Jiří Chmel

* 1954

  • “Then a magazine Pater Noster started to be published in Vienna. I need to mention it because it was an important event. It was a kind of literary quarterly which was done by Zbyněk Benýšek, there was Jiří Němec in the editorial staff, whole range – even Jirous and Václav Havel even though they lived in Bohemia. It was a cultural review that ranged from philosophy to culture… It was quite interesting. It leads to the creation of Nachtasyl. When the first number of Pater Noster came out, Benýšek rented a space it was called Artists, Die Künstler. And later it became Nachtasyl which we could not know. It was in 1984 or 1985. The number was presented in the club. There, it occurred to us that we could invent something similar. That similar place could exist. That is where my idea of wanting to open something like this started. So, sometime around Christmas 1985 I found out – because Karel Havelka had a small shop with records about 20 metres from it, it was next to the future Nachtasyl and the former Die Künstler where Pater Noster was presented. When we found out that the society did not exist anymore, it is closed, I found out who owned the house I went there and I said that I remember there used to be this. They were surprised that I even know it. Even though they were willing to rent the cellars. Later the whole ground floor was added to it, but that was after 1990. This was in 1986. I rented it and we paid it for one year in advance. I had no idea what was in store for me. I rented it with the big idea that in three months we would open, there would be concerts, exhibitions.” – “What was the address of Nachtasyl?” – “Stumpergasse 53, 6th district. Immediately afterwards I found out that one important thing is missing there. I did not want to do it on a society basis, I wanted to open it for the Austria public as well. I did not want to do it as a purely Czech thing. I though of Czechs a lot when I rented it but it should be open for other audience as well. Then I found out I do not have a bar licence. They perhaps had a bad experience with it in that house because it took a year and half to arrange all the permissions. Only on the first of September 1987 – it already had it for a year and half, I was able to open it. It was opened with a concert by Vlasta Třešňák and all got together at that time – because we really knew each other and there were plenty of people, almost everyone was there. During its beginning I often invited exiled singers – Karel Kryl, Jarda Hutka, Třešňák, Vladimír Fajta, Dáša Vokatá, Sváťa Karásek, Charlie Soukup.”

  • “The interest from Vienna side was extraordinary. All the front Austrian newspapers wrote about us long articled and about who meets there. Austrian and German documentaries were filmed about it. They understood that interesting people went there, even from their side. Peter Handke who did not live in Austria at that time because of [Kurt] Waldheim. I will describe one scene that is wort it. After many years they finally gave him something in Burgtheater and all those prima donnas and those of that ilk had to go to the afterparty in Nachtasyl. You cannot make that up, into the terrible hole. Because his daughter Hamina Handke, my dear friend, was a DJ there. By the way, she was a DJ there even when Václav Havel arrived and run from Klestil right into the Nachtasyl.”

  • “A trial occurred, it was I thing on 20 October 1978, after the file was closed. Huge manoeuvres happened in all those communities, Řepčice, many people were locked up, nevertheless many would come to the trial, the public is excluded because overcrowding of the courtroom was on the line. It was occupied by members of the State Security, so that our friends would not get there, each of us was only allowed to have two people present. My lawyer was Josef Danisz at that time, which is an unbelievable story on its own. At the first trial I even got a public guarantee by ROH Geophysics whose boss was Charter signatory Komaško. That is so absurd a man cannot make it up. And this is by no means everything. The trial started and two criminals came to the court who were to testify that I put on Kryl in a pub. That was the main part of the criminal charge.” – “That you put on Kryl in a pub?” – “It was about this. They did not want to lock me up for Charter but because I outraged others this way. The criminals came to the court and said they have never seen me in their lives. So, it fell apart for them right during the trial. They even could not do the confrontations. So, they put it on the other part of the charge [mass signing of Charter in Korozluky]. In this matter they interrogated Klír, Houda and Holotová. These three said that it happened in my house the way it did. But then they withdrew their statement. And other statements – Skalický, Čuňas – they simply lied that nothing like that happened. They started to rely on that. My lawyer ended his advocacy with this case. So, it started to fell apart for them which is almost impossible because the judge Matěcha served them. It fell apart for them, they interrogated witnesses, the witnesses withdrew the statements they made at the State Security. And the conclusion is that they believed the statements given at StB and not to what they said at the court. All got sentences without probation. Including me, it was clear. One got even more than me: Ouda, singer, got two years for false testimony in my case, Josef Klír 18 months, Holotová who was only eighteen years old, Čuňas brough her there, got fourteen months without probation. Those criminals who were supposed to testify that I put on Kryl got both around two years. The lawyer Danisz who told Šabata about it got later one year without probation because he told Šabata what a pig my judge is. And I got 18 months.”

  • “It is an intense memory [about signing Charter 77] because later I was jailed because of that. About 20 to 30 people met in my house in Korozluky right in February 1977, including Skalický, Čuňas and others and signed Charter. It was about 15 people at our place and I am sure Čuňas would know the exact number. That happened in Korozluky in February 1977. I shall use Magor’s parable: it was the minimum I could do. First, out of gratefulness that someone was willing to stand up for the underground. That was extremely important. Even though the text was – well… It was guaranteed by the vast spectrum of people who signed it. If only reform communists signed it, I would perhaps not sign it. But because there was a whole range of other people who I already knew by that time, it was guaranteed that this was the minimum a man had to do in that moment.”

