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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Peter Glaser by John Elder on 1994 May 24,
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).
Alright. Let me just put a note here. This is May 24th, 1994, second interview with Peter Glaser. I'm John Elder, and he's going to answer some questions that I wrote while I was listening to the tape of our first interview last week.
My mother was born in the town of Pardubice, which is east of Prague. She was one of four sisters and she was the oldest. Her mother spoke English and French and my mother had a reasonably good knowledge of both. And that became very useful when we came to America. And she taught me English. She had attended high school and partly the university in Prague before she married. She lived in Prague for some time also going to school, and she was sort of very well educated, and that of course a major influence on me in that way. I spoke mostly Czech with her, although she spoke German as well, and I cannot recall any special circumstances why I spoke Czech with her, but my father didn't know Czech and therefore I used to speak German with him. My mother of course, we had a cook and we had a chauffeur and these people spoke German, so she could speak German very well. My grandmother actually didn't speak Czech too well. She was brought in Prague, and so she spoke very well German. I don't remember ever taking advantage of the fact that my father did not speak Czech. He understood enough so I never knew how much he would have understood, since he you know people around him spoke Czech, he grew up in that kind of environment, and he understood quite a bit of it.
Did he speak a little? I mean, could he do business in town in Czech?
No, he could not really — There's an expression in German which explains how these people — It was called cookle [?] bermish [?], that is, you could speak to the cook, in Czech. Because very often the cook in families, we had a cook, she was happy to speak German, but quite often the cook used to be able to speak only Czech and therefore whoever spoke German had to communicate. With my parents I really had no problems. I was I guess a very obedient child. I don't remember any problems, and I loved them both, they were very good to me, and I felt that they did all the right things educating me. My father certainly took me to temple and educated me in the Jewish ways of life. I had many friends. My closest friend lived across the street. His father had a paint factory, and they had a villa there, and so we used to play ping pong and football, and behind the house was a sort of grassy field where we played soccer, and the river which was in German called the Ager, A-g-e-r, there was a way to get in onto, into, down the banks of the river and go swimming, and that was a favorite pastime for the kids, and there were quite a few neighborhood kids — although both his and my parents were, if you like, industrialists. There was no discrimination, and a lot of the kids who were not as well off from the neighborhood came to play. That was a very democratic society, we all went to the same schools, and you know, there was no problem in that sense.
Was there any distinction at all in being Jewish at that time?
Not at that time. I think that I felt completely at ease. They went to church, I went to temple, there was total freedom of expression, and I never heard a bad word about being Jewish for — I can't even remember one until only after the time that I was 13 when the Sudeten Germans, the Nazi Party organized the Sudeten Germans and this fellow Henlein, H-e-n-l-e-i-n, took that over.
Did you ever go to church with your friends? Were you curious just to see what it was like?
Oh, I didn't go to church services, but there was a very lovely church, and yes, I was interested. Not only there, but of course there was a famous cathedral in Prague and which was something I visited, and I know when we went someplace for vacation and the church tended often to be historic monuments and my parents took me to the church that was in Austria or wherever we were.
I have a — it was a tiny detail I just wanted to check.
You mentioned playing both football and soccer.
That all meant soccer, yeah.
Football is a German — foosball is equivalent to soccer. I mixed up the —
That's what I assumed, and then you said soccer and — okay.
I've never played you know the thing where they all fall over each other, that kind of football. And to this day I don't know what goes on if I watch football, because I can't see what they're doing to the ball and all I can see that somebody carrying them a few yards and then he falls down. So does that give you a feeling? I had some very close friends, you know, playmates, from the neighborhood, and since there was no better part of town as opposed worst part. It was a very democratic society, and many of these people of course had lived in the town for many, many years, and we all sort of were together. It was a very nice way of growing up. Okay. Is that — does that satisfy it? If not I can give you much more, but —
I guess it does. There's almost no limit to what would be interesting to me, but there has to be some limit to what I do, unless we [???] it will go forever.
Now activities. Any illnesses or injuries. Let me say to the best of my memory I had every conceivable childhood illness that you can possibly find in the medical dictionary, from scarlet fever, diphtheria, pleurisy, you know, as I say, just about everything, and not that I was a sickly child, but there was no way to avoid it. And in fact after I had pleurisy, I must have been about 7 or 8, I was sent to a sort of children's home to recover in Switzerland. My parents were in Switzerland on vacation and I went to that place, and I remember the first time at breakfast I was served something which I couldn't understand what the hell you do with it. It was dry flakes. Until I was told I had to have milk in it. It's during that time two of my cousins from Prague were there too, so it wasn't lonely. In fact, I had a nice time.
