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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Peter Glaser by John Elder on 1994 May 16,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Some of the topics discussed include: his Jewish childhood and early education in Czechoslovakia; his family's escape from the Nazi takeover; his education as an engineer in England; fighting with the Czech army during World War II; his return to Czechoslovakia after the war; his emigration to the U.S. where he earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Columbia University; his employment as a consulting engineer at D. Little in Cambridge, Mass. where he spent his career; his resolve to obey the Hippocratic oath to "do no harm;" Cryogenic insulation; lunar surface research and experiments; von Braun rocket team; space solar power; thermal imaging; Krakatit (the book).
This is March 16th [sic; really was May]. This is the first of a series of interviews with Peter Glaser. He is being interviewed by me, John Elder, at his home in Lexington. And the first subject will be where you were born, and what you remember about it.
I was born in a town called Ajatets [?], about 2 hours west of Prague. It was just on the border of the Czech and German speaking [???], the Czech being Bohemia. So my mother was from the Czech part, my father was from Ajatets, and therefore from my earliest years I was bilingual — because my father didn't speak Czech; my mother spoke both German and Czech. I was born in a place where my father had a factory. In fact the house was attached to the factory. It was — had a very great influence on my youth.
Was he the owner or the —?
He was the partner in the factory, and he let me go into the factory already when I was about 8 years old. The factory produced wire ropes and heavy industry, and it was primarily wire ropes for using applications such as deep coal mines [???] in the borders of Bohemia provide the lignite coal for —
The wire that he would — to lower something down?
Yeah, the ropes, the wire ropes — for elevators, I recall there was a new method developed that provided for Michelin tires, which of course have the wire ropes which made them famous, and many other applications, including a flat wire rope which was used for fire ladders when you had to get them to a very great, extend them to heights. My youth was very pleasant as I recall it. I went to grade school and then high school. Part was a high school. The town was primarily German speaking, and the people there became enamored of the Nazi parties and —
Can I stop you for a second there?
I want to be clear — because I'm not clear — exactly what country. This will sound like a stupid question.
That was Czechoslovakia at the time.
Okay, because things change a lot.
Yes. Czechoslovakia was founded as a country in 1919 by President [?] Thomas Gehrig [?] Masaryk in the United States. He was married to an American, and after the defeat of Germany, the Kaiser, various European countries became independent of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia being one of them, Hungary, etc. It sort of — and the problems of the Balkans and Yugoslavia were very much the reason also.
Did you feel —? Did Czechoslovakia have a reality to people?
Absolutely. Yes. It was probably the most western of the middle European countries. To give you an idea of the geography, if you look on a map Vienna is east of Prague, so we were always very close to the western Europeans. For example the wire that my father received to make wire ropes was for special purposes came from England, and then some another important part of why I'm here.
What I mean by "did it have a reality," was if a country is created that wasn't there before, not everybody really feels that that's what their country.
Well, you see, as a country —
Unless it was one that previously existed.
— consisted of the regions called Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia and Carpathia. Prague was founded in the 9th century by a mythic queen Lebooshan [?] [???] about her, and in fact Prague to this day is the only city in Europe where you can find buildings dating back to the 11th and 12th, 13th centuries. So there is a very long history of the Czechs who are settled there, who had a very famous king, was Medsuslas [?] of carol [?] fame. He was followed by another famous king, King Charles the IVth, who was the King of Bohemia and the Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire. He was instrumental in making Prague his capitol; he founded my alma mater, Charles University, in 1348. So the history there, if you ever go to Prague, is all over the place. My hometown dates back to about the 13th century. It was an old city. And I recall there was a sort of entry way, a big tower where you went through. To this day you have to go through that portico, and the surrounding people had lived there and tilled the soil and grew hops, which is the primary cash crop of that region, and it's the world's best hops, which is used for the [???] in beer. So the town was very cosmopolitan because of the hops. Many people in the town had travelled certainly in Europe as well as the U.S., and I'm on the Columbian University Alumni Association and I sat in a dinner next to the brew master from Manila, and he heard my accent and he asked me, "Where do you come from?" And I told him, "From a town where the world's best hops is grown." He said, "Ah. Ajatets?" To this day it is called Green Gold, because it's a valuable thing. Anyhow, that gives you — The town also was undisturbed, and I was going to tell you more about what I found when I came back in October of last year for the first time after 45 years.
Did you grow up with any sense of that the place had been liberated or —?
No, because —
Was part of being part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire something that was — that they were glad to be rid of?
Well, there were some people, including my father, who felt there was some advantage in being part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire because of what Europe is now trying to do is go back to a united Europe. But unfortunately the Kaisers were not the brightest, and the idea of the Czechs to be free from the Hapsburg [?] actually goes back to the Battle of 1621 on White Mountain when the Hapsburg defeated the Czech kings. And I recall a famous Czech historian by the name of Palotski [?] wrote about that, that we were able to have our own kingdom, and we will have it again, but just it's 300 years. That was 1918 [?]. So the Czechs have the ability to get along, and the fact that Prague has never been bombed, has never had anything done to it of any consequence, and the country is still fairly well together means that the motto is "You get along to live, and if you wait long enough, then the Hapsburg disappears, the Nazis disappear, the Communists disappear, and the Czechs are still there." So because of the surrounding of the Czech, that's the Czech lines are Bohemia and Moravia, on the north it is Poland, and surrounding it is Germany, then Austria, then Hungary. So it's always somebody who had an interest in taking parts of it, usually for a relatively short period. The Poles occupied part of Czechoslovakia after, and Hitler's marched into there, and they were not very successful. So the Czechs had the ability to recover very fast, and the experts [???] with the revolutions. So this kind of history of course influenced me as well, and I felt that —
Did you know that much, this full history, when you were young?
Oh yes, because it is taught in school, and I have to tell you when you are in a certain environment you have a different perspective on the rest of the world. America to me was sort of the same distance as a moon and as unreal. To walk in America, I could have said, "I'll walk on the moon," as a boy. I remember one of my neighbors who was a local dealer for Packard automobiles once went to some convention of dealers in New York, and he came back after a week and said, "I didn't really like it very much, so I didn't go any further than New York." So it was a very advanced civilization, particularly between 1918 and the time Hitler came. There's, you know, many famous people living there, Einstein taught at Prague, my alma mater, various other famous people. So it was, if you like, it was a hotbed for a lot of the intellectuals for centuries. So there was a lot of history, a lot of way of thinking about things different. And the country therefore was quite different from Eastern Europe. In fact the Czechs never considered themselves to be eastern Europeans as [???] had friendly relations with the other Slavic countries, but they always expected to be independent of them. So my formative years were spent in actually going to school in a German school in Czechoslovakia.
