Lenka Lichtenberg, Part 1: Taste of freedom as ‘60s child star sparked later emigration

Lenka Lichtenberg, photo: archive of Lenka Lichtenberg

Prague-born world music artist Lenka Lichtenberg is today based in Canada and sings in many languages, including English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish. But many Czechs of a certain age will remember her as Lenka Hartlová from her days as a 1960s child star performing alongside Jiří Suchý at the famous Semafor theatre. We met recently when the singer-songwriter was on a visit to native city. My opening question: How did she first get into music as a child?

Lenka Lichtenberg,  photo: archive of Lenka Lichtenberg
“According to my mother I started singing at about two. My first public performance was at the age of four, in front of her friends.

“I actually do remember that. It was in our cottage in Kytlice. There was a little gathering and, without being asked, I stood right in the middle of the circle and started singing.

“That was sort of indicative of how music has always been for me. Because, which may come as a surprise to some people, I was actually extremely shy.

“The only time when I wasn’t shy and felt very confident was when I was singing, rather than talking. Because when talking I go red in the face and get all anxious. It’s stressful, actually.

“But the singing… I just stood there and sang.”

What did you sing?

“I sang a Czech folk song. Because my mom always sang Czech folk songs to me. I cannot tell you which one, but that is what we did – we washed the dishes and sang, in harmonies and stuff like that.”

I saw a very cute video of you singing on I guess Czechoslovak TV with Jiří Suchý at the famous Semafor, when you were around six or something. How did you get into Semafor?

“That was also my mom. She heard Jiří Suchý on the radio. He had had one girl before me as a partner – he liked musical partners who were these little innocent girls. As a sort of comedic sidekick – the straight man [laughs].

“He had a girl before me named Zuzana Vrbová, who recorded a couple of popular songs but then she grew up. So he was looking for a new one.

“At the time he had a programme on the radio and he said, It’s too bad this girl grew up – I’m going to be looking for a replacement soon.

“So my mom – very out of character for her – sat down and sent him a letter. I guess he had more than one of those from various mothers around the country [laughs].

Lenka Lichtenberg,  Jiří Suchý,  photo: YouTube
“He did a bit of an audition and we happened to actually live within walking distance from his house, where he still lives as far as I know, in Střešovice.

“The phone call actually came when I was home alone. I picked up the phone and he said, Hello, this is Jiří Suchý. And I was dumbfounded. He said, I’d love to come over and sing for me. And I said, Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah [laughs].

“My mum walked me over to their house. He was sitting at the piano and playing different notes, seeing if I could hit it right. He had me sing this and sing that. I suppose he found what he was looking for and I was accepted.

“We kind of trained for a few months and learned some songs. Actually the first song we recorded was before the theatre. It was Na louce zpívaj drozdi, which was also made into one of these early black and white music videos, with Karel Gott and Eva Pilarová.

“I have to say when I look at that myself, I was pretty cute [laughs]. Just so little! In that video I end up sitting on a wall and they shoot the wall away around me and he throws me over his shoulder and walks away with me. That’s the end of the story.”

Would you have been well-known? Would people have recognised you on the tram or whatever?

“Yes, actually, they did. That was more like after I started in the theatre. Our first programme was called Benefice and I can say with a straight face that I was a little bit of a child star with him at that time.

“We had two or three popular songs. Na obloze tetelej se mráčky, My jsme jen zpěváci toulaví – those were the two main ones.

“When Benefice was playing at the theatre… which was a lot – I think 15 performances a month, which for a kid who’s supposed to be at school next day it’s a little bit of a stretch. But it was all right.

“At that time also the songs were playing on the radio and I was getting literally bags of fan mail [laughs]. Which was really nice.

“In some interview somewhere I said I was collecting chocolate wrappers, so I was getting bags of chocolate wrappers [laughs].”

Lenka Lichtenberg | Photo: archive of Lenka Lichtenberg
So you were a star?

“I guess, yes. At the time.”

I was reading that you found out that you were Jewish at the age of nine or 10. Did you then become part of the Prague Jewish Community? Or was there an active Jewish community, given that there was a kind of freeze in relations between Czechoslovakia and Israel?

“Well, I didn’t feel anything in terms of relations with Israel. But I do remember that it was pretty tricky to belong publicly to the Jewish community at the time.

“My mom didn’t get involved with the Prague Jewish Community really much, until then.

“I got invited to perform there in my capacity as a child star. That’s why they invited me, I guess.

“On the way there she told me, You’re Jewish, by the way. I had no idea what that meant. She explained it to me in three words or less [laughs]. And I still really didn’t get it.

“But I knew it was something different. I was aware that this was not something that… should not be taken lightly and could potentially lead to problems.

“Because she lost her family for being Jewish she didn’t want the same thing to me – that’s why she was so careful.

“For example, when I had a Jewish star that I received from somebody and started wearing it she told me, No, no, no, you can’t. Why would you even want to tell people that you’re Jewish – it could be dangerous and so on.

“Also I was aware when we went to the Jewish Community Centre that there were spies – there were people who were undercover and were monitoring what was going on. It was not a comfortable situation in that way.

“But once we got involved, me as a singer… she also got involved in other areas. She’s a philosophy professor so lots of the people that come to my concerts here are her former students.

“She gave seminars and lectures on various philosophers, some of them Jewish, some of them not. She would do that for some years.”

To jump forward a few years, after you completed your studies at the conservatory in Prague you moved to Denmark. Why did you leave Czechoslovakia?

“Well, because it was communist and I felt very strongly that I was in a cage. That happened when we went on our first tour, with Semafor.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
“We went to West Berlin and somehow I could tell the feeling of freedom.”

What year was that?

“I actually don’t know. Sorry [laughs].

“But at the time I felt, What is it in the air? It’s not just that they have nicer clothes, even though they do [laughs].

“The feeling of freedom was such that when we returned I was struck by how I missed it. I think I was nine maybe, something like that.

“I felt this is something I strive for. I was looking for that and any opportunity I had to find it, I grabbed it. When it finally arrived, I went for it.”

Did you leave alone?

“Yes. I’m an only child [laughs]. So I’m perfectly used to doing everything on my own.

“Now I have a wonderful family and three kids and a husband and so on and my husband has kept telling me for the last 26 years, You’re not alone any more – you don’t have to try so hard [laughs].

“But I grew up with that mentality. Also my mom and dad divorced when I was six so in many ways it was her and I, even though she had a second husband who was fantastic.

“But we mainly felt that we were alone. So I took matters into my own hands. And I still do that.”

In part two of this interview next week, Lenka Lichtenberg discusses how she and her mother explored their Jewish roots and a project in which she recorded songs in synagogues around the Czech Republic.