You had a nice time, of course. [laughs] And were they in this — were they also recovering from illness, or were they just visiting?
No, I don't know why. I think their parents also were in Switzerland and [???] to get rid of them I think they booked them in. And it was very nice, we had sack races, you know, and things at that time. So I remember that. So I somehow survived all these illnesses, and as far as I know the only thing is that one of my lungs has some scars from the pleurisy, which they always could see, but nothing that I know of was bad aftereffects. Yes, there was a death which I remember distinctly, and that was my grandfather. He was the brother of my Uncle Eduard Glaser, and he had a housekeeper, and they went to vacation to the Bohemian Mountains, and somehow then my father — I remember coming home and saying our grandfather died. And I had seen him only recently, and I know it was hard for me to think that I won't see him again, so his death at the time did have many — sort of an effect on me, because the first death in my family.
What year was this?
If you don't mind, I'm going to stop a second so I can just make sure this is behaving itself. Okay.
Books I read, well, I remember reading books by Mark Twain. They were of course translated, into German, and then various fairy tales by Grimm. It was only much later I realized how grim they were. And then there was a series of books by a German author about Indians. Some of the characters were Shotahand [?] and Firehand [?] and so on, you know, thick books, and then I liked to read about Greek mythology, and I guess I was rather eclectic in my reading and —
Were you reading in Czech too?
I read both. It didn't matter to me which language. I was fluent in both. I read the local newspaper in my hometown, newspaper, and at the Prague newspapers in Czech and English, and there was later on of course people like Masaryk and his various thing, and Chopek [?]. I was particularly intrigued later by Chopek. The book that I read was Crakateet [?]. In fact I think it was [???] book. It is, you know Carol Chopek was the author who coined the word "robot," [???] first robot. The thing that intrigued me about this book — and I didn't understand it until much, much later — that was written in 1924, and what he was describing were two things: one is he must have read about TESLA, and he talked about wireless power transmission, and explosive device which could be exploded, [???] at great distances, with wireless power transmission. And essentially that device had some of the characteristics of a nuclear bomb. If you can get this in English translation, it is a fantastic —
Does it exist in English?
Oh, I'm sure. Most of his works have been translated.
I've seen a lot. I've never seen this book.
And, you know, the theater which I went there was the War of the Insects, you know. I remember the scene where they, each insect had accumulated a big ball of belongings and there was a chain attached to the person [?]. Let's see. I had, you know, Chopek was just, had a tremendous impression, and particularly this book I felt had a lot of very serious thoughts. It involved even sort of somewhat a mysterious spy figure, and secrets, you know, you can — Mr. Ames [?], similar, you know [laughs]. So a lot of the — where he got this from, I don't know, but I was very impressed. Radio, yes, we had a telephone and we could get most of the European stations, and we listened to that. Music, my mother played the piano and we had a piano at home. In school, you know, we had singing lessons, the whole class, and the teacher usually said, "Well Peter, when we sing would you please not sing with us." I had no voice, you know, I can't reproduce notes. I have so-called not a musical ear, but I enjoy music, so —
My teacher said that to me, too.
Oh, you too? Scarred for life.
Not at all, because I sing now.
Oh, you do? I never — that I never managed to get. The food, well, the Czech national food is dumplings — potato dumplings and various kinds, and meat, primarily the type of meat that you get from beef and so on. Fish was — the only fish we had was carp [?], and I recall that that was usually cooked at Christmas time because that was dish that somehow or other Christmas time was — And I remember that you had to buy it still alive, so our cook went to the market, bought it alive, and then put the bobbing [?] carp in our bathtub, [laughs], so I remember it swimming in the bathtub. I was not a particularly good eater in a sense. I was fairly scrawny. I really didn't have that much interest in food, and my wife complains I still, you know, am not really a connoisseur of food, and my older son on the other hand, that's his hobby in terms of cooking, and he does a great job, but that to me food was necessary but I didn't think about it too much and I did like things which are sweet, so in order that I would eat vegetable my mother put some sugar in the spinach, and that's how I ate spinach. I never learned to cook. The kitchen was not — I wasn't allowed there, it was a cook's domain, and I was always in the way, although she was very nice to me, but I was never doing any cooking. Holidays. Well, there were of course all the Jewish holidays which were celebrated when I was young. The children's services were Friday night. As I grew older and was in bar mitzvah [???] went to the temple with my father for the holidays. It was a beautiful temple, just was [???] inside, and [???] beautiful [???]. The father of my neighbor's son was sort of the chairman of the temple. So there were — I always looked forward to the summer. You know, I liked school, but I was not an outstanding student. My parents in fact, I had a tutor in Latin I recall, and it was very good for me because it turned out Latin helped me to learn English. Once you know Latin all the other languages are easy. I also —
Were your parents — did they think you should be doing better in school?
