Gene Deitch, Part 2: On Pete Seeger, US Communists in Czechoslovakia and Prague’s transformation

Gene Deitch, photo: Ian Willoughby

Animator Gene Deitch settled in Prague almost 60 years ago and directed Tom and Jerry and Popeye cartoons behind the Iron Curtain for the US market. The small number of other Americans who moved here in the communist period were one subject we discussed in the second half of an extensive interview. But I began by asking Deitch about the time the great folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger, a good friend of his, visited Czechoslovakia in 1964.

Gene Deitch,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“By the time I became successful and started to produce films here in Prague, Pete was on a world tour and was going to stop here in Prague.

“So it was natural for me to really get this organised and to get the right people together.

“Pete himself called himself a Communist incidentally, because folk music had drawn him to the sort of outcast people of America.

“He became really passionately interested in the idea of creating what he called a communist society.

“Well, that had a completely different meaning than what people thought of it here.”

When he came here and played these concerts, I presume the Czech fans went crazy for this stuff? It must have been unusual for them to hear American roots music.

“Yes, they did.

“But the government was extremely wary about him and they didn’t put him in the best theatre – they put him off in the suburbs.

“But Czech people at that time, as you probably well know, in spite of all the censorship, were very well-informed about these things.

“Czechs are great fans, of different things. But there were plenty of people who were fans of American country music and they somehow heard it on the Voice of America.

“Even though it was jammed, there were ways of hearing it.

“So there was a real mass of people here who already knew all about it, one way or another.

“Even though Pete was put in a side-tracked theatre, it was mobbed with people, people who later became the Greenhorns and all of these other Czech groups.

“It all started there with that one evening of Pete playing.

“For example, there was no such thing as a five-string banjo here.

Pete Seeger,  photo: Brian McMillen,  CC BY-SA 4.0
“A banjo existed in two different ways. The normal, popular banjo was a four-string banjo, which was just a rhythm instrument.

“But the people in the south in America developed it as a background to the singing of folk music and they developed the five-string type of banjo. The five strings sort of made it more resonant.

“And Pete was playing that kind of a banjo.

“All these groups here were just fascinated: How in the world could they do this?

“This started the whole cult of what’s called here ‘country music’.”

You must be, by a long distance, the American who’s lived longest in Prague. But under communism you weren’t the only one – there were also a few other Americans. What kind of people moved here from the States, for example in the 1970s?

“Well of course Zdenka wanted me to keep away from them. Because she said, Any Americans that are living here have got to be Communists.

“Look, the whole thing was to not let me become vulnerable to being thrown out of the country, especially before we were able to get married.

“So she didn’t want me to meet any of those other Americans. She said, Any Americans that are living here must be Communists.

“And in most cases they were. In fact, maybe in all cases they were, at least nominally.

“But one of them, a guy named Herbert Lass, Herb Lass… they were using him to do English-language narration for films, to be able to be sold abroad.

“He was really a good guy. He and his wife had come here right at the end of the war, helping to distribute what were called care packages.

“They were bringing in food, because there was nothing really available here right at that time.

“Those people saw that here was a whole new society being built and they became really, what’s the Czech word – nadšení [laughs].

“They were really excited about this idea.

“They sort of just fell into it, into the whole idea that was propagated then.

“Don’t forget the Communists were voted in here. They got 36 percent of the vote, which is big in this country.

“So step by step they didn’t have any money, they were a young couple: Herb and Hilda Lass.

Gene Deitch,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“They had already two children, two boys, who were born in America.

“They became really enamoured of this idea of building this new society – and got themselves into lots of trouble eventually.

“Their American passports were confiscated and they were completely worked into the Czechoslovak economy at that time.

“They couldn’t really leave: they didn’t have the money, they didn’t have their passports.

“So those were the kinds of people that Zdenka didn’t want me to meet, but I couldn’t help it.

“When I saw him come to the studio one day to do some narration, I said, I’m going to say hello to this guy – I need to see what makes him tick.

“And we became very close friends. They were very good people.”

In your book you say that the Communists pretty much left you alone, because you were bringing in dollars. You were also allowed to travel abroad and stock up on Western goods and stuff. But still, it was a totalitarian state. Were you disturbed by many things that you saw around you?

“I really immediately was in an extremely privileged position.

“Because of the fact that the films we were doing were bringing some dollars into the country, I managed to receive something that no one else had. It was called neomezený zpětný vizum: unlimited return visa.

