Mila Rechcigl was born in Mladá Boleslav in 1930. His father (also named Miloslav) was a miller who became the youngest member of parliament in Czechoslovakia when he was elected as a representative of the Agrarian Party in 1935. Mila was raised in and around the family mill in Chocnějovice and remembers traveling by horse and cart to nearby Mladá Boleslav in order to sell flour in town. During WWII, Mila says his father was unable to continue his political work, but became president of the Czech Millers Association and was active in the resistance group Obrana národa [Defense of the Nation]. Mila himself remembers people traveling to the mill from Prague to buy flour there on the black market.
Between 1945 and 1948, a period which he refers to as a time of ‘illusionary democracy,’ Mila attended gymnázium in Mladá Boleslav. Following the Communist coup in 1948, his father escaped Czechoslovakia when a warrant was issued for his arrest. Mila also tried to leave the country, but was caught at the border and jailed for a number of months. Mila says he was released as there was an amnesty announced which affected those legally considered to be minors, and he was allowed to return to gymnázium, though he received a dvojka z mravů – a poor grade for personal conduct. In 1949, Mila tried again to leave Czechoslovakia and this time succeeded. He was reunited with his father at Ludwigsburg refugee camp in West Germany, where he stayed until February 1950. Mila says he never saw his mother, Marie, again. In the late 1950s, she was imprisoned for taking grain from the Rechcigl mill (which had been nationalized) and feeding it to her chickens. She received a prison sentence of ten years, though was released after six. Mila came to New York City with his father in 1950. The pair’s first job was at a small jewelry factory, making earrings and bracelets using Czech glass beads. After a couple of years, Mila’s father started working for Radio Free Europe in the city, while Mila himself received a Free Europe scholarship to attend Cornell University. He gained his BS, MNS, and PhD degrees there, specializing in biochemistry, nutrition, physiology and food science.
Mila worked for the National Institute of Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and then the State Department, where he became chief of the Research and Institutional Grants division. His involvement with the Czechoslovak Society of Arts & Sciences (SVU) dates back to 1960 when he became the secretary of the society’s Washington, D.C. chapter. He was president of the international organization between 1974 and 1978 and again between 1994 and 2006. One of his proudest achievements was the establishment of the biannual SVU World Congress, which began in Washington, D.C. in 1962 and continues to this day. Today, Mila lives with his wife of 58 years, Eva, in Rockville, Maryland.
“In those days, even though cars were already in existence and trucks, we did not use them. We used just horses to pull the wagons with flour. We went as far as Mladá Boleslav, I don’t remember how many kilometers it was, but we had to go to Mnichovo hradiště – that was seven kilometers – and then normally you would take a train. So I don’t know, it must have been about three hours, I would say. So, we would go as far as that, but we had one person who was handling the horse and he had a sort of system whereby, at every village, his wagon would stop in front of a pub and he would go to get a beer. I remember this. I was quite young then, but it was sort of curious.”
And you would go along as well?
“Oh yeah. I was frequently… not frequently, but sometimes I went along. It was just interesting, you know? At the time when I didn’t go to school, obviously, in summer time. It was an interesting experience.”
“Under the Nazi era, I think the farmers in a way, I would say quite often illegally, supported people in the cities. And I know that for instance in our mill, my father had a reputation that he would give flour to even people that he did not know that came from Prague. And he would give them, as I recall – I remember even the number – five kilos of flour, which was at that time quite sizable for the period. Because otherwise you had to purchase four using tickets – you had special tickets. But my father made this flour available to them for good prices. He didn’t ever overcharge them. And I did not know about this, I learned only about it in the last maybe 30 years. When I established some contact [with the Czech Republic] people started coming to me and saying ‘I remember your father from WWII, this is what he did.’ So, I know that this was not unique, because people in the countryside were very helpful.”
“I was not doing it on my own, but somebody was helping. I did not even know the person, nothing, because we called him ‘mister engineer,’ and I don’t know what he was.”
Was he a colleague of your father?