If so, they didn't tell me. I mean, I had satis — You know, I never failed, but I had too many interests, from stamps to God knows what.
Yeah, I was a stamp collector. And then I had rocks. I had a rock collection. I remember my parents went to Italy and somehow got to the Vesuvius and they brought back a sample of the molten lava, and there was a coin melted in it so that you could see the coin surrounded by the black lava. I guess to this day if you go to Vesuvius you can pick it up there.
How did you get interested in stamps?
You know, I don't remember, but I was always interested in where they came from, and you know, and it was probably the best way to learn geography. When I saw a stamp, I looked up where the heck is this place. Endora [?] or something like that. I now collect some [?] for my grandsons, but it was a thing that I enjoyed doing. I never was lonely. I always had many things to do and entertain. I was an only child, and in fact the reason I think is my mother nearly died. She got an infection in her breast, so I guess at that time it was a very dangerous thing. So I was the only child. Holidays, we celebrated all the Jewish holidays, as well for our cook Christmas — but there was no tree, but it was a meal which that she would have the ability to enjoy Christmas dinner. And of course we ate the Christmas dinner with her. There was a very easy relationship between various Gentiles and Jews at the time. Outings, oh, there were many. You see, the countryside was beautiful, and nobody thought anything to go and walk to the next village or town and Sundays one used to walk, and [???] walk, families together with their children and —
Was the countryside — it wasn't very far away?
No. From where we lived at first I mentioned was a factory, the next village — to me it seemed of course far, but I know it was perhaps 2 miles away, you know. And the countryside was a few hundred yards from where I lived. You see, the town being on top of sort of old town on top of this flat mountain, once you got down, you were in the country. It wasn't built up, hops was grown, farms, and a lot of farming was going on, to this day. You go through between each town, you'll see a lot of farming going on.
And parents weren't at all worried about their children?
Because you mentioned something the other day, last week. I'm trying to think what it was — something that I know would scare parents now. I can't remember. Maybe being near railroad tracks.
Oh yes. We walked on railroad tracks, yes. Well, you could hear the railroad coming. Now today that's different because it's on the main line now. In fact I just remember one track, now I saw there were two tracks already and the railroads were going like every 5 minutes. Well, not when I was growing up. But people were not concerned. There was no crime in that sense, at least as far as I know, you know, what you read now in the newspapers, which just didn't exist. Outings, I had an uncle — in fact the same one who came to see me when I arrived in [???] — who took us for hikes and to the mountains, and of course I learned to ski in the lovely Bohemian mountains, only about an hour and a half away, so I learned to ski. So I have to say on the whole I — also our class went on outings — I had a very carefree youth, enjoyed it, and felt that I did many things which helped me later on in life. The weather? Well, I remember I think it was 1927 that we had a terrible winter. It was freezing cold, lots of snow, which was somewhat unusual, and trudging to school was a chore. But nevertheless I trudged. No car for me. My father was absolutely adamant I will not have the use of the car.
Did you try to — did you want it?
No. My mother at times felt that — Anyhow, my father made sure I got used to walking in a — I walked a lot. I had a bicycle then, and the bicycle of course could go anyplace with a bicycle.
And leave it there when you got somewhere.
Oh. I mean stealing just didn't exist. You could leave your bike and nothing happened. The weather was — it was a continental climate.
Would that have been true in say in a big city, in Prague, [???]
I suspect it was still okay pretty well [?]. I know there was, you know, when the Depression hit in the 1930s there was some problems, but the Depression, as far as I could see, was really not as bad, because people had food, and there was a lot. The government took care of people, and there was health care, you know, universal health care, which is what [???] around here still arguing about. And I always find it hard, because from where I was it seemed to work very well. We went, I went ice skating in winter, tennis courts were the rinks. You know, they somehow managed to make them tennis and some have ice skating rinks, and I never really had a — It rained, so you took your raincoat. So the weather was not much of an issue. Does this cover some of the —? Do you have any specific questions?
