Přemysl Pitter: the good fundamentalist

Přemysl Pitter

It is quite likely that you will never have heard of the Czech teacher, religious thinker, pacifist and humanist, Přemysl Pitter, but he deserves to be remembered as one of the great Czechs of the 20th century. Pitter touched the lives of thousands, and his work helping children during and just after the Second World War, matches the achievements of Oskar Schindler. In a new biography of Přemysl Pitter, the writer and journalist Pavel Kosatík puts his extraordinary life in context. We find out more in Czech Books with David Vaughan.

Přemysl Pitter
Přemysl Pitter is best known for an episode that occurred in Prague in the days and weeks just after the end of World War II. Amid the violence and chaos of the time, he realized that there were hundreds of children left on their own, facing starvation or typhus. With immense practicality, he set about helping them. He managed to give sanctuary to nearly a thousand children: Jewish orphans from the concentration camps, Czech children who had lost their parents in the fighting and – in defiance of the prevailing atmosphere of revenge – he also took in German children, whose parents had disappeared, often killed in the wild retributions that followed the liberation of Czechoslovakia. What Pitter achieved during the weeks after the war reflected a quality that he showed again and again in the course of his life, an ability to recognize who most needs help at a given moment, and the determination to give that help, whatever the consequences.

Pavel Kosatík’s book, “Sám proti zlu”, (Alone against Evil) tries to do more than just tell the story of Přemysl Pitter’s life. It puts his achievements into the context of his teaching and thinking. Kosatík describes Pitter as a religious “fundamentalist”, not a quality we would normally think of as positive.

“He reminds me of what you read in the lives of the early saints, who felt almost as if they had been overwhelmed by God and lost their own will. You might say this is dangerous, because it lacks reflection, but on the other hand, if you really believe in something, you can’t really distance yourself from it at the same time. It’s interesting even for today’s Christians.”

Pitter’s “fundamentalism” had its roots in his experiences in World War I, when, as a young man from a Prague middle-class family, he was conscripted into the armies of Austria-Hungary. He saw many of his comrades fall, and came close to being shot by his own officers when he found himself unable to fire on the enemy. In the wake of the experience, he became a pacifist and a Christian. “My life no longer belongs to me,” is how he himself put it.

In his book, Pavel Kosatík describes vividly the atmosphere of the time just after the end of World War I. Czechoslovakia was a new country, looking for its identity. It terms of attitudes towards religion, it was in a state of flux: many people were leaving the Roman Catholic Church, which they associated with the old Habsburg order, and there were various attempts to build on the Czech Protestant tradition. Přemysl Pitter embraced Protestantism, but at the same time was critical of some of the emerging Protestant churches, which, he felt, identified themselves too closely with Czech nationalism.

The Milíč House in 1936
“There was nothing of the nationalist in him, and in this he was very unusual at the time. Much of Czech politics between the wars was built on the basic precept of being anti-German. Pitter rejected this. He felt that simply pointing to the guilt of others was not enough. In his view it was much more productive to concentrate on your own conscience. In this he remained consistent all his life.”

Pitter was inspired by the Protestant thinker, Emanuel Rádl, and one of Rádl’s central tenets was a humanist one, that faith only took on real meaning in the way one acted towards other people. It was in this spirit that in the 1920s Pitter started working with the children of the slums of Žižkov, a poor district of Prague. This eventually led to the building of the famous Milíč House – a refuge from the poverty around – which still stands today. Pavel Kosatík:

“The Milíč House was how I first came across Pitter, because one of the children that used to go there was Olga Havlová, Václav Havel’s late wife. I’ll never forget how in one of her first speeches in 1990, she said, ‘Don’t forget Přemysl Pitter.’ I gradually found out that hundreds of children went through the Milíč House, and that it wasn’t just a place where they came after school. What Pitter gave them – whether as a teacher or a religious thinker – came from within himself. He didn’t tell them what to believe. His acts spoke louder than words, and the children understood this. It stayed with them all their lives.”

Pavel Kosatík,  photo: David Vaughan
The Milíč House became an important focus not just for progressive ideas in education, but also for the exchange of theological ideas, and its reputation spread far beyond the borders of Czechoslovakia. With the wartime occupation, Pitter struggled to continue his work at the Milíč House, and once again he focused on trying to help those who were most in need: this time it was Prague’s Jewish children, who were facing complete social exclusion. Pavel Kosatík continues:

“I’ve always regretted the fact that later on Přemysl Pitter hardly spoke or wrote about what he did to help the Jewish children. In the end very few of them survived the war, nor did their families, but we do know a few details. In the months before the transports to the concentration camps, we know that Pitter would take food to Jewish families. And he also encouraged non-Jewish children who came to the Milíč House not to be afraid of walking down the street with the children who were forced to wear the Star of David. He told the Jewish children that the star was something they could be proud of and he reminded them that Jesus was Jewish too. He did all this in his usual way, very naturally. I’m sure it helped them.”

