Michal Basch - an unusual boyhood in Jerusalem

Michal Basch

Michal Basch (Civic Democrats) has been mayor of Prague 2 for eight years now, and is looking forward to retiring in a few months time. But when we met at his office on Namesti Miru the conversation focused on his young life, when he spent several years in Jerusalem, and the tribulations of his family under the Communists.

"I was born in Prague, actually in Prague 2. In 1938 my father left the country. My mother, sister and I followed. My father enrolled in the Czech exile army and was assigned to a brigade which was being formed in Palestine, as part of the then 8th British Army. General Montgomery later was the chief of that...group. So, not only we, but lots of the other Czechs who had fled the country and were in the Balkans were assigned to join that brigade.

"So our entire family was transported there by the British. My first years were in a Czech primary school, which was in Jerusalem, and then I attended an English secondary school - St George's School, MacInnes House."

How long were you there in Jerusalem altogether, and what kind of experience was it for you as a young boy?

"We left to go back home in the fall of 1947, so it was still Palestine and not Israel...I think May 1948 was when Israel came into existence. I was there for seven, almost eight years. I remember that time as one of the best periods of my life. Surely, this is related to the age of boyhood. I had lots of friends - lots of Arabic, Jewish and Czech friends. There was an international company of people staying there during the war. We played games together. There was no difference between Palestine-Arabic, and Jewish at that time."

Could you tell us what your father did in the Czechoslovak exile army?

"He was a regular soldier. First they had some tasks in the region of Syria, because there were Arabic groups which were ready to join Germany, since Syria and Lebanon and that time were French colonies...and France was divided in two parts, they in a sense belonged to the pro-German part of France. There was tension and they had aims to in a sense help Hitler and the Italians...the Middle East was always interesting because of its oil supplies.

"So their first task was in Syria, taking care of these groups. But then they went through the African campaign and my father was wounded at Tobruk - that was before the El Alamagne battle. Then he was dismissed from the army after this happened. As a lawyer he was asked to join the Czechoslovak consulate in Jerusalem. So until 1947 he was employed in the foreign services, and in '47 he was transferred back here, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

Just to digress for a moment, do you still follow affairs in what's now Israel, and how do you perceive what's happening there now, and have you been back since your childhood?

"No, I have not been back, I would be very happy to go back for a month or two and I am just waiting for the end of my period as mayor here. Already, I am in retirement [age] some years back, so I will have time quite enough. My children have already urged me to go - they said they would help to arrange such a trip for a month or two. I am already looking forward, but I hope at that time there will not be such things happening as they are today, the Hezbollah and Israelis fighting."

Tell us what it was like for you coming back here - you described playing with Jewish kids, Arab kids in this other world from Czechoslovakia. What was it like coming back for you to, I suppose, a relatively grey world here in Prague?

"It sure was, it was in October, quite nasty weather for me at that time. I was used to the sun and warm or hot days. I didn't understand what we were doing here. I must say I didn't like it, but I got used to it."

What did you do after your studies, what career path did you take?

"That is a bit complicated. When we came back I attended what was still called in 1947 the Prague English Grammar School, which was later closed. Now we have the English College, which is in a sense continuing in that path.

"I wished to study economics and it was in 1953, when I finished my secondary school. This was really a time when you would have all your relatives and bourgeois origins examined. I had two quite interesting uncles in the United States. One was an economist, so I was not allowed to attend the economics faculty at university here in Prague.

"So I visited other university faculties in Prague to ask where I could enrol. It was October or November 1953, and finally, I was accepted at the mathematics-physics faculty at Charles University. I studied mathematics, but I was not allowed to have employment in that field.

"In 1958 my second uncle, who was a linguist, was attacked here. He was supposed to be an agent of the CIA and whatever else. The communist daily Rude Pravo had a two-page editorial about how much of a bad guy he was.

"That meant that my father was kicked out of the foreign services and my mother was in jail for some time. I was allowed to graduate, but not to have any employment. My sister was kicked out of her employment; at that time it was with Czechoslovak Airlines - because she had contact with foreigners and this was unacceptable.

"I went to teach children in school - that was the only thing they allowed. But from then on, I was allowed to start working in my field of mathematics, applied mathematics to economics, and computers. It was in the 1960s, that was the time we had the first computers here.

"In 1968, when we had the thaw here, the Prague Spring, I was even allowed by the institute where I worked, to go teach at a university in northern Iraq, which was also a very interesting period for me. It was a quite different Middle East than the one I knew from Palestine.

"Again, when I came back, I was told I should try to find new employment from where I was before, because things had changed and so on and so on, and I was not a loyal one."