"I detest being surrounded by bars" (Josef Navara in Nemecek's book Tvrdá zeme )
When, in January 1940, Zdenek Nemecek was asked by the Public Library of Hradec Králové, Czechoslovakia, and by other regional institutions to contribute to their planned literary almanac, his choice was clear. He produced an excellent essay about his beloved birthplace, Josefov, a former Austrian fortress in northeastern Bohemia, not far from Hradec Králové. It was situated on the hill of the once peaceful village Ples, hence his use of this name as a pseudonym. The first "civil" house in that fortress was built in 1790. There, on February 19, 1894, Zdenek Nemecek was born: playwright, novelist, poet, storyteller and short story writer; the author of countless radio scripts and an editor, (later senior editor) of Radio Free Europe; broadcaster, diplomat, writer of travel books; Czech legionary, chronicler, librarian, thinker, insurance agent, speaker, connoisseur of many lands and languages, fighter against Nazism and Communism, political prisoner, and, above all, Czech patriot. A man who, throughout his productive but difficult life, always felt an undiminished love for his fatherland, despite physical distances.
Every station of that life is reflected in his literary creativity. His sharp powers of observation, his sensitivity to changes in the political and social atmosphere, his knowledge of places and countries, and his facility in languages, enhanced by hard work, made him an outstanding writer. As early as 1919, Nemecek published in numerous Czech magazines and newspapers, such as Lidové noviny, Lumír, Cesta, Národní osvobození, Literární noviny, Panorama, Magazine DP, ELK, Kytice, and in those of Czech emigrants, such as Hlas lidu, Cesky prehled, Sklizen, and Novy domov .
Nemecek's father Alois, a tradesman who owned the central tobacco deposit and was also an organist by avocation, died in 1946. His mother, Antonie, born Uhlírová, had special musical talents. She is buried in Josefov. They had three children: Antonie ("Tonicka"), an excellent singer who died in the early 1950's; Zdenek; and another son, Miroslav (Míra), an organist and pianist, who was, for some time, associated with the Czech Bank of Commerce and Industry. He was married to Marynka.
Nemecek was raised in Josefov, where he went to the grammar school. In Hradec Králové he finished seven years of the classical gymnasium (high school). From a very young age, his basic drive was to write. On his father's wishes, Nemecek went to Hamburg for a summer as an apprentice in an export firm. He continued to experiment in writing--this time with feuilletons. From 1912-14, he attended the Hochschule für Welthandel, then known as Exportakademie, in Vienna and continued writing some tentative stories and feuilletons, publishing some in Czech newspapers. He also collected material, which he used in future writings, for example in his tale "Pokles proti vojenské discipline" (A Break of Military Discipline), which appeared in his Legionárské povídky (Tales of the Legion). Already in Vienna he became politically engaged. The times were difficult, uncertain, turbulent, and tense. Nemecek's patriotic feelings developed deeper and stronger roots that defined the shape of his life and sharpened his political sensibilities.
Before the outbreak of World War I, at the age of twenty, Nemecek went to Moscow, not only as a representative of the firm Laurin a Klement, an association which lasted for only a few months, but also to meet his scholar-uncle Emanuel, who resided in Russia.
In August 1914, Nemecek became one of the first volunteers to join the Czech group organized in Kiev, later known as Czechoslovak legion. At the time of the February Revolution of 1917, Nemecek graduated from the Moscow Aleksandrovskoe uchilishche (Military academy), where he got his military training. He witnessed the revolutions that changed the world. Despite brutal reality, he succeeded in escaping into the world of intellect, reading avidly. It was then that he became interested in drama. He produced about five unsuccessful plays and continued to write feuilletons and stories. He also kept a diary, perhaps for use in future historical writings. Nemecek stayed in the Ukraine for quite some time, returning home with the southern Czechoslovakian military group in February 1920, with the rank of captain.
