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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Peter Glaser by John Elder on 1994 June 9,
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).
June 9, 1994, fourth interview with Peter Glaser. I'm John Elder. I was listening to the last session and there are just two small questions I wanted to ask you about —
— being in Czechoslovakia just after the war. I don't know if this will seem a silly question, but you talk about finding out how many of your family had been killed. How did you know what happened to somebody?
Actually I have no idea how they died. The only I knew, they were gone.
The thing is, do you really know that — well, I mean at the time, did you know they died, or did you just know that they vanished and —?
They vanished, and the only way I can assume that they died, they were not there. For example, I had my grandfather's brother lived in a part of Prague called Carly [?] and he had children and various other people and his wife. None of these people were there after I came back. And there was a place you could find out, and I tried, and they're gone. Sort of the chilling thing was that my friends were gone which went to school with me, my family was gone, except my parents. My grandparents were gone, my aunt she had polio at the age of 16, so obviously she was a target very early on, and just in other words you come back and it's like if you would be in Hiroshima, you know. Who's left? And the same feeling I had coming back to my hometown, it's like a stage setting, you know — the grass in the center and nicely painted, but the people are gone, the actors are no longer on the stage.
By the time you actually got into Zsuhtec, did you expect that, or did you think that —? [???] what you knew then?
Now I'm talking 1993.
Okay. In 1945 there were a lot of — no Jews. The Jews had gone, but a few returned. For example I had two friends from the Czech army who came from Zsuhtec, and they came back, and one was married, the other one then was governor [?], then I know I have a photograph someplace on that main square. There were three of us who were in the Czech army.
Oh, you have a photograph from then?
Yeah. Actually [???] and their wives and so on. And two of them died, one of them is somewhere in Canada.
When you first arrived in town, came back to your hometown with your British uniform on, did you look around for people that you thought would be there and —?
Well, I did not expect anybody to be there, because all the Jews would have been deported.
Okay. You knew that much.
I knew that much, that there would be no Jews left. And there were —
But you thought they might come back, or you knew they would be killed?
No, no. I expected they were all gone. You know most of the Jews, and I have pictures of my class in 1938, and there was one, you know, my cousin and I survived, my cousin managed to get to Canada. She's still living [?].
So by that time, even by the time, even by 1945 you already knew everybody had been killed, taken away.
Oh, I knew. Yeah. Yeah, I knew that.
The other question which I was going to ask, which you have answered, is just whether you had anything, any kind of letters, any notebook, anything that you wrote or any way put anything down on paper from that period?
I did not. No. I have to do that. I have to do — that's what my family wants me to do, and essentially what I recall of my family's history and that particular time. Remember, I was a young guy, a soldier just gone through the war, came home and found my house was lived in by some German family. Now, I was not bloodthirsty. The guy was a forester, he didn't do anything bad, and — There's a famous movie that I saw, The Garden of the Finzi Continis.
In fact the relatives of [???], it's a real family, my wife's mother used to live in Triest and somehow they knew that family, so it's a real story. And I recall one particular statement in that film, "Every Italian has a family," explaining why they didn't do more to help the Jews. And the same in this town. Every German had a family, so even if they had been sympathetic outwardly they had to be — in German is a beautiful expression "Mitlaufer." It means somebody who is a collaborator, but it means more like somebody who runs with the crowd. And therefore these people didn't do anything: they didn't take any overt action, they didn't do anything. So this is why Schindler — There was only one Schindler, as far as I know, who at first was just like the others, but then realized that he had to do something, and in the end he essentially put his life at stake by saving these people on the subterfuges. As he said, you know, he made sure not one single shell out that factory ever worked. So I cannot — I can understand that people weren't courageous under those circ — And that's what the Nazis did. They knew not everyone would be supportive, but they wanted to make sure nobody would oppose them, and they did this through the Gestapo, and there was rabi [?] Nazis, and nobody could speak up. The communists —they learned it from the communists. There's nothing new about this. Now if you look, if you like opera, well Tosca, the various characters there, you can see that it was very hard to plot against the authority, and famous Tosca came out of that. No famous opera came out of the Nazi period. So it was a unique period in terms of my life. I'm not sure historically it was that unique, what dictators do to their people. Stalin did the same thing, and probably before him I don't know how good Caesar was or Nero or any of those guys.
I don't think we would have liked it.
No, you know, democracy is something that is designed to prevent these things from occurring. What happened today in Congress is an example. The House voted essentially to do things against the policy of the President. So the President may be a very powerful Commander-in-Chief, but in the end he can't be unilaterally taking actions. I'm not saying it's good or bad; it's just an example —
No, it's just the way it is.
