Otto Ulc (born Otto Ulč), 1930
Otto Ulc (also known as Ota Ulč) was born in Plzeň in 1930. His father was a car mechanic who owned his own shop while his mother stayed home to raise Otto and his younger brother. When he was five years old, Otto was in a serious car accident and required six operations. During one of the bombings that Plzeň suffered toward the end of WWII, Otto’s high school was hit and his last six weeks of school were cancelled. Otto also remembers the liberation of Plzeň by George Patton’s Third Army and meeting American troops in the city’s main square. After the War, he attended a classical gymnázium and graduated in 1949. Otto then applied to study comparative literature at Charles University, but was instead placed in law school. After graduating in 1953, he was appointed to a court in Plzeň, but shortly thereafter he was conscripted into the military. Two years later, he returned to the court and was appointed as a judge in the small town of Stříbro where he presided over civil cases. Otto says that because he was not a member of the Communist Party, he was not allowed to be involved in criminal law, which, he adds, came as some relief.
Otto says that he was ‘always dreaming to get out’ of the country and made two unsuccessful attempts in 1957 and 1958. In June 1959, he and a friend booked a trip to Rostock, a city on the northern coast of East Germany. After their train unexpectedly stopped in East Berlin, they managed to leave the group and cross into West Berlin. Otto says he knew they were in the West when he spotted oranges and bananas. He briefly stayed in a refugee camp and was then flown to an American military base in Frankfurt where he stayed for one year while he was questioned and debriefed. Otto moved to New York City and enrolled in a doctoral program at Columbia University. To put himself through school, he worked as a waiter at the Czech restaurant Vašata and as a freelance writer for Radio Free Europe. Otto graduated in three years with a doctorate in political science and accepted a post at Grinnell College in Iowa for one semester. He then began teaching at the Binghamton campus of the State University of New York. Over the years, Otto has taught courses in international law, comparative government, East European history, and Chinese politics. In 1971, Otto took a sabbatical and, with his wife, Priscilla (whom he had married in 1964), and one-year old son (named Ota J.), traveled the world to research racial conflict in non-European countries. He later embarked on two more sabbaticals during which he traveled to the Cook Islands and South Africa.
Otto became an American citizen in 1966 and first returned to Czechoslovakia in 1990. He became good friends with Josef Škvorecký, a Czech émigré writer in Toronto who founded 68 Publishers; Otto subsequently wrote many books for the publishing house. He was a member of the editorial board of the journal Západ [The West] to which he regularly contributed. A prolific writer, Otto has published more than 30 books. Now retired, he lives in Binghamton, New York, with his wife.
Otto recalls some memories from WWII
“I remember when we were about 12, we were with my friends and classmates and suddenly the sound was wailing, preparing for bombardment, and we had to rush out to shelter, and one of us shouted ‘Vladimír, rush!’ and this 12 year old creature said ‘By now, everything in life has bypassed me. I have missed everything. Why should I run?’ So this kind of thing [happened].
“Another thing which I do remember is when a bomb fell in front our house about one meter from the wall and did not explode, fortunately. They had to bring the commanders to unpeel it, unmake it. Also, after a bombardment, what happened was they blew out your windows and I had to go to bed and the bed was full of splinters. So you cannot sleep in splinters; well, you can, but who would? Also what I recall is, because our suburbs were favored by the Anglo-Saxon pirate – air-pirate we called it – I would bring the splinters from the anti-aircraft shells and also from bombs [to school]. So in other words, I would bring some lunch and textbooks and bomb splinters to school.”
Otto says communist influence was evident shortly after WWII
“From the very beginning, it was a quasi-democratic, semi-democratic state, because the Communists started to dominate from the very beginning. For example, newspapers needed supplies of print paper and they controlled it. They decided who would get it. From the very first day, the mayor’s office in Plzeň was run by the Communists. What you saw already was the bending of spines of people. Because here was an opportunity to get something for nothing. You have three million Germans being thrown out of the country. These areas were not poor farmland, but prosperous like Liberec or Reichenberg where there were palaces and various factories and spas – we were close to Marienbad, Karlsbad. There were people who went there to steal. People were joining the Party. There were elections in 1946. In 1946, Communists got about 38% of the vote. Nowhere else in Europe did this happen. There was enthusiasm to take everything over.