The same year he was sent to the Allied Military Commission as an officer-liaison for the region of Tesínsko. Soon thereafter, he left the military as captain in the reserve, and returned to his writing. He compiled and edited the Umelecky almanach legionársky (Artistic Almanac of the Legionaries), which was published in Prague by the Kruh starodruziníku in 1921-22. It contains Nemecek's story: "Zlocin Viktora Vikentjevice..." (Crime of Viktor Vikentjevic...). Prior to this, he published a collection of nine stories, Legionárské novely (Tales of the Legion), which first appeared in 1920, but originally had been published in Národní listy, under the pseudonym Pentee (a reference to the five "e"s in the name Nemecek).
In 1922, Nemecek entered the diplomatic service of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs, becoming a consul-attaché in Nürnberg, where he witnessed the beginnings of Hitler's rise to power. Back home, he continued to write and work in the ministry, this time as cipher specialist. He offered his new comic play Smysl diplomacie (Diplomatic Sense) to the Národní divadlo (National Theater), but it was rejected. After changing the title to Primus Tropicus, it premiered very successfully at the Mestské divadlo na Královskych Vynohradech, on November 29, 1925. The next day was a special one for Nemecek. While working for the ministry, he had met an emigrée, Anna Alekseevna Koroviakovskaia, a descendant of an old Russian noble family from Samara on Volga. They married the day after the successful premiere.
On January 1, 1926, the young couple arrived in New York. Nemecek was assigned as an attaché to the social section of the Czechoslovak consulate. While in New York, he had to face, on many occasions, the painful reality of Czech immigrants. It became the theme of one of his best novels, New York: zamlzeno (New York: Foggy), published in 1932. At that time he could hardly suspect that, one day, he also would become a political emigrant.
While in the United States, he made a journey to the West Indies, armed with extensive background knowledge. It resulted in his first travel book, Západoindicky deník (West Indies Diary), which was published in Prague in 1929 by the Ustrední delnická knihovna. For the second edition, the title was changed by the publisher to Ostrovy smaragdového ruzence (Islands of the Emerald Rosary). It was published in Prague by Sfinx-Bohumil Janda, in 1940.
In July 1929, Nemecek returned to Prague, together with his wife and small daughter Olga, who had been born in New York. He continued to work in the political section of the ministry and continued to write. From July 1932 to July 1937 he served as a vice-consul and consul in Marseilles. Then he was sent, for six weeks, on a special assignment to Madrid, returning to Prague in September 1937. In January 1938, he became first a chargé d'affaires in Madrid and then in Barcelona, where the Spanish government was obliged to retreat. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter returned to Prague. He followed them after the fall of Barcelona in February 1939. These difficult and dangerous times were especially fruitful for Nemecek. He produced his novel Na západ od Panonie (West from Panonia) which he began to write in Marseilles in August 1934 and finished in Marrakesh in March 1935. It was published in Prague in 1935, and, in the same year, it was awarded the highest Czech state prize. He also wrote his play Zac lidsky zivot ? (What Is Human Life Worth?) published in 1936. It premiered on October 23, 1936, at the Stavovské divadlo in Prague, and later at the Národní divadlo, for which Nemecek received the Svatobor prize.
On January 6, 1937, Nemecek traveled (on a semi-official mission to Africa) to Dakar, where he stayed for 20 days, avidly making notes. This journey resulted in another travel book, Dopisy ze Senegambie (Letters from Senegambia). Originally letters to his wife, twenty of them were reworked, edited, and published in 1938. His other book, a collection of thirty-five stories, Vejír z poledníku (Fan from the Meridian), containing many stories with African themes, was published in 1937.
