Seeking asylum in communist Czechoslovakia

Czechoslovakia played an active part in the Soviet Union’s propaganda war with the United States during the 1950s, a time of edginess and paranoia on both sides. There was no shortage of people trying to flee across the Iron Curtain to the West, but every now and then the flight would be in the other direction, and someone from the West would actively seek asylum in the Communist Bloc. For the communist regimes this was a propaganda opportunity not to be missed.

One such occasion was in November 1954, when the Czechoslovak News Agency called a somewhat unusual press conference in Prague. Awaiting journalists were introduced to an American couple, Herbert and Jacqueline Ward, described as artists who had sought - and been granted - asylum in Czechoslovakia. Then Herbert Ward himself spoke.

“We are the Americans…. I’m Herbert Ward, bass violinist, and my wife Jacqueline, who is a dancer. Until 1950 we have lived mainly in New York, then we moved to Denmark and for the last two years we lived in Vienna. Our purpose in coming to Europe was to complete our education in all fields of music and dance…”

At this point on the recording, Herbert Ward’s voice fades and is voiced over in Czech, as he continues his story. He claims that he and his wife had become suspicious to the US authorities after taking part in a music festival in East Berlin. Then, he says, the FBI began to bully them, trying to force them back to the United States, and confiscating their passports. This was the time of the McCarthyite witch-hunts and, although his faith in communist Czechoslovakia may be naïve, Herbert Ward’s story is not necessarily an exaggeration. At the end of his speech on the recording preserved in the radio archives, his voice again emerges in English:

“… We feel sure that this press conference will help us not only to make matters clear in our case, but to call attention to the activities of those who restrict the rights of their fellow-citizens and are making dangerous provocations that might lead to a new war.”

Lubomír Dorůžka in 1956,  photo: CTK
Jacqueline Ward also answered questions from journalists, painting a rosy picture of her prospects in her new socialist home.

“Instead of having to look for jobs, the jobs are so plentiful and there are so many opportunities, that we can freely choose the best way in which we want to develop and in which we want to present our own work. For us that is very important – that there is so much culture here.”

The couple was based in Prague’s Hotel Krivaň, where not long afterwards they had a visit from the jazz writer Lubomír Dorůžka and his friend and fellow jazz lover, the novelist Josef Škvorecký. This led to a jazz revue called “Really the Blues” featuring Herbert and Jacqueline with the Czech band “Pražský dixieland”. The couple stayed for several years, and became familiar figures on the Prague classical and jazz music scene. The now legendary rock musician, František Ringo Čech, remembers being “discovered” as a 15-year-old by Herbert Ward, and he recalls that in the early 60s Jacqueline achieved celebrity performing Native American dance to Czech audiences. According to Lubomír Dorůžka the American couple eventually made their way back to America - spending their last years in Hawaii. It is said that one jazz musician there still plays on a Czechoslovak double bass, left to him by Herbert Ward.