Jiří Pehe, born 1955
Jiří Pehe was born in 1955 in Rokycany, western Bohemia, where his father was stationed as a soldier in the Czechoslovak Army. Shortly thereafter, the Pehe family moved to Příbram, where Jiří started school. The family moved yet again when Jiří’s father was made commander of a military base in Krhanice, and later, Milovice. After the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, Jiří’s father lost his command position and the family moved to Moravia where Jiří attended high school. Jiří spent his high school summer vacations in Prague, where he enjoyed reading literature published during the Prague Spring that his uncle – also named Jiří Pehe – had collected and saved. With help from the same uncle (the editor-in-chief of a workplace safety periodical), Jiří began studying law at Charles University; he also took philosophy classes at night. He participated in poetry readings and published several of his poems. After graduating in 1978, Jiří spent one year in the army and then studied for a doctorate in international labor law.
In September 1981, Jiří and his wife went on vacation to Yugoslavia. After several unsuccessful attempts to cross the border, they were hidden in the trunk of a car and smuggled into Italy. After a two-month stay in a refugee camp near Rome, Jiří arrived with his wife in New York City. For two years he worked as a night security guard and receptionist in a hotel; he improved his English language skills by reading American literature on the job. Jiří attended Columbia University’s School of International Affairs and graduated with a master’s degree in 1985. He found employment at Freedom House, a non-profit organization promoting civil liberties and human rights, and later became the director of East European studies there. In 1988, Jiří was recruited to work as a Czechoslovak analyst for Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Munich. His first day on the job was August 21, 1988 – the twentieth anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion. He remained in this post at RFE throughout the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in November 1989. Later, he was promoted to head of Central European research and analysis.
Radio Free Europe moved its headquarters to Prague in 1994 and Jiří moved back to the Czech Republic. He says that his frequent appearances in the Czech media led to a job offer from Václav Havel’s government; from 1997 to 1999, Jiří was President Havel’s chief political advisor. Jiří has written numerous essays and papers that have appeared in world newspapers and academic publications and has also published several books. Today, Jiří is the director of New York University in Prague, where he lives with his second wife.
Jiří talks about how he was personally affected by the Prague Spring
“What was of course more important, because I was only 13, was that as a result of 1968 and this whole period called the Prague Spring, which actually, I wouldn’t put just in 1968, but even in the years before as it was sort of building up, a lot of interesting magazines and books were published. There was a plethora of interesting magazines, Tvář, Host do domu, Plameny and so on, Sešity. My uncle subscribed to all of them and he had them bound. The legacy of 1968 for me was interesting in a sense because I would travel, as of the age of 15, I would travel every summer to Prague. I would stay with him during the summer or part of the summer and, although we would occasionally go to the swimming pool in Podolí and so on, I mostly just read. Especially when he was at work, I would stay in his apartment and I would read all of these magazines with a few years delay. And that was 1968 for me, but at the age of 16, 17, 18.”
Jiří explains how he obtained samizdat, or self-published dissident literature, during his university years
“I lived in the dormitories in Prague and, after a certain period when you established whom you could trust, you knew that there were samizdat books and so on, which sort of passed hands and people were lending them to each other. In some cases, if you wanted to keep it for a longer period of time, you would have to agree to retype the whole thing which I did a few times, but it was really not easy for me because I am a bad typist. So that was one way. Then another way was I was getting a lot of books through my uncle who had access. His friends were in the field of culture and journalism. A lot of friends who were in 1968 banned or thrown out, and he would give them the possibility to publish under pen names in his magazine to allow them to make some money, which was quite common in a lot of magazines at that time. So there was this underground trade with these samizdat publications, so if my uncle had something, I don’t know, a book by Bohumil Hrabal for example, in samizdat, he would have it for two days, he would read it during one night, and then I would read it the next night, and then he would have to return it. So that was the way it was done.”
After graduating from law school, Jiří spent one year in the army
“I was in Týn nad Vltavou, a small town close to the border with Germany in South Bohemia, and I was originally – because all students who studied at law school were trained to become commanders of tank units, which I did become. I didn’t like it so I successfully simulated, I went to a hospital and pretended to be not taking it very well and, actually, after about one month of torturing me in the military hospital in České Budějovice, they gave me some kind of classification which took me from the tanks and put me in charge of the fuel depot. So I spent about ten months or nine months as the manager of the fuel depot. And that was certainly something I, in a way, enjoyed almost, because at the time I could just read there. So I would be waiting for a tank or a truck to come get gas, and in the meantime, I could just sit there in the office and read.
“One funny thing was that in these military institutions such as libraries, there were quite often books which everywhere else were already taken out, but I guess these libraries were managed in such a way by people who didn’t really know who Škvorecký was or whatever. You could find books which, in the military library or in the library in the hospital where I was, I could read books which you could not find anywhere else in Prague and that was quite amazing to me. So I actually remember my one year in the army as very educational. I spent a lot of time just reading, and I managed to survive that.”
