Katya Heller (born Katya Kohoutová), 1960
Katya Heller was born in Prague in 1960 to an American mother and Czech father. Her mother, Joy, had left the United States in 1947 to travel to Europe with hopes of going to the Soviet Union, but decided to stay in Prague. She then met Katya’s father, Jiří, while they were studying Russian at Charles University. Both of her parents held communist beliefs (her mother was denied membership in the Communist Party because she was American); however, Katya says that following the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, they both lost their jobs and her father became disillusioned with the Party. Katya says she first began having thoughts of leaving the country when she was having difficulty getting accepted to the high school of her choice because of her parents’ backgrounds. She was admitted to Charles University’s Philosophical Faculty where she studied English and Spanish and enrolled in the school’s translating and interpreting program. While in school, Katya had several freelance interpreting jobs which she says put her in contact with the secret police who hoped that she would pass on information she gathered about the West. In 1985, Katya married her first husband, an American who was teaching in Prague at the time. The couple left Czechoslovakia in 1986 and went to Barcelona, as Katya’s husband had received a one-year fellowship. Their daughter was born the same year and, the following year, Katya and her family moved to the United States and settled in Seattle.
In 1989, Katya was in Bratislava at the start of the Velvet Revolution. She returned to Prague where her brother was involved in the student leadership of the Revolution and told her about a job opening. Katya succeeded Rita Klímová (who left the position to became ambassador to the United States) as interpreter for the press office of the Civic Forum. She held that job until the first elections took place in June 1990 and then returned to the United States. Katya subsequently lived in Seattle where she held interpreting and translating jobs, and worked in several art galleries. In 1999 she moved to New York City and married her second husband, Doug Heller. Today, Katya is the director of the Heller Gallery, which showcases glass sculpture. She also serves on the board of directors of the Czech Center in New York.
Katya discusses her parents’ political beliefs
“My mother was never able to join the Communist Party because, even though she was leftist, she was suspected by the Czech communists of being a U.S. informer, which was a very awkward situation because she was in fact suspected by the U.S. government also of being a leftist-leaning communist – not suspect – they knew she was a leftist-leaning communist. So she was caught kind of in a catch-22. But because of her own beliefs, and I think because, interestingly enough, I think that the American communists were in some ways the most fervent, but the most naïve at the same time. And also I think because she had given up a lot. She left her home in the United States and as she went through the 1950s in communist Czechoslovakia she also had to give up her U.S. citizenship under duress, and so she, at that point, had to make the decision that she would possibly never return here, and I think in making that decision, she kind of went wholeheartedly for her beliefs over her country.
“Whereas my father was in a different situation because he was at home. So whatever happened there, there was nowhere else to go. There was no possible fallback position; this was the ultimate position and he chose to be much more of a dissident, in a way, than my mother because my mother couldn’t give up the hope. I think communism became almost like a religion to her. She really couldn’t give it up. And so we were brought up in this slightly bipolar household. Not completely, because my mother was very intelligent and of course she understood the subtleties, but she would always be genuinely questioning ‘If you are being so critical, are you actually trying to do things that would improve things?’ Whereas my father was much more cynical in the Czech way and he really, I think, stopped believing after 1968.”
As a result of her language and interpreting skills, Katya was contacted by the secret police
“Because I was at school and I had opportunity to do some interpreting, I did that, but of course that got me into further trouble – not really trouble, but further conflict – with the regime. The communist government always worried about the people that were on the forefront of the contact between the West and the East and of course they were the people they could either use or abuse, or different things could happen in those situations. There were not that many of those people and they tried it with everyone, I assume. So they kind of came to me. A secret policeman showed up one day. The first time it happened I was completely in shock because I didn’t even understand what was happening. I was working at a summer job in a little chicken rotisserie place off of Wenceslas Square and I got this job interpreting for a European basketball championship where some amateur American team was going to come in and I was going to be an interpreter for them, but also for everybody else. And this guy comes into this store where I was working with the chickens and he basically said ‘Look, I am from the secret police and I need to talk to you after you finish work today. So I tried to think about what would be the best thing for me to do and I thought ‘Ok, I’ll just be quiet and I’ll say that I’m willing to listen but I’m not willing to say anything right now.’ They tried to be kind of jovial, which was also very strange, and we went to this little café called The Mouse and it was right near the place where I was working, and I remember sitting there in this t-shirt and the sweat running down my arms but I didn’t want to let on, so I kept trying to smile and be polite but not say anything.
“That was the first encounter, but I had several more of them because they would come after me asking me would I work with them? Would I just tell them; they didn’t want anything really bad; they just wanted basic information, where people were and when they were coming and going and things like that. And I said ‘Look, I don’t really feel comfortable. I would prefer not to do this, this is not something I want to do.’ And then they would always start saying, ‘Well, we know that your father is in a precarious job at the State Pedagogical Publishing House and we know that your brother is trying to get into the school of architecture and we can help…or not.’ So it became very difficult.”