— of the way things are. And the Democrats essentially voted against his policy, for better or for worse. I'm not sure it was the right thing to do, but there's some [???]. So it's very difficult for a person to come into that environment and what was I supposed to do? Shoot every German that I saw in '45 on the side? No, I couldn't do that. And I realized that individually they weren't bad people. They were just trying to get along.
They just weren't heroes.
They weren't heroes. And the real bad Nazis by the time I got there were no longer there. You know, if they had joined the SS or any of those things they were cleaned out prior to my coming by the Czechs and other local people. They didn't wait until we came. And of course the other thing they did, the top guys managed to get to Argentina, or God knows wherever they went other than Argentina, and the little guys just fled to Germany, and thus they were never apprehended. And I felt, well, the list that I told you, I felt like Schindler, which my father gave me, [???] were primarily social democrats who were at least prior to the war belonged to that kind of political persuasion. But during the war, what were they going to do? Put their families at risk? So I could sympathize with the problems that an individual faced under these conditions. You know, I didn't take care of any Nazis. We knew who they were. So what Schindler did was a tremendous act of courage. It was no act of courage on my part, because —
The war was over.
The war was over.
So there were people that you could have got out, but you didn't, who had worked there [???] could have legitimately been on that list.
Weren't on the list. My father knew who was — And then, you know, they worked in the factory until it was nationalized. And until there were [???] all Germans had to leave, and then they left to go to Germany. And there's a large group of people who knew my father and who knew me as a boy, but I haven't tried to keep — There's a newspaper, local, the arts. In German it's S-a-a-c. It's a local newspaper which is published in Germany. And in fact there appeared not so long ago a picture of my fourth grade in high school in the paper, and it identified all the children, including me.
This is a Czech paper published in Germany?
No, a German paper by the Sudeten Germans. I don't know, there must be 3 million Sudeten Germans, and I don't know how many there are by now, maybe 5, who trace their roots to the Sudetenland, and they have their own newspaper and keep track what's going on. I told you when I took the pictures of temple and this woman shouting at me, because they now can go back as tourists to see what's happening. Of course nobody's going to do anything to [???]. They have German passports, they can come there, take pictures.
And they probably never spoke Czech.
They never spoke Czech. A few. Some did, but most —
They generally did [???]. So they can't come back and say, "Well, we belong here."
No. I mean —
Even though they did.
They belonged there from the 14th century. You see, in a way some of the problems of Yugoslavia are not too — you know, the Moslems and the Serbs and the Croats [?]. I don't know. X years from now the Sudeten Germans may want to go back and fight for their land, you know. It's not an impossible thing to consider.
No, it's not. It's too bad, but you're right.
They'll never forgive or forget. You know, they have lived there, what, over five centuries. So they think that's their own — their land, their buildings. They know exactly. They take pictures of the building for the [???] today, even if it doesn't belong to them anymore [?]. They always hope to get it back. In fact Havore [?] had a conference with [???] about how do you provide restitution, the state, to the people which were thrown out at that time. In fact, somehow that restitution [???] will have to be arranged. Now whether that's enough, I don't know. So, lots of problems unsolved. And the Jews, you know, that's just a small — they are only two thousand living in Zsuhtec and probably 20,000 Germans. Ten percent. Does that answer that?
Any other questions?
No, I think I'll leave that.
Okay. Where were we?
Well, we had gone up to your —
Starting to work with [???]?
Well, and the first couple projects, whirlpool [?] and working on the —
— solar furnace and the re-entry —
The lunar project.
Lunar measurements in the conference in the book. I wanted to backtrack to Columbia. Here's the general — You told me what you did in all these places, what you studied and what job you had, and all those things, and I'm curious now about just what it was like being there and what you did other than the main thing that you were doing, and what people were of importance to you at the time that you liked or disliked, or helped you or guided your way, or —
Well, let me start at the top with the professors. I really was very fortunate that I had a very good relationship with several of my professors. I think I mentioned Professor Caine [?] and the medal that I got from Columbia in [???] '74, who sort of was my close advisor during my Ph.D. work. Another one was Professor Baker, and Professor Fuller. Professor Fuller particularly was responsible for developing the whole tribology [?]. I don't know if you've ever heard of that, it’s bearings and stuff like that, and a very substantial body of work. And so Columbia at that time —
That was Fuller?
Fuller. The science of — I think it's tribology, t-r-i-b-o-l-o-g-y, design of bearings. In fact he was in his lectures discussing how the Mt. Palomar telescope was on air bearings, and you could just vary a small [???] things [???] Palomar. It was one of the first things. So this whole theory behind how that works. And I mentioned the other people that I knew — Rabi [?] and Kusch [?] and so on. That was I would feel the golden period for Columbia, when I was there.