Now what exactly do you mean by calling it German?
The population of the town was about 80 percent Sudeten Germans, and there was no friction between Sudeten Germans and Czechs at the time. There was a Czech school and a German school, and my parents sent me to the German school because they figured since I lived in a town where most people speak German I better go to a German school to begin with, and then they were going to send me to a Czech high school later on. My youth was spent, if you like, really carefree. I had no problems, I was an only child, and I grew up in part of the Jewish community in that town, which out of a population of about 25,000 — size of Lexington — there were 2,000 Jews who were attracted to that town primarily by the hops trade, as well as other things. And my father's factory was one of the two largest enterprises in town. It was subsequently nationalized in 1946. It's a long war year [?] of course. We left in September 1938 when Hitler took over the Sudetenland as a first step towards his aggrandizement plans — which he had announced to the Mein Kampf many decades earlier. He changed my life and those of many other people. Have you seen Schindler's List?
No. I must be the only person in the world who hasn't seen it yet.
Well, you are looking at the second. I haven't seen it yet. I will see it. I have misgivings, but that's another story. As far as my youth was concerned, I was not an outstanding student. I had too many interests. I liked to play soccer and so on. I passed all my courses, but I wouldn't have been on the honor roll. I had many good friends. I was always with some friends. I had a girl cousin and found [?] many friends who were girls, so I never had a problem in being brought up as an only child, and my cousins were more like sisters to me. One lived in my hometown, the other one lived in Prague. So it was a very serene, middle-class background I come from. In local terms probably upper class. Yes, we had a chauffeur, we had a car, and I had about —
Was it rare to have a car?
Yes, yes, it was a cold [?] tatra [?], which was way ahead of its time. And we had the chauffeur, and he was enjoined from ever giving me rides to school. Only under very extenuating circumstances did my parents allow me to take the car. Most of the time I walked, even in bad weather and snow, which we had of course, and it was all done so that I would not expect to be chauffeured around. There were very few class distinctions between the boys from very poor background, working class, and it was a very democratic society we lived in. I recall that probably until 1935 or '36 I was totally unaware that the Nazis had any ill intentions. But it was about that time that the leader of the Sudeten Germans, by the name of Henlein, started to organize the Germans and make them aware they should become part of the large German empire. They started to wear distinctive clothing, and specifically it was sort of white socks, you know, with sort of cable knitting socks, and that somehow was a badge that they were really — even the young people, Sudeten Germans and then friends slowly became, you know, since I was Jewish, sort of estranged because of that. That was around '37. And then '38 —
Do you remember anything specifically of this transition from there not being such a division to there being things that people, that your own friends would say to you or that adults would say to you, or you heard your parents talking about, or that you heard on the radio, or —? How did [?] you pick up as a child what's going on?
Yeah. I belonged to "Turnverein," which is [???] act [?] of Palestinites [?] and so on, and a lot of Germans were there, and slowly it became clear to me that really I wasn't part of the "club," so to speak. And of course I was at that time, when I was 13 — I was born in 1923 —so in '36 I was bar mitzvah in our temple, which was a lovely, lovely temple. In fact, now as I recall it, there is a movie Yentl with Barbra Streisand, I don't know if you ever —
I didn't see it, but I remember it being around.
That movie was filmed in my hometown, and the whole surroundings of the temple were actually shown in that movie.
And that was the temple where you were bar mitvahed?
And does it look the way it looked?
I can show you want it looks [like] today. There was a very flourishing Jewish community. My father belonged to the demay b'rith [?], which you know is — I assume you are familiar with what that is — and I remember then when my father and mother went out to some special occasions, they dressed in evening clothes, and he joined it in 1925. The reason I know, I was in touch with the Prague [?], and I [???] more recently, and they just sent me a picture of all the members and my father's 1925 note that he became a member.
Can I —?
??? stop for a second. I want to make sure I get some names here the spelling correctly and stuff. The first one was just the town, your hometown.
It's spelled — it's a complicated spelling. I just got this [???] town. It's Z with a sort of inverted thing on top. It looks like —
And that makes a Ž, a zsuh sound. This is a main square [?]. I can show you more photographs, and that's Town Hall.
Okay. So Žtek?
T-e-c. And here is what I mentioned, you know, [???] sitting, [???] inside it, and here you had sort of colonnades in the main square. And that was constructed like in many European towns thanks to God for the town not being overcome by pestilence. So you find that in many different towns in Europe. Oh, this is my father and my mother.
??? uncle, a great uncle, who looks like that. That's extraordinary [?].
He even served in World War I, so he gave me some appreciation. He served in the War Ministry in Yenna [?], and I also quote, when somebody asks, "Well, how much does a war cost?" I say, "Well, my father told me that to establish the cost of a war they added the numbers on all of the railroad cars" — you know, they have numbers — "and divided it by the number of railroad cars." So a healthy skepticism about any of the —
And the man you mentioned who was the leader of the Sudeten Germans?
Okay. And the [???]
I'm sorry. Do you know how to spell President Masaryk?
And the group that you were in, "Turnverein"?
Yeah. It was German, in quotes, "T-u-r-n-v-e-r-e-i-n."
Yeah. And I'm just going to make a note for whoever transcribes this tape, that at one point Dr. Glaser was showing me a plate that had pictures of his town on it when I asked him how to spell the name. Okay.
