Suzanna Halsey was born in Karlovy Vary in western Bohemia in 1951. Her father, Alois Pakeš, was a grandson of the mayor of Písek. He studied law, but Suzanna says that his bourgeois background prevented him from practicing after the Communist coup in 1948 and, instead, he worked in an office job. Her mother Ruth was originally from Polish Silesia and worked as an office manager. Today Suzanna’s mother lives in Germany. Suzanna says that she was lucky to have been raised in Karlovy Vary as it was a rather cosmopolitan town, thanks to its world-famous spas and its international film festival. She moved to Prague in 1969 to study Latin and philosophy at Charles University. Upon graduating, Suzanna worked for a publishing house editing philosophy textbooks. It was here that Suzanna witnessed the public humiliation of one of her colleagues who attended the funeral of the philosopher Jan Patočka which, she says, led to her decision to emigrate. In 1977, Suzanna managed to get permission to travel to West Germany for three days. She extended her stay abroad for one month and traveled on to France and England, where she met her American husband. Suzanna returned to Czechoslovakia and the following year, after all the arrangements were made, moved to New York City.
Because of her knowledge of Russian, Suzanna quickly found a job filing newspaper articles at the Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics. She enrolled in SCPS filmmaking class at New York University (NYU) while working as a secretary for an art director at Walt Disney NY. In 1980, she left her job to travel and during that time worked as a hostess for the Polish team at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Suzanna returned to New York City and did freelance film and video editing; she later worked for OMNI magazine. In April 1990, Suzanna organized a multimedia event at Manhattan’s Symphony Space called Prague Spring 1990, celebrating the Velvet Revolution and Czechoslovakia’s newfound freedom. Later, she organized several other events focused on Czech culture and literature. Today, Suzanna teaches Czech language courses privately and at NYU. She is also a freelance translator, interpreter and Czech diction coach for theater and opera. In 1995, she was invited to become the administrator of the Friends of Czech Greenways, an organization in New York that promotes cultural and environmental preservation along the Prague-Vienna Greenways. Suzanna is on the board of the New York chapter of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) and organizes events and programs. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.
“I would say that Karlovy Vary was a great town to live in, because it was not too Czech. It was kind of cosmopolitan, because every two years we had an international film festival and, because it was a spa [town], we had international guests. Many Russians, but also some foreigners. And why it was also wonderful was because it was a small town, international, and yet, you walked just ten minutes out and you were in the woods. So I’m actually very blessed that I was growing up there.”
“The college life – as any college life – was fun. Although, imagine this. We didn’t have computers; we didn’t have iPhones; we didn’t have televisions in our rooms – we had maybe a little radio in there. So the life for students was actually very interesting. And Prague was very gray and kind of Kafkaesque. If you go to Prague nowadays it’s Disneyland, but at that time it was grayish and broken. But I’m kind of nostalgically thinking about it because we were going… The wine was very cheap – so we spent our time in pubs, in the wine bars. We, even as students, could afford it, and we were discussing things. We were discussing philosophy and books and the meaning of life, and we were going to movies. If a book was published that made it through the censors, [we asked each other] ‘Did you read that?’ It was exciting to get a book! People were standing in line for books. So that part was fun.”
“I was frustrated because the whole setup of life in Czechoslovakia was, in a way, humiliating to people’s minds, because you have to repeat or you have to participate or you opened the newspaper and there were these idiotic statements about harvest and about how we are fighting [Patrice] Lumumba and all that stuff. Not Lumumba – we were friends with Lumumba – but ‘We’re fighting the imperialists’ and stuff like that. And then you were waiting in line for one banana. If you heard ‘Oh there was a banana,’ it was exciting; or if they run out of underwear. Materialistically, it was very frustrating.
“But I think that as far as the mind goes, we were much richer for that because people were gathering around thoughts and ideas rather than around things. So we were not discussing ‘Oh, do you have a camera’ or ‘Do you have this or that?’ It was like ‘Do you have the book? Did you read it? Did you see the film? What did you think?’”
But were you aware that your access to reading matter and media was restricted?
“Of course. People were smuggling magazines from the West and books from the West. But one thing, paradoxically, when I’m looking back at it, is yeah, there was no freedom; there was censorship; the books were censored. There was ridiculous censoring of sentences because there was a word that could mean something to the Communists. But, as far as books go, in a way, the censorship also censored garbage. So what you have now on the market in Czechoslovakia, in the bookstores, all this garbage – the badly translated horror stories and love stories and romances and wellness books – that didn’t exist. They were actually publishing good quality books with illustrations. Book design was actually an art. Now they are manufacturing paperbacks. At that time, there was an art to bookmaking. So yes, you couldn’t get the latest novel by some disputable author, but it was smuggled in one way or another. If you really wanted it, you got it somehow.”
“I interviewed to become a hostess for the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid and I was accepted, and because I spoke Polish and the Polish hostess didn’t show up, I ended up being a hostess for the whole team. And that was very interesting because the Czechoslovak team brought their own hostess, who was Slovak, and it was interesting because they were very, very protective of their contacts. They were not really venturing out to talk to Americans – and especially not to émigrés. At that time, I was already studying film, so one day I get a phone call to my dorm that Miloš Forman called me and that I can call him back at reverse charges. So as a film student, I was excited of course. So I called him back and he asked me if I would help him to get a hotel room because he wants to come to a hockey game in Lake Placid.
“So I thought, ‘Ok I’ll do it.’ I thought he would offer me a job on one of his films, but that didn’t happen. So I did that and then I thought, ‘Wow, Miloš Forman in Lake Placid. I’ll take him to the Czech team. So I talked to the Czech hostess. They didn’t want to. Because he was persona non grata, so they would not accept for him to just come by. So I took him to the Polish team and the Polish team were all excited: ‘Oh yeah, we love you and [One Flew] Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and vodka here and vodka there. Totally different approach. And I know the Poles were always much better treating their émigrés than the Czechs. Even during communism, they had this Polonia – which is the Polish abroad – and they never had problems communicating with them.”
But rejecting Miloš Forman. That must have been quite striking.
“Yeah. It was embarrassing. It was just pure embarrassment for the country.”
Friends of Czech Greenways
“Our idea in Czech Republic was to help the local economy and bring people out of Prague, because everybody goes to Prague. But there is so much to see elsewhere. And the locals needed to see foreigners because some of the greenway goes near the Austrian border so it was a no man’s land, so they didn’t see many tourists. We are trying to bring tourists there so the penzion [B&B] owners, the restaurants, the hotels, they learn better service. Better nutritious foods, better standards of service, et cetera, and they learn English. We had all kinds of programs and projects in place and cooperating with other people. Now, we are actually sort of picking different projects. Right now, I’m focusing on promoting and helping the new herb garden that we sponsored at the Valtice Chateau in Moravia. We just sponsored two students from Mendel University who work in the garden to go to London to study for a week how it’s done in the Chelsea Physic Garden. They came back with lots of ideas and enthusiasm. I run the Facebook [page], website and network and all that stuff. Moravian Wine Trails, that’s another one. Also a very successful program.”