The CERES community is saddened to learn of the death of Josef Čermák, one of our program’s closest friends and supporters. Joe, as we all called him, was 96 years old. An immigrant from the former Czechoslovakia, Joe was a distinguished lawyer, author, and actor, as well as an activist in multiple Czech and Slovak organizations in Canada.

Joe’s permanent smile, sparkling eyes, and humour reflected a man who embraced the best of Canada and his homeland. Since the 1960s, Joe was devoted to building the University of Toronto’s program of Czech and Slovak Studies. He helped to bring in multiple endowments that continue to support students to this day. These remain a crucial part of his legacy, as he loved nothing more than to give young people a chance to study and explore Central Europe.

CERES Director Professor Randall Hansen recalled, “Well into his eighties, Joe led an effort, including a hand-written appeal to hundreds of Czech nationals across the country, to raise further funds for student scholarships at CERES and student internships and exchanges in his home country. Thanks to him, and the wider members of the Czech diaspora that supported his efforts, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are and always will be at the centre of our research, teaching, and outreach. We are very grateful to Joe for his work. But more than that: he was our friend, and we will miss him very much.”

Professor Robert Johnson, Director of the Centre for Russian and East European Studies (the predecessor to CERES) noted, “Joe will be remembered for the extraordinary range of his talents and accomplishments, but to me the qualities that best defined him were devotion and service. He lived extremely modestly and worked tirelessly to assist the people and causes that he loved. He was passionately loyal to two homelands—the Czechoslovakia of his birth and Canada, the second home where he lived for almost eighty years.  Much of his energy was spent building bridges between the two, whether by promoting university study and exchanges or by public celebration of the music and culture of Czechs and Slovaks. In the years of communism, he helped to disseminate the writings of dissidents. After 1991, he advocated for democracy and civil society in the successor states and around the world. To the end of his life, he closely followed news of the world and was always ready to share his views on the latest developments, whether in Canada, the USA, or Central Europe.  His heroes in these decades were Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, and Angela Merkel, all of whom in his judgment embodied the qualities of leadership and moderation that he valued. He was a wise and thoughtful friend and I feel privileged to have known him.”

Joe was born in 1924 in Skurach, Czechoslovakia. In an interview from 2005, he described himself as being part of a “very idealistic generation” that grew up during Czechoslovakia’s two decades of independence prior to the Second World War. In 1938, he witnessed the invasion of his country by German troops, an experience that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He studied law at Charles University, but his young adulthood was disrupted by both the war and the subsequent communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. In September 1948, Joe was arrested by the regime for participating in public demonstrations, and following his release from prison, he decided to leave his beloved country. He fled first to refugee camps in Germany before settling in Canada in 1949 at the age of 25. His deep love of Canada started then and never abated.

Joe finished law school at the University of Toronto and was called to the Ontario Bar in 1960. He always sought to help other refugees and newcomers to Canada, often providing free legal assistance to those who needed it. He was involved with many boards, clubs, and organizations, such as Sokol Canada and the Czechoslovak Association of Canada, where he served as president for two terms. As he settled into his new life in Toronto, he also began to learn and write about the history of Czech and Slovak immigrants in Canada. Initially he wrote only in the Czech language but received many requests for English translations of his works. In 2003, he published his popular history book in English: It All Began With Prince Rupert: The Story of Czechs and Slovaks in Canada.

In addition to prolific writing, Joe also acted in productions at the Nove Divadlo theatre in Toronto. Toward the end of his life, he entertained other residents of his nursing home with folk singing. Members of the Czech and Slovak community fondly remember Joe’s love of poetry and his poetry recitations at community events.

During his life, Joe was honoured with many awards, including the University of Toronto’s Arbor Award. He will be deeply missed, and the CERES community will always remember his significant contribution to our program. We have lost a wonderful person.