Peter Bisek – publisher of the leading Czech and Slovak paper in US

Petr Bisek, photo: author

Peter Bisek and his wife Vera edit and publish the leading Czech and Slovak newspaper in the United States, Americké listy. Mr Bisek is also the president of the Bohemian Citizens' Benevolent Society, which runs the popular Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in the New York borough of Queens. It was in the Bohemian Hall that Peter Bisek outlined the past and present of the bi-weekly, Czech-language newspaper.

Petr Bisek,  photo: author
“Originally Americké listy was published by a couple, Frank and Gerda Švehla. They started it in 1964, and it was weekly. They were escapees after 1948. Unfortunately Mr Švehla had a stroke in November 1989, just at the time of the Velvet Revolution. Mrs Švehla managed to publish one more issue and then the paper closed down.”

How was it revived? Did you revive it?

“Well, if they had been publishing I don’t think I would have started anything. But there was a gap, there was a vacuum to fill. It was the time before the internet, so people relied only on the phone calls and faxes.

“It was kind of chaotic, euphoria was ruling [after the revolution]. My wife Vera and I had a typographical studio, we worked in the trade, so it was fairly easy for us to start, as far as production is concerned.

“But securing the news and correspondents and all those things you need for a newspaper took a while. We started to publish in April 1990…In February I went to Prague, so I caught Mr Havel on Old Town Square and I got the feel of what was going on.

Petr Bisek
“We started in 1990 under the name Československý týdeník, Czechoslovakian Weekly. But pretty soon we saw that it’s impossible to do 12 – or now, 16 – pages weekly. Also we had to take care of our typesetting business, so we never became a weekly.

“What happened after Czechoslovakia broke up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia was that we still kept the name Československý - we were kind of sulking for a couple of years.

“But then Mrs Švehla gave us the permission to carry on the name Americké listy, to carry on their tradition. So we changed the name to Americké listy, in the middle of the 1990s.”

Are there any particular subjects that get a great reaction from your readers, any particular issues that you get a big mailbag in response to?

“It’s been 18 years now and it has changed. I don’t think overall our content or my ability to pick what should be published has changed much. But the reaction of our readers and the sentiment of our readers did change…

“At first it was difficult to gain the trust of Czechoslovak and later Czech officials, from the top down. And I would exclude Mr Havel and others, because they were always very co-operative. I believe in a civic society, as President Havel does.

“But the government and especially senators and congressmen were mistrustful of exiles, mistrustful of Czech Americans of the younger generation. They would get along with older generations, fourth or fifth generations, but not with us. So it was difficult to rebuild the proverbial bridge between Czech American exiles and the Czech Republic.”

What is the politics of Americké listy? I get the feeling often that exiles tend to be right-wing but disappointed with developments in the Czech Republic.

“Those developments in the early ‘90s made right-wingers out of those who were centrists. I wouldn’t say that exiles are mainly right-wing. Maybe those after 1948 and 1968…because they were reacting to communism, which is considered leftists.

“But I would say they are more outspoken, publicly they say what they think. It’s surprising how many leftists and even socialists there are among exiles also. But they are not so organised, or so loud and vocal. That’s why it is so distorted, that opinion about Czech exiles.”

What’s the political slant of Americké listy?

“Well…(laughs) I intentionally don’t write editorials. I’m making a mistake, because if I had a paragraph or two in each issue I would know exactly where I am with my style at least.

“But I don’t do it, because I don’t want it to become Peter Bisek’s newspaper, or Vera Bisek’s newspaper. But those people who’ve subscribed to us over the years they know exactly where we stand.

“One in a while I speak up. For example at the last presidential election it was quite clear we were supporting Jan Švejnar. Not because he’s a Czech American because we firmly believe, me especially, that it was a golden opportunity to bring about a desirable change in Czech politics, someone who is not tied to old systems, old nomenklaturas, fresh new blood not attached to anything of the past.”

Have you got a website? And of course around the world newspapers are under threat to some extent – are you concerned about the future?

“Yes, of course I’m concerned about the future, I’m concerned very much about which way things are going to go. But when we started to publish Mrs Švehla told me, Mr Bisek, give yourself ten years. Then Mrs Škvorecká [Zdena, co-founder of ’68 publishers] told me that we are crazy.

“We are crazy, but it’s OK, it has to be done. We are just one link in a long chain that started in 1861 with Slovan Amerikansky in Racine, Wisconsin.

“Technology is changing rapidly and there is no doubt that we should have a website, but we don’t have one. The last three years we’ve been thinking about passing the proverbial torch to a new generation who will the time and energy to put Americké listy on the web also.

“As of now with just two people it’s impossible to prepare the printed copy and have it on a website also. It’s physically impossible. Sometimes I think about taking a sabbatical for three or maybe six months and starting both...but I believe there will always be need for a printed issue because there will always be readers who like to turn the printed pages instead of going through the internet.”

Finally, you’ve been involved for several years with Americké listy - what have you yourself gotten out of the experience of running the newspaper?

“I’m not comparing myself to Mr and Mrs Škvorecký and their dedication to writing and publishing, out of Toronto…But what I’ve learned is one must never think about money, because one will never become rich through doing this.

“And one has to realise that there’s no limit to working hours. When it needs to be done, it has to be done. When we are preparing an issue we work 12, 14 hours, practically non-stop.”