Thursday, August 6, 2015

Memories triggered by Professor Koch’s reply to my invitation to ‘The three days in Prague devoted to philosophy’

I wrote to David Parker concerning his ‘Response’ to my ‘provisional reply’ to him: ‘I am at present too deeply intellectually involved in Kant, and emotionally in my memories concerning the Germans (see my post entitled 'A reply to Professor Koch from Heidelberg University', August 4), to be able to reply to your 'Response' in a way it deserves.’

Concerning the former, I hope to be ready to properly engage with David after I write some more on ‘Aristotle’s concept and Kant’s “intuition” of time’; concerning the latter, I shall relieve myself of my memories in three sets: 1. Socrates and the Thirty, 2. How Katz und Maus (Cat and mouse) caused a delay of a Prague-Berlin fast train, 3. At the Prague Castle.

Socrates and the Thirty

I shall begin with my earliest memory, Socrates and the Thirty will get mentioned at the very end.

I was six, my brother Mikuláš was four, Marian was one year old. We lived in Mělník, a town built on a hill above the confluence of Vltava and Labe, the two main rivers in Bohemia. My father managed to barter tobacco for a goose. My mother with Marian in a pushchair, Mikuláš, and myself went to get the goose from a farm in Hořín, on the other side of the river. We were returning home with the goose in a bag, over the bridge. The bridge over the river is long, over Labe enlarged by Vltava.  There stood someone in the middle of the bridge. Only when we got nearer we realized that it was a German army officer. Should we go back? To barter tobacco for a goose was an illicit transaction. We decided to brave it. The officer was approaching us. To flee was pointless. He came and gave Mikuláš a sweet. – I can still feel the enormous relief that overwhelmed me at that moment.

I went to school in the Autumn of 1944. German was obligatory. We had a very good teacher. I still can remember Ich bin Peter du bist Paul [I am Peter you are Paul], ich bin fleissig [I am diligent], du bist faul [youa are lazy]. Eins, zwei [one, two], Polizei [a policeman] … neun, zehn [nine, ten], schlafen gehen [to go to bed]. In the coming years I several times wanted to build on those first steps into German; we had a very good shortened version a German Textbook by Augustin, but I got never very far with it. My proper introduction to German had to wait until my second imprisonment.

I must explain: the first imprisonment was short, three months for my refusal to be drafted to the military, but after my release from prison I was immediately summoned to the military service again. In spite of my encounter with Marx during my three months in prison – Marx’ Capital  had made me realized that Marxism was no embodiment of evil, but a fully justified response to the evils of the early days of capitalism – I still remained true to Tolstoy’s and Gandhi’s non-violence. Those were the days of Gomulka’s Poland. I hoped that I might succeed in getting on a ship, and via Sweden to India. I got as far as Szczecin. I got four years for crossing the borders illegally, but President Zápotocký died, and three years of my sentence were pardoned by the General Amnesty announced by Novotný, the new president. After my sentence I was transported to a prison camp in Rtyně v Podkrkonoší, where I was to work in a coalmine. A prison doctor declared me unfit to work in the pit because I had to wear glasses. The prison management was not prepared for such an eventuality; I stayed there for six weeks, waiting for an escort to a different prison camp. In the Rtyně prison camp were about sixty Catholic priests. One of them, Václav Divíšek took care of me. Because I was a vegetarian, he bought me whatever he could in the canteen, but most importantly, the priests smuggled in a lot of precious books – the prison guards did not venture to the coalface, there the prisoners worked with the civilian coal-miners. Divíšek provided me with the complete version of Augustine’s German Textbook, and there I read my first German book, a tiny brochure by Romano Guardini on The Secret of the Holy Mass [Das Geheimnis der heiligen Messe]. Although I was baptized as a Catholic, I did not consider myself to be one; I had been too deeply steeped in Buddhism, in Bhagavad Gita, in Rama Krishna and Vivekananda, but I spent hours with Divíšek, and I began to admire the spiritual strength he and the other priests derived from their faith. It was there that I realized that I could do more for my country with the help of Marx than with Tolstoy and Gandhi. Becoming a Marxist, I had one great aim: to do everything in my power to foster such change in the regime that those priests would be released from prison, allowed to resume their vocation as priests, and share with others the spiritual strength they accumulated during the years of their imprisonment.

