Recording the Past: Miloslav Disman’s Prague Speaks

Miloslav Disman, photo: Václav Flegl / Czech Radio

One of the familiar voices that will forever be associated with Czechoslovak Radio belongs to Miloslav Disman, who worked here between 1930 and 1973, and who changed the style of radio broadcasting in this country, with such informal programmes as Okénko (which you just heard a snippet of), and through a radio children’s ensemble, which bears his name to this day.

Miloslav Disman,  photo: Václav Flegl / Czech Radio
But why is Miloslav Disman featuring on Czech Books? Because when he wasn’t broadcasting, he was writing about the radio. His 1975 memoir, Hovoří Praha (or ‘Prague Speaks’) is a chronicle of the fighting in and for these Prague studios at the end of the Second World War and, as literary historian Petr Šámal explains, the book reflects the 1970s “normalization period” in which it was written as well:

“The text is interesting for those who want to know about the May Uprising and the radio during the War, and for those who are interested in the Normalization era. Memoirs are always an expression of the author at the time of writing. So we have to approach them critically, as with any other source.”

It is something of a staple to begin a memoir with your earliest childhood memories, but what is particularly interesting about Disman’s Hovoří Praha is the way he starts with the sounds of his youth in the 1910s and ‘20s:

The cimbalom in the Bělá town hall clock chimed the time of my childhood… as did the clock of the castle tower, which struck late, but whose strokes were historically more significant for the town: the machine had been brought at some point from Bezděz Castle. Morning rising was infused with the music of the bells from the cloister church… And, even earlier, the textile factory’s piercing whistle resounded around the town… On the cobble stones, horses’ hooves clattered and, in winter, sledges swished along the snowy streets, the bells on the horses’ harnesses jingling… We only knew music and songs then through those who were closest to us. My grandmother still hummed when she was spinning yarn and grandfather when he was at the weaving loom. Mother sang love songs, father patriotic ones… Alongside grandmother’s evening fairytales this was the lone soundscape of our childhood… Because there wasn’t yet any radio…

Miloslav Disman,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“So this is a very nice spring day in Bělá pod Bezdezem in the year 2016 – there are, as I am sure you can hear, a few less horse hooves, and a bit less spontaneous singing on the part of the town’s inhabitants, and a bit more traffic, and certainly lots of bird song. So maybe sounding somewhat different. I wonder to what extent Disman would recognize the town as it sounds today?”

Luděk Beneš is a historian and the head of the regional museum in Mladá Boleslav, not far from Disman’s native Bělá. Beneš suggests that both Disman’s radio work, and his memoir Hovoří Praha, are characterized the reporter’s left-wing political convictions:

“Miloslav Disman was left-leaning from the time of his youth, that is certain. Nonetheless, I think that until the Second World War he was a follower of the so-called Masaryk line; he was a great admirer of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. He even commentated Masaryk’s funeral in 1937.

“But during the Second World War he probably felt some disappointment with the way the First Republic ended, so he radicalized a bit further. At the end of the Second World War he was a convinced Communist, there is no doubt. You can hear it in his broadcasting. He was one of the ones that called listeners to Czechoslovak Radio’s aid, and then he recorded several reports from the victory parades on May 9. And on May 12, he made the first live broadcast from Bělá pod Bezdězem.”

“So here I am on the town square, which is exactly where Miloslav Disman ended the report that you just heard a clip of. And I’m at the statue which was being put back up in May 1945 when he arrived here with that radio wagon. You can maybe hear a few engines in the background – it’s about all you can hear today on a rather deserted square. But we’ve got the really rather large statue, as he commented – it is really rather striking. You can hear the bells tolling midday here in downtown Bělá. And added to this rather impressive sculpture is a small sign of the citizens of Bělá who fell during the Second World War, so the events that Disman was commenting upon in 1945 have been added to in more recent years.”

Photo: Svoboda publishing
Like the memorial in Bělá whose appearance has changed since May 1945, through components being added over time, Disman’s memoirs presents a picture of the end of the war altered through reference to sources and information which Disman could only access later on. As Petr Šámal notes, Disman’s memoir also bears the conventions of the time of its writing, the 1970s:

“I think that, specifically in the Normalization era, there reigned an awareness of what wasn’t being said, what wasn’t being written. And this means, for example, in the memoir of Miloslav Disman, we don’t find the names of people who were out of favor. When he writes about the resistance and the National Revolutionary Committee of Czech Intellectuals, he doesn’t mention the name of Václav Černý, who was one of the leading figures of dissent. We don’t find the name of Pavel Kohout, who was also involved in the 1970s in dissent, nor Karel Kyncl, who was already an emigrant.”

Disman gathers the testimony of his colleagues and uses other histories of the battle for the radio to inform his account. But my favourite bits of his memoir are when he discusses his own experiences of May 1945:

…The concussion I’d sustained… returned – I was ashamed, but I wasn’t able to cope straight away… If I remember correctly, my colleagues took me out into the park in front of the Hussite church, where today there is a Petr Bezruč memorial, for air. The adjacent street was totally dark, there was deep silence in the park, only the buzz of isolated gunshots came from the distance… The odd feelings of the autumn of 1938, when the republic was under threat, returned to me. We did not leave the radio building for several days and nights then too. … Does the ‘customs’ box and its counterpart on the other side of the border of the ‘protectorate’ still stand near Bezděz, or has it been smashed?... What will we find when we go back there again for the first time – or when we get a call through? This was suppressed by the natural and obvious feeling that now it wasn’t possible to be anywhere else but here, in this circle of colleagues who had known each other for years, but who got to know each other properly only yesterday or today… We return to the building – the announcer Standa Kozák has as a compress of at least three towels wrapped around his neck because he can barely croak. But he must be and wants to be well by the dawn – ‘the faithful frequency’ needs us all!

Miloslav Disman,  photo: Václav Flegl / Czech Radio
Miloslav Disman’s memoir has not been translated into English, but an earlier work of his on a very similar topic, called Czechoslovak Radio in War and Revolution, has. As you’ve heard, the Czech Radio archive is full of his voice, and there survives a rather experimental film he made with the linguist Roman Jacobson and a range of other Czech intellectual heavyweights, titled Na sluneční straně (‘On the sunny side’) from 1933. Historian Luděk Beneš reflects upon Miloslav Disman’s legacy:

“He was a really exceptional person. He was one of the founders of radio broadcasting here and radio reporting as such. He was one of the founders of Czech children’s theatre, because until then almost nothing of the sort existed, let’s say with the exception of some traveling puppet theatres. But in an organized and methodical form? Nothing of the sort existed. He was also very involved in the establishment of international organizations, for example, UNIMA (an international puppeteers organization). And of course, his enduring legacy is the Disman Ensemble, which functions beautifully to this day.”