By Lauren Rogers
As students of Europe, we like to believe we have a good grasp on the history and political development of the continent. Too often, however, we have been educated from a singular perspective, one that rarely includes the perspective of what we have labeled “the East”. The tragedy of Central Europe, as Milan Kundera once called it, is not that the Soviet Union gobbled up so much of the continent after World War II, but rather that “the West” allowed such a massive piece of its cultural heritage to slip away. One of the most common things Euroculture students say after spending a semester in Olomouc is, “I never knew.”
“I never knew about Václav Havel.”
“I never knew about the Prague Spring.”
“I never knew about Tomáš Masaryk.”
The Euroculture program, however, is fortunate enough to have among its professors Josef Jařab, a person with a keen memory and a knack for being around at the turning points of history. Professor Jařab, or JJ as he is more commonly known among Euroculturers, is a professor, former rector and dissident who calls Olomouc his home. We sat down with JJ to speak to him about his life, the Velvet Revolution, and lessons we should be taking from Central Europe.
A Central European Story
Born in 1937 in the Silesian region of what was then known as Czechoslovakia, JJ’s life has been studded with academic and literary accomplishment. He glibly refers to his birth as his first major achievement; he somehow managed to be born full term only three months after his parents’ marriage: “It usually takes nine months! My first surprising sort of record was to make it in three or four months.” This, he told me, is why he is so famous in Olomouc.
All joking aside, JJ’s reputation in Olomouc – and throughout Central Europe – truly does precede him. At the risk of turning this article into a listicle of defining moments, I would like to mention a few that stand out. Throughout the Soviet occupation of then-Czechoslovakia, JJ worked to bring Western culture beyond the Iron Curtain. When the Velvet Revolution began in Prague, he led the students in Olomouc to a similar revolution. On the day he was officially fired by Palacký University, he became its first freely elected Rector. He was a close friend to Olga and Václav Havel, served as rector of the Central European University and as a Senator of the Czech Parliament and pursues, to this day, his passion for poetry, literature and jazz. This, too, is a fitting profile for a Czech revolutionary; the Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution were, after all, not driven by activists or the overtly politically minded, but by the writers, the students, the poets, the actors.
Indeed, JJ’s life has eerily mirrored the developments of Central Europe since the beginning of World War II. His father, a Czechoslovak soldier, was drafted into the German military in 1938 after the Munich Agreement was signed. Rather than serving a cause he found repugnant, he shot himself in the foot to avoid service in France and was later taken prisoner by the Soviet army. When he was finally allowed to return to his village in 1946, JJ didn’t recognize the “haggard, bearded man” and remembers thinking: “I didn’t even know I had a father!”
His family, like so many others in Central Europe, was marred by the war and despite nominal “liberation”, was left to exist in the shadow of the Soviet Union. His father, who bore the physical and emotional scars of his time in a Soviet detention camp for prisoners of war, resisted the collectivization demanded by the new communist regime and JJ followed in his footsteps. In 1953 at the age of sixteen, he was nearly thrown out of school for wearing striped socks. The socks, it seems, were suspected of being a “political manifestation of disagreement with the regime.” When recounting this part of his childhood, JJ laughs because they were completely right: the socks were symbolic.
JJ wasn’t expelled thanks to the intervention of one of his teachers and he was admitted to the university to study English and Russian. A fortuitous combination he says, “It was 1955, I said well, which way will it go in the Cold War? It could be West, it could be East. I would be ready for both.” It was clear, though, where his loyalties lay. During his university time, he spent evenings tuning in to Voice of America and listening to jazz – using a Soviet Transistor Radio, of course. “It’s a large country, they needed the short waves to cover the whole of Russia, so it covered us too!” he laughs. Indeed, JJ says the lens of hindsight makes everything seem a bit ridiculous. “This is what the official political interpretation would not allow you to hear,” he tells us. “They would say it was tragic and all. No, it was a great deal of fun. […] They were stupid, and it was funny.”
Re-education and Revolution
Yet his underhanded protests and his father’s refusal to comply with the co-op caught up with him at the university. An anonymous letter sent to Palacký University repudiated the institution for allowing a religious, anti-communist student to be enrolled. The letter, it was later revealed, was sent by the only person in JJ’s village who during WWII voluntarily joined the Nazi SS: “He really was a Nazi. So, what do you think happened after 1945?” JJ asks. “He joined the Communist Party.” This letter demanded punishment and the university leadership agreed. They gave JJ a choice: either be expelled or go “willingly” to work for a month in the mines in Ostrava to “make up your ideological mind.” Sending students to the mines was not uncommon. The university had a program to facilitate this, which was meant to prove to the rest of the country that the students were also part of the “socialist nation.” The slogan of the mines, JJ remembers, was “I am a miner, and who is more?”
