Interviews with Stepan Rak
"Russian, Russian, you came with them on a tank, you Russian!" When the boy heard this battle cry for the first time, he unwittingly looked back. Who are they pointing fingers at? And he just didn’t understand why they were making fun of him. He was Czech, after all! `My name is Štěpán Rak, I am Czech, and I was born on August 8, 1945. The war is already over!’ But the next day the boys were still screaming about tanks...
"I was twelve years old at the time – an age where every insult cuts like a knife. My parents didn’t want to return to the past. How they explained it to me was more than enough for me at the time. Since then, I have never really known who I am."
There exist two versions about the birth of Czech’s forerunning guitarist, Štěpán Rak, who just so happens to be teaching solo guitar at the Academy of Musical Arts in Prague.
The first version says that he was born in January 1945 on the eastern front. His mother was a Zakarpattian Ukrainian fighting for the free army. She brought her son here – all the way to Prague - most likely on a tank. A similar version of this story has the woman travelling here while still pregnant and not giving birth until she was on Czech soil.
In any event, both versions continue with the mother leaving her son in Prague after several months and returning to Ukraine. Maybe she was obeying orders to return, maybe she went on holiday, or maybe she just went to visit relatives. Whatever the case, she could not travel with her son who was seriously ill at the time and they would never see one another again.
Zakarpattian Ukraine was occupied by the Soviet Union and borders were tightly closed for the next three years. Nobody could enter Ukraine and nobody could leave. Mother was imprisoned in her own country and son was adopted by the Rak family.
I guess I was at Dukla
"I was in the hospital for several months. I was diagnosed with diphtheria and it seemed as though I wouldn’t survive. I envision a picture of myself lying in a bed, a black board above my head reading "Štěpka". And then a woman’s face is bending over looking down at me. It’s my mother. She takes me in her arms and we go home". Štěpán Rak realizes that this memory is not really a memory at all. He was just one year old when Marie and Josef Rak brought him home from the hospital. At that age it is nearly impossible to remember anything. He obviously could not read yeat, hence could not know what was written on a board over his head. At the same time, he is convinced that this story was not told to him by anybody. And it would be a time long before he was finally rid of the fear he felt whenever a plane would fly overhead. "I would run and hide under a table. At the time I didn’t know why, but today I understand. My mother must have been pregnant when she crossed through Dukla."
Rak would not learn the name of the women who gave birth to him until later in life, in the 1980’s. He once promised his adopted parents that as long as they were alive he would not search for his biological family. He admits it was not easy to accept the fact that his date of birth was made up by some office clerk. But he respected their wishes. He loved them very much and appreciated all they had done for him.
He would learn more of his origins later in life when his adopted mother left him a letter at a family friend, not to be opened until after her death. "Today I know the names of both of my parents. They were Zakarpattian Ukranians. My father was a military officer and my mother is said to have been awarded medals of honor by the USSR. In 1948, as soon as the borders were reopened, she headed for Prague. She found out my new name and address and found my parents but she was unable to reverse the court’s adoption ruling."
I have no gripes with my fate
Štěpán Rak would rather not think about the dramatic path of a woman who voluntarily entered the fight against Nazism, survived the entire war and Dukla, and gave birth to a son only to lose him to the power of the Magistrate. "It must have been horrible for her. If that had happened to me? Fortunately, “if“ does not exist. I just can’t imagine why, but through it all I think that it was all just meant to be. It was destiny. My destiny."
Rak truly has no gripes. He appreciates his adopted parents and all the love they gave him in his childhood. Depite having only an elementary level of education, they were able to recognize his creative and musical talent. They supported him in his studies and throughout his entire life. Maybe if he grew up in Ukraine...
"If does not exist!" he exclaims, refusing to speculate. "I can’t contemplate what it would be like if my path were different. I think my fate has enriched my life. It is my inspiration. Being so torn has enabled me to seek out my artistic impression."
Štěpán Rak would rather discuss music, poetry, the works of Jan Amos Komensky, upon whose motifs he composed music that he now performs with Alfréd Strejček around the world. His only feels a bit embarrased when it comes to his past.
Rak’s son recently set out to visit the place where his biological family still lives. He met his aunt and uncle and several cousins. "I remain hopeful to someday soon meet with them, as well. I’m looking forward to it and fear it at the same time" he says. His Ukranian mother has already died, coincidentally during the same year his adopted mother died in Prague. Yet another reason to believe in fate.
Štěpán Rak certainly does. ... ...