THE ESCAPE ARTISTS AND A MAN WHO WANTS TO SAVE THE WORLD

JAN TELENSKY sits at the window of AquaCity, the world’s greenest hotel, and watches the ice in the Poprad River flow. On the marbled wall behind him is a painting of nymphs in a sea of tears. A lot of ancient water has passed down this river since Jan Telensky arrived here almost a decade ago with a plan to save the world. To see him now, in his kingdom, it’s hard to believe that he was an exile for thirty years with two death sentences hanging over his head. And Poprad, only 400 miles from his birthplace, is one of the many places around the world he now calls home. AquaCity, looks out over the river with the snow-capped High Tatras mountains standing sentinel. It’s won dozens of green awards and there was a moment of untrammelled pride last year when the Queen and Prince Philip paid a visit to mark AquaCity’s successes. The hotel has a world-wide reputation as a health resort with its spectacular gymnasiums, saunas, chill-out rooms, its Olympic-sized swimming pool - and its cryotherapy chamber where guests are put into suspended animation for three minutes and come back to life feeling much better, thank you. Jan believes so strongly in this ancient Polish cure-all that every month, at his own expense, injured soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq are flown in to take the treatment. He calls the venture Holidays4Heroes. All have reported genuine improvements to their injuries. That painting on the wall though, has a very special meaning to Jan, not only does it represent his aqua empire but it also marks the inexorable link he has with two of his homeland’s most heroic escape artists. He met Jiří and Zdeňka Tylečkovi by chance while on holiday in Corsica. They were exhibiting paintings at a hotel near their holiday home in the mountains. Their stories reveal the true tragedy and the valour of a people haunted by Communism and the corruption of ‘normalisation’. The rough layered oil painting always reminds him of two days in the late 1960s which earned him a double dose of death. Back in those days Jan was a young man learning to be a locksmith and a violinist in Prague.

Then Russia, Germany, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungry joined forces to invade his country. Almost half a million troops poured through the beleaguered

Czechoslovakian borders in less than twenty four hours and at least 500 of his countrymen were slaughtered, the punishment for their meagre uprising. Smallholdings and the poverty-stricken Romany shacks dotted across the countryside were crushed by the rolling tanks. Skies all around the young Jan Telensky came alive with blazing buildings. Jan says that sometimes in the night he can still hear the mournful and lonely tolling of the Astronomical Clock Tower near Wenceslas Square. He and his compatriots were waiting for the Warsaw Pact invaders to arrive and when they did politicians, poets, dissidents, artists and the just plain young rioted. Molotov Cocktails flew as tanks rumbled into the square, sniper fire ricocheted from historic building to monument and back again. And when the battle was inevitably lost a network of family and friends spirited Jan away. He became invisible, a youthful apprentice car worker in grimy and troubled Luton, Bedfordshire. As he ponders the River Poprad today, Jan, now aged 61, says: “They wanted to kill in this life and in the next too. “But that regime made me what I have become. They tried to make me a ‘normal’ man – yet last year, the Queen flew almost two thousand miles to see me to witness my dream. He smiles: “Yes, they tried to kill me, but I have always believed that little deaths make you stronger.”

The Friends’ Story
Fifteen years after Jan’s own great escape Jiří and Zdeňka Tylečkovi’s were preparing to flee Czechoslovakia too. The government’s policy of normalisation was monstrous and the population was cowed and living in fear. This was 1983 and the Ministry of Culture had gone as far as to inexplicably ban pop music. But you could hear earnest music in the back street cafes of the industrial city of Ostrava on the Polish border. Revolution was once again a covert whisper in the air. Struggling artists Jiří and Zdeňka were working in the country’s ramshackle media industry but sought solace in the bohemian coded dissent. This meant they were being watched constantly by the StB (Secret Police) and the cultural department was stealing the royalties on their paintings. They knew it was time to take their children and go. It was a scary time to be at loggerheads with the authorities, artists and politicians were still being hauled off to the icy wastes of Russia by the StB. The secret police might be a bit of a joke, hiding, as they did, in parkland bushes or chain smoking on street corners in the snow. But they were cruel, leather-coated arbiters of doom who deserved to be feared.

