Professor Erazim Kohak - grateful to be home, grateful to be alive

Erazim Kohak

Rob Cameron's guest in this week's One on One is Erazim Kohak, professor of philosophy at Charles University in Prague. Forced to flee his country with his parents after the Communist takeover of 1948, he spent four decades living in exile in the United States, returning to his homeland in 1990.

What are your memories of the Second World War?

"I was six years old when the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, and my parents became involved in the resistance from the very beginning. I was eight years old when my father was arrested, ten when my mother was arrested. I did not worry about whether I was enjoying life. But I remember once getting a load of fresh carrots, and I was very pleased! So there were very many happy events like that. For this reason I still enjoy cooking and eating."

Were you alone among your peers, among your friends to have parents who had been arrested by the Nazis?

"All of my friends' parents were in some difficulty or other. But at that point, when you think of the age, the peer group is not that important: the family is still the basic unit. And I was yanked out of it very early."

Then came the end of the war. Tell me your feelings when the Nazis left and the Russians came to liberate your country.

"Simply total joy. A sense of rebirth. A sense of having walked through the valley of death. And having come out on the other side. Yes, I like that psalm a great deal. Though I can only recite it in Czech. For me it was a new world beginning. We were just totally delighted. I remember standing beside the road on the barricade we had dismantled so the Russians could march through, and meeting a truckload of British POWs and hearing English. And I was rather delighted by it."

Those feelings of joy - were they soon followed by sadness and despair when what had happened during those six years really began to set in?

"No. Definitely not despair. There was tremendous hope and determination. Yes, we very rapidly became aware that the Communists were intent on restoring what we had known under the Germans, only with different colouring. But we simply couldn't believe they would succeed. It could not happen in Czechoslovakia, Masaryk's Czechoslovakia. So we knew it would be hard work, but we determined to struggle and to rebuild the Czechoslovakia which in rather an elusive manner we imagined during the war. We did not have very good contact with reality."

Your family took the decision to emigrate after the Communists took power in 1948. That must have been a very difficult one.

"That is wholly incorrect. We did not decide to emigrate. We were refugees. An emigrant is someone who is looking for a different home somewhere else. We did not want any home other than Czechoslovakia. But we had the police on our heels! We literally crossed by night, we crossed the mountains into what was then the American zone of Germany. We were not emigrants. No-one welcomed us. We had no job waiting for us. We were refugees."

So you were thrown out of your country.

"Definitely. And we lived in refugee camps, such as you know now from Palestine. I feel for refugees. And it was by pure luck that we managed to get to the United States, not by choice, but because the Americans were willing to take unskilled labour, and since my father was a doctor of philosophy, an editor, and my mother was a professor of English literature we were considered unskilled."

That must have been an extraordinary experience for a young boy.

"All experiences are incomparable for a young boy, because he has nothing with which to compare it. And for that reason I considered it perfectly normal. It was the only life I knew. In retrospect I see it definitely."

What's the first thing you remember about your new life?

"Riding in the back of a truck, knocking down apples, and then heating them in a can. We were working, building tennis courts for the Americans. And if you worked, the rations were better than if you were just sitting in the camp. So I remember the rainfall of apples, and at that point for some reason they were different apples than I was used to from home. I realised I was outside."

When did you next get the chance to see your homeland again?

"Very briefly, in 1968, when the situation relaxed, I got a three-week visa. But that doesn't really count. I was able to return after the collapse of the Communist regime. So in 1989 - actually it was in 1990 by then - I returned and by May I gave my first lectures at the university in Prague."

Was there ever any hesitation in your decision to return to this country, or did you know as soon as the regime collapsed - I want to go home?

"I knew that before the regime collapsed also. I knew that all my life."

Many people of your generation seem rather bitter and disappointed at the changes that have followed 1989. Would you count yourself among them?

"What a total waste of life that would be! Just think, in my generation, you live on borrowed time. At my age, most people are dead. And here I have the great privilege of being alive, being home in my country. And having my wife alive, which means a great deal to me. What a waste of time it would be to feel bitter."

Is that something that you try and get across to the students you teach?

"No, what I try to get across to them is Husserl's conception of phenomenology. That's what I'm paid for teaching. But I suppose it comes through anyway.

So Erazim Kohak remains very much an optimist. Someone who sees the glass as half full.

"Oh perish the thought, no. I'm just a very grateful person."

Are you a religious person?

"Yes. All my life, Czech brethren, protestant. During my years in exile I was very active in the local Anglican church. Anglicanism came to the United States from Scotland after the revolution, there it's called the Episcopal church. But yes, I am very much a believer."

And did your faith help you through those difficult moments in your life?

"That's what faith is for. The question is was I able to help my God any. And I hope I have."