So, you know, I can go into great details on the fact that as far as I recall we had what President Clinton now is trying to do here in Czechoslovakia, and that is health care. It was introduced as, my memory, somewhere in 1870s by the Kaiser of the Empire, and everyone had access to health care. Czechoslovakia took it over, improved on it, and we had a hospital in town, and the only difference was, and if you had a lot of money, you could pay extra and you got perhaps a private room or wherever, but I never was aware that there was a problem with health care. I had to have my adenoids or whatever removed as a child, and it was done in the hospital, and I didn't have to go to God knows where. So why it worked there and [???] a problem here, and I always when I hear the name "socialized medicine," I say that's a wrong name; it's really imperial medicine. So, I'm not saying that there aren't problems, that there were not problems there, but it just looked to me that Czechoslovakia was very advanced in sort of many social services. Yes, they suffered through the world crisis in the 1930s, which of course was — But, and there was unemployment, but people somehow managed to reasonably — Probably, from what I learned later, probably better than here. So I felt that everything was turning me in one direction, and the direction you see was my father's factory. Here I was, you know, very young when I was able to walk through there. Every worker knew me, and I was forbidden to do anything else; I had to always have my hands in my pockets. I was not allowed to speak, but I could watch. And of course, you know, I had many friends in the factories who worked there. So I became very interested in — I don't know if you know how wire ropes are made. Some of these are huge machines, twist the wires. You know, these cables are fairly substantial. And, you know, and big molders [?], you know, all the engineering trappings so —
I was going to ask you about this.
So, essentially I was in, at a very early age, very close to technical things which essentially I couldn't imagine being anything else but an engineer. I had an uncle who was an engineer and so on. And I always felt that this is what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Was your father an engineer?
No. He was a businessman.
He was a businessman.
His uncle started the factory in 1919 or something, and he then became his partner, and eventually took it over.
Did your father expect you to fill his shoes?
Oh, I'm sure he did. Yes. I was the only son, and he was a, it was a very successful undertaking —
In theory there's a conflict there. If you want to be an engineer, you're not running the business or not —
That wasn't — it was too early to worry about that aspect.
Okay, so that wasn't on your mind?
Because my father had connections to England, which later became very important. You know, I realized there was a big world out there. Not to America. It was within — As far as I know we didn't have any connections with them [?]. But he delivered also wire ropes to an outfit called Bata. Now that may not mean anything to you, but it's the world's largest shoe factory to this day.
I better spell [?].
B-a-t-a, but the t has sort of a little thing on it, so it's a "chuh" sound. They have factories in Maryland and Canada. They own more rubber — the size of rubber plantations I've seen in Brazil were the size of Germany. Its cheap shoes. I shouldn't say cheap. Inexpen —
Bata essentially I knew about, and everyone knew, hear the story in every town. You can — Bata shoes are available in India and just about every place in the world. And my father once impressed me, he [?] had to deliver some urgent wire rope thing [???], so there was a small airport, and he sent his plane to pick it up. You know, which was not the usual kind of thing that's done.
And that's — I think [???]. Well, I can say that the factory prospered. In fact, the fact that my father's dwelling was set close to the factory means that my father didn't get that much exercise, so everyone decided he's got to start walking, and the way you can force walking is by having a house which is at some reasonable distance to walk. So we decided, he decided to build us a new home which was a very lovely house, completed in 1937, and it was designed by an architect, and about a 30-mile [3-mile?] view of [???] was in a lovely location. And I'll tell you more later ??? I found. So we moved in 1937, and then our world essentially collapsed. And several things happened that had something to do with my being here today. One was that September 1938 was when Lord Ransiman [?] essentially gave away the Sudetenland to the Nazis. The British were singly inept, that plus a fellow [???], and essentially they forced the Czechoslovak government to give up the Sudetenland, which was hopeless in terms it left — you know, it's let's say giving up America and giving away Massachusetts [???] to the communists, you know. And so my father realized he had to leave Zsuhtec, and we left there in September of 1938. Now prior to that I had started at Czech school, high school, which had been the plan all along, in a town near Prague, and I lived with a family. Nobody could have predicted the turn of events. In 1938 at that time the Czechoslovak government requested my father to have the machinery transferred to Prague, and they arranged for a special train which was provided, guarded by the Czech government, to transport all the equipment to Prague. Now that was of course in total contradiction to what the Germans, the Nazis said. Anyone who transports any goods, manufacturing equipment, from the Sudetenland will be jailed, and will suffer the consequences. But my father felt, well, I'm more interested in the Czechoslovak government than what the Nazis say, so the train came, and I remember when —
At that point, was he legally or now living in Germany?
We left. No. We left our home and hometown. In fact, [???] weren't even there when we packed up our furniture, and the furniture was supposed to be transported to Prague by a moving van [?].
Is Prague where you went?
Yes, I went Prague. Okay, okay. You'd have to look at the geography. Prague is the center of Bohemia and we were 2 hours to the west. It's all — distances are not American. You know, think of Massachusetts, Hartford to Boston, that kind of distance. And we were told the moving van had burned and all our belongings had been lost. Well, it wasn't until 1945 when I got back that I was able to retrieve the burned belongings, because I found out where they were, in various homes. Obviously [?] people just never sent the stuff to us. So we lived in Prague, and the Nazis marched into Prague March 15th, 1939, and I remember standing on one of the main roads in Prague and it was a blizzard, and seeing the German cars and motorcy — You know, they always had these motorcycles, you know, these sidecars and trucks coming, and [???] freezing. My father realized that there's only one thing to do, is to immediately get out, because the problem was that he had followed the Czechoslovak request and he knew that he would be immediately jailed as soon as they found out who he was. So he had to get out. And in order to get out, by then the Gestapo had established itself, we had to get permission, and we were able to after two days standing in line day and night, get the permission. They weren't that well organized, they didn't have computers yet, you know —
But your whole family was waiting in this line.
Yes. My mother, my father, and I.
What made you — why did your father think that somehow he was just going to pass through this, that they just wouldn't have figured out [???]
Well, he took a chance. I think the first week or so everybody didn't know. [???]. Because all we wanted is to go to Italy for a holiday. Italy at that time was, it required no visa, and so we arrived at the train station with one suitcase, nothing much, and we boarded the train —
If there was such a huge line, there must have been a suspicious number of people wanting to go on vacations.
No. Each one had a different story, you know, but they were not organized well enough at the time to — And I think they were looking at people, and we obviously didn't arouse any suspicion.
You didn't look Jewish? Were they not trying to —?
I'm not sure. I don't think that, at the time, was the uppermost thinking something with us [???] and, you know, because they probably phoned somebody, "Do you know this guy Glaser in Zsuhtec?" [???] the guy said, "Well yeah, they're okay." So they must, somebody may have just given us a good reference, so to speak, and they let us go. So we went to Italy, to Venice, and a lovely time in Venice for three months. We lived with an Italian family, and ??? ???.
