The strange tale of the Prague English Grammar School
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.
"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:
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.
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."
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.
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:
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.
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."