No, these are just to get at it, and these are things that — I mean if there's something I'm not thinking of —
Yeah. As I say, the only years the winter I remember was — and I think it was 1927 — it was bitter cold, and more like the winter we had this year in Boston, unusually cold, unusually snowy. Of course I was used to snow, because when you went in the mountains there [???], judging by where the trees were there must have been 3-5 feet of snow. And it was a beautiful mountain, and on top of it was a hotel where I was too young, but there was 5 o'clock tea and dancing, and there was a bed [?]. I remember that.
Let me ask you something else. Can you remember any fantasies that you had or —? I'll just give an example from my own life. I know that we used to walk to school, and there was a whole section where there was a little bit of woods. There were [?] really houses all around, but you could walk in the woods for a long stretch, so we always did, my brother and sister and I always did that. And I always had this — fantasy is the only word I can think of — that we were on another planet, so we would be very careful where we stepped, and I don't remember the details of it. But it was just something to think about.
No, I have to say I was very down-to-earth.
But not necessarily something like that. We also had lots of — Because when I was growing up it was still close enough to World War II that there was lots of — like on the television you would see it a lot, there were TV shows and movies that were set —
Of course that didn't exist —
Obviously not that, but what I mean is we had — so sometimes we would think that we were soldiers or something, because we just had these images in our head —
No. The funny thing is, we played as — what is it? — Indians, you know, the rob — what do you call that?
Cowboys and Indians?
Cowboys and Indians, I think we played that kind of game, but the military, I don't even remember that we had guns. We had those things which, you know, they made noise. What do you call these pistols with —?
Oh, cap pistols.
Cap pistols, yes. That I recall, but otherwise there was not much — at least I didn't have any guns. I think I did see, when you went to the fairs, these air pistols or whatever, but never really — I found that very uninteresting [?].
Did you go to the movies?
Oh yes. My first movie I went with our cook I recall, and it was The Last Days of Pompeii [?], and I disliked it so much she took me home before it was finished. It took a while before I —
It scared you?
Yeah, it really scared me. And then I saw Chaplin later on, you know, I don't know how I old I was. I must have been 7 or so. It was a very, you know, scary movie. I think even today if you think in a child's eyes. I went to theater, I saw most of the plays in the local theater, which had a troupe of actors, and so I saw Shilla [?] and the various famous plays, and I even heard Richard Tauber. I don't know if that name means anything — a very famous tenor, Viennese tenor. T-a-u-b-e-r, Richard Tauber, and one of his famous renderings of [???]. Oh, I had a phonograph. That's right. I must have been 7 or 8 when I got it for my birthday, you know, 78, about this size, cranking it up.
Besides Chopek, was there anything particularly that really took hold —
You were asking me something.
Well, some of what I asked is just out of my own experience. I just know for example when I was a kid at some point some science fiction crossed my path and my head was just full of it ever since and that —
I don't really recall. The only science fiction [???] was Krakatit . Science fiction, perhaps I read it; I may not have been aware that it was science fiction. You see, you really didn't start reading science fiction until you were about 14 or 15. At that time science fiction became reality in some ways, so I lived it rather than having to read about it.
Okay. Is that enough about the subject of —?
Yeah, it was excellent.
Early technical background. I think as long I remember I got —
I don't mean it that formally really. I'm sort of sorry I wrote them down.
No, no. I'm trying to get my thoughts here. What fascinated me, my parents gave me for a birthday — I think I must have been 9 or 10 — Marklin. Now I don't know if that means — it's like Mechano [?] sets, and the quality of Marklin was absolutely topnotch, and you could really construct complicated machinery, and it had motors, little electric motors, you know. So that fascinated me from — And you could add to it, you know, and —
How is it spelled?
M-a-r-k-l-i-n. If you go to F A O Schwartz [?] you can still buy it.
Really? What made the motors? Were there batteries or did you plug it?
I think it was — well, you could plug things and you could make cranes, cars, you know, the typical Mechano. I think in a way it's much more expensive than Mechano, because I still have some in here which — because I bought it for my children, and they loved to play with it as well, particularly my son Steven. And it I think helped me in terms of dexterity, visualizing things and because I had to translate from a thing on a piece of paper into something in three dimensions.
Did you draw, or doodle, or fiddle around?
Not except for school I did not. [knock on door] Yeah, come in. So here I was building things, and then I could see real machinery of various kinds. I spent quite a bit of time, and I was allowed to do that, in the place where lathes were and things were being made, and so I could understand how a lathe works and—
Was this in the factory?
Yeah. Actually the machine shop.
