42. Zdenka

HERE IS ANOTHER WIDE-WORLD PREMIERE FOR YOU! 

A documentary film parallel to the 5th edition of my printed book,

FOR THE LOVE OF PRAGUE

 Produced for Czech TV, and never shown before outside of this country.
Starring Gene & Zdenka Deitch, playing themselves in amazingly realistic
and revealing performances, in their home and studio locations!

So please remain seated at the end of this chapter. Have your popcorn ready!
Go where few have gone before, into the private world of Gene & Zdenka –
See&Hear How&Why we found ourselves in the fix we’re in.

 (Don’t be alarmed at Zdenka’s opening machine-gun attack in her personal Czech language. This movie basically tells it all in improvised English!)


“If you like, I go with you shopping on Satur-r-r-day.”

Zdenka Hrachovcová-Najmanová-Deitchová – the person who turned my life around.   In 1959 I felt myself to be in the pits. At 35 years of age, I seemed to have already peaked my career.  In May, 1958 I’d been outed as creative director of CBS-Terrytoons, the top job in American animation at that time. My only recourse was to establish my own studio, even though running a business was and still is my weakest ability.  Gene Deitch Associates, inc, nevertheless got off to a great start.  We had plenty of clients and interestineg work, but I had the constant worry of running a company – paying my staff, which made it tough for me to concentrate on the creative work that was all I knew. At home it was even gloomier, never coming to terms with my wife Marie.  She could not abide my intense absorbtion with my work.

That didn’t at all mean that I was tempted by the wildly absurd words of the quirky stranger that appeared in my Manhattan studio in mid-1959, that I was going to fall in love with a short blonde blue-eyed woman behind the Iron Curtain! I considered myself to be permantly married to Marie despite our conflicts.  Yet, this highly unlikely event actually happened and led to a complete change in my life!   It brought me to Zdenka Najmanova.

The full-length version of that part of my story is told in my book, For The Love of Prague.  It was Prague where William L. Snyder had sent me, on what he assured would be a mere 10-day stint.  I don’t think I need to point out, if you know me at all, that at this writing I have been living here so far for over 50 years, which put another way is half a bleeding century! And nearly that entire half-century so far has been spent living in happy marriage with that very Zdenka, who is now Zdenka Deitchová.*

Her first words to me, in her patented version of English, were, „If you like, I go with you shopping on Satur-r-r-rday.“  So we went shopping together that Saturday, and bought ourselves a new life.

Zdenka was just 5 feet of blonde dynamism, only a tad diminished 50 years later.  Of course the shyness has gone and the assurance has grown, if not her height. She was just 30 then, but even in her 80s, her tough resilience remains.  She only does optimism; absolutely daunt-proof! And though she can still charm any creature that comes her way, neither of us has had any reason or occasion to stray.  If 50 years of fidelity and mutual devotion don’t show an unbreakable bond, name your parameters!

When I first arrived in Prague, nervous and only marginally oriented, Zdenka was already production chief of the animation studio group set up to produce films for William L. Snyder; separate from the main studio which was devoted to work for the local socialist media – movie theaters, and the still nascent television.

Bill Snyder’s commitment to supply eight stories a year for them to animate, prompted the studio honchos to provide premises in another part of town for this new type of custom work, and to appoint diminutive Zdenka as production manager of the unit.

Her workaholic devotion and skill with people made her the obvious choice, even if Bill hadn’t almost jokingly insisted on her!  Our love affair may have been foretold to me, but not to her! She was also married, to a persistent suitor, Stanislav Najman, and had a five-year-old son, David.  I was 16 years married, with three promising sons. So in the first scene of our story the plot-line ahead was dim and unfocused.

Zdenka’s beginnings were as Zdenka Hrachovcová.* She was the daughter of František and Zdenka Hrachovec.  Her father was a carver of gravestone lettering and a railroad telegrapher.   Her mother managed the household.  She had an older brother. They lived at one time on the top floor of a small railroad station in a Prague quarter. No inside toilet.  Heating was from a coal stove. The coal was hauled up from the basement, often by tiny Zdenka.  Water came from a single outside faucet.  When it was Saturday bath time, water was heated bucket by bucket and poured into a large wooden tub.  Bathing was in a routine order; first little Zdenka, then her brother, then mother, and last, father; all in the same progressivly murky water.

Zdenka loved to sing, and didn’t refrain from doing it in public. She remembers embarrasing her mother when she was taken on a tram.  She would spontaneously burst into song, and the other passengers would give her coins.

