Julius Tomin, pt. 1: I wouldn’t swop my year in Hawaii for my 15 months in jail

The Czech philosopher and Charter 77 signatory Julius Tomin is perhaps best-known for inviting top Western philosophers to speak at clandestine seminars he ran in Prague during the late communist era. Recently the UK-based Mr. Tomin visited his native city for events marking the 40th anniversary of that move, which eventually gave rise to the Oxford-based Jan Hus Educational Foundation. But when we met I first asked the 79-year-old ex-dissident about his family background.

Julius Tomin, photo: Ondřej TomšůJulius Tomin, photo: Ondřej Tomšů “I was born in Prague. My father was Slovak. He came here to study philosophy.

“Professor [Jan Blahoslav] Kozák, who was at that time the most important Czech philosopher, took him as his assistant.

“He got acquainted well with [Jan] Patočka, who had just come as a new docent from Humboldt University in Germany, where he studied with [Edmund] Husserl.

“Father had a quite a lot of books on philosophy. He wanted to study philosophy and did so for two years, but then came the Nazi occupation and they closed Czech universities.

“Father never finished his studies. Had you asked me when I was seven or 10 what I would have liked to do I would have said, To be a philosopher.

“My mother was Czech. During the war we lived in Mělník, near Prague, and my father started to teach me English and Russian.

“That was very important for me. I liked Russian.

“When the Russians liberated Czechoslovakia there was a tank brigade in Mělník, near our house, and I recited poems on the tanks.

“You can imagine what that was for a boy.”

Apart from the liberation by the Soviets, what else do you remember about the latter part of the war?

“What I remember very strongly is… you may know, in Prague on May 5 the Prague Uprising started: ‘Prague calls for help – come, help us!’

“I was at that time six and a half. As I said, we lived on the outskirts of the town and they were calling on people to build barricades.

“We had a stone wall, out of loose stones, as you many times have in England, so I went and dismantled our wall and, with my younger brother, began to build a barricade.

“When the Russians liberated Czechoslovakia there was a tank brigade near our house and I recited poems on the tanks. You can imagine what that was for a boy.”

“Suddenly father noticed and ran down and quickly cleaned it all up [laughs].

“Then… it can hardly be called a memory… Father came home. It must have been on the ninth, 10th or 11th of May, after we were already liberated, and he said on the town square in Mělník people had just caught a lorry with two Germans, took them out and burned them on the town square.

“During the war, we collaborated. It was really the Protektorat Böhmen und Mähren – we were kind of protected, we didn’t fight in the war.

“A lot of Czechs really collaborated. Just take after Heydrich was assassinated in Prague – then there were millions of Czechs on Wenceslas Square, shouting their allegiance to Hitler and everything.

“And they of course then do such things as burning a German soldier, poor thing, on a square.”

If we can jump forward a couple of years, what was the reaction in your household when the Communists ascended to power?

“My father was very uneasy about it. He was a member of the Social Democratic Party.

“When the Communist takeover happened in 1948 there was, I think, a fortnight during which the members of the Social Democratic Party could just sign a paper and become members of the Communist Party.

“My father disappeared for a fortnight, went somewhere. When he returned the chairman of the local Communist Party told him that he had falsified his signature.

“So he was and remained a member of the Communist Party on a falsified signature of his name.

“He was always very critical, but he remained a member of the Communist Party. Otherwise he couldn’t be a teacher, couldn’t be anything.”

“Of course we listened to Radio Free Europe and I just couldn’t understand how Radio Free Europe didn’t say, At this day and at that hour we’ll start an uprising, and so on.

“I couldn’t understand that. I took Czechoslovakia as a prison, with barbed wire around the borders.”

Illustrative photo: Miloš TurekIllustrative photo: Miloš Turek You refused to do military service on the grounds of conscience. What price did you pay for that stance?

“In 1969 to 1970 I was in Hawaii. I loved it. I loved body surfing and everything.

“But if you asked me to choose what to erase from my life, a year in Hawaii or 15 months in prison, I would erase Hawaii.

“The experience in prison was for me more important.”

I understand that after that you worked as a forester and as an assistant on a psychiatric ward. Was it the political thaw around the mid-1960s that allowed you to finally begin working in academia as a philosopher?

“It all goes back to prison. There were just a few books which they were delivering, which were idiotic books.

“I insisted on getting the books which I wanted. They were lazy to pick books up for me, so they would take me to the library.

“And there was one thing. I thought, For God’s sake, I am in prison because I stand against this regime, I stand against Marxism. And what do I know about Marx? Nothing – just scraps from Rudé právo.

“So I got what I could by Lenin and Engels and Marx from the library, but that was very little.

“And I insisted on getting Marx’s Das Kapital. At first the political prison guard came and started to shout at me: How can I possibly think I could read such a book as Kapital.

“Nevertheless, I insisted and then the chief warden lent me his own copy.

“As I read Das Kapital, quite a big chunk of it is reports from factory inspectors which were appointed by and reported to the parliament.

“There I read all those horrors about all the children working in the textile factories, six and seven years old, working 12 hours and then sleeping there.