Because you had said one thing was you were not allowed to touch.
No, I was not. I was never allowed to touch anything, but the machine shop was in a separate building and woodworking shop was, because the heavy wire ropes had to be put on huge drums. You can see them sometimes. So they were made right there, and the machines were repaired right there, and so I became very familiar with what it takes to drill holes, make screws, and you know, the various very practical things and —
Just by watching.
Just by watching. And later then, when I went to Leeds College of Technology, I actually operated these machines and in Leeds we had a very good [???] machine shop, and I remember the lathe must have been destined for Africa, because the levers had tigers, elephants, you know, the plastic knobs had this, so people didn't have to know, to read, and could operate based on instructions, whatever, push the lever of the elephant, or whatever they had to do.
Was there anyone in your family that had tools and did things or —?
No. I was the only one who really — This uncle of mine was an engineer, but he didn't make things as far as I know. As far as I know, I was the only one who was doing things like that.
Did the chauffeur ever work on the car?
Oh yes, of course. I learned what's inside, what makes a car go, and as long as I watched, I wasn't in the way or — and of course in the factory I wasn't allowed to talk to anybody, and they always made sure that I didn't get — This was fairly dangerous machinery, big things and —
It wouldn't do to kill the boss's son, would it?
[laughs] And they could trust me that I wasn't going to do something silly, and had respect for machinery and safety and so on from being there — welding and so on. And I remember there was a special machine which assembled those wire ropes for Michelin tires which was a very proprietary process. I allowed to watch how they did it. So, in other words, technical things were sort of very — I was [???].
Were you eager or maybe even impatient to get to do these things yourself instead of just watching?
At the time I was too young. I knew eventually I would probably do them, but at that time I was just interested to see how things worked, and I liked to take things apart and put them together again, and that's where this Marklin thing came about.
Did you ever experiment on things in the house that broke, or maybe things in the house that didn't break and take a clock and —?
Yeah. At times. But I was discouraged from doing too much of that. You know, I had my own things that I could do, and I had a bicycle which I took apart and oiled and cleaned and put together again.
Who taught you how to do it? Or did anyone teach you how to do it?
I don't know that anyone taught me. You know, it wasn't that complicated. I know I had a balloon bicycle, with the broad tires. That was very useful, because the streets were cobblestones.
That's interesting. What I started to ask when you wife came in was, did you draw — not necessarily to be artistic, but just to draw things that were on your mind or you know how kids [???] draw airplanes and things like that?
Oh yeah. I did draw things. I had no problem in having a three-dimensional visualization with two dimensions, and so my friends couldn't [?] understand that I saw what I saw because they couldn't see it. So from early days I was able to — This Marklin thing helped me think three-dimensionally.
Did you think up things to build and draw them and build them or just were you playing around?
I don't recall, but I knew what I was going to — And some of the things I did were not in the books. So I used my imagination to build things and make things go the way I wanted to go. Knowledge of aviation. Well, the first time I really came close to things to do with aviation was I think it must have been 1936. There was a large factory which had been making leather but then was not in use and there were army maneuvers there, so I saw various things going on there, and it was also used by the sail plane club or whatever it was. For the first time I could see that there is something which looks like an airplane, doesn't have a motor, and some — I don't know, 20 miles away, there was a mountain, so I was [???] able to see how these sail planes fly, and I said, "Gee, that's neat." And I looked at the plane as they were working on it, and said my God there was just cloth over some little wooden structures, not much to it, and I could see the resemblance between birds and the sail plane, and, "How do these birds manage to do what they do?" and I never really studied it, but I realized that there is a whole — for me — unexplored opportunity, you know, "How do things fly which are obviously heavy?" and something there that I found interest. And of course [???] reminded myself about the journey to the moon and the submarine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Yes. Did you read it — what language did you read it in?
In German. You know, all of these books were translated into German. So, and it didn't matter to me which language I read it in, because I was really fluent in both and I could go from one to the other without thinking about it [???] count.
Would you consider German really also your native language? Is it second to Czech, or are they equal?
