She Left Us Too Soon

zikasIrena Zíková was the translator of my first book. After my Czech publisher and I modified the manuscript which would eventually become Prague: My Long Journey Home for a Czech readership, Irena did a masterful job of converting it from English to Czech. The book, Dlouhá cesta domů, debuted in April 2011. Irena sat next to me at the book launch at Prague’s largest bookseller. She was a natural for the translation effort. Because of her superb knowledge of both languages, she had been the interpreter for Olga Havlová, the wife of Václav Havel, when the famed president of Czechoslovakia embarked on his triumphant tour of the United States.

But Irena was much more than an interpreter and translator. She was a good friend. I first met her soon after the Velvet Revolution. She was a member of the initial team of democrats who converted the Czechoslovak embassy in Washington from a Communist walled, forbidding, compound into a happy place which celebrated a newly-formed friendship between the new Czechoslovakia and the U.S.

My late mother, my wife Sue, and I became close friends with Irena and her husband Oldřich, known to his English-speaking friends as Dick. They visited us in Annapolis, and we got together with them on every trip to Prague. It was my great pleasure to help their son, Jan, become one of the first students from his post-communist country to earn an MBA in the U.S.—at the University of Maryland.

Irena remained in America and the embassy for a time, even after Dick had to return to Prague to run his business. After Irena, too, came home, we received devastating news: she was battling breast cancer. That was back in the 1990s.

Over the years, there were periods of chemotherapy and radiation, followed by high hopes, followed by more chemo and more radiation. The cycle kept repeating itself—time and again. Irena fought hard, continued working, watched her grandchildren grow, took care of Dick. Her courage was boundless.

Finally, on December 5, 2013, Irena left us. Her long battle was over. She was one of the bravest ladies I’ve known. At the age of 76, she left much too soon…


  1. Fred O'Callaghan on February 12, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    I am grateful that this eloquent eulogy has been shared with me. It chimes well with my personal memories of the unforgettable Irena.

    • Charles Heller on February 12, 2014 at 4:44 pm

      Thank you, Fred. I’m glad that both of us were lucky enough to know her.

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