Pick of the Month


In Pick of the Month, we revisit some of the highlights in our broadcasting schedule over the last thirty days or so. Some of the things in this month's selection include a look at the significance of the Skoda industrial dispute, the life and career of the recently deceased Czech poet and philosopher Egon Bondy, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s surprising Czech connections, the amazing story of Prague resident Adolf Burger who forged dollars for the Third Reich, and an interview with Czech feminist scholar Marcela Linkova.

One story that was in the headlines for much of last month was the industrial action at Czech carmaker Skoda Auto, one of the Czech Republic's most successful companies. The dispute ended with Skoda's workers receiving a pay rise of just under 13 percent, a move which raised eyebrows in the international press.

The outcome of the strike prompted major news carriers like the International Herald Tribune to speculate that rapidly rising wages in this country could bring the recent boom in foreign investment to an abrupt end, as investors start moving their money to other countries with lower wage costs.

In an edition of Talking Point on this subject, economist Tomas Sedlacek said he thought developments at Skoda were actually a good thing and reflected the positive way in which the Czech economy has evolved since the fall of communism:

"The Skoda car - as most of the listeners, I'm quite sure, remember - used to be a very lousy car. Very few people in the West would buy a Skoda because it was such a low-quality car. It was a cheap car but it wasn't a spectacular car like it is today. All those years ago, we knew that we had to compete with price. So we then produced a medium-quality car that was very, very cheap. That's how we broke into the market and that's how we made our living so to speak in the first decade of our transformation. But we couldn't have lingered in this position for a long time, so after a while Skoda used the cushion of low wages to make the Skoda into a very good and quite expensive car. It's now a standard car that nobody can be ashamed of driving on the streets. But it's no longer cheap. It's a car that has managed to position itself very well on Western markets and that's exactly what we would like to see the Czech Republic doing as well."

Full article: www.radio.cz/en/article/90671

Czech poet and philosopher Egon Bondy who is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Czech underground band The Plastic People of the Universe died last month at 77 years of age. Bondy was a prominent figure in the Czechoslovak dissident scene during the communist era, and he inspired many who fought against the oppression of those times. Here's an excerpt from a report we broadcast by Jan Velinger, which looked back on Bondy's life and career:

Bondy was a prominent member of the anti-establishment scene, and his works were an inspiration for many within or on the edge of the underground movement, but also for students at the time lucky enough to get their hands on clandestine copies of his work. Literature professor, singer, and Radio Prague contributor Pavla Jonssonova indicated in 2003 that Bondy had a huge impact on her generation.

"In spite of all the very oppressive circumstances in the late '70s young people were so excited about sharing documents documents of Charter 77 and distributing various forms of the samizdat writers, be it Havel, Vaculik or Grusa, but especially we loved Egon Bondy... for us the most exciting figure because as a revolutionary philosopher and poet he combined everything that we expected of a hero and a literary hero at that."

Full article: www.radio.cz/en/article/90205

American novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was another prominent writer who passed away in April. Vonnegut's subversive writing style was a big hit with Czechoslovak readers in the 1970s and 80s. The man himself was also popular with Czech dissidents, not least because of the support he gave some persecuted jazz enthusiasts in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1980s. In an edition of Panorama, Jan Richter looked at this little-known aspect of Vonnegut's colourful career:

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. not only earned the admiration of a great number of Czech readers, but also stood up in defence of the Czech dissident movement in the 1980s. During that time, he visited Czechoslovakia as a guest of the American Embassy and met some of the cultural figures who were under pressure from the regime. Several of these activists were part of the so-called Jazz Section, an independent cultural organisation which promoted jazz music, organised concerts and published books in communist Czechoslovakia. As Kurt Vonnegut later told American television, the group was about far more than just jazz.

"It's about having a good time in life, now and then, it's being a little playful, being a little childish, being a little open. And this is generally much resented by dictators and bureaucrats, and dictatorships, and this has been the case in Czechoslovakia. And my contact with the jazz group, the Jazz section, is I visited Czechoslovakia and met several of them and they had me plant a tree, and water it, and a couple of months later, John Updike came and they had him plant a tree, and both of the trees have now been cut down by the Government. They did not last very long."

