Author: Martina Roe – Václav Židek (CzechFolks.com PLUS)
“Let live our Czech Republic!”
We all call from our lungs.
We respect and love Masaryk
But we do not do anything ourselves!
(Karel Hasler 1919)
Thomas Hasler was born in Prague in 1941, a month before his father was murdered at the Mauthausen concentration camp by the Nazis. He left Czechoslovakia with his mother in 1949, a year after the Communists came to power, and grew up in Australia. He spent his childhood until the age of 16 years in Australia. He moved with his mother to the U.S. in 1958. He now lives in Baltimore. He earned a B.A. from Hobart College and an M.A. from the University of Michigan.
For two years he worked as an editor of an English – language newspaper in Beirut, Lebanon. There he also met his wife Bonnie, who came from New York, and they married in Beirut. After returning to the U.S. he has found a job in journalism at the Baltimore Sun, where he worked for 16 years. After leaving he became an entrepreneur in Information technology and later advisor to the European side of McKinsey & Co., the management consultants.
After the fall of Communism he began to re-connect with his Czech background, which led to the making of a documentary about his father, Karel Hasler, “The Immortal Balladeer of Prague”. The documentary was screened at several places, including the Czech Center in New York and the Czech embassy in Washington.
Today, Tom Hasler is a man invested with purpose. He is stocky, cheerful, and white-haired, with a rugged face, notably large features, and big hands. He speaks with a slight, squishy lisp. He projects the worn image of the old-fashioned cultural Bohemian. Like most Czechs, he loves good beer and good talk, on any subject, especially about the father he discovered so late in life.
I met Thomas Hasler 10 years ago on the occasion of a Remembrance Day concert 60 years after the tragic death of his father at the Mauthausen concentration camp. From that day we met over the years many times and it developed into a nice friendship, which I have now used together with Martina Roe to get an exclusive interview with this man for readers of CzechFolks com Plus.
V. Zidek: Thomas, if I am not mistaken, you started to visit Prague regularly since 2001.There were previous visits, when you came to the memorial concert “Karel Hasler as we do not know him,” organized at the initiative of the magazine Czech Dialogue. The concert was held on the 60th anniversary of the death of your dad. There we also met.
Don’t you have the impression that somehow your father was forgotten by the Czechoslovak media even though his songs were often sung? During the time of communist rule it was clear, but why did it continue even after the Velvet Revolution?
The concert in 2001 was actually about the Karel Hasler the Czechs did not know. I was interested in highlighting his political side, the side I’m most interested in.
Later I was in Prague twice in 04 for two concerts, one where I discovered Stepan Rak, a wonderful guitar player, and a concert at the Lucerna with the leading contemporary Czech musicians playing the music – that gave me a whole new perspective on the music. Even the top Czech rock band played one of my father’s songs.
There has been extensive coverage by the Czech media, but most people know little about Karel Hasler, and most know nothing about my mother because she was German. I’ve been most interested in the World War II period and have done extensive research and have been in contact with people about that period – for example, about my father’s involvement with the Gestapo, and his experience at Mauthausen.
V. Zidek: What was the reason that you came to this concert and did this commemorative event fulfil your expectations? Can you briefly describe to our readers your feelings and memories of this important night?
That concert only represented the start of my experience with the music. As I said earlier, I was most interested in his political side. Every time I hear “Ceska Pisnicka” it arouses emotion in me, except when I hear bad renditions, and then I feel anger. I particularly like Stepan Rak’s interpretations.
V. Zidek: Once you had plans to promote in Prague each year, something like a festival of Hasler songs that would last all week. What was the reason why it never materialized?
It is true that I promoted that concept but I found no support for it so dropped it. I’m now networking with people to try to promote a movie about a neglected phase of World War II – about opposing oppression with music, a forbidden love affair, and entertainment values through music and cabaret humor…comparable to Schindler’s List, The Sound of Music, Cabaret and Casablanca.
M. Roe: My greatuncle the writer Otakar Batlicka was murdered in the same concentration camp as your father and till present day we are not sure how he died. How was it with your father?
Imagine, if you can, a frigid December night in 1941 at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. German soldiers haul an inmate outside. They strip him naked. They tie his hands. They douse him with cold water and leave him to die.
This is how I imagine my father’s death. The Gestapo’s minions at Mauthausen entertained themselves by making such “ice statues” out of human beings. The practice was a new form of torture introduced in the fall of 1941, and while accounts of Karel Hasler’s death vary, most say he froze to death. Soon after, my mmother received from the Germans notice of his death-of pneumonia. A month before he died, I was born in Prague.
M. Roe: Am I right in assuming that during the first 50 years of your life you knew very little about your father?
I now live in Baltimore and have for the past forty years. For most of my life, I indeed knew very little about my father. I knew Karel Hasler had been an actor, composer, and balladeer. I thought this was ancient history and wanted to get on with my life. I have photographs, even inherited some possessions: handwritten music, cuff links, a cigarette case. Yet I remained ignorant of what the man stood for.