While in France, he also wrote the five-act play Most (Bridge), published in 1938, which was performed at the Stavovské divadlo on January 15, 1938. While living on the outskirts of Barcelona, Nemecek wrote Dabel mluví spanelsky (The Devil Speaks Spanish), for which he received the second prize in a literary competition. This book uses a form of reportage to cover both sides of the Spanish Civil War. It was published in Prague in 1939 under the German occupation, but when Franco's consul protested, it was banned. The next year, it was translated into Croatian by Mark Fotez, and published in 1940 in Zagreb by Savremena biblioteka, under the title: Davo govori spanjolski .
After Nemecek's return to Prague, his diplomatic status was revoked. He worked as a librarian at the Charles University in Prague, bearing the title Rada archivní a knihovní sluzby Národní a universitní knihovny v Praze. But at the beginning of 1941, he lost this position. In these dangerous years, Nemecek's family confronted difficult times. He moved to Rataje nad Sázavou and kept busy by writing. Evropská kantiléna (European Cantilena) had to be hidden in order to survive the German occupation and was published in the fall of 1946, with 36 illustrations by Cyril Bouda. It was translated into Danish in 1948 by his friend Else Westh Neuhard with the title Sangen om Evropa . French, Dutch, and English translations were also contemplated.
His play Bílá nemoc was banned by the Germans before the dress rehearsal at the Komorní divadlo in Prague, and when Nemecek tried to place it after the war, he was also unsuccessful. In the first year of the war, Nemecek reworked his story Kátinka as a play, Balada o Kátince (Ballad of Kátinka). It was presented, with some difficulties, at the E. F. Burian D 40 Theater on March 7, 1940. First written in seven acts, it was shortened to six. The real premiere was on April 13, 1946, at the Stavovské divadlo. In April 1941, Nemecek signed a contract with the Mestské divadlo na Královskych Vynohradech for his one-act play Bílá barva . Penezokaz (Counterfeiter), another play written about the same time was first performed on April 13, 1946, in the Stavovské divadlo, and then in Národní divadlo. He was also working on the play Rukopis casu (Manuscript of Time). It was published in Prague in 1945 and it had its first performance on January 15, 1946, at the Mestské divadlo na Královskych Vynohradech.
In 1941, Nemecek contributed a story to the Milostny kruh (Love Cycle), an anthology of nine tales published by the Evropsky literární klub. Later, Nemecek entitled his story Xenia . The same story, under the provisional title of Písen jediné noci (Story of a Unique Night), was sold to the National film in Prague. He also contributed his story Berbersky avtobus (Berber's Bus) to Dvanáct poutí svetem (Twelve Journeys Through the World).
During the Nazi occupation, Nemecek became active in the Czech resistance, executing dangerous missions. Arrested by the Gestapo in Rataje nad Sázavou on February 22, 1945 and taken to the Pankrác prison in Prague, he inhabited underground cell number 336. From that cell, he wrote a letter to his wife, recording on a piece of toilet paper the humiliations of being a prisoner and the details of his daily routine. He slept on a mattress on the floor, with a straw pillow, using as a cover a "blanket" and his own coat. No lights. At 6 a.m. "breakfast" -- black "coffee" and 26 decagrams of bread for the rest of the day. At 7:30 a.m., 15 minutes in the fresh air. At 10 a.m. "lunch" -- soup and "something" (on Sundays -- "blood"). At 3 p.m. a poor dinner. As a result of the daily "menu," he felt constant hunger. At 8 p.m., in full darkness, he "prepared the bed" and went to "sleep." The only drinking and washing water was from the toilet. "These are the most difficult moments of my life," he said, "a punishment for my love of freedom." (See Box 2, folder 61)
At the end of April, Nemecek was transferred, together with other selected Czech prisoners, to Jenerálka, a dependence of the Gestapo near Prague, where archives and a deposit of the deadly gases were stored. The Czech uprising and the end of the war saved his life. On May 9, 1945, Nemecek saw, again, the light of liberty. His last days in the prison are eloquently described in his memoir about Jozka Filip, one of his fellow prisoners. Much later, in one of his feuilletons called Is it the Same Town ? (Je to stejné mesto?), where Nemecek is writing about his second arrival in New York, he reminisced: In...last twenty-five years, I have experienced more than ten of my ancestors into the depth of time. During that period I dined with kings, with Stalin and Vyshinsky, opened exhibitions and cut the tapes. I cleaned toilets, and was kicked by SS men at the Pankrác prison in Prague. I know it all. Besides, this is the simple life of one born in the heart of Europe, fifty degrees latitude...And speaking of SS men...Every Wednesday afternoon my cell in the Pankrác prison in Prague suddenly opened and I had the privilege of scrubbing the corridor in front of my cell and also the door. It was really a kind of recreation...
