Otto Ulc

Otto Ulc (born Otto Ulč), 1930 -2022

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 PhD 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 PhD 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. He retired and lived in Binghamton, New York with his wife.