“Then I realised that we in that horrendous packed prison had better living conditions in a sense than those children.

“A lot of Czechs really collaborated during the war.”

“I realised the historical justification for Marxism, that historically Marx was absolutely on spot.

“I realised that Marx really tried to do something for mankind.

“And I realised that there were strong humanistic moments which I could work on.

“I thought I could do more for my country on the basis of these humanistic trends in Marx than going from prison to prison on the basis of Tolstoy’s non-violence.

“After getting released from prison I started working in the forests. Before that I couldn’t think of applying to study philosophy because Marxism for me was not a philosophy.

“But now for me Marxism was a philosophy so I applied at the Philosophical Faculty.

“There is now an interesting moment.

“At that time I was working in Slovakia in the forestry, so I went to the head of the forestry, who was at the same time the head of the Communist Party cell, and I asked him, In this questionnaire am I to write that I was in prison?

“He told me, Are you an idiot? If you write that you are were in prison they won’t even allow you to go to the entrance exams. So he signed my application for me.

“Because I had gone to school younger and there was a school reform where they allowed the best students to skip a year I did my A levels at 16.

“So those 15 months in prison were easily kind of left out.

“Now, you can imagine, I was a worker asking to study philosophy – the best possible recommendation, so to speak.

Charter 77, photo: Czech TelevisionCharter 77, photo: Czech Television “On the commission were Milan Machovec and [Jiřina] Popelová, the top philosophers at that time.

“It all went fine and suddenly Milan Machovec says, Comrade young applicant, didn’t you have some problems in your life?

“I thought, Does he know something, did he get some information?

“Anyway, I told everything, basically as I am telling you now. Everything.

“Milan Machovec did something quite unusual. At the time there just a few, I think about three, students whom they accepted.

“So they didn’t accept me. But Milan Machovec asked them – I learnt only later – to officially make him my student guide, so to speak, to prepare me.

“We used to walk miles and miles and have deep, deep talks. It was really, really great.”

I was reading that you signed Charter 77 in December 1976, which I guess must mean you were one of the first signatories?

“Yes.”

What motivated you to do that?

“After returning from Hawaii [where he a visiting professor] I tried to apply for a normal philosophy post, because my aspirantura [research assistantship] finished.

“And as I went into the Philosophical Faculty the deputy dean was standing there in the corridor with students and was talking about how Patočka must be pushed out.

“So I just turned around, went home, went to the Holešovice power station and applied there for a post.

“For five years I was working there at a turbine at the bottom, where you don’t have any big responsibility – the engineer at the top has all the responsibility. And I just studied there all kinds of things.

“At that time I frequented the French Library. They had all French Greek classics, which was basically just for me.

“And one day I walked down… At the library you couldn’t get Le Monde or anything – the only thing you could get there was L'Humanité, the Communist Party newspaper.

“I thought I could do more for my country on the basis of the humanistic trends in Marx than going from prison to prison on the basis of Tolstoy’s non-violence.”

“I walked down and suddenly there was an open door. And there was a pile of newspapers – and it was Le Monde; for the first time in my life I saw Le Monde.

“So I took one, put it aside, and then another. And then, in about the fourth I took and went through, suddenly I saw [Karel] Kosík’s letter to [Jean-Paul] Sartre and Sartre replying to him.

“Kosík was saying how his manuscripts were confiscated, he couldn’t teach and his books were taken out of libraries and everything.

“So I went home and wrote to Rudé právo. At that time I was a worker.

“I wrote, If you would clarify to me, I read in Le Monde Kosík’s letter to Sartre, that his manuscripts and books were confiscated, he can’t teach and so on.

“I asked, Is this true? If it is true, is in accordance with our laws? If it is in accordance with our laws, what can I do so that our laws are changed in such a way that this kind of treatment of our citizens is impossible? If it is not in compliance with our laws, what can I do so that legality is restored?

“After that I was suddenly pushed out into the top of the dissidents.

“That motivated me so I went to Machovec and told him, Look, Milan, we have all been thrown out of the universities, and what are we doing? We are all in our little circles in which we live and nobody knows what the other is doing – let us get together and tell each other what we are really doing.

“I told him, If we are not doing anything in philosophy, just because we were thrown out, then nothing terrible happened.

“So we started a philosophy seminar in Pařížská St., in the flat of Daňa Horáková, and Havel from time to time came there.

“There was always a break after a talk and before a discussion and one day in December Havel called first Milan Machovec – I didn’t know why – and then he called me.

“I was a worker asking to study philosophy – the best possible recommendation, so to speak.”

“He gave me something to read and said, Julius, could you read this? So I did and I quite liked it.

“He said, Can you sign it? I said, Gladly. So I signed it – and it was Charter 77.

“And when I came home I remember saying to [then wife] Zdena, I’ve signed something – there can be quite a lot of trouble out of it.

“So that was my signing of Charter 77.”

 

In part two of this interview, which goes out on Monday, Julius Tomin discusses the origins of the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, his departure from communist Czechoslovakia and his difficulties finding work as a philosopher in the UK.