How was this arranged?
To live in Italy?
Could just go by — We took a sleeper, a train, very legal.
You had all the money to do all this?
Bought the ticket, and then my father had enough money to live in Italy. Again, remember, this was sort of in the first two weeks things were disorganized, people didn't, you know, there was no problem crossing the border, and we went to Italy. And I come back — Of course we didn't want to stay in Italy, so there were a lot of other refugees in Italy, and we stayed in Venice from April 'til I think it was July. My father got in touch with his counterpart in England [?], that was J. D. Brontens [?] of Musselburrow [?], Scotland, a very large wire producing company, and he had a good relationship, business, with Mr. J. D. Bronten.
Did your father speak English?
Very poorly. My mother spoke it.
Those three months that you were there in Venice and you were just fooling around, but what were they doing all day?
Essentially trying to get out of Italy, various ways trying to find how we get to France, just in case we couldn't get to England. And then we went from there to San Raymond [?], where a lot of refugees were. In San Raymond, you could hire a boat which would take you illegally to the South of France. So it was [???], I mean, you know, you can write books, movies about this whole period. Casablanca comes sort of the nearest that it captured that spirit of, you know, yes, the Nazis were there but they didn't yet have all the things arranged. I don't know if you've seen Casablanca.
So you know what I mean. They had the refugees there, and —
They weren't all-powerful quite yet.
And the police, you know, "I'm shocked" [laughs]. So one could arrange things. And the Italians of course had nothing against Jews at all. That didn't come until many years later. Mussolini wasn't really anti-Semitic, and in fact Jews in Italy survived reasonably well until late in the game. So we were then in San Raymond and I remember the fateful day when the English consul in San Raymond, he wore white spats around his shoes, a lovely gentleman, told us we have our visa to go to England. So we took the boat from Genoa to London, [???] and I remember we went on board, the band was playing, the things you see in the movies, and we had a very nice trip, and we got seasick in the Bay of Biscayne, which is a pretty rough part of the [???] to London. We then —
You sound like you had more money to spend on your problems than a lot of people in —
My father was a wealthy man.
Much smoother trip out.
You know, we lived not ostentatiously, but we lived [???] essentially [???] nice Italian family in Venice. Have you ever been in Venice?
What language did you speak to get along in Italy? How did you talk to your landlord there?
My mother spoke also French. [???] why is it that she speak — because my grandmother spoke French and English. She was born in Prague and she became orphaned and she was brought up by an uncle who was an honorary American consul, so that part of the family spoke English and French. My mother in Venice I remember was teaching me English. Now during the few months we were in Prague I went to the English school to learn English, so by the time we got to Venice I actually spoke rudimentary English, could read it, and [???] my mother studied with me. I remember various places. I loved Venice. Have you ever been there? It's a gorgeous place.
I was there for a day, not really enough time.
It's a gorgeous place. The arts of [???] and all the sights, fabulous.
Were there museums the way there are now? Could you see the art work?
Oh yes. Oh, beautiful. And we were not — My father found friends that he knew from Vienna and, you know, the Jews who could get out did get out — a few. Don't misunderstand me, you know. Most of my relatives in Prague felt, "Well you're crazy. Why are you leaving?" So they could understand why, because his factory transportation [?], but remember, nobody had any inkling. They probably hadn't read Mein Kampf. And Hitler's sort of view of the Jews really was not known, that he would single them out to kill them.
Well, I was wondering about that as you tell this story, because that was my impression was most people just didn't — they thought it would be tolerable —
Well you see nobody could imagine that Hitler would march into Prague. So until that time things just didn't — But when he marched into the Sudetenland, the red flag went up. But they said, "Well, France is, you know England, they're going to force Hitler not to —" and Hitler stated, "Well now, all my territorial additions have been satisfied." So [laughs]. So in England —
Would you say if it hadn't been for this case of transportation of things, your family might have stayed?
Oh, I wouldn't be here. I would be burned in the ovens. Of course. That's why I say —
It's just lucky that you were in real trouble.
That my, thank God my father acceded to the request of the Czechoslovak government. You know, you can never foretell how fortune will come, and it was a fact that he acceded. That forced him to leave immediately, because he was afraid to be jailed by the Germans after they marched in. So there was a 2-week period where you either left and, you know, for most people leaving your home was — I mean, you just couldn't do that. I mean, why would you do it? Who [?] would do anything? You know, my grandparents stayed behind, old people. Who would do something to old people? You know, most of my family stayed behind. We were really the only ones who left.
Another thing I'd like to ask you, because it's something kind of unimaginable, well any generation after the — You could be older than me and still have the same problem, and that is the Nazis are now so enshrined as this incredible evil, and we know what they did, and you can't not know, and I'm always interested in what it was like, what they seemed like before anyone knew that all this was going to happen.
They were just like my neighbors here. Lovely people, friendly — you know, the banality of evil.
I mean the soldiers. I don't just the German people, just Germans, but the —
The soldiers, I didn't even see them. I don't know. They kept them someplace. In Prague they were not very much in evidence.
And you saw them coming down —
What did you think when you saw these soldiers coming down the street? Did you have any idea?
I knew it was the end of an era, I mean that it was the end of Czechoslovakia as I knew it. I had no way of knowing what the future would bring. It was my father's decision, and it was the only part of our large family — aunts, uncles, etc. — who managed to leave. And there was one thing that I have to say I didn't quite tell you. I was very influenced by a brother of my grandfather who I never knew; he died in 1908. He was to me a very important influence. His name was Eduard [?] Glaser and he was born in a small town in 1855 before my grandfather's family moved to Zsuhtec. It was near there. At that time, and it wasn't until 1848 that Jews were allowed to live in towns. There was an edict that allowed them in '48. I don't know why in '48. You know, there's a long historic — Anyhow, the fact is they could, and he was still born in a small village. There were many villages surrounding Zsuhtec where Jews lived — you know, small temples and so on. And he then went to a high school in Zsuhtec and all sorts of things. Well, it's a long story about he didn't have much money and so he managed to give lessons, and it was a congress in Paris, a geographical congress, and he decided to go to the congress and became interested in geography. And since the family was very poor, they couldn't give him money to go by train to Paris, so he decided to walk. And he walked to Paris. Now I don't know if [???], he got a few rides along the way, and he was [???] when he arrived at this geographical congress, you know, 18- or 19-year-old young man from this place, and he then became a correspondent for the Yellow Paper. And he went back to Prague and then —
Did he walk back?
