‘I’m personally grateful to him for my freedom’

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FILE - In this Oct. 3, 2008 file photo, former Czech Republic’s President Vaclav Havel looks on during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press in Prague, Czech Republic. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

In the early 1980s, before Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution,” Dana Hunatova remembers having to hide “dangerous” photographs of Finnish punk rock musicians under the carpet in her Prague home to keep them from disapproving communist-party eyes.

Hunatova, the Czech Republic’s consul general in Chicago, also remembers how a year or two later, her activist husband was arrested on political charges, and how one man showed up day after day at his trial. His name was Vaclav Havel.

“I’m terribly sorry and really very devastated personally,” Hunatova said Monday, a day after the dissident playwright-turned-president died at the age of 75.

Hunatova and her husband who – thanks to world-wide publicity, was given a suspended prison term – considered Havel a friend.

Havel spent years in jail for his political activism. He went from prisoner to president in 1989, the year communism crumbled across Eastern Europe.

“He brought a lot of joy to everybody,” Hunatova said. “I’m personally grateful to him for my freedom. Without him, I would never have been free.”

While mourners laid flowers and lit candles at Havel’s villa in Prague, here in Chicago, the consulate general is encouraging people to sign a condolences book, which the consulate general plans to forward to Havel’s surviving family members.

Some 150,000 Czechs call Illinois home, most of those living in the Chicago area. Havel made at least two trips to the city, consulate staff said.

The condolences book will be open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. at the Consulate General, 205 N. Michigan.

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