Holocaust survivor appointed to new Czech cabinet

PRAGUE — One of the Czech Republic's new deputy prime ministers — the only Jewish member of the incoming cabinet — has traveled a perilous path to power.

When Egon Lansky, then Egon Lowy, was 5 years old, his father, a doctor, fled to England as Hitler's troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939.

Meanwhile, when the Jews of his hometown of Trencin were rounded up for deportation in 1944, Lansky's mother, also a doctor, feigned medical problems. She and her children were transferred to a local hospital, where sympathetic former colleagues kept them as long as they could.

The family was eventually deported to Auschwitz, but survived.

Back in Trencin after the war, the Lowys changed the family name to Lansky, a less Jewish-sounding name to Czech ears, to escape anti-Semitism.

Lansky, now 64, was later thrown out of three universities for anti-Communist activities. He moved to Sweden after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that ended the 1968 Prague Spring reform movement.

In Sweden, where he took citizenship, he earned degrees in journalism and politics. He became known as a conservative political columnist and also worked for the BBC in London and as a political commentator for Radio Free Europe.

Lansky returned to Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution brought down communism in 1989. He became a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then was appointed ambassador in the Czechoslovak permanent mission to the Council of Europe.

When Czechoslovakia dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia at the end of 1992, Lansky took Czech citizenship and worked as a journalist before he became a press spokesman for the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Milos Zeman.

Czech President Vaclav Havel asked Zeman to form a new government after the Social Democrats took a third of the popular vote in parliamentary elections in June.

Lansky joined the party after he ran for the Czech Senate as an independent in 1996 and won convincingly.

"You cannot be a conservative in the Czech Republic if you want to be a decent person," he said. "The right wing here does not have what the Tories in Britain, for example, have: compassion."

Now, as deputy prime minister for European integration, Lansky's primary responsibility will be preparing the country for possible membership in the European Union.

But he will also have to steer his party and his country to a smoother relationship with Germany.

Even though Lansky is the only Jewish member of the new cabinet, there is strong Jewish representation in the Czech Foreign Ministry. Deputy Foreign Minister Otto Pick is Jewish, for example.

Lansky's involvement with the Czech Jewish community includes membership in an organization called Beit Praha, the Open Jewish Community, which was set up by American Jewish expatriates, with the help of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, to provide an alternative to the official Orthodox community here.