No. I don't think so. He became a tutor to the Austrian-Hungarian Governor of Prague. He ended up then at the University of Vienna as a [???]. He I guess attended university. He became very interested in archaeology and geography, and he was able to read Hebrew, and he became very interested in one particular famous passage in the Bible, and that is Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon. And he couldn't understand. What really intrigued him, here was this queen coming as a description with diamonds and riches. Now here it was the Queen of Sheba from southern Arabia, the desert. Where did all this come from? So he became interested, "Is this mythology or was this for real?" So he became very interested in understanding what this is about, and there was a famous [???] Professor D. H. Muller [?] and all that, and he became interested in actually going there. And he decided to devote his life to finding [out] about the Queen of Sheba. And he had no money to speak of, and somehow he decided well the first thing he's got to learn is Arabic. So the Kaiser gave him a commission to do a survey of S[???] in northern Africa. I don't remember how he got it. And he went there, and then he somehow ended up in Alexandria. So he did studies all over the place, and he in the process learned perfect Arabic, and he also learned a lot about the Koran. He was very interested in all of that. So in 1880 for the first time he made a visit, actually a journey, not a visit, to that part, the Hadramaut, the Yemen, landed in Audada [?] and then traveled to Sionah [?], and he sort of started to think what this is all about. He got ready to do his trips. He went in 1880 and then went south. By that time he spoke 13 Arabian dialects. He traveled in the guise of a Moslem priest, and he gave sermons in mosques. That was the only way a European could travel in those parts at that time. That was a time of Stanley going to Africa, you know, I mean —
You mean he wouldn't have been allowed if they knew who he was.
They would have killed him right away. But particularly not to M [???], which is legendary home of the Queen of Sheba, and it was unexplored. So he made several trips and explored this Queen of Sheba. He found the dam which explained why she had diamonds and gold, and he discovered the S[???] kingdom and essentially put it on the map, so to speak, archaeologically and geographically. If you want to read about it in the encyclopedia, [???] he is accredited with being a major force in Arabian archaeological discoveries. So I was always impressed that that.
How do you know all this about him? Where did all this — who told you all these things?
Well, my grandfather. In my house we had a whole sort of exhibition of artifacts he brought back.
Did he write books himself?
Oh yes. He wrote various books. After the war, you know, I visited some of the museums. As a famous Arabist who died about 10 years ago, Professor Albright, a Bible scholar at Johns Hopkins, who have a very good department of archaeology, and I got in touch with him and he wrote to me — I have the letter here someplace —"I'm thrilled to hear from the nephew of the illustrious Eduard Glaser." He got an honorary degree from a German university in G[???] in Germany. And he was [???] after his various things he lived in Vienna and he took issue with Hertzel [?]. You know Herzel is the founder of the Zionist movement.
Oh, okay, yes.
And he took issue with this idea of, the Zionist idea of [???] it will be very hard for Israel to establish a Jewish state in Jerusalem and the surrounding countries because three [?] world regions claim Jerusalem. And, oh yes, I forgot to tell you he also explored the Yemen, [???] just a little bit north from where he was, and he found out about the [???] Jews which were totally unknown until that time.
Do they know about the rest of the world?
I mean, there is a book that was written, I have it here, On Angels' Wings by the Yemenite [?] Jews, which were evacuated from the Yemen in 1949 or thereabouts, and there was a reporter who spoke to them on the airplane, [???], because the Jews had to leave Yemen [???] they are still fighting there now. And the reporter said, "Well, aren't you amazed? You are flying on an airplane, and you just take that for granted?" They lived sort of in the early Middle Ages. They said, "Of course not. Why not? Well the Bible said we will be brought to the Holy Land of Israel on angel’s wings. Well, here it is." [laughs] So he brought back the first news about the Yemenite Jews, which were unknown until that time that they even existed, who had lived in, you know, the Yemenite Jews in the sort of ancient tradition until then. He wrote a later in 1894 to Baron Hirsch [?], who was a famous Jewish philanthropist. His idea was to settle the Jews in Uganda [?].
Yeah. I've heard about that.
And he said, "Well, you know, I know the Yemen very well, and I have very close ties to the Turkish government of Yemen, and I really believe" — and he gave a discussion of the positive geography and minerals and other good things about Yemen that the Jews would have an excellent opportunity to live in Yenna [?]. And that I can arrange to buy Yemen for you. He ended the letter, "Long live the King of Israel." 1894. I sent the letter to the [???] archives. So here was a man that I felt was of many interesting facets.
Now you never met him. Was he already dead —?
He died in 1908 in Munich, and I have been in — There is a book that was written by a Professor Dostow [?], in fact he's a professor at the University of Vienna, and he retraced his steps of Eduard Glaser's travels. [???] his wife [???] four years ago in photographs where he stayed and [???] and showed what it must have been like to travel in these parts at the time. By the way, [???] had a [???[ one-year [?] relationship as a Bedouin tribe, which saved his life on several occasions.
Have you ever heard of Isabel Eberhardt?
I'll tell you. I mean, besides him being your relative, if you could just appreciate a character like your grandfather even if he weren't your grandfather —
No, he was my great uncle.
— your great uncle, then here's another one. She's another one like that. Did like that, only a woman on top of everything else.
I mean that was a time when Europeans, you see, like Stanley [?], etc., and so here was a man who — So it gave me an appreciation of the world at large, and because of this I was in touch with this university professor, I sent him a photograph, and more recently I was in touch with Father Gavin [?], a Jesuit priest who was the director of the H[???] Semitic Museum and very interested in this part [?] as well.
What did other people in your family think about this, Eduard Glaser?
Ah, they were very proud to have a forbear of that kind. But they didn't really make a hobby out of knowing about it. I was always most interested. My father and mother knew about it, but I was the only one in the family who really, you know, have things about him — writings, books, [???] followed it up by later on was in touch with various people, and I'm now trying to organize an exhibition. But that's another story as we go [???] mention that. So we arrived in England a week before the war started, on this Union Castle steamship, and we went to London and we lived — and I don't remember how come, but we ended up on Castellaine Road and rented a room in that.
