Peter Demetz (born Petr Demetz), 1922
Peter Demetz was born in Prague in 1922. His mother, who was Jewish, was a seamstress and his father (of German ethnicity) worked in a theatre. When Peter was about five years old, he moved to Brno with his parents and lived there for ten years. While in Brno, Peter’s parents divorced and his mother remarried. Peter’s father, meanwhile, returned to Prague. With the signing of the Munich Agreement and the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Peter’s stepfather escaped to London and Peter and his mother moved back to Prague. In 1941, Peter’s mother was deported to Terezín where she died.
Because Czech universities were closed during WWII, Peter says that he took private language lessons and read to keep up with his studies. In 1944, he was sent to a labor camp in Silesia. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested and transported back to Prague where he was interrogated by the Gestapo because of his association with a resistance group. He was then sent to a camp near the German border where he stayed until the end of the War. Upon his return to Prague, Peter began studying philosophy and comparative religion at Charles University, but switched to English and German literature. He spent one semester in Zurich in 1946 and one semester in London the following year. He received his doctorate in 1948 and began lecturing at Charles University. Peter recalls joining the student march to Prague Castle to protest the Communist government in February 1948.
In 1949, Peter and his then-girlfriend Hana (whom he later married) left Czechoslovakia and crossed the border into Germany. While at a refugee camp in Munich, Peter and Hana were recruited to work at a school in Bad Aibling, a children’s refugee camp. They stayed there for one year and Peter says it was an enjoyable time, as they made frequent weekend trips to Munich and Salzburg. After being offered jobs at Radio Free Europe, the couple moved back to Munich. Peter worked as the editor of cultural features and also contributed to the exile journal Skutečnost.
Peter and Hana received visas for the United States and, in 1952, arrived in New York City. Peter says that his main reason for leaving Germany and moving to the United States was to continue his studies and start a career in academia. He took courses at Columbia University and received his doctorate in comparative literature from Yale. He joined the faculty at Yale immediately after graduating and holds the post of Sterling Professor Emeritus for Germanic language and literature. Peter has also edited and authored many publications on subjects ranging from German literature to the history of Prague. He lives in Highland Park, New Jersey, with his second wife.
Peter describes the quality of life in the First Republic
“Everything flourished; there were important people writing for the newspaper; there was an interest in literature; there was Masaryk – whom I later edited. His picture was in every classroom. And people still lived together, whether they were Jewish or German or Czech or Hungarian or whatever. They still had a model which later got lost, unfortunately.”
Peter’s studies were interrupted because of the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939
“I had the full gymnázium and I couldn’t study because the Czech universities were closed. Also, half-Jews were excluded from all studies so I couldn’t even try; there was nothing I could do. I took some private lessons in French, I think, and Russian. Otherwise I read a lot, sitting in Charles Square [Karlovo náměstí] on a bench which I revisit very often when I am back in Prague.”
Although Peter’s mother was Jewish, he was spared from having to identify himself as Jewish
“I said to myself ‘I am lucky’ but, on the other hand, I didn’t feel guilty about it and I tried to help my mother. We went to the park very often – not to Karlovo [náměstí]; it was too close and everybody knew her, but some park on Vinohrady – and she put her bag on the side where she had the star and I walked with her with nothing, so we were ‘normal’ people, as it were.”
Peter befriended a German soldier during WWII
“I had one friend, as it were, who was educated in Heidelberg by a Jewish friend himself and came to Prague with ideas about Brecht and The Threepenny Opera and the left theatre, and didn’t know with whom to speak. I was the lonely guy who could speak to him about [it]. We were singing the Dreigroschenoper [The Threepenny Opera]. But that was the exception and I must tell you that we sat in a place having our beer and talking about these things and he mostly did not wear his uniform because he had his civilian clothes in our place, hidden. When he came – he was on the Letiště Ruzyně [Ruzyně Airport] and he listened of course to all the broadcasts including the BBC – he brought the new news, then changed to civilian clothes and we went to the next hospoda [pub] where we of course talked in German; he couldn’t speak Czech.
