Czech New York pt. 2: “Many émigrés were accused of being Communist spies”

Photo: ArtTower, Pixabay

In Český New York (Czech New York), Martin Nekola describes how the community in Manhattan dissipated after the war, as many Czechs moved out to Astoria and elsewhere. However, the book also documents the fresh influx of notable post-war émigrés to the Big Apple, including some of the leading names in Czechoslovak culture. We discuss them – and in particular the story of actor George Voskovec – in the second part of this two-part interview. But I began by asking Nekola about an earlier Czech community far from the bustle of the city, in a place they named Bohemia.

Bohemian immigrants heading to New York,  not dated. Image courtesy of Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad - University of Chicago

“Bohemia actually was the only Czech rural settlement in New York State.

“It was created in 1855 by, I guess, four or five families from Bohemia, who simply bought cheap farmland and began to work there.

“It had a great history. More and more Czechs arrived – even ones who moved there from New York City.

“I visited it three years ago. First of all you see the Jan Hus statue and then you can find a huge cemetery, full of Czech names.

“Then there is a Czech museum, which looks like a hangar at an airport [laughs] – nothing special from outside.

“But when you enter you see an incredible piece of Czech history. You see the Czech costumes, you see the glass, you see the posters, paintings, folk songbooks, Czech newspapers.

“It’s incredible that these people, these poor peasants living in Long Island, had such energy and money and passion to keep the Czech traditions and the Czech history.

“It’s incredible these poor peasants in Long Island had such passion to keep the Czech traditions and the Czech history.”

“Of course, today there are not so many Czechs living there, but volunteers still keep up the museum.

“They have an incredible archive that needs to be somehow saved and preserved for future generations.

“So I tried to contact a local university and said, Hey guys, could you just send a couple of students with scanners, just to save the old photographs and audio tapes and newspapers, because they won’t last forever.

“And even the volunteers today – they are between 70 and 80 years old – won’t last forever.

National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

“So, I said, please, let’s save this part of Czech history.

“I also contacted the Czech and Slovak National Museum in Cedar Rapids, which became part of the Smithsonian network.

“That opened some opportunities, and funding opportunities, for this museum.

“I asked them, Could you just track these small local museums all over the states and why don’t you try to save the material – because it’s really incredible.”

There were so many interesting names of Czechs who emigrated to New York after 1948 and later after 1968, people like Jiří or George Voskovec, Ferdinand Peroutka, Ladislav Sutnar, Rudolf Firkušný, Miloš Forman of course, Jan Lukas. Which of them would you say made the biggest impact in the States?

Jiří Voskovec,  photo: archive of Czech Radio

“Jiří Voskovec, the actor, became very popular. He played in Manhattan, even in a couple of plays with Richard Burton and Elisabeth Taylor.

“When I go a little bit back in history, I would also mention Rudolf Friml, the composer and pianist, who became a shining star of Broadway.

“The same with Miloš Forman, who also spent some time in New York City, and then the crew of the Czechoslovak desk of Radio Free Europe.

Jára Kohout,  photo: archive of Czech Radio

“You mentioned Ferdinand Peroutka, but there were others, other journalists who were well-known back in Czechoslovakia and then after the [Communist] coup they started to work for Radio Free Europe.

“There was also Jára Kohout, the comedian and actor, Rudolf Jílovksy, Miroslav Kohák, Zdeněk Eliáš, Jan Stránský – all these names deserve their own book.

“Thanks to their families there are still some papers and personal archives.

“I am going through these documents and I see how rich the social and cultural life of the Czechs in New York City was even in the 1950s, when there were not so many Czechs left.

“The political émigrés brought new, fresh air into the community.”

“But the newcomers, the political émigrés, brought something new. They brought new, fresh air into the community.

“Although there were some philosophical views that they didn’t share with the old Czechs living in America.

“Part of the Czech community even praised the Communist takeover. They said it was the first time in Czech history when the public wealth belonged to everyone – not only to the Church or to the aristocracy or to the rich, but to all the people.

