One on One Czech patriot Josef Čermák: I could not live under communism
My guest today is Josef Čermák, a very sprightly 88-year-old Czech who was born in 1924 in a small village called Skury just outside of Prague. He studied law and in 1949 emigrated to Canada and he’s lived here ever since. He has served as the president of both the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada and also Sokol, Canada, and he is also the author of a number of books, including It all Began With Prince Rupert – The Story of Czechs and Slovaks in Canada.
So you were twenty-four when you left Czechoslovakia. Those were obviously very turbulent times, as the communists had just taken over. And even before that, you had participated in anti-communist demonstrations. So why were you anti-communist at a time when no-one really knew whether communism might actually be a good idea in the country?
“Actually, most of us who took any interest at the time in what was happening in the world had a pretty good idea of what was happening in Russia. Communism didn’t start in 1948; it started in 1917. And the fruits of it were so horrible, that anyone who paid any attention couldn’t do anything but hate it.”
You were a young student at the time?
“I was a young student. I didn’t quite finish.”
Before that, you spent several years locked away in a labour camp during the Second World War. Why did the Nazis lock you away?
“When we graduated from high school, there were two alternatives: either go and study at the German universities, or go to forced labour camps. In my class, not a single student volunteered to go to Germany. It was absolutely unanimous, so all of us went to some sort of labour camp.”
That was an official policy to either German-ify you or use you as labour?
“Yes, I remember such moments as Heydrich. Because the first labour camp I was at was in Kladno and not very far from that was the village of Lidice. And when Heydrich was killed in Prague…”
I should explain that Reinhard Heydrich was the Nazi overseer appointed by Hitler…
“The so-called ‘Protector’. He was the head of the Nazi government of Bohemia and Moravia. And the Gestapo just went completely berserk. They arrested people, committed massacres; in the end, they killed all the men in the village of Lidice and took all the women and children and took them to Germany. It was a horrible crime.”
This was in retaliation for the assassination of Heydrich in May 1942 by two British-trained Czechs, who were parachuted into the country. Was the death of Heydrich something that raised the spirits of Czechs? Did they believe that something good may come of this, or did it just cause a sense of terror?
“If you imagine the atmosphere of complete fear, and the Nazis seemed to be almost gods in their power. And here come two guys jumping from the sky and kill their leader on a street in Prague – that was a huge shock. And I think it served to convince people that the Germans were not unbeatable.”
And then several years later, the uprising, when it was clear that the Nazi regime was crumbling and Czechs took to the streets to kick out the last remnants of the regime…
“Actually, this started in Slovakia. There was really quite a lot of fighting there, with Czechs on the scene and everybody else. As for the Russian [soldiers] – I understand that they were prisoners drafted into the army. And behind them were another Russian elite of soldiers to kill them if they didn’t move. And in front of them, there were the Germans. So they really suffered like pigs. First in Russian concentration camps and now in the army. So I had a very great deal of compassion for them, because they contributed a great deal to the victory over the Nazis. Whether the War could have been won without them, I don’t know…”
So what percentage of Czechs viewed the Red Army as liberators and what percentage were afraid that this was the beginning of another occupation?
“I think that probably, because the Nazi experience was so horrible, great numbers likely believed that the Soviets were bringing at least a degree of freedom. Don’t forget that in the previous centuries, there was great love for Russia – Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and all these people were gods for the Czech people too. There was always a great Slavic sentiment in the Czech people too. And also, because I think it was closer to the socialist ideas – take for example the leading Czech poets at the time: people like [Josef] Holer, [Jiří] Wolker, [Jaroslav] Seifert. In the early days of their lives, they were all members of the Communist Party. And only when they saw what was happening in Russia, did they usually switch to Social Democracy.”
How did they find out such things. We assume today with the Internet and 24-hour cable news that you can always find out information. But finding the facts about Soviet Russia at the time wasn’t that easy, was it?