“In our class, we were a fairly exclusive school – there were only 15 of us in the whole year – and of those, I think only two were on the communist side. Most of the professors were alright. Some of them would be conformists, silent, but you knew that in their heart, they would be on your side, but simply for these qualms, they did not want to risk anything.”
Otto graduated from high school in 1948 and applied for study at Charles University
“I applied for some studies and my application went to the study of comparative literature, but in those days, communists didn’t have any interest in the esoteric bourgeois unnecessary fields. First I was subject to some intelligence test and the decision was made, after thorough study, that for me, the best, most suitable line of work would be to become a pharmacist. I was supposed to be a pharmacist. That did not happen, but then they switched me to law school despite my petit-bourgeois background. My petit-bourgeois background; my father always worked with his hands, but just happened not be exploited. These were the most miserable four years I could think of because it was the days of Stalinism. I felt like kind of an idiot, or a prostitute, and I especially was afraid, because out of my class, at least one-third vanished, disappeared, were liquidated, for political reasons.”
Otto describes his first two attempts at leaving Czechoslovakia
“Of course, I was always dreaming to get out and therefore I was working on my English. Therefore, I had to figure out how to do that because you cannot possibly try to cross the border illegally because it’s suicide. You cannot apply for a passport because it’s not obtainable. Therefore I had to find out a different way, and I tried three times. The first time to Romania because I had some kind of unreliable information that in the port of Constanta there will be a Lebanese ship and that for some jewels or something I could get to Turkey. Well, I arrived at Constanta and there was no ship. That was it.
“Then in 1958, with my friend Miloš Koenig, we both applied for a vacation for a tent compound in Greece. Two days before departure, Koenig received a letter that it is not in the state’s interest to let him go. But I did not receive the letter; therefore, I was one of about 30 lucky fellows – at that moment, still a lucky fellow – who assembled in the main Prague railway station, already in the compartment. We had to be attached to the regular train going to Vienna. And suddenly, two fellows came from the secret police and said they got the message there is very inclement weather in Greece and therefore we have the opportunity to go to the climactically more balmy Sochi in Russia.”
After his two unsuccessful attempts to leave the country, Otto made plans for his last try
“I said to Miloš, ‘Let’s do it once more. Either it will work or it will not work, but we will have to do it differently.’ Namely, through East Germany. But, how to get to East Germany? Even East Germans were not allowed to go to East Berlin. We had to build an alibi. How do you build up an alibi? You try to be a very nice comrade. At the annual examinations of judgeship, I excelled so beautifully that the deputy minister – proletariat lady, horrible comrade – put me in the bulletin as an example. I also managed to obtain a car. I started to buy properties – a new stereo. In other words, in case I would be caught, I would say ‘Comrades, do you think I am mad that I would buy these things, that I would have a new car, and do these things? It’s a terrible misunderstanding.’ We had to make all kinds of various arrangements. I would listen to the East German radio. I would listen to Hans Eisler, the Minister of Propaganda. I wrote to him about how marvelous it was, and he responded. Not too much, but at least I could have something from the Minister of Propaganda.”
When Otto’s train to Rostock was rerouted to East Berlin he made his way to the central S-Bahn station
“Suddenly a train was coming. We thought that it might go in the right direction. We bought a ticket and the train took off. In a minute it stopped. I looked out the window. There I see a kiosk with a newspaper – colorful newspaper – oranges and bananas, and I said ‘Miloš, we are here.’ He said ‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.’ I said ‘Alright, one more stop.’ At the next stop, there were bigger oranges, bigger bananas. I said ‘Out, out!’ And we were very lucky because it was an enclave; we found out that the next stop would have been in the east again.”
Otto explains why he has a strong vocabulary
“My vocabulary in English is richer than the majority of my colleagues. They always complimented me: ‘How on earth do have this kind of language?’ Well, the explanation would be difficult for them to understand because when I moved to Stříbro, I tried to improve my English. I did not have any solid book of grammar; I could not take lectures because it would be suspicious, but I had a dictionary, and I started to memorize the dictionary from A to Z. So I expanded my vocabulary very substantially, without knowing what I will be able to do with these words.”
Category: New York City, Oral History