“Part of the Czech community even praised the Communist takeover.”

“Of course the newcomers, the ‘48ers, couldn’t share this idea, because they were expelled by the Communists and had to leave – otherwise the Communists would have imprisoned them or even murdered them.”

To go back a little bit, George, or Jiří, Voskovec, was interned for a period on the famous Ellis Island and there was some kind of campaign for his release. What was that story?

Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec,  photo: archive of Czech Radio

“Yes. George Voskovec stayed in the US during World War II and he did regular shows on the Voice of America, with Jan Werich, from 1942.

“Then he decided to go back to the US after World War II, but he was accused of being a Communist, or a Communist spy or whatever – and that was the reason why he was kept at Ellis Islands for 11 months.

“He tried to defend himself and he tried to prove his anti-Communist attitudes, but it lasted for so long and many Czechs in New York City, including Ferdinand Peroutka and the others from Radio Free Europe, sent letters saying that Voskovec never was a Communist and he should be released.

“But due to some bureaucratic obstacles it really lasted for 11 months.

“Later, actually, in 1955 he made a movie [I Was Accused] about his experience from Ellis Island.

Jiří Voskovec in 1955,  photo: Czech television
“Another interesting thing is that he never visited the Statue of Liberty [adjacent to Ellis Island], because at Ellis Island, when he was standing behind the fence, or behind the window, he was observing the Statue of Liberty and the life of New York City, of Manhattan.

“And it was a kind of a symbol for him: that he was arrested, that he was behind the walls and he couldn’t enter America.

“So until the end of his life he didn’t visit the Statue of Liberty.

“Then, fortunately, he was released and the court said it was just a wrong accusation and he never was a Communist.

“But Voskovec wasn’t the only case. When the McCarthy years came in the mid-1950s, many Czechs politicians, many Czech émigrés were accused of being Communist spies.

Hubert Ripka,  photo: Nakladatelství Atlantis

“It was one of the reasons why Hubert Ripka, a former minister in the Czechoslovak government, decided to move back to Great Britain from America, because there was a very ugly campaign in the press saying he was a Communist and that he was one of the reasons why the Communists took power in Czechoslovakia.

“I even have transcripts of the hearings of McCarthy’s Committee of Un-American Activities.

“Sometimes it’s funny and crazy, what was the proof – according to the American investigators – that the person was a Communist.

“For example, Ripka, as a student leader, led a delegation to Moscow in 1935 and even 20 years after that that was the reason he was a ‘Communist’ – that he visited the Soviet Union.”

Czechs in parade,  5th Avenue,  May 1917. Image courtesy of Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad - University of Chicago

I’d like to end on a more personal question. You write that your great-grandmother, Anna Běláková, enjoyed her own American dream in New York. Tell us about her.

“It was really interesting. She was living in a small village, Březová, near Zlín in Moravia, and her older sister already lived for some time in New York City; she got married there and had kids.

“And when this sister visited Moravia she said to the sister, who was 14 years old, Hey, why don’t you join me? Why don’t you come to America with me?

“She said, Oh, why not? It might be fun.

“Already in Hamburg she realised it was probably the worst idea she’d ever had [laughs] and she started to cry.

“But there was no way back – the ticket had already been bought. So she moved to America.

“She stayed there for nine years altogether. She worked as a maid in the house of that sister and then she worked in a hotel on Long Island and other places.

“Then World War I came so she couldn’t go back – and she stayed there for nine years.

“When she decided to visit Moravia in 1921, just for the summer, just for a vacation, she met my great-grandfather and she never went back to America.

“So it was just a tiny part of her life, but still she corresponded with many of her former friends.

“I still have some letters and some postcards and even the old suitcase my great-grandmother brought back from America.”

“She spoke fluent English, which was something unusual in that region in Moravia.

“Even my grandmother remembered that she spoke very often about her experience in New York City.

“I still have some letters and some postcards and even the old suitcase she brought back from America – so there are still some fragments of this family history.”