The best of One on One in 2006


In this special New Year's Day show we are taking a look back at some of the best of our One on One interview programme in 2006. Among those featured are William Teltscher, who fled Mikulov in 1938 and recalls his return to Czechoslovakia, Zdenek Marek, who defected a day after winning the World Ice Hockey Championships in Sweden, and Pavla Fleischer, a film maker who experienced a bombing in Tel Aviv. Other guests include Communist Party member Josef Skala, opinion pollster Jan Hartl and Glasgow-based Czech academic and commentator Jan Culik.

William Teltscher
It's not often you get the chance to talk about history with those who participated in it. In early June Rob Cameron went to cover a festival of Jewish culture in the south Moravian town of Mikulov. The festival marked the 70th anniversary of the foundation of Mikulov's Jewish museum, which was closed when the Nazis arrived in 1938. Among the guests was William Teltscher, son of the museum's founder Richard Teltscher. William Teltscher fled the Nazis in 1938 and emigrated to London, where he's lived ever since. Now 83, he spoke about the first time he returned to Czechoslovakia.

"I returned in 1968. It was at the time of the discussions between the Russians and the Czechs at Cierna, and we felt that the couple of weeks we were going to spend were reasonably safe. In fact, we retuned at the very moment that the Russians invaded."

What were your feelings when you returned to Mikulov for the first time since 1938?

"It's a strange thing to define. The degree of nostalgia I suppose played its part, but the main thing was that it was a completely new population. At that time not as interested as the present generation in the continuity of the history, due to the various political developments that intervened I suppose."

Today I'm speaking to you on the launch of this festival of Jewish culture in Mikulov. What do you think of these efforts to bring back to life the Jews of Mikulov?

"I applaud it. I must say there is one thing which troubles me slightly and that is not the Czech part of this, but the Sudeten German part of it, which is trying to create a myth of the idyllic coexistence of the Jews and ethnic Germans. In my generation this did not apply. From 1933 onwards, things got progressively worse and worse. I think it was a German historian [Leopold von] Ranke, who said 'write history as it is true'. And this is not true."

The story of Zdenek Marek certainly ranks among the most remarkable we heard in 2006. He was a member of the Czechoslovak team which won the 1949 World Ice Hockey Championships in Sweden. But instead of returning home with his team-mates, he took the opportunity to defect. He later settled in New York. On the phone from there, Zdenek Marek, now in his 80s, told Jan Velinger his story.

"We won the World Championship and we had a gala dinner and I was sitting next to the manager of the team, and the manager told me 'Hey, Marek, go upstairs and bring me back your passport'. Because, I had borrowed it the day before on the pretext that I wanted to change some Swedish money or something, so he had lent it to me. So, I said okay and went upstairs. One of the chambermaids hid my suitcase, and I went down to the lobby.

"Now, in the lobby were those two guys whose job it was to watch the team, okay, and they said 'Look, Marek, where are you going? We are going to leave soon.' I said 'I met this nice young lady and I have to say goodbye to her before we leave.' And they said 'Okay, but don't forget to come back.' And I 'forgot' to come back. That's how I stayed in Sweden.

"The team went to catch the train - all slightly high from the success - and when they were calling the names - when they called mine, somebody said 'here'. So, they didn't even know that I wasn't there when the team left.

"The next day was one of the worst days that you can possibly imagine, one of the worst days of my life. I woke up, I knew that the team had gone home, and that I was alone in a country where I didn't speak the language. It was a dreary day, it was raining. Meanwhile, there were dozens of newspaper reporters looking for me. I was the biggest sensation."

But it's not just the older generation who have strong stories to tell. In July I met Pavla Fleischer, a young Prague-born film-maker who has lived in the UK half her life. She was planning to make a documentary about a bar in Tel Aviv, with the aim of showing life could go on as normal in Israel. But then tragedy struck: a bomb ripped through the bar killing, among others, the main protagonist of her film.

"I went to Israel to follow my then boyfriend and together we were commissioned to make a film about a small bar on the beachfront of Tel Aviv, Mike's Place. Two weeks into the filming I was there with a camera when a bomb exploded in the bar, so obviously the whole intention of making a film about the happy side of Israel went in a different direction and's been quite an experience."

