Otto Pick – War years just start of peripatetic, colourful life
Professor Otto Pick was one of nearly 700 Jewish children who escaped the Nazis on a transport to the UK organised by Nicholas Winton, a British diplomat based in Prague. He says he only became aware relatively recently that he was on the now famous “Winton train” and does not know how his family managed to get him on board and save his life.
Following the fall of communism, Otto Pick moved back to the Czech capital, where he has headed Charles University’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and served as deputy foreign minister. Now 88 years old, he is still active, teaching diplomacy.
When we spoke at his office on Rytířská St., a stone’s throw from his place of birth, the professor recalled his first impressions of England in 1939, when he was 14.
“I was amazed at the small houses, at the long streets and small houses, the relative absence of apartment blocks, of flats.
“I was appalled by the first meal I had in England, which was a banana sandwich in white bread. I’ll remember that as long as I live. I said, oh, my God.
“I spoke English fairly well when I got there, because I’d had English school in Prague. I had been at the Prague English Grammar School and so forth.
“I was amazed when I started moving around London, where I stayed for two or three days, that I didn’t understand what people were speaking about. Because they were speaking cockney.
“So I had to adjust, but no problem. I was put on a train and sent off to the north of England, where I had a place at a school.”
I understand that you refused to accept corporal punishment.
“I did. The school I went to was a very old grammar school, dating back to the 13th century. It had a small boarding side. One of my masters at the Prague English Grammar School had actually arranged a place for me there as a boarder. My mother had some money in England, so that covered the initial costs and so on.
“And when I found out there was corporal punishment, that the boys were whacked for misbehaving I went to him and said, I come from a civilised country where the corporal punishment of school children is prohibited. I’m not prepared to submit to it in England.
“He said, perfectly all right, we’ll dream up other forms of punishment for you. I remember very clearly the first time I came down late for breakfast, he said, right, come and see me after breakfast.
“The punishment I got was to score the Czech national anthem, only the first part of it, Kde domov můj, for string quartet. And it’s very difficult to score for string quartet, because you’ve got to avoid all kinds of intervals and so on and so forth.
“I sweated blood over it and regretted very much having been a stupid, uppity kid and saying I wouldn’t take corporal punishment. But the headmaster stuck to it.”
Very soon after your 18th birthday [in 1943] you signed up to the Czechoslovak [Armoured] Brigade. Was that a voluntary decision?
“Yes, it was. I’d volunteered shortly after my 17th birthday and they told me to come back when I was 18. They sent me a letter and that was it, I signed up. And I served in the brigade until I demobbed in the late summer of 1945 here in Prague.”
Did you sign up out of a sense of patriotism?
“I had to sign up somewhere. I mean it was quite unthinkable that one should stand aside in the war against Nazi Germany. And it was natural for me to sign up in the Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade.
“On the whole it was a very positive experience for a young man. Yes, it was a very positive experience.”
“I learned how to get on with people, which boarding school had already to some extent impressed on me. I learned how to rely on other people in crisis situations. And how other people had to be able to rely on me.”
Otto Pick was deployed, and suffered a head wound, at the Siege of Dunkirk. Not to be confused with the earlier British evacuation from Dunkirk, the siege concluded with Allied forces, led by General Alois Liška of the Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade, forcing the capitulation of the then German garrison at the very moment when WWII in Europe came to an end.
With the war now over, Pick and his fellow soldiers were stationed at Železná Ruda in Western Bohemia. From there they travelled to Prague, where he was to see his hometown for the first time with the eyes of an adult.
“It was odd. Everything was ready. The guns were cleaned, washed up with paraffin so they were shiny. We drove from Rokycany towards Prague.
“At the boundary between the Soviet zone and the American zone we had to open the breeches of our guns to show they weren’t loaded.
“You must realise that in those days, in May 1945 – this was 28 May, which was Beneš’s birthday – the Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade was the strongest military unit in Central Europe. The Russians, the Soviets, were a bit cagey.
“We came into Prague and camped out on Vypich, you know, that green area. Beneš came to review us and made a speech, very tearful. He gave out some medals – I got one medal there and then.
“Then we drove through Prague. It was a day like today, a glorious day. People were cheering like mad – the Czechs are very quick to cheer anybody. Pretty girls were jumping into the trucks and onto the tanks. And we drove right through Prague and right out.
“That was my first impression of Prague. And the first impression wasn’t that bright, because one felt that something was wrong. Beneš was in a very downcast mood. And the inspection of the guns and of the weapons by the Soviets wasn’t a good omen.”
“My father lost his life while crossing to Poland in ’39. He and my uncle went over the frontier into Poland. My uncle got through, my father somehow perished – nobody knows how. My uncle then was killed in the Battle for the Dukla Pass. He joined the Czechoslovak Army in the east.
