On the 75th anniversary of VE Day, Ambassador of Slovakia Ľubomír Rehák says it has never been more important to remember heroes of the past
Among the activities of diplomatic representation overseas, there’s always been an important place for cultivating relations based on good examples from the past. Indeed, historical research can provide surprising discoveries. Among the names – of victims killed in an airplane crash repatriating our citizens from wartime exile in 1945 – listed at Brookwood Military Cemetery, we found a typical Slovak name, Marína Paulínyová. On the left side of a common grave, she also had a separate memorial. So, who was this mysterious, forgotten lady? My research into valuable resources that included the Memorial Association for Free Czechoslovak Veterans, the Slovak National Library and archive of Marína’s great niece Zuzana Francová, unveiled a fascinating life story, worth highlighting today.
Marína was born at Slovenské Pravno in Central Slovakia in 1897 to the patriotic Paulíny family. When she was eight years old, her family moved to the United States to escape poverty and national oppression. Soon afterwards, Marína became the unofficial head of the family when her father unexpectedly died in 1916, starting work at the joint Headquarters of the Czech National Federation and the Slovak League of America in Pittsburg. The following year, the family followed her to New York where she began a job at the newly established Czechoslovak Consulate.
At the beginning of 1919, 21-year old Marína joined a mission with the American Red Cross to support the Czechoslovak Legions’ return home from Russian Siberia, despite being three years under the age limit. She only returned to Czechoslovakia on the last transport of wounded legionaries in 1921, spending an two extra months in Japan after their ship Heffron almost sank in the Yellow Sea.
Back home in Czechoslovakia, Marína became fully involved in post-war reconstruction activities, supported by American relief Hoover’s Mission. Later, as the only Slovak familiar with the work of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Marína became the founder and first head of the organisation’s branch in Bratislava, where many underprivileged women could find home and shelter, along with various educational workshops. Subsequently, Marína not only continued to cooperate with her colleagues in the US but also became a focal point for collaboration with the British branch of the organisation. As a result, she joined the YWCA’s Overseas Department as the only representative from Czechoslovakia.
From 1924 to 1936, Marína again lived in the United States. Her business, Czechoslovak Art Studios, selling traditional Slovak and Czech folk products adapted for the daily needs of the American household, was now found in a number of cities throughout the country, and her studios also served as cultural platforms promoting the new Czechoslovakia.
Back home, Czechoslovak Prime Minister, Milan Hodža, appointed Marína a director of Slovakotour, the first Slovak tourism operator in 1936. She also served as Vice-President of the Anglo-American Society of Czechoslovakia, encouraging and facilitating cultural exchange in both directions. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs regularly approached Marína for advice and assistance when foreign delegations visited Czechoslovakia, who included Members of British Parliament, the US Congress and Senate, but also other public figures such as journalists, artists, writers and business people. According to Marína’s nephew Ivan Franc, her apartment became a cultural destination in its own right, and she possessed a perfect combination of intellect and charm, which made her an ideal cultural diplomat.
After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Marína escaped imprisonment by immigrating to England, like so many others from all over Europe who came in search of refuge from the war. After England was heavily bombed in 1940, Marína applauded the British spirit of humanity and hospitality: “The British nation accepted in a kind, gentle and loving way thousands of people from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and other countries of the progressively enslaved Europe. They accepted us only based on our faces and they shared with us everything they had.”
Only a few days after her arrival in London, she made an extensive address on radio to inform the British public about the situation in occupied Czechoslovakia. Her fellow compatriots at home were never far from her mind – she made a radio address to them at Christmas that same year and many more times during the war.
As the deputy chairperson and only Slovak in the leadership of a newly established Czechoslovak Red Cross in Exile, she worked on the agenda of Czechoslovak prisoners of war, searching for relatives as well as executing the delivery of letters and parcels to the occupied territories. Marína was able to utilise her contacts and connections in the US and Canada, especially with the expat associations, to gain financial and material support for the Red Cross. Her tact and diplomatic skills attracted many British VIPs to support the Czechoslovak Red Cross activities. Furthermore, Marína also found herself responsible for Czechoslovaks in Britain, taking particular interest in the students.
After the war was finally over, Marína stayed in London for a short while in order to close the Red Cross London office. The final photograph we have of her is most likely from this period – published in London newspapers on 28 September 1945 – taken on the occasion that the British Red Cross donated 14 medical vehicles to Czechoslovakia.
Later that year, Marína was invited to represent Czechoslovakia at the International Red Cross meeting in Geneva. She first flew to Czechoslovakia on a repatriation flight for a brief visit with her family after all those years abroad. On 5 October 1945, her plane crashed near Blackbushe airport, and all 23 crew and passengers perished. Curiously, her fate resembles the tragical end of iconic co-founder of Czechoslovakia, General Milan Rastislav Štefánik, who also died in aircrash when returning from exile in 1919. Furthermore, Marína’s passion for activism meant that during her life she acquired the nickname, ‘Štefánik in skirt.’ Sadly, she too died in the same manner as Štefánik. In 1946, Marína was posthoumusly awarded a Czechoslovak War Cross.
As unfair as history can be when intertwined with politics, Marína’s memory and life-long contribution was lost in history. Her memorial at the Brookwood cemetery became almost unvisible, sunken in grass. When the first female President of Slovakia Zuzana Čaputová visited Czechoslovak military memorial at Brookwood in December 2019 and planted a Tree of Peace there, I invited her to light a candle at a grave of Marína Paulínyová. The President was deeply touched by her extraordinary life story, which can now be used to inspire a young generation of Slovaks.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, it felt appropriate to find a way to restore Marína Paulínyová’s memorial. On 8 March, International Women’s Day, together with my colleagues from the Embassy, we removed the grass from gravestone, preparing it for professional cleaning and restoring. Sadly, my original plan to unveil the reconstructed memorial, filled with gravel from her native town on Marína’s birthday on 28 March became impossible due to coronavirus measures. But her name and fascinating story has already been brought back to the place in history that it deserves.
Photographs courtesy of the Embassy of Slovakia & Anthony McCallum, WyrdLight Photography www.wyrdlight.com