In 1985, Katya married an American who was teaching in Prague
“We were living in this house that was called ‘The Hotel House’ [hotelový dům] I guess, and it was basically a building that was designed and built for foreigners to live in. That of course meant that it was thoroughly bugged. It had a doorman downstairs. There were no phones in any of the apartments that had an outside line; there was only a buzzer downstairs to the door and to the doorman, and the doorman had the only phone. It wasn’t even a public pay phone; it was just a phone. There was a public pay phone in the vestibule, but you could only call locally. For example, if my in-laws were calling from the United States, they had to call the downstairs of thehotelový dům and the doorman, who spoke no English – which I always marvel at how they were watching us if these people didn’t speak a foreign language; they spoke a little German, I think – and that person would buzz you upstairs to say you had a phone call and you had to go downstairs eight floors to get the phone. Of course, ‘yes’ in Czech is ano and for short people say ano, no, no, no, and so the doorman would get on the phone and he would say, ‘Yes, Stephen Garrow, ano, no, no, no’ and the Americans thought they were saying ‘No,’ so they hung up. So by the time you got downstairs they would have hung up. It was like a comedy of errors.”
The following year, Katya and her husband left Czechoslovakia for Barcelona
“There was a lot of rather humiliating paperwork. Some of it was just paperwork and some of it was stupid paperwork, like the government required that you make a list of all your possessions that you take out and you tell them how much they were worth when you purchased them and how much they are worth now, and that included everything including your underwear and all personal items. And they sent somebody to examine that and to close your suitcases for you and to seal them, and you couldn’t leave the country with those suitcases unless they were still sealed. For example, when we were leaving, I was pregnant and some of our friends gave us baby clothes and I couldn’t take that with me because they said I had no baby so I couldn’t bring the clothing. It was all really a kind of harassment I suppose.
“We drove out of the country through southern Bohemia and into Austria. That was a little bit weird. It was difficult. Everything seemed so finite at the time. It’s very hard to even think about it now because it is so different now and it is so easy to go back and forth and there isn’t any sense that something can be so finite. There was a gate – I don’t know what it’s called in English. It’s like what they used to have at the railroad crossing; they used to be made out of poles and they would just go down – and that’s what they had the border and it would close and you drove out and you felt like I just left everything I knew behind me. There was no easy way to go back and that was very difficult. You had to apply for paperwork with the same idiots that you just got paperwork to get out from, and that was the toughest time, I think, for me.”
Katya reflects on life under communism
“I have to say that there are some things I look at today with hindsight and I think to myself that we had certain privileges that we didn’t understand. We were completely shielded from a media culture. We were taught to question almost every message that we received from the outside which, while exhausting to live like that, it can also be very rewarding and I think it breeds a greater curiosity about the world around you. It was also easier somehow to become more involved because there was a greater cause; there seemed to be a greater need. It was like, ‘Ok, if we don’t get rid of this government, nobody will.’ Or, ‘If we don’t get rid of it or if we don’t vote with our feet and leave, it will not happen.’ Whereas here, when I look at my daughter’s generation and I think how relatively few of those young people that I knew were involved politically, compared to my generation. I always question what are all the benefits? It’s a much more complex situation. It becomes a much more complex situation.”
Shortly after the Velvet Revolution, Katya became an interpreter for the Civic Forum
“The transition was not easy. It was such a time of trying to figure out how do you make a new government with people who were very educated and everything, but who were not necessarily prepared for these jobs. It was an interesting time to be around. I remember, for example, one of the people that I interpreted for, when Lithuania became its own country, separating from the Soviet Union which actually happened while we were, in Czechoslovakia, running up towards our first free elections in June of 1990, and they elected the first president and his name was Vytautas Landsbergis, and he was a musicologist and he was like Havel who was a playwright, and he was not necessarily being groomed for years to be president; he was a dissident musicologist. He came to Prague and you were talking to these people who still had one foot in a different world and one foot about to step on the world stage. It was very emotionally charged in a way. You were kind of operating on this raw energy, and I knew many of these people because they were friends of my family or friends of friends of my family, and we knew them from this underground, dissident environment where we were in the opposition, and all of the sudden the opposition becomes the ruling party. It’s a little difficult, and not everybody can make that transition.
“I will never forget that one of the smartest people who I think is in that group has never really emerged to be any great political figure in Czechoslovakia, Jan Urban, and I remember very early on thinking ‘Why didn’t he run for president?’ I was working with my friend Peter Green and we were together having a beer with Jan Urban and a couple other people, and somebody said to Urban ‘Why aren’t you running’ for something, and he said ‘I don’t do well in those jobs. I think I have a disposition to the opposition and I don’t feel like I can change.’ So it was very interesting.”
Katya talks about her career path
“My dream was always to work in the arts. I originally thought that I really wanted to work in the theatre. That I wanted to combine my ability to speak both languages and be a translator but, specifically, also a dramaturg who adapts texts for the theatre. That avenue, it became clear, was not available to me in Czechoslovakia, and when I got to the States, I really didn’t pursue it further because I needed to make a living and I became interested in finding out how I could best do that. The easiest way for me, it seemed, was to find a connection through my ability to speak another language or understand the communist world and the United States and speak two languages that gave me the greatest earning power and the most interesting jobs.”
Category: New York City, Oral History