In those days there was another World Wide Web!
People often asked me why in the world could I voluntarily stay in what was a communist-ruled country for thirty years. The answer has many parts: first, I fell in love with a woman who could have been trapped if I left; second, I happened upon an economically beneficial way to do the animation work I wanted without any interference or censorship. I benefited from the realization that my presence here was accepted by the powers as being useful to them, when actually it was useful to my own country. Just my visible freedom to come and go across fortified borders and buy what I wanted with the money I earned, sent a powerful message to the local people whom I didn’t need to proselytize to American freedom! Third, I befriended many amazing people, who enriched my life. One of these was Zdenek Treybal.
I very soon discovered that although the Communist Party regime was 100% totalitarian – they controlled the press, radio, television, theater, education, industry, etc. etc. – they did not at all control the minds of the Czech people. Almost no-one here actually believed their propaganda. They had eyes and could see. So on one side there were the officials running of the country, but on the other side there was a vast, magically cohesive population of individualists who found innumerable subtle ways to avoid the government, and to get much more than was officially allowed. The underground slogan I heard over and over was this:
“In this country everything is forbidden, yet everything is possible!”
One of the smoothest operators in the “cloud” territory was an older man named Zdenek Treybal. The presence of an American working here was his red meat. From animator Irena Jandová, to her husband, electronics wizard, Jiří Janda, to Zdenek Treybal, went the news that an American had appeared, needing a car. I had ordered a little Fiat 600. For Treybal, this was a flashing green light! Someone appeared here who had the means and right to order a car from the West!
Zdenek Treybal, already a graying senior, was the scion of a formerly rich family, still living in one of the few private houses left to their owners. He had been a famous playboy racing car driver in the short-lived democratic Czechoslovak First Republic. When the communists took over, Treybal found a way to escape having to work in one of the “socialist” factories or enterprises. He saw that among the few possibilities to work as an individual was to be an author or photographer. So Zdenek officially worked as a photographer, and wrote books about cars and driving; free to pursue his automotive passions. His circle of friends included his former racing car buddies, one of whom, Teodor Pisték, became an Oscar-winning movie costume-designer. (Amadeus)
Zdenek‘s current yearning, at the time of my settling into Czech residency in 1960, was the Swedish SAAB, which he knew only from reading about it. There was not a single SAAB car in Czechoslovakia. So here was Gene Deitch, Zdenek Treybal’s potential instrument! When he heard that I’d ordered a flimsy FIAT 600, he pounced. Zdenek was a master of hidden capitalism. Here was how he operated, and how he managed to get a SAAB for himself: His first step was to get me to cancel my FIAT order.
“It’s a piece of junk! All Italian cars rust during the first year!; The SAAB would be the first car in Czechoslovakia to have coil springs – independent springing on all four wheels! (Czech cars still used leaf-springing) The SAAB has a stainless steel plate covering it‘s undercarriage! It has a revolutionary 2-stroke engine with free-wheelng! No clutch needed!” On and on he went about SAAB wonders, and promising me that if I ditched the FIAT and ordered a SAAB he would do all the servicing for me at no cost. How could I resist? I ordered the first SAAB in Czechoslovakia.
The big day was when this marchmallow-shaped Swedish wonder arrived at the dingy Prague railroad freightyard, strapped atop a flatbed railway car. It was covered with thick wax as a protection against wind and weather. The keys had come to me earlier in the mail, and Treybal was quivering in excitement to see the motor. When we opened the hood, there was indeed the tiny, 3-cylinder, 2-stroke engine allright, and right atop the airfilter was a chirping Swedish bird, cozy in her nest with three eggs in it. She had unwittingly emigrated to communist Czechoslovakia! For all I know, her descendents may be living here yet!
The next step in Zdenek’s plan was to borrow my new SAAB for one day to show it to the Czech Minister of Commerce, whom he knew as a self-serving Communist apparatchik. If he could arrange for my car to be shown at the annual Brno Trade Fair, as an example for Czech engineers to study, it could lead to the government’s agreement to order four of the cars for “testing.”
Zdenek claimed a connection to SAAB’s Trolhattan factory, with whom he’d been in correspondence, and could arrange a good price. SAAB hoped for a market in this country. As his plot began to have fun overtones, I agreed to let my SAAB be displayed at the fair for one week. Treybal’s deal was done. The communist minister got one car, “for testing.” The nationalized auto works got one for actual research. The famous singing star, Karel Gott, got one, and most importantly, Zdenek Treybal got one, at a very low price. Even more amazing, he was able to set up a small SAAB dealership in 1962, a time when no private businesses were allowed. He did very well, quietly arranging sales for a select elite, and I entered Czech automobile history as the very first SAAB owner in Czechoslovakia!
The car had an almost magical panache in this country, and turned heads wherever I drove. In fact, the car had plenty of problems. Zdenek talked me into buying two more, always promising that “the next model would be perfect.” He was a master salesman and keen-eyed businessman. We said that what the country needed was Zdenek Treybal as Minister of Commerce. That never happened.
Zdenek was one of the typical Czech “riskers.” In my book, “For The Love of Prague,” I wrote about another, Vratislav Hlavaty, the bizarre illustrator, graphic designer, and daredevil balloonist who collaborated with me on several films, THE GIANTS, THE DREAM WORLD, and on my book, A VISIT FROM A TURTLE. He was constantly doing crazy things with cars and hang gliders, from which he fell and damaged his liver. He’s somehow survived, and we still see each other. Zdenek Treybal had also been lucky. Before I came here, when he was still racing, he once zoomed off the road, rolled over three times, but emergerd from his smashed car still smoking his cigarette!
But his luck ran out. There was one thing we didn’t know about Zdenek Treybal, that he never mentioned to anyone. He was a diabetic, and had to go to a clinic every week for an insulin injection. In this country and at that time, diabetics had no personal injectors they could carry with them. So risker Zdenek Treybal whizzed around a corner near us, on his way to the clinic for his injection, and crashed into a tram. Unconscious, no one realized he was diabetic. It would not have otherwise been a fatal accident. He needlessly died. He missed the capitalist revolution. He missed becoming a minister. He missed the rest of his life. We missed an exciting friend.
You can find out more about Zdenek Treybal from Google and in my book, “For The Love of Prague.”
And now, take a look at the following “album” of historic photos!