That TV interview was broadcast shortly after the Jazz Freedom Concert in Washington D.C., which Kurt Vonnegut helped to organise in December 1987 in support of the Jazz Section. The previous year, the organisation had been banned by the authorities, and several of its members sentenced to prison.

Following the 1986 arrest of members of the Jazz Section, Kurt Vonnegut wrote an editorial for the New York Times entitled "Can't They Even Allow Jazz?" There he expressed his opinions on the repression of freedom that was taking place in Czechoslovakia:

"Of all the triumphs of life-haters today, of fun-haters today, of beauty haters today, of thought-and-love haters today, of the Forces of Satan, if you will, the one that most troubles my heart is the inducement of some Czechoslovak politicians and police to behave like cannibals toward the most humane and generous and gifted members of their society. [...] These people are rooted like the saplings in a tiny nation whose people have created a major fraction of the Earth's most important architecture, sculpture. painting, music, poetry, imaginative prose and most recently motion pictures. [...] If a flying saucer person were to ask me what Earthlings considered to be their most habitable city, architecturally speaking, I would reply without hesitation: Come with me to Prague."

Full article: www.radio.cz/en/article/90508

A new German-language picture called Die Falscher (The Counterfeiter) premiered at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Die Falscher is based on the remarkable memoirs of Slovak-born Adolf Burger, who has now been living in Prague for six decades. Along with 140 other Jewish concentration camp prisoners, he survived the war after being enlisted to take part in an ambitious Nazi counterfeiting plot aimed at crashing the economies of the Allies.

In another edition of Panorama - this time by Ian Willoughby - 89-year-old Adolf Burger told Radio Prague about his time working as a forger for the Third Reich:

"The windows were painted over so nobody could see in. When they took us to wash once a week - they were afraid we would die - the whole camp, prisoners and SS men, had to go indoors. Nobody was allowed to see us, not even the Sachsenhausen camp commander. Only secret service."

When Adolf Burger says the Nazis didn't want him and his co-counterfeiters to die, he means in the short-term, before their work was complete.

"We 140 Jewish typographers were not meant to survive. We should have been liquidated. But things turned out differently. After we'd made 31 million pounds sterling they then wanted dollars. There was one Jew called Jakobson from Holland, my superior, so to speak. He said, if we print those dollars we'll drag the war out. We have to sabotage it. But that's easier said than done."

Dollars were harder to counterfeit than pounds, and Burger and his co-prisoners did manage to drag out the process of successfully producing fake greenbacks. Until, that is, they were told to do so within six weeks or face a firing squad. But by that time the Soviets were close to Berlin.

The counterfeiting group were put on a train bound for the Austrian Alps, to one of the Nazis few remaining strongholds in the last days of the war in Europe. Crates of fake money were dumped along the way.

Adolf Burger expected he and his co-prisoners would be executed, but after a period of some confusion they eventually found themselves abandoned by the Nazis on May 5, 1945. He and the other counterfeiters were free. They had survived.

Full article: www.radio.cz/en/article/90267

Another person we talked to last month was Marcela Linkova, who works for the Czech organisation Women in Science, an institution that aims to assist women making a career in scientific disciplines. Speaking to Pavla Horakova, Ms Linkova explained why she thought it was so important to ensure that female researchers and scientists received support:

"It is about power. And that's also why the issue of women in science is so important because that's about power. Because if we do not have equal chances, equal treatment in the sciences - and that does not only mean women in the sciences who are contributing to knowledge production but also society at large, then we have a science that is skewed, that reflects the values and the social conditions of only certain groups. In this context specifically men because science has been historically organised on the social experience and conditions that men have in society.

"And also their values, their perceptions, what they consider important, where they see the problems. And these instances of how science has been skewed, how it has not been 'objective' so to say have been documented by feminist and gender researchers. How for example, breast cancer has not been studied until very recently when the feminist movement brought it to the fore, and there are numerous other instances.

"So in this sense yes, it is about power. About the power of women and other groups to define what is a relevant research project, where the money should go, whether it's relevant to give so much money, for example, for military research or whether we might want to consider some other areas that are more relevant with respect to women's experience of social life."

Full article: www.radio.cz/en/article/90402