What was Professor Caine like? What was your relationship with him like?
He took an interest in me. He was teaching heat transfer and he was a very jovial man and I was one of his first graduate students and a Ph.D. student, and he invited me to his apartment, he lived on Riverside Drive, I met his family, his wife. In fact when we got married, we still have a set of glasses he gave us as a wedding present. So it was that kind of relationship, and I admired him. He was very practical, and he understood the prac — And he was jovial, you know, more heavyset man and liked good food and drink. Another person that I knew was Dean Dunning [?]. Dean Dunning, of the engineering school, was a key man in the U.S. atomic energy program. If you recall, Columbia had the Manhattan Project started; he was involved in that. So I was surrounded by, if you like, role models in that sense. And those of us who were graduate students were very good friends, and one of them is to this day a very good friend of mine, Ferdinand Freudenstein. He is famous for mechanism design and if you want to know all he's done, you look up Who's Who. He just got another medal from some organization for [???]. It's essentially designing the mechanism for machinery operations.
Well, what kind of role models were these professors? That is, what were you looking at in trying to emulate —?
I was looking in the point of view that they achieved a certain level of renown, a learning, they knew how to teach, and they shared their knowledge with students. I never really took an undergraduate class, so I can't tell you, but the graduate school, you know, relatively small classes, so we had a rapport with these people. They were very good professors, and they professed. As far as my — I had a room on first on 116th Street with actually a couple from Europe who rented out a room, and so that was one block from Columbia, and then I was 114th Street, and I did rent rooms, and I had kitchen privileges and I could prepare simple meals. I never was a cook, and that my wife always regrets. My son is a very good cook, a gourmet cook, but somehow that never interested me too much, and Columbia provided —
That's the first thing I've heard you say you didn't want to learn.
I really didn't. It took too much time. I think that was the primary reason, that I was able to stay alive and do the things, but use — Remember, when I got my, during my graduate school days I was working a full day at [???] management company. And thus I came home, I went to class, I had to study, I had to do homework. I didn't have much time to go shopping and I had always essentials and —
So all your classes were at night and —?
Yes. That's why I was a —
The whole graduate school was at night?
No. The Master’s program and then a few Ph.D. courses. The graduate school at Columbia, one of the few schools where you can, until you are sort of at the level that you know you are going to do for your Ph.D. thesis, and that was in '53 that I then stopped working, and I got my doctorate in '55. So those two years were devoted to doing my thesis work.
Was there anything going on besides school and work, school and work?
In that sense I had friends. We got together in the evening. There's a place in Columbia, Lion's Den it was called, you know the lion is Columbia's mascot, and I had a nice time with them. But I didn't have the time to go to bars, you know. There was a bar on Broadway, but I didn't — not only time, I didn't have money! I had a fellowship, it was a good one, [???] Bowes [?] and Higgins [?] [???] later on, a very prestigious fellowship, but I think one was $1500, the other was $2000. I had to pay my rent, clothes, so —
Did you go to movies?
Rarely. I did, but, as I say, weekends I had to study and do homework, so I didn't have much time for those things. I belonged to the Zionist Organization of America — after all, I nearly joined the Haganah — and the Haifa Technion Society. And the reason why I joined the Technion Society was because I mentioned that we had these American flyers staying in our house, and Ben Fingeroot said, "Well, if you come to America and go to school, join the Technion Society." He knew about the Technion and Haifa. That's just what I did, and Aziah [?] Way [?]. That's what he was telling me.
What did you do? Or what did these organizations —?
They were small groups, and we got together. There was Earl Hall, where there was a rabbi and Jewish students had evenings and socials and things of that sort. Remember, I was a greenhorn; I didn't know much about America. Therefore — yes, I knew girls, but American girls were quite different from what I knew, and I realized that it would be difficult for me to marry somebody who was American, because of my history. I'd have to explain things from the word go. And if I look at, you know, I was fortunate to meet my wife, and all the closeness that her family had essentially to my family without my knowing as it turned out, but a lot of my friends then also married refugees because — not all —because there was so much baggage you brought along, that to explain all this kind of thing, you know, what I'm telling you here in great detail, the gulf was very great.
Did you actually experience trying to do that?
Oh, I had girlfriends who were American, and I realized that there was so much, you know, the experiences that I've had and that they've had and explaining, it was, you know, even for you, you know, how can I tell you all of these things? And it's, you know, there's a lot below the surface, and feelings and understanding each other. So I had decided I would probably marry somebody who came from Europe, because of the age that I was at. I got married in '55, so by that time I just still, you know, my wife came here as a 5-year-old, so that was different for her, but for me it was difficult to adjust. I didn't play baseball, I really wasn't interested in any of those sports, and soccer wasn't played here. Some of the movies were good, but others not so good.