After my release from prison I applied for permission to study philosophy at Charles University. I was interviewed for admission;, a member of the  commission that interviewed me was Milan Machovec. In the Application Form I did not say a word about my imprisonment; I was applying as a forest worker. (My Application had to be signed and rubberstamped by the head of a Communist Party organization in the Forestery. The head was the Forester, Michelčík was his name. I asked him whether I should put in my two imprisonments. He told me: “Are you mad? If you put it in, you will not be invited to the interview.”) Applying for a place at the Faculty of Philosophy to study Marxism as a working class cadre, that looked promising. Not only that, by that time I read Marx’ Capital, some Engels and a lot of Lenin. As the interview went on, the Commission were more and more amazed. Then Milan Machovec asked: ‘Comrade Tomin, hasn’t there been some problem in your past life?’ I hesitated for a moment, then said it all. The Commission could not accept me, but Milan Machovec asked for and obtained their authorization for his becoming my supervisor. The year was 1960. I soon could begin to study philosophy at Charles University while working; I finished the six year course in three years. Milan Machovec and I, we approached Christians and invited them to get engaged with us in Marxist-Christian dialogue.

The early sixties were the years of Busse tun (Repentance) for Germans. Groups of German students led by their protestant pastors were coming to Prague; the Jewish Museum with its Pinkas Synagogue, the walls of which are covered with about 77.000 names of perished Bohemian-Moravian Jews, was obligatory. Those who had heard about me and my engagement in the Christian-Marxist Dialogue wanted to have me as their guide. I co-lived (miterlebte) with them their Repentance. I was blond, my grand grandfather was German, I would have most likely become a German, had the Germany won the war. Had I been older, how could I be sure I would not have taken part in such atrocities as those the testimony of which we could see in the Pinkas Synagogue? I strongly hoped that the Germans exposed to the view the darkest sides of human nature, to which all of us could succumb, if the conditions were ‘right’. Feeling morally superior to Germans after the war, we crated our Communist concentration camps, organized our witch-hunts. One memory in particular haunted me. On the 9th of May 1945 the Red Army liberated Prague, but it did not yet reach Mělník. My father went into town, he thought something would happen. After a few hours he came home shaking; a crowd gathered in the centre of the town, dragged two German soldiers from a lorry and burnt them alive in the town square. With every visit to the Jewish cemetery with my German friends grew my firm determination to do in every situation what is right.

In those days I worked as an editor for philosophy in the Publishing House of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. Our offices were in the Wenceslas square. One day I was summoned to the Head of the Publishing House; he said to me: ‘The Central Committee [of the Communist Party] is worried about your contacts with the foreigners. You must stop all contacts with them.’ I asked: ‘When a foreigner meets me at the Wenceslas square and asks me where the nearest public toilets are, am I allowed to answer them?’

Soon afterwards I was dismissed, but those were the years of Czechoslovakia marching towards its Prague Spring of 1968. I was given Aspirantura at the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University (a kind of fellowship; I was paid for four years to write a dissertation in philosophy; most importantly, I could do some teaching in the history of philosophy at the Faculty. I wrote the dissertation on ‘Three contributions to the theory of knowledge’ and subjected it to scholarly scrutiny at the end of the third year of my Aspirantura, in the spring of 1969, before leaving Prague for the University of Hawaii where I was giving a course in Marxism. I was to defend the dissertation after my return, but when I returned home in 1970, it was the time of ‘consolidation and normalization’, of massive purges, the country had to be subjected to the new rule established in the wake of the Soviet invasion of the 21st August 1968. I became a turbine operator in the Prague power plant; to obtain permission to defend my dissertation was out of the question.

Socrates was summoned to the leaders of the Thirty Tyrants, Critias and Charicles, and ordered to stop conversing with young people, to wit with anyone under thirty.’ Socrates asked: ‘Suppose I want to buy something, am I not even then to ask the price if the seller is under thirty?’ (Xenophon, Memorabilia, I. ii. 35-36) – I began to study Ancient Greek after I had been dismissed from the Publishing House; I read Xenophon’s Memorabilia for the first time when I worked in the power plant, after my return from the USA.

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