Jerry Barta (born Jiří Barta), 1950
Jerry Barta was born in Prague in 1950. He grew up in the Dejvice district of the city with his parents and two brothers. His mother Dagmar worked as an accountant while his father Josef held a number of jobs, including as a cartographer and a teacher. Jerry says his family’s food supply was augmented by produce and meat sent by his grandparents, who lived in the country. After Jerry finished high school, he hoped to study architecture but he says that he did not have the background or connections to be admitted to any programs. He instead trained to become a typographer. Although a serious motorcycle accident interrupted his studies, Jerry finished a program for industrial design and packaging. While studying, he worked nights as a typesetter. After graduating, he began working as a graphic designer and became a teaching assistant at the Václav Hollar Art School. Jerry says that he had been hoping to leave the country since the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968. In 1974, after several years of being denied a travel visa, he decided to take a ‘calculated risk’ and forged a letter from the director of the school where he was working stating that he was being sent to Amsterdam as a reward for participating in a state art exhibition. Because of this forged letter, Jerry received a travel visa and money for ten days in Amsterdam, and he left the country in the fall of 1974.
Jerry and his then-fiancé (who was also able to obtain a visa) stayed with friends in Amsterdam for several months before traveling to Germany where they applied for asylum and began the process of moving to the United States. The couple were sent to Zirndorf refugee camp for two months and then lived in an apartment while awaiting their paperwork. They arrived in Los Angeles in September 1975 and stayed with Jerry’s distant relatives. Jerry found a job in a print shop but, several weeks later, decided to move to the San Francisco area after a cousin invited him for a visit. He worked as a typographer for a small printing company and eventually became manager of the firm. In 1985, Jerry opened his own studio called Master Type in San Francisco and today owns the company Pacific Digital Image. He (with his wife and daughter) returned to Czechoslovakia for the first time just a few months before the Velvet Revolution in November 1989; now, Jerry says he visits as often as possible. He lives in Danville, California, with his wife.
Jerry learned about the history of Czechoslovakia from his grandparents
My grandpa basically taught me about civilization or taught me history lessons because my parents wouldn’t dare to tell me anything.
They would ask me ‘Well what did you learn?’ and I would tell them and they would say ‘Well that sounds really good, but what really happened is this, this, and that.’ So they taught me about the First Republic; they taught me about Masaryk. At age ten, I have to say I was a rather confused person, but no regrets. It was fine. I wasn’t anti-social or anti-communistic, because I didn’t know any better.”
Only through my grandparents I learned that whatever is white is black and whatever is black is white.
While in design school, Jerry worked in a print shop at night
“One interesting point when I was studying design and I worked as a night-shift monotype operator, I had to sign paperwork that [said] whatever I type, I wouldn’t share that information with anybody else. So I was a fairly sarcastic young guy, 20 years old; what do I care? So I signed the paperwork and I was just chuckling like ‘What is this all about?’ And I’ll never forget, and I’m always telling my clientele now, how silly it was and what a joy it is to live in a free society. For instance, in September, because the production of all magazines took a long time – six weeks, eight weeks –
in September at night, I was typesetting already the results of the election which was happening in late October or the beginning of November.
It had to be done that way, ‘Mr. so-and-so, Soudruh [Comrade] Novák, won 98 or 99.2 percent of the vote, blah blah blah,’ and it was all bull because it couldn’t possibly happen, and that’s the only way production was done. Magazines were printed and everybody was happy. And it was all fake. It was all a big joke.”
Jerry explains how he obtained permission to leave the country in 1974
The whole country was going downhill. People were more and more cynical and skeptical and nobody wanted to work and it wasn’t really pretty. So I decided to take a calculated risk.
“I first forged a letter to the Socialist Youth. The letter was from the director of the school on behalf of Jiří Barta, because I was such a good boy and I participated in some exhibition on behalf of the Communist Party, and as a reward I was rewarded to go to Amsterdam for a field trip and to go to museums and gather information for the school. Signed by the director. I had the stamp; I had a perfect letterhead; everything was just the way the school was communicating.
I gave it to a guy from the Socialist Youth. He didn’t understand how I had gotten this permit from the director but, hey this is signed. He didn’t question it, and then it was like a snowball. Nobody checked anything and from the Socialist Youth, they said okay. It went here, they said okay. It went to the army, they said okay. From there, it went to the Communist Party and they said okay. And I was waiting and waiting and it was already like three months and I was thinking ‘Well, either I’m going to get a passport and so-called devizový příslib [permit to withdraw foreign currency] from the bank or police will show up by my door.’ Well, I was called and I don’t remember exactly what office it was, but they gave me a passport and they gave me a doložka for ten days in Amsterdam.”
Although he enjoyed Amsterdam, Jerry knew that he wanted to continue to the United States
“I went through several shocks. In 1968, it started so well.
The beginning of 1968 was the Prague Spring, and I cannot explain it; I cannot compare it to anything else. Maybe the United States after 9/11…
when all of the sudden everyone was carrying flags and people were all together and ‘We are in it together.’ That was the feeling I had in spring 1968. There was even a movement of collecting gold to come up with a treasury for the Czech Republic. People were donating money, because we felt that something really nice is going to happen and we will have democracy and this nonsense will end. Well, it ended on August 21. So that was kind of shocking to me, and I definitely
made up my mind that I’m leaving the country. At home we had maps and we had globes, and I’d look at the globe and here’s Europe and I looked at Czechoslovakia and I said ‘Okay, what’s on the other side’ and I turned it around and [said] ‘Oh, not bad. California.’ And I said ‘That’s exactly where I want to end up. As far away from this nonsense.’ And another reason was that I wanted to change cultures. I didn’t want to be a neighbor. I didn’t want to be in the neighborhood of Czechoslovakia. I wanted to completely forget, like it didn’t exist, because when I was leaving, I believed that I’ll never ever be able to go back, because I always told people, ‘Hey, those guys? They don’t have a chance. Unless something happens in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia is finished for generations.’ Well I was wrong. Anyway, that would explain why I’m living in California.”
After more than 35 years in the United States, Jerry continues to be proud of his Czech heritage
“When you reach a certain point in your life, it’s good to not only give back to the community but also to keep your heritage alive, because you have nothing to lose by that.
If anything, it makes you richer. It makes you a little different. Even now, and I am always taking advantage of it because I have an accent, people like it. People like that there is something different. Sometimes I’ll tell them ‘Hey, I was born in L.A.; it’s all fake.’ There is something about heritage that people should keep it. Again, you have nothing to lose. You are only adding to your culture.”
Jerry travels to his home country often
“We try to go to the Czech Republic several times a year and it’s great. What they did in Prague is a miracle. I remember Prague – again, it’s nostalgic – it’s a town that at any given time was black and white. There was no color; it was all doom and gloom; it was Franz Kafka.
At any given time it was like everything was awful. But charming. Charming awful.
Now you go there and I take pictures even of their sidewalks because their sidewalks are a mosaic of white marble. I want to do a book of their sidewalks and compare it San Francisco because, boy, this town could get a lesson. It’s pretty amazing what they did in the Czech Republic. I’m very happy.”
Category: Bay Area, Oral History