When about a dozen Central Floridians attend a Czech national celebration Wednesday in Prague, they will be watching a piece of history set right — and the conclusion of a saga that encompasses two world wars, communist occupation, defiant patriotism and a mystery.
The pomp and ceremony is for the unveiling of a statue depicting U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Designed in 1928, the monument was one of the great works of Czech-American sculptor Albin Polasek, a Winter Park resident who died in 1965.
Representatives of the Polasek Foundation will join dignitaries in the Czech capital including President Vaclav Klaus; the first post-communist Czech president, Vaclav Havel; and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is of Czech descent.
"What an incredible tribute," said Debbie Komanski, executive director of the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park, run by the foundation. "This project is so meaningful to those of us entrusted with carrying Mr. Polasek's legacy forward."
The Wilson Monument, as the statue is known, is tied to the tumultuous history of Central Europe. After World War I, when Europe's map was redrawn, Czechoslovakia came into being. The new nation's first president, Tomáš Masaryk, had met Wilson and studied U.S.-style democracy, which he brought to Czechoslovakia's fledgling government.
"Czech Americans in this country were so proud of what had occurred," Komanski said. "They worked with President Masaryk to honor President Wilson. He was considered the godfather of Czech democracy."
Polasek, highly regarded worldwide, was chosen by the Czechoslovak National Council of America to sculpt a monument to Wilson. The large bronze statue was dedicated July 4, 1928, and prominently positioned in front of Prague's main train station.
Inscribed on its granite base was a quote from Wilson: "The world must be made safe for democracy."
That quote did not sit well with the Nazis who invaded the country in 1939. Within days of the U.S. declaring war on Germany in December 1941, the monument was pulled down.
After the war, a plaque engraved with the pro-democracy quote was placed where the statue had been. That didn't sit well with the Soviets.
During the Cold War, the communist overseers of Czechoslovakia had the plaque removed. In the 1970s, they ordered the destruction of the statue's molds and plaster test casts, used to make a final check for imperfections before the statue's parts were cast in expensive bronze and welded together.
But were they actually destroyed?
Robert W. Doubek was skeptical of the rumors that the plaster casts still existed, hidden somewhere in Prague.
"I thought it was an urban legend," said Doubek, a U.S. State Department employee who founded the private organization American Friends of the Czech Republic in 1995.
Doubek often showed Czech visitors to Washington, D.C., a memorial to Masaryk — and one day in 2006 that sight stirred a vague idea.
"In the recesses of my memory, I sort of remembered hearing about a statue of Woodrow Wilson in Prague that had been pulled down," Doubek said. He did some research — "Thank God for Google" — and then started making calls to the Czech ambassador, the mayor of Prague and Komanski, who jumped on board.
"He said 'I think it can be re-created,'" Komanski recalled. "It never could have happened without his singular focus for the past five years."
Doubek had experience cutting through government red tape: A former Air Force intelligence officer who served in Vietnam, he had been the project director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
He found a Czech lawyer to help with the bureaucracy, and commissioned a team of Czech sculptors. Through fundraising galas and newsletter appeals, the American Friends of the Czech Republic raised $700,000 to pay for the new statue. The Czech government paid for the pedestal.
The sculptors were prepared to work from old photographs in the Polasek Museum collection, but there was still another twist to come.
In May 2007, Komanski received a call from the Lord Mayor's office in Prague, saying the project had been officially approved by the city's cultural commission. But still no news of the plaster casts. Then Komanski got a message from Zdenek Michalek, the project's Czech legal representative in Prague. "He told me 'an old man' had told him it still existed. I said it sounds like a legend. He said, 'Debbie, no, I believe this really exists.' "
Michalek went to visit the man for details, only to find he was ill and in the hospital.
And Komanski waited.
Finally, the man was well enough to speak to Michalek — and he had an answer. Only one plaster cast remained — the head. It was found on the outskirts of Prague in early January 2008.
"It was buried in storage in the national archives in an unmarked box," she said. Komanski still marvels at the bravery of the Czech patriots who defied orders to preserve their art and history.
"They took pictures of the rest of the destroyed stuff, signed off they had done everything they were supposed to do — and just didn't mention they had saved the head," she said.
Doubek saw the discovery as a sign: "It's one of those things that tells you, 'Hey, this is going to work.'"
"The face, of course, is most important so the sculptor could get it exactly right," Komanski said.
The sculptors set to work in 2009, and the new 11-foot plaster cast was sent to the bronze foundry this past October. After being cast, it was brought back to the train station and covered until Wednesday's public unveiling.
Because surrounding roads have changed and the train station has been expanded, the statue is in a slightly different place than before. But reviving the statue's message is what's truly important, Komanski said.
"It's an extremely, extremely important symbol of the friendship between our nations and our common commitment to making the world safe for democracy," Komanski said. "The Nazis may have destroyed it, the Soviets took their shot at it, but it will be unveiled again."
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