The strange tale of the Prague English Grammar School

Jiri and Mariana Hovorka

Today the English College in Prague is one of several private secondary schools where pupils are taught in the English language. In this day and age, this is nothing unusual, but what is less well-known is that schools like the English College are building on a Prague tradition that goes way back to 1927. That was when Prague's pioneering state-run English Grammar School was set up - at the time known universally by the acronym PEGS. It was on the instigation of the Education Ministry, with the strong support of the then minister and later Prime Minister, Milan Hodza. In various forms and against all the odds, the school survived both the German occupation and the communist take-over in 1948 - until it was finally closed down in 1953.

Peter de Voil
Over fifty years later, PEGS is still fondly remembered by former pupils, and it is still an inspiration to teachers and educationalists, not least to the headmaster of today's English College, Peter de Voil:

"Well, what stood out of course was the English teaching element - the fact that they had all their lessons in English, but it was also the interactive style of teaching, whereby students were encouraged to engage with the teachers, to question judgments, to apply critical thinking to their studies, rather than simply memorize and regurgitate factual information."

When the Prague English Grammar School opened on 15 September 1927, the ideal was to "turn out young people who are inspired with the idea of international solidarity". Although teachers were brought in from Britain and America, the school was an integral part of the Czechoslovak education system. By 1937 there were nearly three hundred pupils, both boys and girls. 238 were Czechoslovak nationals, including several German-speakers, 18 were Russian, 6 were German and 6 American. 107 were Catholics and 40 of the pupils were Jewish by faith. This made for a stimulating and culturally lively environment, as jazz writer and historian Lubomir Doruzka, remembers:

Lubomir Doruzka
"Czech, German and Jewish students learned in that school English together. Their common language was English, of course. And they had their own orchestra too. In the orchestra Czech, German and Jewish musicians played together. But that was before the arrival of Hitler and his Nazi regime. As soon as that happened, some of the Germans refused to play either with Czechs or with Jewish musicians and the band broke. Of course the musicians continued to play, and one of the successors of this band was the famous Emil Ludvik Band, composed mostly of students."

When the Nazi occupation began in 1939, the grammar school was closed down. Many of the pupils and former pupils who were Jewish, including one of his generation's most accomplished jazz musicians, Fritz Weiss, perished in the death camps. But incredibly PEGS did not disappear completely. The elementary school that had been established at the same time continued under a different name. One pupil was Mariana Hovorkova.

"It was a private school. It was especially for children of Jewish origin, who couldn't go to normal school. Those children had one of their parents Jewish - not both, because when they had both Jewish parents they had to go to Terezin and to the concentration camp. We had normal school, normal teachers, and the director, Vaclav Cerny, was a very good man. He was in a secret organization, but we didn't know it. I just remember once - it was Adolf Hitler's birthday - and we had to listen to some speeches about him. The director stood behind me and asked me if I was listening. I said 'Yes.' He said, 'Don't listen!' At the end of the war, I think it was in January 1945, police came to the school, and they took him to Terezin, to the prison. He was executed on 5 May 1945, when the war was already finishing."

After the war the Czechoslovak government lost no time in reopening the Grammar School. Michal Basch was a pupil at the time - his father had been in Jerusalem during the war, first serving in the British 8th Army, and then as a diplomat for the Czechoslovak government in exile. Michal was by no means an untypical pupil.

Jiri and Mariana Hovorka
"All through the school, from the first to the eighth class, you found lots of people who came back after the war, where the children were educated, or partly educated, in English, and they enrolled in the school. That, in a sense, also affected the character of the school."

Another pupil was Jiri Hovorka, who joined at the age of eleven in 1945. After six years as a child in German occupied Prague, going to the Grammar School was a hugely stimulating experience.

"The atmosphere and the flavour of the school were completely different, because we met people from abroad: the children of our soldiers fighting in Great Britain and other parts of the world, children who were rescued from concentration camps, and there were children who didn't speak Czech properly and spoke English, which was, I think, very good for us."

It was also at the school that Jiri met Mariana, whom he was later to marry.

"We had met very often on the way to school, where I saw - usually from the tram window - my future wife running, crossing the bridge over the Vltava River, because she always started late for school and she was trying to get there in time."

Once again teachers from Britain and America came to the school, as Jiri and Mariana Hovorka, and another former pupil, Jaroslav Voracek, remember vividly.

Mariana: "We had a very noble teacher, Cyril Richards, and he taught us English songs and stories and so on."