What's that name again?
Castellaine, and I'm not sure of the spelling. I think it's C-a-s-t-e-l-l-a-i-n-e or something like that, Castellaine Road, in London, and Maida Vale, is burrow [?] of Maida Vale. The reason I want to mention Maida Vale, it's M-a-i-d-e, Vale v-a-l-e.
Yeah. You know in that Munich conference which sold Czechoslovakia to H[???] essentially and Chamberlain [?] was — I'm not blaming — Chamberlain knew that he couldn't do much at the time, therefore he was playing for time, but it cost Czechoslovakia its freedom. He came back, and there's a very famous picture of him arriving in London via airplane from Munich and waving a piece of paper which Hitler had signed, "Peace in our time." And later on he was asked —
I feel bad for him.
— in Parliament — See, he may have known what he was — I give him the benefit of the doubt. He wasn't ready to fight [?].
It's a terrible fate to me to think of being remembered for such hideous, such memorable blunders.
Well, the statement he made I think was in Parliament and then somebody said, "Well, how could you do that?" "Well, who ever heard of Czechoslovakia?" You know, it's like, "What do you know about Maida Vale?" And that's why I wanted to [???] Maida Vale, because that's [???] that reminds me of Maida Vale and Chamberlain. And it was very nice. I remember we arrived a week before the war. Had we arrived later, we would never have made it. And I enjoyed it. I had a good time, I learned English —
How did you learn English?
By talking to people.
Just — you didn't have to take any lessons or —?
My mother primarily. It was an interim period, and my parents knew that I had to go to school. And so they sent me — I don't know how they found out — to Baxton [?] College in D[???], and I started there I think right at the start of the school year in '39. And [???] been to a boarding school. I had a terrific time. I loved — First of all, I found the teachers were excellent. I really had a fabulous English teacher. I still can quote from The Tempest. “[???] these actors are, as I foretold [???] our spirits melted into air, in thin air like the cloudness towers will dissolve and like the insubstantial [???].” And so I had a very good education at Buxton College. I became a prefect. I don't know if that, you know, sort of because there were younger people I learned to play cricket.
What exactly did a prefect do?
He was sort of making sure that everyone did their homework and did the right thing and, you know, that was an honor to be the prefect. That's the way the British school system worked.
Did you — were you calling yourself Glaser [pronounced glah-zur] or Glaser [pronounced glay-zur]?
By that time it was — they couldn't pronounce Glaser. There are more misspellings of the name Glaser, and also in this country. There is only one way to spell the name, G-l-a-s-e-r. Now in this country [???] are spelled either with two s's or a z, or a s-i-e-r, z-i-e-r, and there is only one way to spell it. It's just people don't know how spell it.
So anyhow, we had trouble with the name spelled, but I became Glaser [pronounced glay-sur]. Peter was in English, and at that time I had reddish hair and freckles, so they thought I was Irish until they spoke to me, because I had an accent as [???]. [???] said I spoke Czech in every language. So I had an excellent education at Buxton College, and of course then there was the war, and London was being bombed and my parents then decided — oh, I did sleep in Piccadilly Circus, and I have great admiration for the British, you know, the underground there. It was — they never lost their nerve under the blitz and all that kind of stuff, and there were these iron bed things in the underground, and that's where you went at night, and you could leave your stuff there, and when you came in the evening it still was there. I mean, they wouldn't move the bed. So there was a very good spirit in England thanks to Churchill, and I did war work in Britain which was first I went to the YMCA and I sort of training farm to learn how to milk cows and plow with horses, and then I was sent to farms, and I worked on a farm. Lord Rathcreedan, he was an Irish lord, and a very nice gentleman. I worked on his farm taking care of the cows and plowing, and that was after I graduated from Buxton. And, I mean, there were in fact —
Was this just to make up for too many young men being gone as soldiers?
Yes, exactly. War work. And I did that for a year, and I worked on three or four farms. The YMCA assigned us to various places, and Lord Rathcreedan served in the foreign office, and we had discussion, and he spoke German, so he spoke German to me. He also needed a butler, because he didn't — and when he had guests from, official guests, he taught me how to butle.
Let me get his name down here.
Rathcreedan, R-a-t-h-c-r-e-e-d-a-n, and it was—jeepers, I've forgotten—it's nearly Henley [?] on Thames, and I know I was able to go to Henley on Thames [???] for a few days. So, another farm I worked on was a textile manufacturer who had a large estate in Eisenwald near York. So I had varied farm experience. I never lost my interest in this, and we have a house in Vermont, because I can — we have 20 acres, so I can take care of it. I can still milk cows. You develop special muscles, by the way, when you milk cows. I still have that. So I enjoyed myself there, and I was spared because there was no fighting. But then my father felt well one year of farming is enough, and it taught me a lot of good things. I think it's a very solitary experience for a young boy, and I must give my father credit that he saw that it was, you know, and all the problems that I had to go through that sort of helped me get on with it [?].
Well, you know, leaving home, the uncertainties of fleeing, you know, adjustment in life and all that.
That makes me think of another question. Do you, while this is happening, are you wondering or do you know what it happening to the people back in Czechoslovakia?
Of course. We had correspondence with various people until after the war started. Then none. That was the end. And there was no news, you know, we were totally cut off. My parents of course were frantic, but I was too young to really, you know, I was 15, so it didn't really —
Yeah, you just don't care that —
I just — it didn't come up in my mind. Then my father decided that it's time for me to go to another school, and somehow he met some friends of his. There were a lot of people there who had similar experiences, even some from Czechoslovakia.
What language were you speaking at home with your parents?
Czech was my mother, German was — my father didn't speak Czech.
You didn't speak English as a family.
Not as far as [???] in the beginning. Later on yes. And then they moved to a small town called Murphfield [?] near Dewsbury [?], and then I started to go to the College of Technology. I must say I was also very, very — now [???] was an excellent school. It now is a polytechnic institute of Leeds. I was there for two years. I received a diploma. In the process I had a thorough grounding in the sciences and mathematics and so on, and learned — they had a machine, how to operate a lathe and drilling machines and fellow [?] skier [?] shapers [?]. Why bring that up? I never knew what a fellows factory was until we moved to have a house in Vermont, and that's a house in a town called Springfield, and that is a Fellows [???] who made those gear shapers I used [???]. You know, it's sort of things —
Nothing happens to you in your life only once, huh? Everything seems to come back.
