Once Upon Another Time is Jessica Douglas-Home’s account of the part she herself played in an extraordinary private enterprise which came to be known as ‘the Oxford visitors’. The story began with Julius Tomin, a philosophy teacher who had been ejected from his university position in Czechoslovakia. He continued openly, but unofficially, to teach courses for students expelled from Charles University on political grounds. He and his students were subjected to violence and harassment, and the strict control of access to books imposed by the authorities led to their losing touch entirely with the course of learning in the West. In 1979 Tomin wrote a letter to many Western universities, inviting lecturers to visit and speak at his seminars. Oxford was the only university to respond.
By the time Jessica Douglas-Home got involved there was a regular stream of lecturers going into Czechoslovakia in secret and meeting dissidents, bringing them what comfort they could – carrying books and small sums of money, lecturing to them, taking samizdat work to the West in the hope that it might be published, and relying on the Czech Government’s assertions, for foreign consumption only, that there was freedom of thought and association behind the Iron Curtain. The visitors risked unpleasantness, assault from the police, and deportation. The Czechs risked nearly everything that could be risked – loss of jobs, humiliation, imprisonment, persecution of their families, ostracism and loss of education for their children, even death. Sympathizers sent money when a very high-profile visitor, the Master of Balliol no less, was arrested and deported. A trust was founded, and somehow what amounted to an underground university was established and maintained under the noses of the communist government. Those Westerners who took the risk of going found the most serious and motivated students they had ever encountered, driven by a hunger for learning.
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