Karel Paukert was born in Skuteč, in what is today the center of the Czech Republic, in 1935. His father worked in the local bank, Kampelička, up until the Communist takeover. Following the coup, he was sent to work in the town’s granite mines and then the Semtex factory in Semtín. Karel’s mother, Vlasta, stayed at home to raise Karel and his siblings, but also later got a job as an office clerk at the local shoe factory, Botana. Karel was sent to gymnázium for two years in the nearby town of Chrudím, but was then sent back to the jednotná škola [vocational school] in Skuteč when this gymnázium closed, due to reform of the school system. He started playing oboe when he was 16 years old. In 1951, Karel was accepted at the Prague Conservatory, where he studied organ with Jan Krajs for the next five years. During this time in Prague he also played in the orchestra at the Jiří Wolker Theater (today’s Divadlo Komedie.) After one year at HAMU (the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague) composing music for students of the school’s puppetry section, Karel was conscripted to the Czechoslovak Army in 1957. Because of his oboe playing, he was sent to Písek to become part of the army’s musical division.
Karel says it is through his good references from the army that he was allowed to travel to Iceland in 1961, to become head oboist with the National Symphony Orchestra there. It was during a visit to Norway the following year that Karel says he decided not to return. He set out for Belgium, where he wanted to train with the organist Gabriel Verschraegen, but he was detained in Denmark for traveling without a visa and had to spend months in Copenhagen waiting for an affidavit from the organist. Karel spent two years in Ghent before arriving in America in 1964. He studied for a doctorate in St Louis, Missouri, before accepting a post as professor of organ music at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. In 1972, Karel became an American citizen. He moved to Cleveland in 1974, where he began to work for the city’s Museum of Art. He retired in 2004, but continues to work as choirmaster and organist at St Paul’s Church in Cleveland Heights. He has three children.
“Actually any time things were discussed up to a decent hour I could sit by, be quiet and listen, because [my] parents insisted that I know, as the oldest one in the family, about the situation, the danger and so on. So when they asked us then to go outside and watch, when my father wanted to listen to Radio Free Europe or, you know, to Moscow or London, whatever, if somebody would be, you know, just kind of snooping around, so I was supposed to knock on the window, because the villa was so large and anybody could from any side… So this was one thing that we had to do and then eventually, towards the end of the War, he would say ‘Take this and drop it off there and there.’ And it was obviously for partisans, guerrillas, so you know, he said ‘It’s extremely dangerous and you can do it, as a little boy.’ I had, you know, on one side a milk jar and just said I was going to pick up some milk, which I was going to do, and coincidentally I dropped this at the designated place.”
“We had too much floor space for that, and so I had to be always registered – even when I lived in Prague I was registered. And then grandparents had to move in. So that we had both grandfathers, both grandmothers, and you know, times were not the greatest and there was not enough coal, not enough money to heat any other rooms, and so we all congregated in a small kitchen. So everything had to happen in this kitchen. And, it was usually so that my father, when he was not in the pub, that means 14 days into the month when he was penniless, because the first week he would pay for everybody and so on, so he would be sitting, feet in the oven, v troubě, to keep warm, and reading one of his books. The ladies would have to jump around him to cook and to do this. Grandparents would be around and we would be doing homework on one table. It was just like you hear about Russian families or gypsies, how they lived, and so on. And so that is how we lived. And then you would go and sleep in a rather cold room, and I just wanted to test myself and so I decided to sleep in a hallway, and so my wish was that one day, you know, I would put a glass of water, and then one day it would freeze. It didn’t happen completely that it would freeze, but it had a faint kind of a cover of ice. So I was very happy that I achieved that.”
“I got moved to more musical things, but I still had to go on rozcvička [training maneuvers] and I had to do the basic things and so on, and horrendous things happened. There was a kid who took his life and then another kid who lost fingers because as you had to very quickly, you know, board the tank and so on, somebody just dropped the lid and I was just really terrified. And the worst time was when they would wake you up at night and take you somewhere and drop you off in the woods, and I was supposed to, you know, I had flags and I was supposed to regulate tanks. And once I was so horribly tired and lonesome in the woods, it was raining and I just decided I will take a nap. And I woke up, this horrendous noise, and the tank – I don’t know how far it was from me – not too far, really, but I just couldn’t believe it. You know, there was a guardian angel there.”
“Several of us were graduates of Prague Conservatory, so we had a chamber group, and we decided that we would simply look for opportunities out of the barracks and whatever they wanted us to do, and go and play for these workers and talk to them about music. And they just loved it, so we were like, you know, exactly what the Communist Party wanted us to be, and so on. And so, when then later on I was leaving the service, they said ‘Well, what could we do for you?’ And I said, ‘Well, could you write me a recommendation, please? And preferably on stationery of the party.’ And so with this, this was the only thing that saved me and I was able to go out to Iceland, because, I still remember at Pragokoncert, there was a wonderful young woman who said ‘Ale pane Paukerte, vy se vrátíte’ – you will come back. I said, well – I couldn’t look into her eyes – I said ‘Of course.’”
“It was fortunately only one night in that little jail. And I had the most excruciating toothache of my life. I’ve never had toothache like that. And in the morning I slept, maybe, just a little bit, just drowsy – and all of a sudden I hear the Trout Quintet of Schubert. And there was a little window like that. And I knocked on the door, and the chief of the station came and said ‘I heard that you are a musician, I thought you will enjoy this.’ And he said ‘Would you like to have breakfast, do you have money?’ I said yes. ‘Well, go to town, and I expect you in one hour here. You will go to Copenhagen.’ So, I said ‘Oh my god, this is really fancy, because they trust me.’ And, there were two plain-clothed policemen with me, but they were basically guarding a guy who looked like a… I don’t know, I mean, he might have murdered somebody, what do I know? I just have no idea. So, they watched him all the time, on the boat or on the train. And to me they said ‘Do you have money? So go and buy yourself a beer. You have very good beer in Denmark.’ So I could get a beer, and towards the end of the day we came to, I’ve forgotten the name of the street but it was a commissioner for foreign affairs, something like through the police, and I think his name was Dahlhoff or something like that – kind of a very sharp guy, kind of looked at you and pierced you. He said ‘Well, so here is your ticket to Prague. And you want to go to Belgium.’ So, we will help you to get a Belgian visa. He gave me the address, ‘You will go to the Belgian Embassy, you will call them up.’ I said ‘What happens if I don’t get it?’ ‘Well, you have the ticket to Prague. In the meantime get yourself a place to stay, not on the street, you have money. And we will just hope for the best for you.’”