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In this column, we explore the wonders of Europe - artistic masterpieces and jewels of cultural heritage. These are the treasures which fill us with a sense of Europe's complex past - how beliefs and identities have intertwined to create the continent and the nations whose borders are often so hard to define. In the fourth instalment, Ziemowit Jozwik introduces Krtek, the cartoon mole who burrowed his way into living rooms all across Europe.

mole
Image: mikiwikipikidikipedia (CC-SA)
A mole emerging from the ground, ready to say "Ahoj" to the world.

Let's come back for a while to the freezing period of the Cold War. Even if the Second World War ended a few years ago, Europe still remains divided into two parts and hardly anybody feels safer, although warfare has ended. The sky over the Old Continent is filled with clouds heralding snow storms, shaken by chaotic whirlwinds, and no one is able to predict whether the gloomy polar night will end.

And then suddenly, in far away Moscow, comes the death of the bloody tsar of the East – Joseph Stalin. The man who captured the Eastern part of Europe and fenced it off from the West with the Iron Curtain. Although that accident did not have any particularly significant consequences for Europeans from the East, not to mention the West, but something has changed. With his death, something changed. The Soviet apparatchiks condemned the cult of personality and some communist mass murders, but they still wanted to find a successor who would be able to keep all the Soviet Republics and the "brother communist nations" together. They all knew that the soviet fraternity and love of communism was upheld more by the sense of colonial stewards sent from the Kremlin than by genuine enthusiasm in the Eastern European nations.

The Soviets failed to find a successor who would genuinely bring together Eastern Europe - but in the end, a great leader emerged without their help. A leader who united both Eastern and Western Europe. But a leader who was definitely never a communist...

Joseph_Stalin
Image: Margaret Bourke-White (CC-SA)
Stalin and Krteček both had moustaches - but that was the only similarity between them.

Le Roi Est Mort, Vive Le Roi!

The newborn leader was beyond any doubt a different kind of eminence. He did not welcome the world with some bossy statement full of Marxist-Leninist gobbledygook but with a simple "Ahoj". Similarly to his predecessor, he did have a moustache (but of a totally different style) and a red nose. However, this was rather a matter of a nice colour that contrasted beautifully with his image than an effect of "political correctness". Finally, the name – it was no longer the terribly threatening Stalin (in Slavic languages his name was associated with the word "steel") but much more peaceful and friendly. Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you to Krtek or Krteček the Mole.

Ahoj!

Krteček said his famous "ahoj" for the first time in 1956. He is the main character of the eponymous Czech cartoon created by Zdeněk Miler. Krteček's father was born in Kladno, 25km northwest of Prague, and as a young boy miraculously escaped being sent to a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. Thanks to that, he started painting. As he said in one interview, in a primary school, one teacher ordered the class to copy one of the Mikoláš Aleš pictures illustrating the Říp mountain. Nothing special, you could say. But the youthful Zdeněk almost perfectly copied the painting by an artist who is considered to be one of the greatest in the whole Czech history. That early success led him to become an artist. He was soon painting for 16 hours a day and entered the College of Arts and Crafts in Prague (Vysoká škola uměleckoprůmyslová v Praze).

And then one day, when he was probably wondering why people were buying so few paintings, a friend asked him to draw and direct a cartoon about how flax is produced. The man even had a prepared scenario in which a shirt was the main character. But Mr. Miler could not accept such unromantic idea. After all, can you imagine a child enjoying a cartoon about a shirt? So he started thinking. Weeks passed, but nothing occurred to him. "Any existing animal was already a hero of Disney's cartoon" he said. But then he decided to go for a walk in the forest, hoping that there he would find something - maybe some animal would attack him? Well, real art demands sacrifices. Fortunately, nothing attacked Mr. Miler, but as he was sadly returning home, he suddenly stumbled over a molehill.

As Mr. Miler was sadly returning home, he suddenly stumbled over a molehill.

That is how Krteček started his career. The first episode entitled "How the mole got his pants" (Jak krtek ke kalhotkám přišel) not only showed Czechoslovakian children how flax is made but began the marvellous adventures of Krteček in the next 50 episodes. The film was awarded a prize in the Venice Film Festival and successfully crossed European borders. Soon, children from Hungary, Poland, Russia, Belarus, Germany (both East and West), Austria, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, France, Spain not to mention the more distant China, Japan and India got to know the cheerful "Ahoj" of smiling Krteček. That placid Mole did not have any problems crossing the Iron Curtain and apparently he was one of the first to do so.

But what is the secret of Krteček's success? Each episode tells another story, hand-painted from the first picture to the last by Zdeněk Miler. Of course, when his cartoons entered West Germany there was a possibility of using a computer to draw, but the German producer and Mr. Miler both decided not to take away from the handmade, sincere and unique beauty of Krteček. Each episode is embellished with a specially composed, small musical masterpiece. But Disney's cartoons also have that. So, what is the difference?

During the gloomy communist period, Krteček invited us to a carefree adventure.

Krteček is not a relative of Tom & Jerry. He's not aggressive, he does not hurt anyone. He is a kind of ideal friend, maybe a bit naïve or sentimental, but his adventures are not about beating another animals (even "as a joke") but helping them. He does not hide in his molehill but at the beginning of each episode leaves his "cave", says "Ahoj" to the whole world (be it on the Eastern or the Western side of the Iron Curtain) and gives a positive, "sympaticky" signal. The plot is not offensive, it runs along slowly and peacefully in a sunny, idyllic forest. During the gloomy communist period, full of sorrows and sadness, Krteček drove away all apparatchiks, boring double-faced politicians with horn-rimmed spectacles from the TV and invited us to a carefree adventure, in which the main characters are sensitive, helpful and pleasant.

fall_of_the_wall
Image: Lear 21 (CC-SA)
Probably Krteček did not tear down the Berlin Wall - but who knows what happened underground?

"O jo," Krteček would say. Probably he will never be placed among Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle or Alcide de Gasperi as a father of the European integration but I would consider his merits to be at some level comparable to those honourable gentlemen. Probably he did not tear down the Berlin Wall (though who knows what happened underground?), he was not a member of Solidarność, and he didn't begin the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. But still this charming animal, even without a word (apart from some o jo, o oj, aa-oo) was the only "TV celebrity" to promote some so-called "European values" on communist TV. He never forgot his friends, he offered help at any time, he was gentle, jovial and natural ...hey, in one episode he even becomes an ecological activist and blocks up exhaust pipes with sausages. Watching Krteček should be obligatory for any European politician. And the example of a small, red-nosed animal, which optimistically leaves its molehill should be taken as an example to follow.

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