The month turned into much longer due to the heart failure of JJ’s father, but JJ still values the time he spent in Ostrava. “I made fantastic friends and had to learn a whole other language,” he told us wryly, “one consisting mostly of four-letter words.” He isn’t sure whether they managed to re-educate him by forcing him to work in the mines but, he laughs, “they thought they did. Which is incredible.”
It wasn’t what JJ calls his “working class background” that eventually earned him an international reputation, rather his time as a scholar and educator. He began his career as a teacher of international students from “progressive countries” – in 1960, this meant Vietnam and Cuba. JJ describes his headmaster as typically communist, who gave the type of advice every foreign language teacher dreads: “If you feel they don’t understand, speak louder!”
By 1968, JJ had worked at various schools across Czechoslovakia. He was in Prešov when the idea of the Prague Spring began to spread and, though he was not a member of a political party himself, he began to organize a ‘non-party party.’ It was called KAN. “We were a club of non-party, politically minded citizens,” he explains. When the Soviet army occupied Czechoslovakia to quell the Prague Spring, everything was uncertain. “Would they stay? Would they kill everybody who protested? It took months for the situation to settle,” remembers JJ. Meanwhile, he had been awarded a scholarship to conduct research in the United States. With an uncertain future in Czechoslovakia looming, JJ decided to pack up his things, and he and his wife and their four-year old son boarded a flight to New York on December 31, 1968, one of the last days the borders were still permeable.
Yet, only a year later, he decided to go back. JJ and his wife were issued an ultimatum of sorts: come back to Czechoslovakia or your jobs will be gone, your apartment seized. For some people, this may have been a simple decision: stay in New York and seek political asylum. However, upon asking JJ if he ever considered staying, he said it never really felt like an option. He describes other Czechoslovak families in New York scrambling morning after morning to get a newspaper to see if they would finally have news from home. The New York Times, like most of America in 1969, had no interest in a small Central European country which, for all intents and purposes, was already abandoned to the Soviet Union. “I could see 20 or 30 families all waiting for something to happen,” he remembers. “I said, well, I would rather wait there and take part in it back home.”
It took twenty years, but by the time the change did sweep across Czechoslovakia in 1989, JJ was very much a part of it. He was skeptical at first that the fall of the Berlin Wall would inspire anything. The working class was satisfied and the students, at least in Olomouc, came mostly from communist families. He told a pair of Dutch journalists a week before the first uprisings began in Prague, “I think that freedom is something like sleeping beauty. A prince will come, kiss it to life and then it will happen.” That prince, he laughs, was Václav Havel, a man he had known for years as a dissident writer.
By the time news of the Velvet Revolution reached Olomouc, it was still unclear whether Palacký University students would follow the Prague brethren in marching in the streets. In an assembly, communist leaders of the school told students to remain calm. “At this moment I sort of realized, this is a historical moment. So, I grabbed the mike and, well, then it happened.” JJ remembers telling the students, “this is our moment now, when we can start to become our own selves.”
Lessons from Central Europe
The process of “becoming” was as complicated for Czechoslovakia as it is for any country. When JJ reflects on the transition period now, in light of the rising nationalism, Euroscepticism, and populism, he is much more critical. The rush to privatize without a legal framework led to a rise in super-wealthy owners. “This started corruption at large,” JJ says, “and it never really ended.” Most of all, though, JJ laments the government’s willingness to dismiss education. When describing the current state, where money is siphoned away from the arts and education to make cheaper transportation tickets, JJ is especially vehement. “Who started that whole damn revolution here?” he asks. Early on, there were signs that this would happen, though many chose to ignore them. JJ remembers students claiming in 1990 that the revolution had been stolen from them. At the time, he didn’t understand or believe them. Now, he says, he does.
As to lessons we should be taking from what happened in Central Europe, JJ isn’t sure it can be synthesized into one compact message. One problem that still applies today is a question of direction. “We all knew what we did not want, that was clear,” JJ tells us, “but we never really knew what we wanted, and we definitely didn’t know how to get there.” To overcome the current political climate, we must first overcome ignorance and focus on the quality of our education rather than the quantity of it. With this in mind, he recommends several essays and novels by Czech authors – The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, The Joke by Milan Kundera, Judge on Trial by Ivan Klima, The Axe by Ludvík Vaculík – that can deliver much needed political lessons.
JJ is an educator first and foremost, and he saw his role after 1989 to reform Palacký University. Havel, meanwhile, became the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic. While researching for this article, I came across Havel’s 1990 New Year’s Address, which was a frank and unflinching description of the challenges facing the country, in particular the moral illness that accompanied so many years of Soviet occupation. His speech resonates with our modern political chaos, so it seems a fitting way to end: “We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships. Only a few of us were able to cry out loudly that the powers that be should not be all-powerful.”
Featured picture: Professor Jařab with 2017 second semester Euroculture students.