Thomas Hasler (born Tomáš Jurda), 1941
Thomas Hasler was born in Prague in 1941. His mother, Charlotte Jurdová, was a linguist with a doctorate in philology from Charles University, and his father, Karel Hašler, was a very popular Czech songwriter, actor, director, and playwright who, before his son’s birth, was arrested by the Gestapo because of the patriotic nature of his songs. Karel Hašler was killed at Mauthausen concentration camp one month after Tom was born.
Tom says he does not have many memories of Czechoslovakia, as he left the country when he was only seven years old. His mother was able to secure exit visas in 1949 when the department she worked for at the Dutch embassy came under scrutiny after her supervisor was named as a spy. Tom and his mother moved to Australia, where, he says, he did not make an effort to retain his Czech heritage. In 1958, Tom and his mother were sponsored by an acquaintance to come to America.
They arrived in Santa Barbara, California, but shortly thereafter moved to Connecticut. Tom began college at age 16, due to the differences in the American and Australian education systems. He studied political science at Hobart College (in New York) and received his master’s degree in journalism from University of Michigan. Tom interned atThe Daily Star, the English-language newspaper in Beirut, in 1968, where he remembers hearing about the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. He also met and married his wife, Bonnie (a New Yorker) while in Beirut. Upon returning to the United States, Tom accepted a job offer from the Baltimore Evening Sun. He became an American citizen in 1975, but says he recently also got his Czech citizenship back.
While growing up, Tom knew little about his father. However, more recently he says he has made an effort to discover as much as possible. In 2007, Tom was the co-producer and subject of a documentary titled The Immortal Balladeer of Prague [Písničkář, který nezemřel] which chronicles his search for his father’s work and legacy. He says he is fascinated by the ‘political side’ of his father’s music, which, he adds, led ultimately to his father’s death. He also discovered his mother’s memoirs and diaries which has given him insight into his father’s personal character. Tom has visited Prague several times and says that he no longer feels like a tourist there. He currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Tom and his mother left Czechoslovakia in 1949
“At the time, she [his mother] was working as a press attaché at the Dutch embassy. This is under the communist regime. And the communists had a spy in the Dutch embassy, and they identified my mother’s boss as a spy. So she was under pressure. And she told me, already, under the communists, she had all kinds of pressure – things were being stolen. They didn’t particularly appreciate middle-class, bourgeois people. So there was pressure, but this embassy situation increased the pressure, and so she negotiated with the secret police to be able to leave. The standard of leaving was you get one suitcase; she was able to take a couple of crates. And the Dutch government helped, because she was working for the Dutch government. They arranged for a ship, and at that time there was very little shipping, so [we took] a freighter from Holland to Australia, six weeks. And I have some vague memories of that. I’ve got sort of a King Neptune certificate for crossing the equator.”
In Australia, Tom did not embrace his Czech heritage
“Initially, when I came to Australia – I think partially under my mother’s influence; she literally was disgusted with Europe, with the Nazis and the communists, and I, reflecting that, my attitude was ‘I want to learn English, I want to assimilate and to hell with the background.’ Yes, my father was a famous guy, so what? And so in Australia, I had virtually no connection with anything Czech.”
Tom received a job offer at a newspaper in Baltimore in 1969
“Baltimore, at that time, was really the pits. This was post-‘68 riots, but, I was going to the paper of H.L. Mencken, and that swayed me. And I felt I needed some metropolitan newspaper experience, because I was working for a small newspaper in Beirut, and that’s how I ended up here. After moving here, we said, ‘Oh we’ll stay here a couple years.’ But then, part of my assignment was to write about, back in the early ‘70s, [William] Donald Schaefer was mayor, and they made efforts to revive the city, and I was writing about that and I got into it. I got interested in urban affairs. Also, I liked city living. That’s one thing rubbing off on me from Prague was liking living in the city. And my wife was from Westchester County, New York, so she’s rebelling against suburbia. So basically, living in the city suited us, walking to work. And then in ’75, we moved here.”
Tom talks about his father’s work
“Radan Dolejš organized another concert at Lucerna where leading contemporary Czech musicians played my father’s music. And to me that was a revelation. Compared to in ’72 when I found the records which made the whole sound very schmaltzy, who cares – now we had contemporary musicians giving it a real contemporary interpretation. I said, ‘Wow. This is something.’ Suddenly energized me into the music. Plus, I learnt that he composed jazz music, and dance music. I mean, he was no fuddy-duddy. And, the leading Czech rock group, called Olympic, play one of his songs. So one of his songs was adapted to rock music.
“And this reconnecting process is multifaceted. From seeing my father, a stony figure in the movie which I had no connection [to] – and my wife said she saw an eerie resemblance, they way she put it. I didn’t see it at all – to hearing Česká Písnička [one of his father’s best-known songs] for the first time and not understanding one word and being hit by it emotionally, to starting to find documents, to mama’s memoirs, to reconnecting to the music through these concerts in Prague, to the documentary, and going through the process of that.”
Tom hopes that his father’s story can be seen in the context of something larger
“And Arnošt [Lustig, the author who featured in The Immortal Balladeer with Tom], the interesting thing is, he saw my father as a symbol of the non-Jewish victims. Which, to me, elevated that. And he appears in the documentary, and he adds a sort of philosophical level, a humanistic level to it. Which is above and beyond my father, and that’s the part that so fascinates me. So one of the things I’m really interested in now is to use my father’s story, not for itself, but in conjunction with other people – not only Czechs – other people who are musicians, artists, writers, who defy oppression. And oppression doesn’t have to be Nazis or Communists; it can be anywhere.”
Category: Oral History