Jana Krenova (born Jana Křenová), 1959
Jana Krenova was born in Prague in 1959. Her father, Mirko Křen, originally from Plzeň, was a photographer and her mother, Vlasta, often assisted her father with his projects. At the end of WWII, Mirko was on hand to shoot the liberation of Plzeň by American troops; his photographs, as well as the fact that he was a small-business owner, led to his arrest and six-month imprisonment by communist authorities in 1948. Jana spent her early years in the neighborhoods of Žižkov and Vinohrady, where she started school. During the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Jana’s family was on vacation in Italy. Although her father hoped to stay abroad, his failing health led them to return, and he died at the end of the year.
Jana’s mother continued her photography business and, several years later, she remarried a Czech-born Argentinean citizen. Jana says that her life became quite ‘bourgeois,’ as they moved to a villa with two BMWs and were able to travel extensively (Jana regularly spent her winter vacations skiing in Switzerland). For high school, Jana attended Střední průmyslová škola grafická [School of Graphic Arts] where she focused on photography. Upon graduating, she worked for one year as a staff photographer for ČTK news agency. Jana says that the combination of family pressure and the oppressive Communist government led her to leave the country permanently. In July 1979, she flew to London and then on to New York.
During Jana’s first days in New York, she was helped by Viera Noy whom she had met on a ski trip in Slovakia and for years worked several jobs to support herself. She received a green card and, in 1984, moved to Switzerland. Jana had a daughter and found a job as the art director and photographer for a magazine in Zurich. She returned to New York in the summer of 1989, shortly before the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, and worked a series of jobs as a magazine art director. In 1997, Jana began freelancing and frequently traveling to Prague for photo shoots. Today, she splits her time between New York City, Prague and Barbados.
As a business owner, Jana’s father was sent to prison for six months
“He had the very first photography store in Plzeň that had been shut down and confiscated by the Communist Party after the War when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia. Then they confiscated his store in a very nasty way; they sent a woman into his store when he was not there, and she would leave some kind of fake propaganda against the new regime. So then, the secret police came in and they said ‘What is this, Mr. Křen?’ and he wasn’t even there when it happened. So that’s how it happened. They set him up. They found some kind of anti-communist propaganda and they put him in prison. That’s how they did that. They had a reason to confiscate the store – the Communists would not allow any private enterprise anyway, but this was the way they did it. They actually locked up my father; he was in prison because he was a store owner. This was like the biggest crime, but they had to explain it differently, so that’s why they plotted this scene where this woman left some kind of propaganda in his store.”
Jana’s father’s photography during WWII was also a cause of his imprisonment
“He was 25 years old when the Americans liberated Plzeň and he was taking pictures of the American Army liberating Plzeň, which was not convenient for the Russians who later on claimed that they liberated the whole country. And it was not allowed to even say that the Americans liberated part of it, so the fact that my father had proof that the Americans were in Plzeň and freed Plzeň was against the interest of the Russians and the Communists. That actually is one of the reasons why my father was arrested, because they came into his store and wanted to get all these negatives that were proving this fact. They were actually quite well-hidden because my aunt (the sister of my father) hid those negatives in the basement of her house.
“Finally, there was a book published about 15 years by Zdeněk Roučka, and he was collecting all the pictures that existed from that time – which most of them my father shot; that’s why he’s listed as number one. My father was risking his life. There were bullets flying around his head and, later on, he was in prison just because of that. Because he had to prove that it was not just the Russians who freed Czechoslovakia.”
After Jana’s father died, her mother married a Czech-born Argentinean; Jana describes how their life changed
“We moved from Vinohrady to Zvihov, and our life all of the sudden became this bourgeois lifestyle. We had two BMWs – don’t forget, this was the heart of communism, so two BMWs – a villa, and we even had a woman who would clean up, like a cleaning lady. That was really unheard of for that time in Czechoslovakia. I would even drive this BMW to high school. I went to Střední průmyslová škola grafická [School of Graphic Arts], so a couple times I was driving in the BMW and I felt like a Hollywood star. I actually did earn some kind of… people looked at me a little bit differently. Also, what separated me a lot from my peers was the fact that I was able to travel more than other kids, because my stepfather was an Argentinean citizen and my mother also had some connections, so were kind of fortunate that we could travel. In wintertime, I went to skiing in Switzerland; in summertime, I always went someplace. That’s why kids in my school, in my class, looked at me a little bit differently.”
Although Jana ultimately settled in New York City, her initial plan was to move to the West Coast
“When I was dreaming about coming to the United States, in my mind, I had seen those movies, and most of them were shot in California. So I saw the palm trees and the blue sky, the ocean and those tan and fit people. I thought ‘Wow, that’s where I want to go;’ however, when I landed in New York with $150 in my pocket, that was just about it. I could not really go any further with that. So I got stuck in New York and I had to make a living here, and that was another lesson in my life; it was really hard to do that. By the time I was able to make enough money to even buy the ticket to California, I was kind of used to New York and liked New York, so I was no longer tempted by California. And I did go, but I somehow liked New York from the moment I started working here.”
Once a year, Jana makes Czech food
“There is only one time a year where I make Czech food, and it’s a fusion between Czech and American customs. On Thanksgiving, I don’t make turkey because I am not crazy about turkey – it’s dry. I do duck, and I bake the duck the Czech way because it’s one of the best dishes the Czechs are making. So I bake duck and I make the red cabbage and I also do the potato dumplings. So that’s the once a year that I cook Czech food [and it’s] on an American holiday. So now I combined it. Duck is a bird as much as the turkey, and it tastes better.”
Jana explains why she never joined any Czech groups in the New York community
“I did not come to New York to be with the Czechs; I really did not. Being also raised under communism, you have a little bit of a distrust of being part of any kind of belief system or any organization. You wouldn’t even be able to get me on a cruise; even Club Med scares me, because it’s part of any organized, fun group. Even if it’s fun group, not just a religious group, it’s still organized, and I have a certain aversion. I have too much of a free spirit to have organization that I should be part of and follow. That’s completely out of it for me.”
Category: New York City, Oral History