I think they were about equal. People immediately know that I'm not German. When I speak in Germany, they know where I come from, because I speak in German a dialect which is only spoken along the river Ager, it's a Ager [???] dialect, and it's a fairly broad — like Scottish [???], and therefore that comes through, and then there's an overlay of all sorts of other accents like Czech. If I speak say there, they can't hear that I also speak German, because there's a sound that I can produce called the — a sssshuh sound. Unless you're Czech, no way. And we had during the war, we always had a password with that sound in it. [???] [example of Czech passwords with the sound, which is a very wet sound]. You must have been born with the tongue. So the Czechs didn't hear any Germans; the Germans, in my German they heard a local German dialect. Therefore they knew I wasn't from Germany. And I didn't speak Yiddish. In fact I didn't know anybody who spoke Yiddish. That was not normally being spoken. People just had lived there centuries, but they spoke Hebrew, but Yiddish was not — as far as I know, Yiddish wasn't spoken anywhere in [???]. Space travel. Well, [???] the Baltimore [???]. What is it? Bobby Caine?
Baltimore Gun Club, yes.
And wasn't the commander Bobby Caine, and whoever he was.
Caine, yeah, and I recall thinking, "My God, how could they live in that shell?" You know, I mean the drawing showed what looked like a shell, and I couldn't quite visualize how it all would happen. Well little did I know at that time.
Did you ever hear, though, about Max V[???] at that time? I mean he is I think about the only person at that time who would be famous enough that you might just catch him.
No, I never heard of Tarkovksy either.
Well, no, I wouldn't expect that. But V[???] was in the papers sometimes, because he would rig up cars with rockets, and he was kind of a spectacular person.
I don't recall.
He had some public recognition.
Yeah, I really don't recall. So I have to say the space travel only came from the humor [?] and no place else, and I don't — Another one which I was fascinated, The Secret Castle in the Carbasin [?] Mountains, and the thing that was there, and mysterious, the music came out of a box. Orchestra playing. Must have been before ??? actually perfected the phonograph [???]. I don't know.
He kept up with things though. He usually — he knew what was being worked on often. I don't know why he got that detail, but —
This secret castle in the Carbasin Mountains which, with the music and orchestra, then it was supposed to be radio or just — no idea.
A question came back to me from an earlier section here, about when you went to temple. Do you remember what you thought about God at the time? Did you think about it at the time?
I don't think I had such very deep thoughts at the time, you know, except for the biblical. As such you understand the religion was a state through which — Jewish religion was a state [?] religion supervised by the Ministry of Education. The prayer books were issued by the Ministry, and it didn't matter whether you studied the Jewish or Protestant or Catholic or whatever. We had — our [???] called Nuremburg [?] that taught us Jewish, to read Hebrew and the various things from the Bible, and there was a class of students from the Protestants, a Catholics class, Jewish —
Cantor [?] worked for the government?
Oh yes. So did the rabbi. The rabbis were licensed by the government, were paid by the government, and you paid a religious tax, if I recall correctly. Now there were special reasons why money was collected. During the time that you got an alia [?], it was announced how much money you were giving, shenoren [?]. It was publicly communicated what a certain congregate would give to a certain cause. It was common in the temples at the time. But it was all — Judaism was a state religion.
So but you didn't ponder, or you weren't bothered by religious questions of what —? Things that some people —
I knew who I was, I knew where I came from, and I grew up in it, and therefore I never had any doubts. Yes, there was a God, and Abraham and all these people were very real to me. I never had a doubt that these people existed, except my great uncle, you know, wanted to make sure that this Queen of Sheba was for real, and he found out she was. I mean, I have to say it didn't surprise me, because I felt, "Why would it be in the Bible otherwise?" So whether it was exact, I don't know, but it was close enough. So the children were, we were reasonably well educated, in Hebrew I wrote, you know, I could read it [???] I was reading. Okay.
Were there only boys in the school? Not by a long shot. I went to school; think there must have been at least 30 percent of girls. And my cousin was in the school. In fact I was very close to my girl cousins, not having any — I didn't have, in my neighborhood I didn't have boy cousins, and I was, you know, the [???], and it didn't matter who you were. It was an egalitarian society. There was no difference if you were poor or rich; you got the same education, you did the same things, and you didn't — the religious differences up to the time of Hitler didn't make any difference. So for ten years I lived in a society where there were no differences, and where I felt that I as a Jew was just as good as the German or the Czech or whoever there was — whether he was Catholic or — But [???] Jewish didn't make any difference. At least, that was my perception. I never thought about it. The only thing is, I went to the temple, they went to the church. Yes, teachers I remember. We had a stern mathematics teacher. He must have gone to German universities, you know the students from [???] is a physics teacher I remember. There were several Jewish teachers, and then a Latin teacher was Jewish. In fact the director of the school was Jewish. It was a large school and when I went in October the school is in good shape and it's still there.
Now this German school was — I should get clear, because it's always different in a different place: what were the different levels? How many years and what ages were —?
