Véronique Firkusny: In my mind, Czechoslovakia was a magical realm – a mid-80s visit left me heartbroken

Véronique Firkusny, photo: Ian Willoughby

Though forced to live in exile for most of his life, the world-renowned pianist Rudolf Firkušný maintained strong Czech traditions at his home in the United States. Indeed, his daughter Véronique Firkusny’s mother tongue was Czech and today she translates leading authors from her parents’ homeland and helps opera singers get to grips with Czech-language works. When we spoke in New York, I first asked Véronique Firkusny how her father had viewed the situation in his native country following the Communist takeover of 1948.

Véronique Firkusny,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I think for him it was profound sadness more than anything – a real profound regret, because he had grown up in Czechoslovakia when it was essentially at the peak of its democratic ideals.

Jan Masaryk,  photo archive of Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs
“He was such a product of that and I think he took very seriously the role of sort of being a cultural diplomat on behalf of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

“He had gone back after the war to play at the first Prague Spring and he had every intention of making Prague his home.

“When things started to change… I think for all of the expats who were here at the time, when Jan Masaryk was killed or died, I don’t know what the official version is today, but when that happened I think for them it was such a blow.

“At that point, he felt if he were to go back he truly risked becoming a puppet of a regime that he absolutely could not support or abide in any way, because it was so disrespectful of democratic ideals, personal freedoms, artistic freedoms.

“My father was always dedicated to promoting Czech music and the work of Czech composers – the established ones, as well as of course Janáček and Martinů.

“At school it was hard to explain what Ježíšek was about. I always just stayed very quiet as all of the Santa Claus things were going on.”

“I feel in a way he always had that as his mission because he felt, as I said, this cultural diplomat role so strongly.

“But once he was living in this self-imposed exile, I would imagine it took on an even greater relevance.

“I think that we were so lucky growing up, because the fact that ultimately my mother was also Czech, even though from a completely different generation and from a very different Czechoslovakia than he was, he was able with her to essentially… we grew up, I always felt, in a very sort of Moravian household.

“We spoke Czech at home – it was my mother tongue – and we grew up on the Czech fairy tales, we celebrated Easter and Christmas very much in the Czech way.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“So I think in a way all of that for him became even more important because he wasn’t able to be there.”

Growing up in a Czech household here, did you feel special as a child? Or did you feel different in a way that was maybe slightly embarrassing or something like that?

“I would say the latter, to a large degree, yes.”

Why was that?

“I guess the two traditions that were so different were first of all the Ježíšek [‘baby Jesus’ as gift bringer] tradition.

“With American Christmas, Santa Claus and all of this, at school it was hard to explain what Ježíšek was about, and the whole idea of it.

“I always felt like I was kind of an observer, and just stayed very quiet as all of the Santa Claus things were going on.

“And then even the tradition of ‘aby blešky neštípaly’ [‘don’t let the bugs bite’ – in this case a good luck wish related to the tradition of men ‘spanking’ women with a willow whip], for Easter, was something that my American classmates, even though many of them were of French background, it’s not something that is easy to relate to, no matter where you’re from, unless you’re Czech.

“And then of course things like we always had to bring our sandwiches to school, so my mother would make us tongue sandwiches.

“I really felt that when I would finally go to Czechoslovakia that I would feel I had come home. That was also partly because my grandparents never emphasised the hardships.”

“That was always very embarrassing to unwrap, because everybody was generally eating peanut butter and jelly and here you had this thing that looked like a tongue.

“If anybody saw it was always embarrassing. So little things like that.”

Growing up in a Czech household surrounded by Czech, or Moravian, items, what was your image of Czechoslovakia? It must have to been, to some degree at least, home in your mind?

“Absolutely. It was very, very much that.

“I realised only when I went there for the first time, when I was 18, which was in 1984, how completely idealised my idea of that Czech home was.

“I really felt that when I would finally go there that I would feel I had come home.

Rudolf Firkušný,  foto: Lenka Hlaváčková/ZUŠ Napajedla 1991
“That was also partly because my grandparents, my mother’s parents, who had played a huge role in our upbringing and care when we were growing up, always spoke about the positive aspects of living there.

“They never emphasised the hardships.

“So I had this idea that it was a very close-knit community where people were really good neighbours, where those inner circles were incredibly trustworthy and close, where life was simpler in a way because it wasn’t so materialistically overwhelmed as what we were used to in the West.

“And those Lada illustrations were very formative. Between the Lada illustrations and the Scheiner illustrations for the Božena Němcová stories, it seemed to me sort of like a ‘magical realm -- time capsule’ where fairy tales came alive.

“So that was a rude awakening when I eventually got there.”

Tell us about what brought you there and what kind of things you experienced in the mid-1980s in Czechoslovakia?

“I had taken a gap year at that point and was working as an au pair, learning German.

“And it was the first opportunity I had to actually go there.

“I was able to get a visa for about three weeks and I decided I would go there for my 18th birthday, to see my grandparents.

