Peter Hruby was born in Prague in June, 1921. His father, Petr, owned a shoe shop in the Prague district of Karlín (which Peter says went bankrupt as shoemaker Tomáš Bat’a cornered the local footwear market), while his mother, Marie, stayed at home raising him and his younger brother Jiří. Peter graduated from high school in 1939 and planned to study at Prague’s Charles University, but with all Czech universities shut by the occupying Nazis that same year, he went to work in a factory making military equipment in the nearby town of Chotěboř. Upon liberation in 1945, he did enroll at Charles University, where he studied philosophy, psychology, literature and languages.
In 1948, Peter says he was worried by political developments in Czechoslovakia, and so he approached renowned journalist Ferdinand Peroutka about publishing a journal which, he says, was designed for both the Communist and non-Communist cultural elite. Peroutka backed the idea, but the project was never realized following the Communist takeover in February. Later that year, Peter fled Czechoslovakia, securing a visa to a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, from which he did not return.
He settled in Geneva and completed his university education there. It was at this time he founded the journal Skutečnost [Reality], which he says today is one of his proudest achievements. In 1951, Peter began work at the Czech section of Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Munich. He worked there for six years until he was transferred to RFE’s U.S. office in New York. He remained at Radio Free Europe until 1964. Peter’s next job was with the University of Maryland Overseas Division, teaching history and politics in Thule, Greenland, Izmir, Turkey and Bermuda, among other locations. Peter is the author of a number of books such as Fools and Heroes: The Changing Role of Communist Intellectuals in Czechoslovakia and Daydreams and Nightmares: Czech Communist and Ex-Communist Literature. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland.
Christmas in Prague
“I liked Christmas, Christmas dinner was on the 24th – the night before – we had always carp and once in a year a glass of wine (which I wasn’t allowed to touch until I was quite a lot older). And the gifts were distributed, I was usually disappointed because there were mostly things that they would buy for me anyway like socks and shirts and pants and things like that. And when my father discovered that, he asked me always what book I would like to get and that changed Christmas. I loved Dumas and so I was getting all his books, stories and so we finished eating and right away I started to read!”
“I was one of the few people who expected that there would be a Communist coup d’état in February. Somehow I had a good political instinct or something! So I went to see a prominent Czech publisher and writer, Ferdinand Peroutka, and I was just a student and I came to see him. His mistress Slavka Peroutkova introduced me to him, and I told Peroutka whom I liked to read – he didn’t know me, but he trusted me immediately – I told him I expected the Communists would create a putsch before the elections, and he said ‘I am afraid of that too.’ And I told him I would like to create some kind of a magazine-journal, which would be led by Jan Masaryk, who was a very popular politician and no-party man. And he said ‘Yes, I agree with you, I will give you 200,000 Czech crowns for it and try to persuade Masaryk to take over the editorial job and give you more, 200,000 [crowns.]’ So that was one of the actions – incredible, that he trusted me right away like that.
“So I started to build up a group of people who would publish the journal. It was supposed to become not only for the members of the young elite, of the cultural society that I founded at the same time with the help of my professor Jan Kozák, but it would be a journal that would represent the whole society of cultural leaders of the Czechoslovak Republic, who were not only Communist, but non-Communist too. But unfortunately when we had a meeting with Jan Masaryk in February, [Soviet Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Valerian] Zorin was faster than we – he was already in Prague in order to lead the coup d’état. And so the journal was never published.”
Leaving the Country
“First I had to persuade the man in charge of passports. And when I came in (which wasn’t allowed, I just marched in his room and he said ‘What do you want? What do you want?’), he looked up my papers and he said ‘You know, I have a problem with getting proper shoes…’ So I brought him shoes and got a passport – I never did anything like that before! My father knew more about what to do in a world that’s corrupted. So I gave him shoes, but then they introduced a new special permission by secret police…
“So again, that was the so-called kachlikarna, because it was a gray building of the Ministry of the Interior on Letná, and there were large groups of people there, but I saw that some people were coming by the side door bringing food. So, I used the side door and went straight to the top man. Again, he started to shout at me and I said ‘They invited me, they insist on me coming, it would be a scandal…’ He said ‘We will never give it to you!’ And I said, ‘What do I have to do in order to get it? It would be a scandal!’ He said ‘If you bring from the factory a confirmation by the action committee that you are progressive…’ The action committees were always three people, devoted Communists, that were leading then the whole country everywhere. So I took the night train to Chotěboř where I worked during the War and I was lucky. They opened 7:00, I went in, and there were three members of the committee; one was a friend who knew that my girlfriend was a worker and he was a relative of hers, another was a worker with whom, as a worker, I founded a chess club and theater, so he signed it too – I don’t remember the third one. So they said that I was socially progressive, which I was!
“There was a misunderstanding, they believed only Communists were socially progressive, I thought that was retrograding, that was never really social progress. So I brought it to this man again by the side door, he gave me the stamp and the next day I was in Austria going to Switzerland.”
“In 1948, in August, several months after the coup d’état I left for Geneva and started a journal there, which I couldn’t have done in Prague. And the journal became very important. It started as a student type of a magazine, but became really the leading journal for a new program, not pan-Slav, not pro-Soviet, but pro-European, Atlantic-oriented. And gradually older people joined us, even Ferdinand Peroutka and so on. And that became… for five years that was really showing the way to European unification when it wasn’t yet so clean. It was still being discussed, for example, the problem of German participation. And again, Truman and Atchison and so on realized that Germany should be allowed to rearm to create a European force. So that was… I’m quite proud of that achievement; that was quite a successful journal.”
“I started to discover by reading local papers from Ostrava, Moravská Ostrava… because they started to have a problem with miners, because the miners were paid very well, but it was very dangerous work, so many of them died. Because the Soviet Union was very much interested in all of the coal and all the steel that they could get from Czechoslovakia. So that was crucial for the Soviet Union – and uranium mines – so I discovered that there was a lot of trouble there; people were dying and trying to leave. So I concentrated on starting to write programs for Moravská Ostrava. So one really got to know quite a lot when one read carefully the communist papers.”
“I couldn’t get my American citizenship for a fortnight. And finally, the head of the [diplomatic] mission in Munich asked me to come and said ‘you know…’ You have to understand, under the McCarthy era, we were worried about intellectuals, we didn’t want to have them in America. ‘Just answer me one question,’ I said ‘Sure, I’ll answer any question.’ ‘Do you believe in God?’ I said no. He said, ‘How can I give it to you when you don’t believe in God?’ I said ‘I knew if I told you I believed in God I would get it, but I didn’t want to lie.’ You know, you get so many spies in America by asking such simple questions that communist agents can answer the way they are supposed to answer them – which later was proved to be true, you know. So he said ‘I have to think about it.’ I said ‘If you explain to me your idea of God, not just somewhere in the clouds and so on, but a vital force and life and so on, I would agree.’ He said ‘I have to think about it,’ and in two weeks I received citizenship.”