Premysl Pitter was a Czech Christian who cared for hundreds of orphaned Jewish children during and after the Holocaust.
Born in Prague in 1895, Premysl fought in World War I, a horrifying experience which led him to become a devout Christian and pacifist. Not understanding why he survived when so many of his comrades fell on the battlefield, Premysl dedicated the rest of his life to serving others.
There were many war widows in Prague who were having trouble feeding their children after the Great War, and Premysl began working with children. He opened Milicuv, a home for disadvantaged children in 1933, and lovingly cared for them while teaching moral values. One Milicuv resident recalled years later, “Premysl Pitter was a wonderfully cheerful and good-natured person, with a very direct way with children. We all called him ‘uncle’ and we could turn to him with our fears or problems.”
Premysl’s reputation as an exceptional educator grew. His insightful articles on education and theology were widely read throughout Europe. He was an outspoken pacifist, and was arrested by the Czech government for promoting dangerous ideas. Albert Einstein successfully appealed to the Czech president for Premysl’s release.
In 1939, the Nazis invaded Prague. For the next six years, Jewish children were prohibited from attending normal schools and taking part in cultural activities. Premysl brought many Jewish children into Milicuv and kept them safe. When there was no more room at Milicuv, Premysl brought Jewish children into his own home.
One of these kids later told an astonishing story:
“One day they took him to the Gestapo headquarters and accused him of taking in Jewish children. Pitter was never able to tell a lie. He looked at the man and said – ‘From a human point of view I’m sure you can understand why I’m helping these children.’ After a long and deathly silence, the interrogator turned to him and said, ‘You may go.’ It was a kind of miracle. If you don’t want to say it was an act of God, well, let’s say that it was some kind of higher power.”
Prague was liberated in May 1945, and the newly established Czechoslovak government put Premysl in charge of helping traumatized Jewish orphans who had survived the war. Premysl set up many children’s homes, built on the Milicuv model, in the countryside around Prague.
It wasn’t only Jewish children who were suffering in Prague after the war. Thousands of Germans had been expelled from Czechoslovakia, and many of their children remained in Prague, destitute and homeless.
Premysl shocked many when he invited these abandoned German children into his orphanages, to be looked after along with the Jewish children. A few of the German children arrived wearing tattered Hitler Youth uniforms. Adults opposed bringing German children into the homes, but the Jewish children were accepting, and did not hold the Germans accountable for the sins of their parents.
Between 1945 and 1947, 810 children were cared for by Premysl and his staff.
As Stalinism took hold in Czechosolovakia, Premysl faced imprisonment as a Christian and a pacifist. He fled to West Germany in 1951, and then to Switzerland.
In 1964, Premysl was recognized by the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. He died in Zurich in 1976. Today, there are schools named after Premysl Pitter all over the Czech Republic.
For opening his heart and his homes to hundreds of forgotten children – Czech, Jewish, and German – we honor Premysl Pitter as this week’s Thursday Hero at Accidental Talmudist.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.