This past Tuesday, NASA space shuttle Endeavour blasted off with the beloved Czech cartoon character Krtek, the Little Mole, on board. The plan to take Krtek into space with US astronaut Andrew Feustel initially surprised even Krtek’s creator Zdeněk Miler. It turns out that Feustel’s family has ties to the Czech Republic, and Feustel hoped the move might spark Czech children’s interest in space exploration. I thought the idea was a perfect fit for Miler’s creation.
When I relayed the exciting news to my children, they were less than impressed. “Of course, Krtek rides in a rocket,” Anna explained patiently, “it’s in the movie.” She was referring to the film, Krtek a raketa (Krtek and the Rocket, 1966), in which the mole, in one of his many animated adventures with his forest friends, rabbit, mouse, hedgehog and frog peacefully resolve minor conflicts arising in the natural world, and in this episode, travel through space. Although I tried, I’m not sure I clearly explained the difference between Krtek’s animated flight to space and his current “real” one.
I first learned of Krtek’s newest adventure when my father emailed me an article from the Wall Street Journal, Space Shuttle Stowaway Is a Commie Mole. During his visits to the Czech Republic, my dad has become familiar with the iconic mole that squeaks and grunts, but doesn’t talk. As Krtek doesn’t speak any more Czech than Dad does, my dad has a special fondness for the character and passed on the news of Krtek’s new celebrity status with delight. Krtek’s lack of speech is likely what has made the Little Mole so popular internationally. Krtek memorabilia, books, DVDs, tee-shirts, games and, of course, the plush, stuffed creature himself, have long been my standard children’s gift from the Czech Republic, in large part because the stories are so accessible.
Over the weekend, while Krtek prepared to orbit outer space, our family visited a temporary interactive children’s exhibit at the Litomyšl regional museum that featured the history of Krtek’s creation. We were with friends, another Czech family and their similarly-aged children. As soon as the children saw the life-size replica of Krtek, they all gave him a hug and raced excitedly into the exhibition room. I was surprised that our children, for the most part, seemed to be able to keep up with their Czech contemporaries completing the various puzzles, games and quizzes based on different Krtek stories. My favorite station involved the story of Jak krtek ke kalhotkám přišel (How the Mole Got His Trousers). I listened with interest as Anna and her friend Nela put large story blocks with Miler’s original illustrations into chronological order to recount the very first Krtek story. Meanwhile, Oliver and his friend Šimon amused themselves by putting different puzzles together, one of which was none other than a large model rocket.
The exhibit was geared to children aged four to nine, but even I found myself drawn to the simple, colorful depictions and the often-not-so-simple educational games. In general, interactive exhibits for children in Czech museums aren’t as common as they seem to be elsewhere, and the Krtek exhibit particularly captured our children’s attention. We were the last guests to leave the exhibit, and the children reluctantly walked out only when the museum attendant told us she needed to close up and go to lunch.
While Miler’s Krtek stories teach children simple morals and life lessons without using words, beneath their humor and lighthearted surface, Krtek’s tales often depict the (negative) changes brought on by the increased industrialization of Communism and modernity’s fast-paced lifestyle. Krtek and his creator escaped censorship, yet through such art intended for children, artists like Miler found ways to subtly express their own views.
I actually think Krtek may possibly be in greater danger of being censored in the US these days. In keeping with the comparatively relaxed European standards toward nudity, sexuality and reproduction, Krtek leaves nothing to the imagination in a “birds-and-bees” story called Krtek a maminka (Krtek and the Mother). In this personal favorite, Krtek helps a pair of rabbits stop fighting and fall in love. After love comes the natural progression of marriage and then childbirth. Krtek is present as a kind of midwife/nurse during a realistic birth scene where three rabbit babies come hopping out of a hole between the mother rabbit’s legs. Throughout the story Krtek plays different roles, from matchmaker to justice of the peace and finally to benevolent uncle. We have the book in a translated English version, which makes the story all the more absurd (and loveable), and I’ve given the DVD to my nephew for the novelty of it.
Last fall, when I visited my cousin in Berlin, I brought a wooden Krtek toy, a DVD and a puzzle for her then one-year-old son. Expecting to introduce Nina to some unusual piece of Czech culture, I was surprised to hear her, instead, exclaim that she’d grown up in West Berlin seeing the Little Mole stories on television. Later on the same trip, Radek spotted an entire store called Little Mole, filled with Little Mole memorabilia in a Dresden shopping mall. So, it seems that Krtek has made a lasting impression, even beyond the confines of Communism.
When I realized that Krtek had ridden on the next-to-last US expedition to space, it made his journey seem more bittersweet than celebratory. I admire Feustel for recognizing Krtek’s value as an ambassador for the Czech Republic. This year marks the mole’s 55th year anniversary and the 90th birthday of its creator. I’m curious what Miler’s reaction was when he heard his little mole would finally turn his animated space travel into a reality. As a child, I grew up with the idea that being an astronaut was both one of the most dangerous and most prestigious jobs a person could have. I think it’s wonderful that through Krtek, my children might have a lasting impression of space travel as well. Even if they don’t fully comprehend what it means yet, Krtek will likely be there to explain when the time is right.