Portrait of Paul Fierlinger

“Peter and I, the immigrant half-orphans were immediately inserted into a grim boarding school in Poděbrady castle to learn Czech and hopefully, forget our American English—and all that came with it.” 

48. paul copy

Photo by Sandra Schuette Fierlinger

Paul Fierlinger was born in 1936 in Ashiya, Japan; 79 years old, he is an independent animator for 58 years, has lived in the Philadelphia area since 1969. For the past 26 years he has been living and working with his co-artist wife and collaborator, Sandra Schuette Fierlinger, in Wynnewood, PA.

I immigrated three times. My first split came when I was three, at the outset of World War II. My family of Czechoslovak career diplomats had to leave Japan, where all three of us were born; Atya, a sister ten years my senior, eight years later followed by my brother, Peter, and a year later it was my turn, a second, uninvited surplus child. Our mother was a Jew; father a Catholic, both uninterested in such things. Raised by a Japanese nanny, my brother and I could speak only Japanese when our parents brought us to the US in 1939, but our attractive sister could speak the Queen’s literati English without ever having read more than a book or two in her whole life.

My parents, both polyglots, kept Atya in New York City whereas Peter and I were distributed into foster care across the Northeast; first into a large family of a Baptist minister-farmer in the wilderness of New Hampshire, later followed by a one year boarding school stint in tony Scarborough, New York, from where we were transferred to a childless couple hailing from Burlington, Vermont: a Mr. Rolland Doane and a true Yank from Maine, who was a serious Presbyterian professor of Latin and French, and his austere, very young student bride, Mrs. Caroline Doane who was an emigrant from Holland and was also a volunteer nurse, supporting the home front in the leafier sections of Burlington. Somewhere along these formative war years my love affair with America went surface-to-air.

In 1946 Peter and I were set to sea by the Doanes and picked off the ship by our mother in bombed out Le Havre, France. By now, my father’s brother, uncle Zdeněk Fierlinger, had won through a nefarious game of postwar politics the seat of prime minister of Czechoslovakia, the first elected communist prime minister in the young nation’s democratic history. Zdeněk kept our father in government throughout his life, and our mother shortly after died of cancer. Peter and I, the immigrant half-orphans were immediately inserted into a grim boarding school in Poděbrady castle to learn Czech and hopefully, forget our American English—and all that came with it. Out of pure and focused determination, Peter and I never did any of this well. We felt ourselves to be involuntary immigrants to a hostile land and my views of the place have never changed since.

I studied art from the age of fifteen to nineteen, when I matriculated from an out-of-the–way small ceramics school in Bechyně, Southern Bohemia. There, out of view of my peers and professors, I began my first experiments with homemade animation. Everyone’s first experiments in animation are successful but I instinctively grasped the entire concept this art form had to offer for life. Where today’s animation hopefuls envision a non-existent pipedream of glamorous teamwork, fame, fortune, and play, I presciently recognized a craft based purely on individualism and voluntary self-confinement, opened to endless possibilities of becoming distinctive without interference from the adult world or the need to anticipate uninvited support from the established order. There was a self-imposed requirement attached to such a grand vision: things would go better once I could return to my never forgotten America.

By deceit I got out of Czechoslovakia in September of 1967, still over a year before the Soviet occupational forces would invade their satellite. I arrived in New York City via Care International in October of 1968 and found my first animation job as a temp for Concept Films in Philadelphia, producing political ads for Hubert Humphrey and the Democratic Party.

Coming here I was socially a conservative with deep felt convictions in opposition of the radical left which I had already experienced enough of for a lifetime. I didn’t want to live in a country that had generously accepted me and then live and hold views in opposition of its ideals, thus I naturally became a Republican. After George W. Bush I switched to being a Democrat. I felt I had given back enough by now and won my right to choose more wisely and independently. I supported president Obama in the last two elections because he’s an intellectual and I felt that this country needs to have in the White House someone with intelligence and a propensity for making deliberative decisions.

Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.

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