“Yeah, he was a friend of him. Anyhow, then there were problems of some sort, and he was supposed to take me over the border, and he didn’t. At the last minute he sent me on my own. And I was in the middle of nowhere. I ended up – he just pointed me in one direction, and I ended up in a house which was still on the Czech side. And they called the police and whatever else, so I ended up in jail where I was actually, according to the Czech laws, I was quite young. I was below the age or whatever. I was never tried, I don’t know how many months they kept me there. And then they let me go because of my age, because the newly-elected president, Gottwald, issued an amnesty for young people. And I sort of fell under that category and they released me. And fortunately at the time… prior to that I was going to gymnázium, and fortunately, the gymnázium let me come back, although, for a price as I found out later. I received for my effort to escape; they gave me a so-called dvojka z mravů, which meant, in Czechoslovakia you got a grade for behavior, either good behavior or bad behavior. And so for good behavior you got one, and for bad behavior you got two. So I got two; I got dvojka z mravů. And that was pretty bad, you know, to have dvojka z mravů, that didn’t look good on your record. But nevertheless, I have a feeling that maybe this was some kind of a compromise some of my professor friends were able to do so that I could get back. This was maybe one way of doing it – they gave me a dvojka z mravů and I was able to come back.”
6 yrs in Prison
“I made efforts lately to clear her name. And I went through the process, [sent the request to] the Ministry of Justice or whatever it was called, and they wrote me an official letter telling me that according to then-existing laws, she committed a crime. According to then-existing laws. So they still, unfortunately, recognize communist laws today. To date, I have not been able to clear her name. It is incredible. And, I mean, she is not the only one. There are many people who are in the same category, for instance, let’s say people that crossed the border and didn’t go to the armed services. That was considered a crime. This still, on their books, is considered a criminal offense. Even these people could not clear their name, because according to the laws that existed at that time, this was a criminal act. So, this is one bitter thing I have against even the current Czech Republic – they cannot rid themselves of the past and get rid of these communist laws. It is incredible to me, absolutely incredible to me.”
“I was hired initially as a senior nutrition adviser. And then I was there a few months and they said ‘Well’… They offered me a job to be the chief of a research division which, in a way, had responsibility for handling and the research sponsored by AID in various developing countries in different fields. And eventually from this job I was elevated up to a director of whatever else. And my job had a number of facets, because we were responsible for not only research but we were also responsible for supporting institutional grants to various universities in a given field in our area. And this covered a number of fields, and interestingly, my background was very helpful to me in as much as I was involved in agriculture initially, and in the medical field at NIH. That gave me a fantastic background, because AID was supporting projects in agriculture; they were supporting projects in medicine and health, and of course they were supporting projects in education.”
SVU in D.C.
“After I came to Washington I became… They established a Washington chapter at that time. And they made Dr, Feierabend, whom you probably know, Ladislav Feierabend, became the chairman of the local chapter. And I was elected the secretary of the chapter. So that was my first entrance into the society, which eventually grew into more and more responsible positions. And I was, from the very beginning, I was in constant contact with Dr. Nemec, Dr. Jaroslav Nemec, who worked for the National Library of Medicine, which in the meantime was transferred to NIH, and I worked at NIH, so we used to meet quite regularly for lunch. I don’t know, once a week or whatever, we met for lunch. So we talked and talked and talked. So, in the process I obviously learned quite a bit about it. And I had some ideas of my own. And eventually, I guess, it must have been within two years, I came up with the idea of the society holding these conferences, which we then renamed congresses. So actually, originally, it was my idea. And I sold Dr. Nemec about it, and he sold others, and we indeed proceeded and had the first congress. The first congress – I ended up being the person who was responsible for the program. So I prepared the program for the first congress, and I ended up being responsible for the second congress, and so I was the one who was inviting all of these people and the first congress was quite decisive. It was an important milestone because it, in some ways, put the society on the map, because then people took it more seriously and then… In the first congress I know we had 60 speakers, which was unheard of at the time. And these people came from different universities or whatever. And again, my contribution at the time was an insistence upon English. I said it has to be in English, because until that time it was all in Czech.”
“Many people don’t realize why the SVU actually started and under what conditions. The reason was that at the time, there were lots of political disputes in the Czechoslovak community. And there were numerous organizations and clubs. And the politicians, if they belonged to one particular group; they wouldn’t talk to politicians in another group. They just wouldn’t talk to each other. And it was sometimes quite nasty, you might say. And at this time, the situation in Czechoslovakia was going from bad to worse. So this was the time when the intellectuals of Czech or Slovak descent and Czech or Slovak intellectuals decided ‘Enough! Let’s focus on something positive which unites us instead of dividing us!’ That was the society. We created a society where anybody can talk who wishes and explore different issues and what have you. And from the very beginning, it was meant to be a non-political organization.”