“It wasn’t but you could listen to the radio. And we listened to Radio London [the name of the BBC World Service in Nazi occupied Europe] during the Nazi era – and that was actually punishable by death if they caught you. And don’t forget that the Czech Legion members were in Russia around 1917 and they actually fought the communist armies. So people could learn if they really wanted to. But I think what really caused it was that because Nazism was so horrible, that people were prepared to believe almost anything would be better.”
But in your case, whatever illusions you may have had didn’t last very long as you left Czechoslovakia in 1949, a year after the communist putsch led by Klement Gottwald. So what made you leave? What made you think this was a place you could no longer live in?
“The last thing was probably when [Edvard] Beneš died [in September 1948, several months after the communist coup], several friends and I went to Prague and all of us were wearing little black ribbons on our jackets as a symbol of mourning. And we were all arrested and spent two or three weeks in prison. When I left, I knew that in me was a resistance to communism – based on what I knew about it – that they would have to kill me. Because I have a stupid nature that refuses to say ‘yes’ if I know the answer is ‘no’.”
“And the other reason that many of us had for leaving was that we felt that the Soviet Union may try to push westward. We did not want to be part of the Soviet army. And we thought that if this war came, we would want to join the British, French or American armies. So that was the other reason.”
So how did you get to West Germany? This was presumably a time before the Iron Curtain had fully descended.
“What happened was the we crawled across the border into West Germany. And once we were there, the American soldiers took us in and it was very easy.”
Yes, and what happened was they caught you at the border and they sent you to a displaced persons camp.”
You’ve lived in Canada since 1949. And from 1949 to 1989 you kept a close eye on events in Czechoslovakia. What was it like watching the dark period of the 50s, the hope of the 60s, the normalization era of the 70s…?
“I’ll tell you one thing: it looked extremely hopeless until 1968. In the spring of 1968, a group of us, political refugees in the true sense, gathered together and agreed that one of us should go and have a look. And they selected me. So I applied to the [Czechoslovak] embassy for a visa.”
“In my application, I said: ‘Look, I left Czechoslovakia because I cannot live under communism. But I do have some connections in this country and it may not be wise for you to let me in and then arrest me. It might just create problems for you. I assure you that I have the same feelings now about the regime.’ There was a long silence, and then I got the visa. I went there in July.”
July 1968. That was the first time you’d been there since 1949?
“That’s right. It was really fascinating because I visited with Mrs. Beneš [widow of the former president] and she was extremely optimistic. She felt that the young generation of politicians knew what they were doing and so on. I also met [Ludvík] Vaculík. He was the author of the ‘Two Thousand Words’ [a 1968 text calling for reforms in Czechoslovakia] and his father was one of the founders of the Communist Party. And when I saw him, he said he had just come from [the Slovak town of] Čierná nad Tisou, where a key meeting had taken place between [Soviet leader] Brezhnev and [Czechoslovak reformist leader Alexander] Dubček in which the fate of Czechoslovakia was sealed. I asked Vaculík what he thought and he said ‘It is hanging by a thread,’ and then he added a fascinating comment on Dubček. He said that because Dubček was educated in Russia – at least partly – his comrades in his party thought that he was an expert and knew what would happen. And he convinced them that the Russians would not intervene. That was such a tragic situation as the first one they got when they marched into Prague was Dubček! They were all taken to Moscow, and you know the story…”
In 2005, you published the book “It all Began With Prince Rupert” and leafing through it, one can see that there are many Czechs who came here and made successful lives for themselves. A lot of these people evidently found it difficult to return to post-communist Czechoslovakia – no-one returned really, did they?
“A few did, but then they came back. I remember [fellow Canadian exile, writer Josef] Škvorecký’s comment. He said: ‘If I went to Czechoslovakia today, then I would be an exile there.’”
You wrote in your book – this was seven years ago – that you were blessed with good health. Your eighty-eighth birthday is just coming up. So you are still going strong and feeling good?
“I feel good and actually I still appear in plays. We are just preparing a new play called ‘Malostranské povídky’, based on [Jan] Neruda’s work. It wasn’t written as a play, but it is going to be a musical comedy.”
So you are going to be acting in it?
Wow. Well, that says it all!
“I love the theatre!”