Obituary: Olga Havlov

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The Independent Online
"One of life's unshakeable certainties is Olga. We've known one another for 33 years and for 30 years we've lived together through the possible and the impossible," wrote Vclav Havel. Havel's 143 letters to Olga from prison (published in English as Letters to Olga in 1988) give a moving insight into the depth of mutual support they offered one another during the grey and soul-destroying period of "normalisation" in the face of almost constant persecution by the authorities.

Olga Havlov never lived in the shadow of her husband. During their dissident life in the Eighties, she was one of the founder members of the samizdat Original Video Journal, which tried to capture the reality of life in Czechoslovakia on film to show to the outside world. When Havel became President after the Velvet Revolution, she shrugged off the role of "First Lady", taking it for granted that she should continue to do her own work in her own right. Rallying the support of other former dissidents, she set up the "Good Will Foundation" in 1990 to support the mentally and physically disabled, working from her philosophy of a civic society built on mutual trust.

But at the same time she remained a private person, astonishingly untouched by her position in the public realm and always allowing herself time to reflect and gather strength. "I sometimes feel guilty about keeping space for myself at whatever cost," she said in 1993.

Olga Havlov had a tough preparation for life. In the days of her childhood in the working-class Prague suburb of Zizkov, she learnt to survive. Her parents divorced when she was six, and from an early age she knew both the unlimited freedom of the city and the responsibility of family, helping to bring up her elder sister's five children. She served an apprenticeship as a stocking-mender for the Bata shoe company, and went on to work in accounts after suffering an injury on a cutting machine.

It was through a friend that she met her husband in the famous Cafe Slavia in Prague, and from the start the couple found they had much in common, in particular a love for the theatre. When Havel was working as a scene- shifter and later dramatist at the Theatre on the Balustrade, Olga found work in the same theatre, and Havel often consulted her in his work. "Sometimes Vclav wakes me in the night and reads me a scene he's just written. We've always done everything together."

In the five years of her work in the Good Will Foundation, Havlov raised the equivalent of pounds 15m for causes varying from projects to break down the isolation of the mentally disabled from society, to summer camps for asthmatic children from the polluted cities of northern Bohemia. Her approach to the foundation reflected her approach to life in general.

"You should never give up just because some bureaucrat says that there is no money," she said of her work last autumn. "You should ask, why is there no money? - and then keep 'pestering' until there is."

Olga Splchalov, political activist and charities campaigner: born Prague 11 July 1933; married 1964 Vclav Havel; died Prague 27 January 1996.

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