One tragic day, Zdenka’s mother was too vigorously shaking a throw rug over the edge of their balcony and fell to her death.  Zdenka told me that her brother Fanina, shouted, “Stay here,” then rushed down the stairs.  In Zdenka’s words: “When my brother reached her, mother was quite dead!”

Tiny, seven-year-old Zdenka then became the family “mother.” She stood on a wooden apple box to wash the dishes.  She learned to cook and clean. When her household chores made her late for school, she often arrived when the other kids were already inside, and the street door was closed.  She was too small to reach the doorknob, and had to wait for a passerby, whom she would ask to open the door for her! Today she still does our housework in addition to her profession.  No stopping her even now!

By the time she was ten years old, her country, Czechoslovakia, was occupied by Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and was plunged into war.  American Bombs struck close to her house.  Many years later, when I was first able to take her by ship for a visit to America, we made our initial New World stop in Nova Scotia, Canada. We disembarked to have a drink at a dockside bar, and got into a conversation with a local gent. When he asked Zdenka where she was from, and she answered, “Czechoslovakia,” he said,  “I know that country! In World War II, I flew a bombing run over Prague!” 

Oh, what great news! It tells you just what a miracle it was, that Zdenka and I were sitting there together.  I realized that if I had actually become a wartime pilot, I may well have killed her!  That was just one of the string of miracles that brought me to Prague, where I somehow captured this remarkable woman, who perhaps survived because my pilot training program didn’t!

OK, that’s a stretch, but it conceivably could have happened.  What did happen was that somehow Zdenka survived the dangers and deprivations of war.  Good Lord, she could have been Jewish! What also did happen was that having survived the war and the Nazi occupation, her country was soon absorbed into Soviet style communism.  She was not allowed university. She was not allowed to travel outside the barbed wire borders of her homeland.

In the very short period between nazism and communism, in 1945 at the age of 17, she had gotten a job in the just forming animation movie studio named, “Bratři v triku,“ (“Trick Brothers,“ but comprised at least 50% “Sisters”) Over the years, she performed nearly every function from cel inker to animation in-betweener, to animator, becoming a production manager before my arrival in 1959, and ultimately, Studio Manager.  As I write this, 65 years after she started as a member of the founding studio, Zdenka became its last surviving employee, having never worked anywhere else in all those 65 years, and barely missing more than a few days once with the flu.  The misguided virus never had the temerity to bother her again! She did have a short matenity break when David was born in 1954. For the past 20 years she has been the chief of the studio, and for the past 50 years we have been colleagues; she produced all but one of my Prague films. (The exeption was my live action film, ZLATEH THE GOAT, available from Weston Woods).

Zdenka’s brother František, called “Fanina,” died shortly after I arrived. I never had a chance to meet him. I wasn’t introduced to her family until she obtained her divorce.  Her mother had died many years earlier, but her father embraced me, and we became very close. He was a great guy, and helpful to us.

What was it about Zdenka that so intensely fascinated me?  Well, it wasn’t just me. She has a magnetic charm, and before it became known that we were lovers, I nearly had to use sticks and stones to ward off the buzzing of other males.  In the first few years of my work here, I was able to convince Bill Snyder to arrange with the studio to import an Oxberry animation camera stand.  At that time, the Czechoslovak ”socialist” currency had no international value, but the income of US Dollars from Snyder’s projects, made it possible, and when the parts actually arrived. John Oxberry himself came to install it, a project requiring several weeks.  John was a dashing blade,  and it was all I could do to keep him from groping Zdenka. It was the delicate period, when I could not reveal to anyone our relationship, without the danger of being expelled from the country. One night as we took John to a musical performance, he began making moves on little Zdenka, murmuring. “You are the cutest thing I’ve ever seen!”

That’s not say that Zdenka looked like a movie starlet. She has a long nose and a short body.  This country surely boasts the highest concentration of gorgeous women on the planet.  And let’s face it, when I arrived here, still a good enough looking and comparatively rich holder of a genuine USA passport, a goodly number of these exotic beauties were willing to jump into my bed at the slightest hint from me.  But unlike Bill Snyder, I was not here with that in mind.  Zdenka had a magnetic beauty beyond all the others.  She could charm the spots off a Dalmation.  I simply could not take my eyes off her, or get involved with some Czech Barbie Doll.