After the war, Nemecek re-entered the diplomatic service. In June 1945, he became the secretary of the Czechoslovakian delegation negotiating with the Soviets about the annexation of the Carpatho-Ukraine to the Soviet Union. In November 1945, Nemecek was assigned (in the cabinet of Jan Masaryk) to Copenhagen, Denmark, as Minister Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary (Mimorádny vyslanec a zplnomocneny ministr v Kodani). While stationed in Denmark in 1947, Nemecek went to Iceland, a journey that resulted in the travel book, Islandské dopisy (Letters from Iceland), published in Prague in 1948.
The Danish position was Nemecek's last appointment before becoming a political emigrant. In February 1948, he resigned after the Communist coup d'état in Czechoslovakia. All his books were banned in his own country. In a letter to his family back home, written while he was still in Denmark, he wrote: Do not be angry with us, and, if you could forgive us... We know only one thing, that our hearts will be always, everywhere and under all circumstances full of love, not only for you, but also for our whole nation.
Nemecek's family emigrated to Montreal, Canada, arriving on November 3, 1948, on the Empress of Canada . No longer a young man, he encountered great difficulties in finding an adequate job. His wife helped by finding work and he, after many attempts, became an insurance agent. Later, he also freelanced, writing scripts for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Sometimes he would use the pseudonym Boris Kolomaz for his feuilletons.
In 1950 they moved on to New York. His stay in Canada, however, inspired a new novel, published in New York in 1954: Tvrdá zeme (Hard Earth). Safely in the United States, Nemecek started to work, first for the Voice of America between October 1950 and March 1951, and then as a script writer, radio commentator and editor, and later senior-editor of Radio Free Europe. He wrote numerous essays, poems, feuilletons, memoirs, and plays. He offered some of his stories for publication in English, but faced rejections such as, "the story has too foreign a flavor for our magazine," or, "perhaps it is the intensity and depth of feeling and emotions that is not readily acceptable and understandable to the simpler American mind."
His play Poslední vule (The Last Will) was performed in New York on April 17, 1953, and another play, Zivot císlo dve (Life Number Two) on April 23, 1954. For radio work, Nemecek used the pseudonym Jirí Ples. Although his radio duties kept him busy, Nemecek continued to travel, give speeches, and write poetry.
Before his exile, Nemecek was a member of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences. Later, the old city of Rataje nad Sázavou, where he lived during the German occupation, made him an honorary citizen. In the United States, he also became an honorary member of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences and, finally, he served during 1956 and 1957 as chairman of the recently organized American branch of the International PEN club. In that same year, the Nemeceks became American citizens.
In 1956, when Nemecek's book Na západ od Panonie (West from Panonia) was translated into Slovenian by Branimir Kozinc, he decided to visit the country at the invitation of the Svaz slovinskych spisovatelu. After arriving in Munich on June 22, 1957, he changed his plans and undertook first a side-trip to Copenhagen (originally planned for later) to see the Else Neuhard family. He wrote three letters from Munich to his family in New York complaining that it was not easy for his hand to write.