I'm interested. Another question I was going to get to, but you brought it up, is the adjustment to —
Remember I came here in '48, and sort of the next day I had to work, and the day after that I went to school. And graduate school is not like undergraduate, because you are more on your own. I had a room, a lab in which Columbia let me do my work, and therefore I was sort of in my own world. And most of my contacts was with fellow students and professors. Not much — At work, yes, but the people I worked with [???] management, Herbert Warner [?], was from Vienna. In other words, they hired me because they liked somebody with my background to work for them.
Do you remember points along the way where you realized that there was something about American life that you didn't know and you —?
Oh, I realized there were many things. For example, just because I started to go to Columbia. You know, New York to me, I didn't know much about New York, and Columbia was sort of the only place I knew that I could really study. I heard about NYU, but I didn't know where the hell NYU was at the time — somewhere downtown. I knew about City College. But Columbia had all the features that I was looking for, and it had many students from abroad already there. For example the whole group of people from Poland and Germany and so on who had similar experiences. So it's easier, just like, you know, why do Italians live among Italians in Boston, or Chinese among Chi — You know, the same in New York, you know, the Jewish sections of New York in the Bronx. One of the few places when a Jew from Poland came he could speak Yiddish and Polish and could be understood. They knew who he was very quickly. The people, Americans, didn't know who I was, had no way of knowing what I am talking about, and I really didn't have a way of discussing my feelings with them. They didn't know about the Holocaust, and at that time that was not talked about.
Did you talk about it with people though?
Not really, because —
Even though they were Europeans or Jews?
Oh, the Europeans, yes. You know, we had similar experiences. One of my best friends was a boy from Vienna, Ziggy Lichtblau, who was also a graduate student in chemical engineering. He somehow managed to get to Israel and then went to Columbia in chemical engineering. He had a good voice and strummed a guitar, and he made his money by being the Israeli troubadour, and a very nice relationship I had with him.
Do you remember what you talked about with your friends?
A hard question, but it's an interesting one.
It's a good question. A lot had to do with the school experiences, and essentially teaching each other about America. We were greenhorns. And experiences, you know, what this America is about. We discussed America — the politics, you know, I didn't know. I knew about Roosevelt, the whole other thing I didn't know. I didn't know much in England. I told you, the thing I knew best was to recite the Gettysburg Address. I knew the Civil War, but I never heard of those battles and the details and so on. I knew what the American army was because I served with them, and most of the Americans were very uninformed about Europe. They had no idea about history, they didn't know where the heck they were and what the town was like.
Never heard of Czechoslovakia —
Until they got to Pilsin [?], you see. They are from the Midwest and I mean the fact that women were available to them was sort of a revelation, and they couldn't tell whether it was a prostitute, and of course — so they were the naive Americans.
What did Americans seem like when you got here, or what did you —?
I liked them very much. They were open, they were very cooperative, very nice people, and to be quite honest I didn't know that many when I was at Columbia. You know, I knew Jews who came from Europe, and even with you, if I would have known you at the time, you would have understood where I was coming from much more than if I would have been in Cincinnati [?] to try and explain myself. I just didn't at the time have enough time to go and lecture about what I've been and where I'm coming from, and to talk about Czechoslovakia, they didn't know where the heck it was. I don't blame them; neither did Chamberlain! They didn't know history. Not that I am — I don't mean in a bad way. Europe was just a tiny place, and way over the ocean, you couldn't even see it from New York, and many had European backgrounds and their grandparents, but that was a Europe of the 19th century, late 19th century, when the Slovaks or Germans or whoever came here. And thus to them Europe, they [???] from their grandparents was a different Europe than I knew.
So the integration into American society takes time. And after I came here, into Boston, by that time I sort of had become used to living in American society and I had no problem being integrated into the, also [?] the little club, so to speak, and they accepted me. They knew where I came from, they knew I was Jewish. There were very few Jews at the time. In 1955 it still was not — there was still a gentleman's agreement.
Even in engineering?
Oh yes. Jews did not work as engineers, at least not at some higher levels in most companies. There were some companies which had no Jews.
Were you worried about that when you were looking for a job?
Did you know about it?
I suspected it. You know, there was that film Gentlemen's Agreement, which sort of portrayed it, but that came fairly late in the game. Then there were some companies like IBM or General Motors. I don't know what you want have to — if you were Jewish your chances were not very good at that time. It wasn't that long ago.
No, it wasn't that long ago that Lee Iacocca was —
— could get to number 2, but not number 1.
