Antonin Kratochvil (born Antonín Kratochvíl), 1947
Antonin Kratochvil was born in Lovosice in northern Bohemia in 1947. His father, Jaroslav, owned a photography studio there, while his mother, Bedřiška, stayed home to raise Antonin and his two older sisters. Following the Communist coup in 1948, Antonin’s father’s business was nationalized and his equipment seized. The family was sent to a cooperative in Vinoř where Antonin’s mother worked in the fields and his father in a factory. In 1953, the family moved to the Karlín neighborhood of Prague. Antonin attended school, which he says consisted of ‘indoctrination’ and ‘lies,’ while his father provided books and literature for Antonin to learn from a different perspective. Antonin often assisted his father with his work as a photographer. He was also interested in sports and tramping. After completing ninth grade, Antonin knew he would not be able to continue to higher education because of his bourgeois background, and he trained as a builder.
In 1967, Antonin secured a passport by signing up for a tour to Egypt with a youth organization. Although he did not go on that trip, he used his passport to travel to Yugoslavia. After an unsuccessful first attempt, Antonin crossed the border to Austria in the fall. He was in Traiskirchen refugee camp for a short time and then went to Sweden where he was assigned to work in a boat yard. He soon started his own business dealing in the black market and spent six months in jail in Sweden before returning to Traiskirchen. He next made his way to France and then to Amsterdam. He received a scholarship to attend art school and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art photography. In 1972, Antonin moved to the United States. He settled in California where he worked for the L.A. Times and became the assistant art director for the L.A. Times magazine. He also opened a studio where he shot album covers and publicity photos for musicians. Antonin moved to New York where he focused on photojournalism and earned accolades for his photographs and stories on events such as the 1979 revolution in Iran and the Soviet war in Afghanistan. He also covered the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia for Mother Jones. Antonin has won many awards for his work and has published five books, including Broken Dream: 20 Years of War in Eastern Europe, which documents life under communism. Antonin recently moved back to Prague with his wife.
Antonin remembers killing rats with other children on the cooperative
“They were very big. I was little; that’s why they were even bigger. At night they were very hungry and they used to bite us. There were many more families living in that estate and they had sentries to chase these things away. My dad, before he went to work at the factory, made these steel rods for the kids, and we used to go and kill the rats. Chop them right in the middle. And then we took off the tail and, when the dads came back from work, we showed them the tails, how many we killed. Like cats, they show you the kill, and we were like cats. And our parents were so proud of us when we killed them, because these things were hungry and they used to go through the walls, because the walls were really wet. It was an interesting education. I was a killer of rats as a little kid.”
Antonin was not impressed by the nature of his schooling in Czechoslovakia
“It was an indoctrination.”
In what way?
“A bunch of lies, which thank God my dad contradicted and gave me some literature so I could find out the truth. So I think the commies were right not letting me proceed with my education because I definitely was a liability, because there was my dad and his version of the truth and then there was this new version of the truth, which was basically a lie, historic lies and blah blah blah. I knew the truth. And I had problems for it, too.”
Can you mention any times that you did get in trouble and what you said that was not appreciated?
“I told the class that I knew how Lenin died. It was no good. I said that he died of syphilis, which was true, and nobody knew it here, and it was a big, big problem. The secret police came and investigated where I heard it from. They wanted to pin it on my dad, and I told them I heard it in a pub, guys talking about it. They said ‘What guys?’ I said ‘Well, I don’t know them.’ They asked ‘What time of day’ and ‘When did they go there?’ and I had to lie. And the secret police came with me to the pub and they positioned themselves, and then I was supposed to point these people out. It was a big operation, man; it was no joke. Even for such bulls*** like this, for the truth. So I’m there like an idiot [saying] ‘Hmm, they’re not here.’ They tried twice and then they gave up.”
In 1967, Antonin decided to leave the country via the Yugoslav border with Austria
“The first time I didn’t succeed; I was captured, but I had a perfect cover. I found a student ID card, so I changed my name on it, and I was a student of biology on that card, at Charles University. I went through the mountains and I had this literature about the Alps flora, so when I was caught by the soldiers I said ‘Hey man, I’m just collecting materials for my studies and you don’t mark your borders very well.’ I was already in Austria, but I couldn’t make it down the mountains. So they took me down. But they made a mistake; they took me all over, about ten kilometers, and I knew where all the sentries were before they took me down. They knew I was bulls***ing. They said ‘If you ever show your f***ing face here again we’re going to bust you up and send a report to Prague,’ because, when they did that, you were arrested in Prague. But they didn’t do that in this instance because I had an ID card and they were not sure. Three months later, my friend wanted to leave and I said ‘I know how,’ so he paid me to take him across. And we succeeded, because I knew all the sentries.”
Antonin describes his first trip back to Czechoslovakia
“For me, the first time I came back was sort of nostalgic, to remember old places, places of my youth. It was more about that, and the Charles Bridge, walking on the Charles Bridge. It was an important journey. I understood how these people who haven’t been here for years and found that they could come in briefly, how could they feel. It was like coming out of prison, and you could walk and there was no guard behind you. It was the same kind of sense I had. It was like somebody unleashed you. You could left, you could go right, without fear. And with my American passport, I felt a little bit more secure.”
Although Antonin returned to Prague a few years ago, he says he sometimes doesn’t feel like he belongs
“We don’t have the same attitude, the same thoughts. We are different. I left when I was 19; when I came back I was more than 60. I lived most of my life in the West. I was educated in the West. I’m different, and I know I’m different and, since I came here, I even know why I’m different. I don’t have that totalitarian thought and this intolerance towards new things. But I don’t really dwell on it. I don’t let it come to me because I’m enjoying my stay here, because there are a lot of good things as well.”
Category: New York City, Oral History