Jan Vilcek was born in Bratislava in 1933. His father, Julius, was a business executive and his mother, Bedriška, was an ophthalmologist. Prior to WWII, Jan recalls often traveling to Hungary, where his mother was raised, to visit family. In 1942, when deportations of Jews began in the Slovak Republic, Jan’s parents sent him to a Catholic boarding school and orphanage. Despite the family’s Jewish heritage, for a while Jan’s father was permitted to continue to work in Bratislava, although in a lower position, and his mother was sent to work in Prievidza in central Slovakia. Jan joined his mother in Prievidza and, in 1944, his father left Bratislava and came to Prievidza as well; however, when the Slovak Uprising of that year was crushed, Jan’s father joined the partisans while Jan and his mother went into hiding. As the Soviet Army advanced into central Slovakia, the family was reunited and lived in Košice for a few months before returning to Bratislava.
Jan attended gymnázium in Bratislava and was accepted to medical school at Comenius University. He became interested in microbiology and immunology research and, after graduating, started working at the Institute of Virology (part of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences) where he earned his doctorate. Jan married his wife, Marica, in 1962. In October 1964, the pair was invited by a colleague of Jan’s to spend a weekend in Vienna. At the American Embassy in Vienna, they were given permits to travel to Germany where they claimed asylum. A little more than two months later, Jan and Marica received visas, and they flew to New York City in February 1965. After a short stay with Marica’s brother, the couple moved into an apartment in Manhattan and Jan started his job (which he had arranged overseas) at the NYU School of Medicine. Jan has spent his entire professional career in research and has done important work with the proteins interferon and tumor necrosis factor (TNF). Together with his colleagues, he created an antibody to block TNF and helped develop the drug known as infliximab or Remicade, used for the treatment of Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and several other inflammatory disorders.
In 2000, Jan and Marica started the Vilcek Foundation, an organization that recognizes the contributions of immigrants to the United States in art and science. Jan has received several awards and recognitions for his professional and philanthropic achievements including the Gallatin Medal from NYU. In 2013, he was presented with a National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama. Today, Jan is a professor of microbiology at the NYU School of Medicine. Although he visits Slovakia often, he considers himself a ‘true New Yorker.’ He lives in the city with Marica.
“When the deportation of the Jewish population started in 1942, my parents, to protect me, put me in an orphanage that was run by Catholic nuns in Bratislava. So I was there for two years. Fortunately, my parents were not put into a concentration camp, mainly because my mother was a physician and they needed physicians even during the War. So she was allowed to practice ophthalmology, not in Bratislava, but in Prievidza in central Slovakia. And then in 1943, things were not good, but my mother felt secure enough, so she took me out of the orphanage and I joined her in Prievidza. My father actually had a job. I think he was demoted in his position, but was still allowed to work for the same business that he worked for before. And then in 1944, when the [Slovak] Uprising started against Germany and the Nazi government, my father was able to join us and get out of Bratislava, and then when the uprising was suppressed, my mother and I went into hiding in a small village near Prievidza. My father joined the uprising and was able to get through the front line to the Soviet Army by December of [1944 sic.]. And we didn’t know about him and he didn’t know about us, but then we were reunited after the Russian Army came.”
“Being born in Bratislava, I grew up with three languages, partly because my mother was born in Budapest. She not only spoke Hungarian, but her family came from Austria so they continued to speak German at home. So I grew up with three languages which was helpful. In addition, even though at school I studied French, my parents pushed me to study English privately, and I took private lessons in English, attended an intense course in English, and even passed the state examination in English.”
“We did not think that we would be given permission – my wife and I together – to leave, because that was very difficult. Usually they kept one person behind as [security]. Then, to our surprise, we got an invitation from a colleague in Vienna who I knew professionally, and he said ‘Why don’t you come and stay with us for a weekend?’ So we said ‘Fine’ and we applied for permission, but we didn’t really expect that we would be allowed to go, but to our surprise we were allowed to go for a weekend. Our host in Vienna didn’t know that once we got out we would not be coming back so it was a surprise to him.
“There was actually one event that’s worth mentioning. About three days before this fateful trip to Vienna, I am at work in the Institute of Virology and somebody comes in and they said ‘You have a telephone call from Vienna.’ So I started shivering because I thought maybe this friend is cancelling the invitation, and it was pretty unusual in those days that you would get a telephone call – especially at work – from a Western country. So I went to the phone with trepidation, and there was Dr. Moritsch, our host, and he said ‘I wanted to let you know that I have tickets for the opera, and could you bring your tuxedo?’ Well, a tuxedo was the last thing I wanted to carry with me, but I said ‘Sure.’ Needless to say, I didn’t bring a tuxedo, but we went to the opera nevertheless.”
“We decided to tell my parents, and my wife’s mother was not alive anymore, but we lived with her father in our house and we knew that the first thing that will happen is that that the secret police will come and speak to him. So, in order to protect him, we thought it would be best if we did not tell him. I think he may have sensed it anyway, but we didn’t tell him. We did tell my parents and they were very supportive. They felt that we would have better chances for a decent life in the West, even though it was a risk and we didn’t know how things would work out.”
“We remember that day very well. It was the fourth of February, 1965. It was a beautiful sunny winter day, and we were driving with my wife’s brother through the Triborough Bridge and saw the skyline that was lit up with the setting sun behind the skyscrapers. It was really an unforgettable experience and the first impressions were wonderful. And then there were surprises, like you always see the skyscrapers of Manhattan, but you don’t realize that there are side streets. Especially 47 years ago, there were many more low buildings and brownstones and townhouses, so those were a little bit of a surprise to me because you always only see the tall buildings in photographs.”
“The dreams usually would be that we suddenly find ourselves back in Czechoslovakia and we are very upset. I don’t think the dream would go as far as that we would actually be put in jail but I would just, in that dream, tell myself ‘How could I be so stupid to come back here?’ And I think maybe there were some parts of it that had to do with the secret police (StB) and jail and experiences of that kind. Usually we would have the dreams when we were getting ready for a trip to Europe, because I remember a few times when we flew to Vienna, we were told that sometimes when an airplane has an emergency they would land in Bratislava. I don’t know if that ever happened in real life, but in the dream, we imagined that we would actually land in Bratislava and they would drag us off the plane and put us in the proper institution – proper for them.”
“Gradually we came up with the idea to combine our backgrounds – our professional backgrounds as well as our personal backgrounds – and develop a program that has something to do with the arts, which is my wife’s background, something to do with biomedical science, and also with immigration, because both of us are immigrants. The current mission of our foundation is to raise public awareness about the contribution of immigrants to society in the United States, especially in the sciences and the arts. We started a program of prizes that we give to very prominent immigrants in the arts and in the sciences; for example, we, just a few weeks ago, gave prizes. The arts field this year is dance, so Mikhail Baryshnikov was one of our winners and the science prize was given to a very prominent professor at the University of California, Berkeley who was born in Peru. His name is Carlos Bustamante. And then we give several more prizes to younger people who are not yet so well-known but have already accomplished something unusual at a young age. In addition, the foundation supports some cultural programs oriented toward immigration.”