You know, it takes time for people to overcome prejudices—like women and blacks and — I remember when I first saw black children. I couldn't take my eyes off them, because they were so beautiful, you know, like dolls the little girls. The first black I saw I was in Prague. It was a circus. He was a fire-eater. And the second one I saw — was it in Zsuhtec? I don't remember where — in a circus. And the second one in Prague, probably in '36 or '37. He was somehow a doorman at a fancy shoe store. You know, I mean crowds gathered. Nobody has ever seen black people. They [???]. And so when I came here and I was told, "Don't stare at children," you know, "They don't like this." Because there, such an unusual sight to see black children. I mean, you wouldn't believe it if I tell you this, but do you know how cute they looked.
Yeah. It would be extraordinary, if you never saw anybody before. I'm amazed you didn't. I thought maybe you might have seen soldier or something like that.
No. I remember the American army was not integrated, and they didn't serve in [???]. The only ones [?] I saw were driving trucks, "Red ball Express," bringing us supplies. And I was so impressed by the drivers. They were [???] these terrible roads 60 miles an hour. If you stood over here, and they were fairly close together — I don't know how the hell they did it — they all shifted at the same — the black [???], and they shifted gears within their trucks, and I think Studebaker trucks or whatever they had at the time. But I never had any contact with them because, you know, the army was not integrated.
What was your lab — what was your little world like?
Okay. I was very fortunate. I had a very nice lab that I could build my apparatus to measure the [???] conductivity of a [???], particulate material, and it was a room, oh, I would say 20×20, and I could get any supplies I needed and, you know, I felt I really had everything going for me. And help. We had a machine shop and I could draw things up and getting drawings, they made it for me. I could go to supplies and get supplies to build what I was doing. I had a secretary who helped me. You know these plants that you see, I call them Columbia plants. The secretary gave me a little cutting and, I don't know, the tenth generation of plants, you know how they propagate?
So in my family we call them Columbia plants. I don't know. It has a proper name, but I am not familiar with it.
Did you have any sense of having got to where you always meant to get? Well, you hadn't quite got there in the sense that you weren't a professional [???], but —
No. I felt my goal was to get my doctorate, and that was my overriding interest. I really didn't want to be diverted from it. I knew I had to do it in good time, I knew I had to expect to support partially my mother. So I had to get through and get working and make money so that I could also support my mother. And all that took time. She was working, you know, for a lady who had never worked in her life she adjusted very well to America.
I wanted to ask you about her, but what I was thinking of was, there's lots of people who end up somewhere that they hadn't planned — People who really did have something they wanted to do and 20 years later there they are.
I studied mechanical engineering; my studies in Prague were mechanical engineering, my studies at Columbia. I wanted to be a mechanical engineer and I knew — Not the kind, civil engineer. You know, people think mechanical engineers build bridges. Well, that's what civil engineers do. I was interested in machinery because I lived with machinery, okay? Grew up with it. And I just was interested in it and felt that I could make a contribution in that field. And heat transfer particularly I felt was sort of basic to everything, whether it is understanding thermodynamics or if you want to make molds and make things or steel making. I mean, it's all-pervasive as heat. So that's why I chose a subject which I felt was interesting by itself because it had so many applications, and that is thermo-insulation. And one which I felt was not very well explored, which you had to do get a Ph.D.
Did you — The reason I ask about the lab is, it's one of the things that interests me a lot, is various times in life you have some place that's your world and —
Oh, that was my world for two years, right.
It has everything. I mean, it has a smell when you walk in the door, and you recognize it 30 years later, and it has a touch and everything about it is what it is, and you're in it so much —
And I had a lab and I had an office next door. Columbia was very generous, I mean here a graduate student had a nice big lab and I had an office next door with a very nice view of the campus. On the 5th of P[???], which is still is — except the view from my office now is another building next to it.
Were you in the library a lot?
Yes. Columbia has an outstanding library. Therefore, and I also had access to people in other departments. You see, the way it was organized the engineering school was up 'til the Masters, and the Doctorate you got in the School of Graduate Studies, and the dean, Dean Miller [?] at the time was a person I worked with. And essentially I could still be in engineering school, but I was now wearing the hat of a Ph.D. candidate in the school of graduate sciences.
I want to ask you some things about your mother, and there is more about this I want to ask too.
Along with my questions about your adjustment to America and just sort of encountering whatever it is that's different in realizing, "Oh, this is different. I don't get it," or "I do get it, but it's different. What happened? Why didn't this work?" Give me an example.
