The Testament of Hope of Přemysl Pitter and Milíčův Dům

During the German occupation, Přemysl Pitter’s Milíč House became a secret support center for persecuted Jewish families, and in 1945 it was the organizational heart for the rescue of 800 German, Jewish and Czech children.

Milíčův dům (Milíč House), Sauerova 1836/2, 130 00 Prague 3
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Continue walking as if towards the city-center along the tram tracks to Sauerova Street. The grey three-story functionalist style building on your right, now concealed behind several ugly new buildings, is Milíč House. It has a memorial plaque.

We reject evil, but not those who have succumbed to it. Přemysl Pitter
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During the German occupation, Přemysl Pitter’s Milíč House became a secret support center for persecuted Jewish families, and in 1945 it was the organizational heart for the rescue of 800 German, Jewish and Czech children.

This beautiful structure was designed by Erwin Katona, a functionalist architect. It was the institution’s future director, Přemysl Pitter, who persuaded Karel Skorkovský, philantropist and owner of a prosperous construction company, to help support the children of Žižkov and to build the house without much hope of financial return. At Christmas 1933, Milíč House – then still only one-storey – welcomed its first children.

Snack on the stairs of Milíčův dům. (Photo: Comenius National Pedagogical Museum and Library.)

Pitter’s Milíčův dům, named after Jan Milíč of Kroměříž, a medieval social worker and reformer, was a very progressive institution. Milíč House served children from poorer families in working class Žižkov and the surrounding area. Children from 6 to 16 years of age could spend their free time here, and could go to Milíč House every day after school and at weekends. Every Sunday afternoon a religious meeting was held. Food was always vegetarian, and in season, the children could eat what they had grown themselves in the fertile gardens around the house. In addition to club rooms, workshops and study rooms, there was a room used both as a gymnasium and a music hall where - as well as being the venue for the Sunday meeting - violin and piano, dance and choral singing were taught. One of the children who attended the center was Olga Šplíchalová, later Havlová – the first wife of Václav Havel.

It was the philosophical views of Přemysl Pitter which guided the work of the institution, and these were put into practice by Olga Fierz (1900-1990), a brilliant pedagogue and Pitter’s lifelong supporter, and also Ferdinand Krch, Josef Rott, Anna Rottová, Anna Pohorská and others. These people all had other jobs from which they funded the work of Milíč House, along with contributors from Pitter’s Sbratření journal. The aim of this non-direct “education of the heart” was to arouse in children the wish to be happy, good and supportive of one another. Milíč House teachers prepared meaningful activities and were consistent in their communication with the children. An important part of their teaching was to encourage the children to give short acting performances for the public, which helped build self-confidence.

After 1934, Milíč House also welcomed children of German emigrants who had to flee from Nazi Germany. During the German occupation, it became a secret support center for persecuted Jewish families, and in 1945 was the organizational heart for the rescue of German, Jewish and Czech children. After 1948, Milíč House was systematically destroyed by the new regime and since 1976 it has been a nursery school, taking the name of Milíč House Kindergarten in 2001.

Who was the spiritus agens, the initiator of Milíč house? Přemysl Pitter (1895-1976) was a humanist and supporter of conscientious objectors (for which he spent two months in prison), a Christian and lay preacher who never became a member of any church, a publicist, fundraiser, social worker, a volunteer and an educator. And also a pacifist who acted as an inconvenient critic of Czechoslovak governmental attitudes towards the minority German population, whereby the authorities wanted the Germans to remain calm and make few demands: "It is so touching how nations which profited from war suddenly became peaceful and non-confrontational after the war," Pitter said sarcastically in 1929, in reaction to the attitude of the Prague government to the Sudeten population.

Handiwork in Milíčův dům, 1930s. (Photo: Comenius National Pedagogical Museum and Library)

The triumph of Pitter’s life was the so-called “Chateaux Action”. In May 1945, right at the end of war, the state confiscated Štiřín, Olešovice, Kamenice and Lojovice castles and a former hotel in Ládví. These were all entrusted to Pitter who established children’s sanatoriums. In these, Pitter and his former associates – now joined by Emil Vogl, a doctor recently returned from Auschwitz –cared for about 800 German, Jewish and Czech homeless and malnourished children. Pitter acted in accordance with the principles of civil disobedience, for example when he went against the order to care only for Czech children. This was a thorn in the side of many of his compatriots and a number of people were also irritated by Pitter’s condemnation of the brutal expulsion of the Germans in 1945: "Our nation has never been so unfree as today, so enslaved by vengefulness, so dominated by prejudice and recklessness. Is it worthy of the nation of Huss and Masaryk to burn their enemies alive and torture their wives and children?"

After the 1948 Communist coup, the regime thwarted Pitter’s further activities. In 1951 he was forced to emigrate to avoid arrest and, together with Olga Fierz, for the next ten years was a social worker and lay-priest in the Valka refugee camp near Nuremberg, working with Radio Free Europe. Until the end of his life he published a magazine, a source of important debates. In addition to many other awards, Přemysl Pitter and Olga Fierz were proclaimed by the institution of Yad Vashem as the Righteous Among the Nations.

If Přemysl Pitter, unlike Nicholas Winton, has so far not gained his well-deserved place in our historical memory, we have only ourselves to blame, and not Pitter’s alleged controversy which resulted from a life lived without moral compromise. Czech society still avoids historical guilt, links leftist thought with communism, distrusts Czech heroes, especially when they happen to be “believers”. Pitter never joined a church, he was a practical Christian who perceived Christ as a teacher rather than God. He knew – as did Martin Buber whom he later visited in Israel – that God needs people as partners, that justice would not come or truth win by itself. Of course, Czech society could do more to promote Pitter’s legacy, but more important than putting him on a pedestal is to ask how Pitter would act in today’s era of environmental and refugee crises and emerging authoritarian regimes, and to search for possible answers and inspiration for our own activities.

Přemysl Pitter and children. (Photo: Comenius National Pedagogical Museum and Library)
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Where next?

From Milíč House, it takes about ten minutes to walk to the next stop on the trail. Walk through Parukářka Park, past the wooden Parukářka pub and follow the hill steeply down. At the crossroads, before the bridge turn left (do not go over the bridge) and then make a right and go downhill along the busy street. On your left, across the street, you can see the monument to the courageous journalist, writer and poet, Karel Havlíček Borovský. Continue down to Prokop’s Square. House no. 4 on the corner, with a mailbox, is the birthplace of the journalist, Milena Jesenská.