The Prague Uprising at the beginning of May 1945 was one of the last battles of World War II, and in the days just after the liberation of the city, there were scenes of violent retribution against Germans. Many Czechs sought to wreak revenge on the occupiers and the result was a bloodbath. Přemysl Pitter was quite unprepared for this sudden burst of violent nationalism. Pavel Kosatík:

“I think that May 1945 was probably the worst moment of his life, because he was shocked by the way Czechs were behaving towards Germans. He witnessed scenes where Germans were tortured or burned to death in the streets of Prague. In some cases he saw the parents of the children he knew from the Milíč House among the people carrying out these acts. He hadn’t expected it, and felt that this was against everything that Czechoslovakia was meant to represent. He predicted that it would leave a bitter moral legacy for years to come, and he saw such behaviour as one of the seeds for the rise of totalitarianism.”

‘Never,’ he preached, ‘has our nation been less free than today, so enslaved by the desire for revenge, in the shackles of self-interest and ruthlessness. Or is it worthy of the nation of Hus and Masaryk to burn its enemies alive and torment their wives and children?’

“History proved him right, but just imagine how it was at the time! When he gave his first sermon after the liberation at the Milíč House, people came in large numbers, expecting him to preach about how wonderful it was to have peace again. Instead, quite uncompromisingly, he told them that something awful was going on. It’s a sign of his moral authority that they didn’t shout him down there and then. And maybe some of the people even accepted what he said.”

It was at this same time that Pitter was launching his most famous initiative.

“Pitter found out that there were orphaned Jewish children still in the Ghetto in Terezín and dying of typhus, so he went straight there, even before the Red Cross turned up, to find out if among them were any of the children that he had known from the Milíč House. He quickly found out that a lot of other Czech children had been left on their own, including those who’d lost their parents in the Prague Uprising, so he started to help them too. And then he saw that there were German children who had also been orphaned or separated from their parents. He was the only person willing to help them. Of more than 800 children that he and his colleagues rescued at the time, over 400 were German. Today we take this for granted, but, at that time, helping the children of the former enemy was hugely unpopular, and there were all sorts of letters and accusations – some are illustrated and quoted in the book. But, as always, Pitter wouldn’t give up.”

Pitter tried to rebuild the work of the Milíč House in Prague, but the spirit of the time was not in favour of religious idealists. His work was made increasingly difficult, until eventually, in 1951, he fled Czechoslovakia via West Berlin. He soon found out that many of his fellow refugees were living in appalling conditions in camps in West Germany. The worst of these camps was Valka, near Nuremberg. Pavel Kosatík:

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Valka was at that time something like Hell on Earth. Refugees from all over Eastern Europe were dumped there, with little chance of getting further, because the Western governments had stopped taking in refugees. So Pitter did just what he had always done. He went to help those who most needed it – and that meant going to the Valka camp. He was taken on as a social worker, but he also began to act as a pastor to the refugees. It wasn’t long before he started lectures there, and Radio Free Europe started broadcasting religious services directly from the camp. He became one of the best known Czech émigrés. His work carried on all through the 1950s, until the Western countries eventually increased their quotas and most refugees were able to go to America, Australia or other countries. He stayed in the camp right to the end. It’s amazing really, because there were so many other things he could have done – he could have promoted himself and could have earned a lot of money, but instead, he carried on working at the camp until the last of the refugees had found a home.”

On several occasions I have had the chance to talk to people who, as children, came into contact with Přemysl Pitter. Without exception, whether Jewish or Christian, Czech or German, all have said that he changed their lives for the better, sometimes in fundamental ways. You can find the memories of some of the children in a previous Radio Prague programme at: www.radio.cz/en/section/special/premysl-pitter-a-forgotten-czech-schindler.

Pavel Kosatík’s biography of Pitter, “Sám proti zlu” (Alone against Evil), is excellent in putting Pitter’s life into context. It is published (in Czech) by Paseka. And look out too for Tomáš Škrdlant’s excellent film about Přemysl Pitter (in Czech with English subtitles), “Love Your Enemies.”