Five years. You started school at 6, and you went to — what do you call the first five grades?
We call them elementary.
Elementary school. It was called Volks Schule in German, "People's School." That was the name [???].
Volks. V-o-l-k-s S-c-h-u-l-e, Volks Schule.
And then I went, after I finished the classes at the Reál Gymnasium [?], and that was a very good education while it lasted. German literature and not Czech as much, but some.
This was still the German school?
That was a German rule if you did anything wrong you couldn’t get away with it, and you were not allowed to take your cap off. I did remember we went swimming in Braxton, in a swimming pool. In Braxton was a spa, and what interested me, the water had sort of an interesting bluish color, and I swam and it was very pleasant. It was much later that I found that they found the water is radioactive in Braxton [laughs], so I don’t know how much we were exposed to during our swim. Spas at the time, like Madame Curie got her — what is it — the p[???] b[???] was in the [???] and then they built a huge hotel and people took [???] baths with all this stuff supposedly helping, all your diseases were taken care of by these kind of radioactive baths.
Well, at least it’s more pleasant than chemotherapy.
Yeah, but that was — What did I learn from other kids. Well, I was exposed to the world in that particular school. They came from all over, all their fathers, their parents were very well-placed in colonial places, wherever they came from, and I realized that there was a helluva big world out there. And I think that was very interesting — You know, they talked about where they came from and what the customs were. So the public schools in England gave people who attended there a totally different view, because you didn’t read about it — there was a kid from Mexico, whose father was there from South America, Brazil, and they always sent their children to work there. The British Colonial Empire worked well. So I think perhaps — So the rise of Nazism. Well, I think I mentioned what happened, sort of the distances of boys in school, the fact that they sort of had a semi-uniform, and I guess I never — there were no outward signs of anti-Semitism. I saw a few swastika signs, but very few. I escaped that because we left in ’38. It got progressively worse of course. My parents were worried about it, that I knew. I have a picture of my mother seeming rather worried in our new house outside, and I could see she had concerns. My parents discussed what was going on, particularly the Sudeten German problem and the Nazis, and we listened to the radio, to Hitler’s raving and ranting on the radio, and it became clear that this was a very dangerous period to live in, and the wrong place to be. And my parents in ’38 began to think about leaving.
What was it like to have these people that you’ve known all your life —
It was very strange.
— become something else?
It’s like a science fiction, as I said.
It was very strange, and they distanced themselves, and they obviously did things which I knew nothing about. They had their own clubs, so to speak, whatever they did there, and I really had no knowledge about. I do know around that time the Czech army was more in evidence. They were building bunkers in certain areas. When I came back they were still there. I guess they didn’t have the money to blow up the concrete. The Czech army was well-equipped, and Hitler would not have gone in were it not for this infamous Munich Agreement that —
Did your parents become any more worried about you just moving around town and —?
No, I don’t think so. Nobody would have thought that anything — I didn’t feel any danger. I’m not sure they did either. That didn’t come about, even in Prague in 1938, and it was ’39 it was no problem. After the Germans came in that was different, but we didn’t stay. We only stayed there two weeks, so I —
And were you afraid? I mean, were the Germans worrisome because you were Czech or because you were Jewish? I mean, did you —?
Oh, because I was Jewish and Czech. I mean two counts against you.
I just wasn’t sure how clear it was?
It was very clear towards the end, towards the end very clear. You know, they stopped speaking to us and so on and make snide remarks. I mean all that took only about a year or two. Things can change awfully fast when somebody like Hitler comes along. So it can happen anyplace under an unpleasant set of circumstances.
You might not have been old enough to wonder about it, but I sort of wonder what your parents thought. It makes you wonder, did these people, did they always think this?
My guess is there was always a latent anti-Semitism, and the Germans always felt put upon by the Czechs, because they lived at the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and Germans and Austrians were on the top of the heap and the Czechs, you know [???] —
Oh, the Germans in Czechoslovakia.
Yeah. And after [???] the Czechs became the ruling party, so to speak.
So this was their chance to get [???] back.
