Prague's senior expat looks back on his amazing 50-year odyssey
Posted: October 7, 2009
There are innumerable ways to measure how long Gene Deitch has lived in Prague. Sitting at the kitchen table of his Malá Strana flat, putting away a set of storyboards, he flashes a disarming smile and offers his latest: "When The Prague Post was founded, I had already been here 30 years."
Actually, more than 30 years. It was Oct. 10, 1959, when a bewildered American animator first got off a creaky Soviet prop jet at Prague airport, peered through the fog at a neon hammer and sickle, and asked himself, "Gene, what the hell are you doing here?"
Deitch had taken on a three-week assignment to help finish some animated films being made in a Czech studio for an American entrepreneur, William L. Snyder. In classic expat fashion, he had never been to Europe, much less Czechoslovakia. He didn't even have a passport. And, suddenly, he was behind the Iron Curtain, where everyone wore uniforms and marched in formation to work and school.
Or so he thought. The reality of life in communist Prague turned out to be dramatically different. And the trip turned into a profound, life-changing experience when Deitch fell head over heels for the studio's production manager, a petite blond named Zdeňka Najmanová. For the first week he was at the studio, she wouldn't talk to him. By the time he was leaving, the two were inseparable, and Deitch couldn't wait to come back.
The full story of their improbable love affair and Deitch's transformative life abroad is recounted in For the Love of Prague, an autobiography first published in 1995 that is now in its fifth edition. And Deitch himself, at 85, is the godfather of American expats, the one who has been here the longest and experienced the most. But as he's coming up on his 50th anniversary, it's not his tenure in Prague that he's proudest of.
"Zdeňka and I have been together for 50 years," he says. "How many couples do you know who have been together that long?"
Certainly none who faced the hurdles the Deitches did. Not only were they trying to breach the divide of communist and capitalist countries at the height of the Cold War; both were already married, Gene had a successful career in the States, and Zdeňka's family and friends were strongly against her becoming involved with a foreigner. But something magical happened in that first encounter.
"There was a spark," says Zdeňka, who turned 81 in May. "A love spark, something beautiful happening in our lives. We didn't know if we had a future. All we had was our belief and perseverance, and the feeling that if you are dedicated and keep working at something, you can reach it."
'I was toast'
Deitch's peculiar and perhaps unique history with communism began eight years before his arrival in Prague, when he was a rising star in the animation unit of Jam Handy, an educational and training film and production company that did a lot of work for the U.S. government. In 1951, during the depths of the McCarthy era, Deitch was called into his supervisor's office one day, where a military intelligence officer accused him of being a member of the Communist Party.
"I was toast!" Deitch recalls.
In fact, Deitch was not a member of the Communist Party, and he went all the way to Washington, D.C., to try to prove it. In a tense meeting at the Pentagon, a table full of brass told him they knew he had been holding Communist Party meetings at his home in Hollywood. Deitch didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
"My first wife and I used to hold open house nights for people interested in jazz," he explains. "People would come over, and we'd listen to records. We met Pete Seeger that way. We were all liberals, supporters of [Progressive Party presidential candidate] Henry Wallace and civil rights. But we weren't communists."
Fortunately, Deitch was able to move on, first to the influential UPA Studios, then to CBS-Terrytoons in New York, where he created a cartoon for the Captain Kangaroo show called "Tom Terrific" that was a huge hit. That success enabled him to spin out his own firm, Gene Deitch Associates, where he was happily ensconced when Snyder came calling.
'We have to win'
Like almost everyone in the United States at that time, Deitch had only a vague idea of what horrors lay behind the Iron Curtain. What he found in Prague was a group of craftsmen not unlike the people he worked with in the States, talented and dedicated to their art, an extended family that worked and played together.
"We had a little oasis at Krátký studio," Deitch says. "Just like jazz musicians, animators are the same all over the world."
Which is not to say that life was easy. The country was poor and suffering under a brutal bureaucracy that made everything, from buying food to finding a flat, a nightmare. And, while Deitch has some understandable nostalgia for those times, he has no illusions about them.
"Nobody wants to go back to totalitarianism, when you couldn't travel and the government ran every aspect of your life," he says. "But I was doing well. I was being paid in American money, and, as a foreigner, I had special privileges, like being able to go shopping in Germany. And the cost of living here - for almost 40 years, Zdeňka and I paid $35 a month for our flat on Mostecká street, a block from Charles Bridge."
Deitch is convinced his ability to keep work and dollars from the United States flowing into Czechoslovakia is what persuaded the communists to let him stay. But he knew he was being watched. "I'm sure they thought I was a spy for the FBI or the CIA," he says. "And, from some of the things that were said to me at the American Embassy, I know they thought I was a communist. The real reason I was here was obvious, but no one could see that."
More than a wife - they married in November 1964 - Zdeňka also functioned as Gene's protector. "I had to explain to him it's a different system here, and he must be very careful," she recalls. "Some secret agent could be checking on him. Finally, he started to understand: You could say something at a private party, but not on the tram."
In a perverse way, communism actually strengthened their relationship.
"The regime controlled everything, but, if you were smart, you could outwit them," Deitch says. "So we always had this feeling of, we have to win!"
"It was about more than Gene and me," Zdeňka says. "Under communism, we learned that, if you really want something, you have to wait to get it. You have to do everything more strongly. You have to have a feeling that gets you through."
'Every day is a holiday'
It's nonsensical to ask Deitch what has changed during his time in Prague. Everything has changed, and in his opinion, not always for the better.
"The subtitle of the latest edition of my book is, 'From the Tragedy of Communism to the Comedy of Capitalism,' " Deitch notes. "During communism, they used to tell us that capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis, and we laughed. But it's true! Now, we've got a few very rich people in this country driving around in Rolls Royces, while the majority of the population is still poor. There's got to be some better way of organizing society."
Still, the Deitches have no complaints. Even with all the hardships of communism, they've had a dream life together. And they still do. They are both remarkably healthy, and still working. Though Zdeňka has officially retired from Krátký studio, she goes in almost every day to oversee production, and Gene continues to bring in jobs and make films. They have a cottage, enjoy the rich cultural life of Prague and travel frequently, with a trip to China, where Gene has been invited to speak at a film festival, in the offing.
As for what they'll do to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their life together, Gene shrugs and says, "Probably have a nice dinner or something. Really, we already have everything we want. For us, every day is a working day, and every day is a holiday."
"Nothing has changed with us," Zdeňka says. "We still have the same feeling as when we first met. I think we've proved that we have something really strong. Work has been a big influence in us staying together, and we like many of the same things. We've lived a very rich life."
Frank Kuznik can be reached at
Tags: Gene Dietch, expat, 1950s, animator, For the Love of Prague.
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