Alumnus Thomas Hasler ’62 was recently the subject of a profile in Urbanite, a Baltimore magazine. Hasler is the son of Karel Hašler, an iconic Czech balladeer whose songs gave hope and life to his countrymen during World War II. He learned small pieces of information about his father throughout his life until he made it a mission to learn more – and to write and produce a film about him. An article about Hasler’s documentary about his father previously appeared on the Daily Update.
The Urbanite article delves into Hasler’s history (his own and in relation to his father) and looks at the projects he’s undertaken in his father’s memory.
Hasler received his B.A. in political science from Hobart College and his M.A. in journalism from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He has worked as a journalist in Baltimore, Md., and Beirut; as an electronic publishing entrepreneur, and as the head of a public relations committee for a Czech advocacy group.
The complete article about Hasler follows.
Baltimore Observed: Encounter
A Light in Dark Times
Richard O’Mara • January 2009
Imagine, if you can, a frigid December night in 1941 at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. German soldiers haul an inmate outside. They strip him naked. They tie his hands. They douse him with cold water and leave him to die.
This is how Tom Hasler imagines his father’s death. The Gestapo’s minions at Mauthausen entertained themselves by making such “ice statues” out of human beings. The practice was a new form of torture introduced in the fall of 1941, and while accounts of Karel Hasler’s death vary, most say he froze to death. Soon after, Hasler’s wife received from the Germans notice of his death-of pneumonia. A month before he died, his son, Tom, had been born in Prague.
Tom Hasler now lives in Baltimore and has for the past forty years. For most of his life, he knew little about his father. He knew Karel Hasler had been an actor, composer, and balladeer. He had photographs, even inherited some possessions: handwritten music, cuff links, a cigarette case. Yet he remained ignorant of what the man stood for.
Tom Hasler’s first attempt to learn about his father, in 1990, was disappointing. He was 49 when he sat down in a modest Manhattan movie house to see a 1927 silent film in which Karel Hasler played the role of an alcoholic lawyer approaching his end. Tom looked at the face of the man on the screen, his gestures, and saw no physical resemblance. But his late wife, Bonnie, did. “Bonnie said it was eerie,” Tom recalls.
The film offered Tom “no emotional connection,” he says, but that would come, and with life-changing force: Karel Hasler would reach out to his son through the medium that, more than any of his other talents, bound him tightly to the soul of the Czech people, enabling him to raise the spirits of his nation during the Nazi years.
Tom and his mother fled Czechoslovakia’s stifling Communist regime in 1949, when he was 7-she with the words “Enemy of the State” stamped on her passport. The pair made it to Australia on a freighter and settled in Cowra, a town in New South Wales, where Lotte (Charlotte) Jurda found work teaching high school French, Latin, and physical education. Tom rejected everything Czech and remained, as a young boy, indifferent to his father’s legacy. “I ignored his memory as well as any appreciation of my homeland because I never expected to return,” Tom later wrote in the Czech-Slovak journal Slovo. He was ashamed of his country, so easily occupied by the Nazis, supine before the Communists. “I refused to speak Czech anymore,” he says. His resolve was so intense that he lost the language entirely.
Tom and his mother reached America in 1958. He went to Hobart College in New York and, later, the University of Michigan’s journalism school. He was in Lebanon in 1968, an intern with the English language Daily Star, when two events changed his life. He met and married Bonnie Sether, a graduate student at the American University in Beirut. Then, as the Prague Spring bloomed in Czechoslovakia, full of hope for democracy, only to be crushed by Soviet tanks, his curiosity was briefly aroused by what was happening in his native land.
In 1969, Tom joined Baltimore’s Evening Sun. In 1972, he visited Prague, still a bleak Communist state. This reinforced his long-held opinion of the place: “I found nothing there for me.” In 1975, he became an American citizen. His enthusiasm for the reporter’s life endured until 1984, after which he did research for a book on Germany and worked on a pre-Internet project combing newspapers and journals for policy information for business leaders. He later contracted with an international management consulting company.
Tom’s reconciliation with his past didn’t come until 1993, when, on another trip to Prague, he watched his father perform in Balladeer, a 1932 film that told the story of his life. In it, Karel Hasler sang “Ceska Pisnicka” (“Our Czech Song”), one of his originals, which became the country’s unofficial national anthem when the Nazis banned the official one. It is probably the most beloved popular song ever to come out of Czechoslovakia. “The song went straight to my heart and soul,” Tom wrote in Slovo, “even though I didn’t understand a word of it!” It is said to similarly affect Czechs everywhere.
Bonnie Hasler died of cancer in 1995, followed six years later by Lotte Jurda. By this time, Tom had embraced his legacy. He began to gather and absorb as much information as possible about his father, the man, the performer, the agent of resistance to the Nazi tyranny who, it was said, helped people flee the country.
Tom had once suggested that his mother write her memoirs, an idea she apparently rejected but secretly undertook. He later discovered and surreptitiously read her work. He learned more fully of his father’s immense public stature in Czechoslovakia, and his human side as well: Karel Hasler was a womanizer, a carouser, a sly teller of stories and jokes, a writer and performer of songs full of mockery of the Nazi occupiers and, before that, of the minions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A passionate, political man, he fell in love with a woman half his age-a German at that, during a time when marriage between Czechs and Germans was frowned upon by both sides. “This is a movie,” Tom said to himself. “This is a love story.”
He wrote a film treatment of the story and has since talked to five directors about making a movie about his father’s life before the war that would illuminate the dynamic of “the Czech, German, Jewish environment in those years in Prague,” he says. In the meantime, he continues searching where he can, in Gestapo files when possible, for new information about his father while in Nazi hands. He has finished a documentary film of his father’s life and fate, with the collaboration of the Czech-Jewish author Arnost Lustic, who survived the death camps, and Lustic’s son, Joseph, a filmmaker. Tom expects to have his mother’s memoir published by the Franz Kafka Society in Prague.
One of Tom’s goals is to stimulate interest in an aspect of the Holocaust that he believes has not received sufficient attention: the murders during the war of millions of non-Jews-gypsies, Poles, Slavs, union leaders, homosexuals, Communists, the aged, the physically and mentally disabled, and others who deviated from Nazi ideas of who should live and who should die. Karel Hasler was one of these victims, and in a way, so was his son.
Today, Tom Hasler is a man invested with purpose. He is stocky, cheerful, and white-haired, with a rugged face, notably large features, and big hands. He speaks with a slight, squishy lisp. He projects the worn image of the old-fashioned cultural bohemian. Like most Czechs, he loves good beer and good talk, on any subject, especially about the father he discovered so late in life.