Karel Havelka

* 1950  

  • “Our workplace was placed below the third section, operating in three shifts. When I first came to the hall, everything inside me had crushed, I got sick in my stomach and I had to think about Dante. The Inferno. What I could see was steam, noise over hundred decibels, in between figures in grey T-shirts, sometimes torn-off, and in a furious tempo they were doing some moves which to me seemed absolutely crazy. On the top of that, flames were bursting around. It was unbelievable. I thought that I would not survive even just two days. The training period was nine days. I worked as a cementer and after nine days I was able to keep up with the speed. This shows that one can get used even to the gallows.”

  • “A state of mind. Really, that’s not a cliché. For me it is a state of mind. That means that one can be underground even while wearing a suit and a tie. It’s not only about long hair and beard. It is the craving for freedom. At the same time, it is about tolerance. Some, not absolute. Not to smokers, not to cigarettes, I mean to smokers still yes but not to cigarettes. It is also about firmness in opinions which lasts. To rely on someone who you knew thirty years ago.”

  • “What I hadn’t really realized, not even during the processes, was that there was the Sword of Damocles hanging above us – the risk of long-term imprisonment. It is absolutely unbelievable that one could be charged with a two and a half year sentence for performing, singing, without causing any mess or disturbances or the like. Although later, as I found out that in 1957, people were sentenced to a year in prison for dancing rock ‘n‘ roll in Mánes, it had somehow fitted in the regime's logic.“

  • “I was subjected to a day-long interrogation, from 10 a.m. until midnight; it was relatively harsh. They threatened that with 10, 15 years of imprisonment. I knew that this was where the fun ended. I told them: ‘I did not give him anything. He paid me a visit, that much is true; he was in Nová Víska, there were around one hundred people, so anyone could have given it to him. Not me. Do you think I would be so stupid to give it to him?’ I was playing angry. Then one of them came to me, allegedly the head of the operations in Western Bohemia: ‘Are you making fun of us, you bastard? Get on your knees, put your head down. What do you think we can do with you? You will be charged with espionage. You were in the US, you came back, you are working for the CIA, that means you will automatically get a military prosecutor, no public hearing, 10 to 15 years. Either that, or get out of here, you bastard.’ So the next day I went to request emigration.”

  • “The border police captain talked to me in a cold bureaucratic voice, nearly saluting, while undertaking house searches and destroying all he could: ‘You are not a citizen of this country. We ask you to immediately leave the territory of this country.‘ I had two small kids there and my wife and I told him: ‘Can’t we wait for two hours here for the next train?’ – ‘No, leave.’ – ‘You must be joking, where should I go?‘ They were discussing it for a while. Then they put us graciously to a GAZ truck. My four and a half year old son was excited about riding in a ‘gazík’. They brought us to the borderline, a pedestrian border crossing, and kicked us out there. We went a hundred meters by feet to the Austrian border crossing, to the Austrian stall. Imagine: a luggage, big backpack, a small child on the back, wife next to my side. It was not the time of refugees like today, when these things are normal. The Austrian border police opened the door and went to the doorstep. They looked at us and said: ‘Zu Fuss? Zu Fuss?‘ So, these were the first words in German I have heard.“

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Underground is a longing for freedom; not just long hair and a beard

Karel Havelka, around 1960
Karel Havelka, around 1960

Karel Havelka was born on 12 July 1950 in Planá u Mariánských Lázní in the family of a carpenter and a teacher. Since mid-1960s, he was interested in beat and rock, through which he got to know the unofficial cultural scene. He started to organize concerts and lectures and take part in other underground events. During a trip to Japan in April 1973, he decided to emigrate and asked for political asylum in the US. He spent a year in Jersey City as a blue collar worker. In April 1974, he returned to Czechoslovakia because of his fiancé Věra. During his stay in the US, he was sentenced in absentia but granted parole because of his voluntary return. In February 1976, he was arrested and charged with disturbance for organizing a concert and a lecture. In the following trial against the band The Plastic People of the Universe, he was sentenced to 15 months in jail. He served his sentence in the Plzeň-Bory prison. Following his release in the summer of 1977, he signed the Charter 77 and continued to be actively involved in the unofficial cultural scene. He was repeatedly detained and interrogated. In September 1980, under the threat of being charged with espionage, he requested emigration. In the beginning of November 1980, he left with his wife and two small children for Vienna. As an exile to Austria, he distributed and sold exile literature and organized protests in support of Czechoslovak prisoners of conscience. He made a living by selling and later producing LPs. In 1990, he returned back to Czechoslovakia where we founded the music publishing company Globus International, which he was in charge of until 2002. At present, he makes a living importing wine and music media.