Dora Slaba - fifteen years at Radio Prague ended by events of 1968

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Born in the Sudetenland, Dora Slaba spent World War II in England, returning with far better English than her Czech school teachers. She later put her language skills to use here at Radio Prague, where she worked for a decade and a half until the cataclysm that was the 1968 Soviet invasion. Dora Slaba told me all about that and more when she visited our studios.

"I was born in Czechoslovakia, in north Bohemia, in a town called Teplice, where German was spoken more than Czech. So I grew up in a German environment until I was six years old. That was just at the time when the Germans invaded the Sudetenland.

"We moved to Prague knowing full well that the time would soon come for us to emigrate even further. I was very fortunate in that my father happened to be in England in 1938 on a business trip - he organised it so that the whole family emigrated to Great Britain, just before the war."

How long did you spend in England?

"A long ten years. And unfortunately then I came back. I didn't really want to come back but my mother insisted that I should. I have to say I was really unhappy that my mother exerted pressure on me...I wasn't in the least interested in politics. I think in those days I didn't read a newspaper. I didn't realise what I was in for.

"I had all my friends in England - here I didn't know anybody. What's more I didn't know any Czech. My first problem was to get used to life here, which was pretty primitive still after the war years - it wasn't all that grand in England either, but it was even worse here. And what's more there was this communist regime, which I just couldn't...come to terms with."

About the language aspect, how long did it take you to learn proper Czech?

"I learnt for about one year very intensively. I had private lessons and I listened to the radio. And ultimately I made it, enough to be able to study."

After your graduation what did you do?

"Then I came to the radio..."

Straight here?

"Yes. The entire study period was five years and after the third year I had a holiday job here - that was part of the curriculum, that we should do some kind of practical job.

"I have to say I was fairly successful. I enjoyed the work and I liked the people working here at the time."

In those days Radio Prague I believe had different English language sections, American and British - and you were working for the British?

"Yes, definitely the British. The moving spirit of the English Section was a lady called Ruth Shepherd. She was very much against the Americans, and you couldn't have an American voice on the English service - that was just not acceptable."

Tell us what kind of broadcasting you were doing, what kind of programmes did you work on here at Radio Prague?

"Well, I avoided politics as much as I could. So I did a weekly youth programme. Then there was a programme called Here and There in Czechoslovakia. Then I did concerts - music programmes of serious music, Czechoslovak folk music - and that I enjoyed extremely.

"I also announced on medium wave. They had a concert every night. And also I announced live the Prague Spring international music festival."

In those days were most radio broadcasts based on scripts, rather than say interviews or live sound, as you might get today?

"Oh, there was no live sound at all, no live sound whatever. It all had to be strictly censored. Although that was a bit of a farce, because the censors didn't know any English. Of course in those days we used typewriters, we didn't have computers. We used to make lots and lots of copies of everything - four copies I think. One always went to the censors who just sat and used a rubber stamp, and stamped every page of the paper, not ever reading any of it."

1968
How many years did you work here in total?

"Until 1968."

So we're talking about what, 15 years?

"Yes, about 15 years in all. But in 1968 for obvious reasons I left immediately."

You left perhaps before you were kicked out?

"I left before I was kicked out, yes."

Was that a big wrench for you after working here for so long?

"It was, because it was the one and only job I'd ever done. I didn't quite know what to do with myself. Actually, I went back to England in 1968, but I found that you couldn't step into the river for a second time.

"Of course I couldn't work in the radio - what was I to do there? Here I was a one-eyed king, with my English - in England everybody speaks English, after a fashion. So I ended up as a teacher in a secondary school, teaching English and a little French. After the school year there I decided to come back.

"Also because the people who stayed here in the radio wrote me letters and said, the job is still open for you. So I came back and I came back to the radio - I think only for one week. And then I said, no, I couldn't."

Because it was so strictly controlled?

"It was so strictly controlled that I just couldn't face it. I decided I wasn't going to do that sort of a job, and to do communist propaganda."

In what sense was it more controlled than in the previous period, when you also had to have everything rubber-stamped?

"The rubber stamps were a farce in those days, nobody took it too seriously, especially not in the '60s."

After your week back at Radio Prague in the normalisation period, when you quit, what did you do?

"I got a job at the Academy of Sciences, which was quite a cushy job. There were many people who just couldn't get on with the regime who went into research."

Radio Free Europe
Come 1989, 1990, I know you went back to radio, not to Radio Prague but to Radio Free Europe.

"Yes. First I started with the Prague Post when they started, on day one. I worked with them as their chief researcher because they had a bunch of American...more or less students most of them who hadn't a clue what the country was all about. It wasn't really a question of research - I used to read the newspapers to them, and organise contacts and interviews."

And from there you went to RFE?

"That's right, yes. I worked there at a kind of research institute that was part of RFE, then in their newsroom."

Nowadays you're retired - how are you spending your retirement?

"Again doing some translations. And travelling - something that is also quite new to me. I didn't even have a passport for ten years. If I did want to travel - I guess you know the problems we had. For instance my father stayed in England after the war, and I wasn't allowed to visit him for ten years.

"Now I'm enjoying travelling. Every time I have this uncanny feeling - is this true? Can I just pass through customs, can I just pass through passport control without any bother?"