Jaroslav Voracek
Jaroslav: "I particularly remember how he taught us English songs - I still use them in my classes - like Old King Cole and In the North Sea Lived a Whale, and this kind of thing..."

Jiri: "We had a woman teacher, Miss McKenzie, who came from Scotland. We used to cheat a lot, and Miss McKenzie was horrified about that: 'This is not honest, you can't do that. You are trying to learn something and you work against yourselves.' This was something completely new for us. That was a lesson, and I think it works right up to now."

Jaroslav: "I don't think I learned very much at the English Grammar School, but I learned how to learn, and what to learn and how to do it. I remember Mr Cooper, and during the period we were playing with our schoolmates. Somebody pushed me, and I pushed Mr Cooper. And I wanted to say, 'Excuse me, Sir...' But I didn't know how to say, 'She pushed me.' So I said, 'Excuse me, Sir. She did this to me...' and I showed the way she pushed me. I remember he shouted at me, 'She pushed me, Voracek!' That's the way to learn. I remembered forever that to push somebody is 'to push' in English. It's situational learning of a foreign language."

Jaroslav Voracek recalls how times were quickly changing, as the communists were gradually gaining control.

February 1948
"And then of course came the year 1948 and communism - and we felt somehow above the whole thing. We felt that we were something extra, and I remember we would march in the streets, which were empty at that time - there were not so many cars after the war - and we were walking in the streets like the American Marines, and we were singing the song of the America Marines - From the Halls of Montezuma - and so on. That was even during the communist period, because it still continued being an English grammar school until about 1950. Only then did they expel the English and American teachers and gave us Czech teachers of English instead. And then it became The Prague Language School - with 'English' in brackets!"

The school, with its links to Britain and the United States, increasingly became the subject of official suspicion - described by the authorities as a "source of pro-western imperialist indoctrination". Michal Basch recalls:

Michal Basch
"It had to move from its big building in downtown Prague to a small building on Vinohrady. We formerly had about 20 or 25 classes in the school, lots of teachers and so on, but now we had four classes, and a minimum of teachers serving those four classes. Politics entered the school fully - I mean Stalinist politics. Some of the pupils of the school were jailed, and together with them some of the teachers were put into jail, when information was spread and given over to the police, that they are anti-Soviet, anti-communist or whatever."

One of the pupils who were arrested was Jiri Hovorka himself.

"It was called 'anti-state activities'. We edited a leaflet against the communist regime on the occasion of the anniversary of the first president of the Czechoslovak Republic, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. The other thing was that four or five of my schoolmates and I were in connection with an opposition group, a resistance group, which was led by a former chief of the Czechoslovak Army General Staff, General Ingr. Of course we didn't know any details of the whole system, because this was very dangerous. But one of our teachers was a member of such a group, and we helped this lady. Paradoxically she was a teacher of Russian.

General Sergej Ingr
"Later we met in the same prison. It was 1950, and we communicated through the water pipes, because otherwise it was not possible. I was in another cell. The problem was that in my cell there was also another man with the same name as mine, and the lady who wanted to talk with me - our teacher of Russian - thought that the other man was me. She discovered it was a mistake, so she began to be suspicious, and she didn't want to believe me when I tried to talk with her. I had to prove to her that it's really me. So she asked me, 'What was the topic of the last Russian composition I set you?' We had had to write something like a short story in Russian. I told her the name of the story, so she knew that it was really me. And she warned me what was going to happen, what she had told to the people who were asking questions, and so on."

In the end Jiri Hovorka spent 15 months in prison, and was then sent to work in a mine - an opportunity, as the regime put it, "to return to the normal life of socialist society."

By the early 50s the school was doomed. Up until 1953, it had remained a grammar school or "gymnazium". Michal Basch remembers:

"Summer 1953 was a watershed, when even these schools were abolished, and we were the last ones to sit our examinations at a school still called a gymnasium."

From then on the school disappeared altogether, and lived on just in the memories of former pupils and teachers. But even as a memory, it remains vivid, and to this day former pupils form a close network of friends - meeting regularly, and taking care of the few teachers still alive, now in their eighties and nineties.

Michal Basch: "Maybe those hard times in the early 1950s were the point which brought us together. I knew a lot of people and I still meet them now, and I'm happy to see them. The classes meet, but sometimes we even meet between classes and, yes, there is a sort of mutual affinity."

Jiri Hovorka: "I think the school influenced us very much. I think it's one of the reasons why we are still in touch up to now. In a certain sense of the word the school still goes on living."