M. Roe: When was it then that you learned more about your father?
My first attempt to learn about my father, in 1990, was disappointing. I was 49 when I sat down in a modest Manhattan movie house to see a 1927 silent film in which Karel Hasler played the role of an alcoholic lawyer approaching his end. I looked at the face of the man on the screen, his gestures, and saw no physical resemblance. But my late wife, Bonnie, said it was eerie.
The film offered me no emotional connection, but that would come, and with life-changing force in 1993 when I heard Ceska pisnicka for the first time. It went right to my heart even though I didn’t understand one word of it. Later when I received a videocassette of the film “Pisnickar” and showed it to Czech-Americans in Baltimore they all started singing it – only then did I discover that when the Nazis banned the national antheme, this became the national anthem and continues to be the favorite song of Czech-Americans and probably others.
M. Roe: The mother of my grandmother was German, and my grandmother lived the first six years of her life in Germany at which time she did not speak a word of Czech. Then she moved to South Bohemia, started to speak Czech and forgot all her German. Her story reminds me a little of your fate during your youth.
My mother and I fled Czechoslovakia’s stifling Communist regime in 1949, when I was 7-she with the words “Enemy of the State” stamped on her passport. We made it to Australia on a freighter and settled in Cowra, a town in New South Wales, where my mother Lotte (Charlotte) Jurda found work teaching high school French, Latin, and physical education. I rejected everything Czech and remained, as a young boy, indifferent to my father’s legacy. I ignored his memory as well as any appreciation of my homeland because I never expected to return. I later wrote in the Czech-Slovak journal Slovo, that I was ashamed of my country, so easily occupied by the Nazis, supine before the Communists. I refused to speak Czech anymore. My resolve was so intense that I lost the language entirely.
M. Roe: Have you ever tried to retrieve Czech language from your memory?
I would be extremely pleased if I succeeded. I have even tried twice to regain Czech through hypnosis but so far without success.
M.Roe: Going back to Australia, you stayed there for nine years. What followed afterwards?
My mother and I reached America in 1958. I went to Hobart College in New York and, later, the University of Michigan’s journalism school. I was in Lebanon in 1968, an intern with the English language Daily Star, when two events changed my life. I met and married Bonnie Sether, a graduate student at the American University in Beirut. Then, as the Prague Spring bloomed in Czechoslovakia, full of hope for democracy, only to be crushed by Soviet tanks, my curiosity was briefly aroused by what was happening in my native land.
M.Roe: Did you therefore want to visit your home country?
In 1969, I joined Baltimore’s Evening Sun. In 1972, I visited Prague, still a bleak Communist state. This reinforced my long-held opinion of the place: I found nothing there for me. In 1975, I became an American citizen. My enthusiasm for the reporter’s life endured until 1984, after which I did research for a book on Germany and worked on a pre-Internet project combing newspapers and journals for policy information for business leaders. I later contracted with an international management consulting company.
M. Roe: The Year 1993 is very important for you, especially with regardst to your journey of disovery of your father. Would you say my thinking is correct?
My reconciliation with the past didn’t indeed come until 1993, when, on another trip to Prague, I watched my father perform in Balladeer, a 1932 film that told the story of his life.
M. Roe: The next period of your life was rather sad, because you lost your wife to cancer and not long afterwards your mother.
Bonnie Hasler, my wife, died of cancer in 1995, followed six years later by Lotte Jurda, my mother. By this time, I had embraced my father’s legacy. I began to gather and absorb as much information as possible about my father, the man, the performer, the agent of resistance to the Nazi tyranny who, it was said, helped people flee the country.
Prior to my mother’s death I was constrained in my efforts but did find a researcher in Prague to go through the archives, at that time mostly to find materials relevant to restitution programes. In my earlier years when my mother wanted to tell me about the “old days” I wasn’t interested, but when I finally became interested she didn’t want to talk about those days because she said they were too painful.
M. Roe: Did you then learn the more intimate stuff from your mother’s memoirs?
I had once suggested that my mother write her memoirs, an idea she apparently rejected but secretly undertook. I later discovered and surreptitiously read her work. I learned more fully of my father’s immense public stature in Czechoslovakia and his human side as well: Karel Hasler was a womanizer, a carouser, a sly teller of stories and jokes, a writer and performer of songs full of mockery of the Nazi occupiers and, before that, of the minions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A passionate, political man, he fell in love with a woman half his age-a German at that, during a time when marriage between Czechs and Germans was frowned upon by both sides. This is a movie, I said to myself. This is a love story.
M. Roe: Did you therefore want to make a film about your father’s life?
I wrote a film treatment of the story and have since talked to five directors about making a movie about my father’s life before the war that would illuminate the dynamic of the Czech, German, Jewish environment in those years in Prague. In the meantime, I continue searching where I can, in Gestapo files when possible, for new information about my father while in Nazi hands. I have finished a documentary film of my father’s life and fate with the collaboration of the late Czech-Jewish author Arnost Lustig, who survived the death camps, and Lustig’s son, Josef, a filmmaker. I expect to have my mother’s memoirs published by the Franz Kafka Society in Prague. In March this year I also heard from a US publisher that they’re interested in publishing my mother’s memoirs, and since they’re too short, they want me to write about my search for my father…quite a challenge. I heard about this publisher McFarland that specializes in books for libraries, at the embassy reception after the showing of the documentary.