“Three weeks after the victory, I went to a bookshop and the owner said ‘You were talking German. I’m calling the police.’ I said ‘Yes, I was talking German to an anti-fascist German soldier.’ ‘No, no. You were talking German. I have to tell the police.’ Fortunately, I had my identity card at that time which said ‘Prisoner in so-and-so [labor camp]’ and so I showed it and he said ‘Well, I must have made a mistake.’ He did make a mistake. But you could see that it was not easy, even if you tried later, to survive, because people remembered.”
In 1949, Peter left Czechoslovakia
“I emigrated in the year ’49 because I wanted to run away in ’48 and it didn’t work. And what prompted the decision were two things. First of all, I had little future in the Czech academia because I had written a dissertation on Franz Kafka in England. That was not particularly a class-conscious topic to write about for the future. B, my then girlfriend, later wife and [children’s] mother, worked for the British Czechoslovak Society in Prague – she was the secretary – and she was constantly haunted by the Czech secret police who wanted her to give all the news: who is going where, who telephoned, who didn’t telephone. So we decided it’s untenable and we are going. Our first attempt failed.
“The second time it worked. From Klatovy, there was a taxi who was supposed to take us closer to the border. We paid a lot. My girlfriend sold her furniture and it cost us 30,000 crowns, I think. The idea was the contacts were Czech Boy Scouts who knew the region. We were sitting in this taxicab driving us from Klatovy towards the mountains and the driver suddenly said we have to get out because the secret police is behind us. There is a police car chasing us. So we had to get out, whether it was true or not. We were a whole group. We were two of us and then a group of three students. So there were five. Well, he threw us out in the middle of the night, close to the border but not there. We didn’t exactly know where it was. Also, I had to give up much of my luggage because it was too heavy to carry. All I had left was one little piece of luggage and a rucksack.
“Then the whole group decided ‘We have to go this way. This is the south; this must be the border,’ and then we heard some voices and we said ‘We have to explore this’ and we sent out a patrol to find out. They were Bavarian workers in the forest, and they took us over and delivered us to the next village where were promptly arrested by the German border police and handed over to the American CIC.”
While in Germany, Peter worked for Radio Free Europe
“I was absolutely free [to report as I wished]. Everyday there were editorial meetings, with Pavel Tigrid presiding, where somebody reported what the Czech broadcasts or Czech newspapers said, what we have to answer, and what our daily portion of polemics would be, and that was the only prescriptive part – the topics. What you said about it was absolutely your affair.”
How well informed did you feel you were at Radio Free Europe about things happening in Czechoslovakia? Was there a good line of communication between Czechoslovakia and Munich?
“There was a particular service that listened to the Czech broadcast, read all the Czech newspapers, and published a summary every day or every week or so. So I think that we were very well [informed]. We didn’t know what the underground was thinking, probably, but we knew what the official line was and we answered the official line. The difficulty was that they didn’t want the people to hear us, so that had machines which made it impossible, with the exception of one line, because they themselves wanted to hear what Radio Free Europe said. So we informed our esteemed listeners in Czechoslovakia to listen on that particular line.”
Peter is a prolific writer and many of his works concern his home country
“I started out by writing these Prague books for my American students, I think. Because in the ‘80s and ‘90s there was this change, American students went to Prague very often, settled there, said ‘This is the new Paris,’ and came back with the message ‘Prague is Kafka and Havel.’ And I told myself, ‘Well, Prague is more than Kafka and Havel.’ I read Kafka and I respect Havel to no end, but Prague history is much more complicated and these students should know something about that, and that’s why I started to write these things. It’s the clash between Catholicism and the Hussites; it’s Dobrovský and the Czech Enlightenment; it’s a Czech mysticism up to Otakar Březina. So a lot of things. And people should know about it.”
Category: New York City, Oral History