“I could hop in my car, go across the border to what was then West Germany, buy food and whatever I wanted and come back for dinner [laughs].

“You know, people thought that was crazy…”

But you must have seen people who were your neighbours, who were your friends, who got in trouble, got punished?

“Not really. We were living in a separate world in the Bratři v triku animation studio.

“Of course, I became conscious of it, but I personally didn’t meet those people because Zdenka didn’t want me to.

“She didn’t want me to get involved with them.

“Because the important thing was to just stay focused, do my job, not get involved and then as soon as we get married we could get the hell out of here.

“This was basically the hope that we had.

“But look, to answer your question more, I was certainly aware of the limitations of this society and the limitations that people had and the difficulty of getting ordinary things to buy and the shopping part of it, which was extremely important to Czechs.

Prague in 1959,  photo: FORTEPAN / Kotnyek Antal,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“Shopping was the number one enterprise [laughs], trying to find something to buy that you wanted.

“And of course I was getting plenty of propaganda from the people I met in the studio about how things were here.

“At the same time that I was this privileged person, who could hop in my car and buy anything I wanted across the border, but I was with all these people who couldn’t, I did become a shopper for everybody else too.

“I began to learn what I could bring in and what I couldn’t bring in. I didn’t want to cause any trouble.

“I found out that if I am going to be the American to give them propaganda about how things are better in America than here… I didn’t have to do that.

“Because in the first place the Czechs believed that America was a lot better than it really was!

“And I knew there were plenty of problems in America.

“But just by being here, I found out I didn’t have to go around propagandising America or anything like that.

“I really just sort of had to tamp it down a little bit, because they thought America was perfect.”

I don’t want to sound like Joseph McCarthy, but had you been left wing before you came here?

“Maybe. I was a Democrat, I’ve never been a Republican. But I was never a Communist – I didn’t go for any kind of fanaticism.

“I was certainly against McCarthy and McCarthyism.

“I call myself a liberal. Some people think a liberal is just another word for a Communist, but it really wasn’t [laughs].

“So I was very political, yes.”

You experienced something that I think everyone like me, who came here later, really envies. You saw Prague when it was pristine – when it wasn’t covered in advertising, in tourism and all that stuff. How do you view the way Prague has changed over the last three decades?

“Well it was clear from all the picture books I saw, the maps and everything, that Prague was once a fantastically beautiful place.

“And it was still there, but it was really run down.

“Every building needed to be painted. Everything was flaking off and not really clean.”

So it wasn’t as pristine as I have in my head – the idea that it was kind of perfect?

“No, it was not perfect at all.

“It was very run down and it was very common to see a little sign, Pozor, padá omítka!”

Plaster falling.

“Yeah, plaster’s falling [laughs]. This is the way it was. It was really terribly run down.

“In fact, there were certain things about the very seediness of it that made it in a way charming.

“But, of course, underneath that was the fact that there was hunger.

Old Town Square,  Prague,  photo: Dmitry Karyshev,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0
“The shoes that people wore looked like they were made out of paper.

“There was no such thing as quality products that were being made then. That was one thing that I saw right away.”

But how do you view Prague today, with its graffiti, with its garishness in so many ways?

“I do hate the graffiti.

“The whole idea that this is some kind of an art form is a lot of baloney, because it’s mostly just scribbling your initials or your name around on anything possible and uglifying the country.

“The Communists did make an effort during later years to clean the place.

“A lot of the restorations on the Old Town Square were actually done during the Communist times.

“They did repaint the buildings and, as tourism began to develop, they realised this was a good form of attracting Western money.

“There was a great effort made in final years to make the place more attractive.”

How do you think the Prague authorities have handled the advent of capitalism?

“This is a country of extremes, I think.

“Probably, in the Communist days, this was probably the most hard-line of all the Communist countries.

“And now it’s the most really uglified, capitalist country.

“There was hardly any time in between.

“It went from one way to the extreme in the other way.

“I think we now have here practically all the bad things about capitalism.”

I’ve been here for over 25 years and my Czech is still not really good. You’ve been here for almost 60, how is yours?

“I speak bad Czech fluently. That’s my slogan.

“I could conduct this interview in Czech, if you wanted me to.

“People are very forgiving of my Czech. I don’t make any pretences about it.

“I can get along. People come here, Zdenka’s family and friends, and we speak Czech without any problem.

“People accept it. They don’t laugh at my Czech anymore [laughs]. That’s all.”