“I know what happened to my mother. She was taken to a concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. Some women from Bergen-Belsen were taken to a place called Tiefstadt near Hamburg, where they worked making uniforms for the German Army, for the Wehrmacht. And in the great British raid on Hamburg, which I guess was in March ’45, my mother was killed.”
In the period between 1945 and 1948 you studied in Prague. When did you start to realise that communism was inevitably going to be the system here?
“[Laughs] No, no, no, no. You’re tackling it from the wrong end. I studied law and had all kinds of jobs in between. I taught English, like you did no doubt when you came here, I had a small jazz band that made some money and so on and so forth.
“And ultimately, in ’47, I got a job as an interpreter to the American military attaché in Prague. In that position I could not afford to wait for the Communists to put me in jug, in jail.
“My successor in the job, a sort of general factotum to the military attaché, was a man called Bill Oatis. He was American but he didn’t have diplomatic status and he got 21 years. I only got 12 – but in absentia.
“My boss was a very, very considerate man and I think on the whole a competent man. He had been assistant military attaché in Moscow.
“I remember saying to him in November ’47 – this was when they started arresting the politicians in Slovakia and started dismantling the Democratic Party – I said, look, this situation is bad, I’m going back to England. Because I had a place at Oxford.
“He said, don’t be ridiculous, this is Prague, this is not Bucharest; you can go when my family is in Germany. Well, I was in Germany and his family were still here.
The couple soon travelled on to England, which was to be their home for the next three and a half decades. Pick took up the place he had won at Oxford University several years earlier and, after graduating, joined the BBC, where he was to spend the best part of a decade.
“I started off as a monitor, Czech and German into English, became a sub-editor, then became a senior sub-editor on news, and was night duty editor for two years. That was the highest position I reached in the BBC: senior sub-editor.”
But that got boring, I believe, and you returned to academia?
“It was a very well-paid job by the standards of those years. I spent eight years at the BBC and I don’t regret them. I learned a tremendous amount. As you no doubt know yourself, from radio journalism you do learn to be to the point and to be precise.
“After two years as night duty editor I got very bored with it. It was trying. We had small children. So I resigned from the BBC and freelanced as a journalist for a year or so, publishing odd articles.
“I then applied for what was then a Rockefeller Studentship at the London School of Economics. I got it. There were three awarded that year to the LSE and I got one. That’s how I became an academic.”
This is maybe a bit of a digression, but I read that you were involved in some ground-breaking Black arts festival in Senegal.
“Oh yes. That was in 1964. I did odd jobs. And one of the odd jobs I had was to become executive director of something called the Council for African-British Relations. It was a very good organisation. It had some government money. It worked closely with the Foreign Office.
“Senghor, the then president of Senegal, had all these notions about Africanism and what have you, and dreamt up the notion of a world festival of Negro art, or Black art.
“We sent out a very competent group of actors. We had to select them, we had to select the play that they were going to present. Black actors, obviously.
“So I got Laurence Olivier to adjudicate which play, which company should go to Dakar. He was deep into Africa at that moment because it was the year he was playing Othello at the Old Vic.
“We sent out a couple of painters, including one very fine Jamaican painter who died a couple of years back in London called Aubrey Williams. His stuff sells quite well. I’ve got one of his pictures at home.”
Didn’t you also get to meet some of the great American jazz musicians?
“Duke Ellington went there, yes he was there. The representative of the Soviet Union was the non-Black poet Yevtushenko. I remember this. The Soviets pretended they had an interest, partly for political reasons and partly because their greatest poet, Pushkin, was part African.”
Did you work closely with Prince Philip?
“Not very closely. [Laughs] When he came to the first meeting, the headquarters was in a small house near Charing Cross… his detective came and cased the joint, as they say, and came to me and said, the Duke drinks whiskey.
“I said, fine, we’ll have a bottle. He said, a bottle won’t do; the Duke can’t be seen drinking from a branded bottle. He said, haven’t you got a decanter? I said, we’ll have one.
“So I sent out my wife. And I’ve still got the decanter – a beautiful decanter. The Duke drank whiskey. And he was affable, but not very interested, I think.”
The main part of Otto Pick’s career has been spent in academia. His longest association was with the University of Surrey in Guildford, which he joined not long after its foundation in the 1960s. He became professor of international relations at the university and was later promoted to dean and eventually pro-vice chancellor.
Professor Pick’s next post was in Munich, where, from 1983 to 1986, he headed the Czechoslovak section of Radio Free Europe, the American station that broadcast across the Iron Curtain through much of the Cold War period. It was not, he says, a positive experience.
“It was a very difficult job. I’ve had many jobs but it was probably the most difficult job I ever had. It was a very large service – about 80 people full-time, plus around 100 stringers around the world.
“I had never before had any experience of an émigré community. And émigré communities are extremely difficult. They live in a sort of vacuum.
“There you had these people living in Germany, being well provided for, very well-paid, free housing, free utilities and what have you, and half of them couldn’t speak German. Never learned.