Brno | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio
“This was in the fall, in October, and when I finally arrived there the effect was like walking into a black-and-white film.

“It was a very bleak time of year. I spent half a day in Prague and was mainly in Brno, which at the time was just hidden under this pall of ash and darkness and chipping facades.

“People walked around never looking you in the eye.

“Everything was dusty. It was this black-and-white world of shuffling dust where people avoided looking at one another.

“It just stunned me, absolutely stunned me.”

I’m sure there must have been enormous excitement in the Firkušný household when, a few years later, the revolution happened in Czechoslovakia?

“Incredible. Incredible. We were glued, of course, to the coverage.

“Everybody sat there in a state of suspended disbelief. I mean, is it really going to happen?

“The euphoria on my father’s face especially is something I will never forget.

“It was just something that I don’t think that he ever expected to live to see.

“The euphoria on my father’s face in 1989 is something I will never forget.”

“It was extraordinary.”

It must also have been extraordinary for him and your whole family when in 1990 he went back and played at the Prague Spring for the first time in all those decades?

“Yes, absolutely. I’m amazed that he did it.

“I’m amazed that his nerves withstood the experience, because it was so emotional for him.

“But then again, he was very honest with himself and about himself and I remember him saying, We’ll do our best – if I fall apart when I get on that stage, I fall apart….

“But he didn’t.”

One legacy I guess of your growing up in a Czech household and speaking Czech at home is that now you’re a translator and translate novelists such as Katerina Tučková and Daniela Hodrová. I know you work in PR as your main activity – do you translate essentially as a pastime?

Kateřina Tučková | Photo: Roman Verner,  Czech Radio
“A labour of love, which is a great gift and luxury and something I’m very grateful for, because it really is a labour of love.

“After I left in 1984 I kind of went dead inside, because I really was heartbroken.

“And I never expected I would be going back.

“Then after we laid our parents to rest in Brno, which was my mother’s wish, I thought that that would essentially kind of close a chapter.

“What has happened instead has been that through culture, through the arts, through literature, through music, I’ve had constant opportunities to go back, and to go back in a way that is increasingly more meaningful.

“Because the literature is kind of a way to reconnect and understand on an even deeper level the history of this culture, which I find to be fascinating and so rich.

“You know, we’re always trying to figure out… especially, I think, growing up here in the United States, I know I have always felt this way – I can’t speak for my brother, who also had the same experience, needless to say – I always felt so ‘other’ here.

Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol,  photo: David Vaughan
“So that longing to find your roots and figure out where you come from and who you belong to and where your family is from, all this has always been very alive for me and very important to me.

“Through the works of the two authors that you named, in particular… Daniela Hodrová, whose trilogy my colleague Elena Sokol and I are co-translating and we’re just about finishing the third book, that is just immersing into the layers and layers that imbue the space of Prague.

“That has been fascinating.

“Then with Tučková, especially with ‘Gerta’, which is the novel that I’m translating currently, that again shines a light on a part of history that directly related to the time my mother was growing up in Brno.

“This was the Brno of my mother’s childhood, essentially.

“And it was revelatory to me, because there were aspects to that history and what really happened were simply not discussed.

“So it’s linguistically, historically and in spirit a great privilege to be able to devote the time to it.”

You also train opera singers in singing Czech. Everybody says that singers are relatively good at picking up pronunciation, but still it’s got to be very difficult as Czech is such a hard language. What do they find most difficult?

“Of course, the ‘ř’ is very, very difficult.

“Sometimes looking at a word, there are certain Czech words that seem to be all consonants with no vowels – so of course for a singer, what do you do with that? How do you even open your mouth and get it out?

“Certain Czech words seem to be all consonants and no vowels. For a singer, what do you do with that?”

“But I have to say that I’m always so, so impressed and amazed at the ability of these artists to get their mouth around the sound.

“Obviously, if they’ve sung in Russian, sometimes that helps a great deal.

“For some of them if it’s a relatively well-known work, that helps a great deal as well because they at least have an idea of the story.

“But last summer Bard SummerScape put on a production of Dvořák’s Dimitrij, which is extraordinarily complicated.

“It’s a very complex story and it’s a work that’s rarely ever done, and certainly in the version which they did, which was the new Pospíšil long, uncut version.

“There’s one recording that exists, but it’s relatively obscure.

“There’s maybe one word that relates to a word in another language that you can hold onto – otherwise it’s just strings of sounds, and you have to connect an expression to what you’re saying.

Véronique Firkusny,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio
“I’ve always adored opera and it’s been a wonderful way to somehow feel that I can be supportive of that art form and then, you know, reap the benefits of hearing this music come to life, in the original language.

“Now it’s so common all over the world really that operas are done in their original languages.

“But not that long ago it still was rather a rarity, especially for Czech works.

“I’ve heard Czech operas done in German. I’ve heard some done in English.

“And there’s just no comparison. They really have to be done in Czech to really capture the flavour of the work.

“So I’m thrilled that it’s being done more and more.”