At the end of the month, after a few days in Munich, he left for Copenhagen and was back in Munich on July 4. Early the next day, he wrote a thank-you letter to his friend Else, noting that the whole trip was for him far from an easy enterprise and that, if it weren't for them, he could never undertake that "visite sépulchrale." Still, on the same day, he visited Radio Free Europe and complained to one of his co-workers of chest pains. The next day, July 6, he was to have continued his trip to Salzburg, then to Vienna, and finally to Yugoslavia. There was no next day. On July 5, 1957, Zdenek Nemecek, far from his beloved family, suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack. The news of his death caused shock and real bereavement to all who knew him.
Perhaps there were some silent preludes to his death. A series of political events in Europe in the summer and fall of 1956 brought profound and drastic changes in the management programs and objectives of Radio Free Europe. It meant some shortening and cancellation of programs. Nemecek was directly affected.
Just before his death, Nemecek was proofreading one of his new books, Na pocátku bylo slovo (In the Beginning Was the Word), but was unable to finish it. It was published posthumously in 1957. Another book, Stín a jiné povídky (Shadow, and Other Stories), containing six stories, was also published posthumously by Nemecek's wife Anna in 1957. A very valuable introduction was written by Nemecek's close friend and Danish translator, Else Westh Neuhard, who was able to capture Zdenek Nemecek as a human being. She also recalled something special: Nemecek, a few years before, had mentioned his desire to be able to see the Old Europe and to breathe, once again, its air. His wish was fulfilled. Also after his death, in 1958, his book Bloudení v exilu (Wandering in Exile) was published with an introduction by his friend and co-worker at the Radio Free Europe, Ferdinand Peroutka.
Nemecek's literary heritage is rich. He, who loved his country above all and was obliged, because of his diplomatic duties, to live outside of it, became the writer of the Czech emigrants, writing of their pain and suffering. His plays have been performed not only in the leading theaters of Czechoslovakia, but also in the darkest corners of his homeland. His books have seen many editions and have been translated into a score of languages. His travel books were also successful. He contributed to the publications of others, and, being an eloquent orator, he was also invited to deliver speeches.
To his countrymen, and especially to the young, he gave the following advice: in order to become a "world citizen" (svetoobcan), study languages, respect your neighbor, land, and property, try to understand each other, and do not hate.
But as he said a few months before his death, he was, somehow, "losing the ground under his feet." He made the comment: "It is a counterpoint of the sickness called exile" (...to je kontrapunkt nemoci, která se jmenuje exil).* * Sources used Drábek, Jaroslav, "Zdenek Nemecek died 25 years ago," draft, RFE broadcasting, June 1982. Ivanov, Miroslav, Zdenek Nemecek - svetobezník, jemuz svet byl maly, draft, Ceskoslovensky rozhlas, February 1969. Nosco, Beatrice M., "Zdenek Nemecek, His Life and Work," manuscript, n.d. Ottuv slovník naucny nové doby; dodatky..." 4:1 (Praha: Novina, 1936): 541 Peroutka, Ferdinand, "K. 65 vyrocí narození Zdenka Nemecka," draft, RFE broadcasting, February 1959. Radimsky, Ladislav, "Sedmdesát let Zdenka Nemecka," draft, RFE broadcasting, February 1964. Slovník ceskych spisovatelu (Toronto: Sixty-Eight Publishers, 1982): 340-41.
From the guide to the Zdeněk Němeček papers, 1925-1984, (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
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|associatedWith||Čapek, Josef, 1887-1945||person|
|associatedWith||Čapek, Karel, 1890-1938||person|
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|associatedWith||Dudint︠s︡ev, Vladimir, 1918-||person|
|associatedWith||Firt, Julius, b. 1897||person|
|associatedWith||Hostovský, Egon, 1908-||person|
|associatedWith||Masaryk, Jan, 1886-1948||person|
|associatedWith||Masaryk, T. G. (Tomáš Garrigue), 1850-1937||person|
|associatedWith||Matejka, Ladislav, 1919-||person|
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|Authors, Czech--20th century|
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