Right. Fellows skier shapers. That was a very productive period for me, because I learned the demands of engineering. And then my father said, "Well Peter, you are now old enough to think about joining the army." And the reason is that, you know, I was let's see '43, so I was 19, and I would have had the choice of joining the British, a special contingent of army engineers, but my father said, "Look, you are from Czechoslovakia. Why don't you join the Free [?] Czechoslovak Army?" And so I went to the recruiting office in September 1943 and I joined the Czechov [???] with President Banish [?] who was then the president of Czechoslovakia in exile. And I joined the army, and they assigned me to the tank corps [?], and I served — I had very good training —
This is all in England?
All in England. I had very good training that first year. I learned to drive every conceivable truck, [???] truck, tank, and you know, I [???] as a good recruit. And tanks. And we were able, you know, I was in the army and slowly it became clear that we were part of an invasion force, and the British organized it very well.
Who was in this army? Just Czech refugees?
And with —
Well no, no, not just refugees. Czech officers who escaped when the Germans took over and somehow got out from [?] the Nazis. Therefore all of the officers were Czechs primarily and the enlisted men were Jews, and I had no chance of advancement because otherwise here I could become Private First Class. My sergeant major was a Jew from Czechoslovakia. Out of I think 3,000 there were 2,000 Jews in the Czech army and [???] —
But no officers.
Very few officers, because the officer corps [?] had escaped and therefore the generals and captains and all these people were from the pre-war Czech army.
None of which was Jewish.
At least I don't remember a Jewish officer. There may have been some, but I don't remember it.
So there was these two completely different populations arrived, and each took their place, right?
You see these were professional soldiers and had been in the army and I guess the government asked or told them, "Come and leave with us," and therefore thousands left. In fact a good friend of mine who was not an officer was in Venice. His name was Czech [?], and quite a few of people joined the Foreign Legion, and then the French allowed them to join the Czech army. So he had been with the Foreign Legion. Very interesting man. He was killed in action, but very interesting. So we were fully trained in whatever task we had to do, and we weren't the first ones to go over [???]. We were part of the 21st army group under the command of General Montgomery, which was a Free French and Free Dutch and all these other European countries, and we were landing shortly after that first one, and then we had various — we landed at Aramaj [?], which [???] is a big celebration, and it just was [???] British landed. And then we had various engagements and we went the north through [???] and we ended up in Dunkirk [?]. Well Dunkirk is known [???], this was a second Dunkirk. Thirty thousand Germans were bottled up in these [???] and there were us, the Czech army, and there was a few British holding them essentially in that bottle with our tanks. They could have overwhelmed us anytime they wanted to, but I guess they figured they wouldn't get very far, and then came the Battle of the Bulge.
All this time from this entire advance you were in a tank? I mean, you were driving a tank?
Yeah, yeah. And trucks. You see the tanks don't travel. Tanks [???] transport us, so I also drove trucks.
They use too much gas to just [???] around [???].
I always say I'm used to driving Rolls Royce’s. These were British tanks and they had Rolls Royce [???] engine, 2000 [???] as far as I recall. We were never allowed to touch the engine. So that, my army again had a lot of influence on the way I could see one has to work with people and understand people, and there were some spoke Slovak, not just Czech. So again, I must say, I enjoyed my time. It was very interesting, and through France. We were in Cayenne [?], and old city, Ruelle, the famous cathedrals, and then there is Dunkirk, and then I even had leave to go to Paris, and went to Paris I think it was in January or February of '45, and we then were transferred [???], this is [???] knew exactly why, we surmised that — Oh, I forgot this Dunkirk, there was one thing, you know, the Battle of the Bulge, there was a famous general in the Battle of the Bulge, Jim Gallon [?], “Jumping Jew,” [???] the 82nd airborne [?]. He was made famous as being the youngest general in the American army. You see again how fate comes. Jim Gallon was my boss at [???]. He was president of [???] quite a few years. So and I'll come later to why I mention his name. So here we were, at the Battle of the Bulge, all the troops had to fight the battle, and there were these 30,000 Germans, and at one point there was nothing between 30,000 Germans and Paris except a few thousand Czechs. Thank God we ran our tanks day and night and trucks to make a lot of noise, thinking there's a huge army surrounding them and the British were in the same [???]. So had they wanted to break out, they could have any day, but somehow they decided not to. We were transferred to General Patton, and our goal was to get to Prague before the Russians. That was our mission in our own air force [?], the Czech army. The problem was that Yota [?] took place and essentially whatever happened to Yota, Czechoslovakia became part of the Russian zone of influence. I ended up [???] which was a demarcation line for Patton.
What was your citizenship? Were you British?
In fact to this day I have a dual citizenship, which I didn't find out until recently, because there is a treaty between America and Czechoslovakia of 1927 [?], and if you became a citizen before 1956 you held dual citizenship. Americans want to change that, because it's awkward to have dual citizenship, but essentially I am a dual citizen. I'll tell you more about my trip back to Prague.
So you were — I mean, were you in any danger of say getting caught somewhere and not being able to get back to England or get out of —?
If we were caught by the German — All of our [???] under false names. Now I didn't, because I figured that — whenever you want to break that off, that's okay, because had any of us been captured, they had no prisoner of war camps for Czechs or French. You would have been shot, or I don't know what the hell,[???] put us in concentration camps. And most people had changed their names, because their relatives would have been — So I ended up the war in [???] and we didn't get permission from the Americans to hold our victory parade in Prague I think until the end of May or beginning of June. The Russians agreed to evacuate Prague so that there would be no disturbance, and every one of our tanks was inspected. We had to leave all of our side [?] arms to make sure no ammunition was there, so we held our victory parade, and then we had to go back to [???]. At that point I knew what was happening. I had an aunt in New York, and I said, you know, "We've got to get out of here. Can you help us?" So it took from then until 1948 before we got to leave.
Who is the "we" at this point?
My mother. My father died in 1947. They were in England.
