Jan Florian was born in Hodonín in 1964 and grew up in the Moravian town of Strážnice. His mother was an accountant and his father worked as an electrical repairman. Jan’s father also built a greenhouse on their property and made extra money by growing and selling vegetables. Although his earliest memory is of watching the Soviet-led invasion in 1968 on television, Jan recalls a happy childhood and says that he had a certain freedom that his children don’t have growing up in the United States today.
Jan attended gymnázium in Strážnice and then studied in the Mathematics and Physics Faculty at Charles University. He finished his undergraduate studies in 1988 and served one year in the military as a guard. Jan says that he learned English while listening to the radio and reading during this time. He began his doctoral studies at Charles University in the fall of 1989, and witnessed the beginning of the Velvet Revolution from his office at the university. Jan completed his dissertation – which he wrote in English – and spent one year at Southern Illinois University doing research. He returned to Prague after accepting a position at Charles University, but again returned to the United States one year later. Jan spent five months at Jackson State University in Mississippi before moving to Los Angeles for a post-doctoral fellowship with Arieh Warshel, 2013 Nobel Laureate in chemistry, at University of Southern California.
Today Jan is a chemistry professor at Loyola University Chicago. Although he plans to stay in the United States for his career, Jan says that he still feels more Czech than American and returns to the Czech Republic every summer with his children.
“I got to appreciate the role that my grandma had for the whole family. I will do a little detour because it relates to immigration as well. Her whole family left for America in 1910, something like that. At the time, she was 12 years old. She was left alone in the country. Both parents left with other children who were younger than her and left her to take care of her own grandma who was, at the time, sick and couldn’t travel to America. So a 12 year old child, left on her in 1910 to care for her grandma. They told her they would come back for her and bring them both to America when they settled. They did settle, but the First World War came up so that was not really possible. And then after the War she married and she didn’t want to go to America, and [her] grandma died, and when they were eventually planning to go to America Hitler came and, when Hitler was gone, the Communists came. So she never made it to join the family in America. But she had great credit so I still have some relatives in Michigan and sometimes visit them, and they appreciate her role.”
Growing up in Czechoslovakia
“I would like to mention that life in Czechoslovakia in the early ‘70s, for a child, you couldn’t have anything better. It was very sweet. You could go anywhere as a child, especially in a small city like Strážnice: 6,000 people, two elementary schools, two churches, a high school. On one side you have vineyards and little hills; on the other side you have the Morava River with some sandy beaches and twists and turns in the river. So the setting is very nice, and I think I had a very good childhood over there. It’s not that people would be immigrating to America because they were suffering at the time in the Czech Republic, especially children. I mean, [they] had a better life, on average, than children in the United States.
“I walked to school. Everybody walked to school there; no school buses. My children now spend a half hour to go to school and another half hour going back from school. Waiting for the bus will take you another half hour, so it’s one and a half hours of your life lost every day because they are forbidden to do any[thing] fun on the bus, and everything is so absolutely serious. So my life was longer, in that sense. The freedom to not need parents to actually live was also important. I didn’t need parents to drive me to chess club. I didn’t need parents to drive me to go fishing. I just picked up the rod and went fishing, or just walked to play the accordion or play chess as I liked. And they didn’t pay anything for these services because they were provided for free by the people who had nothing else to do in that country, because money was of no value. People were doing things for others because they had nothing else to do, in some cases, and some of them are nice and just used their time wisely. So in terms of education, childhood… Could you have anything better than that?”
“In August ’88 there was the 20th anniversary of the Russian occupation in [August sic.] ’68. So we had special emergencies. We woke up early in the morning, a lot of practice, and we had to have special double-guarding of all the weapon warehouses, because they were afraid that people would come take the weapons and actually do some resistance. So I was in charge of guarding this weapon warehouse and I was leading a group of, let’s say, 12 people, and they were the soldiers who were not there to listen to the outpost – their only task was to do this guarding. They were dangerous and there was no way that they would actually listen to me. I had this little gun; they had the big guns. So I knew it was just hopeless – sometimes you saw them shooting deer in the night and it was absolutely impossible to tell them they could not do it; they could shoot you! These people did not have any obstacles. When they got drunk, they did whatever they wanted, and I didn’t want to be shot. So I just took off my boots, put myself on the bed – we were forbidden to sleep; we were supposed to be guarding – I said ‘Do whatever you want.’ It worked. The warehouse didn’t get stolen. When they control came, [the soldiers] actually woke me up. They said ‘Wake up! Wake up, there is the control here. You have to go greet them.’ Sometimes they got the warning call from the headquarters that the control is coming to check me, so I had more time to actually put my boots on, and I survived it, but I can tell you there was a lot of stress there.”
“I wanted to get at the border of the knowledge. That’s what I wanted to do. I thought ‘No I don’t need to be the best; I just want to be where there is a boundary between the knowledge and no knowledge.’ Once you happen to be on the boundary, your options are infinite. Then after I am there, I will [figure out] what to do, but first let me get there. So that was my goal, and when you are in the Czech Republic you don’t have access to the literature, you don’t have access to the journals [and] you don’t have access to the people, so you cannot get to the border of the knowledge; you get to somewhere where the knowledge was 20 years ago.”
Trip to the West
“When the revolution came, the borders opened and then we could travel for free because everybody was offering these poor, Eastern Europeans an ability to see the West. I immediately got a short-term internship in Trieste, Italy, at the International Center for Theoretical Physics there. So I got the chance to stay there for a couple weeks, so the first time I got on the train, the summer of ’90, to Italy, my eyes opened. I didn’t have money, so I couldn’t somehow get the cheap ticket for the date when the hotel started, so I went two days ahead. I came to Trieste and had nowhere to sleep and no money to actually go to the hotel, so I went to the park. There’s a beautiful park, and I climbed over the fence because it was closed, and it’s on the shore of the sea. And the Czech Republic does not have the sea, so sleeping there in this Italian park on the first night in the West under the skies and hearing the sea… It was absolutely reverberating, giving you shivers along the spine. This is something monumental in your life and even for the society.”
“The first impression was like going to hell, literally, because you are coming on Highway 10 across the desert, and that’s kind of on the hill. Then you have all this going down, a long slope going down to Los Angeles, and we were coming in the evening and you see all these millions of lights of the huge city all in front of you, and you go down the hill. So it was like red and yellow down there, all the cars going 70 miles an hour on a six-lane freeway, and I have an old car which barely drives, cannot brake, and I don’t know where to go – I just need to keep the pace with them. This kind of horror [was like] going to hell. It was quite tough, this driving experience to the big city.”