On vacation in Yugoslavia, Jiří and his wife persuaded two students to help them cross the border
“So they actually put us in the trunk of their car and we drove to the border in Koper, the same border crossing we started at a week before. They put us in the trunk of their car, put our luggage and their luggage on the backseat. We had this idea that if the border guards stopped them and wanted to go into the car, they would say ‘We don’t have a key for the trunk and we have all of our stuff on the backseat, so should we take everything out?’ which was sort of naïve, because that would be almost incitement for the border guards to go in the trunk. But that’s how they decided to do this, so we actually managed to get into this trunk, but two adults in this trunk was a bit too much. The border crossing, they chose a bad time. It was in the afternoon; it took like 45 minutes and we were losing our… no blood circulation, no breathing. My wife whispered to me, but she was on the verge of screaming that she cannot take it anymore and that she needs to get out. So we spent about 45 minutes there. Another unpleasant thing was that the fumes, as the car was stopping and going, were getting in, so we were partly poisoned too.
“And then finally we got across the border and we heard the car going, and then the car stopped. They went from the main road to a corn field. It was this dusty road in a cornfield. They opened the trunk and we just fell out. We couldn’t stand; we had no blood circulation. I remember, my first sight of the west was lying in dust on this dusty road.”
While in a refugee camp in Italy, Jiří decided where to go next
“We actually first applied for Canada, but after about two days of hard thinking, I persuaded my wife that I don’t want to go to Canada. It seemed to me, quite frankly, the program they were offering seemed to me to be too socialist. Six months of paid language classes, then they would place you somewhere, and I thought I don’t want to go through anything that has to do with the government again and government sort of being in charge of my life, so we actually changed it to the United States.”
Jiří relates his experiences of learning the English language
“What is funny is that my first job ended up at the Algonquin because – although the job was found for me by the International Rescue Committee, I had to go for an interview – and when I got there I was interviewed by the manager of the hotel, Mr. Ansbach, who was an avid reader and man of literature. He said ‘Looking at your CV, you are overqualified for this job and, at the same time, we have to worry about your English, so what are you doing for your English?’ And I said ‘Well, the past few weeks I’ve been reading John Updike and any word I don’t know I jot down and I memorize it,’ and he said ‘Oh, John Updike; you are really courageous. His English is pretty difficult. Did you learn anything? Can you try any words on me?’ He was playing sort of a game with me. I said ‘What about turbid?’ and he said ‘Turbid? What’s turbid?’ I said ‘Turbid is like muddy water. It’s a very literary term for muddy water.’ He was very impressed and said ‘Ok, we’ll give you a chance,’ and actually, he was coming almost every evening – because I worked from 6 p.m. until 3 a.m. – so after midnight, I was reading basically. Obviously, I liked these jobs where I can read a lot. So I was reading, and he would come and he would always look over my shoulder and say ‘What are you reading?’ and we would discuss the books. So actually literature and English played a role in my first job.
“There was a slight problem because I was learning English from all the books I read, which is the kind of English you cannot very often use in regular contact, and spoken English I was learning from the guys from Puerto Rico and occasionally Mr. Ansbach. So I think that I really started learning English properly, spoken English, when I landed at Columbia.”
In 1997, Jiří became chief political advisor to President Václav Havel
“I have to say that it was a very gratifying experience because he certainly was not the kind of boss who would micromanage anything. He was intelligent, funny, a figure of mythical proportions at the same time. Certainly we never had any conflicts. It was a fortunate collusion of very similar views on things. During those two years it was very harmonic and, for me, very inspiring, because you don’t work very often in your life with someone whom you consider to be, in a certain area of human activity, a genius of sorts – which is certainly what I thought about Havel.”
Now director of NYU in Prague, Jiří has noticed changes in Czech students over the years
“The Czech students, when I encountered them for the first time [in 1995], were quite different from the students I deal with today. It was still the old system. Students were brought up in the educational system where they had to memorize, when they were not asked to be active. They didn’t know foreign languages. So my first experience was when I arrived in the classroom and all the students were sitting in the back rows; they were afraid to come forward, they were afraid to discuss anything. I told them ‘Look, I am teaching a subject where there is no Czech literature. Can I give you literature in English?’ No, they didn’t speak any languages. And I have to say that 2011, [it is] the same class and totally different students. Totally Westernized students who travel freely; students who if you ask them what they did last weekend, ‘Oh, I had friends from Germany, Austria [visiting]. By the way, next semester I am going to study in Great Britain so I won’t be around.’ A different kind of people. And that’s my, despite my very critical view of the overall state of democracy here, this transformation of the young generation is the most hopeful sign I can see here.”
Category: New York City, Oral History