I was always grateful to my children that I didn't have to go to more than three baseball games. I found it that both cricket and baseball — cricket is worse, you've got to take three days for a game — but baseball first of all from an engineering point of view I felt that the round bat doesn't make any — So I obviously never got used to baseball. I felt it was lost on me the fine points, and similarly football. I had no idea what was going on on the field; all I could see, all of these guys falling all over each other most of the time. I couldn't see what happened to the ball, and I found it a totally boring thing. I never went to a football game. And Columbia had, you know, football teams. I liked basketball. That was — we had a very good basketball team, Columbia, and I could what was happening, you could see the athletic skill that's required in basketball. There was no soccer. And of course I was champion of the Prague team, the soccer team, played at world championships with Italy, and I think probably this year there will be some Czech soccer team. They usually are very good at that. I never really spent time with sports. I learned to play tennis. I never found it exciting to bang balls around. I played ping pong, I liked that reasonably well. It was very popular when I grew up.
Huh. I didn't know that.
Oh yes. There were [???] championships. I was fairly good at it. Tennis I also hated, because it was usually hot and in the sun and I didn't like that, to be in the sun all the time.
How about golf?
Golf, and I always quote Mark Twain, "It's a good walk spoiled." I lived next to a golf course in England, and I walked on the golf course when there wasn't playing, but I felt it was, you know, I couldn't see any sense in that either. Skiing I liked very much. I learned skiing when I was 6, and all my children and grandchildren ski. So it isn't that I didn't like sports; I was somewhat selective about them.
Did you find — or maybe if you just didn't deal with Americans that much you didn't [???] them, but did you ever find them irrational or at least seeming — some American trait that just seems —
Not really. I respected their views, and I realized that they are from the new continent and they don't know much about the old continent, therefore I have to find out about the new continent. And I felt that most schools didn't really teach them as much as I would have expected, and even undergraduates, I would think the first two years of undergraduates [???] sort of, that's the high school type in Europe. After eight years of high school you are probably at the level of two years of college. And a student at a university in Europe — and to some extent at Columbia, Columbia is more European that way — you're on your own, particularly as a graduate student. There is nobody looking after what you do or how you do, and in Europe you are totally on your own as a student. The professors, you know, are guards, and then there are some assistants, and then there are student assistants.
It seems to be still that way, at least —
Oh, in Europe?
Well, we have several Europeans, two Belgians and then other people that —
Nothing has changed in Europe I think.
They take classes and they have [???] something, and I say, "Well, go ask the professor," and "Are you kidding?!"
Yeah. One did not talk to — Professors talked to you when — and then you talked to them. But you didn't go and talk to professors.
And these are people that are maybe 28 [???].
Yeah. I mean that's the European system, and you dealt with assistants. But MIT has similar things, you know, there are assistantships and professors at MIT, I always felt MIT on their main portal should have "We Also Teach." You know, there are all [?] either businesses or other interests, consulting.
All the questions I asked you, I am interested also about your mother and her entry into this strange world of America.
It was easier for her in a way because she knew English remember. She had learned that from —
Was your English as good then?
Oh, it was very good by the time I got to Columbia, yeah.
Not a barrier.
No, no problem at all. And for her neither.
Were you [???] much better than average as far as European refugees?
Oh yes, absolutely, because she knew it and she taught me in Italian, English, and you know, I went to an English school in Prague. And she knew English. She had read the books and that was my grandmother's influence, and she knew literature and she was highly educated, and she accepted that she had to work to make a living, because I couldn't yet support her. To give me a chance to go to school and learn, she had to manage on her own.
What was it like for her, do you know?
Oh, I'm sure it was — My mother was a very reserved person. She really didn't share all her feelings even with me, but I could imagine that from the background she came that being a housemother and nanny to children, it was a — But she wasn't alone. See, what made it easier — Because similar ladies from Europe in her situation were doing similar things.
Did she know them?
Yes. She had [???]. If she would have felt she's the only one, I think she would have not been able to take it, but she knew other people doing similar things, which in Vienna or Prague or wherever, they belonged to the top level of society, but nobody gave a damn in America who you belonged to. I'm reminded of a Latin proverb. There was a man from one of the Greek islands, and I can't remember which one it was. Rhodes? Rhodes, yes. He came to another island and he boasted how high he could jump, and he told of all fancy things, you know, how he jumped and all that, so the man told him, [???], "Here's Rhodes. Here, jump!" so show whether he was just telling a tall tale. Well, here is America. Here, jump. So a lot of these ladies worked as seamstresses I recall, and whatever jobs they could get, and they adjusted. They didn't do that forever.
Did she form a group that she became friends with —?
She had friends in New York and ladies of similar — In other words, she didn't have to explain who she was. Whereas outside that group, she was a nanny, she was a housemother. They didn't understand who she was. It didn't dawn on them, "Oh yes, the woman speaks English that just came off the boat."
How is that?