Whereas every other Czech woman I spoke with moaned forlorn hopelessness at being trapped in the communist cage, Zdenka exuded assurance that she would somehow overcome.  She wasn’t awaiting “Prince Charming” me to come and rescue her. But it became my goal anyway.  What makes her great is that even though I actually accomplished that goal, she will now say, 50 years later, “I would have somehow managed it by myself!”

I had other more hopeless goals, like one day winning an argument with her. No chance. In fact, though we are as one on the basics, there is much we disagree on. But our disagreements/arguments do not tear us apart, but rather act as sharpening agents for our opinions. We don’t grow grudges. What a contrast from my first marriage, where all my misdemeanors were “kept on file,” to be brought out and used as ammunition against me at every later opportunity. However fierce an argument may be between Zdenka and me, , it evaporates in minutes. Any such argument finds us both modified.  Our working arguments always force my rethinking and improvements in our animation productions. She earns her credits on my Prague films.

Zdenka is an amazing woman with a vast array of family, friends, and colleagues who rely on her for advice and help. Our phone is Zdenka’s Help Hotline. She has facilitated many other love affairs and marriages!  She has often eased financial distress.  She offers hope to the ill.  She has kept me afloat.  There is simply no one like her! You can see her in  live-action in the documentary movie right here, just below the following photos!

I could write an entire book about Zdenka in hopes of getting a clearer portrait. The little anecdotes in my cold war memoir book, “For The Love of Prague,“ fill in some of  the dots.

Najmanová = „NYE-mahn-o-vah“  Hrachovcová =„HRAKH-ove-tso-vah“

Deitchová  = „DYTCH-o-vah“\\

Zdenka, Zdenka, Zdenka, & Zdenka + me, during our early days.

Zdneka informing president Václav Klaus, how he should straighten out The Czech Republic – at an American Embassy party, 2010

Zdenka reaching out to instruct a misguided manatee in Florida’s waters.

Zdenka with my mother, „Midge“ who lived to be 100 in 1999.

Believe it or not, this shack was our animation studio during the 1970s, where our Tom & Jerry and Nudnik cartoons were made, and many more!

Here is Zdenka walking out of the new studio built for us in the 1980s.

Early 1950′s, Zdenka working as an animation in-betweener.

Later in the 1950s, named by Trnka as a production manager.

When Zdenka was named as animation studio chief, in the 1990s, she did not move into the modern office-with-secretary of her predecessor, but remained upstairs in her plain production room, near to her animation staff.

Zdenka in the 1960s. Who out there is going to fault me for falling in love with her? 50 years later we both have aged, but our mutual love continues.

This was the complete staff of the Prague animation studio just three years before my first visit. You can see Zdenka there, circled in yellow. Notice that allthe women were wearing those white smocks to protect their clothes in those days of minnimal dry-cleaning facilities.

During the Communist era, exemplary workers in the State Film organization were awarded medals instead of cash bonuses or raises in salary. Zdenka got several of these crummy bronze medals over the years. Gold or Silver ones didn’t exist!

Our wedding day, November 24, 1964 in Prague’s Old Town Square.

Zdenka Holds the mimosa I flew in with the day before from Zurich.One last visit with her first boss, Jiri Trnka                                                      Photo by Jakub Amler
July 2012 – Zdenka bids farewell to her studio of 65 years…                          Photo by Jakub Amler

16 thoughts on “42. Zdenka

  1. I’ve been to prag as a tour guide (for Americans) in the early 70ies. Truly a magic atmosphere, with all the rusty scaffoldings holding up the ancient buildings. (And yes: The black market exchange rate was magic, too! ;-)

    Then I came, with my American wife, on a 1-day bus trip from Frankfurt/Main in August 1984. The small café in the Golden lane closed around 16.00 or so; some other place, where we asked for vanilla icecream, they told us (or so we understood) “mocca tastes good too” (which ever since then has become a standard quip between us).

    Never been there later, but I read a lot of books about the city and bought many photography volumes (Sitensky etc.). But above all, Prague for me is roofs: The roofs in the photos of Karel Plicka’s volume on the city (very much love gravure printing, in particular the first edition with sepia tint).

    So now I’m reading your book “For the Love of Prague” and very much enjoying it (even though, obviously, for me the non-personal facts are not as outlandish as they would be for your american readers).

    A few mouseclicks on the Internet got me to your film and we very much enjoyed that too. (Also noticed the photography of Neuschwanstein castle of “mad king Ludwig” on the wall of your apartment: That’s the village where we live: http://kinicounty.blogspot.de/.