Tell us about the bombing: if people were killed, how close were you yourself to danger?

"We, me and Joshua, were standing about six meters away from where the bomb exploded. We were standing by the stage, where the musicians were singing and the bomb exploded just outside of the bar. Three people were killed, one of whom was the chief protagonist in the film, Dominique, and two other musicians died in the explosion."

And also you yourself became the focus of perhaps even world media attention when that happened because of this unusual story. What was that experience like?

"It's the last thing you think about - yourself - when something like that happens. Obviously the media immediately became interested in us as well as the film we were making. It wasn't an easy experience and I still find it very difficult to talk about it."

"I've had a lot of difficulty, even in the production of the film, because in my experience, a thing like that can affect on a physical level but it also definitely affects you on an emotional level. It's actually a film that I prefer to forget, in a way."

I'm pleased to say our next interviewee had a rather more run-of-the-mill experience when he came to Czechoslovakia during the 1980s to make a radio documentary about Terezin Ghetto for the BBC. Simon Broughton, now one of the foremost authorities on world music, explained how his interest in the subject came about.

"After university, I started working for the BBC. I worked on the arts programmes for BBC radio. There was a Czech festival held in Britain at the time, in the way that this sort of thing is regularly organised. Through that I heard about Terezin and the music that was written in Terezin as well as the artistic life that existed there. I decided I wanted to make a radio documentary about music and the whole arts scene in Terezin.

"I came out here and had to get official permission from the regime - I still have a strange, old-fashioned-looking press pass that I was given by the communist authorities to come and do it. There was a little bit of talking and checking papers and that sort of thing, but then they just let me get on with it. I hired a car and drove off the Terezin. I'm pretty sure there was no following or prying into what I was doing. Terezin was not a controversial subject.

"At the same, however, we actually did a thing on the side about unofficial or underground theatre in Prague - things like Theatre on the Balustrade and some of the writers and directors who were either banned or working on the edges of Prague at that stage. It was clearly a movement that was going on then. It wasn't a terribly radical thing, although we did have an interview with Havel in that programme. It sort of gave me a taste of the more political side of what was going on here."

Interestingly, one person Mr Broughton interviewed about Terezin was Zdenka Fantlova, who was herself a guest on One in One in recent weeks.

Also quite recently was November 17th, the anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. On that date many Czechs reflect on the four decades of totalitarian communist rule and the many injustices of the communist era. But what about those with a different point of view about what happened in this country between 1948 and 1989? For an alternative perspective, Rob Cameron spoke to Dr Josef Skala, who stood as a candidate for the Communist Party at the last elections. He began by asking him about the 241 people executed by the communists for political crimes.

"Two hundred and forty-one people executed people. First of all, 241 was the number of those who were sentenced, not executed. You should know it. I think 170-something were executed. The last person executed in any way related to politics was in 1960. For a murder, by the way. For a flagrant murder. One should admit that these mistakes and tragedies were done in a big fight where the supremacy was on the other side, and all the methods were used. All the methods were used. The Cold War was not initiated by any Stalin."

But this is nothing to do with the Cold War. The victims were not agents of the enemies of this country. They were just ordinary people who were victimised by the regime.

"How? Sorry, no. No. Let me stop at those 170-something. Most of these people were involved in a very active fight against the regime. Some of them were shooting. I'm not saying all of them. But please don't tell me that these 170-something were clean people who only had their beliefs and were doing nothing. It's not true. You should look at it case by case."

But what about people who were shot or who otherwise died simply for the crime of trying to leave their country?

"How many Mexicans are dying each year on the American border?"

Yes, but they're trying to get in, they're not trying to get out...

"Out of Mexico! which is actually a colony of the United States. Sorry. Sorry. One should see the problem as it is in reality. What's the system in Mexico? Is there socialism in Mexico? They are leaving a weaker capitalism for a country which is looting throughout the world. That's the logic for why they are leaving. You cannot compare it to Czechoslovakia."

But nonetheless I think we can agree that a great injustice was done to a great many people in this country. You may have a moral problem with it, but the party which shares the ideology which you subscribe to seems to have no dilemma at all. It refuses to condemn it.