How is that? They didn't remember that the grandmother probably Polish or the Russian or German and never learned English or spoke it very poorly. So that never — They couldn't relate. They didn't ask — Of course you have to speak English, and of course you speak well.
It's America. They never look back in their own families and, "How did my grandmother speak? How comes this lady speaks English and my grandmother couldn't speak English?" But that didn't occur to them. And my mother didn't speak about her background, because she figured, "These people wouldn't know what I'm talking about." So, and that's a lot of the refugees in New York who came from that background were in a similar state, and therefore my mother did not feel she was singled out.
What you just said about people not recognizing that there was actually something extraordinary happening in front of them, how do you know? Why do you say that? How do you know that nobody —?
My mother never said, "Gee, somebody asked me about this." They wanted to know where she comes from, but they didn't know where. Czechoslovakia. I mean, go in your neighborhood and ask your next door neighbor, "Show me where is Czechoslovakia?"
I was in my neighborhood two weeks ago and somebody didn't know Labrador. She thought it was part of Alaska.
You know, and that's just a bit north of here. So I don't blame people that don't know about the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the 1918 Czechoslovakia. All this history they don't know, and I don't blame them for it. So I think the refugees who came in 1938 were totally different from the immigrations of 1870s, '80s, 90s, and even 1920s, because these were the top influential people who could save themselves and get out of Germany or Czechoslovakia or Austria or France, as opposed to the refugees which somehow got a ticket to go on the ship to come to America to Ellis Island. That was a different wave of refugees.
Did you feel bad for your mother or worry about her?
Let me say, yes, I wondered how she was doing, but ultimately she accepted her, if you like, position, and she realized that she had to do it to give me a chance, and she was willing to do that. And because I would have had to have some job to earn money to keep her. You know, she didn't want to do that. She wanted to work. And in a sense it helped her. She was a widow, and she was surrounded with Jersey City Hebrew aged [?] home, very nice people in that girls' school for wayward girls. Actually she had a good time with the girls. They weren't so wayward. Perhaps today they wouldn't be in that school, my guess is. And she worked as a nanny for a doctor in Pelham and another doctor near where she lived in New York, [???]. And the families I think those kinds of people knew more or less what my mother was. And in New York some were more sophisticated anyhow.
Well, I have a sort of chain of thought, so I'm going to ask a question that seems not related, but it's going to get back to it. Were you going to services during this time?
Oh yes, yes. Earl Hall had services. And then I found the Jewish Theological Seminary. So for high [?] holidays, I used to go to the Jewish seminary, which was just two blocks down the road from me. In fact they had a very good cafeteria, so I used to eat there if I want a change in scenery and so on.
Did you ever speak Yiddish?
No. Because that was not — Czech Jews didn't speak Yiddish. That was not — none of my family ever, as far as I knew, spoke Yiddish. No one speak it in Poland. And I don't quite understand why Yiddish was not spoken there, but they spoke Hebrew, they knew Hebrew, but not Yiddish. Yeah, so I was always —
Hebrew was a kind of a formal ceremony —
You didn't sit around and talk in Hebrew.
No, I didn't. But remember, I was bar mitzvah. In other words, I grew up in what would be called here conservative religious environment, and I continued wherever I was. You know, temples are every place.
In England too?
There it was difficult, because Leeds was some distance away. So — and it wasn't that the English Jews were standoffish; it's just in the town we lived, there were no Jews, no temple.
How about Italy?
Well we knew, we went to the Jewish community, and they were very helpful. So many refugees. But remember the Jewish services, they were totally different. They were in Sephardin [?], Sephardic service, and I'm an Ashkinesi [?] Jew and I didn't know what, you know. Have you ever been in the Spanish synagogue in New York? I mean, it's an experience, but it's —
I didn't realize that was the case in Italy.
Oh yeah. I mean that's where — The Ashkenazi’s are in middle and northern Europe, but in Italy you have the Sephardic Jewish rites. There was a professor [???] in Venice when we got there was very helpful. The Jewish communities in Italy tried to help those refugees if necessary and it didn't matter that you were Ashkinesi or Sephardic, but you were a Jew.
What led me to ask that, when you were talking about your mother I was wondering whether she ever said anything about all these family that vanished —
No. She couldn't discuss that. It was too difficult for her I think.
She never did.
She never did. We all knew about it, but she didn't really bring it up, you know, say, "Oh, look at what happened to my mother and my father and my sisters." She didn't [???] my family, she didn't [???]. It was too painful for her to talk about.
Well, when I thought that I kind of figured that was probably going to be the answer, and then the next question that came to my mind was — and this is where I don't know enough about exactly what happens, the services and everything, but — Would this — this would come up in prayers or in days of remembrance and things like that. Was there somewhere where this was obviously that that was what was on people's minds, even if they never exactly said it, you would see them and they would cry and —?