  • “I got pretty lucky after that, I must say, it was amazing - they must have thought they’d punish me that way - that I spent three months surrounded just by gypsies. But that was the nicest part of my whole stay in custody! They didn’t whine, they were all guilty, that was clear beyond doubt, that they weren’t innocent like all those whites. They even sang songs, it was fun; I learnt their language, the one they spoke, thought unfortunately I’ve forgotten after those thirty years - but I could speak it really well back then. They were simpletons, true, but they were much more pleasant than the white inmates. Their punishment was positive in that it was much easier for me. I learnt their songs, I didn’t have any big conflicts with them - they behave differently in prison than outside - they compete, work, you’d be amazed. So I got a good understanding of the gypsy mentality, at its best. I’m a person who’s very close to what they are. I also organised a number of concerts in Nachtasyl, so I really am very close to them. Of course, it was a bit different back then than now, perhaps, but that’s another matter, we won’t talk about that. But this punishment - I pretended that it really was punishment - was the nicest thing that could have happened to me there.”

  • “Back then when I was struggling to get a blue book [official confirmation that the holder is not suitable for military service - trans.], in a moment of desperation, I signed up for ten years in the mines just so I wouldn’t have to do military service - but that’s a very long story for some other time. But at that time, when I went back there, so I worked in the mines, but only until the next draft, when I got a blue book, after which I immediately got myself out of it, out of that ten-year commitment. I’d only done that to avoid the danger of being sent to military service, because I’d received a summons, which I hadn’t actually seen, but at that point I had myself put into the lunatic asylum in Bohnice - well, the way it was back then, in the early seventies, when we all fought to avoid going to the army. Some people managed it with more courage - they had themselves locked up - say, my friend Aleš Březina was one such man; but a whole load of us obtained those blue books somehow in the end, through various tricks almost or actual lunacy. I staged an attempted suicide, and I spent one dismal week in Bohnice, then I quickly signed ten years in the mines and left Prague, that was in the year 74, and when the next draft came, I got a blue book, so I had it pretty easy, because I know a whole lot of my friends from back then who spent several months [in the psychiatric ward - trans.] and were sent to the army anyway. So I was pretty lucky in that matter. It went smoothly, I never needed a psychiatrist either before or after, but my blue book contained five lovely diagnoses, and my problem was solved. [Q: What kind of suicide did you stage?] An attempt to cut my wrists, overseen by two friends, who watched over me, fainting, the poor blokes, and there I was, hacking away at myself like a real loony - I was some 150 metres away from the Petřín Hospital, just to be sure - so they took me to the lunatic asylum, and things worked out like I said there. The nice thing was that the head doctor of [Ward] Seven, which was where the young people were kept who’d come in mainly for such reasons, then at the very first interview with me - because I’d never been to a psychiatrist before - he pulled out the penal codex and read mi the whole paragraph about avoiding compulsory military service, and asked me what I thought about it. And that’s really how it began, that talk with the head doctor Fojtík. Well, and then it depended on what I’d say or not say, and he’d decide whether I’d go to the army or not. Well, so I guess I managed to form my answer in a convincing enough way, or I was so lucky that I found some sympathy with him, I don’t know, I really never worried about it later - so I stayed in Bohnice instead of going to the army, and it worked out fine, from that point of view.”

  • “We met up there in February 77, or perhaps mid-January - Čuňas [Porky, a nickname for František Stárek - trans.], Skalák, and a number of others - some fifteen people signed Charter 77 in my place, and that’s where the story of my prison time starts. I’d already been to a few interrogations before - they’d taken my exit permit in 77, or perhaps in 76, so the state didn’t want me to have any travel documents, I just had the exit permit, which I used to visit the “friendly” countries - so I made a lot of trips to Poland and Hungary to listen to jazz; and the last time I visited Poland, the group of us - Abbé, Kocour, Karásek, and Skalák - went to Czestochowa to see the Czestochowa festivals. It interested us somehow. They took Karásek straight out of the train, Abbé as well, maybe, and they let the rest of us go, but just two weeks after coming back home I received a letter: Come to so and so with this piece of paper and with your exit permit. And so after that I didn’t have any travel documents, so I was stuck in Czechoslovakia and later just in Bory.”

  • Full recordings
  • 1

    Praha, 27.01.2015

    duration: 02:32:41
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
  • 2

    Vídeň, 23.02.2018

    duration: 01:44:19
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
  • 3

    Praha, 21.09.2021

    duration: 01:30:55
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
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I would very much wish for Europe to stay social, and not asocial

Jiří Chmel - 1970s
Jiří Chmel - 1970s
photo: archiv pamětníka

Jiří Chmel was born on 24 May 1954 in Most. He spent his whole childhood and youth in the nearby village of Korozluky. To avoid military service, he pretended to attempt suicide; he was put in the mental asylum in Bohnice and then worked as a mechanic in the surface mines around Most. In February 1977, he and fifteen of his friends from Korozluky signed Charter 77, for which he was sentenced to eighteen months of prison. He served his sentence in Pilsen-Bory. In April 1982 he and his family emigrated to Vienna during Operation “Asanace” (Clean-out). He found a job as a tool maker, and four months later he was awarded Austrian citizenship. He also attended cultural events in the Benedictine monastery in Röhr, Bavaria, which were organised by Abbot Anastáz Opasek together with the lay cultural association Opus. On 1 September 1987 he opened the club Nachtasyl, a meeting place for Czech and Austrian culture, where a number of Czech artists living in emigration performed and displayed their work. In November 1989 Radio Free Europe broadcast live from Nachtasyl, and after the Velvet Revolution the establishment was the first place in Vienna to be visited by the newly elected Czechoslovak president Václav Havel. In 2012 Jiří Chmel received the Gratias Agit award from Karel Schwarzenberg for his work in spreading the good name of the Czech Republic abroad.