I’ve now also asked the Holocaust survivors and victims research center at the Holocaust museum in Washington to help find useful documents.
V. Zidek: Movie “The immortal Balladeer of Prague” is mostly narrated in Czech and in places where it is not there are Czech subtitles. Can you tell readers of CzechFolks, where is it possible to buy this DVD and how much does it cost?
Initially I planned to sell it but then found there was only a tiny market and there were complications with royalty payments so have stopped selling it.
M. Roe: You yourself are interested in on particular part of the Holocaust, could you tell us a bit more about it?
One of my goals is to stimulate interest in an aspect of the Holocaust that I believe has not received sufficient attention: the murders during the war of millions of non-Jews-gypsies, Poles, Slavs, union leaders, homosexuals, Communists, the aged, the physically and mentally disabled, and others who deviated from Nazi ideas of who should live and who should die. Karel Hasler was one of these victims.
I have visited the Holocaust museum in Washington again and they are now more interested in the non-jewish victims, but they still don’t have information about my father.
V. Zidek: A very interesting figure in your life and your father’s life was Mrs. Hilda Hojer, who you always addressed as “my aunt” because she was a good friend of your family she was your caring nanny and knew you well as a small boy. She was a truly courageous woman who was not afraid at the time when your father was arrested, she kept demanding from the Gestapo that he be released, and brought him to Peckarna packages to improve his life. She was a woman warrior who was never afraid and during communism she went to prison several times because of her conviction against the regime. Till the end of 98 years of her life she was fighting against injustice and the current political machinations. She was not afraid to stand alongside so often falsely accused Vladimir Huci when most people were indifferent to the fate of this man.
Do you want us to say something about it? I am convinced that this woman who no longer lives would deserve it.
Hilda was a great discovery for me because she opened me up to my father’s human side, something that I’ve been trying to discover for many years. She provided an oral history version of the story, which was invaluable. She was not actually my nanny, that’s a mistake in the documentary. But she did know not only my father but my mother and even myself as a child.
V. Zidek: You will probably know about quite a bleak political situation in your homeland. The discontent of the population, especially with a crooked justice and conduct of political representation, increases more and more. What do you think about all this as a great champion of human rights?
First let me say that I was not impressed by the Czechs under communism because they voted the communists in, and then had a very repressive version of communism. I’m not at all impressed by the current politicians and consider the success of the Czechs to be mostly a result of private initiatives.
As I’ve said before, the part of father’s career that impresses me most is his political side, using songs against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, against the Bolsheviks, Czech politicians, and finally, the Nazis. I’ve been told that he was very conservative politically, but I’m not.
V. Zidek: When we were both in Prague at the unveiling of the memorial of your father, I heard that it became unpleasant – you were not, admitted to the reception after the ceremony. It did not help at all when your friends mentioned that you were the son of Hasler, whose statue was unveiled a short while ago above the Old Castle steps . It must have been a great embarrassment, but you’ve managed to rise above it and left to celebrate with some friends in one pub below the Castle. Certainly that could not have been a pleasant feeling.
There were several unpleasant situations. At the concert organized by Ivo Zelenka I wasn’t acknowledged, so Pepi Lustig did it. There was a written invitation to the reception sent to my home so I only received it when I got back, but at the recepition itself they wouldn’t allow me in, so I did feel hurt. I also wasn’t invited to the ceremony itself, but others got me into it. As I said, Ivo Zelenka (Chairman of the Civic Association Pisnickar) wanted to control the whole thing, and dismissed my interest. Ivo has told me in the past that he doesn’t respect my father’s relationship with my mother, a German – I think that is the root of the problem.
V. Zidek: During the years of your travels to Prague you certainly got to know a lot of interesting people who became your friends. Who do you like to think most fondly of and who do you believe should not be forgotten in this interview.
There are several people who have been very helpful – I think of Gabriel Goessel, the musicologist who is in the documentary. Also Radan Dolejs, who is now with Czech TV but who wrote his thesis on my father and organized the Lucerna concert in 04; he’s provided many valuable insights. Through the documentary I also met Arnost Lustig and his son, Pepi – they were the ones who suggested making the documentary. I recognize that the Czechs have had a difficult history, but they also have a rich culture and some have become very accomplished in various areas. I enjoy visiting Prague because it is such a beautiful city and now I have a number of good friends who make me feel that I’m not just a tourist, but help to contribute to their understanding of their culture and themselves. I particularly would like to help the Czechs understand my father’s contribution to their heritage. I should perhaps re-phrase that because I recently received back my Czech citizenship, so should say that I want to help my fellow countrymen/women understand my father’s contribution to our heritage!
V. Zidek: Finally, I would like to ask you what do you like most in the Czech Republic, what would you wish for this little country and what message would you like to send home to your countrymen.
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