Jana says that she was expelled from school housing and had to find her own accommodations in the city. She finished high school living with Miloslava Holubová, a writer and signatory of Charter 77 whom Jana says was a big influence. After graduating from high school, Jana worked for three years as a photographer for an art restoration company. In 1990, she began studying fine art photography at FAMU (the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague). While at FAMU, Jana studied abroad in Norway and Glasgow and says that she learned English thanks to the international makeup of the FAMU students.
In 1994, eager to continue her studies in the West and with plans to marry Frank Rehak, an American who was in Prague on a Fulbright scholarship, Jana moved to the United States. She settled in Baltimore, Maryland, and married Frank a few months later. To adjust to the move, Jana says that she spent some time taking photographs of Baltimore neighborhoods. She completed her MFA in photography from the University of Delaware in 1997 and was accepted to a doctoral program in anthropology at American University. Jana’s research focused on 1950s political prisoners in Prague. For several summers, Jana and Frank returned to the Czech Republic and taught a summer photography school for international students. Jana is an assistant professor of anthropology at Loyola University in Baltimore and Towson University in Towson, Maryland. She also teaches Czech language classes for the local Sokol group. A dual citizen, Jana received her American citizenship two years ago, which she says was an ‘emotional decision.’ She lives with her husband and two daughters in Baltimore.
“Because it’s not far away from the German border, there was a huge Czech Army station and Sušice was just the first city outside of what used to be the Sudetenland. So historically, Sušice was a diverse place. There was always a Czech, German and Jewish community. But it wasn’t in the German zone, so it was considered a Czech town and it was not affected by a Sudeten history, but there was the Army base. So when I grew up, there was always a strong sense of the communist regime’s presence, in the sense that the people who were army people were always coming and going and privileged. They had a lot more money that the rest of the people and, especially through my mother’s profession, I was very aware of that because any time there would be a new army family coming, wives would always be privileged by getting jobs very easily in schools or anywhere, and the children were privileged. My mother as a schoolteacher was always tense when children from these families were evaluated badly in school.
“So there was a strong sense of awareness of that and I grew up in a family that was always very clearly on the other side, meaning that if Havel, for example, talks about a certain schizophrenia in a society, which I write about in my book, I was strongly aware of this as a child, where when you talk about it at home, history is one way, and different history is told in school, and different things you can’t say or act in school. The city was liberated by the American Army and my grandfather, who was a photographer and also a musician, was friendly with American soldiers, so we always had in our family albums pictures of my father and American soldiers in my grandfather’s studio. So I grew up knowing that the city was liberated by the American Army while other kids who didn’t have this connection through visuals were living in the world of imagining that we were liberated by the Soviet Army only.”
“I think it was more well-rounded and cohesive. We had a lot of gym, we had art and I also think we had wiggle-room for people with different gifts. I remember I was good in visual arts and it was seen as a plus. It was seen as a talent that’s good to groom and it is okay if you do well in arts or music and you maybe don’t do so well in other subjects. I felt that art education, music, creativity was overall more valued. Math was good; I think science, not so. Given the ideological [constraints] I think history was good, but I think overall there was more stress on trying to find your skills or your niche or talent and pursuing that and supporting you on that.”
“I think that in Czech[oslovakia] there were situations where people sometimes were able to hide in certain places, like I know that the school where she taught had a president who was sympathetic and a nice person and an interesting personality who was somehow able to survive, and he would hide some people and I think that happened to my mother. By the time the 1980s came, when I could see that there were strict divisions between teachers who were in the Party and who were not, it was almost like an agreement. People sort of lived next to each other with this agreement: ‘We’re not crossing these boundaries; we’ll just take you for what you are, communist, and we’re here.’ And they co-existed with certain parameters, like you don’t cross over certain lines. You had to go to certain meetings. They had an organization for teachers that was, of course, a communist-affiliated organization. It wasn’t the Party, but it was a union, the teacher’s union, which, in a socialist state, was a socialist organization. So my mother was in that, but it was just like a union.”
“I got very involved in the Catholic religion at that time. There was a huge revival; the people in my generation were very interested in spirituality as a form of looking for a place of truth, looking for different, alternative environment. It was very ecumenic. Ecumenic in a sense that Catholic and Protestant was very mixed, there were no boundaries, and it was more about being a teenager and looking for the meaning of life and a place where you can trust people. There was a sense that you could trust religion after it was suppressed. There was a lot of this happening underground and there were a lot of things that, because my parents were secular, I had no idea about, so it was also newness to it. So I got very involved in a Catholic, not so much a church, but various underground activities that united people. You met a lot of intellectual people through the Catholic underground, so I was very involved in that.”