Jiri said in Paris yesterday: “I was forced to risk the lives of my children to escape the oppression and uncertainty that surrounded the people in our homeland. “We had a real desire to follow our dreams, but ‘normalisation’ was ruining everything for people who had imagination. Most of my friends were kicked out of work because of their views. “We needed somehow to make a living. But the more we resisted ‘being normal’ the more pressure the secret police would put us under. “Once a month I would present my pictures to the board of culture. They would name their own prices and put my work up for sale. They took thirty per cent. “Despite it all we had built a house with a sauna and a swimming pool. But we realised we couldn’t stay any longer. Do you understand?” Jiri sighs. “You paint a picture into which you put all of yourself, and then the committee decides whether they give you a chance to show it. The last straw came when we were offered the chance to exhibit in Bologna in Italy. It was showing the most interesting artists of that period, Gentilini, Campigli, Chagall. But the culture committee priced our work so high that we were out of the market. “We just locked the house. To leave the country with the children was virtually impossible but we had to go.” They were planning to head for the mountains of Spain: “We were going to vanish.” But then fate played a wicked joke on them. A group of 20 StBs had won a government-sponsored holiday in Spain. They were travelling on the same coach the fugitives had bought tickets for the day before. There they sat, row after row of them, chain smoking and instantly recognisable despite their Bermudas, Rabans and summer shirts. The coach had reached the Spanish border when a colonel strode up to Jiri and snarled: "Escape is not possible, we’ve informed Prague. So now, during the fourteen days of your stay there will be our two people always around you. And do not be surprised when they are unkind to you, you have spoiled their holiday.” They removed the locks on the Tylečkovi’s hotel room and put in listening devices. Then one morning the family made another break for freedom. The police were following them as they wandered around the city. As a passing lorry hid them from sight for a second, the family jumped in a cab. “I was covered with newspapers and the children with their mother lay on the back seat. We drove seventy kilometres but we didn’t have much money so I offered the driver my camera, but he refused so we got out.” They were stranded in the middle of Spain in a parched desert. All they had with them was a kilo of ham and one loaf of bread.

They crossed over the Pyrenees until they reached the Llobregat River and began to swim to France. Jari demanded political asylum and the police took them to Paris where they were given the address of a catholic charity halfway house and Jari began working as decorator. Zdenka was cleaning. But at least their lives could begin again. Meanwhile, back in Britain at barely 30-years-old Jan Telensky was already a millionaire. Things moved very quickly for him. From working on the Vauxhall car production line he had become Bedfordshire’s table tennis champion, moved into property and then bought the company that had voted him super-salesman. “I was born to be a millionaire,” he said. “It isn’t luck, it’s the way my brain works, ultimately I couldn’t fail. But the things that happened to me in my homeland helped too - I have never been afraid since. Now I visit Prague on a regular basis.” And Jan isn’t afraid to put his money where his heart is as his extraordinary journey takes him towards his next goal, that of being the world’s most eco-friendly businessman. He is planning to build a £12 million block of luxury apartments up the road from his offices in Luton. They will each be heated for less than £1 a week. Each apartment will be wrapped in a coat of thermal building materials which will store heat during summer and release it throughout the winter. When the final plans are accepted the building will be festooned with solar collectors, silent wind turbines, a rain water harvester, low energy lighting. The building’s heating system will burn wood chips and will release only the same amount of Co2 as a growing tree. And back in Poprad he has siphoned off part of the underground power at AquaCity and re-directed it to tenement buildings, so some of the town’s poor finally have constant heat in winter’s which regularly drop below freezing. He has also discovered another thermal lake deep at the centre of the earth and is ready to harness that too. “We all must do something to save the world, I am fortunate that I can spend money on producing ways of collecting and disseminating natural power. The thermal lake under AquaCity for instance will last for thousands of years. I am doing no harm to the environment by tapping into it.” Jan looks out of the window over the River Poprad and smiles, Jiří and Zdeňka Tylečkovi’s painting of weeping nymphs behind him is like a talisman. It re-affirms his belief that small deaths make people stronger And a thousand miles away in Paris Jiří and Zdeňka keep themselves busy at their small but busy gallery on rue Daguerre. Now they have world-renowned art dealers vying for their work. They have exhibited at the Ritz and were the stars of a recent Universal Exposition in Japan. “Life has finally been good to us,” Jiri said.

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