For four decades, the countries trapped behind the Iron Curtain attracted only a few travellers from the West. Our guest in this week’s edition of One on One is the American writer, scholar and photographer Ruth Ellen Gruber, whose reporting career brought her to the communist block in the 1970s. She spent time in Belgrade and Warsaw, among other places, and after the fall of communism, she stayed in Europe and became a leading scholar on eastern European Jewish heritage – and the region’s country music.
“These interests come together in a funny way. One of the processes, one of the things I have been quite interested in and explored quite a bit in the Jewish sphere is the way that non-Jewish people in Europe, in a place where very few – if any – Jews live today become interested in appropriating or viewing Jewish culture and traditions for their own purposes, either to form their own identities, or out of interest. And then I also became interested in how Europeans are fascinated by the American Wild West and all its trappings, and sort of feel at home in that mythology, and often use it to enrich their own culture. And part of this is country music.”
One of your books is entitled “Virtually Jewish”. What does that term mean?
“It stems from the concept that there is a Jewish space in Europe. This is a concept that was brought out by the scholar Diana Pinto in the 1990s that there is a Jewish space in Europe that will remain there and be filled even if no Jews live there at all. So it’s almost like the image of the Jew that continues to haunt post-Holocaust, post-communist Europe. I was interested in how this Jewish space is filled, and since there are very few Jews here, the Jewish space is often filled by non-Jews and their activities – non-Jewish klezmer bands, Jewish culture festivals run by and for non-Jews, and Jewish museums that are set up by non-Jews, all of this type of thing.”
You have seen most heritage sites around the former Soviet bloc. Under communism, most of them were left to dilapidate. Are there any differences in the various countries of the region when it comes to what happened to all those cemeteries and synagogues after 1990?
“Yes, very much so, it varies from country to country, from place to place. The country I guess that has been the most dramatically positive, is the Czech Republic, where a strategy dealing with Jewish heritage sites – synagogues, cemeteries, etc. – was developed quite early on in the 1990s. And one by one, synagogues in the outlying provinces have been restored, they are sometimes converted to Jewish museums, they are promoted for tourism, and there has been a partnership between the Jewish community and local authorities, sometimes national authorities and international organizations. In some countries, almost nothing has been done, and in other countries, it’s a mixed bag. So there is a dramatically different mindset in many places regarding Jewish heritage sites. People don’t ask so much, why restore them any more; they ask what to do with them, how to restore them. And in many places now, these sites are finally considered part and parcel of local heritage and national heritage. They are European; they are not a separate Jewish thing the way they once were considered.”
Apart from the Jewish heritage sites you have seen in this part of the world, you are also an expert on the region’s country music, you have been to many country music festivals. How does the local country music stand compared to the original – that is, to the American style of country music?
“A lot of the country music in Europe is imitative of the American. There are lot of fans and lot of experts in Europe who will only listen to American country music; they reject any kind of local production. But what’s interesting to me is the way that local societies, particularly in the Czech Republic and Germany have developed their own country music. Here you make the distinction between Czech country which is sung in Czech for a Czech audience. This was imposed under communism when to perform publicly, you had to perform in Czech, and the early bands, who took English names, like the Greenhorns and Rangers in the 1960s, had to change their names even to Czech ones. So there was a real Czech genre created of Czech country and especially bluegrass has become very popular. Yes, there is the American aspect to it but there is also the type of music that is very local. And that I find fascinating.”
My parents had an album by one of the most famous Czech country musicians, Michal Tučný, which he recorded with American singer Rattlesnake Annie. Why would an American singer come to communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s?
“I think Rattlesnake Annie came here on an invitation, and she and Michal Tučný just simply clicked. They performed together, they got along very well and she began a career over here. She was recognized, she toured not just Czechoslovakia as it was but she also played in East Germany and West Germany; she played with a lot European country music acts. She wasn’t the first but she was one of several American artists who made their careers in Europe. The most famous, or infamous, was Dean Reed, who sang a sort of rockabilly, rock, country songs and also appeared in the East German wild west films. But Rattlesnake Annie was unusual because she did this in the communist block. Year before last, which would have been the 60th birthday of Michal Tučný, the country Fontána Festival was held to honour that date, and Rattlesnake Annie came back and sang the duets that she used to sing with Michal Tučný, she sang them with contemporary Czech artists like Petr Kocman and others. It was a very moving moment and the crowd just went wild.”
You helped translate several songs by the Czech bluegrass band Druhá tráva into English. The band regularly tours the US – how are they received over there?
“They have a following in the United States. They are known and since
1994 until the year before last, they were touring every summer for as
as two months at a time, 40 gigs all over the country. They have been
profiled in the media, on the National Public Radio, and other places. It
was interesting – I was able to catch their concert near Los Angeles in
2007. I really wanted to hear how they would perform in front of an
English-speaking American audience. The main difference was that they sang
more songs in English and fewer songs in Czech, but they did sing songs in
Czech. And the audience just ate it up. It was really a rapt audience.
What was also very interesting was that at the end of the show, the owner
of the coffee house did not let them get off stage because he wanted to
know how come there is a bluegrass band and bluegrass in the Czech
Republic. How did they get interested in it, what is this all about?
Because even that coffee house owner, who had hired them and booked them,
and loved them and there were people in the audience who had seen them
and over again whenever they were in the area, even he couldn’t figure
out. It was such a strange thing for him. So they had to stand on stage
answer these questions, and it was really a scene, really interesting,
really sort of wacky.”