“They were divided politically into right-wing and left-wing. Into refugees from 1948 and 1968. Czechs and Slovaks. Slovaks and Slovaks – I mean Czechoslovak Slovaks and Slovak Slovaks. Jews and anti-Semites.
“The atmosphere was very bad. I must admit this now – I was to some extent out of my depth, trying to keep this together.
“In fact, people here assure me, none of this was reflected in the output. The output was good, particularly the news output. There was a central newsroom which basically worked along BBC lines.”
Obviously Radio Free Europe was politically motivated. It was the Reagan era. Were there ever any occasions on which you disagreed politically with your bosses?
“Oh, yes. You see Radio Free Europe, then as now, is controlled ultimately in Washington by a board of governors. Of course when the Reagan administration came in, Reagan put his own people in. Well, some of these people were much more extreme than Reagan ever dreamt of.
“There was a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure to sack people, to limit the post-’68 refugees from broadcasting, things like that. Which I opposed.
“In the end the atmosphere wasn’t too good. I was skiing in Austria and got a phone call saying, will you come back? You’ve been appointed head of Radio Free Europe in London.
“I said, no way. Once I got away from Germany I’d have had no legal protection. If they’d sent me to London, they’d have sacked me the next week. In Germany I was protected by German labour laws. So I said, no way.
“In the end they paid me off and I left and joined the University of Munich.”
Pick and his wife hadn’t been settled in Munich for long when they found themselves upping sticks once again. Communism had fallen in Eastern Europe and they were free to return to Prague. There the professor helped set up the Institute of Foreign Affairs at the Arts Faculty of Charles University, which he later headed.
That was followed by yet another change of career, when – already in his 70s – he joined the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was deputy minister under Jan Kavan and to this day teaches at the ministry’s Diplomatic Academy.
When he crossed the border for the first time after the fall of Communism, Professor Pick hadn’t set foot in his native country for over four decades. He recalls the experience of coming back.
“It was like emigrating all over again. Yes, it was like that. To begin with when we drove in from Germany, from Munich, the country looked different. The large fields.
“Of course, collectivisation had done away with the strip farming and what have you. The large fields were really very, very strange. One’s got used to it now.
“It was like emigrating all over again. Prague was most depressing. Grey. You came in ’93, you said? It was much better by then. Nineteen-ninety, ’91 was awful.
“Everywhere there was protection against falling stonework from the buildings and what have you. Nothing painted. Pavements full of holes. It was really very depressing.”
What was the hardest thing to get used to about living here again?
“The hardest thing was to actually realize how people lived in those 40 years under communism – the kind of mantras they had, the kind of signals they gave forth.
“It was very difficult to realize how they lived. It is still difficult. What their priorities were. Of course there were different groups with different priorities, but it was and still is very difficult.”
People often say that there has been, or there was at least, resentment towards people who left the country. Did you experience that?
“No. I can’t say that we did. We built a house in the hills in Brdy, south-west of Prague, in a village, on a hill. I was a bit apprehensive. We had money, more than the people there. We had an Audi with an American number plate, what have you.
“We were a bit worried, but nothing. People were extremely kind. When I was 80 the village planted a tree.
“What got my wife a bit riled up, but not me, was Klaus’s remarks about people who left. He was aiming at Schwarzenberg. That left me cold. I left twice. Once because I was a Jew, to save my life, and the second time had I stayed on I would have gone to Jáchymov [labour camp at uranium mine] for 12 years. No way.
“If people who left the country are to be disregarded, as Klaus holds, then Komenský is not a Czech, is he? It’s ridiculous.
“One thing of course was this, that a lot of people who lived abroad and came back started telling people here what to do. That was stupid and short-sighted. I think I never did that.”
My final question is: generally speaking, and it’s a very broad question, how do you view developments here since the fall of communism?
“Negatively. I don’t think that 20, 23 years ago anybody imagined that this would be the state of the country. Very, very negatively.
“Corruption. All right, a little bit of corruption you have everywhere. And in many ways it’s quite useful. It keeps the wheels of society and politics turning. But if you get too much…it’s like any lubricant – if you put too much oil into your car engine, it stalls. This country is stalling.
“It’s very provincial. The calibre of the politicians is very poor. The people are decent. The majority of the people here are hard-working, intelligent and very, very decent.
“But, you see, when regimes change there’s always an elite change. And to watch an elite change is not a particularly pleasant spectacle. Machiavelli said elites are either lions or foxes. Well, we’ve got the foxes now.
“I think there was a chance that the lions would come along. But the dissent, particularly after Havel’s term of office ended, got pushed aside, and was prepared to be pushed aside.
“Many people who I know who were signatories of Charter 77 and so on got so pissed off, to use a vulgar term, that they were quite happy to be pushed aside…No, I think it’s very disappointing.”