Tomáš Bísek, Part 1: Everything became black and white with signing of Charter 77

Tomáš Bísek, photo: Milena Štráfeldová

Protestant cleric Tomáš Bísek was forced to leave Czechoslovakia in the 1980s for his dissident activities and spent over a decade ministering in Scotland. His family had been active members of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren and – despite the communist regime – he himself had eventually become a clergyman in a small town in the Bohemian Moravian Highlands. However, his life became increasingly difficult after he and his wife signed the Charter 77 protest document. I began the first half of a two-part interview by asking the now retired Mr. Bísek – who was born in 1939 – what he recalled of WWII.

Tomáš Bísek,  photo: Milena Štráfeldová
“We lived in Dobeška [in Prague], which is a little hill and you can see the river and Prague in the distance.

“There was danger during the Prague Uprising because the Germans bombarded this part of Prague so we moved. I remember the tanks shelling – light shells.

“That was the first thing. And the second was when Prague was bombarded by the Allies at the very end of the war and the Emmaus Monastery was really in flames – I remember that very clearly.

“Later when there were parades with rockets and fireworks I always combined it in my memory with these horrifying events at the end of the war. I never enjoyed it, in fact.”

To jump forward slightly, you first graduated from the Czech Technical University. But did you always want to minister? Or was that something that came later?

“Not clearly. In fact, my mother was awfully strict in a sort of formally religious way and I always suffered going to services or Sunday school. I really hated it.

“But it was really due to the actions of let’s say the [Communist] party or my teachers that I slowly began to feel uncomfortable with the system.

“During our studies at the Technical University part of the programme was Marxism-Leninism and all this stuff.

“A few weeks ago we had a 53rd anniversary meeting with some colleagues and they said, Tomáš, we always called you ‘the individual’.

“Because in discussions with the Marxism-Leninism lecturer you always said, What about the individual person – what’s his role?

“So it grew in me during that time and after graduation and a year of work in a factory and military service I realised that the numbers for the Faculty of Theology were so limited, officially I would say, by the party, that I said, Perhaps I could do something with it?

“I applied to study and miraculously I was accepted, with the condition that I would study full-time and not just take an evening course or whatever.

August 21,  1968 in Prague,  photo: archive of Pavel Macháček
“So I spent years and years of studying. After technical university another five years – something which is probably normal now but in those days was very unusual.”

The 1960s was a relatively liberal time in Czechoslovakia. But still I’m curious, how much freedom would religious communities have had in that period?

“I think the situation was slowly getting closer to the Prague Spring and that was in people’s minds. We recognised that we should break the chains. There was pressure and counter-pressure...

“Only later after everything happened and Russian tanks rolled the streets of Prague did I realise how lucky we had been to have lived through that time, through the period approaching the Prague Spring.”

You also studied in America at that time. How was that possible?

“Actually it was at the end of my theology studies – in 1969, a year after the invasion – a group of us were invited to study abroad.

“I think the intention of the system was, Let them go – they will never come back. But almost everyone returned, actually.

“An invitation came from Professor Lochman, a [Czech] systematics theologian, who was a visiting professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

“My wife and daughter joined me later and everything was quite possible. But the return was different, of course.”

After you came back you were a clergyman in Telecí in the Vysočina. Both you and your wife Daniela signed Charter 77 in 1977. What prompted you both to sign that? You must have known that there was a price that you would pay for signing it.

“It was a process that in certain ways started immediately after my return. I couldn’t get a state license. As perhaps everyone knows, no-one could act as a clergyman without a state license.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“The regional clerk of the East Bohemian region declared Mr. Bísek unwanted.

“But fortunately the leading moderator, the head of the Evangelical Church, … he was a man who had studied in the States prior to the war, an old man, and he challenged him at the level of the Ministry of Culture and eventually I got the invitation.

“He said, Mr. Bísek was invited [to the US] and the ministry gave him permission and he returned rightly back to help us, so what’s the problem?

“Later I realised that they never stopped keeping an eye on me. Let’s say in 1975, 1976 there was the first series of interrogations regarding my contacts abroad, friends, activities and the content of my preaching.

“Also people who signed up for religious classes at the local primary school were officially invited to the mayor’s office and were warned that if they enrolled the children they would have complications later regarding studies and jobs.

“I protested many a time, I would say. And eventually when we got the Charter 77 document my wife and I immediately agreed with it, though we would be still worried.

“But then we saw the list of the first signatories. I recognised several friends from my studies and others who had already been facing problems.

“I said, Let’s multiply the number of signatories, as quickly as possible.”

I’ve read some comments from people who signed the Charter saying that it was a kind of relief, a kind of line in the sand – from that point you were in a way free because you had in a way declared yourselves.

“Surely so. Yes. Suddenly the scene was really black and white. You free yourself from all this pressure.”

I’ve often read also that the dissident movement was a kind of broad church with many different kinds of people in it, including disappointed reform communists, very strong anti-communists, clerics like yourself, others. Was the dissident world really so harmonious?

STB files,  photo: Czech Television
“I wouldn’t call it harmonious in terms of intimacy between some people who under pressure… there could have been family tensions, tensions between colleagues… but regarding the aim, we were really walking together.

“I have remained in contact through the years with reform communists, playwrights or whoever. It was fantastic.

“It’s like with the refugees now. It’s not clear that from certain walks of life that people recognise what it means to be a human being and what it means to help…

“But there is a sort of cross-section through a variety of careers or professions or whatever – that people suddenly free themselves from pressure and say, This is what I want to do, this is how I want to help.”

People say also that it was harder, perhaps much harder, to be a dissident in the countryside than in Prague as you were more isolated. Would you vouch for that?

“Yes. Very much so. On the other hand, I was interrogated maybe 25 times but I think until 1982 I was safe from physical harm. But there were warnings.

“Also in 1979 I found bugs, microphones, in the ceiling – that of course was a clear declaration of war.

“Sometimes the policemen who came to the village sometimes didn’t want me to know they were there.

“But the people working in the fields recognised them straight away because they manoeuvred their cars as if they were in the city. Obviously they were trained in a big city.

“Can you imagine, a village with 800 people and a car parked in one place one day and at another place the next day? The locals said, Mr. Bísek, Tomáš, minister – they’re there. A glasshouse [laughs].”

I was reading that the StB file on you was named ‘samota’ or ‘solitude’. Was that fitting?

“I don’t know how they came up with that, really. It was never really ‘samota’.

“But the old party member who started the interrogations and was at the end of his career would call the months in Telecí a hotel. Because it had been used during the war as a hotel for the partisan movement.

Anna Šabatová | Photo: Adam Kebrt,  Czech Radio
“But ‘samota’… in fact I think they recognised that there were people moving from Prague or from Brno – because it was halfway between these two larger cities – meeting there. Sometimes we had really quite a number of people for the weekend.”

Would you have had people whose names would be well-known today visiting you?

“For instance [now ombudswoman] Anna Šabatová, [her husband the journalist and politician] Petr Uhl, [Bishop] Václav Malý… [Charter 77 spokesman and later minister] Jaroslav Šabata as well. “

Next week in the second half of this two-part interview, Tomáš Bísek the joys and difficulties of serving as a clergyman in Scotland and his return to the Czech Republic in the mid-1990s.