    Have fun in Prague, and, when Christmas comes again, enjoy the Starocesce Trdlo. We had it once on a Christmas market in Cesky Krumlov (http://beltwild.blogspot.de/2006/12/fr-uns-sind-die-drfer-in-bhmen-nun.html): Out of this world! ;-)
    (After we had passed a CD-store transmitting the voice of Magdalena Kozena singing Bach arias on the street: Simply otherwordly!)

    • Great letter. Burkhardt! Have you see my newer blog, at genedeitchcredits.com ? It’s a large compendium about 55 people who played vital roles in my life, plus the “Deitch Dungeon,” full of never-seen-before videos.
      Please take a look. And if you’re interested in cartoon animation, take a look at awn.com/genedeitch. And I’m now at age 90, working up another huge database covering my 65-year career. Best wishes from Zdenka and me. Gene

  2. Ahoj…..Hi there I am looking get in contact with my first incredibly talented Producer Zdenka…I worked with her in 1984-1989…then I lost the contact and I moved to Munich -Germany…now I am living in Los Angeles and I would love to contact her again …
    Dear Gene, Maybe you remember me too from the (Bratri v triku) production …it is long time ago…My e-mail is irenaburns@yahoo.com, facebook/irena.jirkova-burns…tel 001/310/612 4868…Thank you, please, just give me e-mail contact ….

      • Irena Jirkova , I was the young trouble girl , living in Branik and in love with Vratislav Hlavaty , but nobody should know it, in that time!Worked in studio Bratri v triku (1984-1989) 1988 worked with Jaroslava Havettova on “Udel”! In 1989 in April left the country to live in Munich Germany. 2008 I moved to LA, California and still there! Was dressed as a playboy bunny inn the time Ollie Johnston was visiting the studio!

  3. I’m very flattered that you think I am a native spaker of English, but that is because you ahven’t heard my Czech accent. Marie is actually quite a widspread name in here, I’m sure you have met some women with this name during your long career in Prague. As I wrote above, I have read the
    wonderful story of your coming to Czechoslovakia and watched the film about you and Zdenka, but I really want to read the book as well. I will ask my Prague friends to get it for me before it is sold out again! I also became very interested in your animations. Thank you for your very kinds replies! Best wishes, Marie

    • Well, let me put it this way: My first wife’s name is Marie! XXX, Gene Read it all, no-holds-barred, on “Roll The Credits!” atgenedeitchcredits.com

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  4. After reading this entry in your blog and watching the film I can’t help commenting again. It seems to me that I was born into the age in which nothing lasts, everyone is driven only by their selfish needs and relationships have a fleeting nature. Yet, when I see the two of you, hear your fascinating story and feel your endless optimism and energy, I think that there is hope. Thank you for this, you are both very charming and inspirational people!

    • Zdenka and I are delighted with your responses, but we’re sorry you don’t sign your name! You write perfect English, so we’re intrigued. Where do you live? Our “endless optimism” is winding down a bit, but Zdenka and I are happy to still be rolling along, 52 years married and counting!, at 84 & 88! Read it all, no-holds-barred, on “Roll The Credits!” atgenedeitchcredits.com

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      • Sorry for such impoliteness, my name is Marie. I live in Brno and am just finishing my studies of English literature, thinking of moving to Prague where the job market is kinder I suppose. If I could meet you there at some point, I am sure it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I hope you both keep rolling around for a very long time! Marie

      • It is really kind of you to consired a meeting! I will be in Prague at the beginning of May, but I think that you both are very busy people…

      • Yes, we are busy, Marie, but we don’t want to avoid people who have an interest in our work. Are you a native English speaker? With the name Marie, do we assume you are not a Czech? Do you know my book, FOR THE LOVE OF PRAGUE? It’s in its 5th edition, and still available – at least in Prague. It’s published by Baset, and is mainly our story of how we lived through the communist era. I am an American citizen, motion picture animator, who through highly unusual circumstance was sent to Prague in 1959 to produce cartoon films for American distribution, met and married Zdenka, and 52 years later I am still here. Best wishes, GD Read it all, no-holds-barred, on “Roll The Credits!” atgenedeitchcredits.com

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  5. Lovely film and fascinating story. And yow, that shack was where you worked for the first few years!? Makes Termite Terrace look well-furnished by comparison.

    How well can you speak Czech? I noticed you say some things in the language throughout.

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