They went back to their hometown in October of 1945, because he wanted to get his factory back and essentially his house and — Now really he didn't know what had happened to our relatives until after the war ended. And I had an uncle who was not Jewish who came to see me in [???] and he essentially told me all my relatives are dead — my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, everybody. I had a cousin who survived. The Germans left him for dead. He was in Auschwitz and the Russians somehow revived him. He weighed 80 pounds and survived. So my view of Schindler's List is somewhat — Schindler's List, you see, couldn't be presented in a realistic way because my cousin weighed 80 pounds, and they were walking skeletons. You couldn't show that to an audience. So it's a shadow of the reality, but nevertheless, so I'm told, it is a gripping thing. I once counted 35 members of my extended family were killed in those places. I only had one cousin who survived, the one who was, who went then to Venezuela. He died five years ago, and I am going May 20th to the bar mitzvah of his daughter's son.
In New York. So, you know, there's a lot of history, and I have been hesitating to [see] Schindler's List, because I felt if it is too, you know, Hollywood, I'll be disappointed, and if it is too real I don't want to see it. You know, so I'm torn. I am supposed to go and meet with students of Northeastern who want to know about the Holocaust and that kind of stuff May 26th and talk to them about it, so I may see Schindler's List [???] before that. So being Jewish had consequences which one couldn't predict, and I came back to Prague, and the first thing I did was went back to school. What else would I do? So I went to the Czech technical high school, you know, which is advanced. You get more than undergraduate degrees, and just part of the Charles University system — which was by the way, I was there in 1948 for the 600th Anniversary of Charles University, founded in 1348. Then I came back to Prague in October and was invited by Professor Hollow [?], the president's brother, to give a lecture to the university in Czech, and let me tell you I worked hard at it, because I never knew satellite in Czech, [???] how the heck would I know what the names were. So I essentially ended up the war back in my house and was able to go to school. My parents came back; my father was able to work in his factory. You know, it took the bureaucracy to return properly takes forever, and —
What had happened with the house and the factory all this time?
When I arrived in my hometown, the house was lived in by the officers of Forest [?] something-or-other, and you know, they were fairly nice people, and I came back and I said, "Well look, I want to have my house to live in," and they said, "Well, we'll move out." You know, I wasn't threatening or anything, but they moved out and all of the Sudeten Germans were forcibly evicted from the Sudetenland I think by June or July.
By the government.
By the government. And they went to Germany, they were shipped to Germany. Nobody was hurt. They were put in transit camps and then they were sent by train to Germany. So here was a town —
I don't really know how long the leader is. I should test it. But, it's probably alright.
Okay. So — are we okay? Should I —?
Yes, let's go.
So here was a town which was empty. What they did, is they brought in Czechs from Molina, which is a province in Russia, and a few other Czechs came, and very few Jews. The temple had been used as a garage by the Germans was a building and that's about all, and the cemetery where my father was buried was — all the monuments had been used for construction projects, and was used as a parking garage for trucks of the German army. So my father and two people who somehow died in a forced march were the first graves in that cemetery. So the town essentially was trying to get back on its feet.
And what had happened —? Well, the factory had already been emptied out of all its machinery.
Yeah. And it was, but then the machinery was brought back, and then it was — because it was heavy industry, it was nationalized. So my father essentially worked there as an employee since 1946, and he died in '47 so I feel that a lot of the difficulties that he had experienced essentially ended his life. And —
Were you in touch with your parents while you were fighting?
Oh yes, absolutely. You know, the army had a very good postal service and every week I could be in touch with them. And the wartime — After the war things were difficult, there was a Marshall plan which was — And everything, you know, I was in school again, I had a very good interesting life as a student, many friends, I lived at the house of an uncle that had an apartment in Prague.
The one that was still alive.
Yeah. He was not Jewish and he had saved my aunt's life by —she only got to the Terazine ghetto in March and survived that experience. So the stories I could tell you about all of the people who survived is incredible. Very few did. I could tell a person who had been in a concentration camp, even if he looked like you. I could tell by his or her eyes, you know, something the way they looked [???] which had changed, you know, you must have changed. So I felt I was exceedingly fortunate to have been able to be spared from dying during God knows how many occasions. There were so many possible ways that I could have perished, and being able to come home just for a little while until the communists took over.
Well, at first were you really — were you, would you rather have been in Czechoslovakia than anywhere else?
Well see, I served in the Czech army. I looked upon that as my country, as my home. I had hoped, my father had hoped [???] could take up his life where he gave up on it in '38, but fate [???]. Yalta [?] was a tremendous mistake of America, and there were many mistakes this country made. One was the limiting of refugees coming to this country, which is State Department, you know, [???], and I don't know if you saw the TV special on —
No, I read about it. I didn't see anything.
Long [?] was a man in the State Department who essentially made it impossible for refugees to come legally to the United States. So and [???] who is sitting on the fence, and some people in this country have on their ledger [?] written that they have killed I don't know how many thousands or hundred thousands of people that could have come here and could have been saved. And if you look at the Jews who have come here, they have been an asset to this country in many ways. So that's the way of the world, and unfortunately leaders are not always all-knowing [?]. So perhaps if you like we can end this story here and I'll tell you how I managed to get out of Czechoslovakia under the communists.
Yeah. I think that's a natural —
Does this give you the kind of information that you seek?
Yes. And one thing is I'll take this tape home and listen to it, and I might come back with —
— you said this here and, and just various points. Some of them I was thinking of but I didn't always want to interrupt, and some of them —
By all means.
— I haven't thought of yet, so —
Okay. I can supplement. You know, let's face it, what I've done in two hours is to —
Do 24 or 25 years.
But talk from 1923 to 1947. So these things, you know, each person's story is different and the influences.
See, well that's what I want to capture. That's what I want to save. Because in another hundred years you can go back and you can — You know, if someone wrote papers or they wrote books or —
Why did they write them?
Yes, why did they, and what was it like writing them, and what was in their minds, and what didn't they write? What occupied their minds from day to day but there's no evidence because it was something they didn't end up doing? And you don't know, but that was part of their life too. Everything you did, something you didn't do, you know, that you might have done. So it's — that's what I want [???].
Well, you know, I have a different perspective than another person obviously because we are all the product of our experiences.
Well, we were talking, actually I'm a visitor. Somebody actually you might remember, Randy Liebermann [?].
The name sounds familiar. Help me [?].
He — Actually I suppose I don't need to be recording all this.