So how did you get involved in that and what sort of activities were you doing?
“There were certain parishes in Prague that would be popular to go to for young people, meaning that there would be certain priests who would have Mass and homily for young people. They would be more provocative, more modern – within its limits – but then also certain groups organized after church groups where people would get together and talk, sing, become a community, sometimes read from the Bible and had theological readings. I wouldn’t call that Catholicism; it was more spiritual and theological interest in reading the Bible. So that was one thing. The other, being in Prague, young people would often travel outside [the city] on weekends and summers, so there would be parishes around the country where you would go for weekend retreats, where you go and spend time together. You may sing; you may pray. It was social, but with a religious program.
“Now this is so different from here. I would want this to be really clearly distinct from here because that kind of activity was spiritual. It was not important that it was the Catholic Church, in other words. It happened to be for me, but it could have been Protestant. I had friends in my classroom from both Catholic and Protestant [churches] and we would often, as a gesture of solidarity, go back and forth to churches. There was no animosity or competition between churches.”
“I was, through my friend, recommended to a woman named Miloslava Holubová who lived in Malá Strana in a beautiful apartment overlooking Malostranské náměstí and she was a Czech intellectual who signed [Charter 77]. She was a writer intellectual who was connected and, in fact, her apartment was often a place for meetings of various groups, like theological groups, and when books were brought to Czech[oslovakia] secretly from Britain or Germany they were often delivered to her place then sent around. Literary people, underground Charter people often met in her apartment and so the fact that I was expelled for my religious activity and found this room in this woman’s apartment changed my life again in a major way because I became close friends with her, but also she was sort of my mentor and my aunt and my grandmother and my everything. We had an amazing couple of years together. From her, not only was I exposed to all these underground, literary circles and religious circles and literature that I normally wouldn’t have access to, because she was my mentor, we would spend a lot of time together and she would often talk about her life before WWII, during and after, and so I would learn through her about Czech history and the history of experience.”
Leaving the Country
“When I was in FAMU, my last two years or year, I witnessed a number of people coming back home from the West after the Revolution. A number of immigrants who decided they would like to come back and try, and I saw how Czech people in their professions were not supportive; were jealous and actually quite evil and nasty to them, and anything that they came with. There were mutual tensions between people who came from outside and wanted to contribute their knowledge from outside; there was real hatred, sort of this insecurity – ‘Don’t come back and tell us now’ – and the real serious sort of animosity. It was very sad for me for me to see that because I felt that, as a young person, I wanted to see other… what was coming from elsewhere, other ideas. I was open and to see that these older guys in charge are frightened by that and afraid to let go, and not accepting people who were Czech people coming back. It was depressing. Of course, now I made myself to be in the position where if I ever want to go back, I know I would never be accepted, for the very same reasons. But, that was really the reason I left. I was in love with my husband and wanted to be with him, but he would have probably stayed. If I said ‘I’m not going, stay here, make it happen’ he would probably stay; I wanted to go, and I would have gone anywhere in the West. I really wanted to study more.”
“I noticed a group of older men sitting at a table, Sunday morning at 9:00 or 9:30 and they were having coffee or a little glass of wine and, as a photographer, I was intrigued and sort of curious. What was bringing them to this café that was mostly a younger crowd or foreigners? So I walked up to them and introduced myself as a photographer and asked them if I could photograph them or talk to them, and they sort of looked at each other and said ‘Sure.’ So it turned out that they were men who were political prisoners from the ‘50s and they were a group that would gather every Sunday. So I met them, and we talked, and I asked if I could photograph them, so I set up my tripod and my camera and I did an interview about their lives. I interviewed six or seven people and after that I came back the next summer and decided to meet more of them and I also decided to find women and see if women had different experiences or not.
“In 1995, I began this project where I would interview former political prisoners, people who were arrested in 1948 and spent many years, ten or more years in what were Czech labor camps, equivalent to what Solzhenitsyn writes about in The Gulag Archipelago. I first started with life histories and these portraits and then, as I was progressing towards my dissertation, I started to ask questions, not so much about their individual lives, but more about their life as a community. I discovered that they have this community that has political aspirations, that has social aspirations. So I started to hang out with them more. Not with all, but some of them I met with individually, some of them through the community and some of them I stayed friends with and visited, like this man for example. We were very close friends. So really, until 2004, I was going every summer regularly, meeting, if not interviewing, individuals or their spouses or children. I would participate in their annual gatherings and celebrations. They would often return to these places or camps and I would join them and photograph them, and I wrote a journal and records and that all became my data for my doctoral dissertation.”