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Exiled Czechoslovak Pop Singer And RFE Host Remembers Prague Spring

Czech Republic -- Yvonne Prenosilova, TV show, Prague, 2014
Czech Republic -- Yvonne Prenosilova, TV show, Prague, 2014

Former Radio Free Europe broadcaster Yvonne Prenosilova had no choice but to give up a budding music career when she emigrated, but she would never turn her back on music, or her country.

When the brief period of political liberalization known as the Prague Spring swept communist Czechoslovakia in 1968, 21-year-old pop singer Yvonne Prenosilova was at the zenith of her stardom. Her rock and blues stylings, which were often Czech versions of popular American hits, were beloved by the youth of a country restless for change. She had to leave it all behind, however, when the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. A few years after emigrating, she began working as a broadcaster for Radio Free Europe in Munich. She produced and hosted a music program for listeners in Czechoslovakia, a job that allowed her to stay connected to the music she loved and the country she’d had to flee.

RFE/RL’s Jefim Fistein sat down with Ms. Prenosilova ahead of the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia to talk about her memories of those times. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFE/RL Pressroom: As a popular singer, you were one of the most well-known, young personalities during the Prague Spring. What were your expectations? Did you believe in “Socialism With A Human Face,” as the communist reformers had dubbed their movement?

Yvonne Prenosilova: I grew up in a family of communism’s victims. My father fought under the British flag in a Czech division during World War II in Palestine. He was considered a ‘Westerner’ for this, and during the purges of the 1950s he was arrested in the night. My mother didn’t know for a long time where he was taken. At school they smeared me as the daughter of a criminal. Like everyone else, I felt a bit of easing in the air during the Prague Spring. My parents thought communism would never go away, but if we have to have it, at least let it have a human face. I wasn’t like some others who really expected a lot to come of the reforms.

RFE/RL Pressroom: You were one of the first signatories of the 1968 reformist manifesto ‘The Two Thousand Words.’ Were you not worried about the repercussions of your activism and that the Prague Spring might eventually be surpressed?

Prenosilova: I was 21 years old when this was published. There were 30 signatories and I was among them. It seemed so innocent to me because of the easing atmosphere. The text seemed so absolutely harmless, but then something happened that nobody expected at all, since the atmosphere had been getting better—a telephone terror began. My phone started ringing 24 hours a day with people identifying themselves as ‘workers’ calling to threaten me, telling me they would kill me and beat me to death.

I was afraid of every person I met in the street. I went to rehearsals and gave performances, but I was so afraid someone would jump out in front of me on the street and beat me over the head with a hammer. My father told me ‘girl, you need to get out of here.’ I didn’t stick around long after the occupation. I left on August 27.

Prenosilova performs a Czech version of These Boots Are Made For Walkin', originally recorded by Nancy Sinatra in 1966.

RFE/RL Pressroom: It must have been a very difficult decision to leave. You were such a famous person in Czechoslovakia at that time and you must have known how it would affect your career to leave.

Prenosilova: There was an enormous amount of fear behind my decision. My father was afraid someone would really follow through on the threats made over the phone. And you do not have your career on your mind at 21. I loved singing, it was a hobby for me, and all the fame as well. But when you are so afraid, at a certain point you just want to save your life.

RFE/RL Pressroom: After working as an airline stewardess for a brief time thanks to your fluent English and German, you joined RFE in Munich doing a music program. How did that start?

Prenosilova: I started working for RFE at the beginning of the 1970s, but I had often come at their invitation while still working for the airline. They had a program called ‘Panorama’ focusing on young people, and I would give interviews about my trips abroad and impressions from my travels. Then I met Karel Kryl, who asked me if I’d like to do a country music program, and I accepted.

RFE/RL Pressroom: Let’s skip forward to 1989 and the fall of communism in Europe, including Czechoslovakia. What did you feel at that moment?

Prenosilova: We were all impatient. After the crumbling of the wall in Germany, everywhere regimes were falling apart. Only in Czechoslovakia nothing happened. Then, all of a sudden, it happened, the students took to the streets.

I came to Prague on the 4th or 5th of December. I was saying to myself ‘what are you doing here? All this may not last!’ It had only been a few days since the demonstrations began on November 17. I couldn’t believe it. I saw all my old friends I thought I would never see again at Lucerna music hall for a performance. When it was my turn to sing I had butterflies in my stomach as I hadn’t sung in 20 years. I wasn’t able to utter a word, let alone sing, but I got a standing ovation. The feeling was so unbelievable. So unbelievable and unrepeatable.