Yeah. So there was always friction between Czechs and Germans. Even under Austria. You know, the Czechs thought the Austrians were discriminating against them, and they were. I mean they were right. And so it was a difficult thing. So my parents, in a way I’m very grateful that they were much more aware of what was going on. [???] people didn’t know. You know, the Germans weren’t there, they didn’t see it, they [???] perhaps or read in the newspapers, and there were articles against German doctors — I mean Jewish doctors — who mistreated German patients, and you know, things of that — It was all done out of Berlin, those stories about Jews, and the caricatures of Jews appeared. But it was [???] of propaganda. They really were [???] masters with Goebbels [?] at the helm. And it happens very quickly. They were obviously very susceptible and fully cooperative, and the ideas of German Reich seemed to be a very, very popular idea and they thought German would be the thousand-year Reich. They believed every word of it. The worse were the Austrians, [???] claimed to be the first invaded by Hitler and all that. So, yes, people knew some, by my parents somehow — my father particularly, since he had more broad — And the comments of the Jews and Hapstradt [?] had lots of contact internationally, and thus they were more aware what was going on than even people in Prague. And quite a few of them went to Prague. And quite a few of them went to Canada. To this day I have many friends in Canada from my hometown.
People that you knew then?
Mm-hmmm [affirmative]. Yeah. Okay. Experience in England. I mentioned to you we lived in Maida Vale and all that kind of stuff. The butling, I thought that was fun, just a — Lord Rathcreedan sort of realized more who I was. You know, that I went to Buxton College, which I was not just a farm boy, but I was doing war work and helping the war effort, and he appreciated it. And I had a great time. I mean, you know, as a kid learning to be a butler. Unusual circumstance. Chronology. Well, I think I mentioned to you I started out in the YMCA which I joined in London there was an office and I went there and they assigned me to that farm near — that was a training farm where we had to learn what to do on these farms. And so for one year I did war work, and was very proud of it and —
What year was it?
That was 1940 to '41, after I finished Braxton College. Remember the war was heating up, and a lot of uncertainties. Life on the farm was carefree, you know. In fact I remember in Italy [?] on Thames I was watching the Spitfires and Hurricanes, you know, the dogfights as the German bombers came and we could see what was happening up there with the naked eye. Leeds College of Technology. That was also a very positive experience for me. That was really the first time I was exposed to engineering education and all the engineering [???], eat, light and sound, electricity, and thermodynamics and all the engineering subjects, and machine work, you know, with lathes, and drilling presses and with [???]. So, essentially, I became managerial in Leeds, and I knew that was to be my profession. So that essentially my, the course of my future activities was charted through my attendance at Leeds College. What I liked about it. I was interested in thermodynamics. I was impressed by the history of Kano [?] and all kinds of things as lieutenant in the army and designing cannons and in the process got thermodynamic principles.
Did they teach you that history, or did you just look it up?
You know, I don’t remember where the hell I picked it up. They might have taught it, but I’m not 100 percent sure how I came to know about it. English wasn’t — by that time you were supposed to know English and literature and all that stuff, so this was essentially a technical high school or equivalent to probably the first two years of college.
Were they teaching you anything about atomic theory or atomic energy then?
No, that came later. No, not at that time. Jet engine, yes. So I learned about the existence of something which [???] that developed. And in [???] with our class there were people in uniform who were in officers’ school being trained for the Air Force or Navy or whatever at the college. So I felt I had learned a great deal and knew what was going on. War [?] experiences.
Well, let me ask another question. Did you have, when you were at Leeds, did you have any idea in particular what you might do?
No. I knew I wanted to be an engineer. What kind — you know, I knew there was the army ahead of me and God knows what plane [?] There was no way I could plan. I felt I had a good grounding in engineering at that level, and I figured, well, if all goes well I’ll go back to school, and which I did then in Prague, when I went to university. Okay. What was it like being in battles? Confused as hell. You know —
That’s what everybody says.
My God. Nobody knew. You know, we had rudimentary radio communications, a big thing. There was not, you know, the shameless people that always comes to mind “Dovdr 39” had somebody stopped me I would have a tough time explaining why I’m going the way I’m going. It was a bit roundabout. So I did see my parents once while I was there in England. In France you got mail. Then things were possible to get. So I was in communication.
Do you still have it?
No. I couldn’t take anything with me [???] after [???]. It was too dangerous for the army, under the communists. I didn’t want them to know about me being in the English Army. It was not the thing to do. They would put me in jail. I told you about the general that I met in Prague in October. He was jailed nine years by the communists. I would have been — every one of us [???] in jail. They looked upon us as traitors, as a very unreliable element.
Why would you have been traitors?
Well, because you weren’t communist, you fought with the British or Americans.
You were fighting the Germans.
Well, that wasn’t the point. The ideology was important, and we had our own ideology. So I did have correspondence. You know, I’m getting rather hoarse. Perhaps we should — You can tell that I have —
Alright, let’s have mercy.