My mother was not a temple-goer. She didn't belong to a temple, and it was hard for her because — Now in Jersey City in Hebrew she could go to services, but in New York as far as I know she did not belong to a temple. She went to high holidays services when we were in Lexington, but how should I say? I think in her mind her life started in 1948 in America and what was before then, she never looked back.
Did she go to services in Europe, in Czechoslovakia?
Okay, so it was just when she came here that —
Again, it was not easy for her to go alone to a temple in a strange town. You know, put yourself in —
But you went. Was that presence there, the presence of all these dead people?
Well, during Easka [?] services of course, but going to the Jewish seminary was an experience. All these venerable rabbis and [???] got a nalia [?]. Do you know what a nalia?
If you are called up to take part in the service for example holding up the Torah or something like that. So I was — I've been all my life a conservative, belong to what's here called conservative Judaism, we belong to T[???] M[???], which is a conservative synagogue, because I find it strange to go to Reform most of the service is in English, and I know the prayer is in Hebrew. You know, I don't need the translations, and I can read Hebrew.
It's something I hadn't thought about, but it makes me wonder — I wonder if it turns up in that book that you lent me? Well, that's the wrong period. It would be the next five years — how even if people weren't talking about all the killing, how it was present in —
It wasn't discussed.
— in the practice of the religion or —
Well, I can tell you how. There is a, during the Easka service on the high holidays there is Materology [?] it's called, where you relate what the Roman — I've forgotten the name of the guy, emperor at the time — did to Jews, to the famous rabbis, because he wanted them to admit that their religious practices were wrong. And essentially they were martyred and their skin was flayed, a famous — it's a very harrowing story. And this Materology essentially took place during the Roman times, and it covers everything since then, if you know what I mean. I mean, this is so bad, you know, I mean, and so dramatic in its retelling in the high holidays that there's nothing more you can — that already happened in the Roman times, and that [???] repeated over and over and over again. And when you read the Magill [?] of Queen Ester [?], the story there deals with the miraculous saving of Jews, because Hayman [?] wanted to destroy the Jews. So in the Jewish religion in history, what Hitler did is not a singular event; it's just events — You know, you only need to read what happened in Hayman's time, and say, "Well, it happened there, and why now go and say the same thing when it happened in the 15th century and 20th century." You know, it's repetitious in a way. You see now? Now for the temple services, focus on what happened X thousand years ago, because it's just as real, and therefore then I don't have to say about what happened in the 100, 200, 500,015, you know the pogroms are listed throughout our history.
So that's, you know, and if you like I'm just another Jew who lived through a horrible time, but that's not unusual if you are a Jew. You accept that those things will happen, and if you live in Japan you are used to earthquakes, and sometimes lots of people die in earthquakes. So Jews know life is uncertain, and you have to thank God for the day when you get up in the morning that you are still alive.
Well, that's the morning prayer. So it's a lot of philosophy, but at least you know where I am coming from here.
Yeah, it's interesting. What could be more interesting?
And therefore the things that I do as we get later on, you'll see that my interest was to do things which, you know, what is it doctors are told? First of all do no harm. And that's a very simple injunction which I try to follow. And if you can do good, that's even better.
How far back would you have been able to say that that's something you try to follow?
You know, I've seen so many horrible things in my time that I was convinced that I just had to — not atone, that's a wrong word, but essentially I couldn't divorce myself from all that, and therefore I would try and make up for it if I can. You know, if I'm the only one in my family, well, I wanted to do as much good as I could and do as little harm as I could. And the things that I've done professionally I've tried to abide by this kind of thing.
Well, this might sound like a perverse question, but when you have been a part — not a part of it, but when that much evil has happened and you've been right there with it, do you wonder if you could have been just as evil in the wrong circumstances?
I'm not saying I couldn't but I took care I —
Does it make you worry? I mean, in a sense that's kind of what you're saying, you want to make sure you don't. You wouldn't —
In other words, you have to work at it. You know, I feel that however you want to explain it I have to face my maker, and I want to have a balance sheet which is on the positive side. I don't want to have regrets. I want to sleep nights. You know, if you've done some of the things that people do, I wonder how they sleep at night. I have no trouble sleeping at night.
I think it might be a good stopping point. I [???] to go back right now and ask a bunch of the detailed questions about this and that [???] save that.
At least it helps you understand some of the motivation for what I've been doing.
I think so. And I think this is what's missing usually from any kind of study or biography or investigation into someone like you who's an engineer. What has all this got to do with it, you know.
Actually it's a progression, and in my mind the logical thing that I've been acting on my beliefs that's what I have to do. You know, the balance sheet.