"No, no, no. I think systematically one fact is ignored. Several times we gave a clear excuse for all these things, and let's admit one thing. Communists are not at all the champions in political crimes. If we had more time I would show you such crimes of liberals, conservatives, Christians and so on. We're not the winners in this competition, not at all."

Our next guest has to keep his opinions about politics to himself. Jan Hartl is one of the Czech Republic's leading pollsters; indeed, his STEM agency was one of the first organisations of its kind established here after 1989. When Rob Cameron met Jan Hartl, he began by asking him whether opinion polls could ever by misused.

"All spheres of human activity can be misused. It can be well used and it can be misused. No-one would dare to falsify the data of the surveys. But a lot can be done by selecting certain questions, selecting certain answers, and manipulation by selecting specific features and focussing on some aspects and forgetting about others can do most of the manipulation. But this not only applies to politicians. It applies also to journalists and the media. It's well known that if you want to describe especially complicated phenomena in social life, you usually pick up the most visible points and it can be a kind of distortion of complex problems."

You have your finger on the pulse of Czech society - do you enjoy your work?

"Yes, I do. I must say that it's fascinating work. We started early in 1990 with the idea to run a private, independent company so we could take the pulse of the changes in society. The transformation process from a Communist society is unprecedented in history, and from a scientific and professional view it's a fascinating job. A worse aspect is that you study society not only as a scientist but as a citizen. So what's a joy to the scientist is a difficulty for the citizen. But that's life."

Over the years I've lost count of the number of people I've met who've told me, 'oh, I used to work for Radio Prague, back in...whenever'. This year it was Jan Culik, who teaches Czech studies at Glasgow University.

"There was a Canadian student of Czech who came to the Summer School, I think it was '75, his name was Joe Tretina. His parents were Czech but he didn't speak any Czech, he started learning it here. And he was actually a follower of the Baha'i faith - he was a missionary. He ostensibly came here to study medicine, but he was actually trying to proselytise, to spread the Baha'i faith.

"There was a ridiculous scene - and this was before the Xerox era - where he discovered at the university library a book in Czech about the Baha'i faith published in the 1930s. He said, Honza, we need to make copies of this. So what we did, we took photographs of it and we actually did three or four copies of a 300-page book. We had a bath full of an incredible amount of prints of this book.

"And this person got me in touch with the English service of Radio Prague, which was obviously communist. I came here and worked here for a few months, but unfortunately I was too...outrageous for them. The secret police started dragging me for interviews. Because everyone was connected with everyone in Prague, I was given hints that they were persecuting me because I was here. And that basically I was unacceptable for them to broadcast, so it ended and that's basically it."

I was in Glasgow in March and was brought by one of Mr Culik's students to a Czech cajovna, or tea-house, a short walk from Glasgow University's campus. It is run by a young man called Martin Fell, who was born in the UK to a Czech mother. While he took occasional drags on a chillum, I asked Martin if his mother had taught him Czech as a child.

"She did for a bit, yeah, and then I started speaking English, because me and my brothers were the only Czech kids about. And then I learned Czech later on - I lived in the Czech Republic when I was 18. I studied Slavonic Studies as well, so...half and half."

How old were you in 1989?

"In '89? I was actually in the Czech Republic at the time. I was about 10."

You were there at the age of 10 in November '89?

"Yeah, because we were on holiday. We used to go to the Czech Republic every year, even during the communist times. Because my mother was legally in Britain because she was married to my yeah, I don't remember much of it, just big demonstrations and a big speech by Havel on Wenceslas Square and that."

Were you there?

"Yeah, and the main thing I remember to be honest was that my little brother took a wee in the middle of the crowd - not very political really."

Tell us how was it as a British kid going to a communist country?

"It was very strange because we'd come with cans of Coca Cola - I don't drink that stuff now but - and various cans and things that we took for granted. We'd go to Czechoslovakia and no-one had ever seen it before. Or we'd go in a Nissan Prairie and we'd go through a village and kids would be running after us going 'wow, what a car'. And my cousins were there, and they were quite proud of the fact that they had cousins who came from a Western country."