Jaroslav Peprník – Learning English the hard way in wartime and beyond

Jaroslav Peprník, photo: Vít Pohanka

Today, nine out of 10 Czech children are learning English at school. It seems strange that for decades English was considered the language of the enemy – first by Nazi Germany, which occupied present-day Czechia; and later by the communist totalitarian regime. This is the story of an extraordinary man for whom English was a lifelong passion no matter who was in power.

Jaroslav Peprník,  photo: Vít Pohanka
It started in the late 1930s. In America, swing was king. People were having carefree fun listening to hits by the likes of Louis Prima and Benny Goodman. But in Europe, the dark clouds of war were gathering.

It was in those uncertain times, in a country called Czechoslovakia, in the small town of Ivančice, that a little boy named Jaroslav Peprník wandered into his father’s library. Little did Jaroslav know that at that particular moment his life was about to change:

“I was lucky. I even regard it as a sort of act of providence. In my father’s library, there were three essential books: an English dictionary, a book of grammar, and a book of English conversation.”

As little Jaroslav started to browse through the pages of these precious books, new horizons were unlocked in his mind.

“I admit that I started studying English in a rather unorthodox way. My motivation was no less unusual, romantic. I was attracted by foreign countries, stories of the American West, authors like Jack London, and books of travel in general.”

It was not the best of times to take a serious interest in English, to say the least. When Jaroslav was 11, Britain and France made Czechoslovakia give up the border region of the country, known as the Sudetenland, to Nazi Germany. That was in 1938. The following year, German troops occupied the rest of the country; when they invaded neighbouring Poland, World War II broke out and English became the language of the enemy.

But Jaroslav’s family refused to accept that:

“During the war, we thought English was actually the language of the countries that were fighting for our freedom. In those days, people secretly listened to the BBC, not to [radio] Moscow. For us, the war was a struggle for survival, and we hoped for the help mostly of English-speaking countries.”

While the world powers were locked in deadly struggle, life in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia was hard but relatively safe, if you were not Jewish, of course. But Hitler closed all universities and hundreds of thousands of young people were forced to work as slave labourers – as was Jaroslav at the end of the war.

He was unable to properly finish even secondary education, sent to an armaments factory to make components for German fighter-planes Messerschmitt. Since he was still only 17 and not yet 18 years old, he ‘only’ had to work 10 hours a day, and not 12, as did his slightly older friends.

Jaroslav devoted every spare minute he had to learning English from the few books available to him. He was driven by ceaseless curiosity and “an eagerness to better understand the background found in the fiction.”

Finally, the war ended. Jaroslav, now 18, did not have to take even final secondary school examinations that were traditionally required to enter college-level education. After six years of occupation, Czechoslovak authorities wanted to give an opportunity to every young man and woman eager to learn. So, now 18-year-old Jaroslav left small Ivančice to study English at Masaryk University in the closest big city – Brno.

“When I entered university, there were no entrance exams. I should explain that I started in 1945, and simultaneously with me, there were young people from the past six years who had not been able to study. So I think even for practical reasons it was not possible, and second it would not have been fair because some people had less opportunity to pick up the language. So they accepted everybody, in the hope that it would sort itself out. Most students really persevered and there were hardly any drop-outs.”

A penfriend in Oxford

Photo: Olomouc publishing
Postwar optimism helped young people in particular to overcome many obstacles. Jaroslav, by then a full-time student of English, was determined to master the language and learn as much as possible about all institutions of English-speaking world:

“There were three vital sources of acquiring knowledge. First was tuition, but not in the form of practical English classes as we know them now; we attended lectures given by native speakers. Then there was the British Council, which invited foreign speakers to give talks and provided English weeklies. The third great source was correspondence.”

“After six years of war, during which people were shut off, they were more willing to find friends abroad and write to them regularly. I was lucky to find a pen-friend in Oxford. She was a student, not of arts but sciences, which made her even more interesting because it widened my field. The correspondence was an excellent source for obtaining up to date, colloquial English.”

But after three brief years of freedom, the history of Czechoslovakia took another sinister turn. There was a communist coup d’état in February 1948. The new regime closely allied with the Soviet Union viewed anything connected with the English-speaking world with utmost suspicion.

So, in the eyes of communist authorities, all students of English became automatically politically unreliable. The frontiers to the West were closed.

Jaroslav was lucky to travel in 1948 to Britain to attend a summer school. He also managed to finish his studies but was sent to punitive military service for five years of which he served four. Many years later, he learnt that he was suspected of being a British spy.

Jaroslav was eventually invited by one of his former lecturers to teach at provincial Palacký University but only in a lowly position. Travel to the West became nearly impossible.

Fortunately, the British Council was allowed to operate, albeit with a limited programme, mostly inviting linguists and writers to give lectures. These were among the very few opportunities to meet native speakers. Jaroslav took advantage of them as often as he could.

Self-made, self-taught

Palacký University in Olomouc,  photo: Michal Maňas,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.5
After the communist regime slightly relaxed tough rules as to who could and who could not publish, Jaroslav Peprník was permitted to write his first textbooks. These became hugely successful and were used in language schools and universities throughout Czechoslovakia. Their author became a true legend: refusing to become a member of the communist party, he was kept at his lowly teaching position.

It was only after the fall of communism in 1989 that Jaroslav Peprník was raised to the position of a university professor. Ironically, very few of his countless students know how humbly his own study of English had begun back in the 1930s.

“I started as a self-made man, and in the end was self-taught.”

Now over 90, Jaroslav Peprník still exudes great charm and an infectious sense of humour. He continues to share the wealth of his knowledge on the English speaking world and the language as Emeritus professor at Palacký University in Olomouc.